Respecting the Minutemen

In his latest CRB column (“Migrant Thoughts,” 2006), Mark Helprin objects to the “febrile militia of Willie Nelson look-alikes” and “armed geezers,” presumably referring to the Minutemen who have attracted much attention in the press since their month-long border-watch project in April 2005.

The Minutemen are retired men and women who have the time and the means for such volunteer activities. The ones I’ve spoken with come from the broad middle class: businessmen, school administrators, engineers, policemen, and professional military personnel. They are deeply respectful of the law and regard themselves as a volunteer neighborhood watch group, recognizing and abiding by all the constraints that that implies. In fact, it was their unhappiness with the massive violation of American immigration law and the government’s unwillingness under two administrations to do anything about it that brought these citizens to the border in the first place. The organizers and supervisors of the project drew up a strict plan of operation that all volunteers were required to follow. Those who violated it were sent away.

Many observers have commented on the importance of volunteerism in this country. The Minutemen are only one example of that basic American trait. Of course too much can be made of all this, and like anything else the project could go wrong, although that has not happened yet. The kind of civic participation that the Minutemen and other volunteer border-watch groups represent should be recognized for what it is, namely, the right of citizens to assemble and to petition their government, in this case through lawful support for enforcing our borders. Their concerns are shared by some 80% of the American people who want proper border control and meaningful enforcement of our immigration laws. Helprin is correct when he writes that immigration policy should be made by the whole population. For that reason, the Minutemen, whose views are so representative, have a rightful place in the national debate over how to deal with out-of-control illegal immigration, and their efforts should be respected.

Glynn Custred
California State University, East Bay
East Bay, CA

Mark Helprin replies:

Professor Custred has proved in his civil letter to me that he is remarkably tolerant, perhaps too much so. I’m sure that the Minutemen are in the main (with the exception of the simple nativists and racists whom they cannot fail to attract) fine people, like Willie Nelson himself. But they are, like the Black Panthers or the American Indian Movement, an armed group outside the direction of representative government, which, despite its many failings, still functions and still maintains as it should a monopoly of organized force. As correct as is the Minutemen’s desire that our borders should be impervious to illegal entry, their methods are objectionable. We are not Somalia or Lebanon, and do not need a militia for every cause.

Further, as much as they may properly embarrass the government for failing in its responsibilities, they cannot, do not, and will not seal the border, and yet they create the impression that someone is taking care of the problem. The Black Panthers, too, claimed that the government had failed them, and they had a famous and innocuous free breakfast program to distract from the heart of the matter, which was their guns. Because of their ersatz military structure, even they, as menacing as they could be, could not escape the air of an “I hate girls club.” In this, the Minutemen far outdo them, and are an embarrassing impediment to those of their beliefs that deserve consideration.

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Compassionate Conservatism

Andrew Busch admirably lays out the case against one variant of compassionate conservatism that could be called “politically-motivated compassionate conservatism” or P.C. conservatism for short (“After Compassionate Conservatism,” Summer 2006). But he’s incorrect to suggest that compassionate conservatism in theory is against limited government.

Compassionate conservatism, at least as it developed from 1989 to 1999, was profoundly decentralizing. It was a way to shrink the federal government by removing welfare functions from it and emphasizing what individuals and voluntary associations can and should do. Busch pits compassionate conservatism against “Gingrich-Dole Republicans,” but Newt Gingrich was the doctrine’s biggest backer in 1995, seeing it rightly as a way to begin demolishing the welfare state.

Similarly, Busch’s concern is right but his generalization is too sweeping when he writes that “compassionate conservatism has foreclosed the use of a number of hard-edged issues (like welfare reform re-authorization) that could have given Republicans considerable traction against recalcitrant Democrats.” Maybe P.C. conservatism has, but compassionate conservatism was key to getting Congress to pass hard-edged welfare reform legislation in 1996.

Busch is more accurate when he states near the end of his article that compassionate conservatism (he’s finally dealing with the principles and not just the politicized practice) and the older conservatism “have numerous policies in common. These include tax cuts, privatization, and choice provisions in government programs, encouragement of voluntarism, and an alliance with social conservatism.”

His roadmap is also right: Republicans can unite on a compassionate conservative platform that limits government by promoting the vitality of civil society and creating greater choice within existing public programs. Such a platform can also gain support among blacks and Hispanics by emphasizing moral and religious standards as well as entrepreneurship.

Marvin Olasky
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX


Andrew E. Busch replies:

I appreciate Professor Olasky’s letter. I believe that any apparent disagreement between his position and mine disappears as soon as it becomes clear that the real object of my criticism was not an abstract, pre-Bush Administration vision of “compassionate conservatism,” but what he refers to as the “politically-motivated” version practically implemented since 2001. He is right to point to Newt Gingrich’s and others’ embrace of an earlier conception in the mid-1990s. My point about Gingrich was that Bush’s version of compassionate conservatism has been powerfully driven by a desire to overcome the public impression of the Gingrich Republicans as too hard-nosed, a point that is actually consistent with Olasky’s appraisal (i.e., that Gingrich’s version of compassionate conservatism was more hard-nosed than Bush’s). Indeed, though Olasky does not mention it, Ronald Reagan himself proposed several aspects of the purer pre-Bush idea, including an emphasis on voluntarism, school vouchers, the earned income tax credit, and a work-based tough-love approach to welfare reform.

