“Every step forward is made at the cost of mental and physical pain to someone.”
Most Americans, whether they know it or not, are already well acquainted with lost causes; as for the rest, they have only to wait, perhaps for just a little while. T.S. Eliot thought no good cause was ever lost—an opinion on which, as with so many other things, the reactionary poet parted company with the political and economic “conservatives” of the past 30 years, who have insisted on “common sense” against “naivete,” “constructive” criticism over the “negative” variety, and “practicality” in favor of “sentimentality.” “They never fail who die / In a great cause,” Byron wrote—a maxim totally lost on the Republican Party, which believes, rather, “They never fail who live / To wimp another day.” If cowardice may have its principles, the honorable assumption here is that “constructive” criticism only can be effectively embodied in “conservative” policy—a question-begging notion if there ever was one. (What is “negative,” Miguel de Unamuno wondered, and what is “positive,” and how does one tell the difference between them?) More often than not, what people mean by “constructive” is really only “popular”—denoting popularity-on-the-face-of-it, popularity-up-for-grabs: an easy popularity not entailing the blood, sweat, and tears of honest persuasion, the popularity all politicians reach for and prefer, as inner-city residents snatch at welfare and ADC checks. Totally lost on politicians and policy wonks alike is the idea of testimony: the act of bearing witness to falsehood and to truth, win or lose. It may well be that, in the present age, the sole function of truly conservative critics is to keep alive an idea of what should have been, which perhaps is only another way of explaining to our 20th-century culture the causes of its own demise (as human beings, we should insist on knowing these), while reasserting the cause of the struggling humanity buried beneath it. A prophetic role, in other words; and while there is ground indeed for complaint in the personal misfortune of a prophet’s calling (a summons, as Planner)’ O’Connor said, to expect the worst), there is no reason at all to rate prophecy below policy in the roster of useful occupations.
The Moloch against whom Bill Kauffman testifies, in this book as elsewhere, is not the “liberal” bugaboo—more chimerical, in some ways, than Don Quixote’s giant that turned out to be a wineskin—that false conservatives have wasted millions of man-hours and billions of dollars attacking but progressivism, a madness greatly worse than the Don’s insanity and a type of mental and emotional malady that has gripped the American ruling class on both sides of the Democratic and Republican divide, where the law of gravity has for many years been suspended to allow power to flow downhill on both sides to the District of Columbia.
“The Communist revolution,” Marx and Engels wrote, “is carried through by the class which is itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes, nationalities, etc.” The class of which they spoke is the class which Stalin credited with imposing “revolution from above”; it is also the one solely responsible for what has been termed—by progressives—the Second American Revolution. Sam Francis, in a brilliant essay printed in this magazine last year, frankly discussed the similarities between communism and what (before Mr. Hyde took over Dr. Jekyll entirely) used to be distinguished as neoconservatism—between international communism and global democracy, which are chiefly differentiated at this point in history by the fact of the first having Made In The U.S.S.R. stamped on it, the other Made In The U.S.A. With Good Intentions? is valuable not only for its defense of worthy, defunct causes but for the demonstration it provides of just how early in the national game those causes really were lost.
The contemporary case against anti-child labor legislation, school consolidation, women’s suffrage, the creation of the Interstate Highway System, and the institution of a standing army was made by a coalition of anti-Progressive dissidents of a largely Jeffersonian character: men and women Bill Kauffman describes as “faithful to the old republic, motivated by agrarian biases even when they lived in cities, [whose] bedrocks were (1) family autonomy; (2) a minimal state; and (3) human-scale communities.” These “people our forgotten history”; their opponents are the dramatis personae of official histories and the forerunners of the Clinton administration, as well as (if we may believe the polls) the 70-plus percent of the American people who believe it will have initiated the American equivalent of the Age of the Antonines, as Bill Clinton steps down after reluctantly acceding to demands to serve a third and fourth term and Senator Hillary is translated into President Hillary. The answer to the assertion, “It can’t happen here!” is that it happened here yesterday, and never quit happening throughout the intervening night.
Since the Civil War, really, the Constitution has been ignored or “interpreted” by people having little or no interest in the concerns the Framers had, but loving, rather, what they hated, and hating what they loved: The result is the total revisement of the agendum ratified in 1789. Verily there is nothing new under the sun—though the sun, in its declining age, is expected to burn hotter and hotter. The Child Labor Amendment movement early in the 20th century was dubbed “the crusade for the children” by supporters, many or most of whom believed that family and parent-children relationships required remodeling by the state. “We must limit,” the research director of the National Child Labor Council stated, “parental freedom as well as employers’ freedom, but the main thing is to strengthen the home—for the children’s sake”; an executive official of the same organization, Gertrude Folks Zimand, brushed aside the familiar objection against attempts at legislating morality with the remark, “Laws make morals.” As for states’ rights considerations, “The issue of states’ rights has never been raised on behalf of a good cause,” in the opinion of Grace Abbott, head of the Children’s Bureau. The crusading Progressive Judge Ben Lindsey of Denver, endorsing a National Child Labor Amendment to the Constitution, popularized the phrase “Government as Overparent,” while others cited the rhetorical equivalent of deadbeat dads (the working-class sots who were also the target of the 18th Amendment) as further reason to support this critical piece of forward-looking legislation. “With the Child Labor Amendment,” Kauffman writes, “the battle between partisans of the old republic and the new republic was joined.” While the amendment itself was defeated, most of the old Palmer Bill’s provisions were incorporated by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, thus giving the Progressives most of what they asked for, though not what Kauffman calls the “amendment battering ram” they desired as a weapon with which to break in the door of the poor man’s castle. Still,
Opposition to the amendment had united, in common—and successful—cause, an extraordinary coalition: rural southern Protestants, northern working-class Catholics, antifeminists, localist Progressives, domestic manufacturers, farmers, and Mugwump wisemen. Together, they defeated a measure that had virtually the entire political establishment behind it.
