Green Room

Conservatives and Woodrow Wilson

posted at 1:40 pm on May 10, 2010 by

A full-fledged review of John Milton Cooper Jr.’s biography of Woodrow Wilson will have to be attempted somewhere else.  Anyone in conservative circles hoping to get a word in edgewise on the nation’s 28th President first has to contend with sentiments along the following lines:

Does anyone really think Wilson wouldn’t have been pretty sympathetic toward the Nazis? I think he would have considered Hitler’s dedication to eugenics an admirable goal.

[A]ny fair minded person of good moral standing would clearly see [Wilson] as an evil individual.

Woodrow Wilson was a slimy, racist, conspiratorial, arrogant rat bastard every day he drew breath….

I hate him. He was the biggest racist. He set this country back decades in race relations.

If you’re bound and determined to defend the most tyrannical fascistic president in history, go f**k yourself.

The above selection comes from threads at HotAir and Zombie Contentions, and also at a Baltimore Sun on-line column covering Glenn Beck at CPAC this year.  Beck has played a central role in popularizing such views, as his anti-progressive campaign frequently centers on Wilson, for whom Beck proudly declares his hatred – “with all [his] heart.”  In this cause Jonah Goldberg remains a stalwart ally, if a somewhat more restrained one – he merely calls Wilson a fascist.  Other well-known anti-Wilson conservatives include George Will and the American Conservative Union’s David Keene, the latter having revealed during his introduction of Beck’s CPAC speech that his own Wilson animus goes back decades – to a college essay describing Wilson as “one of the three most dangerous people of the 20th century,” the other two being Lenin and Hitler.

Main elements of this conservative attack on Wilson actually are familiar from the works of his leftwing critics, but that’s not the only reason I mistrust it.  Some of the anger, especially from the commenters, is probably by proxy: It’s more acceptable to declare one’s passionate hatred for long dead enemies than for living opponents (though the former often leads to the latter).  Yet even if I didn’t find the emotionalism of some of this stuff, 100 years after the facts, a little odd (though Will’s critique is odd in a different way), I would still find it difficult to reject Wilson or any other important American president so completely.  It’s the kind of stance that I would associate with revolutionaries and other pitiless radicals:  The full-throated rejection of a critical moment in American history as an excuse to reject America itself.

Not that the Wilson haters don’t have any point at all.  They simply lack any sense of balance or historical perspective. In contrast to the ideologues, Cooper can fault Wilson for his negligence on racial matters, for example, but is also able to conclude that “Wilson essentially resembled the great majority of white northerners of this time in ignoring racial problems and wishing they would go away.” Wilson didn’t impose uniquely noxious ideas on an American racial idyll.  He presided during the era of Plessy vs Ferguson (1896) – separate but equal.  As the historian Samuel P. Hays explains in his standard work on Wilson’s era, the times were typified by a “general notion that Americans, as part of the Anglo-Saxon peoples of northern Europe, were racially superior.”  Belief in the “Manifest Destiny of the White Race” informed attitudes across the cultural mainstream, and affected policy across a range of issues.

It should therefore be unsurprising to Wilson critics, on all sides, that the Wilson Administration’s widely condemned segregation of the federal workplace was initiated under prior presidents, and was expanded under Wilson’s successors.  Conservatives in particular should bear in mind that the search for a greatly different early 20th Century American racial sensibility won’t often lead them to Wilson’s right.

If some conservatives have adopted a familiarly leftwing attack on Wilson, many more seem to be depending on Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, the 2008 conservative bestseller that I have written on previously, focusing on the author’s provocative claim that Wilson’s wartime government was the world’s “first fascist regime.”  As I stated in the linked piece, I find it rather obscene for Goldberg to associate Wilson, a deeply reluctant warrior who quite literally nearly killed himself campaigning for a peace organization, with modern history’s worst warmongers.

But Goldberg’s case for the historical prosecution focuses less on the war as fought than on the war at home – domestic security policies that, as Cooper acknowledges, entailed “egregious violations” of civil liberties.  Goldberg’s charge of fascism is much stronger than Cooper’s charge of mere “violations,” however, and demands stronger support.  To that end Goldberg produces an impressive, frequently quoted figure of 175,000 Americans arrested “for insufficient patriotism.”  Yet this vague definition appears to be Goldberg’s alone, and he doesn’t reveal where his number comes from.  Other sources tally around 2,000 arrested, 1,000 convicted under the federal Espionage and Sedition Acts, so Goldberg’s figure, assuming it has a firm basis, must include offenses prosecuted under other laws, perhaps at the local level or even overseas within the military.

