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Charles Murray

A Few Thoughts From a Very Rusty Rustbelt, Recently Baptized by a Mass of Snow

A CCA Lecture, February 3, 2011

A great thanks to my friend, Dean Paul Moreno, for inviting me to participate in this CCA Roundtable.  And, a thank you to my colleagues, Gary Wolfram (AWOL!; Gary, oh, Gary—where art thou?) and John Grant as well.  Thank you to Tim Caspar and Doug Jeffrey for putting all of this together. And, finally, a thanks to Ludwig von Mises. I’m not quite sure what he had to do with all of this, but I heard that he had some how paid for it.

On a serious note, we have just spent an extraordinary week listening to several experts discuss the generally destructive consequences of…well, experts. Tim Caspar started us off on a strong note, and, frankly, I could’ve listened to him speak for another hour or so. “We’re not here to celebrate the ‘Great Society,’” Tim said, “for government has gone well beyond its constitutional limits” in its attempts to “provide abundance for everyone.”  This week, he told us, we would have the chance to listen and rethink the nature and future of our republic. Will we embrace the vision of the Progressives or of the Founders?

Jonah Goldberg told us Jackie Kennedy, Dan Rather, and Lyndon Baines Johnson perpetuated a lie: that John F. Kennedy died in the name of love rather than by the hand of a dedicated Marxist. Much as the Radical Republicans rejoiced at the death and then exploited the image of Abraham Lincoln, so the liberals in the Democratic party used the death of JFK to make a new martyr and create things in his name he would never have recognized as legitimate or useful or good. In the end, Goldberg argued, speaking in the language of symbols, America could choose either Locke or Rousseau as a touchstone.

We should properly remember the Great Society as the “Great Hubris,” editor, writer, and former presidential candidate, Steve Forbes reminded us in his profound tour of twentieth-century policy history.  Aside from the Civil Rights and Voting Acts of 1964 and 1965 (the passage of these pieces of legislation seemed to have been approved by all of the speakers who mentioned it), government intervention only led to the worsening of the problems it meant to cure, entrenching the poor and underprivileged rather than releasing them from their economic shackles. Because of Reagan’s example and courage and because of the massive government intervention of the last several years, we stand, Forbes argued, on the verge of a rival of civil and free society.

UVa’s Sidney Milkis, the self-proclaimed “nerdy academic,” believed that the forces Johnson created and unleashed became his own Frankenstein-style destruction. His so-called Great Society did not so much fulfill the New Deal as compete with it, hearkening back to its own pre-New Deal touchstone, pragmatist John Dewey.

John Goodman, though obviously a sharp man, completely lost me after his initial two jokes, and I took no notes after 10 minutes into his talk.

Robert Higgs, certainly one of the great economic historians of our time, spoke directly and penetratingly. The twentieth-century, he noted persuasively, had experienced a series of “government surges,” perhaps none more so than the Great Society. After all, Higgs, argued, “LBJ had boundless energy and ambition, mixed with considerable skill in an era ready for governmental action.”  This proved, ultimately, to be deadly for the American republic, creating a fascistic economy. The academy, rather than providing a scholarly opposition to this growth, justified it and protected it through the rise and stranglehold of neo-classical economics—especially in its Keynesian understanding of “general equilibrium.”

Charles Murray concluded the CCA with his update of Losing Ground. As classy and as sharp as Forbes, Murray offered us a sociological data dump and a Manichean choice of Belmont [where wealthy whites live, having excluded themselves purposely from the rest of society] or Fishtown [where poor whites reside, often with high out of wedlock pregnancy rates and very low educations]. Somehow Middletown [every other white person not living in Belmont or Fishtown] crept in as well, but we were never introduced to those other great American towns that supply Hillsdale with her students: Evangelista, Reformatia, and Marytopia.  In the end, Murray, after a half-hearted invocation of de Tocqueville, called for a “Civic Great Awakening,” a “textured rather than a glossy life,” and a recognition, during Q&A, that with a comic book character favored by our own John Willson, “we are the enemy.”

Questioners proved fascinating as well—from the young, bearded and intensely earnest Tommy Silva, to the elderly gentleman who hated Plato but embraced  “The Philosopher” who proclaimed reason (John Locke?) to the last questioner filled with palpable disappointment that the Murray of 2010 did not seem to have the fire and fight possessed by the Murray of 1984. With this last questioner, I sympathize. Murray’s voice and thoughts echoed brilliance, but the blaze of his eyes seemed somewhat dimmed by the end of his speech.

