04/25/16

The End of Democracy in America

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Tocqueville foresaw how it would come.
Myron Magnet
Spring 2016

Alexis de Tocqueville was a more prophetic observer of American democracy than even his most ardent admirers appreciate. True, readers have seen clearly what makes his account of American exceptionalism so luminously accurate, and they have grasped the profundity of his critique of American democracy’s shortcomings. What they have missed is his startling clairvoyance about how democracy in America could evolve into what he called “democratic despotism.” That transformation has been in process for decades now, and reversing it is the principal political challenge of our own moment in history. It is implicitly, and should be explicitly, at the center of our upcoming presidential election.
Readers don’t fully credit Tocqueville with being the seer he was for the same reason that, though volume 1 of Democracy in America set cash registers jingling as merrily as Santa’s sleigh bells at its 1835 publication, volume 2, five years later, met a much cooler reception. The falloff, I think, stems from the author’s failure to make plain a key step in his argument between the two tomes—an omission he righted two decades later with the publication of The Old Regime and the French Revolution in 1856. Reading the two books together makes Tocqueville’s argument—and its urgent timeliness—snap into focus with the clarity of revelation.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville in 1850

Continue reading

02/21/16

Liberty—If You Can Keep It

 

 

Yes, it does demand eternal vigilance.

MYRON MAGNET
Winter 2016
auschwitz

 

The gates of Auschwitz—with their demonic jeer, “Work Makes You Free”—led to history’s vilest demonstration of everything freedom isn’t.

Isn’t a sexual revolution a kind of revolution?” a Soviet dissident, the grandson of one of Stalin’s henchmen, asked me rhetorically in the mid-1970s. Recently released from five years’ Siberian exile, he certainly knew what slavery and tyranny were. But now, he wondered, couldn’t the waning of Russia’s sexual constraints be the harbinger of wider liberty? After all, he asked hopefully, “Isn’t sexual freedom, freedom?”

It didn’t turn out that way. So impoverished was the Soviet empire that it couldn’t give its subjects the bread and circuses that pacified imperial Rome’s populace; so, to the cheap vodka drastically shortening Russian life spans, it added lascivious license. Drunken stupor; moments of voluptuous rapture: that’s escape, not liberty. Continue reading

11/15/15

CITY JOURNAL AT 25, WITH MYRON MAGNET

The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. The table of contents for the twenty-fifth anniversary issue is posted here.

City Journal is a fantastic and fantastically influential quarterly magazine that I have read regularly over the years (subscribe here).To salute the magazine’s milestone, and bring the magazine to the attention of readers who might not be familiar with it, I submitted a set of questions to long-time editor Myron Magnet (now retired) and his current editor Brian Anderson, his successor.

Below is my exchange with Mr. Magnet. Let me say myself right here at the top, it is worth reading.

Power Line: What has City Journal wrought? What do you think have been your biggest accomplishments of the past 25 years?

Myron Magnet: These first two questions are really one, so let me answer them together. First, because of the seriousness of our arguments, and the rigor, intellectual honesty, and talent of our writers, we made conservatism respectable in New York City–Moscow on the Hudson, it used to be called. We were in effect Rudy Giuliani’s ideas factory–he once held up a copy of City Journal during a speech and said, “I don’t know if it’s possible to plagiarize policies, but if it is, then this is where I plagiarize mine from.” And the truth is, that we would make suggestions–about quality-of-life policing, say, or how to deal with the homeless, or how to reform welfare–and, amazingly, he often would try them out. Equally amazing, they would work. So it was very exhilarating to run a quarterly magazine with that kind of influence, and very moving to have played a role in the breathtaking rebirth of New York.

Remember that when we started, New York was crumbling. People and companies were fleeing what they saw as a dying and ungovernable city; Times Square was a monument to degradation and squalor; the parks were dustbowls populated by muggers and dope dealers; the streets and subways swarmed with madmen, sometimes threatening and sometimes merely pitiable; and, with one murder every four hours every day, we all lived in fear, so no one wanted to go out at night to restaurants and theaters, which were withering away. People from out of town, or New Yorkers too young to remember the bad old days of just over two decades ago, see the glittering metropolis of today and have no idea of the immensity of effort it took on the part of so many to create that urban wonderland out of such threat and decay. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the change: The now-trendy Lower East Side, as well as hip Williamsburg (and much of Brooklyn), were abject slums in those days, very squalid and very, very dangerous. On the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, houses and apartments that command millions today sold for under $100,000. No one wanted them.

