America's Jacobin Ideologues

In his book America the Virtuous and in articles published on and elsewhere, Professor Claes Ryn has clearly defined what he calls the "Jacobin ideologues" in American society, otherwise known as Straussians and neocons. Since I consider Abraham Lincoln to have been a Jacobin, and his war a Jacobin revolution, I have been a close follower of Professor Ryn’s work and its relevance to American history. I have been struck by how Professor Ryn’s definitions fit so many of today’s Lincoln idolaters like a glove. In his writing he refers most often to Harry Jaffa and his fellow "Straussians" as the chief Jacobin ideologues and contrasts them sharply to genuine limited government conservatives. Let’s take a look at some of his definitions.

1. The Jacobin ideologue expresses no humility. I have seen this time and again with the Straussian Lincoln cult. A good example would be one humorous response to my book, The Real Lincoln, by one of Jaffa’s fellow cultists, one Ken Masugi, who announced that cult leader Jaffa had apparently "settled" all these issues 50 years ago. Of course, nothing is ever settled permanently in the social sciences, especially when it comes to something as complicated as a war. Only members of a cult, who believe that THE TRUTH comes only from the mouth of the cult leader, would believe such a thing. No one with intellectual integrity would ever make such a totalitarian-minded claim.

2. The Jacobin ideologue has no use for actual history because he claims to have special knowledge of "universal principles." This explains why so much of what the Straussians say about Lincoln and the war are flat out contradicted by real history. They don’t care about real history. All they want to do is to repeat Jaffa’s false theory that Lincoln was devoted to natural rights. The fact that Lincoln repeatedly denied that black people should be able to exercise these rights doesn’t matter. What matters is the fanciful theory put forth by the cult leader.

3. The Jacobin ideologue makes sweeping, categorical assertions as a substitute for the real complexity of the world. This is another reason why America’s Jacobins do not care about history. History is complicated. War is complicated. All wars have multiple causes and effects. But not the Jacobins’ wars. Lincoln’s war was caused by slavery and slavery alone, despite the fact that Lincoln himself — and the entire U.S. government — insisted otherwise. And the war in Iraq is a war "for democracy" and nothing else, period.

4. Jacobin ideologues have unquestioning faith in their own moral superiority. This explains why the Straussians so often behave in such a completely vulgar, mannerless, and uncivilized way whenever anyone questions any of their precepts. This is radically different from the normal state of affairs in academe where such criticism is viewed as the means of arriving at the truth through discussion and debate. It is also why the Straussians are so despised (and largely ignored) by the rest of academe.

The Straussian Jacobins are not necessarily interested in the pursuit of truth: they already know THE TRUTH. Harry Jaffa and other cult leaders have revealed it to them. That’s why they so often attempt to assassinate the character of anyone who dissents with the views of the cult leader. A case in point is the viscous and hysterical smear campaign against the late Professor Mel Bradford, a preeminent Lincoln critic, after President Reagan nominated him to head the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1981. He eventually withdrew his own nomination in disgust.

Several years later, in an article entitled "Against Lincoln: A Speech at Gettysburg," Professor Bradford cynically recalled how "I have found that I u2018favor slavery,’ consider it to be a u2018tenuous multiracial experiment’ yet to receive the final verdict of history, and that I censure Lincoln because of u2018what he did for racial equality.’ My reservations [about Lincoln] are described as u2018insulting to Lincoln’s idea of liberty.’ And the very errors embodied in such wild charges, requiring as they do some rejoinder, u2018prove’ that there is something wrong with my character, regardless of their implausibility. . . . I have u2018overturned the Declaration of Independence,’ called Lincoln a u2018villain,’ and argued that u2018there is no right principle of action but self interest.’ None of which can be documented from anything I have written" (emphasis added). He was also falsely accused of being a "Hitler admirer."

What we had here was one of the first shots in the Straussian/Jacobin/neocon takeover of the old conservative movement that really did believe in limited government. Thus, Jaffa can be thought of as a sort of Iranian Mullah light. He has no ability to issue a death warrant to any Salmon Rushdies who might question or mock his "civil religion" (a coin termed by Rousseau, the ideological godfather of the French Jacobins and one of Jaffa’s favorite phrases), but he can orchestrate smear campaigns against them such as the one that was directed at Professor Bradford.

