Three-Fifths of a Man

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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.

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  1. “That insurgency would be rooted in an appeal to disgruntled “Middle American Radicals,” and would be inextricably tied to racism.”

    File under: John Birch Society, “old ladies in tennis shoes,” Silent Majority, on through Reagan to Gingrich…a remarkably spot-on description of the New Right.

  2. It is inherently contradictory to say that progressives view the Declaration of Independence as a statement of their values, which establishes a vision to be striven for; while at the same time saying that those same progressives are seeking to expunge Thomas Jefferson as a historical icon. It’s a contradiction that comes from the “love it or leave it,” “with us or with the terrorists” mentality that defines conservatism.

    There’s a famous quote, beloved by conservatives, about how liberals think it’s the height of sophistication to hold two contradictory ideas in your head. Well, guilty as charged. A sophisticated person can recognize the base elements in Jefferson’s biography, and still admire him as someone who made a significant contribution to the advancement of human liberty and equality.

    It certainly beats believing that you have to embrace the racial attitudes of Virginia elites circa 1780 in order to respect the principles elucidated in the founding documents.

  3. Towards the end in the article there is this ironic detail about Francis’ final hospitalization:

    “His aorta continued to bleed, and his doctor, Mohammed Naficy, at Prince George’s Hospital Center worked to stop it from hemorrhaging.”

    Dr. Mohammed Naficy? Well. If Francis had had his way, the good doctor would probably never have been in the country …

  4. C’mon doc, I don’t mean you. You’re one of the good ones. Can’t one of you camel jockeys take a joke?

  5. “A sophisticated person can recognize the base elements in Jefferson’s biography, and still admire him as someone who made a significant contribution to the advancement of human liberty and equality.”

    well, yeah.

    i may be missing some of the context of this, or all of it, but that seems rather obvious.

    somewhat related, i think the first amendment may actually be the most duplicitiously loved amendment of all (not to exclude the madness of the tardoid dickfights over the second amendment, but they are another thing entirely) in that you can find whole slews of people, right and left (and especially among the younger, more activisty types) who will say things like “i believe in free speech, and when i smashed that guy’s sign and punched him in the face, i was exercising my free speech rights too!”

    it’s not much of a surprise to find that sort of thing amongst college maoist types or an ultra-religious youth outreach group, but the attitude is far more widespread than that. it’s very, very disappointing, regardless of whether you believe the 1st is important because “truth will out” or because it’s simply a good principle to have compared to government censorship, it’s important to remember most of your fellow citizens do not believe in anything remotely like that.

    a recent incident at columbia university cemented this rather painfully for me. college republicans invite some tookerjerbs guy who had been separated from the minutemen for being too hardcore did his thing for about 45 minutes before the stage was rushed by some college socialist group. a total pr win for the college repugs, in that not only did the socialists look and sound like maoist assholes (which they may very well be, but youth has a retarding effect on us sometimes), but the repugs get to play victim (which is everyone’s favorite game these days) and get off the hook for inviting a racist half-wit to speak.

  6. somewhat related, i think the first amendment may actually be the most duplicitiously loved amendment of all

    I would agree with this…

    Most people tend to love free speech…until someone says something that offends them…
    at which point Freedom of speech becomes : “free speech has its limits”

  7. Another ironic, perhaps slightly tasteless, detail about Francis’ final hospitalization: he died of a bleeding heart.

  8. I so completely agree with all of you. I admire Jefferson as a thinker, at the same I recognize that he was a flawed human, whose understanding exceeded his ability to act on that understanding. (“His hat outdid his shoes,” as my grandmother used to say.) He was so far above typical for his time that some people expect him to be typical of OUR time.

    As for the First Amendment, I know far too many people who think that the First only protects people with whom they agree. And let’s not even get started on the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments.

  9. As for the First Amendment, I know far too many people who think that the First only protects people with whom they agree. And let’s not even get started on the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments.

    Read the Declaration to them sometime. “What? The People have the right to overthrow the government? You have to be kidding!”

    But if you can get them to compare the reasons we overthrew King George with current events…

  10. We had heart specialists in the US long before the mass immigration of Muslims. No doubt if Dr. Naficy had stayed in his country, some equally well qualified American would have tended to Francis. And after all, it doesn’t sound like Naficy did such great work, now does it?

  11. dhex – so whats your problem with the Minutemen then?

    If you people are supposed to be “conservatives” the US is clearly doomed.

    Mitchell Young – ditto what you said.

  12. “receded from the public consciouness” my eye. Check out Sam’s latest collection, Shots Fired. All of Sam’s books are in print and will be for decades to come. Have you published any books?

  13. “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”

    Can someone explain to me how I could read on a libertarian website an assertion that “inequality” can be “preserved”? Oh, right: when race or the possibility of racial difference is implicated, even cool Ayn Rand fans have permission to stop thinking.

    Have libertarians ever stopped to consider why they of all ideological callings are probably even further from seeing their ideas manifested as policy (or non-policy) than the dreaded white advocates/nationalists/separatists? I’ll tell you. It’s because if individual human beings truly had the freedom to non-violently and non-fraudulently pursue their lives in the manner they saw fit, they would choose to associate with members of their own race. And if you’re up for a wild ride, check into why THAT is a prospect so frightening to certain ethnic groups that freedom of association is the subversion that will not be tolerated.

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