- Universal: Dealing with presumed ends of collectives – class, race, history.
- Teleological, or depersonalized: Not deriving from the aspirations of concrete persons but constituting the “destiny” of some collectivity.
- Final: Replacing flux with stability. The permanent ordering of the world, the thousand-year Reich, the end of history.
- Comprehensive: Involving everyone (and) all aspects of human life and society.
- Moral: Postulating the fulfillment of man’s moral mission.
- Promising an end to alienation: False consciousness, isolation, anomie, separation, loneliness, purposeless all are defined as subjective consequences of objective social ills (to be) eradicated through social engineering.
The practitioner’s “methods are as distinctive as his goals. He is…distinguished from other utopians by his willingness – no, his determination – to use state power to achieve these goals. ‘Scientific’ (ones) are those that organize and use power to achieve their goals. They understand…that revolutions are made by revolutionaries wielded into tight, purposeful organizations of dedicated zealots… Organization, they agree, is the scientific instrument for the seizure of political power. Party is crucial.”
Can you name the movement and/or its most prominent practitioners? Whether you can or not, the late Jeane J. Kirkpatrick’s Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics is your next important read.
And hurry up.
In his 1967 gubernatorial inaugural address, Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.”
If a generation is normally defined as 20-30 years, we’re late.
Ambassador Kirkpatrick is best remembered as Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN, where she was a strong voice for America and for Israel. She was also a professor of political science at Georgetown University and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She was, in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet, a Democrat.
Authoritarians and Totalitarians
Published in 1982, Dictatorships and Double Standards is not easy, but it is crucial. Things seemed simpler then, in Reagan’s first term. Yes, we had a recession and inflation, Iran was the enemy, the Soviets were the Evil Empire, and “Star Wars” as in missile defense was still on the drawing board. But people could still talk across party lines. World War II was a living memory and even Russia’s 1917 communist revolution could still be recalled by some.
In that era, the estimable Ambassador Kirkpatrick gave America a lesson in the differences between totalitarians and authoritarians. Between Hitler and Nicaragua’s Somoza. Between Stalin and Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid. Between people who were greedy, nasty, and mean but generally left the peasantry alone, and people who were greedy, nasty, and mean but also required the public to absorb the new social/religious/world order and abandon traditional notions of family, church, property, and state. She explained how those differences could and should inform American public policy.
We need a refresher course, because today the Biden administration has been assiduously courting China, the Taliban, and Iran, totalitarians all. At the same time, there is a clear pullback from long-time partners Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The current careless habit of people calling anyone who disagrees with them a Nazi is disgusting, but it is generally considered the disgusting careless habit of people who don’t remember the Holocaust, or the politics of Germany in the 1930s that led to Hitler. The same people don’t remember Stalin’s engineered Ukrainian famine.
For every nasty or careless twitter-pundit, there are a great many people who know exactly how totalitarians come to power and consider the goals listed above to be a checklist. The blithe disregard for historical precision by the rest of us helps them immeasurably. [For an outstanding reminder of the slow, easy, bucolic rise of Nazi power – until it wasn’t – read Andrew Nagorski’s terrifying “Hitlerland,” reviewed in inFOCUS, Summer 2013.]
Totalitarian would-bes are also helped by a lack of historical understanding about the United States, the balancing of rights, freedoms, and limitations; the role of the Constitution in limiting government. In a brilliantly upside-down description of progress in America, Kirkpatrick notes that “Government actions…could INCREASE the freedom of working children and their mothers and fathers by regulating wages, hours, and working conditions. The concomitant RESTRICTIONS on employers’ freedom of contract did not seem to high a price to pay.”
Increase freedom for more people by adding restrictions to other people. It is the balance that is crucial, and she turns to the Founding Fathers and Federalist Papers for understanding:
[They] sought a political remedy – not a social, cultural, or economic remedy – to the political problem of how to govern…in such a manner as to preserve liberty, law, and government by consent. A properly constructed constitution would provide the answer… Expressions of perfectibility never struck root in American political culture, but the possibility of improvement and of progress is affirmed and emphasized.
Madison applauds “the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilante and manly spirit which actuates the people of America – a spirit which nourishes freedom, and return is nourished by it.”
OK, the “manly” part is a little out of date, but the foundational thought runs directly counter to today’s American “progressives” who insist on applying today’s “woke” morality to generations past. For them, it isn’t enough that Americans have progressed from having slaves to fighting a political war about slavery to fighting a physical war about slavery to establishing Civil Rights, Voter Rights and Welfare legislation to level the playing field. Today’s “progressives” not only believe in “perfectibility” now, but retrospectively. As if the literal erasure of people who sinned in ages past according to the standard of today makes them more perfect. As if they don’t sin in this generation. As if “perfectibility” is achievable here and now, but only by them – see the checklist.
“The possibility of improvement and of progress” vs “You have to do what we say because we have the answer. How do we know we’re right? Don’t ask. We’re right.” You choose.
Kirkpatrick had no idea that political movements in contemporary America would divide “equality” and “equity” (a “social, cultural, or economic remedy to the political problem”) into separate categories, yet she went there.
In classical and welfare-state liberalism… the concern for equality is identical with the commitment to the widest possible sharing of freedom. Equality, then, is important… but it is never all-important, and it is never sought as an absolute… The United States, and others, preserve freedom of speech, press, and religion, due process, and related limits on government’s power to regulate the lives of its citizens.
The democratic welfare state’s continued emphasis on the liberty of the individual sharply distinguishes it from a related but very different ideology whose principal goal is the destruction of the capitalist system in favor of a state-owned and -controlled economy.”
And, obviously knowing nothing of Critical Race Theory, Ambassador Kirkpatrick still nails the key to the American future.
Since public schools are the institution created and maintained by the whole society for the purpose of preparing the young for adult roles in the society, it seems inarguably clear that schools not only may but should teach democratic values. It is remarkable that the question should even be raised; nevertheless, it has been raised increasingly of late.
Concepts like truth, honor, teamwork responsibility, rule of law, restraint in the use of power, respect for others, must be introduced, illustrated, and transferred somehow into habits. In this process the roles of the school and the teacher are not only legitimate; they are irreducible, irreplaceable.
The strong suggestion – more than a suggestion – is that those who believe Ronald Reagan, who believe we are never more than one generation from losing those precious teachings that make America the beacon of freedom and liberty, should be running for School Board and County Council. That they should ensure that their congressional representatives remember that they are sent to Washington to REPRESENT them, not rule them.
In one of his rare public pessimistic moments, Reagan added in his gubernatorial address that freedom “comes only once to a people. And those in world history who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.” It’s not worth the risk to find out.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.