The Slaughterhouse

How Our Best and Brightest Think

Could it be that our “best” universities’ humanities departments are filled with pretentious poseurs? From our July-August issue.

By From the July 2009 - August 2009 issue

Send to Kindle

Ark of the Liberties: America and the World
By Ted Widmer
(Hill & Wang, 384 pages, $25)

To what extent has a generation of monopoly over academic life corrupted the monopolists’ intellectual standards? Could it be that our “best” universities’ humanities departments are filled with pretentious poseurs? This book is evidence that the corruption is very deep, and that the products of our most highly rated institutions are often ignorant excuses for cheap partisanship.

Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown library at Brown University, is a former aide to President Bill Clinton—twin peaks of the academic and political Establishment. His Ark of the Liberties carries endorsements from Sean Wilentz, famous Princeton history professor, as well as from Clinton and Senator Ted Kennedy. It covers American history from the 16th century to our time, and argues that Americans, though mostly bad, have always been the “ark” of ideals that should make mankind good. Hence it is a valuable window into what our ruling class thinks of America and its basis for so thinking—into the caliber of our rulers’ minds, and their content.

First, the caliber: Only recklessness explains how anyone with access to a library could make so many ignorant misstatements of fact. Thus Widmer tells us (and Professor Wilentz endorses!) that “before Columbus” Europeans regarded “the face of God, the distance of the sun…beyond the ken of mortals.” But every geometry student used to know that Eratosthenes of Alexandria triangulated Earth’s distance to the sun as 804 million stadia, within 1 percent of modern measurement. For Widmer, the Monroe Doctrine “was a tissue of highly exaggerated claims about what the United States would do…” But in Monroe’s 1823 speech and in J. Q. Adams’s authoritative diary—available in any library—there is not even a solitary hint of U.S. action. John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech supposedly “denounced liberty.” Not in the text that exists in every library. Widmer describes the U.S. Marines as “a land-based service branch.” But they are ever part of the Navy. In 1794’s Whiskey Rebellion, George Washington “led his army into battle against his own people once more.” But there was no battle. In the Mexican War, Widmer tells us, the United States “was extending slavery.” But none of the territories added to the U.S. by the Mexican war ended up as slave states. Widmer calls Thomas Jefferson’s, J. Q. Adams’s, and countless others’ observation that Cuba helps form the mouth of the Mississippi River “a dubious argument.” But this is a geographic fact to anyone who looks at the map with malice aforethought, as did Nazi submariners and the U.S. Navy in World War II. Woodrow Wilson had a “mystical communion with the founders.” But Wilson’s main book, Congressional Government (1885), argued explicitly that the Constitution impeded good government. Wilson’s main literary legacy is the argument that Washington’s foreign policy was wrong. Widmer also makes up stuff out of thin air: “By 1938 Germany had two thousand planes with a range of thirty-three hundred miles.” That would be news to Germany’s aircraft industry. Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 State of the Union address supposedly boldly blamed the growing possibility of war “on autocrats in Europe and Asia.” Read that address: it contains no proper names. The point of the above list of utterances divorced from reality, which could go on ad nauseam, is that Widmer’s America is an artifact of willfully ignorant minds in echo chambers.

For such minds, the truth about anything takes a back seat to advancing their own agenda. Simply, Widmer & Co. want to rule America to adapt it to their own standards, for which they believe the world yearns. Indeed, they imagine that, under their aegis, something like that is already happening. On the jacket flap, Widmer writes: “America’s ambition to be the world’s guarantor of liberty…is a success story…”

Most Americans would brand such thoughts as madness. Is it imaginable to guarantee liberty to all the world? What success has the U.S. had at this? Yet Widmer tells us that America’s leaders must realize this dream, and that to do so they must be wary of the American people, who are in the grip of the idea that they “possess the key to religious truths that are unavailable to others.” They are also typically confident “in the right to expand indefinitely.” Such megalomania seems more characteristic of Widmer than of people you know.

