Wednesday, August 31, 2005

A world of fantasy

I recently started reading Louis Hartz's seminal The Liberal Tradition in America, which argues that liberalism (not left-liberalism, Lockean liberalism) has always been the hegenomic political ideology in America, explaining why European conservatism, socialism, fascism, or communism never made any headway. (Among other paradoxes, what American "conservatives" are conserving is liberalism.) I came across this essay about the book in the NYTimes book review with the following delightful passage:
Not all contemporary conservatives are followers of Locke. Adherents of the Christian right, among others, are not likely to be avid readers of Locke's letter on religious toleration (even if Locke justified toleration, not on secular grounds, but on Christian principle). But the fate of today's religious right may well have been foreshadowed by what Hartz called ''the reactionary Enlightenment,'' the effort by Southern thinkers before the Civil War to find a justification for slavery. Because of the lack of a conservative tradition, the opposite of liberalism was fantasy, and so Southern thinkers invented a feudal past of honor and chivalry that never existed.

Similarly, despite the deism of Jefferson and Madison, today's religious right claims that the United States was founded as a Christian republic. Separation of church and state, they contend, is contrary to American ideals -- when it is in fact the perfect expression of them. Like a Southern slaveholder captivated by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, America's Christian conservatives live in a world of their own imagining. Hartz would have understood them perfectly.

16 Comments:

Blogger driftwood said...

That sounds like an interesting book, I’ll look for it. Classical conservatism is different from being a reactionary. My favorite definition for them:

A reactionary is someone pining for a past that never existed.

8/31/2005 05:00:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Yes, do look for it - I'm enjoying it so far. Be forewarned though, the prose is rather tough going, and Hartz has a way of tossing out the names of historical figures without explanation assuming you know exactly who they were and what they stand for...

8/31/2005 10:40:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

I’ve written down the titles of a couple of books that sound good on the religious/cultural history of the US. (The one I can think of at the moment is called Hellfire Nation.) Maybe reading one of those at the same time as Hartz would be a good program.

9/01/2005 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Hellfire Nation sounds interesting, thanks for the tip. I might also suggest to you Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer, which describes the British colonists as coming in four culturally and geographically distinct waves: Puritans from East Anglia to New England (1629-1641), Royalists from southern and western England to the Chesapeake Bay (1642-1675), Quakers from the North Midlands to the Delaware Valley (1675-1725) and "Scots-Irish" (somewhat of a misnomer) from North Britain and northern Ireland to the colonial backcountry (1717-1775). The four waves founded distinct cultures that have persisted in American life throughout the centuries. Very long (over 900 pages) but highly recommended.

9/01/2005 10:38:00 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Hmm

That one wasn't on my list, but I've heard of it. I might get it too.

I like to read several books on related (or at least overlapping)topics at the same time to play the writers off each other as I think through the issues. My last historical kick was on the British Empire a year or so ago. This set of books would be a good one since I've never looked at the history of American ideas near as closely as I have British and European.

9/03/2005 10:07:00 PM  
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