Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Tonsor #n -- An Azalea Blooms in Winter

One mid-February day after class, Tonsor invited me to walk back to the house and enjoy lunch with him and Caroline. The weather was fine and he was in good spirits when we reached 1505 Morton Avenue. "It's wonderful to see the sun shining through our south windows again. Earlier this morning it was so very cold and gloomy." Pointing to a table in front of the large living room window, he drew my attention to an unexpected sight: "Look at that azalea. Last Saturday it was in bud, and now it has bloomed. I like the way the sun is pouring through its purple splendor. The Germans would call that color rosarot."[1]

"Yes, rosarot," I said, impressed by his poetic expression and by the precision of his German. I added, "I grew up in that azalea's natural habitat -- in Houston and New Orleans. In fact, every March Houston hosts the Azalea Trail through the River Oaks neighborhood. It's one of the most pleasant ways to explore the city."

Tonsor did not respond, but his tenderness toward the azalea blossom prompted me to ask if he missed the rural life.

"Good Lord, no," he bellowed. "Growing up in southern Illinois in the 1920s and '30s, I know the rural life. It is not the pastoral scene that you people from the city think it is. The rural life can be brutal. It can be stultifying. It can cause one's mind to become slow and dull. That said, I have always liked to garden, even as a child pulling weeds for my grandmother.[2] Usually by the end of May I will have spaded and planted until I am quite pleasantly tired. If we are having a good spring with plenty of rain, then by Memorial Day there is already enough spinach, shallots, bib lettuce, and Romaine for the whole family. It is a beautiful thing -- the seeds come up fast, the plants thrive, and there is such a large quantity of salad coming in that we must use it as quickly as possible.[3] Today's bright sun is making me look very forward to spring. 'O Sonne! O Glück, o Lust!' as Goethe would say."[4]

Caroline emerged from the kitchen with a greeting and a plate, saying, "Stephen does need his garden. I think it's therapeutic for him after the cold winter and hectic academic schedule. His spirits can get down if a long winter or rainy weather keeps him from his plot of earth."[5]

Tonsor moved a book off the dining room table and said, in a more wistful register: "I do find myself thinking back on my childhood in southern Illinois from time to time. A few years ago I was reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my grandson, Alex, and we enjoyed the experience very much. It's a book about her husband's childhood on a New York farm. What a distant and strange world it was to him, and yet how familiar most of it was to me. Every once in a while I would stop and explain what was happening on the farm."[6]

The azalea blossom and the talk of gardening and farming made me think of warmer months ahead. I said that I looked forward to my first Art Fair next summer, to which Tonsor protested:

"Huh! For a whole week in July, Caroline and I cannot even use our city because it is taken over by that misnamed Bacchanalia! There is nothing 'fair' about it. As for the art, don't even bother trying to see it, what with the milling throngs of sweating people in the streets, more than 500,000 of them. They have the manners and sanitary habits of Italians -- or at least of Neapolitans. They leave behind mountains of stinking garbage and refuse. Worse, for three consecutive nights last summer, drunken celebrants rioted by the campus. The whole thing is sick and disgusting. But," he added with mock appreciation, "the merchants love it!"[7]

Caroline frowned: "It's not as bad as Stephen says it is. You can meet the most interesting people -- people you'd never expect to be artists -- and talk with them about their work and --"

"No, they are not interesting at all," he interrupted. "Art Fair is just a carnival for over-aged hippies with long fingernails and bad breath."

Caroline and I laughed at his rant. "I hope," she said, "that Stephen will tell us what he really thinks of Art Fair!"

Tonsor looked backed over at the azalea in the sunny front window, as though wishing to be tending his garden.

[1] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, February 15, 1986, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[2] Bernard Tonsor interviews with GW, Jerseyville, IL, July 1, 2014; and June 26, 2015.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, May 31, 1985, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[4] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "Mailied"; at URL https://www.staff.uni-mainz.de/pommeren/Gedichte/mailied.html. The line means, "O sun, O joy, O delight!"
[5] Caroline Tonsor's observation of a tendency to "get down" is backed by much evidence. In letters to his close friend Henry Regnery, written in the 1980s, Tonsor frequently confessed that he was either tired, overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed (e.g., in Tonsor to Regnery, May 31, 1985, p. 4; Tonsor to Regnery, May 19, 1986, pp. 1-3; both letters in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery). The latter letter begins, "It is difficult to write a letter when one's life is engulfed in constant commotion and uncertainty.... My depression was deepened by the wet, cold weather. I cannot work in the garden and as the days pass I am becoming quite desperate." On May 18, 1985, he wrote Regnery: "... I felt disappointed that I could not get into the garden" (p. 1). On August 18, 1984, he began a recap of a list of scholarly chores with, "Most of last week I led a dog's life" (p. 2). Additionally, his oldest daughter, in a moving Veterans' Day tribute to her father, has provided sympathetic insight into his struggles stemming from the years he served in World War II's Pacific Theater and won three Bronze Medals: "He was in the [Army] Signal Corps, made the Leyte landing with MacArthur, and heard the first reports of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It changed his life, enabling a poor boy from a small farm town to attend universities, travel the world, and make use of his tremendous intelligence. It also made him wake up screaming for many years. He had to listen to the radio all night to be able to sleep. I don't really know what he did in the war, but I will always remember the man he became" [Ann Tonsor Zeddies, Facebook post, November 11, 2015].
[6] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, p. 4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[7] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, July 25, 1987, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Tonsor #19 -- Bryn Mawr

At the conclusion of the fall semester in 1987, I accepted my brother's invitation to spend the holidays with his family in New Jersey. After the feasting and festivity of Christmas Day, I wanted to do some networking on the East Coast. Since I was within an hour of the headquarters of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Bryn Mawr, I headed out for the City of Brotherly Love to visit the organization that had conferred the Richard M. Weaver Fellowship on me. I'd arranged a meeting with the man who had led ISI in some capacity for 35 years, E. Victor Milione. He had served as executive vice president and then as president of ISI from 1953-1988. We arranged to meet on Monday, December 28. As I drove into town, waves of sleet and snow were rolling eastward across the Delaware River Valley, and I thought of George Washington's treacherous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776.

Emanuel Leutze, "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851)

I found Milione alone in a darkish office on the Main Line; the space felt more like an old-fashioned law firm than a salient for the defense of Western civilization. He was an elfish man with bright eyes and a quick intelligence, and we were able to talk for more than one hour about his philosophy at ISI and about my graduate advisor and his place in the conservative movement in America.

From my opening question about the evolution of ISI, he became quite animated: "At ISI we throw ourselves into the battle of ideas. Whether it is the mission of the university, or the American experiment in ordered liberty, or the contest between faith and unbelief, or the crises of the twentieth century with its totalitarian threats and nihilistic philosophies -- we confront these challenges at the level of ideas. We must win the battle of ideas.[1]

"What exacerbates the crises nowadays is the tendency to forget. What with all the glittery distractions that bombard us, we tend to forget the historic foundations that made our civilization possible. But imagine what would happen if we forgot -- I mean really forgot -- if teachers quit teaching and preachers quit preaching; if no one played Bach; if no museum exhibited Michelangelo. Why, in just one generation we'd devolve into barbarians tearing down the intricate edifice of our civilization with all its beauty and strength. So the central task of our time is what the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson called "enculturation." Our aim must be to encourage each new generation of young people to learn, better than their fathers, that our heritage must be studied, understood, nurtured, and transmitted."[2]

"Now, your graduate advisor Steve Tonsor understands how important enculturation is. He's been a great ally of ISI. I've worked with Steve for some three decades now. He is unpredictable, which makes him interesting. You never know what is going to emerge from that fierce intellect of his!"

"You're not talking about his Philadelphia Society address last year?" I asked with bemusement.

E. Victor Milione (1924-2008)
"That was a corker," Milione chuckled, "but the surprise doesn't end there. Take his view of America. Here we sit, just a few miles from Independence Hall. Steve's take on the American Revolution has the most interesting way of combining opposing ideas. On the one hand, he argues that the rebellion changed everything. Like Gordon Wood, he see our Revolution as the first major break with the pattern of rule by monarchs and hereditary nobles. They had governed according to principles derived from divine right, reason of state, and traditional and customary usage. Rejecting those principles, America's revolutionaries substituted in their stead republicanism and a rational politics based upon the self-interest of the citizenry.[3]

"On the other hand, Steve argues for the Founding's continuity with what came before. Along the lines of Russell Kirk, he maintains that by 1776 the American Revolution was already centuries old. I commend to you the essay he wrote on the American Bicentennial -- I just had occasion to reread it myself. In the piece he argues that the War of the Revolution was waged in the name of a conservative appeal to rights won and cherished -- rights that many of the American colonists believed had been usurped and violated by London. They were fighting to restore their traditional rights as Englishmen. It is difficult to believe that those articulate spokesmen of the American cause were insincere when they appealed not just to the revolutionary break from Britain, but also to the ancient, hard-won rights of free men.[4]

"In fact, I remember Steve telling me that it was precisely this conservative devotion to liberty which made, and still makes, the American Revolution the most radical political movement of the modern era.[5] How many scholars can pull off combining 'conservative' and 'radical' in the same thought?" Milione wondered, laughing.

"How is life in Ann Arbor? Last I heard, there were not many conservatives in that particular grove of academe."

"It's been intense, like intellectual boot camp. Maybe I'm lucky, but the professors I have at Michigan are really good. A few graduate students from the East Coast confess they haven't had much contact with conservatives in higher ed. I guess for them, talking to Tonsor is like a visit to the circus, where they can gather around the biological rarity at the freak show. I get the feeling that he is avoided by the more liberal students. They don't enroll in his classes."

"What a shame -- the loss is theirs. We conservatives who sit around the fireplace, sipping Scotch and smoking pipes and talking about Russell Kirk, are characters, yes, but extremists, no. Steve once told me about the time the founder of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell, went to the University of Michigan to give a campaign speech. It was when he ran as a write-in candidate for president in 1964. Rockwell began by saying that everywhere he spoke, fights broke out. I don't think the cultural conservatives could be accused of inciting any riots! Our weapons of choice are ideas." 

"Yes -- Professor Tonsor certainly holds his own. When challenged, he gives as good as he gets. Since arriving in Ann Arbor, I've been slowly navigating his view of conservatism, doing frequent soundings as I go. He defies stereotypes, but his political philosophy seems to fit best in the 'liberal conservative' tradition that Russell Kirk writes about in The Conservative Mind -- especially the section of the book that is devoted to Cooper and Tocqueville and that tips its hat to Burke and Acton.[6] What confused me at first is that this term, 'liberal conservative,' is not one that I've encountered outside of Kirk or outside of my conversations with Professor Tonsor.[7] He outright told me that the 'liberal conservatives' are his kind of people.[8] It seems that his vision of conservatism differs from that of the traditionalist wing in that he more readily accepts, rather than rejects, the tension between the two sources of authority in Western civilization -- classical Christendom and the modern Enlightenment. You can see it in the way he grafts what is conservative in the American Founding to what is liberal in the American Revolution. It's really quite brilliant the way he pulls the opposing ideas together."