On a personal note, four of these six speakers have meant a great deal to me for a long time. I’ve been listening to and reading Steve Forbes since 1982, when I was a freshman in high school; Charles Murray since my junior year of high school; Bob Higgs (who is also, happily, a friend) since my junior year of college; and Jonah Goldberg for a dozen years or so at this point.

But, in the end, we are still left with Tim’s poignant questions. Specifically, we must ask which vision might we embrace? That of the Progressives or that of the Founders?

Our experts—again, it should be remembered, all of whom condemned (to varying extents) the rule of experts except when it comes to the issue of race—have all presumably flown back to their respective homes—perhaps very tellingly to New York; New York; Charlottesville, Virginia; Dallas; Seattle; and New York, all cities that ring the heartland of America, but none of which really represent the heartland of America. We, in this audience, remain here, surrounded by a cleansing (or at least seemingly so) snow and a very rusty, rust belt town, somewhat wallowing in its own decay.

Three points, I think, must be added to what these experts have or, as the case very well might be, have failed to share with us.  While these three points in no way complete the meaning of the week, I do hope they add something to the heart and soul of the matters mentioned and discussed.

1. With the exception of Higgs, none of the speakers went far enough in condemning the Great Society or in recognizing the evil it not only accepted, but has perpetuated and inculcated in a significant part of the American Character.

As Higgs properly noted, we have witnessed major government insurgencies into our lives.  With each such surge, the government has claimed more and more power for itself, leaving us (as individuals and as communities) with less power, and, consequently, the habit of self-governance has continuously eroded.  Sometimes, it erodes gradually.  Sometimes, and especially in some areas, it erodes precipitously.

One of the single most important rights we possess as Americans is the right to associate with one another. We do this in all aspects of our lives—in education, in family, in business, in religion, in social clubs and in many, many different circumstances. That most profound of American observers, Alexis de Tocqueville, described the power this gave to American citizens. “The liberty to associate is, therefore, more precious and the science of association more necessary among those people than among all others…government could take the place of a few of the largest American associations, and within the Union several particular states have already tried to do so. But what political power would ever be able to be sufficient for the innumerable multitude of small enterprises that the American citizens carry out every day with the aid of the association?..The more [government] puts itself in the palace of associations, the more individuals, losing the idea of associating, will need it to come to their aid.  These are causes and effects that engender each other without stopping…The morals and intelligence of a democratic people would run no lesser dangers than their trade and industry, if the government came to take the place of associations everywhere.  Sentiments and ideas are renewed, the heart grows larger and the human mind develops only by the reciprocal action of men on each other.” [de Tocqueville, Democracy, Book III, Part II, Chapter 5. Readers of The Imaginative Conservative are, of course, more than familiar with this and with the great work done on all of this by our own Barbara Elliott]

Though we often focus on the religious/church aspects of the 1st Amendment, it’s worth noting there’s much more to it: including, importantly, the freedom to assemble and petition.

In the Old Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Congress acknowledged the right to associate as well—indeed, it’s the central point of the six articles of the ordinance. “And, in the just preservation of rights and property, it is understood and declared, that no law ought ever to be made, or have force in the said territory, that shall, in any manner whatever, interfere with or affect private contracts or engagements, bona fide, and without fraud, previously formed.”

John Marshall’s various decisions as Supreme Court Chief Justice only ratified such ideas.

Tocqueville witnessed the results of this.

Indeed, from the Mayflower Compact [see the pioneering work by our own George Carey] forward, Americans have been associating, forming communities with one another, and it has been in such communities that that we have grown in a number of ways, but especially as a meaningful and purposeful people.

As had much of the New Deal, the Great Society rendered the power of community (that is, true community) impotent; those that remained untouched directly were stretched in their ability to act with efficacy and philosophical purpose. The communities the government formed and patronized (the CAPs) were artificial, formed as a means to gain governmental money and, should all go according to design, advance the ideas of the government. The recipients of such aid were dehumanized, becoming merely a means to an end.

But, let’s be honest. As bad as the New Deal and the Great Society were, there were important precedents of government abuse and denigration of the human person throughout the course of the history of the United States.

Andrew Jackson, though speaking in the language of humanity, displaced entire peoples, created the Trail of Tears. Some tribes, forcibly alienated from their native lands, suffered losses of anywhere from 33% to 66% mortality during and immediately following the removal. “We did not visit a house, wigwam, or camp,” wrote a distressed missionary, “where we did not find more or less sickness, and in most instances the whole family were prostrated by disease.”

