Reflections on the Masugi-Dieteman Exchange

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I
happened recently across the exchange, of sorts, between my friend
Ken Masugi and David Dieteman. It continues a long-standing debate
about Abraham Lincoln. Seminal arguments on this subject were lucidly
articulated in a series of articles appearing some years back featuring
Ken's teacher at Claremont, the masterful Harry Jaffa, and Mel Bradford,
my late friend and colleague on the faculty of the University of
Dallas.

Perhaps
because of space limitations, Dr. Masugi's response to Dieteman,
no doubt designed to be a knockout blow, unfortunately presents
little more than a string of assertions disguised as an argument,
along with some generic ad hominems aginst all those who
criticize Lincoln.

First,
the assertions. Among these, we find many of the usual suspects:

  • Lincoln,
    in his first inaugural address, asserted that "Plainly,
    the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy."
    Accepting this as gospel truth, Dr. Masugi conjures up good
    old Adolf to restate the assertion in twentieth-century newspeak:
    "The triumph of the will, not constitutional government,
    lies at the root of secessionism."
  • Rhetorically,
    Dr. Masugi sides with truth against self-determination (aka self-will),
    in a timeless battle that started in Paridise with that evil secessionist
    himself, Satan. Great prose (Ken is a master), but hardly proven,
    and barely congruous (are all secessionists Satanic?). If the
    only alternative to tyranny is anarchy, then the tyrant will sit
    fat and happy on a timeless throne. But that's what political
    theory since Plato, which Ken and I were both studying when we
    first met 27 years ago, is all about. His glib assertions are
    no substitute. There is serious discord among the ranks of theorists
    about the nature of tyranny, government, and the good. A nicely-turned
    phrase, even one paraphrasing Lincoln, is hardly a self-evident
    truth.
  • "Dieteman
    shows little interest in actually studying him [Lincoln], either
    for his arguments or his war strategy."
  • Ah,
    but the contrary is true. Lincoln's defenders minimize or (dare
    I say) willfully ignore Lincoln's wholesale violations of the
    Constitution. Dr. Masugi can find no space to defend this historical
    Lincoln in presidential action. Indeed, it was the study of Lincoln's
    actions as presidency against the historical background that caused
    me to step back from the precipice of Lincoln worship. During
    that intellectual exercise, I called a former professor of mine,
    a world-renowned expert on the Civil War, and asked his opinion.
    "Well," he said, "in war you have to bend the rules,
    as Lincoln did in order to preserve the union, and as Wilson and
    Roosevelt did in the twentieth century."
  • I
    love this man, but his answer brought me to the brink of tears.
    Does any reader believe that assertion is self-evident?
  • "Indeed,
    his [Dieteman's] failure to quote the Declaration of Independence
    itself indicates a distance from the natural law root of free
    government and all the other principles of the American Founding
    that Lincoln sought to preserve and the South abandoned."
  • As
    they say on campus, "Puh-leeese!" The last two-thirds
    of the Declaration constitutes a bill of particulars (Here I reflect
    Mel Bradford's much more penetrating analysis) that, one by one,
    cite the breaches of the "Rights of Englishmen" by King
    George III. Dr. Masugi might believe, as my dear former professor
    does, that Lincoln's breaches of law and of the Constitution can
    be justified in a theoretical language that we share. Fine. But
    I suspect that Mr. Dieteman would not have earned Ken's plaudits
    with a line-by-line comparison of the gravity of the Declaration's
    accusations against King George, on the one hand, and the gravity
    of Lincoln's wholesale suspension of constitutional freedoms,
    on the other.

And
please note what Dr. Masugi is asserting: because Mr. Deiteman did
not write in the way Dr. Masugi might have preferred (i.e., by quoting
the Declaration and using its precepts to buttress his anti-Lincoln
arguments), the South "abandoned" the natural law root
of free government and all the other principles of the American
founding that Lincoln sought to preserve. Whew!

This
is, to put it kindly, totally unproven, if not false on the face
of it. The case for the South derives, not from Alpha Centauri,
but from the arguments and historical realities that surround the
entire American enterprise. This is not an assertion meant to "triumph"
over Dr. Masugi or the Lincolnites, but an invitation for them to
enter into serious and thoughtful discussion at lengths not permitted
by the limitations of an op-ed piece or two. Assertion piled upon
non sequitur does not equal argument.

