Ed Driscoll

The Regulated States of America

In the Wall Street Journal, Niall Ferguson takes on the complexity creeps:

In “Democracy in America,” published in 1833, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the way Americans preferred voluntary association to government regulation. “The inhabitant of the United States,” he wrote, “has only a defiant and restive regard for social authority and he appeals to it . . . only when he cannot do without it.”

Unlike Frenchmen, he continued, who instinctively looked to the state to provide economic and social order, Americans relied on their own efforts. “In the United States, they associate for the goals of public security, of commerce and industry, of morality and religion. There is nothing the human will despairs of attaining by the free action of the collective power of individuals.”

What especially amazed Tocqueville was the sheer range of nongovernmental organizations Americans formed: “Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations . . . but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fetes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.”

Tocqueville would not recognize America today. Indeed, so completely has associational life collapsed, and so enormously has the state grown, that he would be forced to conclude that, at some point between 1833 and 2013, France must have conquered the United States.

I would say Weimar-era Germany, but point taken. As Alan Bloom wrote a quarter century ago, in The Closing of the American Mind:

A few years ago I chatted with a taxi driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily he had undergone “therapy.” I asked him what kind. He responded, “All kinds— depth-psychology, transactional analysis, but what I liked best was Gestalt.” Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-class talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with any original sin or devils in him. We have here the peculiarly American way digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.

This popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.

Of course, as Mark Steyn noted at the start of the month in his “Happy Warrior” column at National Review, Ferguson didn’t exactly fight back himself when attacked by 21st century leftwing overreach:

The other day, Niall Ferguson, a celebrity historian at Harvard, was at an “investors’ conference,” the kind of speaking gig he plays a lot of: You get a ton of money to go see a small number of extremely rich people and tell them something provocative — but not too provocative. So, at this conference of money guys in Carlsbad, somebody brings up the best-known quote from the most influential economist of our age — John Maynard Keynes’s line that “in the long run we are all dead” — and Ferguson responds to the effect that, well, Keynes was a childless homosexual, so he would say that, wouldn’t he? It’s not an original thought: In fact, the only reason I didn’t include it in the passage on Keynes in my book was that I felt it had been done a bazillion times before. But it evidently was so shocking to the California crowd, many of whom undoubtedly have friends who are gay hedge-funders or are thinking of becoming one, that everybody had the vapors about it, and poor old Ferguson found himself instantly transformed from one of Time‘s “100 most influential people in the world” into the Todd Akin of Harvard. “This takes gay-bashing to new heights,” shrieked Tom Kostigen of Financial Advisor, who really needs to get out of the house more.

In the long run, Keynes is dead. So Obama was unable to place a Sandra Fluke/Jason Collins supportive phone call to him. But “the Queen of King’s,” as he was known at Cambridge, would have been amused by his newfound status as America’s most bashed gay. In 1917, in Washington for Anglo-American debt talks, Keynes wrote home to his lover Duncan Grant about what a ghastly place it was: “The only really sympathetic and original thing in America is the niggers, who are charming.”

If I understand the Gay Enforcers’ position correctly, Keynes’s homosexuality is no reflection on his economic theories, but Ferguson’s homophobia most certainly is a reflection on his economic theories, which can now be safely dismissed by all respectable persons. Recognizing the threat to his highly lucrative brand, Professor Ferguson immediately issued an “unqualified apology.” He is married to one of the bravest women on the planet, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has stood firm for a decade against loons who want to kill her as they did her friend Theo van Gogh. Up against a bunch of hysterical ninnies threatening only his speaking fees, Ferguson caved.

More after the page break on the Regulated States of America and how they’re tearing the country apart.

In an essay that dovetails perfectly with both the point of Ferguson’s WSJ column and the left’s attempt to destroy him over his speaking the truth about Keynes — which was conventional wisdom for three quarters of a century, until the left flipped on a dime over Ferguson last month — Sonny Bunch writes that “The Politicized Life Is Destroying Society,” at the Washington Free Beacon:

I bring the politicized life up yet again because I was flabbergasted to read this little essay by Elizabeth Scalia over at First Things. Here are the first two grafs:

I recently received the following message from a stranger: “So basically, the ‘orthodox Catholic’ game you all play is just that . . . a game?” It was in reference to a Catholic man with whom I am friendly, and like very much. She had apparently read on social media that this man was planning to marry another man.