In sorting this all out, it might be helpful to work from some numbers that unlike Goldberg’s are very hard and very precise:  48-26 and 293-1 – the votes by which the Senate and the House passed the Sedition Act in 1918.  Vote totals on the earlier Espionage Act are unavailable – because it passed by acclamation, reflecting overwhelming support two months after the Declaration of War with Germany, which had passed 82-6, and 373-50.  In other words, Wilson rode – and in some respects was overcome by – a wave of patriotism and war fever.  Cooper and other historians also note that Wilson supported the acts to compromise with those demanding more aggressive measures, and to prevent and pre-empt much harsher “extra-judicial” treatment of dissenters and German-Americans.

As with racial matters, harshly judging Wilson and his contemporaries (i.e., our forefathers) for such actions requires us to impose present-day sensitivities on the past.  It’s also worth recalling that revolution really was in the air in those years.  One great nation had fully succumbed to revolution, and others were undergoing revolutionary turmoil.  In America, the assassination of President McKinley, by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, was well within living memory.  In the period of 1917-1920, radical agitation led to wildcat and general strikes as well as acts of outright sabotage, especially in the western U.S.  Mail bombs were sent to various officials, including Wilson’s Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, known for the subsequent Palmer Raids and Red Scare.  On the narrow question of personal culpability, it should be noted that Wilson was the bedridden victim of a debilitating stroke and other serious illness at the time:  Cooper concludes that Wilson “knew nothing about the central role [Palmer] was playing in those events.”

One quick word on Eugenics, another feature of the age that some wish to lay at Wilson’s door: Cooper never notes much interest in the subject on Wilson’s part.  The case for hatred seems to rest on guilt by sympathetic association with certain Progressives; de-contextualized statements on race (see above) ominously linked to Hitlerism; and a bill that Wilson signed into law as governor of New Jersey, with provisions on the sterilization of the profoundly mentally ill – similar to laws in 30 other states at the time.

Against such weakly founded or heavily mitigated indictments, Wilson’s accomplishments stand among the most consequential of any American figure:  His books and essays, especially Congressional Government, were important in their own right, and are still read with profit today.  His “New Freedom” legislation established the Federal Reserve System, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and the Federal Trade Commission.  He was central to the negotiations that ended World War I, and, though the nation rejected his League of Nations proposal, he led the United States onto the world stage as a major power, with a unique mission – not to construct an empire, but to foster trade, development, and popular freedom and self-determination among nations.

From income taxes to Mother’s Day, from child labor restrictions to saving football (Wilson was a lifelong fan, and a defender of the new sport against attempts to ban it), we could expand our view of Wilson’s influence virtually at will – especially if, as the Wilsonhitlerists seem to prefer, we credit him with or blame him for the entirety of what Hays calls the Populist-Progressive Era.  At some point in this process, modern America would begin to look like an inheritance directly from Woodrow Wilson, passed down to us by those who followed in his footsteps – with the men who founded the country looking like distant ancestors on the family tree, necessary to our existence, but not very relevant to it.

Regardless of where that argument might lead, I wouldn’t want to be the one to make it:  I don’t see how it can ever be a conservative project to tear the nation or its history – the two ought to be inseparable – to pieces.  Isn’t that what radical constitutionalists accuse Wilson of attempting?

How, when, and where to reverse or re-conceive  elements of Wilson’s legacy, what he got wrong or what the rest of us helped make wrong, would be something very different – as would any attempt simply to assess Wilson fairly.  Those are tasks for people willing to grasp the whole story, and to proceed with care.

cross-adapted from Zombie Contentions

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zzzzzzzzz….

Ragspierre on May 10, 2010 at 2:07 PM

So that was how many words for “Really guys, Wilson wasn’t that bad?”

TheUnrepentantGeek on May 10, 2010 at 2:19 PM

beck was saying he did not approve of Mothers Day since Wilson signed it into law, this was on Imus, hopefully he was being facetious…I dont care who signed it, Moms deserve a day of thanks..every day :0)

ginaswo on May 10, 2010 at 2:21 PM

My problem with guys like Beck making statements like “I hate this guy”, “He was such a vile racist”, etc. is that only a miniscule amount of viewers will go about reading up on Wilson to get an idea of the viability of his statements.

Many will simply parrot his views on Wilson and inject such into their current viewpoints and ideology.

Beck is to Wilson as the Left is to Bush. Yes, he asks viewers to read up on Wilson, but few will and the sources he will suggest to read are anti-Wilson tomes anyway.

Do I think Wilson was as bad a President as Beck does? No.

But Wilson did some damage for sure.

Balance, my friends, balance.

Opposite Day on May 10, 2010 at 2:30 PM

Does the book cover his blessing of the American Protective League as they rounded up thousands of citizens and detained them without charges for reasons including speaking out against WW1?

