State of the Union

Mobility and the Rise of Progressive Nationalism

One of the landmark studies of America, published 120 years ago, is Fredrick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner’s essay was inspired by a line that appeared in the Census report of 1890:

Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not therefore any longer have a place in the census reports.

Turner recognized that contained within this small passage of officialese was a momentous turning point in American history. The official announcement of the end of the existence of the American frontier marked “the closing of a great historic moment.” In Turner’s view, the existence of the frontier, and all that it entailed, constituted the deepest source of the American character—more than any other explanation, including even the Constitution.

Turner was a fervent Progressive during the years when Progressivism was gaining steam—indeed, he receives top billing in Richard Hofstadter’s study The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. In Turner’s view, the role played by the frontier—and the type of values and attributes it fostered in Americans—was the root of the progressive thrust in American history, including, importantly in his view, the rise of the sense of American nationalism.

The wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country.

What is striking in these and similar passages is how closely Turner’s analysis echoes the hopes and intentions of the Founders of whom the Progressives were often fervent critics. He particularly echoes the Hamiltonians who envisioned a “national system” that would draw the allegiances of people away from local and parochial identities through the soft but persistent pressure of a nationalizing economic and political order. Turner recognized that this thrust toward an increasing national identity would be achieved through the encouragement of the individualistic spirit of the American frontiersman. The John Wayne, Daniel Boone spirit of the self-standing, self-made, independent, free individual would, ironically, forge the conditions for a national identity and usher in the possibility and even necessity of the Progressive stage.

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Material Madchen: “The Artificial Silk Girl”

I picked up Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel The Artificial Silk Girl at the Neue Galerie in New York, basically on a whim. It promised to be a dizzying tour of Weimar Berlin, last call before Hell and all that, from the perspective of a young, single woman whom the introduction compares to Madonna’s “Material Girl.”

Certainly our heroine, Doris, is materialistic in a certain sense. She pays her bills by dating men. Her closest relationship is with her stolen fur coat. (The letter she writes to the coat’s rightful owner is a terrific, tilt-a-whirl study in ambivalent amends.) But she isn’t hard-headed; her desires are a collage of sentiment and hunger. She maintains her girlish figure easily, since throughout most of the novel she can’t actually afford food. She writes her hopes and dreams in the notebook she’s covered with little paper doves:

I’m going to be a star, and then everything I do will be right–I’ll never have to be careful about what I do or say. I don’t have to calculate my words or my actions–I can just be drunk–nothing can happen to me anymore, no loss, no disdain, because I’m a star.

Kathie von Ankum’s translation is full of sharp, funny cockeyed lines, usually describing men—“his usual politics is blonde,” for example. But Doris goes through some truly rough times, and the most memorable sections of the book are its most poignant. This book made me choke up over a dead goldfish: “Put him back in the water!”, this universal human desire to reverse the irreversible. There are parts of this book which sound like Walker Percy:

So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds.

I don’t really like him all that much, but I’m with him, because every human being is like a stove for my heart that is homesick but not always longing for my parents’ house, but for a real home–those are the thoughts I’m turning over in my mind. What am I doing wrong?

Perhaps I don’t deserve better.

The future does hang over this book, and thin acrid drifts of it waft through the novel here and there: Doris ruminates on being asked whether she’s a Jew; she gets caught up in the ecstasy of a political rally. Berlin is filled with the desperately poor, especially veterans. It’s a city of people who have slipped down many rungs of life’s ladder, and Doris begins to feel herself slipping too.

I ended this book loving poor Doris, and Keun seems to love her too. She strains to come up with some kind of demi-happy ending for her heroine, Doris who believes that “it is particularly those things you have stolen with your own hands that you love the most”; but she can’t quite reach happiness, and settles for chastening.

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The Representation We Deserve

Official Photo by Heather Reed

While much aspersion has been cast upon some of the leading villains who have engineered the latest imbroglio in Washington, D.C.—Ted Cruz, the Tea Party, the Republicans, among those most often named—it is at least instructive to stand back from the current moment and consider the curious status of representation itself in today’s political circumstance. For we have neither of the two proposed forms of representation that were debated at the creation of America, but instead a hybrid that, arguably, combines the worst of both without the virtues of either.

