Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Useful, New Introduction to the Inherited Tradition of Political Ideas


Spellman, W. M. A Short History of Western Political Thought (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011)

In this readable and succinct volume, Spellman (University of North Carolina, Asheville) provides an introduction to the evolution of political ideas that have shaped the West. The author synthesizes a tremendous body of historical and philosophical sources into an accessible survey, generally following the tradition of interpretation of the “Cambridge School” of political thought. The book is divided into six chapters that represent transitional periods, beginning with Hellenic political theory (chapter one), and concluding with 20th century political theory (chapter six). The greatest contribution of the survey is found in chapter two’s thoughtful analysis of the diversity of political thinking in the Late Middle Ages. Spellman poignantly surveys the intellectual landscape, arguing “Our penchant, for the most part, is to applaud history’s great centralizers, and in the Middle Ages the list is short. The modern growth imperative, together with the drive to concentrate power, simply did not inform the thinking of most medieval leaders” (p. 34).

The astute reader will also be pleasantly surprised to see the attention given to Edmund Burke’s and Adam Smith’s (p. 105) contributions to political thought, as these central figures are often neglected or purposely omitted from texts of this variety. The author even alludes to the work of Sir Robert Filmer (p. 77) and Joseph de Maistre (p. 116) in his attempt to include all perspectives into his narrative.

The book’s lack of attention to the structure and arguments of primary texts under evaluation is a significant weakness, however. While considerable attention is devoted to historical events, the continuing relevance of central texts in the Western political tradition is ignored. Regardless of any criticism, the tome is a useful primer on Western political thought for the general reader and undergraduate student.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

New Book on Tocqueville Misses the Mark

Kaledin, Arthur.  Tocqueville and His America: A Darker Horizon.  New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2011.

In this discursive study dedicated to interpreting the “character and thought” (xiii) of Tocqueville, Kaledin (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) concentrates upon the ancillary and “darker” (less than optimistic) legacies of Tocqueville’s writings and views on politics and society. While expressing admiration for Tocqueville, Kaledin is more devoted to explicating the weaknesses of Tocqueville as a political thinker, concluding he “was a disharmonious man, full of disunited passions and impulses” (p. 9).  The book is divided into four sections. The first part attempts to survey the formative influences upon Tocqueville and his Democracy in America, stressing his “triple-alienation,” ambivalence, and aristocratic tendencies.  As the most rewarding and succinct part of the study, part two analyzes Tocqueville’s “political passion” (p. 104), and situates the great Frenchman within his own political tradition.  The third part examines Tocqueville’s writing of Democracy in America as an effort to critique the “fate of liberty” in the modern world (p. 263).  The final part attempts to defend Tocqueville’s “darker, more apprehensive” (p. 279) view of the American polity.  Unfortunately, Tocqueville’s defense of a constitutionally-restrained political order, premised upon the diffusion of authority, cannot be easily reconciled with the author’s interpretation of Tocqueville.

Friday, December 2, 2011

New Book on American Founding

The Founding of the American Republic
    This non partisan book brings often ignored people, ideas, and events to the forefront to offer new insights into the Founding of the American Republic.
    • Imprint: Continuum
    • Pub. date: 27 Dec 2012
    • ISBN: 9781441182340
    184 Pages, paperback World rights
    Translation Rights Available
    • Description
    American Founding aims to provide a fair and thorough reappraisal of the Founding of the American Republic. Oftentimes, the Founders are, when not forgotten, made to fit some “ideological box” –liberals or conservatives, villains or saints. This book proves that such views need to be reconsidered, free from past ideologies and interpretations, to recover their teaching and foster a better understanding of contemporary politics. To do so, the authors let the Founders speak for themselves, by looking first at the Declaration of Independence, which reveals their vision of state and federal authority. Next, they examine how the Declaration was incorporated into the Articles of Confederation, in effect the first Constitution, and finally the Constitution of 1787, the most profound manifestation of the Founders’ view of the nature of American politics and society.

    American Founding takes a broad view of the Founding while resisting an ideologically charged reading of history. This lively, historically accurate analysis will serve anyone interested in American political history and culture.

    Table of Contents

    Chapter 1: Plymouth Rock and Jamestown/ Chapter 2: The Founders and Faith/ Chapter 3: Founders and a Humane Economy/ Chapter 4: Founders on Government Power, Rightly Understood/ Chapter 5: The Declaration/ Chapter 6: Articles as First Constitution/ Chapter 7: Philadelphia Convention and the Constitution of 1787/ Chapter 8: The Founders, Part I: Convention/ Chapter 9: The Founders, Part II: Ratification/ Chapter 10: Founding Heroes/ Chapter 11: Slavery and the Founders/ Chapter 12: Legacies of the Founding


    H. Lee Cheek, H. Lee Cheek is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Political Science at Athens State University in Athens, USA. He has served as a congressional aide and as a political consultant. His books include Calhoun and Popular Rule (2001) and a critical edition of W. H. Mallock's The Limits of Pure Democracy (2007). Dr. Cheek is regarded as an authority on American political thought and the Founding generation.
    Sean R. Busick, Sean R. Busick is an Associate Professor of History at Athens State University in Athens, USA. He is the author of A Sober Desire for History: William Gilmore Simms as Historian (2005), which was nominated for several prizes. Dr. Busick lectures to community groups and has published many articles and reviews in journals including the Journal of Southern History and Journal of American History.

