Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Critical Race Theory’s Assault on Teaching the History of Western Civilization
The teaching of the history of Western Civilization is now under attack in many of our schools and universities because, the advocates of Critical Race Theory tell us, it is “imbued with whiteness.” In their view, race consciousness should dominate every aspect of learning. Objective truth, they seem to believe, must be set aside.
This, sadly, is not new. For many years we have been hearing that the teaching of Homer, St. Thomas, Shakespeare, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein is the perpetuation of the power of “dead white males” over women and minorities.
One opponent of teaching Western Civilization, Professor Renato Rosaldo of Stanford University, made this argument in 1993:
“Try beginning to teach a diverse classroom with: ‘We must first learn our heritage. It extends from Plato and Aristotle to Milton and Shakespeare.’ The students ask, ‘Who’s the we?’ At Stanford over 40 percent of the entering undergraduates are Asian-Americans, African-Americans, native Americans, and Chicanos. Who, they wonder, is included in the phrase ‘our heritage?’ Are they included? Must they continue to look into the curricular mirror and see nothing?”
This issue is now being debated at Howard University in Washington, D.C., one of our leading black institutions, which has announced that it is dissolving its classics department. One of the nation’s most prominent black academicians, Professor Cornel West of Harvard, co-wrote an article in the Washington Post stating that by removing the department, the university is “diminishing the light of wisdom and truth” that inspired freedom fighters such as Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Professor West notes that:
“. . . upon learning to read while enslaved, Frederick Douglass began his great journey of emancipation, as such journeys always begin, in the mind. Defying unjust laws, he read in secret, empowered by the wisdom of contemporaries and classics alike to think as a free man. Douglass risked mockery, abuse, beating, and even death to study the likes of Socrates, Cato, and Cicero. Long after Douglass’ encounters with these ancient thinkers, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be similarly galvanized by his reading in the classics as a young seminarian — he mentions Socrates three times in his 1963 ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail.’”
The campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is, in Dr. West’s view:
“. . . a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline, and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture. Those who commit this terrible act treat Western civilization as either irrelevant and not worthy of prioritization or as harmful and worthy only of condemnation. Sadly, in our culture’s conception, the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West. We must be vigilant and draw the distinction between Western civilization and philosophy on the one hand, and Western crimes on the other. The crimes spring from certain philosophies and certain aspects of the civilization, not all of them. . . . Engaging with the classics and with our civilizational heritage is the means to finding our true voice. It is how we become our full selves, spiritually free and morally great.”
The study of Western civilization is important for men and women of every race and background. In his Wriston Lecture on “Universal Civilization,” V. S. Naipaul, the son of immigrant Indian laborers who grew up in post-colonial Trinidad and was educated in England, contrasts some of the static, inward-looking, insular, backsliding “non-Western” cultures with that spreading “universal civilization” that he finds to be based, above all, on Jefferson’s idea of the pursuit of happiness.
Discussing the essence of Western civilization — which sets it apart from others — Naipaul characterizes it in these terms:
“. . . the ideal of individual responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system nor generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems blow away.”
It is a contemporary illusion that particular works of art, literature, or music are, somehow, the possession of only those who can trace their lineage to the creators of such culture. Shall only Jews read the Hebrew Bible? Only Greeks read Plato and Aristotle? Only those of English descent read Shakespeare, and only Italians appreciate Dante or Leonardo da Vinci?
Western culture is relevant to people of all races and backgrounds, particularly to those living in the midst of our Western society. The distinguished black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois recognized this reality when he wrote more than a hundred years ago:
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line, I walk arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”
In his address to the freshman class at Yale some years ago, Donald Kagan, then professor of History and Classics and Dean of Yale College, declared:
“The assault on the character of Western civilization badly distorts history. The West’s flaws are real enough, but they are common to almost all the civilizations known on any continent at any time in human history. What is remarkable about the Western heritage, and what makes it essential, are the important ways in which it has departed from the common experience. More than any other it has asserted the claims of the individual against those of the state, limiting the state’s power and creating a realm of privacy into which it cannot penetrate. . . . Western civilization is the champion of representative democracy as the normal way for human beings to govern themselves, in place of the different varieties of monarchy, oligarchy, and tyranny that have ruled most of the human race throughout history. . . . It has produced the theory and practice of separation of church and state . . . thereby creating a free and safe place for individual conscience. At its core is a tolerance and respect for diversity unknown in most cultures. . . . Only in the West can one imagine a movement to neglect the culture’s own heritage in favor of some other.”