Mostly forgotten today is that a major source of debate during the original ratification debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists was the very nature of representation, and in particular, the role that would be played by elected officials along with their relationship to the citizenry. The debate especially touched on respective views of the organization of the House of Representatives, but more broadly implicated the very nature of representation itself. According to the Federalists—those who sought ratification and eventually carried the day—the Constitution aimed at the creation of fairly large districts with numerous constituents, better to decrease the likelihood of passionate political expressions and participation by the electorate. Larger districts would, they hoped, make it more likely that only the most successful and visible people would be sufficiently identifiable by a larger electorate, ensuring the election of “fit characters” to office who, they also hoped, would better be able to discern the public good than if the entire body of the people had been gathered for that purpose.

The Anti-Federalists, by contrast, argued for relatively small and homogenous districts in which there would be frequent rotation in office and shorter terms (a year, at most), thereby ensuring that representatives would be drawn from the body of the citizens, and that there would be a close bond between constituents and their representatives. Rather than hoping for representatives who would be prominent, visible and “fit,” instead they hoped representatives would be drawn from the “middling” part of society, whom they believed would be less prone toward vices of the “great,” such as luxury and empire, and more likely instead to be people of “ordinary” virtue.

In short, the Federalists subscribed to a “filter” theory of representation, which they hoped would lead to political leaders who would be able to make decisions in the “public good” rather than constrained by the narrow parochial interests of their constituents. They sought to encourage the formation of  private-minded citizens who would pay relatively little attention to political matters, leaving it to competent “fit characters.” The Anti-Federalists advanced a “mirror” theory of representation, instead hoping that representatives would reflect the modest virtues of the yeomanry. They hoped to foster high degree of deliberation and political discussion among the whole of the citizenry, favoring more local and deliberative forms of self-government.

The Federalists hoped that representatives, drawn from among the ambitious, would—whatever the differences of their regions and constituencies—all share an ambition for American greatness, and put aside differences in favor of crafting policies toward that end. The Anti-Federalists hoped for a numerous lower chamber of considerable contention, one likely to thwart the ambitions of the elite and instead keep the central government relatively ineffectual, while fostering strong local forms of political self-rule. The Federalists believed in a strong division of labor, in which “fit” elected officials would do the “work” of politics; the Anti-Federalists defended the role of “amateurs” in politics, believing that citizenship consisted in that ancient practice of “ruling and being ruled in turn.”

The Federalists—particularly Madison in the justly celebrated Federalist 10—argued that this form of representation, combined with a large geographic scale, would constitute the best means of combating the formation of “majority factions.” Their overarching fear was of a portion of the polity using the levers of government to effect its narrow ends.

The Anti-Federalists insisted that their version of representation would forestall the creation of a “consolidated” government, making frequent agreement at the federal level unlikely, while also fostering civic virtues and practices that would keep governance close to home. Their overarching fear was a powerful central government commandeered by the wealthy and powerful.

Today, we have combined parts of each theory and arrived at a highly unpalatable and even toxic mix.

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What Is an American Conservative?

White House photo by Eric Draper

Earlier this week I began a series of lectures in one of my classes on the thought of the Anti-Federalists. I began by echoing some of the conclusions of the great compiler and interpreter of the Anti-Federalist writings, Herbert Storing, whose summation of their thought is found in his compact introductory volume, What the Anti-Federalists Were For. I began with the first main conclusion of that book, that in the context of the debate over the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists were the original American conservatives. I then related a series of positions that were held by the Anti-Federalist opponents of the proposed Constitution. To wit:

They insisted on the importance of a small political scale, particularly because a large expanse of diverse citizens makes it difficult to arrive at a shared conception of the common good and an overly large scale makes direct participation in political rule entirely impracticable if not impossible. They believed that laws were and ought to be educative, and insisted upon the centrality of virtue in a citizenry. Among the virtues most prized was frugality, and they opposed an expansive, commercial economy that would draw various parts of the Union into overly close relations, thereby encouraging avarice, and particularly opposed trade with foreign nations, which they believed would lead the nation to compromise its independence for lucre. They were strongly in favor of “diversity,” particularly relatively bounded communities of relatively homogeneous people, whose views could then be represented (that is, whose views could be “re-presented”) at the national scale in very numerous (and presumably boisterous) assemblies. They believed that laws were only likely to be followed when more or less directly assented to by the citizenry, and feared that as distance between legislators and the citizenry increased, that laws would require increased force of arms to achieve compliance. For that reason, along with their fears of the attractions of international commerce and of imperial expansion, they strongly opposed the creation of a standing army and insisted instead upon state-based civilian militias. They demanded inclusion of a Bill of Rights, among which was the Second Amendment, the stress of which was not on individual rights of gun ownership, but collective rights of civilian self-defense born of fear of a standing army and the temptations to “outsource” civic virtue to paid mercenaries.