My friend had never “come out” to me, and—call me old-fashioned, or call me incurious—it had never occurred to me to ask, so the wedding plans were mildly surprising. But reading the email I thought, “Yes, so? What does this woman want me to do? Should I now hate him? Am I supposed to ‘un-friend’ him (that ridiculous term) or even publicly denounce him in order to demonstrate sufficiently ‘orthodox’ Catholic bona fides for her satisfaction? Is that what she wants?”

In other words, a woman had taken it upon herself to write up a stranger and demand that she denounce a friend in order to prove her purity. Sans an affirmation of righteousness, how could this poor wretch allow Scalia into her life? How could she enjoy Scalia’s writings on PRISM or pet dogs or Bobby Kennedy if she didn’t first publicly shame this awful gay for getting married?

Are you kidding me? As Rod Dreher, on whose blog I first saw Scalia’s essay, put it:

What a strange culture we live in, in which people are expected to approve of everything those they love believe in and do, or be guilty of betraying that love. I have friends and family whose core beliefs on politics, sexuality, religion, etc., are not the same as my own, and it would not occur to me in the slightest to love them any less because of it. I hope it would not occur to them to love me any less because they don’t agree with me. People are somehow more than the sum of their beliefs and actions.

This is all obviously true. What I find most stunning—I really can’t emphasize this enough—is that our culture has devolved to the point where one person feels comfortable writing another person she does not know in order to inquire if that second person has any intention of denouncing a third person (who the first person, I assume, also does not know).

Regarding Bunch’s WFB column, Kathy Shaidle responds, “If ‘the politicized life is destroying society,’ then good”:

What that Washington Beacon writer (and Rod Dreher by extension) are calling ‘politics’ I’d call ‘principles.’

Irritating, pushy strangers are one thing, but then he switches to talking about the exact opposite:

If a friend or family member doesn’t share most of my core principles… how can I really be ‘friends’ with them or respect them?

We’re all supposed to be so impressed with William F. Buckley because he palled around his Alpine chalet with big shots from the left and the right?

But how seriously am I supposed to take this guy as a “conservative” if some of his close personal friends think, for instance, that abortion is awesome?

The answer is: I can’t.

Buckley started out great but turned into a rich, shallow, status-conscious careerist hack and bully.

I don’t WANT to be around my NDP-voter half-sister who thinks The Simpsons (!) are a symptom of shallow American stupidity and cultural imperialism, or my former best friend who thought America deserved 9/11.

Why? Just because we shared some DNA or a cigarette?

The slogan at David Horowitz’s Front Page Website is that “Inside Every Liberal Is a Totalitarian Screaming to Get Out.” But there are also plenty on the left who are willing to submit quite eagerly to their religion’s myriad catechisms.

In Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg wrote that modern American leftists would be shocked at how religious their late 19th and early 20th century forefathers were; indeed, early progressive and champion of the Social Gospel Washington Gladden dubbed progressivism “Applied Christianity” in 1887. David Gelernter noted in America-Lite that as late as 1941, with America on the brink of entering World War II to fight the Nazis, FDR was comfortable with saying, “Today the whole world is divided between human slavery and human freedom between pagan brutality and the Christian ideal.” But as the American left has become increasingly secular in recent decades, what passes for “liberalism” today is itself a replacement for religion; both the overarching ideology, and its subsets such as environmentalism. On a macro level, this explains why the IRS had no problem attacking conservative Tea Party groups with a fervor Obama would consider repellent on the actual battlefield, and on a micro level, why for many families, the return home for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner becomes a minor war zone in America’s Cold Civil War.

And sadly, with President Obama having gone from God-like savior to being revealed as the corrupt Cook County Machine hack he always was; with ObamaCare set to kick in; with blue regions such as Detroit, Philadelphia and wide swatches of California teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, it’s only going to get uglier.

And just wait for the “fun” of 2016 to start…

Related: “Obama’s Climate of Intimidation:” At the American Spectator, Matthew Sheffield of Newsbusters explains “How Democrats and the president created the IRS scandal — even if they didn’t mean to.”

And don’t miss Jim Geraghty on “Modern America and the Sense that Rules Are for Suckers,” a look at the inevitable flip side of what Ferguson dubbed “The Regulated States of America.”