SJT's mentor in political philosophy, Frank Meyer
"And you can bet Steve is brilliant enough to pull it off," Milione said. "I see Steve as a fusionist influenced by the work of his late mentor, Frank Meyer.[9] About the time Steve was becoming a self-conscious conservative, around 1955 or 1960, the house that conservatism built was in disarray. There were cracks that went right through the middle of the foundation. Off in one wing were the libertarians -- Nock, Hayek, Chodorov -- who championed freedom as the highest good, and along with it minimal government and the sanctity of the individual. Off in another wing were the traditionalists led by Kirk, Weaver, and Nisbet, men who championed the need for transcendent order, especially in the revolutionary modern age when so much was in flux anthropologically, philosophically, ethically, and spiritually.[10]

"Frank had a vision. He wanted to pull these two factious wings of the conservative house into a well-integrated family. He made the case that freedom needs order if it is not to devolve into anarchism or libertinism, and that order needs freedom if it's not to devolve into authoritarianism or antiquarianism. Frank saw America's founders as the original fusionists because they believed in the need to leaven a manly freedom with an organic moral order. While our nation's founding documents are relatively silent on the subject of virtue -- the notable exception being the Northwest Ordinance with its Article Three -- they do present freedom as the ultimate political goal. But freedom needs a complement -- the helpmates of religion, morality, and knowledge -- as that same article declares. Our founders taught that citizens must use their freedom to choose virtue in the public square. And because the exercise of virtue requires man's free will, it should not be compelled by government or by force. Indeed, by definition virtue cannot be compelled because, obviously...."[11] Milione looked at me intently.

"Yes," I jumped in. "There is a passage in Mere Christianity in which C. S. Lewis writes: "If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give us humans free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having."[12]

"Lewis nailed it!" Milione said with enthusiasm: "Unfortunately, Frank didn't succeed in renovating the house that conservatism built. He had a pugilistic personality and got in fights with Russell Kirk and other leaders in the movement. We conservatives, like any big sprawling family, were as fractious at the end of his life as we were when he started his fusionist project. Nevertheless, Steve's political philosophy is heavily indebted to Frank. I think Frank's fusionism is a good way to understand Steve as a 'liberal conservative,' since the former is preoccupied with political freedom and the latter is concerned with the organic moral order. They are a necessary unity in any free society."

"It's courageous of him to use the word 'liberal' in his self-description since the word has become a term of opprobrium," I said. "But I think the reactionary in him wants to reclaim the old idea of liberal, Lord Acton's idea of liberal. And it explains why Professor Tonsor quotes Walt Whitman's lines in "Song of Myself" where he speaks of containing multitudes and even celebrates the fact that he contradicts himself.[13] He is radically open to every good experience or tradition that shapes the character of a man and a civilization. Professor Tonsor is quite insistent that the conservative must discern the inevitable tensions that arise among powerful ideas. It's a messy process; it doesn't allow for the tidiness of the ideologue's design. The civilizational mission of the "liberal conservative" is in the very label, with its tension. It is to work for the organic accommodation of opposites -- freedom and virtue, liberty and order, natural aristocracy and equality, the individual and community, the profit motive in the free marketplace and those values that cannot be commodified. I see Professor Tonsor as the champion of a method of political philosophy and historical interpretation that one might call the hermeneutic of accommodating opposites. He comes the closest to saying as much in his essay on "The Conservative Search for Identity."[14]

"Yes, that's one of Steve's seminal essays. As I recall, Frank commissioned that essay in a 1964 collection, What Is Conservatism?[15] That's where Steve grapples with paradox, tension, and opposites, just as Meyer did. And to bring it back to this place, Philadelphia: For as much as he is a champion of order, Steve never loses sight of the freedom at the center of the American experiment. By putting liberty at the center of the American political order, the American revolutionaries served notice that they would not be distracted or deflected from its pursuit by other political, social, and economic objectives. Whatever the merits of equality or social justice, ethnicity or nationality, established religion or high culture -- if any of those pursuits interfered with liberty, or deflected the citizenry from the pursuit of liberty, they were eventually rejected. As a result, over the past two centuries, the world has witnessed the way in which liberty has permeated and revolutionized every aspect of American society. From the way in which we greet strangers to the way in which we pray, the most common and ordinary activities of our daily lives have been transformed by an ever greater participation by free men and an appeal to the sanction of their opinion.[16]

Frank S. Meyer's most read essays
"Especially modern notions of the state have changed as a result of the American experiment. Under the impetus of the idea of liberty, the state stood on the sidelines of the public arena and left the game to be played by individual men, voluntary associations, and corporate groups. Most Americans have believed that what the state necessarily does poorly, individuals and voluntary associations can do better. Ideally, the supreme achievement of revolutionary liberty is 'the withering away of the state.'[17] That was the idea that launched Ronald Reagan on the road to the White House," Milione added, laughing with irony. "I think we will need a succession of Reagans if we are ever to see that happen."

As my visit with Milione wrapped up, he did something as gracious as it was unexpected. He led me to a room with stacks of books that ISI had either published or carried under its banner. "It's Christmas. Why don't you take some books back to Ann Arbor?"

He gave me a largish box and told me to fill it with the books I needed for my library. Due to Vic Milione's kindness, I got to celebrate a second Christmas in a place called Bryn Mawr.

*     *     *

Late in the afternoon, as I was leaving Philadelphia and approaching the Delaware River, the snow and sleet stopped. I pulled into a filling station to warm myself up with hot chocolate. As I stood waiting for the drink to cool, I kept feeling the pull of a nearby phone booth. There was a question I had to ask....

"Professor Tonsor, I am just leaving Philadelphia after having a great visit with Vic Milione, who sends his regards. I have just one question. I think I know the answer but I still have to ask it. You and I have talked about the West's 'inner dialogue' that informs your liberal conservative worldview. It's the dialogue between its two sources of authority -- classical Christendom in which our faith and morals are rooted, and the modern Enlightenment in which our science and our secular peace in a pluralistic world are rooted, preeminently in America. When these two sources of authority clash and cannot be reconciled, you stand with...."

That's the call I wanted to make and the question I wanted to ask. But I hesitated. And then the moment passed, and I was back in the car crossing the Delaware. On the drive back through the bare ruined choirs of the Jersey countryside, I hardly noticed the scenery.


[1] T. Kenneth Cribb, "William F. Buckley Jr. and E. Victor Milione," Intercollegiate Review (fall 2008); at URL https://home.isi.org/william-f-buckley-jr-and-e-victor-milione.
[2] Cribb, "Buckley and Milione," Intercollegiate Review; at URL https://home.isi.org/william-f-buckley-jr-and-e-victor-milione.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution: An Act of Conservation, ed. Stephen J. Tonsor (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1975), p. ix. Tonsor was credited by the president of AEI, William Baroody, with "conceiving and guiding the project ... a crucial factor in its success."
[4] Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution, p. ix.
[5] Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution, p. ix.
[6] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 1985), pp. 185-224.
[7] Confirming my hunch that the term, "liberal conservative," is rarely used are two volumes that thoroughly assess the postwar conservative movement in America. One is the great compendium of the movement, American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006); and George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American since 1945 (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008). Neither has an entry or section devoted to the term, "liberal conservatism." I believe Tonsor's use of the term was influenced by his first encounter of it in 1953, when he was exposed to Kirk's The Conservative Mind.
[8] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[10] Various articles in American Conservatism flesh out the line of argument. See, e.g., "Milione, E. Victor" (by Lee Edwards); "Meyer, Frank S." (by Kevin Smant); "Fusionism" (by E. C. Pasour Jr.); "Libertarianism" (by David Boaz); and "Traditionalism" (by Mark C. Henrie).
[11] Smant, "Meyer, Frank S.," American Conservatism, p. 571.
[12] C. S. Lewis, "The Shocking Alternative," Mere Christianity. Thanks to Darrin Moore for this reminder.
[13] Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," quoted by Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Conservatives Search for Identity," Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 247.
[14] Tonsor, "Conservative Search for Identity," Equality, pp. 247-49.
[15] There are two editions. Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Conservative Search for Identity," What is Conservatism, ed. Frank Meyer (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964); republished (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2015), pp. 161-84.
[16] Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution, pp. ix-x.
[17] Tonsor, Introduction, America's Continuing Revolution, p. x.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tonsor #18 -- Marx and Marxism

As the November gloom set in over Ann Arbor, as the days grew shorter, as low clouds were drawn across the sky like a gray wool curtain, I found it necessary to fight a hibernation instinct I didn't know I had. I was not psychologically prepared for the onset of bleak days because, for the prior fifteen years, I had lived along the Colorado Front Range where the late fall and winter are reliably sunny.

Adding to the gloom of the autumn was the persistent cough I'd developed after Halloween. It was diagnosed by one of the U of M doctors as adult-onset asthma. Michigan's climate, combined with the stress of grad school, was taking a toll.

Shortly after Thanksgiving I made the trek to Tonsor's office, wondering how Michiganders survived such dark weather and short days. "I feel as if I'm in internal exile," I told him, and to my surprise he laughed. Raising my arms as if to plead to the gods, I asked, "When will these dark clouds go away?"

The "bare ruined choirs" of mid November

Tonsor reached for a book at the same time that he began quoting lines of verse:

     "That time of year thou mayst ... behold
     When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
     Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
     Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."

I had taken enough English literature as an undergraduate to recognize Shakespeare's "bare ruined choirs," but I could not locate the lines. Seeing that my memory was flailing, Tonsor opened a tome and said, "Sonnet 73." Handing me the open book, he added, "Or perhaps it is the resignation in Rilke's 'Autumn Day' that better captures the mood: Herr: es ist Zeit.... / Legt deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenurhen.... [Lord, it is time ... to shroud our sundials in shadows....][1] In any case, Mr. Whitney, the clouds will keep you indoors, reading your books. Think of how much more history you will learn at Michigan than at Berkeley or Boulder!

"But for your question about the cloud cover, I must introduce you to a former student of mine, Tony Sullivan. He works at the Earhart Foundation and he is an avid weather watcher. Tony will tell you about the jet stream moving south out of Canada this time of year, steering everything from Alberta clippers to Panhandle hooks through our region like roaring freight trains. Even when no front is present, the cool westerlies that flow over Lake Michigan pick up moisture and feeds the clouds that cover the Lower Peninsula. The gloom is reinforced by moisture flowing down from Hudson Bay this time of year. But -- when Hudson Bay freezes over in December, and parts of Lake Michigan freeze over in February and March, we will actually get more sunny days because the surface ice doesn't conduce to cloud formation. That's why it's cloudier now, but will be sunnier later in the winter. I assure you: You will learn the patience of Job and get through these months."