As I disclosed the positions of the Anti-Federalists, I could see puzzlement growing on the faces of a number of students, until one finally exclaimed—“this doesn’t sound like conservatism at all!” Conservatism, for these 18-to-22-year-olds, has always been associated with George W. Bush: a combination of cowboy, crony capitalism, and foreign adventurism in search of eradicating evil from the world. To hear the views of the Anti-Federalists described as “conservative” was the source of severe cognitive dissonance, a deep confusion about what, exactly, is meant by conservatism.

So I took a step back and discussed several ways by which we might understand what is meant by conservatism—first, as a set of dispositions, then as a response to the perceived threats emanating from a revolutionary (or even merely reformist) left, and then as a set of contested substantive positions. And, I suggested, only by connecting the first and third, and understanding the instability of the second, could one properly arrive at a conclusion such as that of Storing, who would describe the positions of the Anti-Federalists as “conservative.”

First, there is the conservative disposition, one articulated perhaps most brilliantly by Russell Kirk, who described conservatism above all not as a set of policy positions, but as a general view toward the world. That disposition especially finds expression in a “piety toward the wisdom of one’s ancestors,” a respect for the ancestral that only with great caution, hesitancy, and forbearance seeks to introduce or accept change into society. It is supremely wary of the only iron law of politics—the law of unintended consequences (e.g., a few conservatives predicted that the introduction of the direct primary in the early 1900’s would lead to increasingly extreme ideological divides and the increased influence of money in politics. In the zeal for reform, no one listened). It also tends toward a pessimistic view of history, more concerned to prevent the introduction of corruption in a decent regime than driven to pursue change out a belief in progress toward a better future.

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Cursive: A Beautiful Diversity

Is cursive an outdated and unnecessary facet of American education? Once again, Common Core is causing an academic stir—this time surrounding its exemption of cursive from required curricula. Instead, the computer keyboard is becoming school’s chosen writing methodology, according to a Tuesday article in The Atlantic: 

Opponents of script argue that needing to read and write in cursive is no longer relevant in an increasingly digital society. Some believe that cursive is essentially archaic, the importance of which is relegated only to checks, signatures, and the occasional love letter. They believe instructional time is better devoted to other classroom subjects that are included on standardized tests, and cursive is not necessary for academic achievement. After all, they say, we have computers and speech dictation machines.

The Washington Post heralded the imminent demise of longhand in 2006, after only 15 percent of 1.5 million SAT test-takers used cursive. The rest printed in block letters. While some experts were unconcerned by the trend, others warned that the demise of handwriting could have unexpected consequences:

…Academics who specialize in writing acquisition argue that it’s important cognitively, pointing to research that shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades. Scholars who study original documents say the demise of handwriting will diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research. And others simply lament the loss of handwritten communication for its beauty, individualism and intimacy.

There are numerous practical skills, like those mentioned above, associated with cursive. After the Los Angeles Times printed an article on the archaic nature of cursive, teachers responded with various defenses—arguing that it improved coordination, focus, even mathematical skills. Steve Jobs, famous former Apple CEO, studied calligraphy at Reed College and found inspiration in its beauty. He told Stanford graduates in 2005, “I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture.” He added, “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.” Ironically, Microsoft mastermind Bill Gates is a significant financial sponsor of the Common Core curriculum.

Beyond all the cognitive, academic, intellectual, and aesthetic benefits of cursive, there is perhaps one more. Cursive, despite its loopy letters and structured theory, truly develops with the individual hand. Thus, every person’s handwriting will be unique and personal. In an age of computers, where professors mandate essays in Times New Roman 12 pt, and a swath of fonts are available via Dafont, cursive preserves artistic diversity. And it is comforting to know that we few cursive users still have a unique print in the world. The Atlantic article sums it up nicely: “In a very meaningful way, the debate between cursive and print, or keyboards and handwriting, is entirely up to us: what type of mark do we want to leave?”

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American Exceptionalism Revisited

President Obama defended American exceptionalism in a speech mostly dealing with America’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East at the UN Tuesday: “Some may disagree,” he noted, “But I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness, to the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up, not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently published a New York Times op-ed in which he critiqued this conceit head on: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Putin’s statement clearly struck a nerve: Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint answered Putin directly (“all humans are created equal—but not all nations are created equal”) while Senator John McCain responded in the wrong Pravda. Obama’s UN remarks represented a rather pointed reply to Putin’s comment. He warned of a “vacuum of leadership” that would result from American disengagement around the globe. He argued that “the world is better” for active U.S. leadership.