  • "What
    would the Southerner do with his hard-fought liberty? Would
    he, for example, join with Europeans in a war against the North?
    What implications would that have had for the long-term future
    of liberty in North America?"
  • Here
    we have just a little peek at the tendency among even the best
    of us (and Dr. Masugi certainly should be numbered among the best)
    to distrust free people. Lincoln, having more power than Dr. Masugi,
    took one illegal and unconstitutional step after another to make
    sure that free people, free newspapers, free legislatures, and
    virtually any other free institution would not interfere with
    his enterprise, however we choose to characterize it.
  • This
    tendency to mistrust a free people, is actually much more typical
    of Rousseau than of the Founders, which brings me to Dr. Masugi's
    bald and unproven assertion number five:
  • "The
    willfulness of the secessionists reveals that it is the Jean-Jacques
    Rousseau of the general will who is the patron saint of this
    confused faction of American conservatism. Rousseau of course
    was the guiding spirit of the French Revolution."
  • My
    oh my. Quiz time. Who said that man must be "forced to be
    free" — Rousseau? Or Madison? I'm afraid that Rousseau did.
    And whose actions (not rhetoric) better mirrored Rousseau's dictum
    — Lincoln or Davis? And just how "willful" was Lincoln
    in his suppression of civil liberties? This thorny question can
    hardly be settled by a pat assertion which "reveals"
    nothing at all.
  • "In
    fact, I'll go even further: Abraham Lincoln represented a fulfillment
    of the Holy Mother Church, as Pope John Paul II articulated
    well in many addresses to Americans …John Paul clearly understood
    Lincoln to be carrying forth the mission of Christ."

The
"fulfillment" of Holy Mother Church is hardly to be found
in a politician, any politician, whether you want to deify Jefferson
Davis, Father Abraham, or JFK. If anything, the Church's "fulfillment"
is found in salvation history and the triumph of Christ at the end
of the eschaton. Augustine pointed out, once and for all, that the
City of God is never "fulfilled" in a political entity
or figure (see especially City
of God
, Books XI-XIV and XIX).

I
must admit, though, that Ken had me chuckling there, because many
of us who studied under Eric Voegelin (who had a high regard for
Harry Jaffa, by the way) always wondered whether the students of
the Straussian school (Professor Jaffa and other luminaries of political
theory studies) really bought all that "limited government"
stuff that flows from Augustine.

In
fact, the first words that Ken Masugi said to me, in May 1974, were,
"What do you mean by "philosophical anthropology"
(from a book review I had written). Of course, it is a theoretical
term, but, in studying the American tradition, it refers, in layman's
language, to the reality of man's fallen nature, and the resulting
view of the Founders that no man, no matter how good, should be
elevated a position of absolute power.

In
studying the Christian tradition, it refers to the error we commit
when we deify any political figure, whether he's got a statue on
the mall or an "eternal flame" at his grave. Let's leave
that to the North Koreans.

In
general, the question of Lincoln's use and abuse of power certainly
merits discussion among men of differing views. What disappointed
me upon reading Dr. Masugi's piece was his thoroughgoing refusal
to discuss anything. Instead, he methodically debases his adversary,
and presents an assortment of assertions that is supposed to settle
the issue.

It
is this reluctance to discuss that raises the question: does Dr.
Masugi consider the defenders of the South and the critics of Lincoln
to be worse than barbarians, and thus unworthy of civilized discussion?
After all, they have renounced philosophy (the principles of the
founders), history (instead speaking in an "empty, categorical
way"), and the faith (almost Satanic in their self-will, and
having attempted no less than a posthumous crucifixion of a Christ-like
figure).

For
three reasons, I cannot believe Ken Masugi holds this view. First,
it is totally out of character for him; second, it is hardly Christian;
and third, and perhaps most telling, it defies the principle that
all men — even those who criticize Lincoln — are created equal.

June
1, 2001

Christopher
Manion [send him mail] is
a small businessman in Virginia, An adjunct lecturer at Christendom
College, he has taught ethics at Boston University and is a founding
member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

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