The Huron River in the late fall
As a former geography major, I very much appreciated that my graduate advisor could talk about Michigan's weather and climate. He knew and loved nature just as I did. It was a point of connection outside of the books and course of study.

Cloud cover aside, on this day I was looking forward to Tonsor’s lecture on Marxism. Not only would it be enlightening, but I thought it might give me insights to push against the cultural Marxism then regnant in grad school. Not that the Marxists in our department felt smug. Somebody had posted an apocryphal Antonio Gramsci quotation on the bulletin board outside the main office:

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born: Now is the time of monsters.” ~Antonio Gramsci

Later another bloke came along, inserted a caret, and wrote "Reagan" next to "monsters." Yawn.

U of M's Angell Hall across State Street
By 1987 Marxist proclamations of proletarian triumph at the end of history became the butt of jokes. That catchy line -- “The last capitalist we hang will be the one who sold us the rope” -- just didn't sound clever anymore. Ever since President Reagan had the temerity to speak of the Soviet Union as an Evil Empire that was destined for the ash heap of history, Marxists had been playing defense. Reagan, cheerfully playing offense, poked fun at the last remaining Marxists who were hunkered down on American campuses. It's why they hated him so. "How do you tell a Communist?" the Gipper joked. "Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. How do you tell an ex-Communist? It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin."

I embraced Reagan's determination to defeat Soviet communism. In 1984-'85, I had won a Fulbright scholarship to then-West Germany, and had traveled to Berlin/East Berlin with many questions about Soviet communism. The experience at Checkpoint Charlie and my walks along the River Spree, where I saw crosses of all the Germans who were murdered trying to flee the oppression of East Germany, seared me. I was openly anti-communist, which drew me to the like-minded Stephen Tonsor. But our shared conviction would be the source of a brewing battle royal in grad school.

I knew from our talks that Tonsor was feeling vindicated by the exhaustion of Marxist theory and practice. His insights into Marx and Marxism generated some of his best content as a historian and some of his finest rhetoric as a teacher. From my notes and revisions, the following are the highlights of his lecture to our class.

From Tonsor the intellectual historian and biographer:

“Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset. Both Marxism and capitalism are dedicated to the revolutionary transformation of society.[2] No other economic system more efficiently satisfies man’s material wants than capitalism. If a society wants pornography, the free market will deliver it with greater efficiency and in greater quantity than any other system. So Marx was correct in discerning the revolutionary forces unleashed by capitalism. It has transformed the world and it has displaced traditional society and its institutions. One need not be a dialectical materialist in order to understand the scope and the meaning of the changes; nor need one believe that all historical changes result from changes in the ‘mode of production’ in order to agree with and appreciate the insight of Marx.”[3]

Camille Pissarro, "The Factory at Pontoise" (1873)
“To understand the modern age, you have to understand the profound impact the Industrial Revolution had on European society. The image of the factory tended to replace all other images of community.[4] In a significant sense, Marx was furnishing Europeans with a moral critique of the Industrial Revolution. He was hardly alone. Every -ism was offering some moral critique of the Industrial Revolution. Anarchism, liberalism, nationalism, progressivism, socialism, communism, Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, fascism, Nazism – each decried the breakdown of community in the shadow of the factory; each offered a blueprint for how to put community back together; and each tried to answer the question, Who should be in that community?”

“Both Marx and Engels were under thirty when they wrote the Communist Manifesto, a document whose revolutionary rhetoric embodied nearly every intellectual current of the age. True to the theory of its authors that there is an unbreakable link between theory and practice, the Manifesto not only reflected history but made it. In the 140 years since its publication, it has become one of the central documents of our times, inspiring faith, dedication, contempt, and hostility in nearly equal amounts. To understand the Manifesto is to understand what most of the shrill and discordant debates, civil wars, and ideological conflicts have been about since.”[5]

Karl Marx (1818-1883)
“There can be no denying that Karl Marx was a genius. But like most geniuses, he had a complex and contradictory personality. Throughout his life he saw himself as Prometheus chained to a rock by an angry Zeus. His abiding personal struggle was to break out of his chains and attain absolute freedom. This Promethean image also explains his bohemian temperament and why he found it difficult to live by the rules of conventional society and morality. It is no surprise that he became a revolutionary. He was descended from rabbis on both sides of his family, and it has been observed that there must have been a close connection between the Old Testament prophets’ call for justice – Judaism’s apocalyptic and chiliastic tradition – and Marx’s secular vision of a perfected society that comes through a revolutionary ‘day of the Lord.’”[6]

“Karl Marx was unwilling to play second fiddle in any orchestra. He quarreled with men as much as he quarreled with the gods and the rulers of society. He could not bear contradiction or defiance – it evoked vituperative hatred – and the secret of Engel’s long friendship with Marx lay in the younger man’s willingness to play a totally subservient role.”[7]

“As happens to many strong-willed men, Marx would be frustrated by the reality he hoped to change. The revolutions of 1848 did not prove to be the turning point for which Marx had hoped. European history did indeed turn, but it turned to the right. Until 1917, though the influence of Marx increased, the ‘commanding heights’ in Western society were still held by political conservatives.”[8]

From Tonsor the cultural critic:

“As with any great statement concerning the human condition, the Communist Manifesto cannot be read without taking sides. Its words will not let us suspend judgment or defer commitment or condemnation. Karl Marx came not to bring peace but a sword.”[9]

"In the modern age, when Jews have abandoned Judaism, more than a few of them have followed Marx's path. That is to say, they do not abandon Judaism's messianic tradition. Rather, they secularize the messianic tradition and create materialistic substitutes such as Marxism, socialism, Bolshevism, and other justifications for class warfare or for confronting bourgeois culture."

“Marx maintained that his system was ‘scientific’ rather than utopian. Of course, every charlatan realizes how great an advantage the adjective ‘scientific’ lends to any theory. Marx meant, however, that his system was scientific because it was inevitable, because its coming into being was causally determined. Whereas the dreams of utopians were dependent upon the puny efforts of men for their realization, ‘scientific socialism’ was written into the very order of the cosmos. It was the next sequent event in the womb of time, to paraphrase Hegel. Why this was true is, of course, what the rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto seeks to demonstrate. To make a socialist future no less certain than tomorrow’s sunrise was no small feat of apologetic art. We are still waiting for the inevitable to take place, and socialism, utopian or scientific, has, now that we have seen its partial realization, lost something of its appeal.”[10]
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937)

"When Marx's theory of history showed itself to be toothless -- it had little analytical or predictive bite -- later generations of Marxists shifted the focus. One of the most important shifts was achieved by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who argued that Marxism could transform the culture. Withering away in prison in 1915, Gramsci wrote:  
Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity.... In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches, and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.[11]
"With that quotation in mind, ladies and gentlemen, you might go to the third floor of Haven Hall, to the main office of our history department, and take note of the large poster off the elevator proclaiming that the study of history is about -- transformation."

"You should also be familiar with Leon Trotsky. To young American leftists, he was the most brilliant and attractive of the Russian Revolutionaries -- a veritable brain trust. Yet he was seen by his comrades in the U.S.S.R. as a little too cerebral, a little too critical, a little too global in his imagination. As a result of his criticism of Soviet communism, Stalin had Trotsky exiled and then murdered in Mexico City. He was stabbed to death by one of Stalin's agents, a Spanish communist wielding an ice pick."

From Tonsor the philosopher and logician (remember, he studied philosophy as an undergrad):

“Marxism contradicts itself. Is it not ironic that the Communist Manifesto, which argues that history is shaped by material economic forces, supplied the decidedly non-material ideas that after 1848 were themselves to become shaping forces?”[12]

“One can argue convincingly that most of the experience of the nineteenth century was an attempt to broaden and deepen the meaning of human freedom, to take man, insofar as possible, out of the realm of necessity and to place him in the realm of freedom. Thus the German idealist Immanuel Kant was preoccupied with the problems of freedom and necessity. Confronted with the reality and necessity of natural causal laws, Kant sought for a realm of human experience where these laws did not prevail; where man could be the actor rather than the acted upon. That’s the nineteenth-century context of the Marxian project. When Marxists speak of alienation, they simply mean that man is prevented from realizing himself by the social, economic, and religious institutions that he has created. They are like gravity and the other laws of nature in that they limited man’s freedom. It follows that revolution is needed to break the chains of the economic, social, and religious institutions that bind him to the realm of necessity. That, at bottom, is the Marxian project.”[13] 

“It is richly ironic that history would appoint Friedrich Engels to be Marx’s collaborator. Do you think Engels was living among the proletariat, suffering at their side, and singing 'The Internationale'? He was not and did not. Engels was the scion of a Manchester textile manufacturer and lived off the profits of his capitalist father. In London he resided in the fashionable Primrose Hill district, surrounded by all the bourgeois comforts of the day. Perhaps even more richly ironic is that Marx was supported for much of his adult life by these same capitalist profits that Engels made available to him.[14] They apparently had no qualms about biting the hand that fed them.”

From Tonsor the wit:

“Ludwig Feuerbach’s work was to have a great influence on Marx, almost as profound an influence as the works of Hegel. Feuerbach’s father had been a professor, and as a young man, Feuerbach studied philosophy in order to pursue an academic career. But he began to break with the Protestant religious tradition of his father and of the academic culture at the University of Berlin. Both his views of religion and his Left Hegelian philosophy blocked him from getting a university appointment after he finished his Ph.D. Like many other radicals of his generation, Feuerbach was unable to find an academic job. So he became a rootless, disaffected intellectual. Imagine how different world history might have been had all these Left Hegelians gotten nice, good-paying jobs at a university. They would have settled for bourgeois comforts and amused themselves playing golf. Instead they became hostile critics of society. Our world could have been spared much grief."[15]

Tonsor had another mordant barb that I did not fully appreciate at the time because I did not know the Jewish term he used. "When revolutionary Jewish thinkers fall away from their religion and adopt a left-wing ideology; when they secularize Judaism and transform the messianic tradition into a radical program; it does not seem to occur to them to sit shivah to mourn the loss of their faith."

His last spear thrust made the class laugh. "You would be amazed at how many died-in-the-wool Marxists have struck it rich writing books and going out on the lecture circuit to talk about class warfare. It turns out they make the best capitalists!"

From Tonsor the poet:

“There is always a considerable distance between the dream of a bright tomorrow and today’s dark reality. In order to be effectively translated into reality, dreams demand a map of how to get from here to there. The Communist Manifesto is such a road map. Today men dream other and more satisfying dreams, and the map drawn by Marx reveals itself to be filled with traps and pitfalls. What remains, then, is a great political poem about the mind of the mid-nineteenth century….”[16]

Marx's Communist Manifesto -- "a great political poem"? These words were some of the most powerful and unexpected I ever heard Tonsor utter.