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 3:00 PM

One quick word on Eugenics, another feature of the age that some wish to lay at Wilson’s door: Cooper never notes much interest in the subject on Wilson’s part. The case for hatred seems to rest on guilt by sympathetic association with certain Progressives; de-contextualized statements on race (see above) ominously linked to Hitlerism; and a bill that Wilson signed into law as governor of New Jersey, with provisions on the sterilization of the profoundly mentally ill – similar to laws in 30 other states at the time.

I’ve spoken many times about compulsory sterilization in the early part of the last century, and its link to Margaret Sanger and the abortion movement. Are you arguing that because states had these laws, that they were right? Eugenics swept nations that were looking at fascism in a very good light, including England and Germany. I understand your reminder that these were different times, but that doesn’t mean it was any less monstrous. The lessons of eugenics took only twenty years to show the eventuality of its mindset. We made mistakes, and we must not repeat them…and it is sheer foolishness to admonish others for reminding us of those mistakes and their impact.

Just because times have changed doesn’t mean the idiocy we practiced back then is somehow more understandable. That kind of thinking gets people eventually saying “you know, maybe that whole holocaust thing was kind of overblown…have you read this book about the Jews controlling the gold supply and running the planet?”

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 3:08 PM

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 3:00 PM

Aside from covering the war fever and hyper-patriotism discussed in the post, and the very different general attitudes of the day toward dissent and law enforcement (e.g., 50 years pre-Miranda), Cooper faults Wilson specifically for a general lack of involvement with domestic affairs and for over-delegation of responsibility during the war – partly an aspect of Wilson’s governing philosophy and style; partly a result of exhaustion and possibly symptomatic of his eventual physical and mental breakdown; partly a result of his being overseas for months during peace negotiations, the longest span outside the country by far of any American president.

As for Wilson’s supposed “blessing” of the American Protective League, and the specifics of the APL’s actions, what are you basing the charge on – and how does it apply to Wilson specifically and uniquely? To me, the APL may suggest the existence of a fascist or crypto-fascist strain in American politics and culture of that time (and not only that time).

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 3:22 PM

I’m not a Wilson hater, but there seems to be alot of moral relativism in this post. i.e. “Hey, everyone else at the time was for the forced sterilization of the mentally ill, so it can’t really be held against him.”

Abby Adams on May 10, 2010 at 3:22 PM

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 3:22 PM

On books I’ve read about the APL’s activities and status within the Wilson administration. You make a very good point in bringing up his hands-off approach to domestic affairs, but with the APL, it was even more of a disgrace. Thomas Gregory was not only appointed to US Attorney by Wilson, but Wilson actually tried to put him on the Supreme Court, even after Gregory had already created controversy by authoring the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Eventually, after a lynching here and there, and thousands of illegal imprisonments, Wilson voiced his concern to Gregory…and did absolutely nothing about it.

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Abby Adams on May 10, 2010 at 3:22 PM

Absolutely there’s moral relativism in the post. You can’t function in the real world without it, as far as I can tell.

Specifically, I absolutely consider a wide acceptance of something like forced sterilization of the mentally ill to be somewhat mitigating for Wilson – just as I don’t think it’s helpful to condemn the Founders for acquiescing in the South’s maintenance of its peculiar institution, to condemn Lincoln for his racist views and statements, or to reject morally all of American history because it happened to entail what you might call some unwanted inconveniences for the natives.

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 3:35 PM

even after Gregory had already created controversy by authoring the Espionage and Sedition Acts.

There certainly was criticism of the E&S acts, but, as stated, they were overwhelmingly popular, and there was constant and significant pressure to go much further – to yield more prosecutions and arrests, to curtail more anti-war agitation, etc. In that sense, referring to “controversy” as though it was one-sided against seems to distort the tenor of the times. Even without Gregory on the Court, the Acts overcame constitutional challenges, twice – though Wilson’s appointee Brandeis strongly dissented at one point.

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 3:42 PM

Absolutely there’s moral relativism in the post. You can’t function in the real world without it, as far as I can tell.

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 3:35 PM

A. I disagree.

B. That remark is going to haunt you forever, my friend.

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 3:49 PM

B. That remark is going to haunt you forever, my friend.

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 3:49 PM

IMO, relativism is inevitable and thoroughly justifiable – morally essential – in day-to-day life among all imperfect people dealing with other imperfect people, but especially whenever we’re tempted to impose our standards and sensitivities on another time and place.

Judgment ain’t thine.

Though maybe we define the terms differently.

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 4:12 PM

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 3:35 PM

Like, MC, I disagree as well. To me, it’s never wrong to do the right thing.

But I guess if you want to call, for example, the stoning of women in some countries “acceptable” just because it is a commonly held belief, and occasionally carried out, and a part of that culture (I mean, who are we to judge, right?), then go right ahead. Or for a less hyperbolic example… what about regular domestic abuse? It used to be fairly commonly accepted. Does that make it okay? Slavery is wrong now. It was wrong then. Racism is wrong now. It was wrong then. Forced sterilization is wrong now. It was wrong then.

