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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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