“A pity,” Kauffman adds, “that the coalition has never reformed.”
Over and again, Kauffman’s account is subtly insistent on the contemporary relevance of the terms and substance of the Progressive versus anti-Progressive debates. In the context of the argument for school-consolidation in the post- World War II era, Kauffman cites the consolidationists’ leading proponent. Dr. James B. Conant, president of Harvard University, as remarking, in a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not tone of astonishment, that in the past the state
was remarkably indifferent as to whether parents chose to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered, and local authorities sometimes were not very strict about enforcing the compulsory attendance laws. . . . As long as the public concern was directed almost exclusively to the education of future voters and the unfolding of the personality of each child, a thousand different schools might be considered an excellent idea.
“Not many years ago,” the great man continued,
a considerable body of opinion in this country . . . thought that what happened to children was a matter for the parents to decide. The state should not come between a father and his son. . . . These arguments would sound archaic today.
Conant’s concern was to consolidate and homogenize the American public school system in the interest of more easily producing generations of properly trained and regimented Cold War men and women—as Russell Kirk, for one, clearly perceived, writing in 1958 that behind “the abolition of rural schools” lay the intent of “breaking down regional and vocational distinctions and producing ‘integrated’ Americans.” Today, the rationale for consolidation is making up to the global economy rather than facing down the Soviet Union. The program, of course, remains the same.
Woman suffrage is unique among the causes discussed in this book for being the single one the author approves of, while holding nonetheless that the anti-suffragists’ opposition was healthy, insightful, and valuable, in the long as in the short run. The sanctity of the home was under siege then as now, “and while voting ladies are not the problem [today], Ida Tarbell, Ruth Whitney Lyman, and the Sisters left a trail, long-since overgrown, that might just lead us in a more humane direction.” Ruth Lyman, a Massachusetts lady, identified
[t]he fundamental difference [as] this—that the suffragist (like the socialist) persists in regarding the individual as the unit of society, while the anti-suffragist insists that it is the family. . . . Anti-suffrage is founded upon the conception of co-operation between the sexes. Men and women must be regarded as partners, not competitors; and the family, to be preserved as a unit must be represented as having one political head.
And Emma Goldman—Red Emma, the anarchist—opined that
Woman, essentially a purist, is naturally bigoted and relentless in her effort to make others as good as she thinks they ought to be. Thus, in Idaho . . . prostitution and gambling have been prohibited. In this regard the law must needs be of feminine gender: it always prohibits.
So many wrongs to right, and so little power (in Bill Kauffman’s gloss)! But the antis were encumbered, as he argues, by their own commitment to benignant statism, having themselves promoted the interference of government agents in family relations—Catholic and immigrant families particularly. And so, lacking the “sturdy philosophical base of the traditionalists or the anarchists, they simply collapsed.”
Like “the sake of the children,” “women’s rights,” and “better education,” “good roads” and a standing army as a contribution to “national defense” seemed incontiovertible goods. For Kauffman, though, the Interstate Highway System (inspired by President Eisenhower’s admiration for the Autobahn) stands as a monument “not to capitalist or human action or mechanical genius but to the Leviathan State, whose architects wanted a rootless and hypermobile population,” while
maintenance of a large standing army, especially an army in which men are stationed away from that place which they and their families call home, is a significant factor in the destruction of American family life. Those who support a large standing army do more to undermine American families than do most of the exotic bogeymen of “family values” propaganda.
In both instances—massive road-building programs and a permanent army progressives typically defend wide scale depredations committed against rootedness, regionalism, tradition, the American land, family cohesion, and social memory by appeal to the progressive fetish of “mobility,” and even “diversity”; “continuous relocations allowed [military children] a broader perspective toward other peoples and races and thereby avoid the prejudicial stereotyping that was presumed or experienced among less mobile populations,” according to one military sociologist. “But why,” Kauffman wants to know, is mobility considered, axiomatically, to be a good thing—”Why? Why?” Macaulay thought five generations are required to destroy the popular recollection of previous times. If he was right, then today the old American republic scarcely exists even in memory.
Progress and Bill Kauffman are not exactly good drinking buddies in the saloons of Batavia, New York. Even so, the point of his book is not that no highways ought ever to have been built, that females never should have been given the vote.
But there is a cost—often hidden, unacknowledged—to these advances, and though my own preference is for woman suffrage and against the Interstate Highway System, the anti-Progress critique can encompass both—and can introduce us to a valuable way of thinking about and reckoning change, even if we judge change to be for the best.
My sole reservation regarding With Good Intentions? is the absence of a chapter on the close-to-lost cause of the anti-immigration movement, perhaps the most critical of them all.
Bill Kauffman resembles not in the least the stereotypical Don Quixote of popular reference, but he is very like that good knight as Unamuno understood him: less the Knight of the Doleful Countenance than the Knight of the Great Heart, the champion not of literary chivalry but rather of the thing itself, of Heart that refuses to be seduced by Mind: a voice crying in the wilderness where, “though men hear not, the wilderness hears, and one day it will be transformed into a resounding forest. . . . ” Kauffman, as a stalwart defender of reactionary radicalism, understands that what his country requires today is not a counterfeit “conservative” party to oppose a supposedly “liberal” one, but a Regressive Party to enter the lists against the existing bipartisan Pan-Progressive behemoth. If and when that actually happens, we will have a political system truly accountable to the American people, after which—watch out! And let the Culture War really begin.
[With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America, by Bill Kauffman (Westport, CT: Praeger) 124 pp., $35.00]
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