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2008 Bradley Symposium: Encounter at 10: The Power of Ideas

TOO OFTEN ideas are discounted as the effete playthings of the chattering classes, yet they have the power to transform our nation’s institutions, from our courts and legislatures to marriage and family life. Since 1998, Encounter Books has aimed to broaden public debate by bringing many new voices to bear on important policy and cultural issues.

On June 4, Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal held its fourth annual Bradley Symposium, co-sponsored by Encounter Books, on the themes of the power of ideas, publishing, and preserving liberty and democracy. Three panels drew from prepared essays and featured seven prominent Encounter authors:




The Jihad in Plain Sight by Andrew McCarthy (PDF format, 9 pages, 51 KB)
Memory and Civic Education: The Perils of Cultural Amnesia by Victor Davis Hanson (PDF format, 7 pages, 89 KB)
Global Governance vs. the Liberal Democratic Nation-State: What Is the Best Regime? by John Fonte (PDF format, 20 pages, 149 KB)


9:00 a.m.
Continental Breakfast (Magnolia Room)

Introductory Remarks, WILLIAM SCHAMBRA
Introductory Remarks, ROGER KIMBALL
“Publishing and the Importance of Ideas”

“Memory and Civic Education: The Perils of Cultural Amnesia”

COFFEE BREAK (Magnolia Room)

JOHN FONTE, Presenter
“Global Governance vs. the Liberal Democratic Nation-State: What Is the Best Regime?”

“The Jihad in Plain Sight”
ROBERT BORK, Discussant



The 2008 Bradley Symposium began with brief introductions by William Schambra and moderator Roger Kimball. Kimball asked the panels and audience: “Who are we – we Americans of the twenty-first century? How did we arrive at our present prosperity? What sacrifices were made by our forbearers to bequeath us the richest, freest, physically most secure society in history? What good ideas did the founders of this republic promulgate to our eventual benefit? And equally important, what bad ideas did they shackle, tame, and inoculate us against?” Kimball noted that it is particularly important to distinguish good ideas from bad, and to expect to face bad ideas again and again. “It is part of the responsible exercise of intelligence to recognize the difference between ideas that work and those which merely produce a species of moral intoxication.” We should not be discouraged when “ideas discredited only yesterday” suddenly change shape “like some strange villain out of the science-fiction movie” and are poised to attack again. He concluded, “Part of the task that faces us now is to acknowledge the depth of barbarism that challenges the survival of culture” and reaffirm the core values that are under attack.

Kicking off the first panel, Victor Davis Hanson recounted the arguments in his commissioned essay, “Memory and Civic Education: The Perils of Cultural Amnesia.” He began by establishing that ancient Greeks and Romans drew from civic education a moral guide to curb “dangerous appetites” and foster humility and gratitude. “The Greeks and Romans believed that all of us are a part of a great chain of culture and civilization; that our link in the here and now is not predicated on what we have done, but what our ancestors have done; we have a responsibility to them to pass on something better than what we inherited to our children; and if we were to not do that, if we were to indulge in our appetites, then this fragile chain… would break,” he told the audience.

In both his essay and his talk, Hanson next laid out four dangerous trends in the writing of history. First, Hanson wrote, instead of appreciating past sacrifices we spend the spare time and wealth those sacrifices afforded us “tabulating in the abstract the various racial, class, and gender transgressions” of our culture. Second, as a result we have lost our sense for what is important, both in the past and now. “If there is any measurement of what now warrants our attention and what does not, it is often what I would call oppression studies – to what degree does a past life or an incident serve the contemporary goal of victimology and further an equality of result,” Hanson lamented in his essay. Third, we’ve lost our stomach for difficult choices, both in the past and now. “If we do not understand the sometimes bleak choices of history, then in the present and for the future we place upon ourselves such utopian burdens that almost any result will be caricatured and second-guessed. And the ultimate result will be a moral stasis, and the bankrupt notion that inaction is not an error of omission,” wrote Hanson. And fourth, we have become proud but paralyzed hypocrites.

