My friend Tom Krannawitter turned me on to this criticism of the late Harry V. Jaffa, former Professor Emeritus at Claremont Mckenna College and Distinguished Fellow at the Claremont Institute.
I did not know Professor Jaffa. I met him during my time as a Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute and had opportunity to chat with him at a handful of Claremont functions. But I did not know him. I did, however, respect him and his teaching, which at times, I admit, was a bit too deep for me.
I will also admit that this criticism by Paul Gottfried was a bit high-brow for me. Alas, I am just not that smart. I do try, but I am just an actor. That said, there were, two things that stuck out to me.
First was Gottfried’s determination that, “…I could not imagine a single issue on which the deceased and I could possibly have agreed (except that Hitler and Stalin were not particularly nice men)…” Really? Not one? How about the immorality of slavery? Why does Gottfried point to the evil of Hitler and Stalin, (which he seems to trivialize by characterizing them as merely boorish) rather than the immorality of slavery? I think the answer is to be found in the second sentence that raised my eyebrows.
Gottfried writes that he “respects” (Woodrow) Wilson for his “attempt to understand rights as historic accretions rather than as attachments with which individuals everywhere enter the world…” As a Black man and as an American, I find this frightening. In case anyone has forgotten, Wilson was the guy who screened “Birth of a Nation” in the White House; Who RESEGREGATED Washington D.C.; and who refused to sign and support anti-lynching legislation.
Let us be clear: men are either born with certain natural rights or they are not. If our rights – the right to life, liberty, and private property, do not come to us by virtue of our humanity then from whence do they come? According to Gottfried and Wilson, men are not born with rights, rather rights fall to men as they discover them. It is history and not God that gives men rights. Put another way, rights flow from one man to another as they are won or granted. Indeed at one time in our country’s history some men justified the denial of (natural) rights to another group because history had not determined that they had yet obtained those rights. Clearly, if they had those rights they would have exercised them. And still in another time in our history some men declared that for the betterment of all of mankind, they had discovered a right to seize the private property of one group of men in order to distribute benefits to another group.
Woe to any people who fall under the power of men who deny the existence of natural rights, they will find themselves slaves to those superior beings, who discover rights in history.
Admittedly, I am not as well-read as the author, not as academically accomplished. However, this much I know: A conservatism that eschews natural rights, that seems to sneer at a theory of equality, (not of outcome), and – I am reading correctly between the lines – is sympathetic to the ideas of the confederacy, is a Conservatism that is INACCESSIBLE to Black people. Moreover, it is a Conservatism that attracts racists, bigots, and other malcontents, thus giving truth to every slander the Left tosses at Conservatives and the GOP. In short, it is a Conservatism that I reject.