What liberties does the “ark” carry? What liberties do Widmer et al. want to bestow on America and the world? Though Widmer does not argue explicitly, the answer is clear enough. He tells us that the 1791 slave revolt that rid Haiti of whites really was about “an African people fighting for their liberties” although their notion of liberty “fit uncomfortably” next to Americans’. He regrets that Woodrow Wilson “degraded liberty” in Russia by interfering with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Having mentioned that early Americans believed liberty meant that they could live without interference from their rulers, he expresses no preference for that concept over that of the Haitian genocide and of Soviet Communism. Moreover, he writes, “there is always room for a new and better definition. That’s why pencils have erasers.”

So what views of liberty do Widmer & Co. want to erase and which to write in? He praises Franklin Roosevelt for redefining liberty in America in terms of “economic entitlement,” and tells us that Eleanor Roosevelt made this “comprehensible to the world” through the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He writes that we should “come to terms with the way the rest of the world feels about us—a constellation of fears and hopes roughly equal to our own.” By the words “our own” fears and hopes, Widmer means those of people just like himself. Thus do Widmer et al. use flexibility in defining liberty, as well as deference to such foreign standards as they prefer, to dress up their class’s claim to power over fellow Americans.

Hence much of the book is hagiography for the class’s icons, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, who redefined liberty. Wilson, he tells us, undid the “arrogant actions of his three predecessors.” Alas, he “encountered resistance to the perfect liberty he described with such power in his speeches.” So (Widmer shies from the word invaded) Wilson “more or less told Nicaraguans whom to elect, placed Haiti under a U.S. military government… occupied the city of Veracruz…sent a punitive expedition of nearly seven thousand men into Mexico.” He took the U.S. into World War I because America’s “rights as a neutral state were being trampled.” One wonders whether Widmer is simply ignorant that Wilson veiled co-belligerency with Britain with mere pretense of neutrality. Wilson “labored for peace” by fighting a war “for a universal dominion of right” and “against the past itself.” Neither Widmer nor anyone has ever explained what sense a war against the past can mean, or how such a war might ever bring peace. At Versailles, 1919, Widmer tells us, Wilson “invented [emphasis his] a new and improved version of civilization” in “an act of faith as much as an act of will.” Inventing civilization by dreaming? No wonder Versailles spawned troubles that have killed millions.

But Widmer tells us that this treaty was nothing new after all, but just “went back to 1776 and the Model Treaty.” How Versailles resembles the proposal by which the Continental Congress had sought to bring France into the Revolutionary War through free trade Widmer does not try to explain. He just tells us that Wilson was going to “lead us, and through us the world, out into pastures of quietness and peace such as the world has never dreamed of before.” The only sure thing is that Widmer drank Wilson’s Kool-Aid.

FDR signed the Atlantic Charter. It “embraced all of humanity.” By so doing, Widmer writes, he “not only upended Washington’s warning against foreign entanglements, but insisted that the freedom of any person ‘anywhere’ in the world was dependent upon the rights of liberty and justice ‘everywhere’ in the world.” (G. W. Bush?) Actually the charter’s prime objective, the cause for which Britain had declared war on Germany, was the independence of Poland. Widmer’s discussion of World War II never mentions Poland, passing over the fact that FDR abandoned Poland to pursue Stalin’s global cooperation. Nor does it mention that Stalin started the war, in tandem with Hitler. Rather, for Widmer, the war was “between those who were clearly fighting for freedom and those who were clearly fighting against it.” It was fulfillment of “the outrageous global ambitions that had been voiced by the windbags of the 1890s.” Never mind, he adds, that “liberation meant different things to different liberators.” What did it mean to FDR other than cooperation with Stalin? For Widmer & Co., the discrepancies between FDR’s words and reality amount to mere “disturbing details.” This is the history, reducta ad absurdum, by which our Liberal Internationalist rulers rule.

Widmer brands those who disagree with his tribe as religious bigots, noxious wreckers, even hypocritical defenders of slavery and of Hitler. He does not argue, just slurs. “The Christian Right…would have us believe that God authored the Constitution.” Franklin Roosevelt’s critics were like “weeds in a sidewalk….Just as the defenders of slavery had found liberty a most capacious word to defend their right to expand, so those who hated FDR’s economic policies and his hostility to Hitler found that same banner useful when organizing to oppose him.” Characterizing dishonestly those with whom one disagrees has become the normal way nowadays for liberals to avoid reason as they grab power. To gentry who feel entitled to rule, truth and reason are superfluous.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.