Saturday, January 9, 2010

Some History of the Origins of the Progressive Assault on America

Or, in simpler words, How Progressives Screwed Us.

Professor Tiffany Jones Miller of the University of Dallas has a fine, brief article on the history of Progressivism in America, keying off the work of John Dewey. Of course, for my money she's far too 'cool' and academic about the whole thing, but for the most part she's very accurate. Here are some excerpts:
"If the progressive label seems less radical today, it is only because progressivism is less well known than its liberal progeny.

It was initially an academic phenomenon far removed from American politics. Particularly in the post–Civil War American university, professors — many of whom had obtained their graduate training in German universities, and whose thought reflected the “intoxicating effect of the undiluted Hegelian philosophy upon the American mind,” as progressive Charles Merriam once put it — articulated a critique of America that was as deep as it was wide.

It began with a conscious rejection of the natural-rights principles of the American founding and the promotion of a new understanding of freedom, history, and the state in their stead. From this foundation, the progressives then criticized virtually every aspect of our traditional way of life, recommending reforms or “social reorganization” on a sweeping scale, the primary engine of which was to be a new, “positive” role for the state.

As the progressives’ influence in the academy increased, and growing numbers of their students sallied forth into all aspects of endeavor, this intellectual transformation gradually began to reshape the broader American mind, and, in time, American political practice. “A new regime in thought,” as Eldon Eisenach writes, “began to become a new regime in power.”

While many progressive academics helped effect this philosophical transformation, few, if any, were as influential as Dewey. Through an immense and wide-ranging body of work, vigorous activism, and his many students, Dewey’s mark was deep and enduring.
When freedom is redefined in terms of spiritual fulfillment, the "problem of achieving freedom" radically changes. Freedom is no longer secured by constraining government interference with “the liberty of individuals in matters of conscience and economic action,” as Dewey notes, but rather by “establishing an entire social order, possessed of a spiritual authority that would nurture and direct the inner as well as the outer life of individuals.”

"The freedom of an agent who is merely released from direct external obstructions is formal and empty," for unless he possesses every resource needed to take advantage of this broad legal opening, he will remain unable to exercise his freedom and thereby actualize his spiritual potential. While the law would "exempt [him] from interference in travel, in reading, in hearing music, in pursuing scientific research[,] . . . if he has neither material means nor mental cultivation to enjoy these legal possibilities, mere exemption means little or nothing."
The essay is a little needlessly complex and assumes some background. She links Dewey to Hegel, for example, but then never explains why that's relevant to her thesis (how the Progressives undercut the idea of natural rights).

Far more worrisome, she makes a hard distinction between Hegelianism and Pragmatism, suggesting that while Dewey was instrumental in developing the latter, he never really shook off the former. That's true, but not because (as she alludes) that they are somehow opposed.

To the contrary, Pragmatism is nothing but dumbed-down Hegel, re-written for an American audience. Hegel's fractured view of reality, the irrationalist theory of knowledge (masquerading under the name Reason), the collectivist ethics and politics are all there, little changed. The only thing Dewey (and, earlier, Pierce and James) really did was to remove any shred of 'certainty' by discarding the fiction of the Absolute.

In other words, Pragmatism is a humbler Hegelianism (consistent with the shrinking of philosophy that accelerated in the 19th century, and produced the 20th).

Just to give one important example of the effect on contemporary political debate, I recently asked a 'liberal' what justified (in his view) coercing some to fill the needs of others. His answer is illuminating (scan down the comments section to near the bottom):
So in a civilized society, it's expected that everyone will give something so that the society as a whole can enjoy those rights. I include "health" as part of "life." If you become unhealthy, you cannot work, therefore cannot "pursue" anything.

If the purpose of government is to protect the rights of people in society, it has to protect their ability to exercise those rights. I can't exercise my right to property in a civilized society without a justice system, so how can I exercise my right to life if I can't afford to sustain it in the event of an illness?
If you read his entire you answer you'll see how he, like Dewey, stood Jefferson and Madison's views on their heads, while claiming to be in the American tradition. This is classic Progressive thinking, derived from Dewey (and very Hegelian in spirit).

To answer it, for now I'll just quote Peter Cresswell of Not PC (after an essay by Brook and Watkins in IBD): "Until this basic moral premise: is repudiated — that need generates an entitlement — then socialized government will continue to grow."

In any case, the NRO essay is well worth reading in its entirety (as is Brooks and Watkins) for anyone with an interest in intellectual history, or just anyone who wants to know how we — and Progressivism — got where we are today.

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