Today, we honor two world-historic figures (but not the ones blended in the nearby photo – that’s, fittingly, Magneto X from BleedingCool’s article about that recent Schomburg Center event about blacks in comics). Rather, it is both Obama’s second inauguration and Martin Luther King Day – and not everyone is happy about it.
Take rapper Lupe Fiasco, for instance, who was escorted offstage at an inaugural concert for anti-Obama comments and a half-hour-long antiwar song. Danny Panzella pointed out that story, as well as this clip of another man who has done rap albums (though that’s not his main gig) complaining about Obama: Cornel West (West’s specifically peeved about MLK’s bible becoming a prop for the powerful – and he’s a couple chairs away from a bemused Newt Gingrich while ranting about it).
I’m not so interested in the pageantry and praise-the-leader symbolism (for that sort of cultishness, I’ll watch tonight’s premiere of The Following, about social-networking serial killers). I’m more interested in actual economic and constitutional-legal consequences (such as potential gun grabs by executive order).
No one explains constitutional ramifications better from a libertarian perspective than my ex-boss Judge Andrew Napolitano, whether on-air or in his recent book Theodore and Woodrow: How Two Presidents Destroyed Constitutional Freedom.
As I’ve repeatedly noted, my still-living grandmother is a reminder to me that much can change within one human lifespan: Her ninety-nine years have seen the arrival and departure of the Nazis, Bolsheviks, WWI, and WWII – and the end of the British Empire and most European monarchies. Unfortunately, the creation of big government has happened almost entirely within that period as well, and Judge Napolitano explains how the Progressive presidents of two (and a half) parties, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, laid the groundwork.
This tragic tale is in a way the sequel to the nineteenth-century radicalism described in my prior Book Note entry, about The Stammering Century. As Seldes lamented in that book (from his perspective in 1928), the reformers (from all over what we now think of as the political spectrum) who were frustrated by the failure of their communes, utopian movements, and temperance leagues to change the world turned by century’s end to government as a way of imposing their visions – and frustration with the negative aspects of industrialization was making even capitalistic America a hotbed of socialist agitation.
In time-honored presidential fashion, both Roosevelt and Wilson saw themselves in part as moderates who were taming those bubbling passions. Roosevelt can be heard in old recordings (in his surprisingly nasal and small voice) depicting himself as the guide on a sane middle path between the moneyed interests and the real radicals. Wilson campaigned in part on the idea of limited government – with a few Progressive exceptions that would turn out after his election to be the real focus of his passions.
Hegel was a still-recent philosophical influence at that time, and in retrospect, I’d say the biggest tactical error of capitalism’s defenders was being as quick to lump legal and cultural individualism together in their rhetoric as were the socialists. We can resist the impulse to make law Hegelian – that is, touching on every nook and cranny of life and tying together all things into one causal bundle – while still acknowledging the sociological interconnectedness of things. To the extent leftists believe capitalists are unaware of social context, they tend to assume pro-government views are more rich and nuanced.
Some of the nineteenth-century radicals themselves understood the distinction – many a nineteenth-century Marxist was an anarchist and many founders of communal farms wanted nothing to do with government – but by the time of Roosevelt and Wilson’s early twentieth-century presidencies, it was generally assumed you were either a naïve individualist or placed your hopes in centralized governmental authority. And such high hopes they had!
As Judge Napolitano recounts of Roosevelt, then as now the Progressives thought their presidential candidate would “counterbalance” the heartless forces of capitalism even though his campaign was heavily funded by J.P. Morgan. Roosevelt’s breakaway Bull Moose Party, though rhetorically more populist than the Republican Party proper and its candidate Taft, was a new-fangled thing far easier for bankers and business elites to manipulate – partly in an effort to ensure the creation of the Federal Reserve. Roosevelt ended up peeling away enough Progressive supporters from Taft to doom the Republicans in the 1912 election and make Wilson president.
In a very important sense, Wilson, though running against Roosevelt, was his real successor, continuing on the path of centralized power and a close symbiotic relationship between big business and big government – rhetorically disguised as antagonism – that continues to plague us to this day, still obscured by society’s rhetorical focus on the less-messy clash between right-wing and left-wing ideologies (I blogged about historian Martin Sklar making similar points).
Agencies that have become instruments of far-reaching control over society began as planks at the Bull Moose Party (officially called the Progressive Party) convention in 1912 and have largely come to pass, including (as Judge Napolitano lists them):
•a national health service to encompass all existing government medical agencies,
•a form of social insurance for elderly and disabled people (a system similar to what would become Social Security),
•limited injunctions to stop striking workers,
•workers’ rights, such as an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage for women,
•a federal securities commission (similar to what would become the Securities and Exchange Commission),
•farm subsidies, workmen’s compensation for work-related injuries,
•a tax on inheritance (similar to what would become the estate tax),
•a constitutional amendment to allow federal income tax,
•direct election of senators, and
•binding primary elections for state and federal nominations.
Just sounds like common sense and decency now, a hundred years later, right?
And 1913 saw two of the biggest changes come to pass: the Federal Reserve and the income tax. And a year later began the tragic war that would yield Bolshevik revolution in Russia, resentment and scapegoating in Germany, new global military ambitions in the U.S., and new Islamic regimes in the Middle East.
