Harvey Mansfield

by tristero

Digby first alerted me to this unspeakably repellent essay by Harvey Mansfield in the Wall Street Journal online and also to Glenn Greenwald's discussion of it. It is well worth reading all this material but what caught my eye was this from Glenn:
[R]eading Mansfield has real value for understanding the dominant right-wing movement in this country. Because he is an academic, and a quite intelligent one, he makes intellectually honest arguments, by which I mean that he does not disguise what he thinks in politically palatable slogans, but instead really describes the actual premises on which political beliefs are based.

And that is Mansfield's value; he is a clear and honest embodiment of what the Bush movement is.
Let me start off by saying that there are few bloggers I admire more than Glenn Greenwald. He is a genuine asset to Salon's staff and, frankly, he deserves a far wider audience than that. Glenn makes elaborate, well-documented arguments in a passionate voice that never really loses control even when he's clearly deeply angry at some Bush administration idiocy.

But I'd like to use Glenn's use words "honest" and "intelligent" when referring to Harvey Mansfield as a way to examine the rhetorical schemes and scams Mansfield uses. The way I see it, Mansfield is honest the way Cheney is a crack shot (drunk or sober). And Mansfield is intelligent the way a pretzel is smart when compared to the current Occupant of the White House. But I should be clear that while I would never describe a rightwing extremist with any positive adjective, I have no bone to pick with Glenn. Harvey Mansfield's the boner.

Here's a few examples of what Mansfield's up to. I'm not going to "engage" his take on history for one specific reason: there's nothing intellectually coherent enough here to engage. There is only an utterly specious assertion of the rightwing will to power trumped up sleazy rhetorical stunts.

Let's examine paragraph 3 of Mansfield's essay:
In other circumstances I could see myself defending the rule of law. Americans are fortunate to have a Constitution that accommodates different circumstances. Its flexibility keeps it in its original form and spirit a "living constitution," ready for change, and open to new necessities and opportunities. The "living constitution" conceived by the Progressives actually makes it a prisoner of ongoing events and perceived trends. To explain the constitutional debate between the strong executive and the rule of law I will concentrate on its sources in political philosophy and, for greater clarity, ignore the constitutional law emerging from it.
Mansfield is being highly disingenuous and evasive here. Take sentence 1: "In other circumstances I could see myself defending the rule of law." Folks, I don't think it's any stretch at all to conclude from the way this is presented that this sentence is nothing more or less than a rightwingers idea of a funny haha joke. You don't have to ask, "Well, exactly what are those circumstances, Harvey?" Anyone with half a brain can infer that Mansfield, with a certainly approahching 1, can only mean, "If Hillary Clinton was president. I could see myself defending the rule of law over a strong executive."

But Mansfield isn't just making a rightwing Hillary in-joke (okay, maybe it's about Kerry, but you get the idea). It's much more ominous than that, although he doesn't say so outright, 'cause he doesn't mean just Hillary or whomever is the Satan du jour of the right. Mansfield's essay makes very little overt sense, as we'll see. But it all becomes crystal clear when you realize that he is surreptitiously telling his audience that he would never defend the rule of law whenever a big D or a small d democrat is in power for the very simple reason that they have no legitimacy within the American government.

Mansfield pulls off this amazing stunt partly through his rhetorical emphases and omissions. It is no accident that various forms of the word "republican" - both capitalized and otherwise - occur at least 20 times in his essay, usually in an obviously positive sense. In addition, the first time the word "republic" appears is in paragraph 4 (and the term itself is repeated 16 times).

By contrast, take a look at the D word, democracy. It occurs only twice, in paragraph 16 of 28 paragraphs, ie. more than halfway through the structure of the essay. As for the word "democrat" and related forms, it occurs only five times, the first time again in paragraph 16. And here is the context for the first time the word "democratize" is used, literally overwhelmed by all those republics and republicans:
Republican government cannot survive, as we would say, by ideology alone. The republican genius is dominant in America, where there has never been much support for anything like an ancien régime, but support for republicanism is not enough to make a viable republic. The republican spirit can actually cause trouble for republics if it makes people think that to be republican it is enough merely to oppose monarchy. Such an attitude tempts a republican people to republicanize everything so as to make government resemble a monarchy as little as possible.

Although the Federalist made a point of distinguishing a republic from a democracy (by which it meant a so-called pure, nonrepresentative democracy), the urge today to democratize everything has similar bad effects. To counter this reactionary republican (or democratic, in today's language) belief characteristic of shortsighted partisans, the Federalist made a point of holding the new, the novel, American republic to the test of good government as opposed merely to that of republican government.
If you understand what Mansfield is saying here, please stop reading right now and get thee to a psychiatrist because you are seriously deluded. In truth, "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" contains more of what we on Planet Earth call meaning.

I simply have no idea what Mansfield means by a "pure nonrepresentative democracy."* More incoherently, to Mansfield, democracy is the term used today to describe a "reactionary republican" belief. Huh? Democracy is reactionary republicanism? Furthermore, this democracy, for Mansfield, is "characteristic of shortsighted partisans" who are committed merely "to make government resemble a monarchy as little as possible," all of which is opposed to "the new, the novel American republic." Wha? I've read enough about democracy in the early United States to know that this is a truly meaningless overgeneralization (see Wilentz's "The Rise of American Democracy"). This makes no sense whatsoever if he is talking about the United States, instead of a United States in the galaxy Glorm.

But this much is very clear: Mansfield thinks "bad effects" emerge from "the urge today to democratize everything." And this much also is clear - whatever the hell Mansfield means by democracy and democratization, it is opposed to republicanism in his mind. And democracy is not a good thing at all.