    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    The Return of Sentiments to Jurisprudence

    This engaging and thoughtful book seeks to “consider the role of emotions in constitutional law, accepting that one cannot understand human behavior and law as a purely rational venture (p. 4).”  The author, András Sajó, a practicing judge (European Court of Human Rights) and academic (Central European University), offers a compelling legal and theoretical alternative to the positioning of reason and emotion as the extremes of jurisprudential thinking, while also explicating the pivotal function emotion assumes in constitutional design and law.  The book consists of seven chapters.  The first chapter is an introduction to the author’s argument on the behalf of a social constructivist concept of emotion, as well as the disadvantages of neglecting emotion more generally.  The second chapter outlines the importance of “enhanced emotions” as defined by the French Declaration of Rights.  The third and fourth chapters detail the role that emotions of fear (Constitutional Convention) and empathy (Abolitionist Movement) have assumed in modern politics.  The fifth and sixth chapters articulate how emotion is pivotal to defenses of freedom of speech and assembly.  The final, and arguably the most compelling chapter, argues for the importance of shame as a corrective emotion for past injustices, and the “recognition of responsibility” (p. 299).

    Friday, July 29, 2011

    Recovering the Declaration


    As Americans celebrate July Fourth and enter into an election cycle in which politicians are apt to misappropriate the Founders' legacy, there has never been a better time for us to reflect on the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

    Contrary to popular misconceptions, July 4, 1776, was neither the beginning of the War of Independence nor the date on which our independence was secured. American patriots had already been fighting the British and their Loyalist allies for over a year when the delegates in Philadelphia signed the Declaration. It would be another five years before our independence was won on the battlefield at Yorktown.

    If the Declaration did not establish our independence, what did it do? Jefferson drafted, and Congress ratified, a declaration of "the causes which impel them to the separation." They carefully explained to the world the grievances they had endured and set forth the theoretical justification for an independent American republic that would better protect our liberties than the British Empire had.
    It is in the Declaration of Independence that we see best how the Founders envisioned state and federal authority uniting to form a national union.

    Contrary to the now-popular view that regards the Declaration as Holy Writ, the Founders viewed the great document as illuminating and explaining the foundations of the American republic as resting upon a political compact. Such an agreement formed a republic in which there existed the same equality of rights among the states composing the union as existed among the citizens composing the states themselves.

    The Declaration claimed legitimacy for a political compact that had developed with "time and experience" into a model of political and social stability. It preserved the center of authority within each individual state, and it allowed for secession when government "becomes destructive of these ends," for then "it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."

    While the Declaration appropriately described the status of "Free and Independent States" as essential to the republic, the document also confirmed the true story of the creation of the country: the states "ordained" or created the republic.

    The Declaration introduced — or rather, officially recognized — the original design of the republic. The Articles of Confederation, the first American constitution, incorporated this design into the fundamental law of the regime. For the Founders, the provisions and language of the Articles served as an authentic guide to the American Constitution.

    The Constitution of 1787 cannot be understood without first understanding the defense of local authority contained in the Articles. Drafted in stages from 1776 to 1777, the Articles extended and revised the Declaration's defense of local and state authority, and the delineation of state autonomy, while establishing popular rule based upon the deliberative, decentralized, community-centered participation of the citizenry. As with the Declaration, the Articles recognized the original design for a union of liberty, a republic of independent and sovereign states.
    So, while charlatans seek to revise Paul Revere's ride or to diminish the accomplishments of Washington and Jefferson, let us pause to reflect on the true significance of our founding. We should rightly celebrate the Declaration as a beginning of our political principles, not the final word.
    Often abused by politicians and scholars of every ilk, the grand document remains a fundamental American defense of diffused power that our leaders in Washington and the professorate cannot ignore.

    H. Lee Cheek Jr. is dean of social sciences and professor of political science and religion at Gainesville State College. Sean R. Busick is a professor of history at Athens State University in Athens, Ala.

    Wednesday, June 8, 2011

    New Op-Ed on Political Correctness in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune

