Streetwise Professor

July 4, 2023

Salem and Gomorrah: America at 247

Filed under: History,Politics — cpirrong @ 2:34 pm

Today is Independence Day, but for me it is more an occasion of resignation (or melancholy even) than celebration, because the chasm separating the present America from that envisioned in the Declaration is vast, and growing by the day.

The bedrock ideals in the Declaration were individual liberty; emancipation from government tyranny; natural rights possessed by all individuals; and self-government. 247 years later, all of these ideals are widely scorned by the ruling classes, and are as a result are becoming progressively further from realization.

I use the word “progressively” deliberately: for progressivism–especially in its most current guise–is directly responsible for the assault on these ideals. 21st century progressives do not revere the ideals in the Declaration–they revile them. (And it has always been so for progressives–cf. Woodrow Wilson).

Individualism has been replaced by collectivism and identitarianism. Individualism is anathematized as white privilege, and the fact that those who met in Philadelphia in 1776 (and in 1787) were white, and in some cases held slaves, is considered proof of the illegitimacy–and indeed the evil–of the Founding.

The concept of natural rights possessed by all individuals equally is also an anathema to progressives, who elevate group and tribe over individuals, and who believe that members of some tribes are more equal than others, and have claims on others due to iniquities allegedly inflicted on the long dead members of one tribe by the long dead members of the other tribe. Guilt and punishment have become collectivized, and unmoored from individual conduct.

The 21st century state exercises vastly more tyrannical power over virtually every aspect of our lives than George III or Lord North could have even imagined in 1776. Relatedly, as for self-government, the colossus of the administrative state is almost totally unchecked by the branches of government that are supposed to be accountable to the people. Taxation without representation has been replaced by regulation (of the most minute details of our lives) without representation. Parliament on the Thames in the age of sail was never so remote to the average American as a regulatory agency on the Potomac in the days of the Internet.

The progressive march through the institutions, which began at the dawn of the 20th century, has accelerated greatly in the first quarter of the 21st. The institution with which I am most closely affiliated–academia–seems to me to be beyond saving. Tragically, an institution which has been of deep interest and importance to me–the US military–is on its way to joining academia as a lost cause.

I am tempted to say that these developments are un-American. But alas, although they are anti-American to the extent that “American” is identified with the ideals of the Founding, they are largely Made in the USA. A la Pogo, we have met the enemy, and he is us. Or at least, he is some of us, and that some hold the whip hand.

In many respects, as this article argues, progressivism–especially in its current Woke form–is just the current manifestation of the Puritanism which in many guises (including guises assumed by those who would consider themselves anything but puritanical) has been a catalyst for change and a source of social conflict in America for almost exactly 400 years. (I have made a similar point from time to time). And Puritanism is pretty damned American–or at least, has been a pretty damned important part of America from the first English colonization of the continent.

Like Puritanism, modern progressivism is extremely judgmental. It is Manichean. It is censorious. It divides people into the elect and the damned. It erects its own (now virtual) pillories. It ostracizes and banishes. It is uncompromising and unforgiving. It definitely does not believe in “live and let live.” It is prone to intense moral panics (cf. the Salem Witch Trials then, COVID or the Russians today). It is intensely self-righteous–and hence intensely hypocritical. Completely divorced from Calvinist religion, yes, but essentially Calvinist in spirit and mindset and conduct.

But it is worse than Calvinism qua Calvinism, because at least the original Calvinists had the fear of God in them, and thus from time to time had to question whether they really were doing God’s work. Modern progressives, secular to the core, have no God to fear and hence are immune from doubt. Meaning that they coerce without qualm. Indeed, they coerce with intense self-righteousness.

Mencken famously said that “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” I don’t think that’s quite right. Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is doing something to make the Puritan unhappy–combined with the conviction that the Puritan has the absolute right to find, root out, and punish this transgression. But Mencken’s formulation and mine share one very important implication: the Puritan doesn’t want to leave anyone alone.