In other words, through his rhetoric, Mansfield has literally written Democrats (and those who simply are pro-democracy) - not just the demonic Hillary - out of consideration for any defense he might give for a strong executive (if he hasn't all but written democrats, Democrats, and democracy out of American history altogether). And he has done this not by being up front about it, ie. in what liberals would deem an "intellectually honest" manner but instead by sheer academic obfuscation and deception. His pro-forma attempt to claim towards the end that he is being essentially party neutral is pure bullshit - it is undermined by his rhetoric throughout the rest of the essay.

But wait! There's more! Let's go back to that paragraph 3. Notice another rhetorical trick at work. A "living Constitution" - such a nice-sounding phrase! It sounds like it's a Good Thing so Mansfield wants to exploit the term for its warm, fuzzy connotation. It's almost pro-life, get it? The problem is that a "living Constitution" already is a term of art that liberals use. No matter, if you truly don't care what words mean. Mansfield simply deploys some slippery revisionary rhetoric and lo and behold! We read that a "living Constitution" entails "flexibility" which "keeps it in its original form and spirit."

The mind reels at the numerous perversions of language at work in Mansfield's ploy. The s-called dead Constitution (Scalia's adjective) of the "Originalists" actually is alive because it is reified. And it's reifiication is its flexibility! This is Newspeak put through a meat grinder designed by Derrida.

And this is only the beginning. Like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Mansfield creates a bizarre, inhuman... thing that is one third Hamilton, one third Mansfield, and two thirds Machiavelli. (Yes, I know, duh, that's more than 100%, but that is the sense of what Mansfield does. Hamilton's clearly just there to put American Founders lip gloss on The Creature's puss). Let's attend closely to what he writes here, because you might think this is Hamiltonianism. But it is not Hamilton, rather Mansfield, who insists that "energy" must require coercion. And it is not Hamilton, but Machiavelli, who insists that the best source of energy comes from an all-powerful tyrant:
Law assumes obedience, and as such seems oblivious to resistance to the law by the "governed," as if it were enough to require criminals to turn themselves in. [Note the totally fallacious argument from absurdity: nobody ever seriously argued that.] No, the law must be "enforced," as we say. There must be police, and the rulers over the police must use energy (Alexander Hamilton's term) in addition to reason. It is a delusion to believe that governments can have energy without ever resorting to the use of force.

The best source of energy turns out to be the same as the best source of reason--one man. One man, or, to use Machiavelli's expression, uno solo, will be the greatest source of energy if he regards it as necessary to maintaining his own rule.
Finally, there's this whopper. You'd be hard pressed to guess, at first glance, to know what Mansfield is talking about here, but what he's really saying is that torture can be a good thing and so can spying on Americans without a warrant. Notice how, in order to make his argument, Mansfield uses the principle of flexible reification he defined earlier in his deconstruction - no other word is appropriate - of the term "living constitution"
In our time, however, an opinion has sprung up in liberal circles particularly that civil liberties must always be kept intact regardless of circumstances. This opinion assumes that civil liberties have the status of natural liberties, and are inalienable. This means that the Constitution has the status of what was called in the 17th-century natural public law; it is an order as natural as the state of nature from which it emerges. In this view liberty has just one set of laws and institutions that must be kept inviolate, lest it be lost.

But Locke was a wiser liberal. His institutions were "constituted," less by creation than by modification of existing institutions in England, but not deduced as invariable consequences of disorder in the state of nature. He retained the difference, and so did the Americans, between natural liberties, inalienable but insecure, and civil liberties, more secure but changeable. Because civil liberties are subject to circumstances, a free constitution needs an institution responsive to circumstances, an executive able to be strong when necessary.
God, what a sleaze he is. Mansfield's intention is to eviscerate habeas corpus, but he doesn't mention that, referring only to an undefined "civil liberties." Nor would I call Mansfield, in any sense, a clear thinker, even about his own intentions. He can't even come directly out and say when he would defend the rule of law over that of a tyrant (Mansfield's term, borrowed from Machiavelli ) in the United States. What he is saying is merely gobbledy gook, pseudo-postmodernism, fakery without the endearing humor of Alan Sokal's immortal essay, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity .

No, Mansfield, like Joe Morecraft, like David Klinghoffer, like Pat Robertson, and Dick Cheney, et al, et al, et al, is simply one more lunatic right winger with a propensity to lie and deceive, and with shit for brains.

SPECIAL NOTE FOR RIGHTWINGERS AND OTHERS WITH SEVERE COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENTS: Can a conservative be, in any real sense, "intellectually honest" or a clear thinker? Let me put this way. If Mansfield is a conservative, if Morecraft is, if Klinghoffer, Robertson, and Cheney are conservatives, then the answer is, "No, never."

You disagree? Well then, it is up to real conservatives to rescue the term "conservative" from the rightwing lunatics who have redefined it as the ne plus ultra of intellectual dishonesty and stupidity. And that rescue begins by making it quite clear that conservatives not only place enormous distance between themselves and the extremist Bushies, but that they articulate a modern conservative philosophy of genuine intellectual merit. So far, I haven't seen even a glimmer that such a thing is happening.

*Mansfield may be referring to a plebiscite, but who can tell? His phraseology smells like the kind of brain dead misunderstandings that abound in "intelligent design" creationism, where they rail against "Darwinists" who, say the creationists, believe that life self-organized and evolved from random processes - is a spectacularly distorted and stupid precis that bears no relationship to the reality of how evolution by natural selection actually works.

[Updated immediately after first posting to remove some comments about Glenn's post that seemed, wrongly, excessively critical.]