Hanson goes on to give three “wages of historical ignorance.” First, we’ve become arrogant, thinking that we’ve created the privileges we enjoy. Second, we have an inflated sense of self-importance, and are self-indulgent even as the privileges others have passed on to us begin to crumble around us. In demonizing the dead, we have become “free to rewrite the rules of our own moral behavior.” Third, in casting our country and its past as bad so that we can cast ourselves as good, we imperil our future. “The first time you think that you are no better than the alternative, or you do not know who you are and how to defend yourself, then there is no reason for you to continue,” Hanson told the audience. His essay ended as follows: “The hard work of uniting diverse peoples under uniquely humane principles is the work of over two centuries; the easy task of ending it can be accomplished in a mere generation through our ignorance or hatred of ourselves and our past.”

William E. Simon Foundation president James Piereson remarked that he had little to add to Hanson’s fine paper, so he would offer his own views “with an eye to arriving at the same destination by a somewhat different route.”

While the Greeks and Romans looked to great figures of the past as exemplars of virtuous conduct, and Pericles’ funeral oration calls us to “begin with our ancestors,” as a nation of immigrants Americans cannot do this in the way that Pericles’ contemporaries could. Americans, rather, “endorse a set of ideals found in the Declaration or the Constitution,” Piereson began.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is understood as America’s answer to the funeral oration of Pericles. Lincoln drew on a biblical vision of the equality of all men granted by their Creator, and offered America as “the almost chosen people.” This squared the pagan learning drawn from Ancient studies with biblical revelation, and provided both a moral and a historical perspective – and an external perspective – on American life and the American experience, “a standpoint from which we could assess our progress, evaluate our institutions, and understand disappointment and tragedy.” Indeed, the authors of our Constitution, looked to the ancient world for historical lessons to guide them. And although, as Piereson lamented, “the rise of historicism has elongated the intellectual distance between ourselves and the ancients, which has thereby shattered Madison’s assumption that there are genuine lessons for our time to be found in Greece and Rome, or indeed in the past,” Madison and Hamilton’s institutional framework still allows us to draw those lessons in practice. Yet we still must work to safeguard against “the intemperate passions of our time,” Piereson concluded.

Before moderator Roger Kimball took questions from the audience, Hanson sought to clarify the classical understanding of liberal education, which involved examining empirical examples in history in order to come to a general thesis. “An education makes us immune from the charge of ‘presentism,’” Hanson explained. “We have all of these friends out there that we’ve accumulated as a part of our education that remind us that we’re not unique, and it’s all happened before. I think that’s really the great value of civic education.”

At the same time, both speakers sought to emphasize how unique the past century has been in terms of human development. Piereson commented that “people who lived in 1900 or 1850 probably lived lives more similar to those living five hundred years before, or maybe even a thousand years before, than they (did) to the people living today.”

The discussion with the audience focused on the quality of education in schools today, and in particular the education of immigrants. Ramesh Ponnuru was among those who asked questions. The discussion also turned to the lessons of history put forward by the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright, which had received a lot of attention as a part of the 2008 presidential campaign. Hanson finds Wright’s clearly racist views and their acceptance by a NAACP audience to be an example of the dangers of forgetting the lessons of history and subscribing to victimology.

Next, John Fonte‘s lengthy commissioned essay, “Global Governance vs. the Liberal Democratic Nation-State: What Is the Best Regime?” and remarks described the threat to the American constitutional order posed by a move toward transnational governance. “For many of the world’s elites, the big project of the twenty-first century is how to achieve global governance” to solve the problems nation states cannot seem to solve among themselves. Fonte calls this view “transnational progressivism,” and argues that it is “post-democratic.” Indeed, its leading advocates – including Strobe Talbott and Harold Koh, write of ways to “trigger” transnational legal interpretations in countries such as the United States, which then would be internalized in a behind-the-back, post-democratic fashion. These efforts raise a fundamental question that the American Constitution had answered, “Who shall govern and in what regime?”

One way transnational progressives are dismantling the constructs of American national sovereignty is through arguments made about the allegiance of immigrants. Does one give up one’s former allegiance when one becomes an American? Transnational progressives argue, “no.” Fonte’s essay outlines other examples of transnational progressives’ positions entering the mainstream of political discourse – for example, through the establishment ad growth of the European Union.