*     *     * 

After class, another student and I went up to the front of the room to ask questions. He was the student who thought Tonsor looked like the Paddington Bear. When he thanked the professor for a lecture that was critical of Marxism, Tonsor let slip what he really felt about Marxist historiography. With some force he answered: "I have waded around in Marxist sewers for so much of my life that, unfortunately, I now know them too well. The Marxists are resentful ideologues who will not submit to reality. I am thoroughly disgusted with the whole intellectual enterprise. Too bad the Marxist and former Marxist scholars in our universities cannot come down with cholera or at least some disabling disease which would prevent their writing or teaching another damned word. We have had enough. It is time to forget Marxism and get on with the real puzzles and difficulties of life."[17]

Then came my turn came to ask him a question. I was struggling to put the relationship between Marxism and the mainstream of Western intellectual life in the right way. But it proved too big a question to answer on the spot. Kindly he invited me to join him and Caroline for lunch. By the time we were outdoors headed for Burns Park, he spoke in a burst of prose that addressed the matter.

"First let's review the essential insight of the liberal conservative who emerges from the mainstream of Western intellectual life. Recall the lecture in which I mentioned Walt Whitman, who in Song of Myself asked: 'Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)'[18] Whitman expressed the profound truth that the essence of life can be fully encountered only by embracing its opposing forces – its polarities, oppositions, tensions, and contradictions. We have seen how the Romantics sought the organic accommodation of opposites. The impulse to achieve the organic accommodation of opposites is not really new but has been a big part of the Western project since the tenth century. Occasionally writers and artists harness these oppositional forces and integrate, harmonize, or synthesize them. In fact, the organic accommodation of opposites by a sovereign personality, institution, or society is the measure of a dynamic, healthy community.[19] It imparts nobility to our civilization.

"The liberal conservative acknowledges this complex, oppositional reality and cheerfully submits to it. He seeks to achieve a harmony of contradictory principles – the principle of authority and the principle of liberty; the principle of equality and that of natural aristocracy; of individualism and of community; of private enterprise and of cultural, moral, and human values that transcend the market mechanism; of Providence (God’s sovereignty) and human freedom; of transcendence and immanence; of sacred and profane; of time and eternity. He resists the ideologue's temptation to abandon the one principle or the other. Rather, he accepts these contradictory ideals, this dual heritage, as fundamental to the human condition.[20]

"That’s what our best minds have taught. Take Tocqueville and Acton. Together their lives spanned the nineteenth century, and together they elaborated the soundest and most coherent body of modern conservative thought that contemporary conservatives can draw upon. These liberal conservatives embraced the complexity of reality. They accommodated, in their lives and in their thinking, the polarities and contradictory principles that characterize our lives.[21]

Stephen J. Tonsor, pictured in the lower left corner of this 1976 dust jacket,
was one of the more prominent thought leaders in the postwar conservative movement.
"Now, contrast what I’ve said about these liberal conservatives, Tocqueville and Acton, with what I've said about Marx. For the left Hegelians in general and for Marx in particular, the dialectic obliterates opposites. For example, at the end of the dialectical process, reality is not spirit and matter, but only matter. There is social value not in the individual and the collective, but only in the collective. Justice is not satisfied by both freedom and equality, but only by equality. Not both-and, but either-or.

"No question Marxism is an attempt to restore purpose, ends, and values to history. But it does so by flattening human experience, by excluding the vertical element, by excluding Providence. Its hostility to the transcendent is the most telling reason for Marxism's failure. It is difficult enough to reconcile God’s ways to man in the ambiguities, failures, dilemmas, and ultimate unknowability of history; but it is downright impossible to justify the 'rational' course of dialectical materialism when confronted by the events of this century, what with its violence and irrationality.[22]

"Marx’s tragic error, you see, was to turn his back on the accommodation of polarities. His error was to amputate half of each pair of polarities. You can trace the amputation back to Hegel. As the Hegelian dialectic moved forward in time, Reason was supposed to obliterate paradox.[23] What Marx did not see is that man will never eliminate contradictions and irrationality. In contrast to Marxism, conservatism has learned to absorb the polarities in the human condition that Marxism can not."

So, I thought, this was the key, the essential Hegelian and Marxist error, which was to obliterate the nature of reality itself -- a reality which, for the conservative, it is necessary to submit to. It's why I would come to call Tonsor's interpretive principle the hermeneutic of accommodating opposites. My professor wrapped up:

"When William F. Buckley Jr. established National Review in November 1955, its founding editorial declared its mission to stand 'athwart history, yelling Stop!' The history Buckley had in mind was Marx's 'History,' left-Hegelian 'History,' the 'History' with a capital "H" that Marxists thought would unfold inexorably until the day of communism's triumph.[24] Conservatives united around a different conception of history that was steeped in irony, polarities, opposites, and unintended consequences. The most fierce anti-communists in the conservative movement were fulfilling their civilizational mission to save the West from 'History.'"

There it was again, the idea of a "civilizational mission." A good term, that.

A few paces before turning from Lincoln onto Morton Avenue, I thought I caught a glimpse of Caroline in the kitchen window.[25] What a welcome respite a relaxed conversation over lunch would be after all this talk of Marxism, a gray and cheerless ideology that was as oppressive as the clouds that blanketed the Michigan landscape.

*     *     *

After lunch, on our walk back to campus, I asked Tonsor about the remarkable number of ex-communists who changed their minds and became pillars of the postwar conservative movement.

"Ask yourself why that is. Why do men change their minds? It's one of the most fascinating things to know about a person. Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Max Eastman, Will Herberg, my mentor Frank Meyer -- each in his own way changed his mind and went from being a communist to being an anticommunist. The migration from communism to conservatism is one of the most remarkable intellectual migrations in the twentieth century. It came about for many reasons. Partly it was an aversion to their own communist past, partly it was because of Stalin's betrayal, and partly it was due to the devolving Cold War after 1945."

There was one additional thing that I wanted to know before leaving the topic of Marxism. What did Tonsor think of the fact that so many of his colleagues c. 1987 were cultural Marxists -- indeed, that so many elite history departments in the U.S. were hiring cultural Marxists who idolized Gramsci.

"I am very worried about the progress of the Marxists in the university. I don't worry about them because of the influence they exercise over students -- which is nil -- but I do worry about the estrangement of the university from the parent society which must follow in the wake of the triumph of the Marxists. It is distressing and there seems to be little or nothing which can be done about it. I shall be an active force for only another four or five years. At this point in my career, I will not be able to do much to counter the Marxists on campus. They are silly people. They will continue to conceive of the university as a teenage gang devoted to adolescent Marxist struggle -- and will damn all who are in disagreement. Never mind that the scholarship -- like Francois Furet's salutary impact on the historiography of the French Revolution -- and the parent society have moved past their stupid ideas."[26]

[1] My translation of the opening of Rainer Maria Rilke, Herbsttag, lines 1-2; at this URL, accessed November 22, 2016; my gratitude to Ann Tonsor Zeddies for this reminder, via a Facebook post, November 19, 2016.
[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, “Science, Technology, and Cultural Revolution,” in Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974), p. 49.
[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx (Chicago: Henry Regnery Gateway Edition, 1969), p. ixx-xx.
[4] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. xx.
[5] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. vii-viii.
[6] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. ix-xi.
[7] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. x.
[8] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. xi-xii.
[9] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. viii.
[10] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. xxi.
[11] See the quotation and discussion thereon at URL http://quotes.liberty-tree.ca/quote_blog/Antonio.Gramsci.Quote.E447.
[12] Many years after I heard Tonsor’s lecture on Marxism, I was delighted to encounter many of the same observations, including this one in Lloyd Kramer, Lecture 13, “Hegelianism and the Young Marx,” in European Thought and Culture in the Nineteenth Century (Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2001); audio format.
[13] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. xii-xiii.
[14] Kramer, Lecture 13, “Hegelianism and the Young Marx,” in European Thought and Culture.
[15] Kramer, Lecture 13, “Hegelianism and the Young Marx,” in European Thought and Culture.
[16] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, pp. xxi-xxii.
[17] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 18, 1984, pp. 3-4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[18] Whitman quoted in Stephen J. Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” Equality, Decadence, and Modernity (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 247.
[19] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” Equality, p. 247.
[20] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, pp. 235, 248-49.
[21] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, p. 248.
[22] Tonsor, “The Conservative Search for Identity,” in Equality, p. 249.
[23] Tonsor, Introduction, Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx, p. xiii.
[24] David Frum, "Unpatriotic Conservatives," National Review, March 25, 2003; at this URL, accessed November 22, 2016.
[25] Caroline Tonsor to Gleaves Whitney, Grafton, IL, June 26, 2014.
[26] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, February 15, 1986, pp. 3-4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tonsor #16 -- "Give me a real thought!"

I was sitting in Tonsor's office when he returned a short review paper. He had written an "A" on the back page, followed by comments. His handwriting was distinct -- a black, bold, cursive style that was pleasing to the eye.

As I finished reading his mark-ups and comments with satisfaction, he said, "It's a good paper, Mr. Whitney. But it could be better. Your writing is -- precious."

Tonsor was an Aristotelian.
Precious? I had no idea what he meant but my defenses went up. Out of pride I wanted to remind him that I had always earned an "A" in composition classes and rarely got anything less on my history papers; that I had already published a book along with numerous articles; that I had just won a national essay contest that came with a $5,000 prize; that I had been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa; that I had taught expository writing and rhetoric to undergraduates; that I had mastered German well enough to win a Fulbright scholarship to West Germany; and that; and that; and that. Such defensiveness on my part! Such pride! I would not submit easily to his criticism.

Over the next minute or two, Tonsor spelled out several criticisms mostly having to do with diction. His voice had an edge. After each of his statements, I said, "Okay," to register that I heard what he was telling me. But I was not happy with this litany.

After five or six of his statements, each followed by my "Okay," Tonsor all of a sudden blew. "Will you quit saying 'okay'? 'Okay' means nothing. It's just a spasmodic reaction, not a real thought. Give me a real thought, Mr. Whitney!"

I was taken aback by Tonsor's burst of anger, an emotional Blitzkrieg that smacked me without warning. Why this heat? It was the first time he laid into me, and I felt equal measures of humiliation and pique. No teacher had ever spoken to me like that. Gathering myself so as to express a "real thought," I said, "By design I try to write not just as an academic intellectual but also as a public intellectual. It's the only way my work will reach a wider audience. I suppose at this point in my career I am not doing justice to the requirements of either style."