The West has its sins, Kagan acknowledged, but argued that:
“. . . most of its sins and errors . . . are those of the human race. Its special achievements and values, however, are gifts to all humanity and are widely seen as such around the world today, although their authorship is rarely acknowledged. . . . Western culture and institutions are the most powerful paradigm in the world today.”
Our unity as a nation is threatened, in the view of Dr. Kagan, by those who would replace the teaching of our history and culture with something else. He points out that:
“American culture derives chiefly from the experience of Western civilization, and especially from England, whose language and institutions are the most copious springs from which it draws its life. I say this without embarrassment, as an immigrant who arrived here as an infant from Lithuania. . . . Our students will be handicapped in their lives . . . if they do not have a broad and deep knowledge of the culture in which they live and the roots from which they have come. . . . As our land becomes ever more diverse, the danger of separation and segregation by ethnic group . . . increases and with it the danger to national unity which, ironically, is essential to the qualities that attracted its many peoples to this country.”
The goal of the civil rights movement was the creation of a genuinely colorblind society, one in which men and women would be judged on “the content of their character” and not “the color of their skin,” as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed. This vision, of course, has always had its enemies. Usually, they have been found in circles that attract white racists. Now, advocates of Critical Race Theory are attacking not only the goal of a genuinely colorblind society but the transmission of our history and culture through our schools. Politics, it has been said, makes strange bedfellows. But just as white racists do not represent the thinking of the overwhelming majority of white Americans, so too, the advocates of Critical Race Theory do not represent the thinking of most black Americans. Most Americans of all races embrace Dr. King’s vision of a colorblind American society.
The notion that Western civilization is less relevant to a student because of his or her racial or ethnic background is a product of the strange ethnocentrism which is now increasingly vocal. The great works of art, music, literature, science, and philosophy are the common patrimony of all.
China’s Tyranny Is Clear to All — Something Which Was Not Always True
China’s tyrannical regime is now clear to all, something which has taken a long time in coming to many circles in our own country.
More than a million Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in China’s Xinjiang region. The re-education camps are just one part of the government’s crackdown on Uyghurs. About 11 million Uyghurs — a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic group, live in the northwest region of Xinjiang.
The Chinese government has imprisoned more than one million people since 2017, and subjected those not detained to intense surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labor, and forced sterilization. The U.S. Government has determined that China’s actions constitute “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.”
Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has pushed to “sinicize” religion, or shape all religions to conform to the officially atheist party doctrines. The Economist reports that:
“All religions in China are being targeted by the sinification campaign, which was launched in 2015 by the country’s leader, Xi Jinping. . . . Even for many of those who attend official churches, the five-year plan’s emphasis on the need to integrate Christian theology with socialist ideology is grating. It says quotations should be used by preachers to promote ‘core socialist values.’ These principles should feature more prominently in their training. Interpretations of the Bible should become more sinicized — meaning, presumably, that they should help to bolster belief in socialism.”
When it comes to Catholics, China in 2018 reached an agreement with the Vatican that gave both sides a say in the appointment of bishops. This agreement means, in effect, that no party-rejecting Catholic can become a bishop in China, a clear victory for sinification.
In Hong Kong, democracy is being dismantled. China’s autocrats were angered when, after months of demonstrations in 2019 against a proposed new extradition law, pro-democracy politicians won a landslide victory in elections for Hong Kong’s district councils that November. The elections scheduled for September 2020 for the Legislative Council were postponed. Pro-democracy politicians were banned. In March, in Beijing, sweeping changes were made in Hong Kong’s election laws by a margin of 2,895 votes, with one abstention. Those who oppose the government are, in effect, barred from participating. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right to peaceful protest are coming to an end in Hong Kong.
