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THE FRAGILITY OF FREEDOM AND THE TOUGHNESS OF TOLKIEN
By Janice Rogers Brown
Although our nation has surmounted terrible crises in the past, it is no longer clear that we have the moral stamina to sustain the American creed. In abandoning our founding virtues, we may have consigned the American project—a belief in an ordered liberty consonant with human freedom—to the ash heap of history.
benchmark by which we measure civilizational decline and fall. And on that score, Western civilization’s long retreat will someday soon be declared a rout. If this occurs, three causal factors I would indict are America’s militant multiculturalism, the triumph of educational blather, and the plague of political words emptied of their meaning. Militant Multiculturalism The problem with multiculturalism as we have practiced it (and maybe there is no other way to practice it) is its brutal reductionism. The whole great, stirring, rich human drama is reduced to what Bruce Bawer has called “a series of dreary, repetitious lessons about groups, power, and oppression.” 3
I may be too fatalist in my outlook. But at best, the defenders of liberty have before them some tall orders. They labor against a Leviathan that grows daily in size and sway. Because I tend to be moved by the mythic, the heroic, and the transcendent, I conceive of this struggle somewhat in the imagery of J.R.R. Tolkien—that modern-day Saint Jude, patron saint of desperate and lost causes.
We are left to live in a world “without reliable truths or transcendent possibilities…without absolute values or durable meanings,” in the words of Canadian poet David Solway. 4 And this is fatal. It ultimately leads to the very “abolition of man,” Liberty’s defenders as C. S. Lewis warned in a book by that title. Democracy does need diversity. have tall orders But it also needs a sense of shared responsibility and a common political before them. culture. Multiculturalism negates these. In our schools, the inalienable natural rights that used to be taught in civics as the traditional ground for a free society have been supplanted by something called “openness” as the goal of democratic education. Educational Blather The practical result of such an idiotic curriculum is that most Americans know little about American history or its heroes. They have only, in Allan Bloom’s words, “an insubstantial awareness that there are many cultures, accompanied by a saccharine moral drawn from that awareness: We should all get along. Why fight?” 5
Janice Rogers Brown is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, appointed in 2005 by President George W. Bush. Judge Brown was previously an associate justice of the California Supreme Court and an appointee in several legal offices of California’s executive branch. Her law degree is from UCLA. This essay is adapted from her speech to the Leadership Program of the Rockies on Feb. 23, 2013. Centennial Institute sponsors research, events, and publications to enhance public understanding of the most important issues facing our state and nation. By proclaiming Truth, we aim to foster faith, family, and freedom, teach citizenship, and renew the spirit of 1776.
As in The Lord of the Rings, I see us beset by orcs and goblins and wizards and wargs. But amidst all this, I believe there is an important role for even the least of us as “tricksy hobbits” to play. American Suicide? The civilizational angst that some of us feel is nothing new, of course. Frank Meyer, writing in the middle of the 20th century, predicted a “civilizational crisis” in the not too distant future if the leadership of society remained in the same hands, because he feared those leaders would “succeed in totally destroying the Western consciousness, the instinct for virtue and freedom.” 1 Abraham Lincoln voiced the same concern. In a speech in 1837, long before he became president, he warned: “If destruction is to be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” 2 Has it now begun to happen? Human freedom is the
Why indeed? The purpose of contemporary American education, if any, is now to compel the explicit rejection of “the universality of such values as individual liberty” and to enshrine the belief that “[t]here are no barbarians, only different forms of civilized man” (again quoting Solway). 6 And once more quoting Bloom: “Relativism is… the only virtue…which all primary education for more than 50 years has dedicated itself to inculcating.” 7
For as the Framers well understood, freedom is not—and can never be—an ever- expanding litany of rights and entitlements. Where the state has supplanted the Creator as the endower of rights, men appeal not to the heavens to right their wrongs, but to other men—men clothed in immense worldly power. And if experience teaches us anything, it’s that no government can grow the rights and privileges of one group without curbing those of another group. What Jefferson and Coolidge Knew However good the intentions of political elites may be, the government that bills itself a curative for the accident of birth has condemned the liberty of its people to an early death. As Thomas Jefferson explained, “Government can do something for the people only in proportion as it can do something to the people.” 9 We have not heeded his warning. President Calvin Coolidge gave a brilliant defense of this earlier notion of liberty in his 1926 speech marking the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He lamented that most of those who clamor for reform are sincere but not well informed, for they fail to recognize the finality of the Declaration’s self-evident truths:
If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth and their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward. 10
Calvin Coolidge, 1872-1933
This is what I mean by educational blather, and its growing dominance heightens my concern that the American experiment, the great dream that government could be designed from “reflection and choice” to serve people rather than to subjugate them, is unlikely to prevail. 8 Words Emptied of Meaning Whatever remains of our founding orthodoxy, it is quickly losing force. The statists have misappropriated the language of liberty to cement their ill-gotten gains. They speak of rights and freedom, but their words ring hollow. One of the surest signs of civilizational collapse is that political words have increasingly lost their meaning.