Maybe you can’t “function in the real world without it”, but really, I think you mean you can’t “live comfortably in the real world, turning a blind eye to evils” without it. Sometimes doing the right thing means leaving the comfort zone.

Abby Adams on May 10, 2010 at 4:19 PM

IMO, relativism is inevitable and thoroughly justifiable – morally essential – in day-to-day life among all imperfect people dealing with other imperfect people, but especially whenever we’re tempted to impose our standards and sensitivities on another time and place.

Judgment ain’t thine.

Though maybe we define the terms differently.

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 4:12 PM

Relativism is the scourge that civilized people find themselves struggling with. The key is overcoming it by sticking to principles in the face of unpopularity.

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 4:26 PM

Abby Adams on May 10, 2010 at 4:19 PM

I think we’re talking about two different things. We might all agree that stealing is wrong, but we judge a professional thief much more harshly than a starving man stealing a crust of bread – or a man brought up in a society without private property. Clearly, we apply different standards to different situations. We could go on listing examples all day long – from the slaving pederasts who gave birth to Western philosophy and culture to the water-boarders who may have saved hundreds or thousands of lives.

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 4:34 PM

Relativism is the scourge that civilized people find themselves struggling with.

Without relativism in the broad sense civilization is impossible. It’s not a “scourge” – it’s a necessary condition, virtually definitional.

The key is overcoming it by sticking to principles in the face of unpopularity.

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 4:26 PM

“Failing to anticipate MadisonConservative’s principles” is rather a different charge from “American Hitler!”

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 4:41 PM

In the standard work on Wilson’s era that I mentioned, the author happens to address this issue directly. I hesitated to quote it because 1) I didn’t want to bore the Nick-Kids already falling asleep, 2) because the author was mainly anticipating leftist critics who make a sport of denouncing our forebears for their racism/classism/sexism/etc-ism, and 3) because his language is a bit odd (it’s one of the few places in the book that Hays injects his own opinions). He describes “historical nonresponses” to a range of issues, then says:

We often find that Americans of the past did not share our interest in such matters and were unaware of their implications. One is then tempted to believe that those in the past “ought” to have been as alert as we to the problems identified in later years, and, therefore, to raise questions as to why they were not. Or again, one may be tempted to exaggerate whatever concern there was in such affairs when it was actually quite limited. Here we view these “nonresponses” … as simply “the way things were,” part of the “meaning of the times,” and take the view that to give too much stress to them distorts the meaning of the past.

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 4:52 PM

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 4:41 PM

Gee, there’s that condescension rearing its ugly head again, undermining the civil discourse you claim to long for.

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 4:55 PM

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 4:55 PM

Seeking offense is in my opinion as destructive to dialogue as, Idunno, civility boundary-testing.

You’re calling me wrong. I’m calling you wrong. That’s a given. There’s an implicit “my understandings are superior to your understandings, hah!” in any such discussion. Back and forth condescension is in that sense inevitable, so can always be detected if you’re of a mind to look for it.

Haven’t you and I been both agreeing and disagreeing with each other long enough to afford a touch of sarcasm here and there?

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 5:06 PM

MadisonConservative on May 10, 2010 at 4:55 PM
CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 5:06 PM

I don’t think CK sounds condescending here. Although we all know that my understandings are superior to the both of yours.

And I think CK we may have been talking past each other. I wasn’t talking about mitigating circumstances (clearly we treat someone who killed another in self defense differently than we do who killed someone in 1st degree murder). I’m talking about identifying an evil (like racism, for instance) and having the power/fortitude to call it what it is. It may not always be the easy way to go about things, but what is wrong is wrong, and what is right is right. We shouldn’t tolerate evil because it happens to be the prevailing ideology of the time.

Abby Adams on May 10, 2010 at 5:23 PM

Abby Adams on May 10, 2010 at 5:23 PM

Specifically/especially when there are other voices calling out in the darkness striving for what is right. Should we give Lincoln a pass on his racist views? There were plenty of abolitionists, etc. who vehemently opposed racism. Should we give a pass to Bull Conner for his racist views? There were plenty of civil rights proponents who vehemently opposed racism.

It’s one thing if the whole world is in the dark about something, but in these cases, there were some people with the courage to stand up for what is/was right, and they should have been joined by one and all.

Should we forgive Jefferson for owning slaves? Why? John Adams (and Abigail 😉 for that matter) were outspoken critics of it. So it’s clear that Jefferson knew that it was wrong (even from his own writings, we know that he was uneasy with it). So why should we forgive Jefferson for doing what was easy rather than what was right? Just because everyone else was doing it?