China’s agreement to “one country, two systems” when it comes to Hong Kong has apparently come to an end. China’s growing tyranny is now clear for all to see.
For many years, as Communism took hold in China and a brutal regime was imposed, many in the U.S. welcomed this change. It is instructive to review how the American media reported upon Communism’s advance in China and how wrong its assessment was.
The fashionable theme of journalists covering China in the late 1940s was that the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek were hopelessly corrupt and inefficient. Mao Zedong was portrayed as brilliant, incorruptible, efficient, loved by the masses — and not a Communist, but an “agrarian reformer.”
Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby, then correspondents for Time magazine, described the Chinese Communists this way in their 1946 book, Thunder Out of China:
“There is only one certainty in Communist politics in China: the leaders’ interests are bound up with those of the masses of poverty-stricken, suffering peasants, from whom they have always drawn their greatest support. They, and they alone, have given effective leadership to the peasant’s irresistible longing for justice in his daily life. . . . In great areas of north China the Communists have established a new way of life.”
Later, after Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, the American media flooded the country with extravagant praise of the achievements of the Communists. We were told that they had solved all of the ancient problems of hunger, floods, erosion, and inequality of wealth.
Reporting from China, New York Times correspondent Seymour Topping noted that:
“. . . the evidence of construction, the lush, well-tended fields, the markets full of food and consumer necessities, and the energy exhibited everywhere add up to the impression that the basic needs of the people are being met and the foundation is being laid for a modern industrial country.”
Visiting in China, James Reston of The New York Times reported that he thought Chinese Communist doctrines and the Protestant ethic had much in common and was generally impressed by “the atmosphere of intelligent and purposeful work.” He wrote:
“China’s most visible characteristics are the characteristics of youth . . . a kind of lean, muscular grace, relentless hard work, and an optimistic and even amiable outlook on the future. . . . The people seem not only young but enthusiastic about their changing lives.”
Reston also believed that young people from the city who were forced to work as manual laborers in rural areas “were treating it like an escape from the city and an outing in the countryside.”
When Mao died in 1976, The New York Times devoted three pages to his obituary, but only a few lines alluded to his enormous crimes against the Chinese people. It has been estimated that Mao was responsible for the deaths of 30 million to 60 million people. The New York Times referred to the execution of “a million to three million people, including landlords, nationalist agents, and others suspected of being class enemies.”
The Washington Post also devoted three pages to Mao, concluding that, “Mao the warrior, philosopher, and ruler was the closest the modern world has been to the god-heroes of antiquity.” The Post acknowledged that some three million persons had lost their lives in the 1950 “reign of terror, but the only victims mentioned were ‘counter-revolutionaries.’”
Not everyone was willing to accept that Mao had killed millions. PBS interviewed John Stewart Service, the former foreign service officer whose admiration for the Chinese Communists got him into considerable trouble in the 1950s. He told the PBS audience that reports that Mao had executed millions were inspired by Taiwan and should be taken “with a great bucket of salt.”
Since then, of course, the Chinese leadership has knocked Mao from his pedestal, making those who deified this bloody tyrant in the U.S. appear naive and foolish at best.
Now China’s continuing tyranny is widely understood. Human Rights Watch declares that:
“China has constructed a high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system to monitor and suppress public criticism. Abroad, it uses its economic clout to silence critics and to carry out the most intense attacks on the global system for enforcing human rights. No other government is simultaneously detaining a million members of an ethnic minority for forced indoctrination.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned China not to take any steps to alter the status quo on Taiwan. He reaffirmed that the U.S. stands by its commitments to Taiwan and said the U.S. Government must make sure that American companies are not helping China’s policy of repression. Finally, our government seems aware of China’s contempt for human rights and international law. Let us hope that our policy toward China will reflect that understanding.
First Principles: What the Founding Fathers Learned from the Greeks and Romans
To understand the thinking of the Founding Fathers and the political philosophy that molded the new country and the writing of the Constitution, it is essential that we become aware of what they learned from the Greeks and Romans and how that shaped our country.
