Books in Little
As American conservatism matures, and its histories are written, the entities and individuals that made its rise and influence possible have begun to come into focus. Among the most important of these has been the John M. Olin Foundation, which, until its voluntary dissolution in 2005, had distributed millions to conservative institutions, projects, and persons over the past fifty years. It has been perhaps the most critical philanthropic institution of modern American conservatism.
John Miller, a writer for National Review, recounts Olin’s legacy and importance in this volume. Miller had extensive access to the foundations’ papers and trustees, and his research provides a full picture of the institution and its achievements. John Olin was an industrialist who began his foundation in 1953, the same year as National Review. The foundation’s mandate was to support the free enterprise system, which was later clarified to include other American founding principles. In the decades since, under its able leadership, especially William Simon, Jr. and James Pierson, the foundation poured money into the ideas that rendered an intellectual revolution. As Miller recounts, almost every conservative of note has benefited from Olin support, from the Federalist Society to The New Criterion and The National Interest, from the Collegiate Network (in its early years) to this journal, and it has provided assistance to scholars as varied as Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. Indeed, Olin sometimes represented a conservative debating society; there were almost no restrictions placed on what scholars or institutions could say, so long as they furthered the Olin’s overarching goals of strengthening American institutions. Most notable among the foundation’s successes perhaps was Allan Bloom, whose 1987 The Closing of the American Mind became a surprise best-seller and conservative rallying point.
The successes of conservatism in the realm of ideas and politics might have happened without institutions like the Olin Foundation, but they would have been less lasting and less effective. Miller has done historians of American institutions and students of philanthropy a service in setting out the Olin story.
Federal criminal law suffers from what in other contexts is called mission creep. The number of federal crimes has increased dramatically, the law explaining them has become vague and almost incoherently complex, and the enforcement of these offenses has become at times arbitrary. In the process, as Gene Healy explains in this volume of essays, the essential features of the Anglo-American common law have become diluted, which should worry anyone concerned about a free society. By requiring that the government prove a person’s intent to commit a crime and that the prohibited conduct be reasonably clear, the criminal law acted to preserve liberty and restrict the arbitrary exercise of the state’s coercive force. In the particular context of American federalism, moreover, the pressure to federalize even common street crimes has led to significant threats to liberty. The states lose the power to reflect its citizens’ wishes on what conduct should be criminalized, while federal laws passed in Washington are drafted in terms that do not lend themselves to nuanced application.
By diminishing these protective features of the law, Healy and his contributors argue, the government is given greater reign not just to define the crimes, but to use the criminal law as a means of social control rather than punishment and prevention of future crime. As Healy notes, this understanding is contrary to the intent of the Founders, who reserved the criminal sanction “mainly for serious, morally culpable offenses.” However, in some areas, such as environmental regulation or health care offenses, prison sentences are imposed for technical infractions or minor and possibly unintentional violations of complicated laws. These laws also tend to trap not the criminal class, whose conduct is covered by other federal or state offenses, but hapless companies or mid-level executives or medical professionals.
In the days following September 11, the public perhaps was too eager to restrict its liberties in the name of stopping terrorism. As this volume warns, however, a line has been crossed, and now the criminal law is too often treated as just another way to score political points with interest groups. The genie may not be easy to put back into the bottle.
Perhaps no one has done more than Ellis Sandoz to introduce American audiences, and conservatives in particular, to the thought of Eric Voegelin (1901-1985). Due to Sandoz, leadership and vision, Voegelin’s works are becoming available in a uniform edition, and his scholarship, especially his book The Voegelinian Revolution, had explained the importance of this crucial twentieth-century political philosopher. In honor of Sandoz’s achievements, which, aside from his work on Voegelin, include penetrating studies of Dostoyevsky and constitutionalism, former students and friends have arranged a Festschrift touching on philosophical, literary, and political themes important in his work.
The topics of the essays range widely across the subject areas, from Robert Penn Warren to Freud, Mitter and to Francis Bacon, hunting to political theory. Aside from the editors, the seventeen contributors include Steven Ealy, David Walsh, and Glenn Hughes. Elizabeth Corey contributes an interesting study on the connections between Voegelin and George Santayana, whose materialism seems at first at odds with Voegelin’s rejection of that school of thought. Corey shows, however, the deeper affinity in the practice of philosophy that existed between the two, and explains why Voegelin himself thought so highly of Santayana.
One aspect of Voegelin’s concern as a political philosopher was to explain modernity and its implications. In an essay on Voegelin’s The Nature of Law, Timothy Fuller carefully distinguishes between Voegelin’s defense of American law, which was a product of modernity, and his rejection of modernity as such. Law must retain the use of force, as an educative power and as an instrument of order, which is a notion contrary to the modern preference for self-actualization and its rejection of an order imposed by anything other than the untrammeled self.
This collection is a worthy tribute to an important figure of American intellectual history, and an excellent guide to one of the most important philosophers of the last century.
At the heart of the conservative understanding of society is the recognition that people are not individual atoms but part of a living community that stretches into the past and into the future. The Holocaust is a particular affront to this understanding. The criminal and deliberate taking of life was magnified by the cultural loss that that genocide tried to effect. The cultural knowledge essential to a society that binds together generations across time—the mores, customs, stories, songs, and ways of doing things that have been defended from Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott and Russell Kirk—were in danger of being extinguished forever. In this respect, the Nazi horror was emblematic of the modern impulse to erase the sources of individual identity such as tradition and organic community.
This remarkable volume shows how culture and tradition can assert themselves in the face of destruction, and how those affected by a great trauma can nevertheless devote their lives to improving humanity. Bernice Lerner, who directs an ethics center at Boston University, has here compiled the stories of seven survivors and the lives they have built. Her subjects each made their way to the United States, earned advanced degrees, and became college and university professors across a range of fields, from physics to psychology. Some of those profiled here, such as biologist Samuel Stern, survived the camps. Others were hidden by kind strangers or family. Some, out of the trauma they had suffered, embraced their Jewish identity and culture after the war. Some initially buried that culture and tried to start a new life in the new world. Each of Lerner’s subjects pursued careers designed to help others or to preserve justice, what Lerner here calls the Jewish precept of tikkun olam. This book describes their lives in harrowing and sometimes luminous detail. Books such as these take on greater value as those with a living memory of the Holocaust disappear.
Posted: March 21, 2007
Books in Little
David G. Bonagura, Jr.