And what is “the pursuit of happiness” other than the desire to be left alone to behave by his or her lights? That is something that Puritans old and new just cannot abide.

In its original incarnation, Puritanism contributed to the social dynamic that ultimately led to the Declaration of Independence. The Puritans came to American shores, of course, to escape English royal and religious tyranny, and thus had a spirit of independence that intersected in some ways with the spirit of independence from English tyranny that gave birth to the Revolution. But that historically contingent confluence of interests belies a fundamentally different conception of the meaning and political implications of the word “independence.”

21st century America can be described as Salem and Gomorrah. Hardly a happy combination, and certainly not a combination that Thomas Jefferson et al strove to achieve when they pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor 247 years ago today. Hence the mixed emotions which the Fourth of July evokes in this 21st century American. Reverence for what might have been, resignation at what has actually grown from the seed planted centuries ago.

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  1. The new USA had indentured labour (in the North) and slavery (in the South). England had apprenticeships.

    What a parcel of trouble you could have avoided if you’d only adopted English Common Law instead of fooling about with constitutional conventions!

    To be fair, it’s not as bad as the French one. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Perm any two from three.

    Comment by philip — July 4, 2023 @ 3:29 pm

  2. @phillip, not a chance, bad as it is better than present day UK.

    No country for old men said W.B. Yeats. He might have been right there, but selling safety and security to an insecure scared populace turns out to be a powerful drug and winning politics. Sadly

    Comment by The Pilot — July 4, 2023 @ 3:45 pm

  3. Spot on, brother, spot on!

    We people of good faith must hold the line against this collectivist evil. The only true morality and true Justice are based in individual responsibility. That has been true forever from the Ancient Greeks and Romans through the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic tradition. Running through all those moral traditions is the core concept of an individual’s relationship with the community or God.

    Your positing an equivalence between the Puritans of yore and the censorious, woke, Maoist struggle committees of today is not quite right. The Puritans were driven by an obsessive view of what they believed God wanted of them. Today’s nasty totalitarians eschew God entirely, believing their arrogance that people alone can create the conditions for a functioning society. They are materialist as well Marxists, Marxians and derivative boring belief systems are.

    Marxism depends upon the destruction of individuality and religious obligation. The Progressives sickeningly applaud 25-75% of American births happening outside of wedlock, because strong families ignore the dictates of the State. Children born in broken homes statistically suffer disproportionately from poverty to bad learning outcomes to imprisonment and myriad related social ills.

    Normal Americans of Faith want to help heal these families, help children in need, foster local community and support. Progressive Statists have the fantasy that a massive centralized Government will be a sufficient replacement for sound families and religious communities.

    Whatever their motives – jealousy over the fruits of hard work they don’t have, sheer nastiness or a blind adherence to a materialistic view of the world which godlessness leads to an inevitable aridity of soul, spirit and the death of community – they are despoiling the greatest nation on earth, and proving that Ben Franklin’s pessimism was right. By letting Leftists run amok on our institutions, we have invited destruction and misery.

    Enough of us know what this country should be that we need to fight back aggressively to restore the potential of this still-possibly-great nation.

    Comment by Christopher Messina — July 4, 2023 @ 3:57 pm

  4. Both words are from the middle east though. Salem was said to be the place of peace between man and god, Shalom, Salaam to you, then. But man can turn it into war (even pax americana means war) and witchhunts. The other place is located in a legend that let’s the only ‘righteous’ survivors look perverted, too. That’s probably why a certain French ‘nobleman’ took to it, but he may have gotten the idea, that it could be more the phantasy of the narrator that is the issue. Well, both could stand for the fight against reality…united states…as for progress, as Austrian writer Karl Kraus wrote in 1908, our circumstances show the ‘progress of human idiocy’…as it seems that Europe is getting less and less independent from the US, I truely hope the US finds a way that benefits mankind.

