On the neocons’ re-writing of Jefferson

Sage McLaughlin writes:

When I re-read your piece on Hanson that was quoted by Diana West, this line of Hanson’s caught my eye:

“Americans believe that freedom and consensual government—far from being the exclusive domain of the West—are ideals central to the human condition and the shared aspirations of all born into this world.”

I had forgotten all about that statement. It is one of the most surreal, hubristic things I’ve ever read. Moreover, the claim that “Americans” believe it is risible. I’m not sure I know a single American who really believes it, and it’s hard evidence that Hanson and his clique conceive of themselves and their acolytes as the only real Americans around (which is part of what comes of believing America is an “idea” rather than a nation). Besides, it’s totally incoherent—how can an “ideal” be central to a “condition”? Anyway, sometimes I’m still amazed at how radical the supposedly centrist neoconservatives actually are.

LA replies:

The Hanson sentence you quote also caught my attention last night when I was posting the item on West, and my amazement at it never ceases. However, it is no different from what neocons and Bushites as a group have been repeatedly saying since 2002.

I agree that the phrase “ideals [that are] central to the human condition” seems at first to make no sense. But in fact it does. It means that all human beings have those ideals. All human beings have the desire for American style democracy, and will be restless and out of sorts until they’ve attained it. So, apart from the question of whether the statement is true, it is not nonsensical.

As for whether it is true that freedom and consensual government are the shared aspiration of all born into this world and that all Americans believe this to be true, to my knowledge no American ever said this prior to 2002. It was a new thing under the sun. The moment I first came across this idea (in a Midge Decter speech printed in the September 2002 Imprimis) I was astounded by it and began writing about it. (in this article which I’ve linked many times). As best as I’ve been able to determine, the earliest instance of the idea appeared no earlier than mid 2002 or early 2002.

It is a wacky extension, a manic hypertrophy, of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration says that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, especially the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that men secure these rights by means of government the powers of which are derived from the consent of the governed. These ideas have never been understood by Americans to mean that all human beings desire political liberty. In fact, it’s always been understood by Americans that lots of peoples and cultures do not desire liberty but prefer despotism. Which means that they have the right to liberty in the abstract, but they don’t desire to possess it or they don’t desire it sufficiently to do the work that is needed to secure it, i.e., to institute consensual government. Yes, when Americans saw people aspiring to liberty, they sympathized with them and wished them well, and sometimes actively helped them. America has pursued anti-monarchical policies throughout its history (whether that has been a good policy is another question). Some Americans, such as LIncoln, had the hope that these liberties would be ultimately acquired by the whole human race. But no Americans ever said that all human beings desire freedom and democracy.

Jefferson’s language is layered. There is, first, the unalienable right given to all men, but then there is also the action necessary to secure the right. The fact that people are endowed with the right in the abstract, does not mean that they concretely possess the right.

Note also that in Jefferson’s formulation, government by consent (which we call democracy) is not the end; the right to liberty is the end; government by consent is the means whereby that end is secured.

So people must actively want to possess and exercise the right to liberty, and they must seek it in order to possess it, i.e., they must create a certain type of government. That’s always been the American understanding. We divided mankind between those who desired and had the capacity for liberty, and those who lacked the desire and/or the capacity.

The neocons and Bush in 2002 changed the ancient American understanding to this:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to impose its vision of freedom and democracy on all other peoples, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the supreme station of self-righteous scold and moral engineer to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a grudging respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the imposition.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all human beings are created with an equal desire in their hearts for freedom and democracy, and that they are therefore also endowed by their Creator with an equal entitlement to freedom and democracy; that, in order to secure this freedom and democracy, it is America’s God-ordained mission to spread freedom and democracy to all men and women everywhere, regardless of whether they are currently able and willing to institute a government among themselves with its powers derived from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any country falls short of our notion of freedom and democracy, it is the right of the American government endlessly to lecture, chastise, blackmail, and cajole the leaders of that country, pushing them to institute new government, with its foundation laid on such principles and its powers organized in such form, as to us shall seem most likely to effect their freedom and democracy.

But when a long-established pattern of resistance to our counsels, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reject permanently the spread of freedom and democracy, it is our right, it is our duty, to take over the direction of such country, and to impose on it new guards for its future freedom and democracy.

