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Ryn on the Dangers of "The Founding"

Neo-Jacobins undermine American constitutionalism by radically redefining its meaning. They have little loyalty towards the culturally distinctive, historically evolved America. This country, neo-Jacobins assert, represents a sharp break with the past. They love to speak of the "Founding," because that term suggests that America does not have historical origins but emerged afresh from enlightened minds. Harry Jaffa and others insist that to celebrate America is to celebrate radical innovation and revolution. ~Claes Ryn

Via Daniel McCarthy

The foregoing comes from Prof. Ryn's Philadelphia Society talk, made available online at LewRockwell.com.Unlike my fellow bloggers of the right, Daniel McCarthy and Michael Brendan Dougherty (who should be offering up some of his reflections on the weekend before too long), I did not attend the Philadelphia Society's meeting this past weekend, but given the prominent repudiation of the neo-Jacobins here, Prof. Lukacs' indictment of the failures of the "movement," and what I understand was a very powerful speech by Prof. Bacevich on foreign policy I have to say that I regret that I missed it.

Reading Prof. Ryn's entirely correct criticism of Harry Jaffa and those who speak mystically about "the Founding" is a powerful one and it cuts to the heart of the flaw in these virtual worshippers of "the Founding." Some of the people over at Claremont will speak as if "the Founding" possessed the sort of "incarnational significance" that a certain theologian reserves for capitalism, or that some of the (false) philosophical ideas invoked in late eighteenth century documents should be universally binding on all conservative Americans until the end of time.

But if I am "crunching the Founding," because I (allegedly an arch-crunchy con) have questioned the validity of Enlightenment contract theories and their compatibility with the Christian tradition, as Matthew Peterson at Claremont claimed, what is Prof. Ryn doing to Claremont's conception of "the Founding"? Moreover, if Prof. Ryn is right about "the Founding," as I think he is, why should anyone put any stock in this ahistorical ideological vision of our early republican history? To judge from the rhetoric of enthusiasts for "the Founding," which usually has little to do with enthusiasm for the Constitution, the historic rights of Englishmen or the limited institutions established under the Constitution, Americans are obliged to parrot (false) philosophical notions from the late eighteenth century until the end of time because they happen to appear in one prominent and historically significant document of the age.

In his memoirs, Aurel Kolnai commented on the oddity of the American people being trapped in eighteenth century categories of political thought, while nations with a sense of a continuous and lengthy history (a history that Americans also possess, but which they truncate for reasons of political identity) possessed a national identity that transcended and extended beyond any particular set of ideas that may have been fashionable at one time or another. I suspect that this reality has made our countrymen vulnerable to the sorts of ideological manipulations of our history, like those perpetrated by Jaffa, and made the manipulations seem more plausible than they ever should have done.

Here is Prof. Ryn again:

Only a major intellectual or moral flaw in American conservatism could have made so many susceptible to the neo-Jacobin bug. Many who caught it were myopically preoccupied with practical politics and Republican partisanship. They lacked historical perspective and philosophical discernment. Others dimly recognized what was happening but went along to reap financial rewards and advance careers. They concealed almost from themselves that they became hired guns advocating the positions expected of them. Both groups made alliances that will prove compromising. Historians will wonder how so many could have been so easily swayed and manipulated.

As for the major intellectual flaw, I offer my suggestion for what it was here.

Daniel Larison | April 04, 2006


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