This dates back at least to President The Creator, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his 1941 Yet in less than a decade after Coolidge not the state, speech on the Four Freedoms: freedom uttered these stirring words, they of speech, freedom of worship, freedom seemed forgotten. Franklin Roosevelt endows our rights. from want, and freedom from fear. While began the reign of political government, the first two are representative of the traditional, negative substituting the expertise of social planners and technocrats rights protected by the Bill of Rights—guarantees against for the will of the people, inventing preference politics and government interference in the exercise of personal fostering the growth of the administrative welfare state. libertys—the last two break the mold. It’s Up to You and Me With “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear,” FDR signaled a shift from negative rights to positive rights —a claim on the necessities of life at public expense. That radical inversion sounded the death knell for American civilization. How did this happen? Who was it that failed to fight for freedom? It would be easy to blame the courts, and there’s some merit to that. Impatient with amending the Constitution, do-gooders have taken to the judiciary to rubber-stamp their social engineering instead.
CENTENNIAL REVIEW is published monthly by the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University. The authors’ views are not necessarily those of CCU. Designer, Bethany Applegate. Illustrator, Benjamin Hummel. Subscriptions free upon request. Write to: Centennial Institute, 8787 W. Alameda Ave., Lakewood, CO 80226. Call 800.44.FAITH. Or visit us online at www.CentennialCCU.org. Please join the Centennial Institute today. As a Centennial donor, you can help us restore America’s moral core and prepare tomorrow’s leaders. Your gift is tax-deductible. Please use the envelope provided. Thank you for your support. - John Andrews, Director
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But I’m afraid our failing is less a legal or constitutional failing than a cultural one. As Judge Learned Hand warned in 1944, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.” 11 He was saying, in effect, that if you think liberty worth saving, then it’s up to you. You must win the hearts and minds of your fellow citizens. You must make them, like you, acolytes of human freedom. It won’t be easy. I, for one, certainly think liberty is worth saving. And I share Lincoln’s view that this nation’s first principles— “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as he said at Gettysburg—are a sacrosanct inheritance we are obligated to preserve. But I question whether we in the 21st century still possess the wherewithal to defend or preserve anything.
