01/7/22

Manhattan on the Rocks

Thomas Dyja cons his readers into believing that what happened in Gotham from 1978 until now was exactly the opposite of what really did.

 

book reviewed

Wham! Bam!! POW!!! shouts Thomas Dyja’s New Journalism-fueled prose, which, while it can’t touch Tom Wolfe’s torrential inventiveness, nevertheless grips the reader’s interest in this fast-paced history of New York City from near death to rebirth, and from mayors Abe Beame to Mike Bloomberg. Yet the story New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation tells is a con, a high-octane effort to persuade you that what happened in Gotham from 1978 until now was exactly the opposite of what really did happen—and that one of the most breathtaking, instructive, and well-documented social policy success stories in recent history occurred for reasons no one understands, on the watch of a nasty leader who deserves no credit for heroically resuscitating America’s metropolis. Continue reading

10/14/21

The Making of the Administrative State

 

The 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin famously said, gave America “a republic—if you can keep it.” We couldn’t. It’s not that the framers’ wonderful structure of self-government slipped away by carelessness. Rather, single-minded men purposely usurped it, and Ronald J. Pestritto’s America Transformed tells the tragic tale of how the Progressives, as they called themselves, deformed and abolished one of the greatest triumphs of the Western Enlightenment, in the name of Hegel, Darwin, modernity, and efficiency, all under the magician’s scarf of hocus-pocus fake democracy. The end result of this sleight-of-hand, though Pestritto’s gripping book is too polite to say so baldly, is that we now live under a regime without legitimacy.

We could not ask for a better debunker of Progressive trickery. The graduate dean and a professor of politics at Hillsdale College, Pestritto has been among the leading pioneers in the revisionist study of this era, notably with his earlier, groundbreaking Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism (2005). Indeed, the chief magus of this drama is Wilson, our first professor-president, who formulated the Progressive creed in his academic works of the 1880s, before he assumed Princeton’s presidency, with embellishments from ivory-tower colleagues Frank Goodnow, president of Johns Hopkins and founding president of the American Political Science Association, and the much younger Harvard law professor (and later dean) James Landis, who as a New Deal bureaucrat helped transform Progressive theory into a gargantuan governmental reality. Earlier in the political arena came pungent, energetic contributions from Theodore Roosevelt, and Progressivism transformed the messages that came from the elite pulpits and schools, as well. Continue reading

04/23/21

Defounding America

 

May 2021
Features May 2021

Defounding America
On the erosion of American freedoms.
by Myron Magnet

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the Social Security Bill, August 14, 1935. Photo: Library of Congress.

 

To gauge how unbridgeable the gulf is that divides the American Left from the Right, rewind to February 19, 2009, when those who eventually elected Donald Trump first made their voices heard. As Washington jury-rigged fixes for the Great Financial Crisis, the CNBC broadcaster Rick Santelli shouted across the Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” The Merc traders roared their televised veto across the land.

Their cry was more visceral than a policy disagreement. The traders, self-made men, had worked hard for what they had and scorned having their taxes hiked to save homebuyers with imprudently high mortgages from foreclosure. “This is America!” Santelli urged, and what the new Obama administration was doing was un-American. Didn’t the Founding Fathers establish the federal government to guarantee one’s freedom to better one’s condition, and to protect the property one industriously earns—not to redistribute it?

That’s why Santelli added that he was planning a Chicago Tea Party, an update of Boston’s 1773 event. He and the traders felt the same outrage George Washington had felt about the Stamp Act and the tea tax: it was as lawless as Parliament picking his pocket. To the new-era Tea Partiers, taxation for redistribution, rather than for common purposes, is tyranny, not government by consent.

But, though the traders and Tea Partiers didn’t quite understand it, the federal government long ago had turned from the shield of individual liberty into a vast engine of redistribution. That transformation could occur because the Framers’ Constitution was body-snatched by the doctrine of the “living constitution,” which—as Woodrow Wilson first formulated it—saw the Supreme Court sitting as a permanent Constitutional Convention, making up laws as it went along, heedless of the 1787 scheme’s checks. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal used Wilson’s doctrine as a license to remake America’s economy and society. Once the Supreme Court buckled to FDR’s threat to pack it and started voting his way, the justices allowed an utterly foreign governmental structure to devour the Framers’ republic from within, until it broke out of the shell as something altogether different. Continue reading

12/24/20

“Middlemarch” & the heart’s reasons

 

 

“Know thyself” is easy to say; but how, exactly, are we mortals supposed to obey the Delphic command? Surely not through the human “sciences.” Psychology, sociology, and anthropology all seem misapplications of a method of inquiry too abstract to explain messy human reality, depersonalizing what is quintessentially personal. If you want to make sense of human actuality, to ponder what makes our lives meaningful and why we do what we do, think what we think, and hope what we hope, the best guide I know is literature.