"I understand," Tonsor assured me, his voice straining to express recovered calm. (I wished he had instead said, "Okay," just to give me the pleasure of hearing him say it.) He seemed to want to back off, yet his fingers moved sporadically across his knees and his head jerked erratically. "Good writing does take time to achieve. I, too, had to bridge the chasm between writing for colleagues and writing for the informed lay public. Incidentally, I also used to compose poetry when I was about your age. It was not very good. But trying to get the essence of an image or emotion into a line of iambic pentameter makes one think hard about language."

Then, unexpectedly: "Have you ever written poetry, Gleaves?" He asked the question in a soft register. It was the first time he addressed me by my first name. It was also one of the rare times he asked me about my life -- asked not about a book I'd read or a scholar I'd studied or a method I'd explored, but about my life.

I told him that I had written some verse, most recently in a creative writing class with Loy O. Banks, one of my favorite English professors at Colorado State who had inadvertently introduced me to Tonsor's work by giving me his back copies of Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age. I admitted that, looking back, the "poetry" embarrassed me.

"Yes," he said. "Doctors can bury their mistakes. Architects can plant ivy to hide theirs. But writers? Writers have to endure whatever has left the printer's shop."

I welcomed the pivot in the conversation. Tonsor shifted from a high emotional gear into neutral, no doubt to disperse the heat with which he had laid into me. The mood shift had the feel of a guilty parent trying to make up to a child.

Tonsor then launched into a remarkable discourse on rhetoric's place in the liberal arts, signaling that he had left the emotional arena and entered the intellectual one. "No one can use a language well who is estranged from or unacquainted with the poets of the language. What the ancients and the men of the Middle Ages called 'rhetoric' is one of the essential humanistic disciplines. It is essential to the ordinary college students you will someday teach. For them, even though they don't know it, rhetoric is the key to knowledge and understanding, to scientific enquiry and precise description. Without an exact sense of language, without a precise description of things as they are, or as they might be, philosophy, law, and natural science are impossible. Without a poetry which touches the human heart and exactly describes the human condition, religion is dead and the emotions stultified.

"Western men and women have had a 2,000-year training in the greatest 'rhetoric' there is, the language of the Bible, which mankind can avail itself of. As an educational source, one of the most important aspects of the Bible is the fact that it speaks to all men indiscriminately: high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish, sophisticated and ignorant, powerful and weak. It does not talk down to them but speaks in the accents of the Divine and in the language of the greatest poetry. The mind of Western man has been shaped by the language of that book. Like the liberal arts, the Bible has been successful in forming a culture because it reaches beyond its ostensible purpose -- in the case of the Bible, conveying the Word of God -- and informs and inspires a whole culture.

"How startling and saddening it is, when one makes a biblical allusion in a lecture and reads the faces of the audience, that one sees a look as barren as the sandy wastes of the Sahara! One has the impression suddenly that the students are two dimensional, that the depth of the Scriptures is not one of their dimensions.

"In the absence of the liberal arts, this happens not only in matters of scriptural and religious language, but also in the richly allusive language of great poetry and literature. I have the experience often, when speaking to undergraduates, of walking into a largely unfurnished or badly furnished room. There is no place there for the soul's ease, no appropriate setting for intellectual or social intercourse, no stove with which to cook the simplest intellectual fare. As Gertrude Stein observed, 'When you get there, there is no there there.'"

I laughed weakly.

"Instead of the exactly right word, instead of the precise and uncolored definition, instead of the poetic utterance, one hears such phrases as 'like,' 'you know,' or 'I mean.' Such substitutes for language are, as my friend the late Martin Diamond said, 'linguistic black holes' into which the meaning of the language is sucked and disappears. One is tempted to ridicule the poor, literally dumb student who uses such meaningless words, or shout as Jesus did when he healed the dumb man, 'Be thou opened.' But, alas, the only way that we can heal them is by teaching the Bible, the poets, the great literature of the state papers, and the philosophers. The great teacher makes the blind see and the dumb speak, but he can only do so because he too has had his tongue unstopped and his eyes opened.

"The first and most important function of a liberal arts education is to give amplitude and width to the human personality and to enable that personality to express itself fully, clearly, precisely, and gracefully. Style is a matter of ultimate importance whether one is writing up the minutes of the school board or pitching softball for one of the local leagues. The good news is, style can be learned."[1]

When I walked away from that first tense encounter with Tonsor, I did not yet know it, but I was embarking on a road that would teach me many things that weren't part of the program. First, the experience confirmed what I had heard, that Tonsor was indeed "a mite prickly," so it was important for me to manage my own emotions when he was not managing his. Second, even when he was acting intemperately, his erudition kept my mind on the stretch -- I could learn from him if I did not let pride get in the way. The bottom line: I had to make my relationship with Tonsor work. After all, when I moved to Ann Arbor, I entirely reordered my life to learn from him.


[1] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Why Democratic Technocrats Need the Liberal Arts," Freedom, Order, and the University, ed. James R. Wilburn (Malibu, CA: Pepperdine University Press, 1982), pp. 22-23.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Tonsor #15 -- Where Did Liberalism Go Wrong?


During my five years in Ann Arbor, I awoke every weekday at one minute to six o'clock. The radio was set to come on with the start of the broadcast day at WUOM. Every morning began the same way, with an a cappella rendition of "The Yellow and Blue," Michigan's alma mater. Don't ask me how, but the song astonishingly combined a rousing beer-hall ballad with a haunting monastic chant. Years afterward I would fondly associate the alma mater with my routine of visiting Stephen Tonsor during morning office hours.

It was an Indian summer morning, soft and humid and gauzy, when I decided it was time to ask my graduate advisor where liberalism had gone wrong. On the bus ride from North Campus to Central Campus, I "filled my mind with the subject," as Tonsor liked to say. As an intellectual historian and cultural critic, he identified mostly with Tocqueville and Acton, giants among the liberal conservatives. That, I got. But I needed to untangle the knot in my head and understand where to draw the line between the "liberal conservatives" whom he liked[1] and the "liberalism" as an -ism that he did not. There was overlap to sort out, and I feared that I did not know enough to offer a "gritty stone" for us to have a good conversation. To be honest, I was hoping he would do all the talking. My hope was not disappointed.

Tonsor welcomed me with that expectant note of his and I sat down in the squeaky wooden chair. As he was putting papers away, I noticed for the first time how musty his office smelled, maybe because of the brief return of warm weather. It was redolent of the back rooms of the antiquarian book stores in Ann Arbor that I frequented. Once his papers were filed, he rotated his chair to face me. He was looking through his glasses with that Sphinx-like expression of his. His hands were on his knees. He breathed in little audible puffs.


Since he did not like small talk, I got straight to the intellectual problem I was trying to sort out. "Professor Tonsor, when you speak of the liberal conservative who harnesses the spirit of liberty to the spirit of conservation, it sounds so -- appealing. I think I get it. But there is overlap between the spirit of liberty and liberalism, right? In your writings you've had harsh words for liberalism. So first, in your opinion, how do you draw the line between liberty and liberalism. And second, where did liberalism go wrong?"

Tonsor waggled his head and chuckled. "Do you mean, why did James Burnham call welfare-state liberalism 'the ideology of Western suicide'? Or do you mean: How did our liberal system devolve into the art of running the circus from the monkey cage?[2] Let us count the ways," he said, his eyes growing wider and his right hand gesturing toward the Diag as if that space were a convenient marker for the decline of the West.

"There's a lot of emotional incontinence you will encounter when discussing welfare-state liberalism, especially on a college campus like this one. Its defenders these days are not a happy lot.

"There is controversy over when welfare-state liberalism as an -ism first appeared in the U.S. Some of our friends in the South blame Abraham Lincoln for launching our national government on the path to social engineering. As the Civil War was drawing to a close, Lincoln signed the Freedman's Bureau into law to help the newly freed slaves. While it was geographically restricted and only lasted seven years, this new federal agency was unprecedented in its social reach and it inadvertently generated the script for our future welfare state. On behalf of former slaves who were now refugees throughout the South, it provided relief, dispensed medical care, established schools, and redistributed abandoned lands to the newly freed blacks. It passed from the scene during Reconstruction.

"Historians will argue over whether Lincoln's Freedman's Bureau was the first manifestation of welfare-state liberalism in American. But let's set that aside, because there is much less argument over the identification of progressivism with welfare-state liberalism. Indeed, it seems that welfare-state liberalism's political arc in the U.S. follows Marx's formula: History repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce. Progressivism was liberalism's first performance, in the years before and after the turn of the twentieth century. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was its more tragic second performance, in the 1930s. Finally the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were its third and most farcical performance of all, in the 1960s. That's when liberalism as an -ism began to unravel. JFK's make-believe Camelot turned out to be the campy preamble to the hell of Vietnam. And LBJ's Great Society revealed itself to be the reign of the most destructive vulgarian in American history. It was as though Johnson were afflicted with the Midas-touch -- turning everything he encountered not into gold but into garbage.[3]


"But I get ahead of myself. As you know, liberalism has a long, complex history that is not just restricted to its most recent American iteration in the current welfare state. To understand liberalism, one must know the deep, rich soil from which it sprang. And that leads us to explore the geographic and historic conditions of Europe at a very early time.

"One element has been the very geography of Europe, which consists of numerous peninsulas, islands, and mountain ranges that characterize the western extremity of the Eurasian land mass. In previous centuries when only rudimentary military and transportation technology were available, it was difficult for one ruler to establish one polity in a landscape that is so fractured. I am no geographic determinist, but I do believe that the landscape of western Eurasia set the physical stage for the formation of many competing polities, each jealous to preserve its own language, customs, and constitution. This multiplicity characterized Europe, and local sovereignty became the norm. Ancient Greece is a microcosm of what I mean. As Herodotus tells us, there were many hundreds of city-states established on the Balkan Peninsula and the many islands surrounding it. It encouraged seafaring, trade, and exploration to be sure, but also fierce independence to preserve one's local lifeways.

"Another element has been the various traditions of liberty that were instantiated in this fractured geography. Self-government developed organically, though in quite different ways, in ancient Athens, in the republic of ancient Rome, in Italian communes, in the charters of medieval towns, and in medieval England with its Magna Carta, Common Law, and Parliament.

"A third element that made liberalism possible was individualism. In world-historic perspective, our civilization's preoccupation with the individual stands out, in stark contrast to more traditional cultures where the emphasis is on the clan and the tribe; on the authority of the chief, and on cultures with an established peck order that rigidly ranks people by caste and status and keeps them there. Many places in the West evolved away from these traditional arrangements. Two factors were at work. On the one hand, our religious tradition is grounded in the sanctity of the individual who is in the Imago Dei. On the other hand, our humanist tradition celebrates the dignity and strength of the individual who might be modeled on Pericles, Alexander the Great, or Caesar Augustus -- take your pick from Plutarch's Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans. In medieval Europe, by the twelfth century, both these traditions became joined, and Christian humanists acquired the concepts, vocabulary, and symbols to explore what it meant to be an individual.[8]

"In its modern iteration, individualism is the political and social philosophy that emphasizes the moral worth of each human being. Protecting and promoting the freedom of the individual are taken to be a central task of the liberal project. But it was not always so. "Individualism" was originally a term of derision, a perjorative used by reactionaries against French Revolutionaries. To the European conservative, individualisme signified a social dissolution, anarchy, and the prioritizing of individual interests to the ruin of the community. Also in the nineteenth century, European philosophers developed the notion of solipsism or extreme egocentrism -- the notion that one's own existence is the only thing that can be known or that is real. Observing America in the 1830s, Tocqueville warned that individualism might well deplete the 'virtues of social life' in the new republic. Since individualism always holds this latent threat, it is problematic for liberalism. It is one source of unraveling.