Civilizational Entropy If the history of Western civilization were an epic like The Lord of the Rings (and I think it might be), right about now we would be longing for the return of the King. We would be desperate for any sliver of hope in these times of ominous portent and gathering darkness. But since America is a constitutional republic, not a kingdom, our longing for rescue must center on a different source of heroism. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people depends entirely on the people. Our fortress stone and bulwark of liberty is the Constitution. That fortress is fragile, however. It is only as strong as our allegiance and devotion. In each generation we must dedicate ourselves anew. Absent such rededication, civilizational entropy takes over. As an apocryphal but oft-quoted passage puts it:
VOI C ES OF C C U: POLITICAL PRUDENCE AND THE WHOLE TRUTH By Stephen Shumaker
Editor: Some of our CCU freshmen starting college this fall, full of eager hope for improving the human condition through government power, may bridle at Judge Janice Brown’s warnings here, especially her admonition to expect less of politics. In helping them toward a mature awareness that power can be abused, one professor will cite an unlikely source: Renaissance art. Justice either grows out of the barrel of a gun or out of the deepest beliefs that anchor our souls. To be convinced of the latter is to know ourselves doing battle for the souls of our young. In deciding how best to reach them, we might take a lesson from Raphael’s symbolic figure of Prudence in the Vatican’s Stanza della Segnatura. On a wall between his two great frescoes, “The School of Athens” honoring classical knowledge and “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” exalting Christian revelation, we encounter Lady Prudence. She calmly gazes into a mirror held by a little angel, and her demeanor exudes full self-knowledge. She knows the truth and she is lovely. But if you look closely, you will find that the back of her head, tilted quietly from you, depicts the face of an ugly old man. Gone are the loveliness and youth. In their place stands weathered experience in all of its unforgiving honesty. This dual image suggests the challenge for those of us entrusted with educating young people about politics. No doubt Raphael would acknowledge that there are harsh truths like Lord Acton’s famous dictum: “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But is he also suggesting we should use care in divulging such truths—as though the idealism of youth should only be shown life’s lovelier and not its uglier side? In this he would be echoing
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Plato and other ancient political philosophers, with their suspicion about the efficacy of truth for political life. Those of us ultimately committed to the Bible must never forget (and always teach) that we necessarily part ways with the ancients on this fundamental point. It is the truth that will “set you free” (John 8:32). Freedom of all sorts—including political freedom— begins only after we reach full conviction regarding the harsh truths of human nature and politics. Liberty and political realism are inextricably wed. If we look closely at the Beautiful Book, we’ll find its tough, gracious wisdom more lovely than the two-faced Lady Prudence— precisely because of its Truth. Stephen Shumaker joined Colorado Christian University as a professor of politics when classes resumed in August. His doctorate is from the University of Dallas. He previously taught at Baptist Bible College in Pennsylvania.
“Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.” 12 You might say it’s a civilizational There and Back Again (Tolkien’s subtitle for The Hobbit). But if this plays out for America, we will be returning not to the quiet peacefulness of the Shire, but to an opposite sort of nightmare. 16th Best Place to be Born Current indicators are not encouraging. We’re told that in 2012 the electorate voted to kick the fiscal can down the road, but I wonder if they simply kicked America to the curb. According to Harvard’s Niall Ferguson, the fiscal position of the United States even in 2009 was already worse than Greece. Only our ability to print the world’s premier reserve currency gives us any breathing space, he says; but even that space is illusory. Power’s
neither strength nor good purpose will last—sooner or later the dark power will devour them.’” 13 The Lord of the Rings, with its imaginary world, thus captures an essential truth in our own. Again in Shippey’s words: “All seizures of power, no matter how ‘strong or well-meaning’ the seizers, will go the same way.” Good intentions, corrupted by power, “have led only to gulags and killing J. R. R. Tolkien, 1892-1973 fields.” 14 That was both Tolkien’s theme and the lesson of the past century.
