Up Sucker Creek

Up Sucker Creek
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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Progressivism: Destabilizing, unAmerican, and dangerous

15 years ago, Larry P. Arrn wrote this article for Imprimis, the free monthly speech digest of Hillsdale College and is dedicated to educating citizens and promoting civil and religious liberty by covering cultural, economic, political, and educational issues.  

The excerpts from this article briefly summarize the origins of and philosophies of Progressivism, a malignant deviation from our American Constitution's rights, our heritage, and protections from growth of government control.  By perverting Constitutional concepts of individual rights, Progressives have spun a new identity for Americans and their relationship to government.  In doing so, Progressivism has made government, specially at the federal level, a culturally divisive force that seeks to control our behavior according to a new set of values.  

While the ideas expressed in Progressivism are not new to the world, they are "new" to American mainstream politics, having crept in over the last century, gaining more social legitimacy as attested by the growing favorable view of Socialism, which is antithetical to the Constitution and our Founders' beliefs and intent.  This article is but one of many that explains the rejection of our foundational rights and the cultural divide.  If schools don't value our heritage and spread these new, perverted ideas, how will we be able to live as a free people unencumbered by government power and force?   

From 2002: After fifteen years, the disintegration of fundamental Americanism is even more profound and dangerous.     

Our Responsibility to America

Imprimis, Hillsdale College

Larry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American EducationThe Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution; and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.

First published in 1972, Imprimis is one of the most widely circulated opinion publications in the nation with over 3.6 million subscribers.

The Crisis in America Today

   First, let us look at America. Right now it is engaged in a great battle. It is not only the obvious and urgent battle with terrorism, but also a battle over the meaning of the country itself. This battle concerns certain key words that have ever been identified with our nation. Words—ideas and principles—are at the heart of our nation. Over the course of history, our geography has changed massively. Our population has grown manyfold, and as at the beginning we are a nation of immigrants and their children. Yet somehow America has a definite meaning, a meaning in principle that can be measured in practice.
One day every summer we celebrate the making of our country. As John Adams predicted, this day is the anniversary of a document that states the purposes of our nation. Abraham Lincoln once spoke of a “central idea” in America, from which all of our “minor thoughts radiate.” The Declaration of Independence called this idea a “self-evident truth.” It is the idea that each of us is equally a child of God, born the same kind of creature, and so equal with respect to our rights.

We have these key terms—rights, equality, liberty. And at certain times in our history we have a pivotal debate about what these terms mean. The political party commanding a majority has changed but a few times in our history, each time after such a debate. At Hillsdale College we like to say that “ideas have consequences.” These are the ideas that have the most profound consequences.
These words do not refer merely to theories, detached from how we live and act and think. These ideas live in our hearts, and grow up with us in our homes and families. Americans are, after all, a distinctive people. They start businesses more often than other people do. They give to charity more often than other people do. They think, or they have thought, that their own families and their own neighborhoods, their own businesses and their communities, are their own things to direct and to nurture. They do not look to others to tell them how to manage their own affairs. They know how to compete with each other and cooperate with each other at the same time, energetically and with good will. They prefer doing things of their own volition and by themselves. They do not like war, but when they are compelled to fight they make good warriors for the same reason that they make good business people or good neighbors, and they can be ruthless. This is the American character.

The New Idea of America

  That is the old idea of America. Now there is a new idea. According to it, human nature is not fixed but evolves. Furthermore, this evolution comes to be something that we ourselves control. To believe that man can control his evolution is to believe in effect that we can create ourselves. We can take the place of God. This way of thinking comes to us from German historicism, but in America it became known as progressivism. Early in the last century it began to take over the academic world. Gradually it took over the Democratic Party and got a very powerful influence on the government.
These ideas, too, are not just theories, debated in the ivory tower. Hillary Clinton gave a commencement speech at the University of Texas in April of 1993. . The central point of this speech is the need to “redefine who we are as human beings in this post-modern age,” something that requires “remolding society” and “reinventing our institutions.” And of course the engine of all this change is government.

