The answer to any conundrum begins with a unified theory
The title is from a book published in 1960, while Eisenhower was still president, that title coined by a Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, a Massachusetts observer who wrote under the name “Dame Shirley” in the California gold fields in the 1850s, proving a simple natural law that if you’re going to watch and write about the (mis-)conduct of people who carry guns and use rope, it’s wise to take a pen name. The book’s author, John Caughey, who almost no one has heard of today, was a UCLA professor from 1930 to 1970, and dean of California’s history, having written over 25 books, this book published as part of a series for the University of Chicago, a beacon of “classical liberalism” at the time.
The book is informative mainly because it’s a series of contemporary reports from the Gold Rush and Wagon Train era in the opening-of-the-West days, which was “true” vigilantism (1849-1880) all the way up to the KKK, Army- McCarthy Hearings and the Hollywood blacklisting days (1920’s-1950’s), which were “state-sponsored” or “state-indulged” vigilantism, and which still goes on today, only under other names.
One type was largely good, of at least effective in deterring crime in a time and place where there was little or no law, the other largely bad. But since neither were “liberal”, both are equally disapproved in this book, hence this opening inquiry into the nature of “liberalism”, which is largely “reactionary” in the most literal sense toward actions by citizens contrary to liberal precepts about life, government and law, on the strange implied notion that “liberalism” is a founding pillar of humankind rather than a veteran of centuries of warfare (and reasoning) against the power of autocracies that had ravaged the world for thousands of years.
Liberalism is imbedded in our founding documents, 1776 thru 1787, and our Founders. In fact, it was about the only thing that kept them bound together, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton about as diverse a group as you can imagine. Yet today, the name of “liberalism” is being used to justify taking those same men, and their ideals, and the institutions they created, and pillorying them for those very same reasons, only with the added modern stigma of having been white, or male, affluent, and even heterosexual.
A young Woody Allen would have had a hoot mocking this turn in American social history, but recalling the importance of proper education and the “law of generations” you can all see how modern fashionable trends can create many mock-worthy cycles which can become very dangerous if allowed to get so out of hand that mere mocking can’t fix it. Which seems to be where we are now.
This is why we are embarking on an inquiry into the plusses and minuses of the original accomplishments of vigilantism, which the book, Their Majesties the Mob details, for each chapter, some barely a page, are dated reports from actual observers, while Caughey’s finger-wagging Introduction to each section, as befit every liberal of that era, teaches us a lot about the attitudes of liberalism in 1960, when it truly did stand head and shoulders above the lack of intellectual curiosity and the screeds of modern academe and media today.
Wikipedia defines “liberalism” as
… a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed and equality before the law. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support free markets, free trade, limited government, individual rights, capitalism, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion….
As no real friend of most of these listed principles, Wiki inserted the lawyer-prepared escape clause (emphasized above), beginning with “wide array of views depending on…”, thus allowing any person today who self-labels as “liberal” to say he/she believes that opening line, while actually rejecting every single aspect that defines it. Today, that is referred to as “cognitive dissonance”, a growing mental disorder which you should better acquaint yourselves about for it is an underlying cause of many jailable offenses which have largely gone unpunished in the past several years, and about which this series on vigilantism will be looking into more closely.
But in 1960 this definition of liberalism was largely genuine, especially for those with only limited education in learning the skills in inquiry, which defined almost every 20-year old whoever made it through those first four semesters of college. I was among them. In 1964 my entire body of “liberalism” was Civil Rights, only learned in current events from television news and our school’s first year of integration, which I am sure was eye-opening for a lot of both white and black students. The adult reaction was mixed in both that little segregated town and school system in Kentucky. And was probably the only issue my father and I ever disagreed about.
But an old school chum from those days, and now in the Kentucky Judges Hall of Fame, reminded me of a conversation we’d had while climbing one of those mountains out “behind our house” on those vertical streets in a coal camp in East Kentucky.
We went through 1st Grade through BA’s in History, including ROTC at the same school and university. We were both commissioned in ’68. He went directly on active duty, serving a tour in Vietnam as a platoon leader, then joining me in Law School as a first year student while I was third-year. Then I went into the Army for four years, mostly in the Far East as a defense lawyer. Ron went onto a prosecutor’s slot in our home county, then onto judge, where he made the Hall of Fame. We renewed our friendship after he’d retired in Virginia, though I’d followed his career for years in Kentucky newspapers. He’s been in poor health, nearly died from COVID, so we talk regularly on the phone. As a fine an example of an America-loving classical liberal as you would hope to know, only he’d slap the taste out of your mouth if you called him one.
On that mountain climb when we were 16, he asked why it was that most of the students in our school weren’t interested in reading history books. I had no answer then, but on reflection I think our deep attraction to the basic tenets of liberalism in 1961 were from those stacks of history books, such as the Landmark series, directed at teens that we gobbled up in the school library.
In short, we got our “liberalism” from patriotism and the then almost universal understanding of Good and Evil related in history books. Although I am sure there were some, I never knew a veteran who wasn’t a patriot about America. (See the definition above; being book-trained isn’t part of the equation.)