When the planes hit the towers on 9/11, our Fall issue was just ready to go to the printer. We tore it up and started over, on the view that this was our city and we needed to address the question of how to rebuild it and keep its economy vibrant immediately, so we even got some architect friends of ours to redesign the street grid at the World Trade Center site, and we asked our friend the great Scottish sculptor, Alexander Stoddart, to design a memorial to the victims, infinitely more fitting and moving than the vacuous hole-in-the-ground, void of meaning, that ultimately took form there. We also needed to learn and explain who our enemies were and how to protect ourselves from them, so we were early to examine the nature of Islamism and to understand that, while we must protect the rights of Moslem-Americans, we must carefully screen future Moslem applicants for immigration for Islamist sympathies.

Power Line: Where does City Journal fit in the conservative intellectual universe?

Myron Magnet: Though we are true free marketers, we are not libertarians, because we share the Founding Fathers’ belief that men are reasoning rather than reasonable creatures, with complex motives that ensure that even in business, men don’t always pursue their rational self-interest, and certainly not the long-term rational interest of their city or nation. Though we are full-throated fans of business, we hate crony capitalism, which in our state, with its two legislative leaders currently on trial for bribery and corruption, is a way of life. While we believe in free trade and the free movement of capital, we are more skeptical about the free movement of labor, since we believe that one pair of hands is not interchangeable with another, for those hands are attached to a head, a heart, a skill set, and a culture. Especially now that we have a giant welfare state and little agreement about what kind of culture we’d like immigrants to assimilate to, we’d like to choose our immigrants based on how they and their children can add to the wealth and well-being of the nation, to become creators of prosperity rather than dependents. And since we are not based in Washington, we are willing to examine and question every orthodoxy and consider every new policy idea, whether or not it has a realistic chance of passing into law now. Moreover, some of us belong to the “question authority” generation, and started out to the left of center. So we know that experience has changed our views–which makes us take nothing for granted and question everything, even our own assumptions.

Power Line: I love the magazine’s cultural coverage. Conservatives seem to be on the losing end of the culture wars. What have you sought to do with your cultural coverage?

Myron Magnet: We believe that culture–ideas, beliefs, ideals, loyalties, and mores–shape a nation more powerfully than political or social policies, which are themselves originally shaped by culture. So we have devoted a lot of attention to how to strengthen families, how to raise and educate children to succeed, how sexual mores are changing both for good and for ill. Literature, television, journalism, entertainment, of the past as well as the present–all these are transmitters and shapers of culture, so we examine them seriously, if sometimes a little lightheartedly. And sometimes censoriously: does gangsta rap do anything to uplift the urban underclass, or does it degrade it? We’d prefer a culture that nurtures every imaginable variety of human excellence. That’s what the ideal city, a theater of talent and ambition, is for.
As we are at base an urban-policy magazine, we take very seriously Winston Churchill’s profound observation, which has everything to do with cities: “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” So we are passionate about architecture, resolutely opposed to those modernist and postmodernist starchitects who believe that buildings are machines for living rather than enhancements of humanity. For them, people are interchangeable cogs or ants in an ant colony, not humans with souls.

Our belief in the primacy of culture made us perhaps the first conservative magazine to express deep skepticism of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” in Iraq, much as we supported President Bush and the war. You can’t make democratic republicans out of tribal people with fanatical religious hatreds against one another and the rest of the world. America’s democratic liberty is an immense cultural achievement, centuries in the making.

Power Line: I can’t go without asking about Heather Mac Donald. She has been an inspiration to me and made herself something of a national resource on the subjects she writes about. I’m sure I’m not alone. Can you say anything about Heather’s contributions?