"A fourth element that makes our civilization unique is its embrace of pluralism, its ability to absorb many different and even contradictory viewpoints within a common culture. The modern age has even tolerated the existence of competing sources of authority, first in Renaissance Italy (when pagan and Christian sources existed alongside each other), then during the Enlightenment (when secular reason existed alongside religious faith).

"The foundation for our pluralistic way of thinking was laid long ago. Its roots can be found in Hellenistic Palestine where Jew and Greek mixed; in pagan Rome and in Christian Rome; in roots that intertwined Mediterranean culture with Germanic culture beginning in the late classical period. For example, when the Romans abandoned Britain, the oral pagan culture of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Danes came into contact with the Latin Christianity of the literate Romano-Britains and mixed. You see it in medieval Spain, when the Muslim element mixed with the Catholic element. Later, in the thirteenth century, you see it in Thomas Aquinas probing the truth as set out in the documents of more than a half-dozen cultures -- Hebrew, Hellenic, Hellenistic, Roman, Orthodox Christian, Islamic, and Western Christendom. Do you see the pattern? It's not either-or. It's both-and, both-and, both-and. Always additive. The West, you might say, has been intellectually promiscuous. This intellectual promiscuity is really quite remarkable and found nowhere else on the planet to the degree that it is found in our civilization. It's the basis of our studia humanitatis, our humanities. Once you grasp the intellectual pluralism at the root of our modern culture, you will begin to grasp the development of modernity and anticipate the problems it poses to liberalism.

"The -ism's intellectual arc is long, indeed. Leo Strauss argued that liberalism arose among the ancient Greeks, especially in Ionia. It was the freedom of thought which philosophers like Xenophanes claimed against the city. That is to say, it was the intellectuals seeking to free their minds from the common bonds of religion, morality, and tradition.[4] That formulation seems apt today, given the American experience with secular liberalism, which does not seem to be working."


"I date the beginning of the long decline in left-liberal ascendancy that gripped American intellectual and cultural life to an event in 1953. Although Stalin died in March of that year, and although the East Germans tried to throw off their Soviet masters in June of that year, I date the decline from May of 1953, with the publication of a book, by a Michigan man of letters, whose name was Russell Kirk. It was the appearance of The Conservative Mind that caused a shock wave to topple many of the givens in American intellectual life. It caused considerable consternation among liberals.[5] Someday I shall tell you about the curious way in which I came upon that landmark work -- at an elevation of 10,000 feet!

"What I should like to stress now is that, while political liberalism in the U.S. may have been in decline, philosophical and cultural liberalism was not. A single decision of the Warren or Berger court had to potency to undermine centuries of moral tradition.

"What kept American liberalism potent, especially on college campuses in the sixties, was the alliance between those suffering from a nostalgia for the gutter and the Marxists yearning for universal revolution. The alienated intellectuals of the Old Left and their liberal fellow travelers seemed quaint -- they appealed to idealistic youth. They built up a following on elite campuses like this one. The new adherents to the counterculture and the New Left were the able students of people such as Norman O. Brown and C. Wright Mills. Being bright students, they learned to gaze into the metaphysical and political voids their professors had opened up for them. The unreal, psychedelic politics of the age were mirrored by liberal youth stoned out of their minds by chemical and political elixers. All sense of inhibition and limitation was lost, and our campuses transmogrified into cloud-cuckoo-land."[6]

Shaking his head he gestured toward the infamous Diag to drive home his point. "Think of that degenerate, Chef Ra, and the Hash Bash he leads every April Fool's Day -- at high noon. So clever, that one."

Hash Bash on the Diag
I didn't know who the man was, but Tonsor's sarcasm in drawing out "C-h-e-f ... R-a" made me laugh. Apparently he had been a fixture at the Hash Bash since 1972.

Tonsor's next allusion, even if I didn't know what it meant, sounded interesting enough to write down. "I have somewhere said that the unraveling of American liberalism has been the Love-Death music of a dying age written, however, in the style of Offenbach rather than in the style of Wagner."[7]


"But what historic forces made American liberalism unravel?" I persisted, eager to put the arc of liberalism's demise into a coherent narrative.

"Do you want the long version?" he asked.

"Yes" -- my mind was already on the qui vive.

"All right, then. Let's review the evidence of the spirit of liberty going back to the ancient world -- to the Hebrews fleeing Egypt for the Promised Land, and to Odysseus leaving Troy and journeying back to Ithaca. By early modern times, that same liberal spirit aimed to free human beings from certain kinds of oppression. This form of liberty approximates what Sir Isaiah Berlin called, in a famous essay published in 1958, 'negative liberty.' It can be summarized in the various freedom-from's you are familiar with:
  • from physical oppression -- curable disease, preventable hunger, material want, and the like --through capitalistic free markets; 
  • from unjust social customs and straitjacket restraints, through an open and upwardly mobile society;
  • from barriers to their talent and services and products in the marketplace.
  • from political injustice as did, in very different ways, the English, American, and early phase of the French revolutions did; 
  • from social conflict, by supplanting the religious zeal that arose in the Reformations with civic, secular, and materialistic aims on the Dutch model, as Jefferson and Madison proposed; 
  • from arbitrary aesthetic rules, seen in the avant-garde revolt against classicism;
  • from hidebound prejudices, recognizing that a diverse people such as the American nation will have a plurality of viewpoints; and 
  • from spiritual ignorance and restraint, by decentralizing ethical and spiritual authority even when it devolves to the most decentralized unit of all, the individual. 
"Also, historically, the liberal has wanted to free human beings to do certain things. This form of liberty roughly approximates what Berlin called 'positive liberty' and it includes a variety of freedom-to's:
  • to order their freedom as they see fit since as a people they are sovereign;
  • to be able to reproduce one's kind;
  • to be able to think and speak freely in the public square;
  • to elect representatives of their choosing and enjoy self-government under the rule of law;
  • to exercise the First Amendments freedoms -- of religion, the press, assembly, and petition;
  • to have access to an education that will develop their potential;
  • to be able to form and contribute to voluntary organizations in civil society;
  • to buy and sell and contract one's labor in the free marketplace;
  • to advance in an open society as far as their talents and energy and ambition will take them; and 
  • to enjoy and benefit from the proliferating variety of the human condition.
"Don't be fooled by the apparent seamlessness of these lists. As Berlin pointed out, 'negative' and 'positive' liberty can clash with one other in a pluralistic society. For example, if an individual wants to be free from the constraints of religion, how can his wish be reconciled within a community that feels it is free to assert the faith of a supermajority? These values clashed in the famous Supreme Court case, Engel v. Vitale, which was decided in 1962. Henceforward, government-directed prayer in public schools was seen as violating the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and therefore banned.

"Late-modern liberalism sometimes asserts negative liberty; sometimes positive liberty. Where it can err is when it takes a good thing -- in this case, the spirit of liberty that resides deep in man -- and disorders it. All modern -isms do that to some extent, of course, but since we live among the liberals, the speck in their eye is what irritates the beam in our own.

Unforgettable classroom teacher: Stephen Tonsor
"Now, you know from your Western civ survey that pluralism arose in the West as a result of many factors. To review:
  • The encounters with 'brave new worlds' -- starting with the Crusades and accelerating in the Age of Exploration -- exposed Europeans to unimagined novelties. Suddenly they found themselves amid exotic cultures, strange lifeways, and fantastic worldviews. Reports of the discoveries excited the imaginations of men, but they also acted like acids upon the culture -- corroding certainties, raising doubts, admitting skepticism, reinforcing relativism, and even suggesting the slide into subjectivism. As Shakespeare has Sebastian say in The Tempest, 'Now I will believe that there are unicorns.' The European could now look beyond his local horizon and see that his was not the only world, that the European lifeway was not the only lifeway available to man. Confronted by the proliferating variety of cultures, thinking Europeans began to ponder the human condition in radically different ways. Carried to the extreme, modern man would embrace the new for its own sake -- what Christopher Booker called 'neophilia.'[9]
  • Burckhardt identified the Italian Renaissance with a new birth of liberty and with the beginning of the modern age. One reason for this bold assertion is that, with the elevation of the Greco-Roman classics, two different sources of authority -- pagan and Catholic -- now coexisted. It is unusual to find a culture with two quite different cosmologies and quite different sources of intellectual, moral, and spiritual authority. In Christendom, these two different sources had often been integrated by clerics, men of letters working in the long tradition of Christian humanism. But sometimes the two sources were not integrated, and during the Renaissance it was a permissible boundary transgression not to do so. Thus the pagan classics would pose an indirect challenge to the dominant Catholic worldview, for now two different types of human excellence presented themselves -- the hero and the saint. This fundamental bifurcation in the view of human excellence also helped give birth to the new individualism which recognized that man had the freedom to choose in what measure he would be a pagan hero, and in what measure a Christian saint.[10]
  • In the Protestant Reformations, the principle of sola scriptura[11] spurred the growth of religious pluralism. It didn't mean to, but it was the unintended consequence. For once this Protestant principle was unleashed, there was no stopping the devolution of authority from one papacy ... to several countries ... to many regions ... to countless congregations ... to numberless individuals. Henceforward who had the authority to say whether my interpretation of scripture was better or worse than yours? Protestantism's inability to determine exactly what Christian orthodoxy was led to the proliferation of denominations in competition with one another. I am told that today there are several thousand Protestant denominations, each justifying its existence on the doctrine of sola scriptura. How ironic that the search for authentic Christianity would result in such chaos! Not surprisingly, this pluralism led to major religious conflicts from 1517 to 1648, wherein Protestants not only battled Catholics, but also one another, to the death. Imagine the ferocity with which Lutherans killed Anabaptists and vice versa. While religious pluralism came to be identified with spiritual fracture, moral anarchy, and Christendom's demise, it nevertheless led, in time, to liberal political settlements and to a chilly social tolerance; also to the emergence of materialistic, pluralistic, secular societies -- even if at the expense of true community. I am, of course, describing America.
  • During the course of the long Scientific Revolution, a series of paradigm shifts radically altered the West's vision away from a geocentric cosmos ordered in a great chain of being. Copernicus demolished Ptolemaic astronomy, Newton demolished Aristotelian physics, Darwin demolished the Mosaic chain of being, and Freud demolished Augustinian psychology. Henceforward, the sciences would become yet a third locus of authority, alongside the pagan classics of antiquity and Christianity's sacred scripture and tradition. But it was not an authority that relied on written texts. No, nature herself now provided the "texts." Science took nature as its sacred text and subjected the world to constant rereading and revision, based on observational methods. Nothing seemed stable anymore. In fact, it was posited that there was a plurality of realities, a plurality of worlds. In contrast to the medieval mind with its naive faith in one great chain of being, the modern mind confronted a dizzying succession of paradigms about reality -- from Newton to Einstein to Heisenberg to Bohr. No science texts were canonical; no thing was fixed; in philosophy becoming supplanted being; and relativism, the absolute. The very structure of the West's scientific revolutions seemed to confirm pluralism.[12]
  • As you know, it's the purpose of History 416 to understand the astonishingly rapid succession of worldviews that has developed -- from the Jesuits' disputatio to the secular Enlightenment, when the philosophes developed sophisticated arguments for variety in unity so long as the glue in that unity was reason. It did not take long before rationalism and empiricism were challenged by the counter-Enlightenment and Romanticism, which in turn were challenged by Positivism, and on and on it goes. So we intellectual historians can demonstrate quite convincingly that our modern age is a cacophony of -isms. Our civilization is quite promiscuous in its willingness to entertain new suitors. We should not be surprised that many of the offspring are less than beautiful --"
All of a sudden with startling rudeness Tonsor's desk phone rang, interrupting his remarkable soliloquy. It's the first time I saw him react to a phone ringing. His reddening face betrayed irritation, and he looked at the black contraption as though it were a mischievous jack-in-the-box. If the window had been open, I am sure he would have pitched the thing down onto the Diag below. To my surprise he ignored the ringing, sort of. While he wouldn't pick up the receiver, he couldn't resist going on a tear about what a nuisance the modern telephone is: "Before you arrived, I got a call from a swindler trying to sell me land in Arizona. I dislike arid climates intensely. Keeping plants alive with a little dab of water after the heat of the day has exhausted them is not my idea of a happy occupation.[13] As for the telephone, H. L. Mencken got it right when he said the telephone is the greatest boon to bores ever invented!" Tonsor drew out "b-o-o-n to b-o-r-e-s" for effect. He slapped his knees and rocked into his next sentence.