    "Political Correctness" and Lake Calhoun

    • Article by: H. LEE CHEEK JR. and SEAN R. BUSICK

    The recent and misguided effort to rename Lake Calhoun is a sign of how we as contemporary Americans have a tendency to "forget who we are" and engage in what has become known as political correctness.
    The advocates of political correctness want to corrupt history for temporary political gains more than they desire to keep or restore it, and their efforts are, sadly, a disease on the body politic.
    The operatives of political correctness have met with some success of late.
    With Orwellian irony, they succeeded in having a U.S Navy ship named for a person who hated the Navy (Cesar Chavez) and have imposed "speech codes" (with the actual purpose of restricting speech) on many college campuses -- as well as more destructive examples of assaulting First Amendment rights and redefining history.
    The greatest threat to political correctness is an environment in which free and uninhibited discussion and disagreement can take place. In fact, diversity of thought is the opposite of political correctness, and is at the heart of a free society.
    The proponents of political correctness -- and those who wish to rename Lake Calhoun -- stand on the side of censorship against free and diverse discussion.
    Equally misguided, the Lake Calhoun critics want to misrepresent and vilify one of America's greatest statesmen, John Caldwell Calhoun. Born in 1782 near Abbeville, S.C., Calhoun graduated from Yale College and Litchfield Law School.
    He served two terms in the South Carolina Legislature until elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811. As a congressman, Calhoun's reputation was that of a moral statesman who regarded limited government and patriotism as synonymous.
    President James Monroe asked Calhoun to assume the helm at the War Department (later given the more politically correct title of Department of Defense) in 1817, where he served until 1825, and he is described as the ablest war secretary the country had before the Civil War, while offering a fairer and more humane approach to Native American affairs than his predecessors.
    While spending most of his public life in the United States Senate, he was also vice president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson -- and he served as secretary of state to John Tyler.
    He is generally regarded as one of the greatest senators ever, part of the "Great Triumvirate" with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster -- and each supported the Fugitive Slave Act.
    What the advocates of a politically correct name change do not want you to know is that Calhoun was not only one of America's greatest statesmen, but also one of its greatest thinkers. His two treatises on American politics, the Disquisition and Discourse (published after his death), demonstrate his hope that America could avoid the pending conflict of the Civil War.
    His persistent fear was that unpatriotic sectionalism would lead to civil war and a dissolution of the union. His last years were spent attempting to unify the country. On March 31, 1850, Calhoun died in Washington, D.C.
    In Calhoun's interpretation, America's greatest hope lay in the interposing and amending power of the states, which was implicit in the Constitution. This alone could save the country by allowing for a greater diffusion of authority and undermining the cause of sectional conflict.
    Calhoun's purpose was the preservation of the original balance of authority and the fortification of the American political system against the obstacles it faced.
    The advocates of a name change may have good intentions, but as Shakespeare warned, "men are men; the best sometimes forget." John Calhoun was imperfect, but he remains one of the greatest statesmen in American history.
    Keep Lake Calhoun for posterity, and for the rising generation.
    H. Lee Cheek Jr. and Sean R. Busick are, respectively, professors of political science and history at Athens State University in Alabama.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    Review of Kateb's Human Dignity

    Review of George Kateb's Human Dignity (Harvard University Press, 2011)

    In this lucid and highly readable "defense of human dignity" (xii) and rights, Kateb (Princeton University) explicitly avoids the use of theological insights (156), preferring the autonomous individual and human reason as his guides.  For Kateb, the equal status of persons and the dignity of the person are not synonymous with the dignity of the species.  Human "stature" is viewed as individual achievement, whereas a complete theory of human dignity must include "equal individual status" and the "status of the species" (9).  The study predictably values the individual over the community, often discounting communitarian achievements to the promotion of human dignity.  While exhibiting much perceptiveness, this study approaches human dignity with what some readers will view as overly modest expectations, perhaps not unrelated to the author's refusal to fully assess the contribution of religious thinking on the topic. 
    In defending the "inviolability" (31) of human rights on moral and existential grounds, the "golden rule" is offered as the best guide for private morality, while a humane constitution is presented as the "best public morality" (52).  Kateb's critique of many prominent thinkers, including Peter Singer, J. S. Mill, and others, and his provocative application of a theory of human dignity and rights to contemporary politics, are significant accomplishments of the book.

    H. Lee Cheek, Jr., Ph.D.

    Review of Morrell's Empathy and Democracy

    Morrell, Michael E.  Empathy and Democracy: Feeling, Thinking, and Deliberation (University of Pennslyvania Press, 2010)
    Writing within the political tradition of contemporary liberalism, but offering insights of enduring importance on the value of empathy to democratic thought, Morrell (Univ. of Connecticut) attempts to advance "democracy's promise" by promoting both a deliberative and equal political order.  The study begins with a thoughtful survey of the tensions between deliberation as reflection and deliberation as equal consideration.  The concept of empathy, as well as empathy's potential contribution to democratic thought, is analyzed.  Empathy as a process, including affect and cognition, is defended.  In arguing for an "affective turn" as the best alternative for democratic life, the author affirms and surveys the contribution of political psychology regarding the role of "emotion, feelings, moods, and passions" in "explaining political attitudes and behavior."  When the process model of empathy is integrated within deliberative democratic practices, "legitimate decisions that give equal consideration to all those in a society" can be achieved.  The study fails to incorporate the discernments of classical, Christian, and phenomenological traditions regarding empathy into an otherwise noteworthy project.  This reevaluation of the importance of empathy to deliberative democracy fills a critical lacuna in current scholarship.

    H. Lee Cheek, Jr., Ph.D.
    Assoc. Vice President of Academic Affairs and
    Professor of Political Science
    Athens State University