Or, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which introduced the first federal police force. And, for what purpose? Certainly not a noble one—but the capturing of those human persons who had proclaimed their dignity by escaping the clutches of slavery.

Rutherford B. Hayes used the U.S. military to harass and massacre a band of Nez Perce Indians in 1877 (the Nez Perce, it should be remembered, might be the strongest Indian allies we ever had, the alliance dating all the way back to their first meeting with Lewis and Clark), chasing them for nearly 1,500 miles before forcing them to surrender.

The so-called “Friends of the Indian” stole Indian children from their biological parents, hoping to kill the Indian and save the man” in East Coast boarding schools such as the haunted Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  How many stones behind the school mark the bodies of those who committed suicide or died of homesickness.

In World War I, Woodrow Wilson segregated blacks from whites in the U.S. military.

In the 1940s, with the consent of FDR’s administration and via executive order, thousands of Japanese-Americans (as far as we know, loyal all) were concentrated in camps throughout the American West, their property confiscated without due process of law or recompense.

In 1945, under Harry S Truman, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs, not on military targets, but on civilians.  One of the two targets, Nagasaki, held the largest single population of pro-western Christians in Asia In a matter of moments, thousands of women and children—all of whom had been suspect to the minds of Japanese militarists—were incinerated, courtesy of American technology.

“And now a few words concerning power among the nations. It is our already; and we have done with it what men always have done with pure power: we have employed it abominably [in Nagasaki and Hiroshima]…We Americans happened to be first in the race for the acquisition of the tools of mass slaughter, and we used those tools as the Roman used his sword and his catapult against Carthage…After all our humanitarian bragging, in the course of the war, we behaved precisely as we accused our enemies of behaving.  I am afraid that we must confess, now, that Americans have no peculiar exemption from Sin, as a people, and that pure power, in our hands, is as dreadful as pure power in the hands of any other nation…There are circumstances under which is it not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God.” (Russell Kirk, Program, pp. 266-268)

While the New Deal and the Great Society certainly caused more problems than they solved, they did not come into being ex nihilo. Tragically, they rest in one aspect of the American tradition.

2. The focus this week on policy, politics, and economics obscured a couple of very important aspects of the American character—namely, at Hillsdale, our religiosity, our patriotism, and, here especially, our liberal understanding of the western tradition. In these three areas, I believe, the vantage point of our experts disadvantaged them. I was most struck by then when Charles Murray paused, looked at the audience, and said, “of course, most Hillsdale students were raised in Belmont.” I must admit, at that moment, he lost me, and my blood nearly reached the boiling point.  It also hit me rather forcibly, his social-science speak, his dualistic view of classes, and his wealth of data surprisingly revealed a poverty of wisdom, especially about parts of the world that are not Manhattan or Austin or Newton, Iowa [the communities from which Murray has collected his data].

Only an hour before Murray’s talk, my oldest son and I had a long talk.  He had, in the way perhaps only a pre-teen could, announced that he was going to attend the University of Notre Dame, paid for by Navy ROTC scholarship, spend four years after college with the Marines, and then enter the seminary to study for the priesthood.

In what city would my son live? His longings, whether eventually realized or not, do not fit into Murray’s sociological and dualist view of the world. My guess is that the same story would be true of many in this room and many throughout the parts of the country that don’t hug the borders of our republic.

This past summer, I had the blessing of taking a three-week trip (a really, really long family road trip) to Astoria (on the Pacific Coast) and back. Our traversing of North Dakota revealed much to me. This isolated western republic seemed nearly ideal to me. Every thing was in perfect order—from the farms to the farm houses to the public buildings to the trailer homes.  Yes, even the trailer homes were beautifully kempt.

The capital building—not necessarily employing my favorite style of architecture—sat majestically in Bismarck. Around it stood a government building here or there—but it was mostly surrounded by well-manicured lawns and homes.

Contrast this scene for a moment with our nation’s capital. I much prefer the traditional architecture of Washington to the neo-neo-neo-neo-neo art deco of North Dakota. But, once the federal government adds black helicopters, black vans, uniformed men with ear wigs, barbed wire, missile batteries on top of buildings, cameras, security check points, and automatic street barriers—Washington looks imperious and frightening, not republican and welcoming.

Give me Bismarck any day over Washington.

3. Finally, we need a real call for reform, not a half-hearted quotation from some cartoon character no one my age or younger has a clue about claiming we are all enemies of ourselves. The second and third chapters of Genesis have taught me this truth more profoundly than any cartoon Possum or Manhattanite ever could could.