In any case, current theoretical analyses of the world order – for example those of Francis Fukuyama and Robert Kagan – fail to account for this development or its potential affects. Whereas others see the world divided between democrats and anti-democrats, Fonte explained to the audience that “the ideological conflict in the twenty-first century will be tri-polar, with an overlapping struggle among democrats, anti-democrats, and global post-democrats.” Huntington grasps this to an extent, Fonte observed. The consequence is that democrats will need to fight a two-front war against anti-democrats in the form of radical Islamists as well as against post-democrats, who seek to define the threat posed by radical Islam differently – or even define it away. Currently, global post-democrats’ arguments are not taken seriously by the center right as a comprehensive ideological offensive and a direct, existential challenge to American constitutionalism.

The good news, Fonte concluded, is that key people are starting to pay attention, and that the American people as a whole “remain strongly attached to our national identity and nation-state,” as shown by a poll commissioned by the Bradley Project on American National Identity. The mainstream center left “is intellectual prepared to deal with (read: usher in) transnational governance conceptually and rhetorically,” Fonte noted (and describes in detail in his essay. “The American center right must be prepared to do theoretical and conceptual work necessary to defend the American regime and the liberal democratic nation-state generally on universal grounds against this new threat,” Fonte said in closing.

Hudson Institute’s John O’Sullivan commented on Fonte’s essay, with which he largely agreed, beginning with the observation that “the whole notion of pooling things like sovereignty is absurd. Sovereignty is to a group was liberty is to an individual – the ability to make decisions.” O’Sullivan went on to describe very briefly the rise of transnational progressivism during the interwar years, when the first transfers of power took place “from elected bodies such as Congress or Parliament to unelected bodies such as the courts, bureaucratic agencies, the UN and other international bodies, treaty-based global groups which place obligations on us, and so on and so forth.” O’Sullivan implies that this transfer took place within as well as between countries. And it took place, he argued, because these powerful bureaucratic bodies were able to get around democratic gridlocks and Congressional inaction, or so people say.

O’Sullivan went on to offer another view on why this transfer occurred and is occurring. “Significant elites in societies find that the electorate has not favored their policies, and they are looking for a new electorate.” Particularly in the last thirty or forty years, the left has been looking for new ways to move its agenda forward. The result, according to O’Sullivan, is empty democracy. “Do you want to amend or appeal the decision of an international court or the decision of a bureaucratic agency in Brussels, or change the mind of a body set up under the Law of the Sea? For practical purposes, you can’t.“ Thus you have the odd scenario of the Irish being asked to vote again and again on a European Union treaty (the Lisbon Treaty, the European constitution) they rejected by referendum because they’ve chosen the “wrong” answer.

The existence of the American Constitution guarantees a future clash as well; it means that “decisions taken by international bodies and organizations have to be accepted by the American people through their institutions or they won’t bind this country.” Ironically, this will put us on the same side as traditional nation-states like India and China versus the European Union.

O’Sullivan concluded that the next president – be it McCain or Obama – is unlikely to address the threat, and that the battle will have to be fought as it is being fought at this discussion – at a high intellectual level made possible by the Bradley Foundation, Hudson Institute, Encounter Books, etc.

The audience asked the panelists to clarify a few points – including one request by Judge Robert Bork. Another question essentially asked John O’Sullivan and John Fonte to draw upon a lesson of the first panel (with Victor Davis Hanson and James Piereson) for the second: Does the proposition theory of the American nation furnish us with a place from which we can defend against multiculturalism and transnationalism?

John Fonte argued that the “proposition plus” argument is what can sustain us, the idea that we are a nation founded upon principles that we believe in and immigrants come to adopt. Both creed and culture are important. “It is not simply an abstract proposition but is based on a particular nation, a civic nation that has a national story to it.” John O’Sullivan agreed, noting that he thinks “it’s a mistake to confine America to the proposition side.” It’s “a distillation of the full American cultural sense of identity” that’s important.

The third and last panel featured a presentation by Andrew McCarthy of his essay “The Jihad in Plain Sight.” McCarthy made his central point by drawing a contrast: On the one hand, the left is adamant that the American citizens have all of the information they need to wage a war on obesity, smoking, alcohol, etc. Laws must be passed so that restaurants post calorie counts. Cigarette packages and alcohol containers must contain harsh warnings. But on the other hand, the left has worked hard to refashion the concept of jihadism into “an internal struggle for personal betterment, a key tenet of the Religion of Peace,” and a concept rooted in good works in society. We are to ignore the fact that millions of Muslims view jihad as a forcible, military-type conquest, and that the jihadist project “is to remove all barriers to the establishment of Shariah.”