A recent rereading of Middlemarch brought that thought home forcefully, and the decades since my last reading have taught me also to appreciate why so many authors consider this the greatest of all English novels, one of the few, Virginia Woolf thought, written for grown-ups. No one can pluck out the heart of our mystery, but in this 1871 novel George Eliot—the pen name of the formidable and unconventional Mary Ann Evans—comes as close as anyone to showing how our inner feelings and wishes interact with our outer circumstances, with the social and cultural climate that surrounds us, and with our personal relationships to shape our identity and fate.

Eliot sums up the complexity of her enterprise in an epigram that heads Chapter 53:

It is but a shallow haste which concludeth insincerity from what outsiders call inconsistency—putting a dead mechanism of “ifs” and “therefores” for the living myriad of hidden suckers whereby the belief and the conduct are brought into mutual sustainment.

Like the root systems of plants, so much that forms and motivates us happens below the surface, hidden not only from outsiders but also from ourselves. Our identities are organic, not mechanical. As Eliot says twice in the novel, “character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living, and changing,” a vital process no simple cause-and-effect equation can explain.

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10/22/20

The Founders’ priceless legacy

 

 

   November 2020
The New Criterion’s Visiting Critic delivers the second annual Circle Lecture.

Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered for The New Criterion’s second annual Circle Lecture on September 30, 2020.

However unfashionable to say so at the moment, the American Founding is one of the noblest achievements of the Western Enlightenment. It created something breathtakingly new in history: a self-governing republic that protects the right of individuals—not serfs, not subjects, but equal citizens before the law—to pursue their own happiness in their own way. Who could have imagined that such a triumph would come under the violent attack that now seeks to deny and besmirch it? Whether it flies the banner of The 1619 Project, Black Lives Matter, or Critical Race Theory, the new anti-Americanism condemns the Founding Fathers’ project as conceived in slavery, not liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that we can never be equal citizens with equal rights.

It is a militant anti-Americanism, too. Like the iconoclasm of the most violent English Puritans, who smashed the faces off the carved saints and angels in one sublime medieval church after another, or of the French sans-culottes, who dug up and desecrated nine centuries of royal bodies from their tombs in the Abbey of Saint-Denis, defacing for good measure the statues of the Old Testament kings on the façade of this first great Gothic building, today’s anti-Americanism seeks to pulverize and obliterate our national past as something too offensive and obscene to have existed.

The current upheaval is the latest paroxysm of a cultural revolution that has gained momentum for half a century or more, and its trajectory from the universities to popular culture is too well known to need repeating. What I want to discuss here is the precious value of our inheritance from the Founding Fathers that today’s vandals want to destroy. If they succeed—since history, even our own, doesn’t always go forward and upward, despite the claims of the so-called “progressives”—we will find ourselves in a new Dark Age of constraint and superstition.

At the heart of the Founding was a thirst for liberty. In announcing our national freedom from imperial domination, the Declaration of Independence began by asserting our right to individual liberty. For the Founders, that liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who’ve suffered its opposite. They grasped it like those Eastern Europeans who once lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or like Jews who survived the Holocaust.

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10/14/20

Poverty Won

 

 
08/30/20

Trump: A Retrospective

November 10, 2016

Donald Trump and the Rejection of Progressivism

Americans voted against the Left’s contempt for the Constitution.

One message to take away from Donald Trump’s presidential victory: Americans don’t want to be ruled. They prefer self-government. The election was not about liberals versus conservatives. Rather it was a contest between Progressivism and the anti-Progressivism of which Trump is the democratic—even the crudely demotic—embodiment.

After Barack Obama took Progressivism’s belief in government by hyper-educated experts purportedly guided only by the public interest to its ugly extreme with his supercilious, know-it-all demeanor, as if the views of those who saw the world differently were beneath contempt, the electorate grew fed up with the politics first molded by Woodrow Wilson and perfected in the New Deal. They didn’t want to be bossed around by the Environmental Protection Agency about what they could do on their own private property, as if filling in a hole on land 50 miles from the nearest navigable waterway fell under the EPA’s purview. They lost faith in both the expertise and the disinterestedness of such administrative-state agencies when the EPA set out to shut down America’s coal industry and put miners out of work based on a climate hypothesis that Trump voters did not believe was “settled science,” despite Obama’s haughty claim that their denial could only spring from the knuckle-dragging ignorance of people who, frightened by a changing world they couldn’t understand, clung to their religion and their guns, among other atavisms.

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08/23/20

Richard Gilder, 1932–2020

 

Notebook September 2020

On the life of one of New York City’s great philanthropists.

Alexis de Tocqueville would recognize the late philanthropist Richard Gilder—a valued friend and supporter of this magazine, who died in May at eighty-seven—as exactly the kind of American he so admired when he explored this then-new country in 1831. U.S. citizens, Tocqueville marveled in Democracy in America, don’t wait for government to solve their problems. If a road needs fixing or a school needs building, they organize themselves in their local communities and just do it. To solve any problem of “public security, commerce and industry, morality and religion,” he wrote, “there is nothing the human will despairs of achieving through the free action of the collective power of individuals.” Continue reading