Three-Fifths of a Man


Martin Luther King Day has come and gone; it's safe now to link to Michael Brendan Dougherty's essay on the late Sam Francis, from the America's Future Foundation magazine Doublethink. It's striking how quickly Francis' work has receded from the public conciousness, but MBD provides the quick take:

According to Francis, every elite—and the groups and individuals composing or attached to it—protects itself from exploitation by use of the power it exerts against others. Conservatism as it had been understood since 1789 had been tasked with the defense of tradition and authority against revolutionaries and the eroding forces of modernity. Francis found this wanting. The managerial revolution had already occurred, and the elite that came to power with it were implacably hostile to everything Francis sought to conserve. In Francis's analysis, Russell Kirk and the conservative movement had blundered. Instead of playing defense, those who wanted to conserve Western tradition and culture needed to become an insurgent political force.

That insurgency would be rooted in an appeal to disgruntled "Middle American Radicals," and would be inextricably tied to racism. That's where the MLK link came in; Francis was probably the intellectual leader of the movement to stop an MLK day holiday in the early 1980s.

Francis's real concern was that a national holiday would legitimize King's understanding of the Declaration of Independence as a promissory note: "not merely declarative of national independence but also imperative of social reconstruction in accordance with an egalitarian commandment." A King holiday would provide the Left with a stick with which to beat Americans for not delivering on the full promise of King's legacy and to cow them into accepting ever more radical measures in his name. The Left would not stop at expunging Confederate symbols and the playing of "Dixie," but would set their sights on Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, whose statements on racial egalitarianism, Francis quipped, "make Jimmy the Greek sound like an ACLU lawyer."

This is a charitable framing (excising the now odd-sounding USSR conspiracism that Francis leaned on) of what Francis was trying to do; it sounds almost prescient, right? Except that the King holiday didn't launch everything Francis said it would. Of course we all hear about college professors or elementary schools going after the legacies of Thomas Jefferson et al, but it never became epidemic. The "egalitarian commandment" tide started rolling ashore in 1978, and it crashed in the 1990s. We've been taking MLK Day off, and our presidents have basically been consecrating it, and the push for racial preferences has been struggling since prop 209.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying Francis is worth studying as an example of how the American right can founder when its preservation of "tradition" extends to the preservation of inequality, and that Dougherty's essay is pretty interesting.