Dinner Topics for Monday
Churchill thought free men were morally obliged to believe it [in liberty], in order to go down fighting if necessary. But beyond that, he calculated what the advantages were. And there was a fundamental advantage that is especially important for us to recall today.~ Larry P. Arnn
President, Hillsdale College
Time to Give Up or Time to Fight On?
An Interview with Dr. Larry P. Arnn
The following is adapted from an interview by Hugh Hewitt for the Hugh Hewitt Radio Show, conducted on the day after the election, November 7, 2012.
Hugh Hewitt: My guest is Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College. Several weeks ago, when I was at Hillsdale, Dr. Arnn warned me that yesterday’s election might well go badly for the cause of constitutional conservatism. And I wanted to review the results of the election with him today on the radio show. Larry, welcome.
Larry P. Arnn: It is certainly true that the vast majority of our nation’s elites today—those who welcome the results of [the] election—are creatures of modern historicist thought, which explicitly rejects the kind of objective principles—equality under God, inalienable rights—on which America was founded.
According to modern historicism, the only objective truth is that one can’t know an objective truth. President Obama embraces this view in no uncertain terms in his book The Audacity of Hope: “Implicit . . . in the very idea of ordered liberty,” he writes, is “a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single unalterable course . . . .” So much for individual rights and limited government.
This view, which drives modern liberalism or Progressivism, has been on the ascendant. But remember when you quote Strauss that his works were intended to constitute a revival of the West. The West is heavily besieged from within, but it’s not dead. We are obviously a house divided right now, and I think it’s safe to say that conditions are going to get significantly worse before they get better. But we need to remember why Churchill thought that Hitler could be defeated even when the British had ten or twelve divisions and the Germans had 200, plus three times the air force, and the British stood alone.
For one thing, Churchill thought free men were morally obliged to believe it, in order to go down fighting if necessary. But beyond that, he calculated what the advantages were. And there was a fundamental advantage that is especially important for us to recall today: Churchill believed that Hitler’s kind of government could not work, and thus that it would not work. In other words, he looked at Hitler and he saw weakness—despite Hitler’s great military advantage.
Similarly, Churchill and Ronald Reagan are the two statesmen I know who regarded the Soviet Union as weak, even at the height of its power, because it was built on self-contradictory propositions and its system led to obvious and repeated injustices. Churchill believed that also of the socialist government to which he lost in 1946.
Hugh Hewitt: Now Larry, I’ve got to break in here, because I know the media-industrial complex, and someone will go and get the transcription of this and say that you are comparing Obama to Hitler, which you are not doing. What you are talking about is a relative advantage of political forces today, comparing that to the relative advantage in military forces of Hitler vis-à-vis Churchill. You aren’t comparing our government today to the Third Reich.
Larry P. Arnn: No, and I don’t mean that. What I mean is that the principles of Progressivism that animate our government today, which are antithetical to the principles of the American Founding, lead to policies that cannot work, will not work, and result in obvious injustices. That is its weakness, and that provides cause for hope. But by the way, there is a parallel with the great twentieth century tyrannies: The modern bureaucratic form of government cannot remain accountable to the people, so in the fullness of time it will become despotic. That’s not the intention of anybody who runs it today, or at least not very many people. But that is its direction.
Hugh Hewitt: You mentioned Reagan, who always seemed to know, as Solzhenitsyn knew, that it was all papier-mâché in the Soviet Union—that you could poke a stick through it and it would fall apart. It was held together by fear. But modern bureaucratic government operates in such a way as to gain people’s allegiance and trust. Isn’t that a significant difference between the two?
Larry P. Arnn: The experts who run the modern bureaucratic state think they are architects of a perfectly rational society. They think of themselves as scientists, and of the running of government as something more like science—the science of administration—than politics. They think they can coordinate society comprehensively so that no one is left out. That’s why they think of their work as something good and as something high. The problem is that what they are trying to do defies human nature—the human nature that led James Madison to write famously that men are not angels, and that led the Framers of the Constitution to divide government in order to limit government—and so what these experts are doing will ultimately lead to despotism.
But let me close with a word about Churchill. The service that he did in 1940, when his nation stood up against Hitler alone, was preceded by a service equally great. In the 1930s, British politics were ugly and ill-directed. Churchill’s own party leaders conspired to deprive him not only of his seat in Parliament, but of his livelihood writing for the public. One of his colleagues, an official in the Foreign Ministry named Ralph Wigram, was threatened with transfer to a remote place without medical care—his son had birth defects—if he continued speaking with Churchill. Churchill, Wigram, and Wigram’s wife Ava stood up to this kind of thing, year after year. First a few, and then many, and then legions joined them. Finally the British people realized the truth, and then all over London billboards appeared with the words in large black letters, “What Price Churchill?” He was called to lead in 1940 because he proved in the 1930s that he could do so.
That same year, Churchill asked one of his assistants, John Colville, to find him the precise text of a prayer he remembered from the siege of Gibraltar. It reads:
Fear not the result, for either thy end shall be an enviable and a majestic one, or God will preserve our reign upon the waters.
We might follow Churchill in saying that prayer in hard times. We might cultivate the strength that it can give.