As Frank Meyer noted, the political dynamic work in a democratic regime that must evil spell, at buy consent is singularly destructive: “Tax In surveys of economic freedom, the feared by Tolkien, to destroy the independent; spend to create United States continues to fall. The the dependent; from the destruction of the is upon us. Heritage Foundation ranks the U.S. in one and the elevation of the other, maintain the 10th spot, well below Hong Kong and the power of the bureaucratic elite.” 15 Singapore and substantially below Canada and Chile. Addicted to Redistribution Back in 1988, when The Economist ranked the best places to be born, the U.S. was number one; by 2013, the top slot went Civil society, once it becomes addicted to redistribution, to Switzerland, and America ranked 16th, below Norway, demands that its habit be fed continually. Politicians, Finland, and Taiwan. This was in large part because children meanwhile, in the words of James DeLong, “in addition born here today are saddled with the debt of the Baby to bidding for consent… create economic advantages for special interests and then demand that part of the profits be Boomer generation. fed back into the political system” to benefit themselves. 16 Good Intentions Corrupted What is to be done? The welfare state seems impervious The fathers of the Baby Boomers in the 1940s were rightly to even the most minor adjustments. The ideologues have called “the greatest generation.” They exemplified the transformed the academy, and there is little hope of a founding virtues. Whereas the Weathermen, spoiled Boomers successful revolt in the foreseeable future. Nor is it clear that turned Marxist revolutionaries and domestic terrorists in the the majority of Americans would choose to return to the 1960s, vowed “to destroy everything good and decent in moral restraints and civic responsibilities of the founding America”—and to some extent they succeeded. age, even if they could. Do I exaggerate? Ask yourself: hasn’t the American ethic of Welfare recipients now think they deserve support. Senior self-restraint, self-sacrifice, and personal responsibility been citizens think they have earned it. Homeowners who bought largely abandoned today? houses they could not afford think their neighbors should Undeniably, our prospects look bleak. So what, if anything, can the defenders of liberty stand to learn from Tolkien’s epic tale? More than one might suspect. Despite its setting in some far distant past, Tolkien’s depiction of power as a corrupting evil still resonates. As Tom Shippey puts it in J. R. R. Tolkien: The Author of the Century: The Ring “will take them over, ‘devour’ them, ‘possess’ them. The process may be long or short, depending on how ‘strong or well-meaning’ the possessor may be, but subsidize their dreams. College students whose hopes of a high-paying job have gone bust think fairness requires the taxpayers to pick up the tab for their educational adventures.
The crony capitalists whose survival is dependent on specialinterest legislation have conveniently forgotten how free enterprise is supposed to work. And mobs now boldly claim the moral high ground. We could hope for a constitutional crisis, but that could happen only in a constitutional republic.
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Frodo’s Hour To repeat: There are tall orders for defenders of liberty. Now more than ever we need our St. George— but even a Frodo will do. This is a crucial time in the history of our republic, our culture, and our civilization. Nor are we just experiencing a swing of the pendulum that will right itself. Conservatives like to console themselves by reciting the meme that this is still a Abigail Adams, 1744-1818 center-right nation. Hardly. The academy, the media, and the popular culture have been pushing relentlessly leftward for many decades. Such forces have their effect. People respond to the prevailing ideas of their times even if they respond only to reflections and refractions, “like bats at twilight” as Coleridge has it. We will not reverse a hundred years of slipping into darkness in one election or even one decade. Those who fomented the revolution of 1968—the victims’ revolution, as Bruce Bawer calls it—declared their mission: to create a counterculture that would challenge and ultimately destroy tradition and conventional morality.
Footnotes 1. Frank S. Meyer, In Defense of Freedom and Related Essays 178. (Liberty Fund, Inc. 1996).
2. Abraham Lincoln, Speech before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1837, in The Essential Abraham Lincoln 8, John Gabriel Hunt ed. (Gramercy Books 1999). 3. Bruce Bawer, The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind (HarperCollins 2012) p. 8. 4. Id. at 10, quoting Solway. 5. Id. at p. 35. 6. Bawer at note 4, quoting Solway. 7. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind 25-26 (Simon & Schuster 1987). 8. Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, No. 1. 9. Quoted in William Ophuls, Requiem for Modern Politics 236 (1998). 10. Calvin Coolidge, Speech on the Occasion of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (July 5, 1926), available at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/ library/index.asp?document=41. 11. Judge Learned Hand, “Liberty Lies in the Hearts of Men and Women,” Our Nation’s Archive: The History of the United States in Documents 658 (Erik Bruun & Jay Crosby Eds. 1999).
Now we’re the counter-culture.
