George Will's fascination with historical progressivism, which he habitually conflates with contemporary progressivism, fascinates me. This week alone he has written two, engrossing columns on the evils of both progressive eras. His second column, however — which condemns "the permeation of academia by progressivism," whose "mission increasingly is liberation from … the principles of the American founding" — attacks unAmerican progressivism more so from the angle of conservative academia's glory.
Will (oddly) cites a passage from novelist Saul Bellow to affirm the beauty of right-leaning academia:
It is sometimes necessary to repeat what all know. All mapmakers should place the Mississippi in the same location, and avoid originality. It may be boring, but one has to know where he is. We cannot have the Mississippi flowing toward the Rockies for a change.
I happen to adore Bellow, and with him, on this point, I could not agree more. Will, however, would indeed have the Mississippi flowing into our educational Rockies. For example our children is insufficiently learning that the incessant slashing of taxes will inexorably lead to plush federal revenues, or that ignoring scientific findings on a growing global catastrophe will — like an ostrich vis-a-vis the horizon — make the climatological catastrophe disappear.
In his second column Will further observes, correctly, that "Americans are increasingly living in social silos … receptive only to information and ideas that confirm what they already think. Hence the nation’s foundational precepts need to be carefully studied, robustly debated and thoughtfully celebrated." He follows this by issuing what appears to be an undebatable philosophical edict: "a well-wrought government … should sustain a market economy." Debate, argument, and case closed.
Will's preceding column assailed progressivism from a full-scale frontal offensive, which left me (and, I should think, thousands of others) groping for relevance. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he noted, "when eugenics had many advocates, not all advocates were progressives but advocates were disproportionately progressives because eugenics coincided with progressivism’s premises and agenda…. Progressives rejected the Founders’ natural-rights doctrine and conception of freedom…. Rather, freedom is something achieved, at different rates and to different degrees, by different races."
Will devoted his column to citing the written works, deeds and miscellaneous comments of progressive warriors such as Woodrow Wilson, Richard Ely and Robert Yerkes — racialist, "Social Darwinist" works etc. ranging from the turn of the century to the Great War, whose nationally dismaying denouement killed off the Progressive Era and thrust America into W. Harding's alternative era of "normalcy" (replete with normal, rampant Republican corruption).
Now there's absolutely nothing wrong with penning a condemnatory review of wrong-thinking progressives from yesteryear. In reading Will's column, though, one would think that Wilson is still Princeton's president, Ely is still lecturing on economics at Johns Hopkins University, and Yerkes is still heading up the American Psychological Association. Not until Will's final paragraph did he mention that progressives, "like most Americans, [finally] eschewed racialism" — in sum, that the progressives he just spent 800 words damning to hell weren't at all the progressives of today. He just sort of slipped that in, in the end, as, you know, kind of an afterthought. His dark artistry of implication and guilt by historical association was, however, successfully executed.
Every time I think I am perhaps too invested in rebuking contemporary conservatives (while honoring, nonetheless, the noble intellectual tradition of authentic Burkean conservatism), I comfort myself by recalling Will's obsession with slamming progressives, often through intellectually devious methods. Indeed compared to the prominent, Washington Post columnist George F. Will, I, in my online obscurity, am a goddamn model of intellectual virtue. This, as noted, comforts me, and so I carry on.