Timothy Haglund, “At CPAC 2010”

Below is a guest post by Timothy Haglund (thag in the comments). Tim is trying to figure out in the reflections below how his education squares with what he saw firsthand at CPAC. A liberal arts education means that one usually reads documents pertinent to the Founding, and lots of them. Given that extremist groups seem to have their own “readings” of the American Founding (and lots of them), this puts any competent, well-read student that’s been doing his work the way he ought to in a weird place:

My friends and I traveled to D.C. – to show that a self-governed man is a docile listener, but also a man who understands his purpose as an uncompromising vindication of the first things:

“…with respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American Whigs thought alike on these subjects. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”

– Jefferson, Letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825

Combining old and new, the Whigs saw their regime as one grounded in the Declaration, and we note that Jefferson has excluded all those who hold opinions to the contrary: there was “one opinion” which expressed the “American mind.” And it is not just the opinion which counts: Jefferson pays mind to the need that the opinion be given a “proper tone and spirit” – given a proper tone and spirit to reveal a regime founded in reflection and choice rather than accident and force.

Some of you may have come across one of Ashok’s latest blogs on Xenophon’s Memorabilia (III.3). There, Ashok tacitly raises the question of thumotic indignation in man as opposed to anger in man, while Xenophon explicitly compares thumos in a horse to anger in man (yeah – I am confused by my writing too). This is something obviously not irrelevant to the Declaration – nor is it irrelevant to the conservative movement as it is today.

And though our Founding was conceived in revolution – not exactly a nice, comfy time – we note that Lincoln at Gettysburg subtly shifts this to “conceived in liberty.” Turning to Jefferson’s letter to Weightman, June 24, 1826, we see that he says

“The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. These are the grounds of hope for others.”

“The light of science” – coming from the Latin “scientia” – means, in other words, the light of knowledge: the principles of the Declaration were discerned by logos, though one might expect thumos to reign over logos in revolution, which brings us back to the “proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.” Because…it turns out Lincoln was right. Burke endorsed America’s revolution for precisely this reason – precisely because revolutionary fervor was guided by, and always lower than, reflection and choice.

And that seems to be the problem with CPAC. It isn’t that CPACers are altogether wrong (some of them, of course, ARE). Now, don’t get me wrong here. The CPACers most definitely carried themselves with a tone and spirit – what one might even be tempted to call the spirit of a self-governing people. If one thing could be said about the event, it would be how amazingly diverse the atmosphere was. There was not “one opinion on this side of DC” to express the American mind. CPAC makes its exhibit hall one of its main attractions. In the hall, hundreds of booths sit side-by-side – booths which comprise the entire fabric of the conservative movement. To our left were the Concerned Women for America; to our right, Tradition, Family, and Property, whose main end seemed to be opposition to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Around the corner, Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty stole the show. There was Citizens United, the John Birch Society, the Manhattan Institute, GOProud, YAF, and on and on.

But unlike that of the consolidated American Whigs, this opinion did not seek to justify itself, because I’m not so sure that the opinion itself was very clear. The theme of the week in the discussion panels was “Saving Freedom,” but one got the sense that a Socratic “what is freedom” would have greatly benefited the conversation. And it isn’t that ‘the good’ was merely taken as a given – it was that people seemed not to know what ‘the good’ was, if not put in fragile terms such as “state’s rights” or “secession.”

One man from John Birch explained to me, upon hearing that I was familiar with GW Hegel, that the country’s History was one moving in a dialectic from perfect freedom (starting with the Founding) toward perfect tyranny (with the Obama administration). Through a series of theses/antitheses/syntheses, I was warned, conservatives had given up ground to sinister forces at work. Another told me that Glenn Beck was America’s last best hope – except for the fact that he wasn’t pushing the doctrine of nullification (the obvious answer to every national problem).

