Thursday, October 13, 2005

Hi. I'm John C. Calhoun, and I Approved
This Stupid Historical Analogy.

calhounIt's open mic night at The Weekly Standard, and this week's prize for beatnik-style incoherence goes to Michael Brandon McClellan. Grabbing liberal internationalism by the throat, McClellan explains that Americans "reflexively reject the values of the United Nations" because the United Nations stands for the political philosophy last seen propping up the racist feudalism of the Old South. As McClellan understands it:
Prior to the American Civil War, John Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln articulated two very different ideas of equality. Each idea was powerful, and if followed, would lead to radically different outcomes. Calhoun's organizing principle can be boiled down to two words: state sovereignty. He believed in the equality of sovereign political states. In contrast, Lincoln's organizing principle of equality was the idea of individual natural rights. While Lincoln's idea of individual rights triumphed in the United States with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments and the success of the civil rights movement a century later, the Calhoun / Lincoln debate is, in a sense, still blazing in the arena of international law and in the dilemma of the United Nations.

From a perspective of organizing political principles, it is fair to say that above all else, John Calhoun stood for the idea of "entity equality." [snip] For Calhoun, this idea of state equality was the only rational basis of organizing a free society in a stable federal system. No state could infringe upon the rights of another state. For, if state equality was not held sacrosanct and inviolable, then the people of a state could tyrannically infringe upon the rights of the people of another state. There would be no legal principle to stop, for example, the people of Massachusetts from imposing their will upon the people of South Carolina. All that would remain to prevent such imposition would be political and martial power.

Aside from making up fancy sounding terms to describe the rationalizations of states rights -- "entity equality" is a meaningless neologism -- McClellan offers up such a profoundly monstrous historical analogy that it's difficult to know where to begin euthanizing it.

For starters, it's worth pointing out that Calhoun, at least as he viewed the matter, was not merely defending the sovereignty of individual states like South Carolina but was instead making a clear plea on behalf of a federal Constitution that he and his ilk regarded (and not entirely incorrectly) as a pro-slavery compact. Calhoun's anxiety, then, had little to do with an irrational fear of what "the people of Massachusetts" might accomplish to destroy the liberty of slaveholders; nothing in the Constitution would enable such preposterous scenario. He was, however, distressed by what he believed to be a federal conspiracy, abetted by the mis-named "free states," to pervert the "plain" meaning Constitution and deprive slaveholders of their natural rights to extend slavery into the newly acquired territories of the Southwest. This may sound like a niggling point, but it's not. To claim, stupidly, that the issue of "popular sovereignty" had merely to do with South Carolina (or any other existing, slaveholding state) is to miss the entire meaning of the Civil War, which was in many respects a struggle over how to fill what was believed to be "empty" Western land.

Calhoun's grossly inadequate conception of federalism did not, in any event, pretend that states were "equal," or that the sovereignty of all states was "sacrosanct" or "inviolable." He merely promoted the inviolable, sacrosanct rights of those states who boasted a morally superior way of life, which Calhoun saw represented in the "organic," agrarian realm of the plantation; when the collective framework embodied in the Constitution of the United States failed to properly defend the sacred rights of plantation masters to hold (and extend) the right of "property in persons," the fire-eaters merely asserted their right to unilaterally withdraw from the entire governing system.

Now, if I were Michael McClellan, I would insist at this point that the real heirs of Calhoun's belligerent, chauvinistic nationalism are currently warming chairs throughout the White House and at the American Enterprise Institute, massaging their groins as they dream of new ways to drown the internationalism of the United Nations in Richard Viguerie's dirty bathtub. Moreover, I would point out that far from treating the sovereignty of nations as "inviolable," the United Nations has numerous instruments for chastising, however ineffectively, those states that abuse the human rights and liberties of their people. Among these instruments is the use of general resolutions, the violation of which may be used as a rationale for war (in Iraq) or silence (in Morocco, Indonesia or Israel), depending rather arbitrarily on the disposition of the most powerful nation in the world to act. Furthermore, we need not be reminded that (theoretically) the most important device for bringing nations into line with the values McClellan assigns to Lincoln -- that device being the UN Convention on Genocide -- took the United States a half century to ratify, and then only with the sorts of qualifications and exemptions that a hegemonic power sees fit to demand.

Yes, I could make these arguments, but even I'm not sufficiently boneheaded to reduce the complexity of international relations to competing, 19th century views of American federalism. Evidently, The Weekly Standard observes no such self-restraint.