"I think I was speaking of the modern age as an age of promiscuity. Promiscuity, of course, is disordered love. What did liberalism disorder but the love of liberty?

"Again, we must distinguish between the spirit of liberty in man's nature and the -ism that grew out of the modern project. When liberalism arose as a modern ideology, it often took something good in the nature of man -- in this case, the spirit of freedom -- and disordered it. This tendency to disorder liberty has gone hand-in-hand with numerous intellectual errors.
  • One of liberalism's chief errors is its simple-minded attachment to the Enlightenment. Liberalism, you see, fancies that it has outgrown the Middle Ages and Christendom, which it regards as two sizes too small and quite out of fashion. It is this bias against Christendom and the Middle Ages that betrays the invincible ignorance of our liberal friends -- and their intolerance toward many of the religious roots of our civilization.
  • For instance, although modern liberalism is correct to recognize that our civilization is pluralistic, it is foolish to cast off our older philosophical and faith traditions that seek to order the things we value. Liberalism fancies itself to be value neutral -- it provides no way to order the goods in our lives. Yet a hierarchy of value is what we crave. Our nature is not made just to wander aimlessly from good to good to good. That is a false liberty that leads to anomie and despair. Rather it is our nature to seek out a map, search out a destination, and set a direction that we are confident will take us to a better place. How does the undiscriminating liberal, who breezily accepts a pluralistic world, discern what is better? Truly, when the liberal eschews Aristotle's final causes and dodges absolutes, he does violence to man's intelligence. The task is to find ways of ordering values that most people can accept.
  • Another example, this one along different lines. Liberalism often takes credit for the West's first constitutions. It is shockingly ignorant to assert that the modern constitution owes its origin to the Enlightenment. The roots of constitutional government go back to the Middle Ages. Magna Carta, the charter of English liberties, was actually the outcome of a conservative revolt among the barons to force King John to recognize their traditional rights as Englishmen. They were reasserting the root principle of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, that the monarch was as subject to the rule of law as all other men were. Also there were a number of medieval communes, little republics whose charters defended the liberties of free men. From your reading of the Federalist Papers, you know that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were familiar with these medieval Italian communes. Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and others have argued that the American Founding was in a significance sense a revolution prevented, not made, since the Founders were contending with London to restore their ancient rights as Englishmen.
  • Also many liberals assume that rights came out of the modern political tradition. Wrong again. Perhaps they have not read key medieval authors like Thomas Aquinas who wrote extensively on natural rights, or become familiar with groundbreaking documents like the Charter of the Forests, which was actually a conservative law in that it limited the king and restored his subjects' traditional access to woodlands for their livelihood.[14] Nor, apparently, have they heard of the right of asylum and the right of sanctuary, whereby any church afforded protection for combatants, refugees, and fugitives, especially in time of war.
  • You have heard me say that freedom is not freedom unless it is ordered. These apparent opposites -- freedom and order -- need one another to work. Sometimes our liberal friends forget the experience of the species. They embrace liberty without a proper regard for what it takes to sustain the freedoms we enjoy. The challenge every generation must face is how to keep liberty from devolving into private licentiousness and its cousin, social anarchy. An apprehension of the natural law, faith, morals -- these are the permanent things that are needed to help us order our lives so that we are fit to live with each other in relative peace. The order in the soul is conducive to the order in society, and vice versa. Value-neutral liberalism does not have a good answer to that.
  • Yet another intellectual error that liberals fall into is to forget that all modern free societies give rise to both a party of innovation and a party of conservation. Both-and. Each gives expression to the permanent things in human nature -- innovation which is the drive to better the human condition; and conservation which is the instinct to treasure what is good. We are motivated by both, and in a free society reform comes out of the perennial tension between these two oppositional drives. Innovation and conservation need each other because they correspond to the fact that each of us, individually, contains multitudes, so it is no surprise that society does, too. And yet, by the late 1940s and early 1950s -- after five terms of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman -- the liberal elite in our nation grew smug and didn't think they needed a conservative intellectual movement to push against. It was liberalism's arrogance -- as witnessed in people like Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. -- that it had no need for conservative ordering and restraint. 
Lord Acton instructs us otherwise: 'Don't let us utter too much evil of party writers, for we owe them much. If not honest, they are helpful, as the advocates aid the judge.'"[15]
At this observation I wrote a note to myself: For the most part in this conversation, I was witnessing Tonsor perform as a liberal conservative using his hermeneutic of dynamic tension. But in 1987, did he also advocate the need of conservatives for a robust liberal intellectual movement to push against?

"Now, to understand the genesis of this -ism, you might consult a liberal historian like Arthur M. Schlesinger, who wrote a brief history that explains what liberals are about." Tonsor got up, dug deep into a bookcase, and handed me a dusty paperback called The Vital Center. "It's not very good in its treatment of conservatism, which is confoundingly weak, but at least it takes you inside the riddles of the liberal mind around 1948, when liberalism reached its apogee."

Suddenly the phone rang again. Still standing, Tonsor picked up the receiver, slammed it back down, and impatiently shook he head as if he wanted to utter an expletive -- but I never knew him to utter expletives.