Compare this with the doctrine in the Declaration of Independence that human beings have a certain nature, that they may be governed only in a certain way, and that whatever the location or period of history, any government that does not govern people in that way is wrong.
Just as the old understanding of government implied a certain kind of Constitution and way of life, so the new understanding implies a different kind of Constitution and way of life. Today, the Constitution hardly functions at all as a limit on the actions of the federal government. We citizens expect different things from the government, and tolerate actions by it that would have outraged our fathers. Think, for example, what has become of our property rights. The Founders saw property rights as a sort of summary of all our rights. Where the right to property is protected, entrepreneurship flourishes, and people are able to care for themselves. If it is not protected, then for the same reason freedom of speech and worship and equality of justice will suffer, too.
 In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech about a “new bill of rights,” founded upon “new self-evident truths.” Notice the use of the language of the Declaration, but now put to a new purpose. One of these new rights is that a farmer should be guaranteed a price for his crops. This is the idea that has produced the mohair subsidy and the annual payments to farming corporations. Roosevelt presents this as an extension of the old rights protected in our Constitution, but in fact it is the abnegation of those rights. It inspires a battle in society over who gets what from the government, or rather, from the taxpayer. The easy path to wealth is to become a member of a protected class. The distortions this breeds in the economy are massive, and they grow steadily. Whereas the old idea of rights—that they can only include things that do not take from another—breeds harmony in society, so the new idea breeds conflict.
The same thing is happening in the political system. Because we have the first purely representative government ever built, we must rely entirely upon elections to control the government. Today elections are managed ever more tightly, and notoriously with a purpose to affect who wins. In the last two months, federal regulators ruled that Jay Leno and David Letterman will not violate election law if they joke about candidates just prior to an election. But of course a government that can rule that this is legal, may soon rule that it is not. Meanwhile, electoral issues move steadily into the courts, where lawyers and judges may decide who can run and who will win. Just recently the New Jersey Supreme Court, the same court that ruled that the Boy Scouts of America may not exclude homosexual scoutmasters, permitted a party to substitute a popular candidate for an unpopular one, after the statutory time limit had expired. If this continues, elections will become like relay races at a track meet.
I will mention later federal education policy, which now dictates to almost every college in the land about the most minor details. It has developed in just the same way as most of the other interminable intrusions of the federal administrative system into things that were previously private or local.
How does this new understanding affect our national character? Have you noticed that we are not as apt as we used to be to take care of our families for ourselves? Have you noticed that we are not as apt as we used to be to resent subsidy of ourselves by the government? Have you noticed that we are not as apt as we used to be to think that there’s a standard of uprightness to which we are to conform? Ride the back roads across America and notice how many buildings have been built to house federal bureaucracies. In the 30 years since Imprimis was founded, the U.S. economy has grown in real terms two-and-one-half times, while the federal government has grown eight times.

What Are We to Do?

In the beginning, certain ideas were powerful in shaping our nation and forming its character. At key moments in our history, these ideas have been controversial. Their meaning has been debated and the future has been shaped by the course of these debates. Today the meaning of these terms has been claimed for a new cause, a cause contradictory to their first meaning.
Education has always been important in these debates. In a nation of ideas, it matters decisively what is thought, especially by those who teach the young, especially those among the young who are likely to become leaders. For instance, if young people go to college with the understanding that they have a right to go, and therefore that someone else is obliged to pay for it, they learn a lesson about the meaning of rights. If they go to a college where their scholarships and loans are provided by private citizens, who give their money voluntarily, and if they are asked to write thank you letters to those benefactors, they learn something else.
We have big government today because of a vain attempt to replace the authority of the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” with the authority of lawmakers—no, with the authority of regulators. We will turn back from that attempt, or we will lose the ability to exercise our rights and control our government.
Woodrow Wilson, a leading figure in progressivism, called our Declaration of Independence “obsolete.” But he, like Franklin Roosevelt and more recently the Clintons, understood the power of its terms. They used those terms for new purposes. They altered their meaning, and by that means, over two generations, revolutionized the constitutional system.
It is an important fact that the debate they began has not yet been completed. Though the aims of the progressive movement have been far advanced, they have not been fully won. Their advocates have fought a long battle with the conservative forces in the land, among whom Hillsdale College has been proudly ranked for over 30 years. Thus the American people still live for the most part in love of liberty, in vigorous enterprise, in respect for God, in devotion to the common-sense understanding of right and wrong. Osama bin Laden is the latest in a line of tyrants to believe that our soul has been corrupted and when attacked we will run away. Like those before him, he has learned that we are a people in whom courage, and all the other virtues too, still thrive.
If then we are not to despair, we should learn the lessons of the past. To keep our freedom, we must study with renewed diligence the principles that make it right. We should learn again to use the tools bequeathed to us. We should talk and act like Americans, loving our country, respecting that Providence upon whom our Fathers called, and keeping faith in the Right, as God gives us to see it.
The history of Hillsdale College is in fact nothing other or less than the telling, on a smaller scale, of the history of our nation. Because we have held fast to the faith of our original creed, we have been in conflict now for a long time with the government that we have also fought bravely, at every time of need, to preserve. We are not given other tools than study and learning, prayer and devotion, argument and action, with which to defend our liberty. If a little College can stand for that through war and trial, anyone can do it.
There is the hope. There is the method. We at Hillsdale College will abandon neither.

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