    Comment by Mikey — July 5, 2023 @ 3:54 am

  5. individual liberty – except for the slaves, of course, and presumably the savages. I’m not bothered about indentured labour because the indenture would always end, much as with conscripted soldiers.

    emancipation from government tyranny – tyranny, my arse. Classic Alinskyist propaganda from Jefferson.

    natural rights possessed by all individuals – there are no such things. Man is a social animal; his rights stem from the society of which he is a part. The patter about natural rights arose because it would have been awkward admitting to the origin of the rights in question.

    self-government – fair point though of course the franchise was far from universal even among white adult males. As far as I can see the Revolution was about what revolutions are always about. Some gang points at the ruling class and says to itself “Why them? Why can’t my chums and I rule instead?”

    Comment by dearieme — July 5, 2023 @ 4:07 am

  6. @dearieme,

    Are you a Brit because it sounds like it? I’d recommend John Locke, an Englishman, who informed the Founders and the Glorious Revolution. Now, Britain has gone done the tubes due to that attitude.

    Comment by The Pilot — July 5, 2023 @ 7:44 am

  7. @ The Pilot
    Yes, dearie me and I are Brits. Another thing we have in common is enjoyment of teasing the yanks.

    You’re right of course about Britain going down the tubes. A slightly different one compared to the USA.

    Comment by philip — July 5, 2023 @ 8:43 am

  8. Well . . . we’ve heard from the Brits. Does anyone have anything positive to add? We have always had problems out the wazoo in this country and we have always found a way to deal with problems out the wazoo. We have always been a country nearly equally divided politically with “yellow journalism” to match either side. We have always been able to get back to the idea that there is more that unites us than divides us and make progress based on that tenet.
    What we are facing is a societal revolution maybe exponentially greater than the printing press, the internet and “social media”. An explosion of knowledge/antiknowledge, facts/antifacts, ideas- well you get the idea. Also there is no intervening grace period to absorb new ideas and expression. None of this is new to those of us who read this blog. I prefer to lean to the side of optimism and believe we will find a way through this also.
    I have to say that I admire Prof. Pirrong et. al. for posting their reasoned thoughts and beliefs with their name(s) attached. It has been the bane of the “connected” (also the “printed” world) that people can freely post the most vicious, unkind, thoughtless, snarky bullshit without attaching their name to it. I don’t know about you, but I give the unnamed, pseudonymed posts the credit they are due.

    Comment by Donald Wolfe — July 5, 2023 @ 10:03 am

  9. Of course, but I can highly recommend The Rest Is History podcast with Tom Holland and Dom Sandbrook. They have a four-part series on the American Revolution with Prof Sfam Smith (not the original) from Oxford. Yes, three Brits lecturing on the Revolution. It’s damned good, brought up both sides of many arguments.

    The US is different from just about everywhere else. More of everything in every direction. I always said we’re a dangerous country, living here isn’t for the weak. OTOH, I know many immigrants who came and really thought the streets were paved with gif if one worked hard enough. There was a CEO of a fast food chain who said, “it took me 18 years to get out of Pakistan and 10 to make my first million.

    Comment by The Pilot — July 5, 2023 @ 12:27 pm

  10. Prof:
    Beautifully written.
    A cri de coeur.
    It won’t fix anything, because the world is beyond fixing, but … congrats!

    Comment by Simple Simon — July 9, 2023 @ 11:19 am

  11. I came to this article via a reference in Points And Figures (by Jeffery Carter). I like the use of Puritanism to explain what is happening nowadays. It’s like it’s part of the American culture that (a)periodically bubbles up in some terrible manifestation and then has to be pushed back down again. For example, I think Puritanism might have explained Prohibition too.

    One other historical example that I find alarming similar is the run-up to the Spanish Civil War. You might find the book on the topic (ISBN10: 0521174708) by Stanley G Payne to be informative in this regard.

    Comment by jdm — July 18, 2023 @ 7:30 pm

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