Myron Magnet: When I took the helm of City Journal in 1994, we thought that, to save the city, we’d need to solve all its problems at once: crime, taxation, regulation, education, rent control, and so on. We discovered that, with such a rich inheritance from the past–museums, orchestras, opera companies, theaters, restaurants both fancy and homey, beautiful buildings, global banks, universities–all we needed to do was make people feel safe in the streets, their homes, and their hotels, and tourists would flock in, New Yorkers would go out, and the city would flourish.

Heather made herself City Journal’s–and the nation’s–Number One expert on policing, aside from Bill Bratton, Ray Kelly, and their top deputies. In the early days of the magazine, she was the principal explainer to the public of what Bratton and Giuliani were doing about crime, and enough people found her sufficiently persuasive to support the NYPD, let it do its job (despite constant carping from the academic criminologists and the New York Times), and appreciate the miracle it wrought. Now that police are under attack nationwide and what Heather dubbed the “Ferguson Effect” has made cops back off, with a resultant jump in crime, Heather is once again the nation’s most tireless and persuasive defender of activist policing. She knows everything there is to know about the subject, from how to train cops, deploy them, mange them, and assess their performance, so that they don’t solve crimes after they have occurred but instead prevent crimes from happening in the first place–something no one imagined could be done before City Journal and the Manhattan Institute, its publisher, suggested it could.

In my first years running the magazine, I’d spend hours every week on the phone with Heather, as she’d worry over every detail of her story, to make sure the logic had no holes, the argument was fair, her answers to possible objections persuasive, and so on. These were among the most intellectually stimulating conversations I dare say any editor ever had. And I know that, in addition to her scrupulous intellectual honesty and rigor, her amazing intelligence, her stringent perfectionism, Heather (a lapsed lawyer) is as curious as any scientist and as brave as Hercules, willing to go into any neighborhood in any city, ask any question of anybody, and get answers that illuminate. Intellectually courageous as well, I might add, for when we started, to suggest that criminals, not “society,” were responsible for crime was immediately to be shunned as racist. But of course the greatest beneficiaries of New York’s crime drop are residents of minority communities where crime was worst. Now that residents don’t have to be afraid to let their kids ride bikes outside or go to the corner store for bread, civic life can again flourish there.

Two final points. Heather can write about anything, from “Hip Hop 101″ at a “progressive” NYC public school to affirmative action and its fruits in the universities to classical music. Second, we have been blessed with a brigade of great writers, who made City Journal what it is.

Power Line: What would you like interested readers who are unfamiliar with the magazine to know about it?

Myron Magnet: Take a look at the website here — it’s free and unencumbered by any advertising, and judge for yourselves.

06/13/15

Free Speech in Peril

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Spring 2015

Trigger warning: may offend the illiberal or intolerant

Shut up or die. It’s hard to think of a more frontal assault on the basic values of Western freedom than al-Qaida’s January slaughter of French journalists for publishing cartoons they disliked. I disagree with what you say, and I’ll defend to the death my right to make you stop saying it: the battle cry of neo-medievalism. And it worked. The New York Times, in reporting the Charlie Hebdo massacre, flinched from printing the cartoons. The London Telegraph showed the magazine’s cover but pixelated the image of Muhammad. All honor to the Washington Post and the New York Post for the courage to show, as the latter so often does, the naked truth.

The Paris atrocity ought to make us rethink the harms we ourselves have been inflicting on the freedom to think our own thoughts and say and write them that is a prime glory of our Bill of Rights—and that its author, James Madison, shocked by Virginia’s jailing of Baptist preachers for publishing unorthodox religious views, entered politics to protect. Our First Amendment allows you to say whatever you like, except, a 1942 Supreme Court decision held, “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words—those which by their very utterances inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” though subsequent decisions have allowed obscene and profane speech. A 1992 judgment further refined the “fighting words” exemption, ruling that the First Amendment forbids government from discriminating among the ideas that the fighting words convey, banning anti-Catholic insults, for example, while permitting slurs against anti-Catholics. In other words, government can’t bar what we would now call “hate speech”—speech that will cause “anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.”
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This expansive freedom prevails nowhere else on earth. European countries, and even Canada, have passed hate-speech laws that criminalize casual racial slurs or insults to someone’s sexual habits. An Oxford student spent a night in jail for opining to a policeman that his horse seemed gay. France, which has recently fined citizens for antigay tweets and criminalized calls for jihad as an incitement to violence—a measure that our First Amendment would allow only if the calls presented a “clear and present danger”—also (most improperly) forbids the denial of crimes against humanity, especially the Holocaust. The pope has weighed in as well, with the platitude that no one should insult anyone’s religion—or his mother. Continue reading