That is the subject of an important book, First Impressions, by Thomas E. Ricks, who won two Pulitzer Prizes as part of reporting teams at The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, and he is a visiting fellow in history at Bowdoin College.
To understand the thinking of the Founders, Ricks decided to go back and read the philosophy and literature that shaped their worldview, and the letters they wrote to one another debating these crucial works — among them the Iliad, Plutarch’s Lives, and the works of Xenophon, Epicurus, Aristotle, Cato and Cicero. For though much attention has been paid to the influence of English political philosophers closer to their own era, like John Locke, Ricks notes that the Founders were far more immersed in the literature of the ancient world.
The first four American presidents came by their classical knowledge in different ways. Washington absorbed it mainly from the culture of his day. Adams learned it through the laws and rhetoric of Rome. Jefferson immersed himself in classical philosophy, and Madison spent years studying the ancient world like a political scientist. Each of their experiences played an essential role in the formation of the United States.
This important book follows these four members of the Revolutionary generation from youth to adulthood as they grappled with questions of independence, and with forming and keeping a new nation. In doing so, Ricks not only interprets the effect of the ancient world on each man and how their classical education shaped our Constitution and government but also offers new insights into these early leaders.
“The classical world,” Ricks points out:
“. . . was far closer to the makers of the American Revolution and the Founders of the United States than it is to us today. Nowadays, the Greeks and Romans are remote to us, their works studied by a few in college and then largely forgotten, even by most of those readers. But Greco-Roman antiquity was not distant to the leaders of the American Revolution. It was present in their lives, as part of their political vocabulary and as the foundation of their personal values. In short, it shaped their view of the world in a way that most Americans now are not taught and so don’t see.”
Americans today do not recognize the presence of the ancient world in our political life. People tend not to notice that our “Senate” meets in “The Capitol” — both references to Ancient Rome. Most of its members are either “Republicans,” a name derived from Latin, or “Democrats,” a word of Greek origin. Just east of the Capitol building, our Supreme Court convenes in a marble 1935 imitation of a Roman temple. To the west stands the Lincoln Memorial, which resembles the Parthenon of Athens turned sideways.
In Ricks’ view:
“The best place to begin to understand the views of the Revolutionary generation is with a look at the word ‘virtue.’ This word was powerfully meaningful during the eighteenth century. . . . It meant putting the common good before one’s own interests. Virtue, writes the historian Joyce Appleby, was the ‘lynchpin’ of public life — that is, the fastener that held together the structure. . . . The word ‘virtue’ appears about six thousand times in the collected correspondence and other writings of the Revolutionary generation. . . . The practice of virtue was paramount, which is one reason George Washington, not an articulate man, loomed large over the post-revolutionary era.”
The colleges the Founders attended are described by Ricks as “tiny outposts of learning, having more in common with medieval seminaries.” In the early 18th century, there were just three of them — William and Mary in Virginia, Harvard in Massachusetts, and Yale in Connecticut. In 1746 they were joined by the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton, and then, in 1754, by King’s College, better known as Columbia, established by New Yorkers. At William and Mary, Jefferson wrote, they lived in brick buildings, “rude, mis-shapen piles” that provided “an indifferent accommodation.” Their academic diet consisted mainly of the best-known works of Latin literature, history and philosophy, with some Greek works thrown in.
The dominant political narrative of colonial American elites, Ricks notes, “. . . was the story of how the Roman Cicero put down the Catiline conspiracy to take over Rome.” John Adams, writes Ricks, “aspired to be the Cicero of his time — that is, the key political figure in late 18th century America.” While a student at Harvard, Adams often went to hear the young preacher, Jonathan Mayhew, who had graduated from Harvard and then went to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where he earned a divinity degree.
The Scottish influence in colonial America was significant, Ricks points out:
“Scottish philosophers long had maintained that it is natural and right for there to be limits to the power of monarchs. In 1750, George Buchanan, a humanist, Scottish philosopher who taught in Scotland, Portugal, and France (where the great essayist Michel de Montaigne was one of his students), stated emphatically that kings must earn and retain the consent of the governed: ‘It is right that the people confer the political authority upon whomsoever they will.’”