The problem about which I wrote, and on which Professor Olasky agrees, is that “compassionate conservatism” since 2001 has been applied in a manner that has drained it of fiscal discipline and any noticeable commitment to limited government. A problem that neither Olasky nor I addressed, but which is worthy of thoughtful consideration, is whether the very language of “compassionate conservatism” boxes conservatives in too much. It seems likely that it does. When a conservative is determined to preserve a vigorous emphasis on limited government, he is skewered for being “uncompassionate”; when Bush, for one, is determined to avoid being skewered, he feels he can only do so by surrendering large pieces of the playing field, including the emphasis on limited government. In any event, President Bush’s formula—both his full policy mix and the “compassionate conservative” label that is by now inextricably, if unfortunately, connected to that mix—is unlikely to be adopted by leading Republicans in 2008, for sound reasons. Still, Prof. Olasky’s pre-Bush ideal, which matches well with the amalgam I proposed, might be advanced under a different name.

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Evangelicals and the American Creed

Peter Lawler’s excellent review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo spoke clearly to the relation between Americans’ religion and their politics (“Where’s the Love,” Summer 2006). As he put it, “In our country, citizens can quite reasonably find themselves equally at home with their country’s ennobling political creed and with their church’s tenets, from which they learn that man’s home is somewhere else.”

Without taking issue with Lawler’s thesis, I would like to shed some light on it borne of practical experience and reflection. In and out of church, Evangelicals’ speeches and deeds differ as the differing venues and circumstances require, but they also overlap, reminding one that there are real limits to how far they are willing to go to maintain the political creed. I mean that in church there is, not surprisingly, little talk of politics, and outside of church, while there is more talk of politics, church talk predominates, at least when small talk does not.

The Evangelicals I know, for the most part, watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh, but they also are taken in by the likes of the fire-breathing Michael Savage. This points up the necessity of political, in some cases, philosophical, education to provide the necessary correctives to unbalanced political commentary. Evangelicals read their Bible but often nothing else, unless it is the work of poorly informed Christian commentators who carelessly misrepresent the American Founders as Evangelicals.

Evangelicals believe that salvation of one’s soul takes precedence over salvation of the world, and make little or no distinction between dealing effectively here and now with pressing problems (a moderate goal) and removing all political evils from the world (a utopian goal). That is, “the world” is indiscriminately condemned, notwithstanding the biblical passage that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,” and other passages that teach that God did not come into the world to condemn it. But the apocalyptic vision in general and the Book of Revelation in particular incline Evangelicals to look beyond the current crisis to the ultimate one, wherein the Lord’s purposes finally will be fulfilled.

The virtue of America is that it is a continual education in self-government, a nation in which individuals and their families and friends must make practical decisions daily for their own well being, rather than consigning that responsibility to a universal church or nanny state. However much these believers rightly seek divine guidance in their personal lives—even to the most minute detail at times—still they are making decisions based on their own gifts. Whether the tension resolves itself one way or the other depends, as everything in political life does, on the quality of political leadership that God, in His wisdom, chooses to provide for us.

Richard Reeb
Helendale, CA

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Indian History

At the risk of nit-picking, I would like to make a couple of small comments regarding Bruce Thornton’s kind review of my book, 1491 (“New World, Old Myths,” Summer 2006).

First, I did not “endorse” Henry Dobyns’s very high estimate of 90-112 million for the Americas’ native population in 1492, which few researchers accept. Instead I tried to explain why most anthropologists, archaeologists, geographers, and historians now believe that the population was much higher than previously thought, even if they can’t give an exact number. Until the 1960s most scientists tended to believe that the tally was about 10 million. Typical figures now are 40-60 million, but the precise number is less important than the recognition that these much larger populations almost certainly had to have been more sophisticated than had been thought—you can’t have an egalitarian band of hunters and gatherers with 100,000 members. My apologies if this was not clear enough in the book.

Second, I did not claim that the Iroquois inspired the U.S. system of government—in fact, I explicitly argued that “this assertion seems implausible…the Constitution as originally enacted was sharply different from the Great Law” (the Iroquois code of government, which even the most skeptical anthropologists believe, pace Thornton, more than “remotely resembl[es] a ‘constitution'”). Rather, I was presenting a hypothesis about cultural influence. The suggestion may be wrong, but it was not the one criticized in the review.

Finally, Thornton asks, “Why were the Spaniards in Tenochtitlán, and not the Aztecs in Seville?” The answer is complex, as I hope I suggest in my book. One factor was the undoubted European advantage in maritime technology—no society in Mesoamerica had vessels that could go as far as the Spanish caravelles. That disparity clearly explains, at least in part, why no Indians sailed to Seville. The European triumph at Tenochtitlán, by contrast, seems to me to be attributable primarily to disease. Natives were able to compensate for Spanish steel and horses, though often at terrible cost. What they could not fight was Spanish germs.