On the way to McDonald’s, LaRouche fans – replete with all else that could be expected of such folk – peddled flyers and surrounded a sign inscripted “Impeach Obama,” topped off with a mugshot of the nation’s executive wearing a Hitler ‘stache: passing by with grit teeth, I heard a, “What’s wrong, you don’t like our poster?” Campaign for Liberty had sumo-wrestling matches in which you could beat the crap out of evil, blown up figures like John McCain. But that, I was told, was not the best part of the CfL: their politics were grounded in reason and academia – grounded in learned works, like those of “scholar” Tom DiLorenzo. Thumbing through his books, which the CfL sold (and which Ron Paul was “mostly in line with”), I learned of Lincoln the hypocrite, the Constitution shredder (what, then, were Rhett and Cobb doing when they drafted the CSA Constitution?), the tyrant. Lincoln wanted to make the right to slavery “irrevocable,” it was said. My pulse was racing, though I realized that this was not a faction which could be persuaded.

I watched as a “Two Minute Activist” session, in which young conservative activists informed the gargantuan crowd of their political endeavors, quickly turn into an Orwellian “Two Minute Hate,” as an impassioned young man directed condemnation at CPAC for inviting GOProud – a group of gay Republicans – to the days’ events. Despite all their faults, I heard rightly indignant boos from the Ron Paul devotees.

These problems come from a separation of the Constitution from the Declaration. It seems like a “no-duh” sort of problem, but remember that it was one that Lincoln had his life taken over for trying to fix. Absent the natural rights doctrine, the conservative movement really does not have much ground to stand on; absent natural rights, American politics would play out like a Shakespearian Roman tragedy – like Coriolanus. Though when conservatives do embrace the natural rights of the Declaration, the ground they stand on is extremely firm. And note that extrapolating a state’s right to secede from that document is no different than calling healthcare a right.

I was offered ten seconds in the spotlight, as a man came around with a camcorder telling me that I could say anything to Obama that I wished; there were bumper stickers which equated the Democrat Party with the Taliban. GQ magazine swung by, and snapped my picture. Little did I know that it would turn out to be an amusing little bash-fest for the oh-so-professional blog that is run on their corporate website:


Of course, this brings up the trouble with the Left: they fight losing, or at least not winning, battles. This enterprise was completely wrong-headed, and not just because I share no affiliation with the Branch Davidians! If ever there was an opportunity for smart, liberal reporting, this was it. CPAC really represents the Right in a wilderness era of sorts – it represents a Right that has lost some of its bearings. And while GQ was obviously not the only liberal outlet commenting on CPAC, they probably were typical, despite the fact that others are unquestionably more serious. Those from the left that haven’t been wasting their time on this kind of meaningless drivel have been conjuring up good ideas – that is the warning CPACers should heed.

Still, the CPAC movement is not going anywhere – conservatism is not going anywhere. The beautiful thing about American conservatism is that its groundwork is already laid, if principles reveal themselves as true to each generation (beautiful does not mean easy). The difficult part is that this means taking strikingly philosophic originalist principles and merging them with prudential considerations: what people miss when they talk about Burke is his insistence on incrementalism. The CfL might be right about (some) things, but they are rash – too rash: “He who is slow to wrath has great understanding,/But he who is impulsive exalts folly.” (Proverbs 14:29).

We recall an unjust Athens, and a Socrates who insisted that if the city had a law forbidding a verdict on a capital crime in one day’s time he would have lived – and we recall a Thucydidean Sparta that, while imperfect (and while ticking off ‘allies’), did not recklessly take over Melos just because it was stronger. And then, also from Thucydides’ History (Book III), there was the small island of Corfu divided – and destroyed – by civil strife. Which of course all goes back to the heart of the matter – and a Jefferson who understood that despite righteous fury, the “common sense of the matter” would prevail. If American conservatism hopes to redeem itself, it needs to understand this.

At CPAC, the spiritedness is certainly there, and I don’t want to bash that too much. But a self-governing man is an educated man, and that requires one to stop and listen. This is possible. The very principles that the CPACers claim say so. Obama’s team thinks that the progressive policies they push aren’t receiving their due partly because people are angry, and therefore will not listen. Certainly, they are right in a lot of ways (it turns out political theory isn’t useless!). But who does not see that this is a wonderful opportunity for a clash of ideas among citizens?

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