Ryn, Claes G. America the Virtuous. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0-7658-0219-8.
If you've been following political commentary of the more cerebral kind recently, you may have come across the term “neo-Jacobin” and thought “Whuzzat? I thought those guys went out with the tumbrels and guillotines.” Claes Ryn coined the term “neo-Jacobin” more than decade ago, and in this book explains the philosophical foundation, historical evolution, and potential consequences of that tendency for the U.S. and other Western societies. A neo-Jacobin is one who believes that present-day Western civilisation is based on abstract principles, knowable through pure reason, which are virtuous, right, and applicable to all societies at all times. This is precisely what the original Jacobins believed, with Jacobins old and new drawing their inspiration from Rousseau and John Locke. The claim of superiority of Western civilisation makes the neo-Jacobin position superficially attractive to conservatives, who find it more congenial than post-modernist villification of Western civilisation as the source of all evil in the world. But true conservatism, and the philosophy shared by most of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, rejects abstract theories and utopian promises in favour of time-proven solutions which take into account the imperfections of human beings and the institutions they create. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 6, “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses, and the evils incident to society in every shape.” Sadly, we have not, and are unlikely to ever see the end of such theories as long as pointy-heads with no practical experience, but armed with intimidating prose, are able to persuade true believers they've come up with something better than the collective experience of every human who's ever lived on this planet before them. The French Revolution was the first modern attempt to discard history and remake the world based on rationality, but its lessons failed to deter numerous subsequent attempts, at an enormous cost in human life and misery, the most recently concluded such experiment being Soviet Communism. They all end badly. Ryn believes the United States is embarking on the next such foredoomed adventure, declaring its “universal values” (however much at variance with those of its founders) to be applicable everywhere, and increasingly willing to impose them by the sword “in the interest of the people” where persuasion proves inadequate. Although there is some mention of contemporary political figures, this is not at all a partisan argument, nor does it advocate (nor even present) an alternative agenda. Ryn believes the neo-Jacobin viewpoint so deeply entrenched in both U.S. political parties, media, think tanks, and academia that the choice of a candidate or outcome of an election is unlikely to make much difference. Although the focus is primarily on the U.S. (and rightly so, because only in the U.S. do the neo-Jacobins have access to the military might to impose their will on the rest of the world), precisely the same philosophy can be seen in the ongoing process of “European integration”, where a small group of unelected elite theorists are positioning themselves to dictate the “one best way” hundreds of millions of people in dozens of diverse cultures with thousands of years of history should live their lives. For example, take a look at the hideous draft “constitution” (PDF) for the European Union: such a charter of liberty and democracy that those attemping to put it into effect are doing everything in their power to deprive those who will be its subjects the chance to vote upon it. As Michael Müller, Social Democrat member of parliament in Germany said, “Sometimes the electorate has to be protected from making the wrong decisions.” The original Jacobins had their ways, as well.

August 2004 Permalink