Monday, October 11, 2010

Topic of Frequent Discussion

TR and Wilson

Comment from Tom:

This article is a nice example of how intellectual journalism goes astray. It sounds right. It appears informed. It knows its audience and appeals to their already existing notions of how things work. Most importantly, it provides a simple answer couched in seemingly complex intellectual-speak. Informed people eat this stuff up, because it makes them feel great about themselves for getting it.

The problem is that the article gets both Wilson and Roosevelt wrong in order to serve this made-up concept of "epicurean liberalism" (see dcat for a good comment on this issue). Wilson is easier to screw up, because his rhetoric drifted all over the place, but this article presents a Wilson amazingly far from the actual man. As Hawley would have it, Wilson was such a believer in personal freedom that he was almost a libertarian, which is laughable on its face. To be sure, Hawley hedges his bets by saying that Wilson wanted more government to preserve "epicurean liberalism" so that people could pursue their individual self-fulfillment. But besides that making little sense, especially given the selective quotations from Wilson in the actual article, it also in no way whatsoever sounds like the historical Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was one of the strongest personal moralizers ever to sit in the White House, and to say that he was somehow tolerant of individuals finding self-fulfillment however they wanted is jaw-droppingly contrary to Wilson's well-established record. I would say that Wilson was the type of liberal who believed that corporate combinations had become the greater threat to liberty than government--much in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt and most modern liberalism--but even that view has to be tempered by Wilson's peculiar moralism and clear certitude that power should be centralized in the hands of the executive, especially if that executive was him.

Roosevelt is a little tougher to understand, but Hawley has written a book on the man, so you would think he would know better. Unfortunately, he is in the camp of too many conservatives these days who see Roosevelt primarily as the progressive candidate for president in 1912, and thus see him only as a supporter of big aggressive government, while glossing over why Roosevelt took such positions. The ironic thing about this view among conservatives (and many historians) is that Roosevelt did so much writing and explaining of his views that there should not be so much confusion. It is doubly ironic that what Hawley calls for in the last two sections of his article is basically a lift from Roosevelt's thinking, even as Hawley claims it is something new. For example, Hawley writes:
But we need not follow the Progressives down that blind alley. The error of epicurean liberalism — and of the competing Progressive visions offered by both Roosevelt and Wilson — comes in their first premise: that American life has changed so profoundly that the yeoman ideal, and the tradition that informed it, are no longer relevant. On the contrary, that ideal — rooted though it was in the era of the founding — reflects a deep insight into the permanent nature of the human person; as such, it offers a promising departure point for thinking about liberty, society, and the individual. That departure point is self-determination.

Self-determination, as our earlier republican tradition conceived it, involves freedom from arbitrary rule by outsiders in order that the individual might rule himself and take a part in ruling his community. Rather than a process of personal discovery, self-determination is an activity; it is the work of governing and ordering one's life so as to realize the fruits of one's abilities. In this sense, it is a demanding ethic — requiring not just freedom from coercion for the individual, à la epicurean liberalism, but personal discipline, planning, and hard work from the individual. For only by acquiring these characteristics can the individual begin to exert control over his own life.
It is almost as if he is calling for individuals to have the freedom and responsibility to live the strenuous life.

Hawley continues:
Thinking of liberty as self-determination allows us to retain epicurean liberalism's focus on the individual and even its concern for individual choice. But self-determination turns liberty outward, away from the self and its passions, and toward society and civic life. It teaches that liberty requires a certain sort of citizen, and it insists on a connection between personal freedom and democratic participation.
All he is doing here is replacing the word "republicanism" with "self-determination." And again, he is unwittingly summarizing much of Roosevelt's public career and thinking. In the face of the rapidly changing circumstances of his age, this self-determination, this republicanism, is exactly what Roosevelt was trying to conserve.

That was why Theodore Roosevelt called himself a republican and a conservative. And as I have said before, I cannot for the life of me figure out why American conservatives continue to believe that their worldview emerged only after World War II. I cannot believe that they would continue to discard three of the four faces on Mount Rushmore.


Stephen said...

Word. Very nice.

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