The whole, “who are we to judge” attitude leads us down a very dark path, but unlike what MC said earlier, if we stick with it, it won’t just haunt you forever, it will haunt our entire civilization forever. Until “our civilization” is no more.

Abby Adams on May 10, 2010 at 5:35 PM

As I stated in the linked piece, I find it rather obscene for Goldberg to associate Wilson, a deeply reluctant warrior who quite literally nearly killed himself campaigning for a peace organization, with modern history’s worst warmongers.

The UN is a “peace organization” and, to borrow from STAR WARS, “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany.”

Disturb the Universe on May 10, 2010 at 5:49 PM

There were plenty of abolitionists, etc. who vehemently opposed racism.

Plenty? If you mean “opposed notions of inherent white superiority” or “accepted intermarriage,” I don’t know about that.

Others would say, and I think rightly, that presuming to judge also can lead in a very ugly direction.

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 6:15 PM

Absolutely there’s moral relativism in the post. You can’t function in the real world without it, as far as I can tell.

This statement is interesting, because it sets the stage later on in a person’s life for all kinds of compromises when ‘the situation calls for it’ or ‘for the greater good’, or any number of inane assertions that have arisen in philosophical and culture-development circles over the past few thousand years.

You’ve officially hit the ‘intellectuals’ point, I think. Good luck with that.

KinleyArdal on May 10, 2010 at 6:15 PM

Ah CK, you’re not a monster. You’re just ahead of the curve.

TheUnrepentantGeek on May 10, 2010 at 6:16 PM

The whole, “who are we to judge” attitude leads us down a very dark path, but unlike what MC said earlier, if we stick with it, it won’t just haunt you forever, it will haunt our entire civilization forever. Until “our civilization” is no more.

Abby Adams on May 10, 2010 at 5:35 PM

*throws hands into the air*

This is the point where you call the field goal “good”, and congratulate the kicker. A really excellent paragraph there

KinleyArdal on May 10, 2010 at 6:17 PM

Others would say, and I think rightly, that presuming to judge also can lead in a very ugly direction.

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 6:15 PM

Oh please. As if everyone didn’t “judge” all day long.

You’re either a liar or you’ve got a mind so open your brain fell out a long time ago.

TheUnrepentantGeek on May 10, 2010 at 6:18 PM

And part of my post got eaten…. that’s pretty weird….

KinleyArdal on May 10, 2010 at 6:18 PM

The UN is a “peace organization” and, to borrow from STAR WARS, “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany.”

Disturb the Universe on May 10, 2010 at 5:49 PM

I had a similar reaction. And let’s not forget who the oh so wonderful activists are who belong to “peace” groups like, say, Not In Our Name .

Buy Danish on May 10, 2010 at 6:23 PM

To further illustrate my point, meet C. Clark Kissinger.

Buy Danish on May 10, 2010 at 6:26 PM

His “New Freedom” legislation established the Federal Reserve System, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and the Federal Trade Commission.

Junk, junk, junk.

AshleyTKing on May 10, 2010 at 11:22 PM

AshleyTKing on May 10, 2010 at 11:22 PM

The comment makes me wonder whether the commenter has any idea why the legislation, the Federal Reserve System in particular, was passed – the problems it addressed, the purposes it was meant to serve, its functions up to the present day.

CK MacLeod on May 11, 2010 at 2:23 AM

Wilson accomplished what Marx couldn’t,… until now. His policies started this nation on a path of taking God out of man.

http://biggovernment.com/asnyder/2010/05/09/the-american-watershed/

snuff on May 11, 2010 at 7:18 AM

I think CK Mac (that’s his rapper name) has made a strong point here.

I have to admit, I wanted to like Jonah Goldberg’s book Fascism, but I couldn’t finish it. I kept hoping somewhere Jonah would get to the essential point, what exactly was it about Wilson and the progressives that posed a threat then and poses a threat now? No, not a list of 100 similarities between Hitler and Wilson or whatever. I’d like to learn the essential animating feature of fascism. That takes thought, not a million little facts pasted together like a mosaic.

Affirming the consequent is still a logical error. Just because Hitler ate carrots doesn’t mean if you eat carrots you’re a big Hitler.

Instead of seeking out confirming similarities between Wilson and Hitler — guaranteed to fail and confuse — stick to the essential danger: what is the essential animating principle of fascism? What does it look like? Can it be detected today? I know that Beck and Jonah believe they took that approach, but I’m telling you, my eyes glazed over. They’re both stuck on that flimsy sort of guilt by similarity as argument.

Any book that took a more rigorous approach would make my Amazon wish list.

jeff_from_mpls on May 11, 2010 at 7:22 AM

I don’t think Wilson was one of our greatest Presidents but it was not a disaster and Wilson was not evil.