With the possible exception of that last part about taking over foreign countries solely because they are undemocratic, the above re-working of the Declaration of Independence pretty accurately describes the radical, wacked-out, super-imperialistic version of the American Creed that began to be spoken in 2002 by Bush and the neocons, with virtually no criticism of it coming from mainstream conservatives. Slowly some criticism began to appear, from people like Charles Kesler at Claremont and Peggy Noonan. But the criticism has remained quite muted. No politicians have ever engaged the issue. No prominent individuals have challenged it seriously. It has never become part of the national debate. All establishment conservatives appear to be afraid of offending Bush (the secular leader of the regime, i.e. the emperor) and Norman Podhoretz (the spiritual leader of the regime, i.e., the pope). While no one outside the neocon circle energetically challenges the assertion that everyone wants freedom, inside the neocon circle, it is treated as axiomatic and is repeated over and over again. The neocons don’t defend the assertion against its (mild) critics; they simply repeat it, as though it were a self-evident truth.

Terry Morris writes:

Great entry here! I’ve linked to it in an entry over at Webster’s.

Whether you are correct in saying that these interpretations of Jefferson’s words first appeared in 2002, I do not know. I do know that I was actively contending at that time against these distortions of Jefferson’s words. That is about as far back as I can recall them being made, that I took any notice of, anyway.

You nailed down this American’s understanding of the concepts, when you said:

“These ideas have never been understood by Americans to mean that all human beings desire political liberty. In fact, it’s always been understood by Americans that lots of peoples and cultures do not desire liberty but prefer despotism. Which means that they have the right to liberty in the abstract, but they don’t desire to possess it or they don’t desire it sufficiently to do the work that is needed to secure it, i.e., to institute consensual government.”

I’ve argued many times along these lines since 2002. And I usually preface my arguments by emphasizing the We in “We hold these truths to be…” I emphasize this because Jefferson is obviously making a distinction between We and they. Not all people hold these truths to be self-evident, and certainly not all people form governments (or desire to form them) around the concepts as Jefferson stated them, i.e., that governments are instituted to secure these unalienable rights, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

LA replies:

Thank you. This is a theme I’ve returned to again and again and hesitated writing on it again, but for some reason I felt like it. For one thing there are always new readers who haven’t see these arguments before.

On the same theme, here is an unpublished fragment from 2004:

In a Commencement address at Michigan State University, May 7, 2004, Condoleezza Rice repeated the Bush-neocon mantra that people are the same because the want to be free, they want to raise children, they don’t want to be oppressed. She said:

Fourth, you have an obligation not to let your education and good luck lead you into false pride or condescension. All people are bound together by several common desires. Never make the mistake of assuming that some people do not share your desire to live freely … to think and believe as they see fit … to raise a family and educate their children. Never make the mistake of assuming that some people do not desire the freedom to chart their own courses in life.

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, before the Civil Rights Movement—a place that was once described, with no exaggeration, as the most thoroughly segregated city in the country.

I know what it means to hold dreams and aspirations when half of your neighbors think of you as incapable of, or uninterested in, anything higher. In my professional life, I have listened with disbelief as some explained why Russians would never embrace freedom … that military dictatorship would always be a way of life in Latin America… that Asian values were incompatible with democracy … and that tyranny, corruption, and one-party rule would always dominate the African continent.

And here’s Rice’s kicker: if you doubt the possibility of democracy in the Moslem world, you are a condenscending person:

Today we hear these same doubts about the possibility of freedom in the Middle East. President Bush rejects this view—I reject this view—and so should you. There are no cultures or peoples on this earth who do not deserve the freedoms we take for granted. To think otherwise is a condescension unworthy of an educated mind.

The Bush-bots could almost re-write the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all women and men are bound together by certain common desires, that among these are the desire for freedom, the desire to see one’s children grow to adulthood, and the desire not to hear a knock on the door in the middle of the night. That in order to satisfy these desires, all people require and are deserving of democracy, to be delivered to them by the United States of America.”

Here are some past VFR articles related to this topic:

How Bush has replaced natural rights with family values
[This is first article where I showed how Bush and neocons are transforming natural rights into openness.]

The utopian idea that people “deserve” democracy
[About Sharansky’s contribution to this.]

The neocons’ intellectual suicide
[On Podhoretz adopting idea that everyone “deserves” freedom.]

Kesler on Bush’s distortion of natural rights
[Charles Kesler critiques President Bush’s degradation of America’s natural-rights philosophy into a kind of sentimental multiculturalism, in which people are assumed to be “entitled” to democracy, to be delivered to them by us, simply by virtue of their being human and having feelings, and in which we must welcome illegal aliens crossing into our country because they love their families.]

Bush’s leaden, ideological, neo-Jacobin inaugural address

America and the Method of Bush: Why do we simply assume that democratization will be a good thing?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 13, 2007 11:00 AM | Send

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