Brother Mathis (Joel Mathis of Philly Mag) takes me to task by alleging a willful distortion of President Obama’s invocation of the Declaration of Independence in his second inaugural address in my Forbes column on Obama’s skipping out on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address today. He thinks it sly of me that in focusing so heavily on Obama saying the truths of the Declaration “may be self-evident” rather than that they are self-evident (today and always, as Lincoln thought) I have distorted Obama’s meaning by omitting Obama’s complete sentence:
For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.
No sensible person disputes that we work out our ideas in space and time with great difficulty, but Obama’s use of “may” is extremely telling, like the academics I meet who unfailingly say “Lincoln was right—for his time.” What about our time, today? What about Lincoln’s view that the self-evident truths of the Declaration were true everywhere and always, as Jefferson put it? I’d bet a lot of money that Obama does not believe that. Does Joel really believe differently about Obama’s deepest philosophical views? Why would Obama believe differently? It is the overwhelming teaching of the ivy leagues where Obama marinated. (And I believe a close reading of his 2008 Philadelphia speech on race fully bears this out.)
To be sure, I discover that most liberals, when pressed, repudiate their historicism and moral relativism instantly. How else to criticize genocide in Darfur, which criticism violates all of the simpleminded canons of “multiculturalism”? But liberals are typically unable to give any coherent account of the ground of their moral sanctions, which is why modern liberalism appears more often as sheer willfulness.
Liberals like the Gettysburg Address mostly because of its flowery rhetoric. Conservatives who like it (which is not all conservatives—an important point for another time) do so because they think it is true. On this occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, it may be useful to take in one of Harry Jaffa’s meditations on the problem:
Confronted with a statement of principles beginning “We hold these truth to be self-evident,” most writers, even the most learned, assume that what follows are merely the subjective opinions of a bygone age, possessing no more truth for us than anything else that may be agreeable to our passions. From this perspective, there can be no ground for denying that justice is the interest of the stronger, in the sense that Thrasymachus originally intended. From this perspective, Socrates may remain forever in the Piraeus, but there will be no dialogue on justice.
Jaffa always liked to point to Carl Becker’s otherwise fine 1922 book on the Declaration of Independence, still the best book on the Declaration in many respects, for expressing the modern liberal sensibility that Obama surely shares, when Becker wrote: “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.” Meaningless, because, for Becker, Darwin had shown us the mutability of all nature, including human nature. The faith of the founders, Becker concluded, “could not survive the harsh realities of the modern world.”
And yet, when Becker reissued his book in the fall of 1941—in the shadow of the European and soon to be American war—he struck a very different note in a new introduction:
“[It] may be thought that just now, when political freedom, already lost in many countries, is everywhere threatened, the readers of books would be more than ordinarily interested in the political principles of the Declaration of Independence. Certainly recent events throughout the world have aroused an unwonted attention to the immemorial problem of human liberty.”
Suddenly, in the newly extreme circumstances of 1941—the latest “harsh reality of the modern world” to quote Becker—the older principles of liberty, taken for granted as obsolete and superseded by Woodrow Wilson and other Progressives, had returned as an “immemorial problem” in need of foundations. (I’ve often wondered in passing what Wilson and Oliver Wendell Holmes—an even greater enemy of natural rights—would have said about the Nuremberg trials had they lived long enough. It wouldn’t have been pretty.) To continue with Becker:
“The incredible cynicism and brutality of Adolf Hitler’s ambitions, made every day more real by the servile and remorseless activities of his bleak-faced, humorless Nazi supporters, have forced men everywhere to re-appraise the validity of half-forgotten ideas, and enabled them once more to entertain convictions as to the substance of things not evident to the senses.”
Why were those ideas “half-forgotten”? Because of lazy historicist liberals like Becker himself. The same kind of people who educated Obama.
BTW, feel better soon Joel.
P.S. If you want to see a mainstream media look at one aspect of Obama’s political thought–how liberals look to history rather than nature as the ground of politics, see the National Journal writing back in September about how Obama cites being on “the right side of history” all the time. This is a category of thought that descends directly from Hegel and Marx.