Is American “exceptionalism,” then, derived from its globalist foreign policy? Not according to Richard Gamble: In a 2012 article for this magazine, he argued that America has been driven by “old” and “new” American exceptionalisms. Gamble cites an 1899 speech by Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner, written at a time when America’s imperialist bent was beginning to take hold:

When Sumner came to the question of what set America apart from other nations, he debunked the most popular and superficial conception of exceptionalism and looked at history to ground America’s identity in something more substantial. Sumner first noted the irony that by claiming it had a unique civilizing mission to perform, America sounded just like every other major power at the end of the 19th century. “There is not a civilized nation which does not talk about its civilizing mission just as grandly as we do,” he remarked. The English, French, Germans, Russians, Ottoman Turks, and Spanish said the same.

It was not America’s “divine mission,” writes Gamble, that once set it apart. The old idea of exceptionalism was “more about what America doesn’t do than what it does, more about national self-restraint than national self-assertion.”

Indeed, one could not help comparing the defensive Putin backlash to George Washington’s famous 1796 farewell address:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it … The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

America’s political connections and involvement now extend far beyond Europe’s friendships and enmities. Our engagement around the globe is now routine. Yet Washington advocated for restraint. He was devoted to the peace and permanency of the Union, and to preserving domestic peace at all costs. Only one comment in Washington’s speech hints at “exceptionalism”: he said the U.S. enjoys a peculiarly “detached and distant situation” from other nations, and this position “invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”

In other words, the only “exceptionalism” envisioned by Washington is anathema to that expressed by American politicians today. While Washington saw domestic concerns as our most important preoccupation, Obama defined strict national interests as “narrow” and selfish.

Yet in a nation swimming in debt and riddled with unemployment, perplexed by health care complications and political schisms, one cannot help thinking that these “narrow” concerns are actually quite broad.

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How to Save the Library

Virginia’s Fairfax County library was struggling. Their budget was down 23 percent since 2008, and library visits had declined by 10 percent. The library administration made a plan – and at the top of that plan was the goal to move from “a print environment to a digital environment.”

So they began throwing away books – more than 250,000 of them, according to a story by the Washington Post Local’s Tom Jackman:

Hearing complaints that the Fairfax County Public Library was throwing away tons of books, County Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) decided to peer into a dumpster. Twice, she found stacks and stacks of high-quality books, bought by the taxpayers, piled in the trash … Smyth took her box of rescued books to the Fairfax government center, dumped them on a county official’s desk and demanded answers. The next day, Aug. 30, a directive went out to all branches suspending the discarding of books. Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she is going to ask the library administration on Tuesday to put a hold on its new strategic plan until the board and the public have more of a chance to weigh in.

This story illustrates a dilemma facing most of today’s libraries: how to survive in the technological age? What services can they offer to compete with other book and Internet providers?

There are several things one must keep in mind when addressing a library’s future. First, libraries’ solutions must be as diverse as the communities they serve. A recent Financial Times story on the future of libraries called them a “metaphor” for their communities.

If the library is a metaphor for the city itself, it can play just as profound a role in creating the image of a nation. One of the most famous images in architecture is visionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullée’s single-point perspective of a library for Paris (1785), a vast vaulted space in which the books are bricks and readers sit below a coffered vault foreshadowing the great roofs of the 19th-century stations. This was a model for a rational new France based, like Diderot’s encyclopedia, on knowledge.

But for this very reason, libraries must be specific to their place. This means others will not (and indeed should not) operate on such a massive scale. In a post titled “The Libraries We Need” at his revived “Text Patterns” blog over at The New Atlantis, Alan Jacobs pointed to the importance of peripheral, local libraries: the sort that aren’t large or grandiose like the city of Birmingham’s new library, but rather the sort that provide services to smaller neighborhoods.

In addition, despite the importance of a library’s print collection, the library must also offer technological services. Libraries must have a digital response for this digital era – and the benefits of inter-library loans (ILL’s) and online courses are significant for users. As Jacobs put it, “A neighborhood library … should have stacks that can be browsed, with as many books and journals as the library can afford, but — and maybe I’m flirting with heresy here — only after the library is well-equipped with internet-enabled computers and a staff who knows how to help people find what they want.”