"Liberalism," Tonsor resumed with determination, "originally had the noble goal of protecting and promoting the freedom of the individual. The conundrum is this: Although government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, does government itself pose a threat to liberty? Lord Acton, for instance, saw the necessity of a system that gives government the power necessary to protect individual liberty but also prevents those who govern from abusing that power. Alas, liberalism has experienced mission creep. Over the decades it has transmogrified into a succession of grotesque caricatures of itself, each manifesting its own peculiar errors. Let's review them.
  • First came the old liberals who were devoted to -- liberty.[16] Their classical liberalism sought to protect the freedom of the individual. Originally it was associated with the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith in the eighteenth century. Once the idea caught hold, the laissez-faire marketplace revealed itself to be a huge improvement over the mercantile system it replaced, what with its extensive government controls and its assumption that wealth is a zero-sum game. In a mercantile economy, the only way to increase one's portion of a static pie is through colonization, exploitation, and war. Classical liberalism, by contrast, seeks to enlarge the pie by growing the economy. One cannot overstate what capitalism wrought: nothing less than the most revolutionary force in human history since the Neolithic Revolution.
Now, free-market economists have taught us valuable lessons -- that there is no such thing as a free lunch, that the profit motive works, that free trade spreads wealth. As I like to say, the free market does a better job fulfilling man's material wants than any other system -- by far. If people want more food, then the free market will provide. But what if they want more pornography? Well, their free market system will give them as much as they can stand. Of course, therein lies the danger. Classical liberals fall into error when they overlook, wink at, or excuse the abuse of liberty. Just because an action is legal does not make it moral. Freedom needs virtue. For freedom without virtue is no freedom at all. Rather we descend into the anarchy of the jungle where might makes right. 
The American and British experience with the free marketplace has for the most part been benign because it developed hand-in-hand with periodic great awakenings among the people. These religious revivals tempered our antisocial passions -- greed, selfishness, drunkenness, lust, ruthless ambition -- at the exact moments when our economy was growing faster than any in world history. The nexus of a growing economy and the great awakenings is one of the happy accidents of history. 
Classical liberals also fall into error when they assume that human beings are merely Homo economicus. I find myself bemused that so many of my free-market friends do not bother to read Book 5 of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. After hundreds of pages explaining and praising the free market in books 1-4, Smith in Book 5 warns against the tendency of the modern industrial economy to reduce men to cogs in a machine, thereby stripping them of their dignity. That's why he defends the role of government, public education, and other services to foster the creation of a humane economy. Wilhelm Röpke, in A Humane Economy, offers an important corrective to seeing man merely as Homo economicus. I have some experience with it. Back in 1948-'49, I lived in the Zurich he describes.
On a related note I should add that, since the early 1960s, I've thought that our education system must do a better job teaching young people that the for-profit sector has a huge impact on the health of the other two sectors, governmental and philanthropic. If the economy is strong, and the tax structure is good, then money will flow into the public treasury and into civil society. Government can then pay for its services without accruing debt, and philanthropic organizations can fulfill their mission to improve the human condition. Alas, it seems that entrepreneurs are almost always vilified by our education system. 
  • After classical liberalism came assertive state liberalism. (It has also been called 'moderate state intervention,' 'quantitative liberalism' by Arthur Schlesinger, and the 'social market economy' by the Germans.) We have already seen how the exigencies of the Civil War led to the creation of the Freedman's Bureau, which was one of the first manifestations of assertive state liberalism. But something else was at work, too, and it is not difficult to understand why this phase of liberalism began to replace the older classical liberalism that prevailed from the late eighteen century to the late nineteenth century. The effects of the Industrial Revolution hadn't been fully realized. Yet the Industrial Revolution grew spectacularly as a result of the laissez-faire marketplace, a marketplace that ironically did not seem up to the task of alleviating the suffering caused by its own growth. Even America's robust civil society seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the needs that arose in the periodic panics that occurred after the Civil War -- the depression of the 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s, foremost among them. 
No doubt about it: Industrialization and urbanization spread wealth and created an ever growing upper class and middle class. But they also, periodically, spread what the Marxists call immiseration. As the plight of the working classes pricked the conscience of the nation, usually during cyclical economic downturns, the ideology of progressivism arose. The rationale of progressivism was to counter big business with big government. The influence of Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Croly, Woodrow Wilson, and a bevy of Muckrakers made Washington a more active player in the society and economy. The regulatory state with its alphabet agencies was established to protect workers and consumers. Interestingly, it corresponds to the administrative state that Tocqueville had prophesied would diminish Americans' freedom because no one elected all these new regulators to make the rules we would live by. A degree of social engineering also became a goal of assertive state liberalism. Progressive taxation transferred wealth from the rich to the poor, thereby achieving a modicum of economic leveling and establishing the welfare state. 
Already by the end of the nineteenth century, British and American liberalism were beginning to flirt with collectivism.[17] As a result of this flirtation, assertive state liberalism took a great leap forward in 1913 with the progressive income tax; then grew even more in FDR's New Deal, Truman's Fair Deal, and LBJ's Great Society. While transferring money from the rich to the poor may have made reformers feel better, it did not address a raft of underlying pathologies: the breakdown of the family, high dropout rates in schools, unwanted pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, the erosion of communities. Nor did assertive state liberalism anticipate the extent to which government would become its own self-serving Leviathan. What's wrong with that picture: government lobbying for itself? The consequences have been doleful. It's not just the deficits that mount when we expect too much of government and spend money like reckless teenagers on a spree using Dad's credit card. It's the cynical policy of throwing money at the underclass to keep them quiet. That's not true compassion. One of my former students, Marvin Olasky, who was formerly an atheist and Marxist, is doing important work that shows that civil society is much better than the government at delivering basic social services to those in need.
I should note that Franklin Roosevelt successfully renamed classical liberals -- those who opposed the New Deal regulations of the economy on behalf of the less fortunate -- "conservatives." Nineteenth-century liberalism thereby became identified with twentieth-century conservatism.
  • Shortly after assertive state liberalism arose, there also appeared aggressive state liberalism (or 'qualitative liberalism,' as Schlesinger calls it). Now government would not just be in the business of regulating industry to protect workers and consumers; not just in the business of transferring wealth from the rich and upper-middle classes to the working and poorer classes. Big government now justified its reach into the culture itself in order to instantiate progressive values. In the New Deal it involved the WPA art projects and writer projects. I have long thought that all the New Deal murals that went up on public buildings in the 1930s were an answer to the Confederate statues that were erected under the influence of the KKK in the 1920s. In any case, beginning with the Great Society it involved disseminating news and commentary on NPR and PBS, promulgating a liberal outlook among the populace; supporting the arts even when that art offended taxpayers; funding the humanities even when they furthered the elite's alienation from ordinary Americans; regulating our schools by mandating who got to go where, depending on their race and class and zip code; striking organized prayer in public schools; permitting abortion on demand. Some liberalism, this. The overreach has been breathtaking. Our Founders tried precisely to prevent a situation in which unelected federal judges could acquire the authority to transform the culture.
  • Now liberalism is entering a fourth phase, and that newly coined term, 'identity politics,' captures it best. It was inevitable that when liberal intellectuals and Democratic politicians from FDR to LBJ began to open up immigration, expand civil rights, and broaden the franchise, those who felt historically marginalized would demand greater inclusion in the American experiment. Identity politics is a coalition of diverse groups -- second- and third-wave feminists, homosexuals, the handicapped, Indians, Blacks, Latinos, and other non-white, non-European immigrants. This coalition is every bit as statist as previous generations of liberals. It seeks power to change the culture by fiat. Even my work has been influenced by the tam-tam of identity politics. Already by the early 1970s I was 'updating' the American dream and arguing for greater diversity in our universities.[18]
I think the primary driver of identity politics stems from America's original sin, black chattel slavery and its derivative, Jim Crow. Racism manifests itself in the enforcement of bigotry. It is the banal oppression of racial inequality everywhere in public and private life."
Tonsor suddenly reached for a paper on his desk and held it up to his eyes. Impatiently removing his glasses he squinted to read. The black English professor, Shelby Steele, has written something truly perceptive on the topic. I quote: 'Racism is a tyranny and an oppression that dehumanizes -- animalizes -- the "other." It is a social malignancy, yet it carries the authority of natural law, as if God Himself had dispassionately ordained it.... America finds itself in moral trouble,' Steele says. 'The open acknowledgement of the nation's racist past has seriously compromised its moral authority, and affirming democratic principles and the rule of law will not be a sufficient response. Only a strict moral accounting can restore legitimacy. Thus redemption -- paying off the nation's sins -- becomes the moral imperative of a new cultural and political liberalism. President Lyndon Johnson turned redemption into a kind of activism: the Great Society, the War on Poverty, school busing, liberalized welfare policies, affirmative action. This liberalism always projects moral idealism in the form of integration, social justice, and so on, which has the ring of redemption.What is political correctness if not essentially redemptive speech? So liberalism has become a cultural identity that offers Americans a way to think of themselves as a decent people. To be liberal is once again to be good.'[19]
Grand as redemption is, two challenges may eventually thwart identity politics. One is that each of these diverse groups has its own agenda. For example, the feminist agenda will not always square with the Black agenda (think of their differences over abortion), and the Black agenda will not always line up with the homosexual agenda (think of their differences when it comes to going outside established sexual norms). The Black church is one of the most conservative places in our culture. As each faction competes for limited public resources, there will be strain within the coalition. I predict that liberal America will become balkanized and possibly quite illiberal because it will have trouble articulating a vision of the common good. 
Second, identity politics will make whites more aware of threats to their power. As the liberal coalition grows, whites will embrace an identity politics of their own. We have seen some indication of this shift in Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy and in Ronald Reagan's electoral successes. Conservatives will have to remain vigilant in the process. William F. Buckley at National Review has done a fairly good job of policing the movement by keeping out the KKK, the Birchers, the Randians, and other kooks. There will always be silly and even dangerous camp followers just outside the main ranks. But my point here is: Those who rise by identity politics should be prepared to fall by identity politics.
The question I have about identity politics which remains to be answered is this: Is identity politics getting enough traction in the culture to constitute a third source of authority in the civilization? We've talked about how our civilization came to have two coexisting authorities in tension with one another -- Everyman's ethics and faith that come from classical Christendom, and our elites' science that comes from the modern Enlightenment. In our postmodern culture, one detects in identity politics the fevered canvass of non-Western cultures for a new source of values -- ideological, balkanized, neopagan, statist -- that will erode and eventually supplant both the Christian evangel and the Enlightenment project."
"It sounds like a book waiting to be written," I ventured. "Instead of Alvin Toffler's Third Wave, Stephen Tonsor's Third Authority."

"Not by me it wouldn't -- the very thought gives me a crushing headache that would send me to bed.

"Well, that's enough for today, Mr. Whitney," said Tonsor, slapping his knees. "There is a line of students waiting outside the door and they are in need of my ministrations."

Closing my looseleaf binder and thanking my graduate advisor for the grand tour of liberalism, I retreated to the warrens of Harlan Hatcher Library to reconstruct the conversation in my notes and further untangle the knot in my mind. It would now be easier to distinguish between the "liberal conservative" who ordered the spirit of liberty according to the permanent things, and the "liberalism" that increasingly sought to harness the state to engineer society. Listening to my professor, I realized that I was more liberal than he. I had seen Germany's social market economy with my own eyes, and it worked beautifully. As a result, the tutorial with Tonsor prompted tensions and still more questions. Foremost among them was this: As the meaning of liberalism shifted through its four phases, did the meaning of conservatism shift with it? For now, I was too spent to pursue the question.



[1] Tonsor alluded to himself as a "liberal conservative" in his letter to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[2] Quotation by H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949).

[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Unraveling of American Liberalism," book review, but I do not yet have a date or publication data; Alfred Regnery kindly sent a photocopy of the review to me.

[4] Peter Augustine Lawler, "Liberalism," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), p. 496.

[5] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Conservative Pluralism: The Foundation and the Academy," pp. 1-2; unpublished, no date; lecture or manuscript in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[6] Tonsor, "Unraveling." Given the stereotypes of the sixties, and given Tonsor's own observations, it is easy to fall into the erroneous assumption that virtually everyone on college campuses was liberal or radical during that tumultuous decade. Yet Todd Gitlin -- a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, a veteran of student protests in the 1960s, and the author of an important book on the period -- argues that the decade was not so much radical as it was polarized. Indeed, conservatives were strong on campus in the early part of the decade. "I was at Michigan for two years in '63 and '65, so I can tell you there was a very widespread right-wing movement." Gitlin quoted by Anemona Hartocollis, "On Campus, Trump Fans Say They Need 'Safe Spaces,'" New York Times, December 8, 2016; at URL http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/08/us/politics/political-divide-on-campuses-hardens-after-trumps-victory.html?smid=fb-share

[7] Tonsor, "Unraveling."

[8] Tonsor recommended that his students read Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987).

[9] Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs, 1969.

[10] Tonsor was clear that, even though Jacob Burckhardt was often credited with seeing the rise of individualism during the Italian Renaissance especially, subsequent studies pushed the idea of individualism back several centuries. He cited Colin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual, 1050-1200, and Walter Ullmann, The Individual and Society in the Middle Ages. See Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, May 19, 1986, p. 2; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[11] Sola scriptura is Latin for "by Scripture alone." This Protestant theological doctrine holds that Christian Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. The problem comes when passages are interpreted and mean different things to different people.

[12] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

[13] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, July 25, 1987, p. 4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

[14] URL http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item101341.html, accessed October 24, 2016.

[15] Stephen J. Tonsor, Foreword, Lectures on the French Revolution, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2000), ebook ed., loc. 31.

[16] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1985), p. 185.

[17] Kirk, Conservative Mind, p. 185.

[18] Stephen J. Tonsor," Tradition and Reform in Education (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1974).

[19] Shelby Steele would become a Hoover Fellow just a few years after this conversation with Tonsor. As a Hoover Fellow he wrote, "Why the Left Can't Let Go of Racism," Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2017, at URL https://www.wsj.com/amp/articles/why-the-left-cant-let-go-of-racism-1503868512.