This episode, and many others like it, prove the truthfulness of another of Professor Ryn’s characteristics of a Jacobin ideologue: 5. The desire to dominate and silence one’s ideological opponents rather than engage in civilized discourse with them.

6. Jacobin ideologues are also narrow-minded nationalists. They believe that their country is morally superior to all others, and by virtue of that "fact" they have a right and a duty to impose their "moral" will on others. This of course is the old New England Yankee impulse, derived from the Puritans, whose modern-day ideological descendants are the neocons.

Lincoln mythology plays an important role here, for the nonsense about America being the "last best hope of earth" has long been used to assert American moral superiority in world affairs. Hence when William Bennett, the "Washington Fellow" of the Claremont Institute, made a case for the Iraq War on the CBS "Sunday Morning" television show on March 19, his closing line was, "we truly are the last best hope of earth." (At which time the entire nation is apparently supposed to collectively wet its pants and sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic).

7. The Jacobin ideologue is constantly warning about THE ENEMY, who is so depraved, and so evil, that no compromise of any kind is possible. Total War is the only solution, whether it’s the war on drugs or the war in Iraq. This of course began with the demonization of southerners prior to the War to Prevent Southern Independence, which continues to this very day. Thus, I would add another characteristic to Professor Ryn’s list: hatred of the south, its citizens, its history, and even its contemporary institutions, from NASCAR to country music. (Recall the hysterical and hate-filled responses by the media to the movie "Gods and Generals," which portrayed Stonewall Jackson as the deeply religious man that he was.)

Thus, Saddam Hussein had to be compared to Hitler. As evil as Hussein was, he was no Hitler. In making his case for the Iraq War William Bennett cited an anonymous "observer" from the Washington Post who asserted that Hussein and his thugs "starved babies," "gouged out the eyes of children," raped women in front of their husbands, and even "slowly immersed victims in a vat of acid." Wow. Too bad Bennett couldn’t provide an actual factual reference for such shocking claims.

8. The Jacobin ideologue has no fear of unlimited government as long as Jacobins in good standing are in charge. Thus, the Straussians defend the "Lincoln dictatorship" and its obliteration of constitutional liberties in the northern states. They also routinely point to Lincoln’s trashing of the Constitution in his day to "justify" the Bush administration’s unprovoked war in Iraq, domestic spying, the imprisonment of war opponents, the use of torture chambers, and any and all usurpations of the Constitution.

Neocon "godfather" Irving Kristol has mocked the entire classical liberal tradition of limited constitutional government by mocking Friedrich Hayek’s rendition of it in The Road to Serfdom. And the neocon Bush administration has certainly done nothing at all, whatsoever, to limit government in any way.

9. The Jacobin ideologue will redefine the Constitution in his pursuit of unbridled political power. Again, Lincoln is the role model when it comes to acting like a dictator by asserting that the Constitution says something different from what actually appears in the document. Jaffa has devoted much of his career to unsuccessfully defending the Lincoln dictatorship against the facts of history. Today, the Jacobin ideologues who run the Bush administration (and their supporters in the media) tell us that the Constitution allows the government to spy on every citizen, to torture prisoners in American prisons — even American citizens, and even to imprison outspoken war opponents if necessary.

10. The Jacobin ideologue is also opposed to decentralization and true federalism because such a system is too difficult to control in dictatorial fashion. Once again, Lincoln is the role model here since he destroyed the system of federalism that was established by the American founding fathers and did more than anyone else to usher in the centralized, bureaucratic state that we all slave under today. This is why there has been no consideration given to a series of republics in Iraq; several different republics populated by the various ethnic tribes there would be more difficult to control and dictate to than one centralized state that can be more easily managed by the U.S. government. It would be much more conducive to a peaceful and prosperous Iraq, but that’s not the goal of the American Jacobins. Their goal is a puppet government.

This is also why the idea of states’ rights is always immediately associated with slavery and racism. The purpose of this is to censure discussion of the oldest of American political traditions, a tradition that the founding fathers thought of as the most powerful protection against centralized governmental tyranny.

In short, the phony and misdirected hatred of the French people that was ginned up by the Bush administration and its media mouthpieces at the beginning of the Iraq war should really be directed at America’s Jacobin ideologues, who have adopted every destructive aspect of the French Jacobin tradition, and then some.

The French people eventually beheaded Robespierre, the leader of the French Jacobins. Figuratively speaking, that would also be the well-deserved fate of America’s Jacobin ideologues.