Takes a pretty warped view to mingle Wilsonian values with fascism.

Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is joke which isn’t taken seriously by anyone outside of the most extreme right.

lexhamfox on May 11, 2010 at 7:59 AM

Affirming the consequent is still a logical error. Just because Hitler ate carrots doesn’t mean if you eat carrots you’re a big Hitler.

jeff_from_mpls on May 11, 2010 at 7:22 AM

Are you trying to say that Bugs Bunny wasn’t Hitler?

Abby Adams on May 11, 2010 at 9:37 AM

Are you trying to say that Bugs Bunny wasn’t Hitler?

Abby Adams on May 11, 2010 at 9:37 AM

Are you saying Hitler had a cotton-tail?

He he.

jeff_from_mpls on May 11, 2010 at 11:27 AM

jeff_from_mpls on May 11, 2010 at 11:27 AM

No, but I’ve always suspected that that mustache was covering up buck teeth.

Abby Adams on May 11, 2010 at 11:38 AM

CK, please explain what you mean by “moral relativism.” Are you denying that objective moral standards exist?

OhioCoastie on May 11, 2010 at 11:54 AM

I think we’re talking about two different things. We might all agree that stealing is wrong, but we judge a professional thief much more harshly than a starving man stealing a crust of bread

CK MacLeod on May 10, 2010 at 4:34 PM

I see people use this kind of example a lot to support moral relativism. It does not support moral relativism.

Both thieves did the wrong thing, and it was equally wrong. There is no moral difference between stealing for this reason and stealing for that reason. Stealing is stealing.

BUT — it DOES make sense to show the latter person mercy because of his motives. It is MERCY that changes WHY one may judge (that is, rule on his acts) differently, not because one act of stealing was more or less moral than the other.

Daggett on May 11, 2010 at 11:55 AM

Are you trying to say that Bugs Bunny wasn’t Hitler?

Abby Adams on May 11, 2010 at 9:37 AM

Nehhhh…what’s up, Mengele?

MadisonConservative on May 11, 2010 at 12:21 PM

Meh.

Those are tasks for people willing to grasp the whole story

Unlikely, if not impossible.

You may not like Goldberg’s examination of Wilson, but, as far as I could tell reading the book, it is a book about fascism. So you can understand why he would highlight what he views of Wilson’s fascist tendencies and overlook his defense of football.

I was unaware that taking a critical and negative look at some of the history of the USA was un-conservative.

Aquateen Hungerforce on May 11, 2010 at 12:42 PM

CK, please explain what you mean by “moral relativism.” Are you denying that objective moral standards exist?

OhioCoastie on May 11, 2010 at 11:54 AM

Of course I am, but I’d ask you to withhold judgment pending the publication of my forthcoming 1200-page treatise “On the Denial of Objectivity, Morality, and Standards.”

Seriously, I was replying to what I understood to be Abby’s criticism and what she meant by “moral relativism.” The crust of bread example may or may not say something about the universality of an objective moral standard on theft. I tend to think it says there isn’t one – Dagget’s objection notwithstanding – but whatever I happen to think about that in the abstract, as a theoretical or philosophical question, shouldn’t affect your ability to reach a fair judgment regarding Wilson’s actions.

If we judge Wilson harshly, by whatever standard, for attitudes and actions that were in fact normal and typical for his era, in some respects for all of American history up to and beyond his era, then eventually we’re left in an untenable position regarding our history and ourselves.

CK MacLeod on May 11, 2010 at 12:47 PM

If we judge Wilson harshly, by whatever standard, for attitudes and actions that were in fact normal and typical for his era, in some respects for all of American history up to and beyond his era, then eventually we’re left in an untenable position regarding our history and ourselves.

CK MacLeod on May 11, 2010 at 12:47 PM

In the year 2000, attitudes and actions were generally that global warming was a fact and a disaster that had to be averted. Are you going to complain if 50-100 years from now, people call Al Gore a fascist for trying to use the state to control people via the argument of global warming?

The “it was different then” argument is largely a canard in all aspects of historical analysis, and citing moral relativism as an excuse undermines all the principles which we hold dear.

In 1930s, my grandfather and four other men went to a “Bund” Rally in Milwaukee to debate with the German-Americans there who were defending the German government’s new leading party. A scuffle broke out…five Irishmen versus dozens of Germans. Guess who got charged? The Irishmen…and then the charges were dropped after they stood up for themselves in court. Well, we now know what that “Bund” organization was.

Just because something wasn’t popular, or was considered a rebellious attitude, doesn’t mean it wasn’t right. Conversely, just because it was popular doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong. The people who have made history have been the rebels.