Instead, we must call for radical dedication at a personal and at a societal level.

Over the past four administrations, we have seen the insanity of government expansion, abroad and at home.  (The two types of expansion—it was noted only once this week—almost inevitably go hand in hand.)  From the well-intentioned Americans with Disabilities Act to No Child Left Behind to the absurd Cash for Clunkers and gargantuan stimuli packages to the un-patriot Patriot Act to the pornographic gropefest of the TSA, the government attempts to touch us in every manner possible in every place possible and always without our consent and never with any real satisfaction.

Sadly, these efforts too have become a part of the American tradition. But, we have another tradition that received only scant attention this past week: the traditions we inherited from our father’s father’s fathers—the traditions of patriotism, of Christianity, and of liberal education.

· Our tradition teaches us, with Socrates, that democracies as often as not murder their best men

· Our tradition teaches us, with Cicero, that countries can long keep the forms of a republic while having destroyed its soul

· Our tradition teaches us, with Augustine, that governments without justice are no better than bands of robbers

· Our tradition teaches us, with Thomas More, that things eternal matter more than things temporal

· Our tradition teaches us, with Thomas Jefferson, that when governments perpetuate a long train of abuses, we say “enough.”

In 1791, looking back over the events of the previous generation, that great American of Scottish descent, James Wilson, told an audience at what is now the University of Pennsylvania:“As a man is justified in defending, so he is justified in retaking, his property, or his peculiar relations, when from him they are unjustly taken and detained.” [Wilson, “Of the Natural Rights of Individuals,” 1083]

The question for us now is how willing are we to stand with our fathers and their fathers and their fathers and their fathers—and indeed with every man who has stood for right and every victim oppressed by any number of injustices, the world over—and cry, with every ounce of strength, enough!  We are here to reclaim what has been unjustly taken and detained?

At that moment, we will become men and women—indeed, more importantly, we will become fully persons—we will become what we were created to become.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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10 replies to this post
  1. Well done Dr. Birzer. Your essay reminds me of the quote by the fine Jeffersonian, writer and historian, Clyde Wilson. Dr.Wilson said:

    “Patriotism is the wholesome, constructive love of one’s land and people. Nationalism is the unhealthy love of one’s government, accompanied by the aggressive desire to put down others – which becomes in deracinated modern men a substitute for religious faith. Patriotism is an appropriate, indeed necessary, sentiment for people who wish to preserve their freedom; nationalism is not.”

    To reclaim the Founders' vision for the American Republic we must become true patriots. It is not too late to restore citizenship in the Republic. We were not designed to be subjects, let us throw off the shackles of empire and once again hold our manhood dear.

    Then, when we are but a memory, our sons and daughters will tell of the great men who made liberty and virtue their guiding stars. Some of us may yet join the pantheon of greatness occupied by Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Henry. Let it be so.

  2. Robert Frost would have liked the Hillsdale concept of the CCA program. He believed that "education by presence" was one of the ways young people could "make a claim" on those who were doing what few thinkers at a given time were even imagining. Dr. Birzer's passionate summary of this program (he took his assignment seriously!) shows both the possibilities and the limitations of Frost's conviction. "Education by presence" works only when those called into action take their own assignment seriously, and it appears that some of our visitors did not. Having said that, a couple of comments:
    1) The theme of Dr. Birzer's remarks I take to be the things that precede government and which politics are not competent to address. There is no possibility of either returning to the spirit of the "Founders" or restoring true patriotism without first recognizing this great truth. It is the truth that Russell Kirk's legacy bestows upon this institution.
    2) Murray, I take it, referred to Pogo, whom he has obviously never read, and which provoked Dr. Birzer to make a snarky comment or two about possums that have nothing to do with his experience. Walt Kelly was one of the truly acute social critics of the last century, whose animal republic in the swamp has very little to do with the one "we have met the enemy, and he is us" line that apparently Murray felt sums something or other up. Kelly, whatever his particular politics may have been at any given point in the 1950s, was a true American Aesop who should be studied at least as carefully as the mostly silly advocates of a Cold War culture we usually associate with that wonderful and awful decade. Progressivism wins only when we study politics to the exclusion of the moral imagination.
    What is clearest about this post is that Dr. Birzer has an ever-deepening understanding about what makes up a decent republic, even if he does not yet appreciate the swamp.

  3. Winston, thanks. Beautifully stated. John, yes, I threw the POGO reference in to tweak you. Snarky, indeed! Ha. And, believe me, you used Pogo in a far more convincing manner than Murray even dreamt of doing. Plus, who I am to write about this? I still like Batman. Murray was a disappointment. Sharp, articulate, intelligent–but no real spark.

