On April 13-14, Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) brought together students from across the country to participate in the Undergraduate Conference on the American Polity.  This annual conference features outstanding undergraduate research from a variety of disciplines including history, economics, philosophy, anthropology, religion, political science, and sociology.  Presentations must in some way relate to the principles and practice of American political life.

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Dr. Elizabeth L’Arrivee, Lecturer, University Studies, Colgate University, organized the 2018 conference in conjunction with AHI executive director Robert Paquette. It took place on the campus of Colgate University and at the historic Colgate Inn in Hamilton, New York.  Participants hailed from such institutions as Colgate University, Skidmore College, the University of Rochester, Texas Tech, Yale University, Hamilton College, and Princeton University. Presenters had their papers critiqued by attending professors and participated in intensive conversations with faculty and fellow students.  Journalist Cathy Young and philosophy professor James Muir served as this year’s guest speakers.

Students present conference papers

Opening night festivities at the Colgate Inn included a presentation by Cathy Young, an émigré from the former Soviet Union who graduated from Rutgers University in 1988 with a degree in English.  A Cato Institute Media Fellow, contributing editor for Reason magazine, weekly columnist for Newsday, and author of two books: Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (1989) and Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (1999), she drew on her experience under Communism for insights in discussing the harmful effects of identity politics on and off campuses in the United States and Canada.  Identity politics has infected, for example, judicial processes regarding sexual assault on college campuses.  Justice is often doled out, she argued, according to judgments informed by a kind of “hierarchy of the oppressed” rather than by a fair and equitable due process guided by the rule of law. Identity politics has led to charges of “cultural appropriation,” in not only such silly ideas as the condemnation of any white person who wears, say, a sombrero but in calls to censor and destroy artistic expression. Young cited the case of white artist Dana Schutz whose painting of Emmett Till, on display at the Whitney Biennial drew calls to not only remove the painting but, as the New Republic noted, to destroy it.

The emphasis on “privilege” is dehumanizing, warned Young, referencing the case of Otto Wambier.   Imprisoned in North Korea, Wambier suffered such brutal treatment that he died shortly after his release by North Korean officials in 2017. Some left-wing commentators implied that Wambier deserved his treatment because of his “white male privilege.”  For Young, a libertarian, identity politics threatens individual liberty. Indeed, it resembles practices in aristocratic societies where the older and younger sons were treated differently and in the Soviet Union, where the worth of one’s opinion was determined by identity in relation to party. Citing disturbing polls that show students valuing diversity more than free speech, she concluded, “cultural policing needs to stop.”

Conference participants

Colgate University hosted Saturday’s sessions, which featured student panelists. Dr. Andrew Fagal, Princeton University, moderated each session.  David Frisk, AHI resident fellow; Flagg Taylor, Associate Professor of Political Science, Skidmore College; and Rob L’Arrivee, A. Lindsay O’Connor Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science, Colgate University, provided expert commentary. At the end of each session, presenters responded to questions from the audience, largely composed of their peers.

Session one began with “Modeling a Gentleman: Landon Carter and the Virginia Gentry,” a presentation by Hamilton College student and AHI undergraduate fellow Jacob Slovin. He examined the diary of Virginia planter Landon Carter in the early days of the Revolutionary War and found that Carter expressed anxieties about his “tenuous grasp” on his plantation after eight of his slaves ran away to fight in the war but continued to express his concerns about his sons who gambled and a daughter who had married below their social class. Carter’s diary, Slovin pointed out, offers a remarkable window into the psychology of masterdom and the evolution of a religiously based paternalism in planter households of the Old South.

Leo Li of Princeton University presented on “A Ghost in the Machine: Abraham Lincoln, His Allies, and Presidential Influence on Congress,” described the strategies Abraham Lincoln used to influence Congress, in the days leading up to and during his presidency. Li focused on Lincoln’s skillful balancing act between executive and legislative powers as defined under the Constitution. “While Lincoln was able to justify many of his proposals and policies under his war powers as commander-in-chief,” said Li, “ultimate success for the Lincoln administration meant enacting legislation that required congressional consent. To this end, understanding Lincoln’s management of Congress and legislative strategies are crucial to understanding how Lincoln achieved his agenda when war ravaged the country and Congress remained not only bitterly divided, but still reverent to the idea that the prerogatives of Congress and the presidency were and should always be distinct and separate.”

Alben Leonard, a physics major at Colgate University, put together an impressive array of polls, charts, and other quantitative data for his presentation “Existential Politics and the National Polarization of Modern America.” He found a grim picture, polarization between parties so severe that each feels their existence threatened by the other side; increasingly Americans are seeing separatism as a viable option. There is also a feeling of “not feeling at home” in one’s own country.  “If current [immigration] trends persist,” Leonard concluded, “one should expect increasingly desperate and aggressive action from the right” because of an existential threat to the Republican Party.