MadisonConservative on May 11, 2010 at 1:49 PM

Instead of seeking out confirming similarities between Wilson and Hitler — guaranteed to fail and confuse — stick to the essential danger: what is the essential animating principle of fascism? What does it look like? Can it be detected today? I know that Beck and Jonah believe they took that approach, but I’m telling you, my eyes glazed over. They’re both stuck on that flimsy sort of guilt by similarity as argument.

Any book that took a more rigorous approach would make my Amazon wish list.

jeff_from_mpls on May 11, 2010 at 7:22 AM

That investigation has been undertaken quite intensively, and even passionately, but mostly by thinkers associated – mistakenly in some important cases – with the Marxist left. In brief, anti-authoritarian approaches to history and political philosophy whose main purposes, where they originated, included resistance to Marxism without preparing a descent into fascism were turned to opposite purposes and effects when transplanted to American soil, where intellectual authority was constituted differently and had a different genealogy.

In the piece on Liberal Fascism that I linked in the main post, I try to suggest that Goldberg’s error is clear from the beginning in the forced definition of fascism that he announces early on. He explicitly defines fascism in a way that suppresses what makes fascism fascistic. He doesn’t need to offer a definition of “liberal” because his definition of fascism has already been liberalized. Once he’s defined fascism down in that way, he’s able to locate it wherever it suits his purposes, which seem to turn into “doing to liberals what liberals have been doing to conservatives.” Some see that as fair play, but it still rests on distortions and over-simplifications, and inevitably leads to bad results.

CK MacLeod on May 11, 2010 at 2:25 PM

Are you going to complain if 50-100 years from now, people call Al Gore a fascist for trying to use the state to control people via the argument of global warming?

Probably not, because I probably won’t be around. If I happen to be, I would likely tell people that “using the state to control people” isn’t fascism, but statism. They tend to overlap, but you can conceive of statisms that aren’t fascisms. Contemporary Euro-socialism is highly statist, for instance, but not very fascistic. Divorcing fascism from militarism, nationalism, racism, the glorification of violence and war, and the ideology of the exceptional leader is to divorce fascism from what sets it apart historically.

You assert that “it was different then” is a canard. I assert that “it was different then” is the beginning point of history, and that “it was the same then” is an absurdity. If “then” is the same as “now,” then then isn’t then anymore. Finding where “it was different, but the same,” to close the distance between “now” and “then,” doesn’t erase the distance.

And just because something is rebellious doesn’t make it “right” either. Some rebels anticipate or create the changes that history records, but acknowledging those changes presumes the difference between “now” and “then.”

I’ll take the Burkean position that circumstances determine whether a particular political scheme – carbon restrictions or dictatorship or government aid to the poor or majority rule or representative republican democracy – is “noxious or beneficial.” For instance, most of us accept that dictatorship is perfectly acceptable in, say, a military operation. You don’t have the soldiers voting on whether or not to follow their orders, not if you’re interested in winning.

If you believed the global warming alarmist case in full – if you thought Al Gore was guilty of soft-selling it – then you might conclude that the worldwide emergency required suspension of democracy, as the equivalent of a military emergency.

Normally, you would consider it morally unjustifiable for the government to send armed men to your house to drag you away for “insufficient patriotism,” and putting you under the command of people empowered to determine where and when and how you would conduct yourself up to and including your violent death. If the barbarian hordes were assembling outside Madison and the authorities were struggling to mount a defense, you might feel different – you might even be one of the armed men dragging shirkers and malcontents off to do their required service.

I don’t know you personally. For all I know you’re a radical libertarian or a pacifist anarchist who believes that organized warfare is always wrong – and would rather die than kill. Regardless of your personal creed, we generally have accepted a state powerful enough to make those decisions, if necessary to suspend virtually every one of the Bill of Rights, for the sake of its own survival. Lincoln pretty much established that one, and we’ve built monuments to him. Most participants at HotAir are quite ready to entertain all sorts of suspensions of comforting moral and even constitutional standards to win whatever war. Most (not all) ardent anti-statists on the conservative side seem comfortable with a standing army and all of its massive domestic and foreign support structure – state within the state and potentially beyond the state that many of the Founders and Framers would have been appalled by.

Circumstances and events.

CK MacLeod on May 11, 2010 at 3:22 PM

Both thieves did the wrong thing, and it was equally wrong. There is no moral difference between stealing for this reason and stealing for that reason. Stealing is stealing.

BUT — it DOES make sense to show the latter person mercy because of his motives. It is MERCY that changes WHY one may judge (that is, rule on his acts) differently, not because one act of stealing was more or less moral than the other.

Daggett on May 11, 2010 at 11:55 AM

Well yes. But such nuance continues to elude the likes of CK et al. For one quite specific reason.

Just because something wasn’t popular, or was considered a rebellious attitude, doesn’t mean it wasn’t right. Conversely, just because it was popular doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong. The people who have made history have been the rebels.

