Jeffrey Hart of Dartmouth, assuming the mantle of Edmund Burke, had an essay in the Wall Street Journal opining on the meaning of conservatism today. Along the way, he declared that the unlimited abortion license established by Roe accords with the social “actuality” of modern life and that it is therefore a form of very un-Burkean radicalism to try to overturn the abortion regime in the name of what he describes as the abstract principle of “right to life.”
Father Gerry Murray of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Manhattan wrote what I think is a very effective response to Hart, his friend and former teacher. In the course of his further response to Fr. Murray, Hart says this:
“Some years ago, as I recall, Father Richard Neuhaus asserted in his magazine First Things that because of legal abortion the United States ‘regime’ is illegitimate. That’s right, ‘illegitimate.’ Of course this easy chair insurrectionary, this Jacobinical priest, did not become a genuine insurrectionary such as John Brown. Neuhaus knew only too well that the real insurrectionary John Brown received justice at the end of a rope. Neuhaus did not even go to prison, for, say, refusing to pay taxes. Thoreau had gone to prison over the Mexican war.
“For Neuhaus to call the United States government, or ‘regime,’ illegitimate in his journal was a waste of trees, though it probably appealed to dreamers.”
Oh dear. “Easy chair insurrectionary,” “Jacobinical priest.” And here I always thought of Jeffrey as a friend. At least he has always been very cordial when we met in the company of friends.
As for my Jacobinical ways, he is referring, of course, to the famous—I suppose he would say notorious— symposium in F IRST T HINGS of November, 1996, in which Robert Bork, Charles Colson, Robert P. George, Russell Hittinger, and others reflected on the “judicial usurpation of politics,” of which the Roe decision was several times cited as a prime example. I wrote the introduction and the symposium was titled “The End of Democracy?” Many excitable critics at the time tended to ignore the question mark.
The F IRST T HINGS symposium generated considerable controversy at the time. Commentary published a counter-symposium, but then a year or so later did a graceful about-face and ran another symposium on judicial activism that substantively agreed with the original F IRST T HINGS argument. It is an argument that has become a commonplace in the pages of National Review , with which Jeffrey Hart is closely associated, and in many other venues.
What was thought to be a radical idea at the time—and what Jeffrey Hart apparently still thinks is an impermissibly radical idea—is that we could reach a point, if the judicial usurpation of politics continued unabated, at which the American political order would be morally illegitimate and democratic government effectively ended.
To deny the possibility that the American polity could descend into a form of tyranny, in this case judicial tyranny, is, I believe, a form of national hubris, and precludes the possibility of any rational consideration of what is meant by the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate government.
The exchange between Murray and Hart, along with Hart’s original essay in the Wall Street Journal , can be found here at the New Criterion website. It is very much worth reading. If I may be permitted to gently tweak Jeffrey Hart, whom I persist in thinking of as a friend, I note that he began this discussion by invoking Burke and ends it by invoking Lenin. A curious conservatism indeed.
In addition to which :
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