Roosevelt and Wilson were not as subtle about the racist foundations of their imperial ambitions as latter-day Progressives might prefer to think. Roosevelt excluded blacks (among the “lesser races”) from attending the Bull Moose convention, Wilson re-segregated parts of the federal bureaucracy, and Roosevelt (who quite openly dreamt of the white race imposing its will across the globe) said of immigrants: “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its being a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans, or Italian-Americans.”
Unity, homogeneity, and centralization came to be seen as the sources of rationality and strength in the Progressive Era, in a way that they hadn’t been before. Roosevelt and Wilson were not just “racist in the fashion of their era” but rather innovative, new-fangled racists more akin to the crusading early eugenicists who were their (often Progressive) contemporaries.
We now take government-run schools for granted, but as Judge Napolitano recounts, compulsory schooling laws and early federal involvement in education were quite consciously seen as efforts to decrease the influence of (particularly immigrant) parents and increase the role of the state in forging young minds that would be citizens, not just people. Wilson said the purpose of public education was to make children “as unlike their fathers as we can.”
The Progressives no doubt genuinely wanted to improve the world, but Judge Napolitano chronicles how that desire was coupled to a mania for power in numerous areas of human life, each of which would now be overseen by its own government agency.
The Progressives also basically invented modern propaganda, with Roosevelt knowingly exploiting Sinclair Lewis’s baseless anti-meat-industry claims in the novel The Jungle to rally support for a food and drug inspection agency even though he considered Lewis a liar. Wilson, especially during World War I, would work hand-in-hand with the fledgling public relations spinmeisters of Madison Avenue.
Despite these troubling observations about the foundation of lies and power-mania on which the modern world – governmental and corporate – was built, Judge Napolitano is no mere anarchist (the dichotomy between big government and chaos is another false one) but indeed may have more respect for rule of law than anyone I’ve known (it shows even in narrowly-focused articles like this one). I hope substantial elements of his way of thinking will in time become the norm. Taking a tougher look at Roosevelt and Wilson is a great start.
A Sidenote on Catholics, Protestants, and Libertarians
I know libertarians sometimes seem crazy by today’s standards, but instead of despairing because of it, nowadays I think about how crazy and unthinkable today’s “normal” would once have looked – and not so long ago, really (as Grandma understands). Indeed, a mere century ago, New York City (New York City!) argued furiously over whether it was moral to play ballgames on Sundays. Things can change in big ways over fairly short periods.
Likewise, one thing I learned from Judge Napolitano’s book – and I emphasize this not so much because he is Catholic but because I am not religious and had not paid sufficient attention to this bit of history before – is an additional reason Catholicism and (political) conservatism might be closely associated in many people’s minds. It is an aspect of history that precedes the familiar debates over abortion and gays, topics hardly anyone much cared about prior to the 1970s.
Forgive the ensuing radical oversimplifications.
I have heard libertarians talk about public schools being founded in part with the disturbingly Bismarckian goal of teaching the unruly Catholic immigrants to behave like Protestants, but I had vaguely thought that was an issue fought out back in the nineteenth century or so, when the country was still painfully close to being “officially” Protestant and the swarthier peoples had only just begun arriving in large numbers.
But one chapter of Theodore and Woodrow traces the role of the Progressives (and the two founding Progressive presidents, explicitly) in attempting to convert as many Catholic schoolchildren as possible to Protestantism – in the early twentieth century. The Supreme Court stopped that in the 1920s, at a point when the Progressives were actually pushing to use (then-new) compulsory schooling laws to make kids learn in public schools only. Private pre-college education was damn close to being outlawed by the Progressives in the early twentieth century, and the Progressives(!) were at the time the ones saying things like “We must not take the Bible out of schools!”
So two things happened, both largely forgotten in contemporary political thought:
(1) The Progressives and their lawyers, rebuffed by the Court, basically said, "Uuuhhh – did we say we want Protestant schools? We meant secular schools, in the interests of all peoples.”
(2) The Catholics said, “Screw this! They’ve activated their (secularist) cloaking device – so we’re getting out of here and starting our own schools, since the right to do so is now protected.”
So, I suspect that when you hear people (usually moderate conservatives) say that, for instance, mainline Protestantism has been “taken over” by liberalism, that’s not quite historically accurate. It’s more like the mainline Protestants just started branding themselves as secularists because it was more strategically useful.
(This is very similar to the tale told by that book on Boston reformers I blogged about a few months ago, which reminded me so much of Brown, and which revealed a lot of century-ago Northeastern reformers to basically be driven by disgust at the Catholic and immigrant lower orders but keen to sound tolerant and high-minded, as befits de facto aristocrats.)
So in a sense, the poor Baptist fundamentalists who today want the public schools Protestantized don’t realize they already “won” that battle decades ago. And somewhere out there, there may even be a crafty upper-crusty Protestant (or perhaps an Episcopalian), longing to tell the Bible thumpers, “Psssst – dumbass, we’re all in this together against the Catholics, so just play along with the ACLU and the skeptics.”
I told you there would be oversimplifications, and I apologize to all factions for it.
Anyway, this version of the story helps explain how all those millions of non-snake-handling Protestants disappeared from politics and public life over the past century. They didn’t. They’re just more likely to present themselves as secularists and liberals now. And suddenly I feel like I’m home in New England, of course.
BUT STARTING TOMORROW: let’s ditch the politics as this blog’s “Month of Law” draws to a close – and celebrate my acquisition of tickets to a Tegan and Sara concert (one week from today) with seven days of fun MUSIC links instead of legal and political wrangling! I have some conservative tendencies, but if I were an intolerant man, would I give the last word to lesbian twins from Canada?