  4. I love this speech! I am very sad I missed this CCA… Charles Murray was there?! GAH! I would have talked his ear off. Thanks for this, I especially love the tradition part. Yes, tradition teaches us much and should not be so readily disregarded.

    In the meantime, I'll say three Hail Marys for N and his future vocation(s)! Thanks again.

  5. Julie, it was a great CCA overall. And, the guests of the college were actively participating, which was really fun. Murray's new book (can't remember the title of it) comes out in the next year or so. Sounds like he's been pretty heavily influenced by a number of modern communitarians. Very, very, very secular, though. A little Incarnation would have gone a long way to have made his points interesting.

  6. Dr. Birzer, moving lecture thank you for posting it. Though I am miles away this semester, for a moment I was brought back to the Hillsdale auditorium and I could hear the cadence of your voice as you shook the room with your very true and moving words.

    I am glad to have at least a glimpse of the CCA though I am not suprised at your remarks. The von Mises CCAs naturally have an economic-policial niche that often narrow in on one issue without examining the larger cultural questions. Many people love this about them, especially the people who sit in the front with the fancy nametags.

    I find that one of the most frustrating aspects of living in society, and even often at Hillsdale, is people's ability to zoom-in so closely on one element of reality that they forget the grandure of the liberal arts, of life at its fullest, of the world as a whole. This is strikingly evident when speaking with some people who seem to get away without reading books. It baffles me that students choose to come to a liberal arts college and yet never open the cover of the very gems that reveal so much of the wisdom of the ages.

    Ok, now that I am done ranting, thank you for your moving lecture and thank you for always drawing students and collegues alike to the higher things.

  7. "Gloriosky, Sandy!" as Little Orphan Annie used to say (she was not a character in Pogo). What a gripping report of a CCA: like reading a well-covered boxing match!

    I was once tempted to write a song about Murray until I remembered that Paul Simon already used the title "Still Crazy After All These Years." Poor fellow, still trying to rebuild a cathedral without religion. Still cramming uncomfortable truths into his ideological suitcase and cutting off the protruding sleeves and trouser-legs.

    The review, if not the event itself, is an embarrassment of riches. I had not read Kirk on Hiroshima, nor had I known that W Wilson (never trust those one-L Wilsons, I always say) had segregated the army racially. That is a Wilsonophile conversation-stopper I shall use often and with glee. The Bismark passage deftly reminds us of reality outside of the conference hall, and then Brad strides into genuine oratory with his artful, ringing  repetitives: "Our tradition tells us…" and it strikes me as Kirk rewritten by Burke. The review's ending is pure electricity.

    The reviewer, and the conference so focused myopically on politics and recent politics too, reminds me of how Oscar Wilde described his oral exam at Oxford: he said he felt "like a lion in a den of Daniels." Yo jehan menana, as they say in Pushtu – a world of thank-yous.

    Stephen Masty

  8. I could be mis-reading here, but I can't completely tell where Dr. Birzer comes down on the dropping of the atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, but without a doubt those bombs saved many more lives than they took.

    I recently finished reading the fantastic book "Unbroken" about WWII Japanese prisoner Louis Zamperini. If there was ever a story or book that shows so vividly the good and the evil of human nature this is it. I am convinced after reading it, and also from what I've read and learned in the past, that the Japanese leadership and military would have sacrificed every single life if the allies had invaded Japan. Probably hundreds of thousands and likely millions of lives were saved because of those atomic bombs.

    In my humble opinion dropping those bombs was absolutely the right thing to do, regardless of the innocent lives lost.

  9. I have known a great many US Vets who agree with Mr. D'Virgillo, young boys at the time who were sitting and waiting for orders to attack the Japanese mainland and instead found themselves on the way home within a few months. A resident of our community has written an admirable memoir expressing just this argument.

    However, the calculus of power is never expressed so poorly as in statistics. The dirty secret about our Middle East policy for the past 60 years or so is the crushing burden we have helped to place on Christians in that most ancient part of the Christian world. The dirty secret of our Balkans policy is similar–and there, we have often been directly on the side of Muslims against Christians. The Christian calculation almost never comes into play in our African policies, not have we said much above a whisper to our bankers, the Chinese, about their consistent persecution of Christians.

    These are shameful things, Mr. D'Virgillo, as was wiping out in a matter of days most of the Christian population of Japan (as if there were no better targets!) by being still the only nation to use the most powerful weapon in human history.

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