02/19/15

What Must We Think About When We Think About Politics?

cj_headerWinter 2015
What Must We Think About When We Think About Politics?
Man is a political animal, but he is much more.
Hobbes
NATIONAL TRUST PHOTO LIBRARY/ART RESOURCE, NY
A headless body in a topless bar would not have surprised political philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

The late political scientist James Q. Wilson used to caution, with his elegant precision, that it’s not enough to have political opinions. You also need facts—which, for him and his brilliant colleagues at The Public Interest of the 1960s and 1970s, meant data. You think this policy will produce that outcome? Okay, try it—and then measure what happens. Did you reduce poverty? Raise test scores? And you had also better comb the data for consequences you neither expected nor intended, for all policies must stand or fall by the totality of their results. Remember, too, Wilson and his colleagues used to insist, that correlation is not causation: if two things alter more or less in tandem, that doesn’t by itself prove that one of the changes produced the other. They may be independent of each other, or some as-yet-unnoticed third force may have sparked both of them. Data don’t speak for themselves but require interpretation—which may or may not be correct. It’s art, not science.

This warning proved a powerful corrective to the liberal ideology about social policy that reigned in the 1960s—pious, unproved platitudes about “root causes” that gave birth to the War on Poverty, whose dire consequences, including an ever-more-deeply entrenched underclass, still bedevil America. But Wilson’s rigor tones up only one of the areas where political thought and discourse tend to be flabby. At least two more elements, well known to political philosophers since antiquity but often ignored today, are essential to intelligent political thinking. You have to have some understanding of psychology—of the minds and hearts that motivate the individuals who are the stuff of politics—and you have to know something about culture, the thick web of beliefs and customs that shape individuals and their social world at least as much as public policies do. Continue reading

12/20/14

How Private Philanthropy Saved the Founders’ Homes

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Autumn 2014

How Private Philanthropy Saved the Founders’ Homes
Mount Vernon and Monticello nearly vanished.

Every day for the last 200 years, boats gliding along the wide Potomac have blown their horns or clanged their bells as they pass Mount Vernon, in festive tribute to the estate’s revered creator, George Washington. The tradition began, legend has it, when Admiral George Cockburn, sailing back from torching the city of Washington in the War of 1812, tolled his flagship’s bell as he passed Mount Vernon in 1814, though whether as a chivalrous salute to the memory of an officer of world-historical genius or as a sarcastic taunt after burning the city that bore the great general’s name legend doesn’t say.

What is certain is that one such foghorn blast on an autumn night in 1853 startled a South Carolina lady returning home by steamer from Philadelphia, and she came up on deck to see what the commotion was about. In the bright moonlight, she saw the cause all too plainly: Mount Vernon—but a Mount Vernon moldering into ruin, its veranda sagging, its untended lawns waist-high. “I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington,” Louisa Cunningham wrote to her daughter. “It does seem such a blot on our country!”

That letter set in motion an extraordinary drama of historical preservation that will seem almost incredible to the 1.1 million visitors each year who see today’s superb Mount Vernon, sparkling with reverent care and bustling not just with tourism but with world-class scholarship. And the same is true of the 440,000 annual visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, also designed, like Mount Vernon, by an amateur-architect Founding Father and embodying in concrete form its builder’s deepest longings and ideals. (See “Monticello’s Shadows,” Autumn 2007.) The home of the author of the Declaration of Independence—perhaps America’s most beautiful house—was once similarly falling into ruin, before being saved in the most unexpected, almost operatic, way and transformed, like Mount Vernon, into one of the nation’s premier private philanthropies.
mount vernon in ruins
It’s sagging porch propped up by poles, Mount Vernon was moldering into ruin before an all-women charity restored its original luster.COURTESY OF THE MOUNT VERNON LADIES’ ASSOCIATION Continue reading

