Book Review: The Next American Civil War
The pushback against the all-encompassing state has its roots deep in the American tradition.
September 29, 2010 - 12:00 am
Patriotic Americans continue to unabashedly affirm their love of country, honor its historical defense and pursuit of freedom, and mourn its present day departure from the nation’s founding principles. This was evident at last month’s “Restore Honor” rally sponsored by Glenn Beck at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where American patriots gathered to demonstrate their commitment to preserving the American way of life, values, and traditions.
For their efforts, they suffered contemptuous sneers and were irresponsibly compared to terrorists by liberal elites and their media compatriots. Typical of leftists who, in the name of “tolerance,” officiously scorn America, acclaim their cut-above status as “citizens of the world,” and make common cause with jihadists and shariah law advocates. With a patina of moral superiority that sets them apart from the Judeo-Christian ethos-inspired masses, they have gone so far as to defy the sentiments of the overwhelming majority (71%) of their fellow countrymen who oppose a mosque at the gravesite of 3,000 American dead.
Liberal elites hold themselves above reproach as they mock America, pass judgment on loyal Americans, and disparage American foreign policy and history, while smugly embracing the loftier principles of transnationalism, world government, and secular humanism.
This deep divide between the liberal elite and American patriots and the revolt it has fostered is the basis for Lee Harris’ latest book, The Next American Civil War. With an in-depth historical and philosophical perspective found in his previous work, The Suicide of Reason, the author examines this critical juncture in American history and offers some back-to-basics advice on preserving our unprecedented spirit of liberty and exceptional national character.
Harris examines the antipathy that exists today between average Americans, “populist conservatives,” and the liberal elite. He argues that it stems from conservative mistrust of liberals for ostensibly unwise departures from well-worn traditions and for promotion of unnecessarily complex concepts that don’t conform to common sense and experience. The more educated, or perhaps more accurately, the more indoctrinated, liberal elitists fancy themselves enlightened apostles serving the interests of human progress. Their condescending attitudes assume that the benighted masses are gravely in need of their counsel and they use their supposed, superior knowledge and vantage point to amass and hold power. Populist opposition to an elite that is subverting tradition, denigrating America’s heritage, and engaging in unilateral decision-making contrary to popular American sentiment is at the crux of the current revolt.
In The Next American Civil War, Harris reminds the reader of the founding tradition of our government: to promote liberty and the general welfare. Populists view the traditional role of government as altruistic and beneficial, yet not unduly intrusive. The author attributes the initial move away from democracy in America to public education and an increased reliance on science and technology. Prior to the mid 19th century, he explains, Americans relied primarily on common sense and time-honored traditions to navigate their lives. Public education brought with it a move toward consensus building and adulation of brains and education as a superior route to success. In time, this shift away from tradition resulted in a sense of alienation between the average person and the power elite.
Harris cites colonial America to provide insight into our current dilemma and serve as a valuable source of inspiration to get us back on track. He describes the early colonists as “natural libertarians,” with their unique circumstances as creatures of the New World. The colonists had escaped the despotism and oppression of the Old World and came to America in search of liberty and control of their own destinies. They embraced the “cosmic script” of the Old Testament story of Exodus in which Jews escaped bondage and entered the Promised Land. The great challenges the colonists endured in the New World demanded independence and self-sufficiency. A seemingly endless frontier enabled them to fashion communities according to their needs and aspirations or move on to greener pastures when intrusive authorities usurped their freedom.
The author points out that the early Americans left behind sharp class distinctions in the Old World which held people in predetermined places in society and required deference to the rich as their “betters.” In the New World of the rugged individualist and self-made man, everyone was on equal footing. Everyone had the potential for upward mobility through the fruits of their own labor. Unlike those today who rely on government entitlements and carry a victim mentality, the settlers were fiercely independent and their communities egalitarian. They freely reached out to lend a hand to neighbors knowing their neighbors would reciprocate in times of need. This “no strings attached” charitable cooperation within frontier communities contributed to preservation of individual freedom because assistance was freely given and the settlers were not dependent on government largess.
Harris recounts how during the 1760s and 1770s when the American Sons of Liberty felt their freedom was threatened by the British Empire, they engaged in active rebellion, including violence, sabotage, and other acts of lawlessness. By comparison, today’s town hall protests and spirited Tea Party movement rallies look tame. Resentment of the Crown’s unrestrained power of taxation and control reached the breaking point with passage of the Stamp Tax Act by the British Parliament in 1765. The tumult that followed made collection of the tax impossible and marked the beginning of significant revolutionary activity in the colonies. The success of the Stamp Act protests proved critical in mobilizing the colonists. It demonstrated to them that extreme action and breaking the law were necessary in their pursuit to regain liberty. The revolt against the Stamp Tax Act spurred the momentum for the American Revolution, which led to a new era of freedom for Americans, removed from the yoke of the British Empire.
Next, the Founding Fathers, in devising the basis for our constitutional republic, analyzed aspects of government that had worked in the past to determine what would most likely be workable for an emerging American nation. Their approach to maintaining order was experimental, relying heavily on traditions as well as innovative solutions to the unique circumstances of the country. Punishments or consequences were applied fairly and equally, fostering trust in the government and a sense of justice about the law of the land.
Harris also discusses the delicate balance between effective governance and liberty. He cautions that civilization comes at the price of liberty. Sufficient governmental controls are critical to protect and defend liberty, but too much government can crush the spirit of independence required for a flourishing free society. Harris urges that a healthy dose of skepticism and periodic rebellion by the electorate are required to preserve freedom and, thus, human dignity. He wisely intones, “Civilization can pose a threat to freedom but freedom can pose a threat to civilization.”
In other words, some order and stability is necessary to safeguard freedom as boundless freedom can induce chaos. The rule of law needs to be respected but not if it runs contrary to the higher value of basic human rights.
Harris recognizes the importance of the “natural libertarians” that make up the Tea Party movement; they are part of the essential struggle to maintain liberty. The ornery libertarian spirit that questions the power elite from a common sense viewpoint and examines the practicality, efficacy, and fairness of high-minded theories and policies is an essential ingredient to preserve freedom. Their orneriness emanates from a rebellion against being told what to do — a “don’t tread on me” credo. This is the very same “cognitive orneriness” and independent spirit in evidence at our nation’s founding and our rebellion against domination by a ruling class.
Harris sees the threat to liberty today as not emanating from Marxism, the essential focus of Tea Party activists, but from prosperous modern civilizations supported by cumbersome government bureaucracies, corporations, and media and from our failure to cherish freedom. He reasons that if we cared enough about freedom and less about material comforts, Marxist policies opposed by the majority of Americans would not be imposed upon us. The supremacy of the state as a vehicle to improve the lives of citizens has become a betrayal of American founding principles of individual liberty and traditions of self-sufficiency, hard work, and self-governance.
Harris proposes that a turnaround for future generations begins with our children. Rather than raise them with a sense of entitlement in which the struggle for their rights is paramount, we need to raise them with a sense of duty and responsibility. They need to be taught self-control that is essential for preservation of freedom and to admire and emulate the heroes throughout our history who fought for freedom.
Our proud history is one of rowdy rugged individualists, not the well-bred, educated elite who have strayed from our founding principles. The power of the electorate to rise up against the tyranny of unlimited government rests in the people’s willingness to fight. In summary, Harris views the rebellion in evidence today as a healthy sign that will bring us full circle to the courageous and just use of civil unrest that was very much in evidence at our nation’s founding. Only by recapturing our revolutionary spirit and demanding control of our lives and destiny will we survive as a free and exceptional nation.