AHI’s David Frisk and Executive Director Bob Paquette

At the second session, Nicholas Foti and Lucas Avelar of the University of Rochester provided “A Glimpse into the Long Run Effects of Government Instituted Discrimination.” Their concern was the troubling “persistence in outcomes,” even after post-war programs and legislation aimed to end racial disparities in standards of living. They argued for the existence of a lasting effect on “human capital attainment” from the wide disparities in such things as funding for education in the Jim Crow era.  “Policy implications suggest,” Foti and Avelar concluded, “that narrowing the gap of educational opportunity by providing equal resources to majority-black public schools, cash transfer programs to black families, and anti-discrimination laws, are of utmost importance should the United States seek a convergence wage gap in the future.”

Dylan Quinn, of Skidmore College, who participated in the 2017 undergraduate conference, returned with a presentation inspired by the presidential candidacies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.  In “Understanding American Populism: The Cases of the Kingfish and the Radio Priest,”  Quinn argued that both Huey Long, the Kingfish, and Father Charles Coughlin, the Radio Priest, effectively used the new technology of radio to tap into economic anxieties and build popular political movements. Inspired by William Jennings Bryan, Long appealed to Christians across denominational lines with a “Christian conception of God.” Coughlin’s leftist social justice agenda had conspiracy at the center and displayed the “paranoid style” of politics famously described by the historian Richard Hofstadter.  Neither movement, Quinn concluded, effectively built cross-racial alliances.

In recent years college campuses have been rocked with protests that threaten free expression. In “Using Repression for Liberation,” William Berg of Skidmore College focused on the ideas and influence of Frankfurt School Cultural Marxist Herbert Marcuse, particularly his idea of “repressive tolerance,” in trying to explain the unrest.  Berg compared Marcuse’s understanding of the theory of liberty with that of John Stuart Mill, finding points of both similarity and difference. In the essay “Repressive Tolerance,” Marcuse introduces the idea of “totalitarian democracy” to argue against the idea that liberal societies truly support a search for truth. In today’s student protests, Berg hears echoes of Marcuse, even if the protesters have never heard his name.  “In advocating suppression of supposedly regressive forces, Marcuse foreshadows his support for Liberating Tolerance: using force to silence [allegedly] regressive forces that are implicit in our current employment of tolerance.”

Leland Stange of Yale University, in “Rethinking Sentiment, Self-Evidence, and Reason in the American Imagination,”  pursued “a deeper understanding of the relevance of ‘sentiment’ in the American imagination as it relates to reason, self-evidence, and the philosophical soundness of the Declaration [of Independence]” in understanding certain events that led to the onset of the Civil War. He agrees with those scholars like Willmoore Kendall and Garry Wills who have seen in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address a redefinition of the meaning of the Union. “By boldly claiming that we ought to have a just and unified public sentiment in support of the basic equality of all men,” Stange argued, “Lincoln calls on us to perpetually maintain a single moral choice about the future; in other words, he pleas for us to always confirm the “self-evidence” of equality through a single public sentiment that is opposed wholeheartedly to slavery. Lincoln sought to turn the Declaration’s originally nebulous claim of equality into an irrefutably true prerequisite of political unity.”

Participants talk over lunch

Session three featured presentations by four Colgate students. Bruce Racine’s “The First Amendment and Its Legal and Moral Pertinence to College Campuses” discussed cases, monitored by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) to warn about a disturbing culture of self-censorship and intimidation on Colgate’s campus.  Racine quoted Canadian professor Jordan Peterson, who has noted that the retort “I’m offended” becomes the unbeatable trump card played by left-wing students obsessed with identity politics to silence anyone who may be critical of what they are doing. This undergraduate grunt replaces thought and can have dangerous consequences.  Legitimate criticism falls victim to cries of hate speech as sympathetic and self-serving administrators look on. Racine praised the example of civil rights activist Pauli Murray, a descendant of slaves, who argued that segregationist Governor George Wallace be allowed to speak at Yale in 1963.  “[T]he possibility of violence,” she declared, “is not sufficient reason in law to prevent an individual from exercising his constitutional right.”

Occupational licensing directly affects perhaps as many as a third of all workers in the United States. Katherine Ogden explored law and economics in “How Cosmetology Licensing Harms African-American Small Business.” She described a case of two small business owners, who had had a successful hair-braiding business for twenty years in Missouri. The cosmetology training required by law in Missouri taught persons nothing about African-style hair braiding.  Yet their businesses were threatened by new onerous regulations. Such unnecessary and expensive regulations often result from legislation written for the benefit of, and by, large corporations. Ogden called for more legal challenges of the kind successfully instituted in Missouri by the Institute for Justice to deregulate.

James Long made a case for Christianity in American political life in his presentation, “Religion as an Independent Good and the Need for Christianity in America.” In surveying the past, Long pointed to the ameliorative impact of Christian morality on a range of barbarous practices. His paper sparked discussion of the Christian conception of liberty, the Enlightenment on Christianity, and the role of evangelical Christianity in the movement that ended slavery in the Americas.  Ethan Black gave the last presentation, on the online “skeptic community,” with the provocative title, “Drinking Bleach on YouTube: A Brief Survey of the Online Anti-SJW Community.”  These YouTube personalities have attracted sometimes over a million followers each to their videos attacking Social Justice Warriors and political correctness. He described eight YouTube performers, including Chris Ray Gun, who performs such songs as “Ain’t No Rest for the Triggered”; Laci Green, who describes herself as a pan-sexual feminist; “Sargon of Akkad”; Derrick Pilot, “some black guy,” who ridicules SJWs about cultural appropriation; Blaire White, “the Milo of transgender issues”; and June “Shoe on Head” Lapine who ridicules SJWs and feminists.