Thirdly, the library should not forget its strength in functioning as a commons or community-gathering place. A blogger at Getting Rich Slowly shared some thoughts on the way other libraries have done this successfully:

Recently, the Los Angeles Public Library launched the “Citizenship Corners” initiative. Szabo sums it up: “In Los Angeles, there are 700,000 people legally eligible to become U.S. citizens, but for whom that process can be difficult to find out about, hard to take the first step, bureaucratic…What the library has done is partnered with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to offer citizenship information in all 73 of our libraries.” …Impressively, a handful of other cities, including Chicago, are following suit.

Whether providing Internet to poor citizens, teaching classes, or helping inspire a local kindergarten student to read, the library can offer countless services to its community. But it must take a community-centric and proactive approach in order to do this.

But finally, the library must not forget its primary, ancient, traditional function: providing books to the public. Despite the many digital and communal services it can offer, its greatest gift is still the printed word. True, the library must figure out ways to cut extraneous costs. But it cannot cut away that basic component of its nature. It should never throw away its books.

One cannot blame the Fairfax County Library for attempting to downsize in the face of financial difficulty. And donating old copies to shelters or schools could be beneficial to all parties involved. But while increasing digital services provided will help, a library’s primary function and goal should always be to unite reader with book. It must always be a “print environment.”

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What Tolstoy Has to Say About Syria

Yesterday was Leo Tolstoy’s 185th birthday. Most well known for his infamously vast novel War and Peace, Tolstoy was a complex and fascinating writer—a devout Christian with anarchist leanings, whose views on private property may have annoyed today’s libertarian. But despite what one might think about his more controversial beliefs, Tolstoy must be admired for his dogged pursuit of truth. He did not shy away from its raw, demanding light.

Tolstoy’s works are now available online for free—all 90 of them. This new Russian website hosts all his work, along with extensive biographical resources. If you have heard tales of Tolstoy’s legendary verbosity, be not dismayed: he has also written some excellent short works (The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a notable example, along with Father Sergius and Hadji Murat).

Raised by rich nobility, Tolstoy spent his early years as a poor student and avid gambler. He was horrified by the violence of the Crimean War; perhaps this helped push him toward the Christianity and pacifism of his later years. He married in 1862, had 13 children, and achieved great literary acclaim. However, after writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a spiritual crisis. He then devoted the rest of his writings to religious and moral subjects.

Considering the Syria debate that has enthralled the media lately, I found this selection from Tolstoy’s essay “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” particularly noteworthy. Though Tolstoy’s pacifism and anarchism may be extreme, he had some interesting arguments regarding the use of violence that should be considered in today’s debate:

But besides corrupting public opinion, the use of force leads men to the fatal conviction that they progress, not through the spiritual impulse which impels them to the attainment of truth and its realization in life, and which constitutes the only source of every progressive movement of humanity, but by means of violence, the very force which, far from leading men to truth, always carries them further away from it. This is a fatal error, because it leads men to neglect the chief force underlying their life—their spiritual activity—and to turn all their attention and energy to the use of violence, which is superficial, sluggish, and most generally pernicious in its action.
…The sole guide which directs men and nations has always been and is the unseen, intangible, underlying force, the resultant of all the spiritual forces of a certain people, or of all humanity, which finds its outward expression in public opinion. The use of violence only weakens this force, hinders it and corrupts it, and tries to replace it by another which far from being conducive to the progress of humanity, is detrimental to it.

Could Tolstoy be right that force repels progress and corrupts the truer motives of men—that using force to suppress force will not, in fact, bring freedom, but will instead subjugate the deeper, truer power of public opinion and reasoned discourse? If the people of Syria perceive that their progress only comes through deplorable violence, when will they stop? When will they convert from bloody revolution to the peaceful pursuit of representative government?

There may be times and places in which violence is absolutely necessary. However, one must never view it as a good means to procure peace: violence is never excellent. Tolstoy recognized its cyclical nature, and rightly saw it should be avoided at all costs. In Tolstoy’s mind, the greatest good one could do was to live without greed or avarice: to tend one’s own land, family, and to love thy neighbor as thyself. It seems in this time of great national decision, there are many ways in which our government should tend its own land and family before seeking to suppress or fight violence elsewhere.

