Liberty and Union
James Hankins has given CRB readers a splendid meditation on “Political Thought in an Age of Conformity,” carefully distinguishing philosophy (good) from ideology (bad) and recommending the former as an antidote for the latter (Spring 2021). I don’t fault the thrust of his essay—Hankins’s heart is certainly in the right place—but lest he leave the impression that “freedom to philosophize,” or American freedom more generally, is just pluralism for pluralism’s sake, let me say a word in defense of conformity.
It seems these United States could use a healthy dose of conformity—in shared symbols, heroes, stories, and holidays—through a shared civic education, one rooted of course not in the lies of the 1619 Project or critical race theory but in the Spirit of 1776 and our equal natural rights. Easier said than done, I know, but we should nevertheless look to fight a bad consensus with a good consensus, not no consensus. Freedom of thought, yes, but within a set of first principles, such as that there is a true, a good, and a beautiful that thought is rightfully free to discover.
Reckoning with Robert E. Lee
Christopher Caldwell has presented the finest brief reconsideration of Robert E. Lee to have appeared in too long a time (“There Goes Robert E. Lee,” Spring 2021). A single regret is that he did not expand on his references to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., descendant of two presidents, and a colonel in the Union Army, including in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Cavalry. In speeches he gave, Adams said that had he been in Lee’s position, he would have chosen as Lee did, siding with his sovereign state against the federal power, as he believed that the War of 1861-65 was about deciding once and for all the locus of sovereignty in our national system, and not principally about slavery. What’s more, Adams argued that Lee “saved the common country,” both North and South, by the manner of his surrender at Appomattox, which precluded the possibility of prolonged guerilla warfare. To many Virginians, Lee therefore remains the greatest figure in American history.
David A. Bovenizer
Christopher Caldwell has written movingly of how Robert E. Lee is and should be remembered in our day. And yet, for all of Lee’s indisputable moral rectitude and gallantry, it remains the case that at the critical hour he chose wrongly. He led an armed rebellion against the duly elected government of the United States and did so in the cause of chattel slavery. He said he could not bring himself to take up arms against his home state of Virginia. In saying so he failed to take to heart the words of his hero and fellow Virginian George Washington, who in his Farewell Address admonished his fellow citizens that the “country has a right to concentrate your affections” and that “[t]he name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.” However well Lee comported himself before and after the war, his fateful decision must forever remain a mark against him.
Courtney B. Wilson
Can We All Get Along?
In his review of Thomas Ricks’s First Principles (“Classical Education,” Spring 2021), Spencer Klavan breezes past Ricks’s main arguments about the influence of Greek and Roman literature on the founding generation. He does so in his haste to reach what he clearly considers the main event: an extended rant about the failures of “our monied and educated classes.” Klavan thinks he is justified in dilating on this subject because Ricks’s opening statements about the 2016 election “leave one wondering whether Ricks is really prepared to stomach the whole of what America is—and whether he is ready to share a country with Trumpists.”
This is an act of psychoanalysis, not a book review. Ricks does explain that he was inspired to research his subject by the alarm and confusion he felt when Trump won. But there is no indication that the ensuing discussion of, say, the classical models for Washington’s military tactics or Jefferson’s admiration for Epicurus are motivated by anti-Trump sentiment. Ricks is, unlike Klavan, quite charitable and generous toward the other side in his approach. He even recommends, in his prescriptions for our national restoration, that we “treat people who think differently…with courtesy” and “[t]ry to understand their points of view.”
Klavan thus offers us a Ricks quite of his own invention: bristling with barely concealed hostility and champing at the bit to outlaw conservatism outright. The paranoia really reaches a fever pitch when Klavan wonders aloud “whether a national return to the ‘common good’” as Ricks envisions it “will entail input from conservatives, or merely their marginalization in the public square.” Ricks does not so much as flirt with this kind of authoritarianism in First Principles, and for Klavan to raise the specter of it suggests more about his own persecution complex than it does about the book under review.