The final event included dinner at the Colgate Inn followed by a discussion directed by James R. Muir, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Winnipeg.  Muir, author of The Legacy of Isocrates and a Platonic Alternative: Political Philosophy and the Value of Education (2018), began by focusing on the content of the ancient debate between Socrates and Isocrates and how that debate conditioned the subsequent evolution of the relation between political philosophy and educational thought, especially in the Islamic, Christian, and Jewish traditions. Muir then engaged the audience in a searching discussion of “What Is Liberal Education?” (1959) by the acclaimed political theorist Leo Strauss.  In contrast to postmodernist trends, which seem aimed at plumbing the depths of human depravity while actively engaged in transformational politics, Strauss regarded liberal education as a “constant intercourse with the greatest minds . . . a training in the highest form of modesty, not to say of humility.”

In introducing Dr. Muir, Rob L’Arrivee, one of Muir’s former students, compared Muir to “a certain gadfly” whose orientation could not be determined. “Was he Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim?” students wondered. He recalled how he and others began as “confused and dogmatic students” but came to admire Professor Muir. “Beth and I would not be here were it not for Professor Muir,” he said, as he conveyed Muir’s profound influence on their education.

Muir discussed the differences between the conception of education that follows Plato and that which follows Isocrates. The notion of “diversity,” which emerges from assumptions that come from Marx and Nietzsche, is imposed by educators who follow the Isocratic model of education, which teaches from doctrinal premises and subordinates education to politics. Diversity advocates talk to each other only so never question the categories under which they place the objects of study. Today’s diversity advocates presume to understand Islamic “culture,” a concept that is no way as readily accepted by Muslims as it is with Christians.

Muir explained that the left does not believe that they are denying freedom of free speech. Operating under the Nietzschean idea of material causality, SJW’s believe that ideas are formed by environment; they feel their task is to disabuse others of their “delusional opinions.” They themselves are in a “rhetorical cage” and can’t be persuaded. They see nothing but political compulsion. “Nothing goes in or out,” Muir explained. The alternative is to revive Platonic education, or education as autonomous and having its own goal. This was the idea of aristocratic education that Leo Strauss advanced in his commencement speech. The object of study should be civilization; and the arts should be taught as mimetic study. “You have to understand your own prejudices,” said Muir. Platonic education is the “education of freedom,” he maintained.

Students had high praise for the conference.  An undergraduate from Texas Tech thanked AHI for a “great experience.”  Rochester’s Nick Foti and Lucas Avelar agreed:  It was “an incredible weekend of scholarship and intellectual stimulation.” A student from Yale expressed his gratitude for AHI’s “hosting such a wonderful and thought-provoking conference. My mind is still whirring from the many scintillating conversations across the weekend.”  AHI Undergraduate Fellow and Hamilton College student Jake Slovin “had a wonderful time and enjoyed having some really intellectually challenging conversations with the undergraduates and professors.”

For conference organizer Beth L’Arrivee, brought both satisfaction and hope. “Intellectual diversity is needed now more than ever on our college campuses,” she observed. “It was encouraging to see undergraduates from across the country present papers on the American polity from a variety of perspectives. Giving students the opportunity to counter some of the dominant narratives on elite liberal arts campuses and hone their understanding of the American experience—past, present and future—in a professional setting in front of faculty and peers was our primary aim and the participants did not disappoint. From the topics, including Lincoln’s statesmanship, student self-censorship, and the political influence of YouTube personalities, to the packed rooms, this conference was a definitive success.  Our two guest speakers, journalist Cathy Young and Canadian philosophy professor James R. Muir, gave enlightening addresses that delved into the contemporary absurdities that such tendentious concepts as ‘intersectionality’ have fostered.  One of Young’s many incisive points was that attributing not being mistreated by police to ‘privilege’ sets a dangerous precedent for the whole country, as it normalizes police misbehavior and makes extraordinary their performance of basic duties. Muir demonstrated decisively that the contemporary dogmas governing higher education are riddled with self-contradictions. For example, those who promote the idea that logic is a Western construct, can immediately perceive the logical fallacy (non sequitur) in the statement ‘If you believe logic is a Western construct, then you are contributing to global warming.’ He also gave an erudite historical account of how educational goals such as diversity, inclusion and equity arose insofar as they have their origin in the Isocratic view that the value of education ought to be deduced from political axioms. He suggested that a renewal of our awareness of the history of Isocratic education, and of the debate between Isocrates and Socrates, who argued that education had its own, inherent value, namely freedom of thought, would lead to a renewal of genuine diversity in higher education. Members of the audience were ‘fascinated’ by the talks, and one student quipped that Muir is ‘either insane, or a genius!’  We are grateful to AHI for all it has done in bringing this rewarding event to fruition.”

By Mary Grabar, AHI Resident Fellow