MadisonConservative on May 11, 2010 at 1:49 PM

How do you construct right and wrong MadCon? I’m willing to bet that CK’s answer differs radically from yours (and likely most actual conservatives).

TheUnrepentantGeek on May 11, 2010 at 4:28 PM

Obviously, CKM, you aren’t familiar with the photo archive maintained by the Illuminati (and funded by the Trilateral Commission, with some Bilderbergers in there somewhere), in which Wilson is seen on a number of occasions with sinister-looking Roman fasces hoisted behind him.

It’s important to recognize that the emotional freight of the word “fascism” is something we lay on ourselves. Technically, the fascism developed by Mussolini had key elements in common with Wilson’s penchant for favoring interventionist, regulatory government. Both operated from the basic idea that the state needed to order much of business and daily life in order to secure desirable outcomes. Wilson’s focus did NOT have the militarism and quasi-eschatological nationalism of Musso’s fascism; it was much more “American” in that regard, which I would say was due partly to Wilson’s own background and temperament, and partly to the historical/geographical accident of America’s situation.

Of course it’s extreme and intemperate for people (including Beck) to proclaim that they hate Wilson, despise Wilson, Wilson was the devil incarnate, yada yada yada. That doesn’t invalidate comparisons of Wilson’s policy tendencies and policy record with the principles of fascism. Nor is it a more correct perspective to equate “fascism” with “Hitlerian Nazism,” as people sloppily do today, and argue that because Wilson was nothing like Adolf Hitler, that means he had nothing in common with the element of fascism that emphasized transformation of society and the future through bigger, “improved” government.

Distinguishing fascism from statism requires care, because fascism largely overlaps with statism. Statism is the more basic form, and is common to all of fascism, communism, socialism, national socialism, and American Progressivism. In that sense it’s much like “collectivism,” which is also a more basic, common element.

Anyone who wants to coerce the people, with a view to transforming their estate, and producing specific outcomes, is a statist. Thinking of the state in that light, as an agent of transformation rather than a utility of human life, is statism. Most people, in most times and places, have been afflicted with it; it just wasn’t always called that.

Probably the major objection I’ve had to Jonah Goldberg’s thesis in Liberal Fascism is the choice of the term “fascism.” This is not because it’s too tendentious a term to use, or because American leftists have had nothing in common with the fascists — literal fascists; Mussolini and his disciples — but because fascism proper carries the strong element of militaristic, transformative nationalism I referred to earlier. That element is not characteristic at all, really, of Goldberg’s “liberal fascists”: the statist leftists of the European and American West.

But Goldberg still does a service in identifying the common threads in all the movements of the left over the last century-plus. There is a cadre of legacy conservatives that has been familiar with that commonality for decades, from long before Goldberg’s book made the best-seller list. It’s neither new nor out in left field to identify the significant overlaps. (It is dismissible to imagine, as some do, that all these leftist movements must be in cahoots in a gigantic conspiracy. Humans just aren’t that good — that clever or monolithically effective.)

How one feels about it all boils down, I think, to one’s basic view of law and government. Those who favor the “negative” interpretation of law — as something that can punish and deter, but cannot transform the human condition for the better — prefer limited government. Those who believe in “positive” law — law that can transform and make human society “better” (however that’s defined) — are prepared to accept more government.

To the former people, Wilson looks like he places too much faith in the morally transformative agency of government, which puts him in the same category as anyone else who does, from fascist to Maoist commnunist. To the latter people, Wilson occupies the territory of peaceful incrementalism in terms of what government should/could be doing anyway. The quarrel here, in my view, is really about this central point: the nature of law and regulation, and the proper relation between man and the state.

J.E. Dyer on May 11, 2010 at 4:29 PM

How do you construct right and wrong MadCon? I’m willing to bet that CK’s answer differs radically from yours (and likely most actual conservatives).

TheUnrepentantGeek on May 11, 2010 at 4:28 PM

I look at whether an action by a group is meant to deprive another group, who means them no harm, of their rights, or even their very existence.

Eugenics was an example of this. It was a case of elitists employing pseudoscience and incorporating it into social science such that they could cut down on the number of people dividing up the resources that the elitists coveted. Sterilization and abortion…two priceless tools used to stem the breeding of the masses so that they could ensure that they could wallow in all the resources they could grab.

It’s really not as conspiratorial or even sinister as it sounds. That’s what environmentalists have been trying to do for decades. They really talked a lot about “population control” in the seventies until the news started reporting how population control had worked out in countries like China and Cambodia. They’ve been veiling their rhetoric ever since, but they slip up from time to time. Ted Turner has been slipping up more lately.

MadisonConservative on May 11, 2010 at 4:52 PM

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