We are indeed, as Klavan suggests, at a fever pitch of partisan tension in this country. But it seems to me Ricks has offered a rare olive branch: he has proposed a return to the nation’s founding principles via a study of the nation’s founders. In Klavan’s own words, “Ricks attempts, by studying the education and personal formation of America’s founders, to understand more deeply the principles on which they built the country.” I fail to see what about that effort means he is unprepared to come to the table with Trump voters.
For Klavan to slap Ricks’s hand away when it is thus extended in outreach raises the question of which man is really the more intractable. If conservatives can’t so much as read a book written by a liberal about 18th-century politics without seeing authoritarian bogeymen hiding behind every page, then one wonders why anyone should make the effort to meet them in the middle to begin with. No one is coming to cart Klavan off to the Gulag—least of all Thomas Ricks.
Spencer A. Klavan replies:
The context in which a book is written matters. The context in which Thomas Ricks wrote First Principles is that Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Ricks could not believe he lived in such a country; it totally transformed his assumptions about who we are as a nation. “What just happened?” he asked. “What kind of nation do we now have?”
This inspired him to research the Founding Fathers, but that research did not change his mind that “one of the two major parties always seems to have offered a home to white supremacists, up to the present day.” It is, to begin with, a bit silly that Ricks does not come out and say which party he thinks is at fault: we all know it’s Republicans. They are the ones, Ricks suggests, who now furnish the nest in which vipers breed.
Deborah Frank highlights the fact that Ricks makes a few conciliatory invitations to dialogue in his conclusion. But those invitations always come with the implicit caveat that some views, and indeed some people, are simply beyond the pale. “[W]e live under a president who is anti-Enlightenment, even though he would not know what that means.” This claim, made without evidence, is more than just a cheap shot. It is an insinuation that Trump is not simply wrong but foundationally opposed to what America is and stands for in Ricks’s view. The same goes for everyone who believed Trump, though unhinged, was right about things like immigration and political correctness. That is a whole lot of people.
Here is some more context: from the moment Trump was elected, his opponents did their best to cast his every belief as fundamentally un-American and therefore outside the remit of reasonable debate and disagreement. This is a neat trick, because it allows Democrats to delegitimize their opposition while pretending to be open to dialogue. As I argued at length in my review, many leftists—including those who now run the country—“[issue] calls for ‘unity’ and ‘healing’” while simultaneously implying that Trump voters are dangerous insurrectionists who must be hounded from public life.
Contra Frank, I devoted considerable space in my review to showing where I think Ricks’s analysis of our country’s principles is sound, and where I think it goes wrong. But I also thought I would do the reader a disservice if I did not point out that Ricks’s misapprehensions about Jefferson and Epicurus translate pretty directly into a lopsided diagnosis of our national malaise: it is all the fault, in his telling, of those white supremacist Trump voters. No mention is made of the academics, governors, bureaucrats, and public health officials who have failed the American people so extravagantly and maligned them so disdainfully.
Since I wrote my review, the Biden Administration has published its National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism. If I had written it myself, this document could not exemplify more perfectly the tactic I attributed to our radical Left: feign outreach while working to make real disagreement impossible and indeed illegal. President Biden’s opening letter states, “Together we must affirm that domestic terrorism has no place in our society. We must work to root out the hatreds that can too often drive violence.” No description is given of what it will mean to “root out…hatreds.” Instead we are treated to a litany of violent outrages committed by the Right, and only by the Right. This gives us a pretty good idea about what sort of thought is to be criminalized.
I did not accuse Thomas Ricks of wanting to “cart [me] off to the Gulag.” I merely pointed out that he adopts a posture of ecumenism while hinting throughout that certain views are simply outside the Overton window as he wishes to frame it. When conservatives point out that this seems to be a rhetorical pattern among their opponents, the response they get is often the one I have gotten from Frank: “Oh come on now, that’s just a paranoid fantasy.” I believe this is what the kids call gaslighting.