Twenty Years After 9/11, a History Teacher Learns the Fallacy of Operation Locke and Awe

The way we teach history matters. If nothing else, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that. Natural rights, it turns out, don’t always come naturally; when given the free choice, people will not always choose the same universal truths that we, as Americans, hold to be “self-evident.” Universal reason isn’t as universal as history teachers like I had thought. In other words, John Locke was wrong.

But where did all these erroneous assumptions come from? Why were they so devastatingly and disastrously wrong? The answer is so simple that it tends to be overlooked: Bad history teaching by well-meaning history teachers. Including me.

I was taught—and in turn taught others for the last eight years, after I became a history teacher—that American and British democracy were the fruits of ahistorical rationalism; that in 1688 (Britain’s Glorious Revolution) and again in 1776 (the American Revolution), enlightenment philosophes conjured democratic ideals ex nihilo from the genius of their own unencumbered use of reason. At the time, if you wanted to turn that liberal rationalist axiom into a “conservative” one, you could just throw in the word “God.”  “Democracy is a gift from the almighty,” President George W. Bush said.

And so I, a self-professed conservative, taught my European history students that England’s Glorious Revolution was founded on ahistorical (read “universal”) Lockean principles—that the parliamentarians who invited William and Mary to dethrone the absolutist Stuarts had modeled a new kind of government in which the polity was only vouchsafed by an inaugural act of consent by the governed. The English Parliament was, in effect, hitting the reset button. Any people, anywhere, at any time, could more or less do the same, granted they dispel their backward thinking by sipping from the font of universal reason. It was this fundamentally anachronistic, atemporal thinking which made Republicans and Democrats alike believe that democracy could be grafted onto Iraq and Afghanistan the way a vintner alters a row of grapes.

What Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony make clear in their clarion call of an essay “What is Conservatism?” is that the Anglo-American constitutional tradition is not intrinsically “Liberal.” That is, it is not the fruit of a universally accessible rationalism. Constitutions, and the rights and freedoms contained therein, are passed down from generation to generation; the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution were more about preserving existing liberties than inventing new ones as the fruit of enlightenment secularism. While liberalism of the Lockean variety is intrinsically ahistorical and the fodder of revolutionary utopians from France 1789 and onward, the conservative constitutional tradition predates liberalism. Judeo-Christian beliefs, English Common Law, and the country’s unique unwritten constitution all incubated the modern freedoms we take for granted today—and this well before the advent of secular rationalism during the Enlightenment.

Twenty years after 9/11, I have finally come to realize that how I understood history, as well as how I taught it, was wrong—a product of the enlightenment mythmaking of sundry progressive elites. The Anglo-American conservative tradition has roots in history, not “universal reason.” I am ashamed to say that this is a history I and many ostensibly well-educated millennials like myself don’t know. At the same time, as I look to my left at the octogenarians peddling democratic socialism as a “new idea” barely a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I can’t help but feel excited as I prepare to excavate among the ruins for the tradition with which we’ve all lost acquaintance.


Image: Anthony Fomin, Public Domain

Kurt Hofer

Kurt Hofer holds a PhD in Spanish Golden Age literature and teaches history in a Los Angeles-area independent school.

5 thoughts on “Twenty Years After 9/11, a History Teacher Learns the Fallacy of Operation Locke and Awe

  1. What a silly article.

    “when given the free choice, people will not always choose the same universal truths” ergo “John Locke is wrong.”

    Nowhere in John Locke’s work does he claim that given a free-choice people will always choose life, liberty and the prursuit of happiness (or property rights if we’re sticking with Locke) for others. It is, however, universally true that all normal people, given a free choice, rather like these things for themselves. Therefore, if we wish to live together peacably, we really ought to grant those same rights to others.

    No matter how much I might believe those damned Catholics and dissenters should be despatched to Hell, if I am to persuade them from doing likewise to myself and my family, we need some kind of agreement that we will allow them to live and have the liberty to follow their religion, so long as they grant me and my people the same.

    Thus, on 4 July 1776, the representatives of the 13 colonies, acting for all their citizens, contracted together to bring these rights into existence. Their descendants have been holding their fellow citizens’ feet to the fire ever since, in order to ensure that the contract is upheld. Sadly, in other parts of the world, many communities have yet to enter into such an enlightened contract.

    I find myself perturbed that someone not obviously of the woke left, teaching history in a US school would fail to understand this.

  2. I have long found disturbing the bizarre practice of describing George W. Bush, and by extension his administration, as seeking to impose American values, or claiming that our traditions represent the only or the most logical way to run a society. Bush knew well that different cultures have different mores. In his second inaugural address he said “Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.” Bush put this into practice: He insisted that the Iraqi constitution be written by Iraqis, and that the provisional Iraqi governing council encompass representatives from all walks of Iraqi society, even the Iraqi communist party. The notion that “Republicans and Democrats alike believe[d] that democracy could be grafted onto Iraq and Afghanistan the way a vintner alters a row of grapes” was more a convenient sneer when the going got tough than an accurate description. Even the most optimistic view of the Glorious Revolution should acknowledge how much it owed to the Magna Carta’s rejection of absolute centralized power, and hence to England’s particular history. Taking the point further, each of us will do well to recognize how our own political views are shaped by our personal backgrounds, and not attribute disagreements with others simply to one’s being smarter than everyone else. We can believe we are right while also recognizing particular reasons we came to our beliefs.

  3. The New Testament emphasis on individual freedom in Christ is a concept that seeped through the stranglehold of Rome in the Christian religion. In John 8:36, Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.” And the Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1,
    “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be encumbered once more by a yoke of slavery.” Gutenberg, Martin Luther, and the Reformation made Christianity available to all, and that freedom expanded beyond the religious realm. I think Dr. Ed had a very good point about that above! I am not familiar with the Koran but it doesn’t seem that the concept of individual freedom exists there.

    Treasury of Scripture

  4. It is some of both — universal and historical. One cannot help noticing the two strains, reading both Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and the second Inaugural. The universal is unmistakeable in the Declaration of Independence. But note that even Jefferson says only “we hold these truths to be self-evident” — not that all men will hold this. A lot of people, some of them very smart and conservative, learned this in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.

    As for the octogenarians — they are joined by an awful lot of the “kids” these days. The fall of the Berlin wall was a third of a century ago — there has been a lot of betrayal of the market principles since then — don’t blame either the kids or the octogenarians too much.

  5. I think you are missing three things.

    First, Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity and hasn’t gone through a reformation yet — historically speaking, the Islamic world is where Europe was circa 1420 — the era of Joan of Arc and the inquisition.

    Which goes to my second point — they are not products of the Western Christian Liberal Enlightenment like we are. Like Israel is….

    Which then goes into my third point — the difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution. While the American Revolution championed the individual rights of life, liberty, & property, the French Revolution championed the *group* rights of liberty, fraternity, & equity.

    In other words,two wolves and a lamb are deciding what to have for lunch — the vote is 2-1 that the meal will be lamb — and in the French model, the lamb *is* the lunch. But in the (small ‘r’) republican model of the US, the individual has rights from God that the majority can’t take away from him.

    That’s what we missed in Iran, Iraq, and now Afghanistan.

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