Reclaiming the Revolutionary tradition

The Revolutionary generation had its flaws, but their struggle against hereditary aristocracy and ours against hereditary plutocracy have much in common. Why cede America’s symbols to the Tea Party crowd?

Some of the comments on my Independence Day post, like some other discussions I’ve seen, argue that we shouldn’t celebrate the Fourth at all because the Patriots weren’t consistent in their love of liberty. They kept slaves, didn’t let women vote, and were in the process of ethnically cleansing Native Americans. Many of their grievances involved interference with smuggling, an activity heavily connecting with slave-trading. And so on.

Some of this (about slavery and grabbing Indian land) is perfectly legitimate criticism. Some is hopelessly anachronistic. (I’m not aware of evidence that women felt the deprivation of voting rights as a diminution of liberty. Should we criticize the Patriots for neglecting gay rights as well?) In a history course, these debates are well worth having, and even in celebratory mode there ought to be time for reflection.

But Nietzsche was right about the use of what he called “monumental history.” If we take the critical stance to the point of rejecting our own Founding, then we weaken the basis of republican government. Moreover, if progressives in particular do so they can’t then turn around and appeal to the founding documents as authority, as Lincoln so brilliantly deployed Jefferson against Jefferson Davis.

To claim the authority of the founders and subsequent heroes in contemporary disputes is to claim the rhetorical high ground. Had the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era carried images of Lincoln – who opposed the Mexican War and paid a terrible political price for it – rather than NLF flags, it would have been harder to dismiss the protesters as unpatriotic.

Every tradition, whether political or religious, has within it resources for progress. It’s the rare case where critics are better served by utter rejection than by the attempt to forge a usable past from the materials at hand. Those who oppose the contemporary movement to establish hereditary plutocracy – eliminating estate tax, increasing income inequality, decreasing social mobility, and strengthening the political power of the wealthy few against the non-wealthy many by unleashing the full power of concentrated money in politics while weakening those institutions (trade unions most of all) that might compete with corporations and the rich in the contest for political influence – have a far better claim than the Tea Partiers to be the true carriers of the Revolutionary tradition. Why cede the high ground to the enemy?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

14 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Revolutionary tradition”

  1. Agreed, Mark!

    I am very fond of quoting Hamilton, Clay and even Gallatin about the need for internal improvements, a national bank that will spur development and wealth, and what I like to call nation building and nation sustaining. I quote Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Carniege on the inheritance tax, and Lincoln about mass transit. I point out how the Turner thesis works to require far more programs such as the New Deal, and that the New Deal is itself a triumph of the thread of history that runs from Washington-Hamilton, Clay, Gallatin, Lincoln, TR, Taft and Wilson and right on up through FDR and LBJ.

    When among Tea Partiers of our time, they usually are left stammering…If I am really playful, they get the John Adams quotes about religion, and the whole TJ/Madison line that includes rights of non-belief of what the Tea Partiers and their Muslim fundamentalist contemporaries would call “infidels.” 🙂

  2. Those who oppose the contemporary movement to establish hereditary plutocracy … have a far better claim than the Tea Partiers to be the true carriers of the Revolutionary tradition.

    Reworking my favorite Ben Franklin quote…

    From: A nod from a lord is breakfast for a fool.
    To: A nod from a billionaire is breakfast for a tool.

  3. I like that, koreyel. I’ve always felt that the Tea Partiers wearing revolutionary garb as costume is fitting, as their “revolutionary” defense of the “freedoms” of wealthy to not pay their share is an ideological costume as well.

  4. A typical ploy of the left, that when they are unable to sell their ideas for what they are, they try to confuse what they are selling by describing it using the language of those whom they oppose. A glaring example is their co-opting of the word “liberal.” If they had adopted nomenclature that is descriptive (statist) they would have been honest. Fearing they could not sell statism for what it was they sold it for what it was not. Now the professor would seek to rhetorically link Fidel’s and Che’s revolutionary goals with those of the founding fathers. If a business person used these tactics to sell their product, I am sure that the professor and his followers would cry fraud. Why is it any different when they try to sell their ideas in that manner?

  5. FAB1,

    What? Is there something in the water that prevents you from actually being clear?

    Liberals co-opting the word liberal. Who would have thought? We better return it to the Tea Party.

    The notion that the left is “statist” is simply ludicrous.

  6. Well FAB1 is certainly correct† about one thing: the importance of language. The right wing’s ability to stamp nouns as inherently dirty has been one of their main strengths. Thus we have the current situation where the word “socialism” gets shouted as the ultimate argument enders. And this despite the facts emerging across a wide swath of science that show Man completely and entirely a social animal. That’s an amazing backwards turn of language if you pause and think about it a bit….

    I’d argue the reason America is so regressive is that one of its political parties has devolved into a legitimate anti-social party. Or if you prefer: sociopaths. Mark Kleiman has often called this faction the “Party of the Big Lie”. I am not sure what he considers their top drawer lie, but for me their biggest lie is their war against what has made humanity so successful: our sociality. Arguably because of their anti-sociality they cannot legitimately win the future. For they go against the very creatures we are. They aren’t just on the wrong side of history, they are on the wrong side of man’s evolutionary history…

    So how is it that the “Party of the Big Lie About Our Sociality” has been so successful? Because of their ability to use language to create enemies and wars. Notice for instance FAB1’s ability to pull Che, Fidel, and the Bogey man out of his anti-social hat. This is what Fox News is all about too. It’s an endless narrative of anger against enemies created out of the thin air of necessity. And their anti-social drums never stop beating. It’s dark magic indeed that to be successful the right-wing anti-social party must sow dissent and hate and war.