“Liberalism” wasn’t a label we applied to ourselves. We never thought of it as a club. I knew nothing of political liberalism and like most college students I was not a joiner. I had a part-time job, and never had a private room or car until my junior year, so I didn’t date much, since it was difficult to “pedal over” to pick up a date. I never went anywhere that “political ideology” was spoken, much less preached, although there was much casual talk about “the War”. A small army of northern hippies invaded in ’67- ’71 and kicked up a little dust with anti-War protests. But their personal hygiene was such that very few Kentuckians thought them worth copying, especially considering they came from affluent homes willing to pay outlandish tuition rates. Another planet.
In hindsight I believe that a lot of college bystanders from those days are now beginning to make connections with what they see on television today.
This is why I often highlight the “The answer to any conundrum begins with a unified theory” opener (above), because I never actually started down that self-examination “unified theory” road until I became an Army trial lawyer when I was 27. In four years I never took a case to the jury that I lost (and on more than one occasion my client was guilty). It would be another 20 years, the 1990s, beginning a long association with the old Soviet Bloc, and what I saw there, that I would realize many of the cases I won was not because of any special skill in me, as I used to pat myself on the back about, but because the prosecutors were simply playing their cards by-the-book, like bureaucrats always have, and always will.
Caughey’s “Mob” book showcases a similar shortcoming of “classical liberalism”, which at that time was America’s highest expression of Liberalism (or since). It was generally a Good Thing, only, as just noted, the average 20-yr college student in 1964 would actually know little about it.
Becoming a “liberal” in college didn’t mean higher learning in philosophy, logic, reason, or rhetoric. Instead, it meant being “tapped out”, much like a “fraternity”, only more likely by college professors and instructors, especially graduate-assistants, who taught most of the freshman auditorium-sized classes. Most formed their own posses there. Young non-Greek students really never knew what “fraternity” actually meant or where its membership would lead, or what the social ingredients or political lynchpins would be. There are multiple variants of fraternity, by just by being able to sit together and talk and maybe consume adult beverages and make fun of people “not like us” is probably the greatest bonding experience for all of them.
Since very few 20-year-olds would know to self-examine him/ or /herself at that time in their lives we can assume that the high self esteem of the liberalism groups was from within the group that had tapped them out. (Saul Alinsky certainly thought so). Ordinary students would never run into that sort of fraternal relationship until settling into their first job, most often in a corporate office where their 1960 version of fraternity might have been the office water-cooler and annual Christmas party. Again, my first genuine team participation was in an Army headquarters in Japan. Although that may no longer be the case, “liberals” never arose out of that kinds of job, in fact, mine was greatly narrowed. The first time I was ever compelled to re-examine the boundaries of my “liberalism” was while still in uniform, reading an opinion piece by Mary McGrory in a Tucson newspaper, covering the 1976 Democratic Party convention, when the radical Dems (involving a name I’d never heard before, Pelosi, then not yet an elected member of Congress) took over the Convention. Ms McGrory wrote (I paraphrase here) that “Modern-liberalism stands for the proposition that all human conduct should be subject to the political process.” This was a total anathema to the classical liberalism that I knew it and I, like that sinner at a Billy Sunday revival, I stepped out from my pew and walked down and fell at the altar of conservativism, where my father, Barry Goldwater and William Buckley had said I always should have been.
For every surviving classical liberal today, probably around my age, and I still admire a few, there are tens of thousands of shallow frat-boy “liberals”, like Bill & Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama to Bill Ayres, too numerous to count, who had the same idealized notion of liberalism I did at 18 but quickly sold it to the general rules of acceptance and membership of the fellowship, brotherhood, sisterhood, or clan, but most of all to their own selfish predilections and appetites…making them no better, no worse, than the kid who took over his dad’s hardware store in upstate New York, generally seeking the same things, wealth, maybe power, maybe celebrity, and maybe even a little limelight only on a smaller stage. But, as MAJ Margaret O’Houlihan of “MASH” once said about where Love ranked in the virtues of marriage, “it ranked in her top 5”, those ideals of liberalism listed above rarely made the Top 10.
Classical liberalism generally had a good relationship with the Constitution when it was honest, as some I know still do. Why and how it leapt the Constitutional guardrails (and got away with it) is largely generational, partly due to a great leap forward in wealth creation, the rise of the corporate organization model in culture, business and government, and a corresponding great retreat from classical education and the pursuit of the virtues of education. The rise of Pop Culture(s), pre-sweetened cereals and advertising aimed directly a children may also have had something to do with it, as did a slide away from moral teachings in a church-public school partnership, going as far back as the youngest brood of the baby-boomers who were 6 when Ayn Rand in 1971, wrote her “Culture of Envy” and other essays, which I highlighted in 2017. She noted a Youth movement especially among America’s more affluent that “embraced flower-power and psychedelic consciousness-expansion, that lionized Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro and launched the Black Panthers and the Theater of the Absurd.” (Her title was renamed in 1999 Return of the Primitive, the anti-Industrial Revolution, several essays, all very recommended reading. Her outline of how that New Left system mentioned by Mary McGrory worked, from Haters, to Manipulators, to Profiteers and Appeasers is still a working model today, only many times larger, now in its third generation.
Bottom line, it took me 50 years, and beginning a second career in the Russias to understand the role Natural Law plays in governments everywhere, and it’s all about survival-enhancing and survival-endangering behavior for the whole herd, not just the Alphas. Some governments are doomed to fail from their inception simply because they are designed ignoring this basic Natural Law, and so will always sink eventually, often with all hands aboard.
If you think you have it figured out at 20 or even 40, you’re wrong,
This is where I will take up my analysis of Good vs Bad Vigilantism in the next part.