Their revolution morphed into a slow coup, but it was devastatingly effective for all that. Although they did not overthrow the government, they did succeed in undermining the culture that was the foundation of free government. Expect Less of Politics Now we must become the counter-culture, and develop a compelling narrative that convinces people of the moral bankruptcy of the politics of compassion. We must protect and reinvigorate civil society. We must repair what we can of the wreck that has been made of the educational system. We are left with only two kinds of tasks, the difficult and the impossible. Yet this is hardly new. The whole history of the Western world has been the attempt to escape the hive mind and learn the differences between good and evil, growing into full responsibility for our choices and thus becoming fully human. The utopian vision and the tribal temptation constantly reappear because they serve the lust for power.
12. This has been attributed to everyone from Alexander Tytler to Tocqueville to Disraeli to Lord Macaulay. It seems to have originated in a speech by Henning Webb Prentiss, Jr., president of the Armstrong Cork Company, to the National Conference Board on March 18, 1943. See Loren Collins, The Truth about Tytler, http://www.lorencollins.net/tytler.html. 13. Tom Shippey, J.R.R Tolkien: Author of the Century 114 (Houghton Mifflin 2002). 14. Ibid. 116, 117. 15. Frank S. Meyer, In Defense of Freedom and Related Essays 109 (1996). 16. James V. DeLong, Ending ‘Big Sis’ and Renewing the American Republic (CreateSpace, 2012), p. 3. 17. Abigail Adams, Letters of Mrs. Adams, Vol. 2 144 (1840).
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The Fragility of Freedom and the Toughness of Tolkien By Janice Rogers Brown The Lord of the Rings, with its imaginary world, captures an essential truth in our own: power can be a corrupting evil. The fortress of liberty is only as strong as our devotion, which the liberal fallacies and lax habits of recent decades have undermined. Can the American ethic of self-restraint, selfsacrifice, and personal responsibility be revived? The hour is late.
Aragorn: "Not this day."
Of course these projects are always a cheat. They never bring forth the new man, but merely revert to the old one: a servile creature, vicious, filled with envy and superstition, cringing before an irrational god of his own invention. Though human aspiration at its best has always impelled us onward and upward, human politics has too often tugged us backward and downward. That is why it is a grave mistake to expect too much of politics. Great Necessities For Americans in 2013, the light of our city on a hill has noticeably dimmed. The dark wind blowing from the future carries a hint of frost, of finality. But no matter. We have started over before. The undertow of entropy is no reason to despair. Conservatism has always been the defense of the permanent things against the demands of eager ideology. Knowing the battle never ends only means we must redefine winning.
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Worldviews, Calling & Culture is a Colorado nonprofit working to advance God’s kingdom through teaching the biblical worldview, helping Christians discover their calling, and assisting the formation of Christian groups that will develop biblical solutions to societal problems. We have proudly helped sponsor the Western Conservative Summit and the annual VALS Conference. In addition, this will be our second year of presenting the Colorado Centurions Program, in partnership with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and Colorado Christian University. BECOME A CENTURION! Centurions is a year-long course of adult learning that prepares you to navigate today’s culture with a Christian perspective. Becoming a Centurion will help you gain confidence, understanding, and knowledge as you apply biblical truth to every aspect of your life—becoming more like Christ in how you think and act. What makes the Colorado Centurions Program unique? One, a focus on inward formation that results in outward actions. Two, access to the large and growing network of Centurions, Centurions Program staff and faculty, and ministry collaborators. Three, teaching and interaction with some of the leading Christian thinkers and practitioners of our day. Four, emphasis on ongoing ministry engagement, collaboration, and spiritual and intellectual growth. Monthly program sessions for 2013-2014 begin October 7 at the CCU campus in Lakewood. Enrollment is underway! Tuition is $350. For program summary, FAQs, and application visit: www.breakpoint.org/resources/centurions/ centurions-colorado
Will we meet the test?
“These are the times in which a genius would wish to live,” Abigail Adams wrote to John in 1780. “It is not in the still calm of life…that great characters are formed…. Great necessities call out great virtues.” That was a critical time for America—and so is this. Will we meet the test? In a climactic scene of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Aragorn tells his weary warriors: “There may come a day when the courage of men will fail, but it is not this day.” Let that be your rallying cry still. Go forth in your noble cause, tricksy hobbits. Go forth and do good. Your battle is its own reward. n
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