    † Notice I didn’t write: “FAB1 is certainly right”, I’ve stopped using the word “right” to mean “correct” in ALL my communications.

    Note: All this is one of the reasons why I still use the noun “teabagger”. If the conservatives have their way (and I think they are having their way), the word teabagger will join George Carlin’s list as one of the most serious naughties you can utter. We ought not to let that happen. We ought not to let these anti-social morons, who sow war and dissent like Eris, determine the words we use…

  7. July 4th is a seasonal holiday. The revolutionary war started years earlier and ended years later. Why do we celebrate this day and not the day the war officially ended and America was finally independent? Because July 4 is less than 2 weeks from the summer solstice. So if you are going to participate in peasant rituals then prepare to be bowled over by peasant mythology. Just look at the fab troll.

  8. John:

    Before being co-opted by the welfare-statists, the word “liberal” which is a cognate of the word “liberty” more aptly described those who believed in laissez-fair capitalism. (If they did not already have a word descriptive of their core-principles, I would “return it” to the libertarians). While the views of the self-described “liberal” of today on social issues may coincide with the views of classic liberals, their welfare-statist views certainly do not. And as a wise man asked and answered: “What do call a person who steals onr week out of every year?”… “A ‘thief.'” If you are for welfare-statism, “truth in advertising,” (which I am sure you support when it comes to buying washing machines and cigarettes), would require you to label yourself as a “welfare-statist.”

    As far as “return[ing] it to the Tea Party,” you cannot return an object or idea to a person or group that never owned it. From what I can tell about the Tea Party,they seek government intervention on as massive a scale as the welfare-statists when it involves “social issues” (eg. same-sex marriage). Both Tea Partiers and welfare-statists seek to limit the individual’s freedom when the individual is engaging in benign conduct, that is conduct which does not injure another. While the areas in which they seek to use government to assist them in their agenda differ, both welfare-statists and Tea Partiers through the medium of government believe that it is proper for their group to use government’s monopoly on coercion to limit the individual’s freedom in order to advance their agenda and the two groups are both statists, one a “welfare-statist” and the other as “social-statist.” So no, do not return the word “liberal” to the Tea Party; but do not use it to sell welfare-statism.

  9. Koreyel:

    “Anti-social” party? Are you speaking of the party whose partisans are constantly trying to convince us that if it weren’t for those “rich folk” (plutocrats-in-training) our lives would be so much better, the “Party of Class-Warfare.” Somehow I don’t think so.

  10. My own dislike for the Fourth of July is perhaps best captured by a banner on a US carrier a few years back:

    “Mission Accomplished”

    The Fourth of July does not mark a victory, but a statement. We’d be better off celebrating Yorktown Day or — better yet — Constitution Day. The Declaration of Independence, as important a historical document as it is, merely states some incomplete aspirations; we would be better off if we celebrated the true foundational document of the United States with the fervor (and barbecues, and fireworks-related injuries, and drunk driving) that we give to a declaration of intent.

    My oath as a commissioned officer was to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”… and does not mention the Declaration of Independence at all.

  11. Canada didn’t fight a war of independence, and look how they turned out. Don’t cling to myths, but boldly state the truth.

  12. Amusing little story of patriotism and pocketbook.

    The English had declared settlement west of the Appalachians forbidden. Period.

    George Washington inherited a fortune when his half brother died. He lost it all in land speculation. He married a rich widow and lost all of her dowry in land speculation.

    When the revolution started he was deep in debt to English firms for orders that he had not paid for. A calculation of his cash on hand was less than 10,000 English pounds when the revolution started. He gallantly did not ask for payment as commander in chief. He simply would submit his expenses. He got over $300,000 in reimbursement. Not bad for a guy with only 10,000 pounds when the war started, huh?

    He lost all of that money in land speculation. When the shin plasters that the troops in the Revolutionary War were paid with were secretly going to be made good with gold from tariffs, Washington and Hamilton’s agents started buying up the shin plasters for $0.15 on the dollar.

    He died before he could lose all of those profits.

    In fact a reasonable person would classify Washington as a person who only dealt in his self interest.

  13. “While the views of the self-described “liberal” of today on social issues may coincide with the views of classic liberals, their welfare-statist views certainly do not.”

    Good troll, I like your style. Of course wouldn’t that make FA Hayek a welfare statist? I guess he wasn’t really a liberal or a libertarian. Lolz

    “Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance, where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks, the case for the state helping to organise a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong.”

    I love right wing trolls. I wonder if they actually believe the things they type or if they are just doing it to get a rise out of people.

  14. Lava Logic or Benny’s on a troll

    Syllogism 1
    If p →q
    Therefore q

    Syllogism 2
    If p→q
    Hayek, troll
    Therefore q

    Syllogism 3
    If p→q
    troll, Hayek, troll
    Therefore q…………. troll

    Thanks to Benny and his ilk, this blog has raised the bar for argumentative standards to unimagined heights.

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