Charles C. Mann
Amherst, MA

Bruce S. Thornton replies:

I apologize to Charles Mann for saying he “endorses” Henry Dobyns’s high estimate for Indian populations in the pre-contact Americas. My mistake. As for his other points, I stand by my comments. I summarized, I believe correctly, Mann’s claim that “the Iroquois League provided the colonists with a model of ‘limited government and personal autonomy.'” I still find this unconvincing for the reasons stated in the review. De facto freedom and equality, the consequence of primitive cultural conditions, are much different from de jure freedom and equality that result from people thinking and writing critically about these concepts and then creating written constitutions, offices, electoral protocols, procedures, and laws that embody them. As Plato said, thieves divvy up their loot equally, but that’s not the same thing as constitutional government. Finally, disease does not explain Cortez’s conquest. Cortez and his Spaniards could have been wiped out on numerous occasions, including on La Noche Triste. But the Aztecs were bound by traditional cultural practices they could not discard or adapt until too late, whereas the Spaniards were constantly adapting to new circumstances and willing to try anything to achieve their aims. That intellectual dynamism and initiative, not germs or pigs, explains the triumph of the West and its ways.

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Duty, Honor, Country

In E. Christian Kopff’s review of Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other, he mistakenly states that General MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” speech was improvised (“Battlewise History,” Summer 2006). That was not the case. MacArthur had been working on the remarks for some time. Moreover, recent research has determined that the attribution of the famous quotation to Plato was incorrect. Reviews of Plato’s work have failed to locate that statement. Instead, the first time it was apparently used was many years later by George Santayana. (Jack Wheeler, who currently works in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, was the researcher who identified this misattribution.)

Steve Grove
United States Military Academy Historian
West Point, NY

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Postmodern Bedtime Stories

Dorothea Israel Wolfson’s review of The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature put in words something that had been bothering me for some time (“Let Sleeping Beauties Lie,” Summer 2006). Somehow, we have collectively decided that there is no innocence left in childhood, so it is therefore okay to expose children to everything with absolutely no filters. I vehemently disagree with this viewpoint.

The editors of this anthology who want to condemn the fairy princesses and dragon-slaying heroes as oppressive to children may not realize that it is because the world is such a crazy, mixed-up place (and always has been) that we need flights of fancy and fodder for the imagination. We don’t create or propagate fairy tales to oppress minorities or to keep the status quo. Although many fairy tales are credited to male authors, they are usually founded in stories with long oral traditions with many cultural variations, shared by mothers and fathers alike through the ages.

My mother always said, “You are what you read.” I guess that makes my daughter a princess with abnormally long hair, and my son a knight with special dolphin-swimming powers. Until the next trip to the library, that is.

Gennifer Chenault
Ashburn, VA

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Plato’s Literalism

I am grateful to Eva Brann for her review of my book, Plato’s Republic: A Study (“Plato’s Impossible Polity,” Summer 2006). Because there is not space for a lengthy exchange of views on the Republic, I restrict myself to one or two central points. Brann seems to misinterpret my view of Socratic honesty. It is not for me a universal axiom, as she seems to think, that “Socrates means what he says” or that we must always take him literally. I rather suggest that he means to assert the intractability of the problem of justice, unless men and women are assigned roles in the polity commensurate with their talents, the family is dissolved, the rulers are restricted to those of superior intelligence, and “noble” or “medicinal” lies are inculcated into the citizens’ souls. Perhaps most important is that there is no freedom to philosophize: the philosopher-kings are, as it were, all Platonists. I believe that Brann would agree that there is plenty of scope in such a city for doubting that Socrates means what he says. My underlying hypothesis is that the same steps required to obtain justice lead directly to injustice. Furthermore, the undesirability of enforcing the steps enumerated is so obvious that some explanation must be found for starting on this path in the first place. If the explanation is simply to discredit extremism, why not begin with a moderate political teaching, and in particular, with that of Aristotle? In other words, what is the point to Platonic extremism if not to show that reason and justice are intrinsically self-vitiating when applied to politics? When philosophy is granted citizenship, it sooner or later degenerates into ideology. Unfortunately, if philosophy is not granted citizenship, then human life becomes a farce. Finally, the attempt to “civilize” Platonism or to reduce Platonic madness to Aristotelian sobriety is like the attempt to learn about human nature through a reduction of Dostoyevsky to Jane Austen. That is, the Republic is not a political work at all, but a portrait of human nature, a portrait consisting of a cascade of likenesses (to use a term correctly introduced by Professor Brann). Plato’s cave is not a likeness of the city, but rather of the human soul. Lest I be accused of Nietzschean pathos, I note that my teacher, Leo Strauss, attributed to Nietzsche the deepest description of the nature of the philosopher known to him.

Stanley Rosen
Boston University
Boston, MA