James Madison decided against attending William and Mary, which would have been the normal choice for a young Virginian, and chose Princeton. Founded in 1746, like the Scottish universities, it was religiously tolerant. The college’s founders had stated “that those of every religious denomination may have free and equal liberty and Advantage of Education . . . any different sentiments in religion notwithstanding.” The Princeton faculty included recent graduates of Scottish universities who were committed to transmitting the history of the ancient world and learning lessons from the fall of Greece and Rome.
In the case of Washington, Ricks writes:
“Washington’s last Roman role would become his finest. He had rejected becoming a Caesar. Instead, he would become another Cincinnatus, that is, the Roman soldier who, according to legend, served his country in 458 B.C. Roman tradition states that he was plowing his fields when he was called to lead the rescue of a Roman army that was besieged. . . . He was given the temporary title of dictator. He triumphed in just sixteen days, then resigned his office and returned to his waiting plough. The story of Cincinnatus is a reassuring one, because the revolutionary generation had an abiding fear of the power of generals. . . . Washington’s decision to step down . . . was a magnificent deed of renunciation. . . . For him, it was always about virtue.”
Later, when the Articles of Confederation seemed inadequate, James Madison writes Ricks:
“. . . began to contemplate the problems of Ancient Greek confederacies. He had several questions on his mind, all relating to the fragile condition of the United States. What had brought down ancient republics? What made them so fragile? Were there gaps between their theory and practice? Did they have inherent flaws that caused them to fail . . . Could American government be structured in a different way that would make it more sustainable? Here he could begin by revisiting his college readings of Thucydides and Xenophon . . . . He embarked on a multi-year study of these issues.”
The Founders sought to protect against the possibility that an overly ambitious and unprincipled individual might one day come to power. In The Federalist Papers, Madison writes that, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Just after Aaron Burr nearly became president, Jefferson wrote that:
“. . . bad men will sometimes get in and with such an immense patronage may make great progress in corrupting the public mind and principles. This is a subject with which wisdom and patriotism should be occupied.”
The Founders tried to learn from the fates of Ancient Greece and Rome. “Fortunately,” writes Ricks:
“. . . the Founders built a durable system. . . . Over the past several years we have seen Madison’s checks and balances operate robustly. Madison designed a structure that could accommodate people acting unethically and venally. . . . We should appreciate how strong and flexible our Constitution is.”
To be true to the intent of the Founders, Ricks argues, we should refocus on the public good:
“The coronavirus pandemic reminded America of a lesson it had forgotten about the public good — a phrase that occurs over 1,300 times in Founders Online. Health is a public good — which is one reason everyone should have access to health care. In the longer term, so are education, transportation infrastructure, the environment, and public safety. These are the things that come under ‘the general welfare’ of the people that is mentioned twice in the Constitution — the preamble, and Article 1, Section 8. The idea has its roots in Cicero that ‘salus populi suprema lex esto’ — that is, ‘the Welfare of the public is the supreme Law.’ Salus was the Roman goddess of ‘health, prosperity, and the public welfare.’ John Adams wrote in 1766, ‘The public Good, the salus populi, is the professed end of all government.’ With that in mind, Americans need to put less emphasis on the property rights of the individual and more on the rights of the people as a whole. The market should not always be the ultimate determinant of how we live, or always allowed to shape our society.”
The social philosopher Michael Sandel is quoted as declaring that, “To be free is more than a matter of pursuing my interests unimpeded, or satisfying my desires, whatever they happen to be. It is to share in self-government, to deliberate about the common good to have a meaningful voice in shaping the forces that govern our lives.”
This book is an erudite look at how Greek and Roman writers influenced members of the Founding generation. The Founders looked to the classical world to answer important questions about the nature of power and the nature of government. The fact that ours is now the longes-lasting system of government in the world today indicates that their careful study was precisely the right course. Thomas Ricks has done all of us a great service in writing this book. Ironically, it appears just when the teaching of classics is coming under attack in some circles, as is Western Civilization itself. It serves as an important rejoinder to such critics. *