Thursday, June 09, 2011

Conservative Historians

One thing I like about right-wing historians of the Ashbrook Institute/Claremont/Naval War College variety is that they take ideas seriously. Fashionably-trained historians avidly collect ideas like trading cards or shiny objects in a jackdaw’s nest; they are excited by their novelty or rarity but basically unconcerned about their content or, God forbid, their "truth." That is someone else's department, and it's not a department they ever plan to visit.  Conservative historians, on the contrary, are as excited about the big ideas--human nature, the best form of government, the balance of liberty and order, and so on—as bright eighth graders, and that’s a compliment. It does tend to make their solutions to current problems simplistic and dogmatic; not that the up-to-date solutions are proving any more successful.  I wonder, as well, whether these thinking conservatives’ dogmatism does not result in part from the unwillingness, or inability, of the orthodox historical establishment to engage with them seriously on an equal level. 

What makes me think about this subject is a book I just borrowed from the UConn library called Enlightened Republicanism: A Study in Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia.  It's by David Tucker, whose bio describes him as "an associate professor in the Department of Defense Analysis and codirector of the Center on Terrorism and Irregular Warfare at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California."  His other books are on U.S. special ops forces and confronting unconventional warfare.  His book on Notes is one of the clearest, most insightful, and least tendentious analyses of the subject I have read.  It has the drawback (not rare in such studies, I'm afraid) of having virtually nothing to say about Jefferson's racist and irrational pronouncements in Query 14; but it is nonetheless one of the most useful works I have consulted in writing my article on Jefferson.

1 comment:

DrGrinchman said...

Although I certainly don’t consider myself an historian, I had until fairly recently considered myself a conservative Republican. What attracted my attention was your reference to conservative historians as being “simplistic and dogmatic”, a fitting description, perhaps, for conservatives in general. In fact, an honest self-assessment would likely reveal most of my former worldview as being similarly simplistic and dogmatic. When I was younger, the world made more sense in terms of black and white. I learned, however, that it is much easier taking responsibility for one’s actions, adapting a ‘rugged individualist’ attitude and claiming that success was a direct result of one’s hard work, discipline and adherence to a strict code of moral ethics, when everything in life is going as planned. I would submit that it is much more difficult adhering to those attitudes when situations in a neat and orderly life spiral out of control. When just such a thing happened to me, many of my like-minded ‘black or white thinking’ friends, who once saw me (simplistically) as ‘good’ began to see me as diametrically ‘bad’. That same ‘one dimensional’ thinking translates into every aspect of some conservative’s lives, leaving little room for adaptation or alteration.
While I am certainly not ashamed of that rigid person I once was, I am much happier living in a multidimensional world of gray areas and uncertainty. My transformation was unintentional, so I cannot take credit for any additional but subsequent compassion, understanding or patience. I can be grateful for said attributes, nonetheless.
My apologies for not directly addressing the subject of your post. I am not an historian, nor have I read David Tucker’s book. The intent of my story (though merely anecdotal evidence) was to support your statement about conservative attitudes in general. While I still embrace certain conservative values, I would not change what I consider growth, moving away from strict conservatism and toward what I believe to be a more appreciative, reasonable, and tolerant worldview than I had previously held. Since none of those generalizations tell anything specific about me, I will add just a few of my core beliefs. I favor (and appreciate) stem cell research and government assistance for the poor, and I believe that the best method we have for understanding our world is the scientific method. To list more of my own beliefs might be seen as intentionally controversial and/or self-serving, and would not add to the main topic of your post or my response. Therefore, with the intention of keeping the focus where it belongs, I will end with a strong endorsement of and appreciation for Thomas Jefferson’s, “wall of separation between church and State”.

PS - Perhaps in the future you would consider writing about the Danbury Baptists?? What they REALLY wanted in light of the religious/political climate at the time, where Jefferson stood on the whole issue, etc. I have read the letter from (and to) the Baptists and still have difficulty understanding the complexities of the issue. To me, it sounds as if the Baptists really did not understand the government’s position and were looking for clarification, while asserting that they would not be told anything that conflicted with their own religious beliefs. They must have been confused, b/c we still can’t seem to agree on the true extent of the separation clause. Just a thought…