10/18/14

The Last Founding Father

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Books and Culture
MYRON MAGNET
The Last Founding Father
Richard Brookhiser’s new biography of Lincoln is splendid.
17 October 2014

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, RARE BOOK AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS DIVISION, ALFRED WHITAL STERN COLLECTION OF LINCOLNIANA

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, RARE BOOK AND SPECIAL COLLECTIONS DIVISION, ALFRED WHITAL STERN COLLECTION OF LINCOLNIANA

Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Richard Brookhiser (Basic Books, 376 pp., $27.99)

Unlike those mega-biographies that bury their subject’s chief accomplishments under 900 pages of undigested detail, Richard Brookhiser’s compact, profound, and utterly absorbing new life of Abraham Lincoln, Founders’ Son, leaps straight to the heart of the matter. With searchlight intensity, it dazzlingly illuminates the great president’s evolving views of slavery and the extraordinary speeches in which he unfolded that vision, molding the American mind on the central conflict in American history and resolving, at heroic and tragic cost to the nation and himself, the contradiction that the Founding Fathers themselves could not resolve. Continue reading

06/22/14

Liberty or Equality?

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Myron Magnet
Liberty or Equality?
The Founding Fathers knew that you can’t have both.
Spring 2014
With the fulminating on the left about inequality—“Fighting inequality is the mission of our times,” as New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, summed up the theme of his postelection powwow with President Barack Obama—it’s worth pausing to admire anew the very different, and very realistic, modesty underlying Thomas Jefferson’s deathless declaration that all men are created equal. We are equal, he went on to explain, in having the same God-given rights that no one can legitimately take away from us. But Jefferson well knew that one of those rights—to pursue our own happiness in our own way—would yield wildly different outcomes for individuals. Even this most radical of the Founding Fathers knew that the equality of rights on which American independence rests would necessarily lead to inequality of condition. Indeed, he believed that something like an aristocracy would arise—springing from talent and virtue, he ardently hoped, not from inherited wealth or status.

In the greatest of the Federalist Papers, Number 10, James Madison explicitly pointed out the connection between liberty and inequality, and he explained why you can’t have the first without the second. Men formed governments, Madison believed (as did all the Founding Fathers), to safeguard rights that come from nature, not from government—rights to life, to liberty, and to the acquisition and ownership of property. Before we joined forces in society and chose an official cloaked with the authority to wield our collective power to restrain or punish violators of our natural rights, those rights were at constant risk of being trampled by someone stronger than we. Over time, though, those officials’ successors grew autocratic, and their governments overturned the very rights they were supposed to protect, creating a world as arbitrary as the inequality of the state of nature, in which the strongest took whatever he wanted, until someone still stronger came along.

In response, Americans—understanding that “kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people,” as Jefferson snarled—fired their king and created a democratic republic. Under its safeguard of our equal right to liberty, each of us, Madison saw, will employ his different talents, drive, and energy, to follow his own individual dream of happiness, with a wide variety of successes and failures. Most notably, Federalist 10 pointed out, “From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.” That inequality would be a sign of the new nation’s success, not failure. It would mean that people were really free. Continue reading

12/29/06
New York Sun logo

Magnet’s Milestone

Editorial of The New York Sun, December 29, 2006

The year would not be complete if we did not tip our hat to one of the most extraordinary editors in this, or any, town, Myron Magnet. At the end of the year he is stepping down from the editorship of City Journal, which over the past 12 years he has built into a magazine of outsized influence in the political and cultural affairs not only of New York but of all cities. It would not be too much to say that under Mr. Magnet’s editorship City Journal has become the most influential urban magazine in the country and the most beautifully crafted.

Continue reading at The New York Sun

02/22/98
Boston Globe

Conservatives plant a seed in NYC

ANOTHER SIGN of how much New York has changed: The most influential source of political ideas is a conservative think tank that was founded by Margaret Thatcher’s mentor and Ronald Reagan’s spymaster.

The Manhattan Institute was a speck on the margins of the city’s political landscape when it opened in 1978, promoting the un-New Yorkerish notions of free-market economics, conservative values and the dismantling of the welfare state. Now, 20 years later, it dominates political discussions and helps set the agenda. Continue reading