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Not Sensing the Prophetic Vibe from Syria Crisis

I suppose something like the following was inevitable, given the circumstances and the historical sensitivity of the region:

The deadly violence percolating half a world away in Syria and the warnings of a possible U.S. attack have some people not only looking ahead to what might happen in the coming days—but also looking backward into ancient, apocalyptic prophecies in the pages of the Old Testament. In recent weeks, some dire prophecies have turned up on websites, in book stores, as the subject of Bible studies and in sermons by some Christians and others who see a link between the old passages and modern-day events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.

That’s from a report in USA Today. I’ve seen similar murmurings in my Facebook newsfeed.

Still … really?

Looking at a 20th-century timeline of Syrian history compiled by BBC News, one can’t help but notice several years as seemingly pregnant with apocalyptic significance as the present day. For instance: “1920 July—French forces occupy Damascus, forcing Feisal to flee abroad.” And: “1925-26—Nationalist agitation against French rule develops into a national uprising. French forces bombard Damascus.”

This is to say nothing of Syria’s wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973.

Delving further into the past, there’s this bit from Wikipedia’s entry on the history of Syria, chosen more or less at random:

In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, defeated the Mamluk army at Aleppo and captured Damascus. Many of the city’s inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. At this time the Christian population of Syria suffered persecution. By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria. In 1516, the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria.

I’m not scorning the current spate of prophetical dot-connecting. Consider this an offering of friendly advice its practitioners: Beware the mental affliction of presentism.

This, too—whatever this turns out to be—will probably pass.

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Maybe Kevin Williamson Wants to Rebuild a Republican Big Tent

Several critics of Kevin Williamson’s 2012 piece celebrating the Republican party’s record on civil rights charged that Williamson had conflated “Republican” and “conservative”: sure, the GOP of the ’50s and ’60s looks kosher on race if you ignore that fact that, back then, there used to be lots of liberal northeastern Republicans and conservative southern Democrats.

Williamson responded:

[A] lot of those so-called liberals from the northeast who supported civil rights look pretty good by today’s Republican standards: sober, free-enterprise, small-government guys. Not ideological flamethrowers, to be sure, but not as bad as we remember them.

It would appear that Williamson is up to something similar in his reappraisal of President Dwight Eisenhower in the current print edition of National Review:

Eisenhower may have sometimes called himself a progressive, but his bedrock priorities—a strong military, balanced budgets, and limited government—are classical conservativism.

Williamson never specified who “a lot of those so-called[!] liberals from the northeast” were. I’ll try to fill in the blanks (and extend the category to states like California and Maryland and Illinois): Jacob Javits. Ken Keating. Irving Ives. Clifford Case. Thomas Kuchel. Hugh Scott. Edward Brooke. Charles Mathias. Charles Percy.

I’ll stop there. For more, check out the book Geoffrey Kabaservice recently published about the defunct Rockefeller wing of the Republican party. I find it hard to imagine Williamson believes that Javits—who wrote a manifesto in 1964 assailing the Goldwater right—or any one of the aforementioned would make it in today’s Republican party. Judging from Williamson’s favorable summation of Ike’s record of prudence and caution on foreign policy, and his deft maneuvering around both the labor left and the McCarthy right, it seems to me he’s genuine when he writes that “Eisenhower had a deep appreciation for those most conservative of virtues: steadiness, judgment, predictability, attention to detail.”

There is more—much, much more—to conservatism, in other words, than “ideological flamethrowing.”

Maybe Williamson’s critics aren’t hip to what he’s trying to bring about: a revitalized Republican big tent.

I won’t go so far as to say Williamson agrees with Sen. Rand Paul, who said, “There’s room for people who believe in bigger government in our party.”

So I’ll say it for myself: The Republican party was better off when it had a moderate wing. A bona fide national party, if nothing else.

There’s no turning back the clock, of course. Republicans can no more reabsorb moderates (notice I didn’t say “independents“) than Democrats could successfully woo southern conservatives. A new coalition will have to be formed. But recognizing the greatness, the conservatism, of Ike is a worthy baby step. Dare I say it, Williamson and I are on the same page:

[W]here the ideologue sees a two-dimensional world with endpoints marked “Freedom” and “Slavery,” Ike saw the world in three dimensions. Just as his innate sense of realism and caution led him avoid unnecessary war, Ike’s fundamental lack of zeal helped him see that an ideological war on the New Deal would lead to, yes, quagmire—something very like what we’re experiencing today. Therefore, he employed his vice president, Richard Nixon, to run interference with the likes of Joseph McCarthy, and he quietly and unflashily went about the business of maintaing a course of peace, stability, and incremental racial progress.

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