McCarthy protests: “The mortal threat we face is jihadism, which is caused by Islam no less than obesity is caused by high calorie counts, lung cancer by smoking cigarettes, birth defects by imbibing alcohol during pregnancy, and countless lesser risks to our well-being by pathologies our benevolent bureaucrats compel us to confront remorselessly, without any concern that we might be misunderstood as crusading to rid the world of food, or alcohol, or tobacco.” He concluded his remarks with the observation that “we did not react seriously in attempting before 9/11 to prosecute [the enemy] into submission when he attacked again and again. And we are not serious if we believe now that we can define [in the essay, he writes ‘democratize’] him out of existence.”

A key point from his essay was not included in his remarks: In contrast to the American left, Islamic radicals do understand what’s at stake in this war. They view freedom – beginning with free speech – as a threat to Islam and their tyrannical culture of suppression that upholds it. “That’s why [they’re] fighting so hard,” McCarthy wrote.

Judge Robert Bork response tied together some of the themes of all three Bradley Symposium panels as well as its overarching theme, the power of ideas. He began by noting that while ideas are crucial, “they must be implemented in many cases by force,” which is what we’re going to have to realize to confront jihad.

What ideas can help us in this effort? Certainly not traditional religion; we’ve become a secularized country, and secularism is “unlikely to produce the kind of fighting spirit or morale that you need to face the jihad.” The idea that we’re to pursue happiness as Americans also won’t help us, Judge Bork went on. “People for whom comfort and convenience are the meaning of life do not want to think about dangers that are growing but rarely impinge upon their personal, daily lives,” he said, bringing Hanson’s essay to mind. Finally, Bork lamented that more than a few bad ideas seem to have a lot of power: The demise of the socialist theoretical framework “required that the anger find new outlets, and environmentalism was the perfect candidate because it is socialism under another name.” Diversity, multiculturalism, and a “grievance mentality” are all bad ideas. And transnationalism has already invaded our Constitution in that Supreme Court justices have relied upon foreign law or UN resolutions in making decisions.

Bork concluded by observing, “The society we are becoming …is going to have the utmost difficulty in waging a war without tiring and perhaps losing what we value in the West.” Bagehot, he went on, wrote that “the characteristic danger of great nations like the Romans or the English, which have a long history of continuous creation, is, that they may at last fail from not comprehending the great institutions which they have created.” This is the danger we face. Encounter and the New Criterion and National Review and others are fighting on an intellectual level, but that’s only part of the war, Bork said in closing.

Moderator Roger Kimball commented that if there is a tendency for liberalism to create a vacuum, we Americans need to recapture, reanimate, and resuscitate certain core values in order to prevail. Andrew McCarthy agreed that even our success in the war against terror is “much more about us than it is about the enemy.” What do we ultimately think of ourselves? The enemy is convinced that they will win.

The discussion turned back to our efforts to define and combat the threat posed by radical Islam, but along those lines McCarthy pointed out that a change in the way we interpret the First Amendment in the 1960s and 1970s makes a legal response much more difficult now than it would have been back then. One can no longer criminalize being a member of an organization like the Communist Party or al-Qaeda. Judge Bork chimed in that it should indeed be criminalized, and that the Supreme Court has prevented it from being a crime.

Questions were posed by Mark Krikorian, Juliana Pilon, Hillel Fradkin, and Nestor Forster. Other notable attendees included Ramesh and April Ponnuru and Irving and Bea Kristol.


Roger Kimball’s introductory remarks to the symposium were published in the July 21, 2008 issue of The Weekly Standard (“Ideas in Battle”).

Symposium Presenters Interviewed – Video Online
Just after the symposium on June 4, 2008, Pajamas Media’s Roger L. Simon interviewed symposium presenters Victor Davis Hanson and Andrew McCarthy and moderator Roger Kimball on the perils of conservative publishing.


The Bradley Symposium is an annual discussion convened by Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center. Information and documents from past Bradley Symposia can be accessed by clicking here. To request further information on these events or the Bradley Center, please contact Kristen McIntyre at (202) 974-2424 or email Kristen.

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