|“America Needs a Leader Like George Washington” by John Ridpath, Feb. 11, 2003 (Presidents’ Day, formerly Washington’s Birthday).|
That John Ridpath supports the Ayn Rand Institute is to be expected; at the time he wrote the above he was a member, since retired, of its board of directors, and in 2002 could be seen clapping on C-Span after Peter Schwartz, I think it was, said something to the effect that Americans are now Israelis.
To understand Mr. Ridpath’s essay you need to know that it was written during President Bush’s run-up to the Iraq invasion. We review it from that temporal point of view.
The title of his essay is true enough: we do need a leader like George Washington. And as Mr. Ridpath tells us, back in 203, Bush is no Washington. But Mr. Ridpath expects us to believe that Bush is no Washington only because he hesitates to invade Iraq. Washington drove out the British, and Bush ought to invade Iraq; Mr. Ridpath thinks these are equivalent.
Before we examine the essay in more detail it’s worth pointing out that, magnificent as was Washington’s and the other Founders’ contribution to America, what they accomplished depended on certain antecedents, such as the Magna Carta (a rebellion against King John), John Locke’s thought, and English Common Law. During the Revolutionary War many of the English intelligentsia rooted for the American colonies, perforce not too loudly. Praise of George Washington is not insular when he is seen as part of the Enlightenment. Admiration for the Founders ought to be as universal as admiration for Isaac Newton and other great men. It is not an American thing.
Mr. Ridpath begins his essay by praising George Washington, then says in general terms that we ought to learn from his virtues.
“America has often been blessed, in times of crisis, with principled, moral leaders, directing this nation against history’s tyrants and in pursuit of freedom and the rights of man.”“Often” is vague, but in any case: which tyrants, tyrants who were a danger to America – or not? Whose freedom, the freedom of Americans – or others’? The plurality of Mr. Ridpath’s times and tyrants reminds us of Andrew Bernstein’s praise of Americans “dying for freedom around the world.” We begin to suspect we’re being set up.
As we shall see, Mr. Ridpath seeks to direct America against people who are no threat to America, and he has no real concern for American freedom. His bait is George Washington, the switch is the neocons. The switch, though, is in other ARI essays – for example “Honoring Virtue” and “War Powers Without War”, reviewed on this website.
Mr. Ridpath continues:
“Now, once again facing a crisis, America searches for great leadership. Awash in a morass of moral compromise, poll-taking, and hesitation to offend world opinion, Americans desperately seize on any hint of strength, of moral certainty, of a refusal to swim with others in the swamp of compromise, empty rhetoric and threats that now passes for ‘leadership’ in Washington, D.C.”This might seem agreeable, until you realize that Mr. Ridpath is calling for the invasion of Iraq. Contrary to Mr. Ridpath, the neocons know exactly what they want and are supremely self-righteous about getting it. They were aching to invade Iraq long before 9-11.
It may be true that “Americans desperately seize on any hint of strength,” but Americans would do well to examine the motives of any strong decisive men. We don’t need leadership from corrupt men lusting for power, nor leadership from the very men who caused our problem in the first place.
Considered in the setting of ARI’s other essays at this time, Mr. Ridpath is promoting the neocons, theirs is the leadership he desires.
After some biography of George Washington Mr. Ridpath writes:
“... George Washington can give to America on Presidents’ Day ... the spectacle of vision and moral certainty, backed up by action.”George Washington’s actions were correct because his certainty had philosophical depth. We must distinguish his kind of certainty from another kind: blind certainty, the certainty possessed by thugs and dictators. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin all had vision, moral certainty, and backed it up with action. Self-righteousness is not a virtue unless you have valid reasons for thinking you are right.
Ladling self-righteousness into George Bush is not going to do us any good.
Mr. Ridpath goes on to observe that George Washington “realized the importance of freedom and individual rights, and he pursued these values rather than power, approval, or prestige.” Thus he implies that Bush needs to realize the importance of freedom and individual rights – a ludicrously weak criticism given that Bush violates freedom and individual rights with free and easy abandon. Mr. Ridpath fails to point out that, unlike Washington, Bush is motivated by the pursuit of power.
Mr. Ridpath concludes his essay:
“To rejoin—in spirit—Washington’s army, America needs to rediscover the Founders’ commitment to liberty, justice, and individual rights. On President’s Day, we should salute George Washington.”I interrupt. This is all very well, but the next sentence gives the show away:
“The spectacle of his integrity can give us courage as we confront the tyrants who once again threaten our freedom and our lives.”This is a poisonous mixture of true and false. Bin Laden - Al Qaeda does not threaten our freedom, not one jot. We are destroying our freedom all by ourselves. The story of George Washington might inspire us to fight the galloping fascism of Bush and the neocons. The same story inspires Mr. Ridpath to placidly accept this fascism, and – considering the time he was writing – to claim that Iraq is a threat to America, and to call for its aerial bombing, infantry invasion, and unending occupation, under the control of a new set of criminals.
Mr. Ridpath didn’t say any of that explicitly, he didn’t have to. His silence is complicity. He knew full well his remarks would be taken as calling for the neocons’ invasion of Iraq and all that that entailed.
If he had not meant that, he would have said so. See Relentless Propaganda on this website. Mr. Ridpath’s mendacious essay is just another of these propaganda pieces.
Mr. Ridpath carefully omits facts about George Washington which contradict his purpose of supporting ARI. He knows what he is doing. He is a scholar of intellectual history, especially American history, and has lectured many times on America’s founders. He must know George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, given at the end of Washington’s presidency. [*] ARI disagrees with almost everything in that famous speech, yet Mr. Ridpath, an ARI board member at the time, willfully fails to see the contradiction.
See the Torture article on this website for George Washington’s thoughts about treating prisoners of war. ARI welcomes U.S. torture of POWs. There is no question Washington would have opposed it.
Speaking of presidents on Presidents’ Day, here is James Madison in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, May 13, 1798:
“Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.”The Patriot Act, the Real ID Act, etc.
Here is Thomas Jefferson at his Inauguration Address, 1801:
“... understand what I deem the essential principles of our government ... [gives a list, among which is, speaking of nations] entangling alliances with none ... .”
The following by John Quincy Adams (not to be confused with John Adams) on July 4, 1821 is often quoted but the context rarely given. At the time Adams was Secretary of State, some years after his term as President. Many Congressmen wanted to send the Navy to liberate the people of Chile and Columbia from Spain, whose viceroys were dictators. Adams opposed this, and did so using general ideas not fixed at that time and place:
“... She [America] has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings ... . ... Wherever the standard [flag] of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all; she is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force ... . She might become the dictatress of the world; she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
ARI takes anything for its purpose. Andrew Bernstein prostitutes Memorial Day to the service of the neocons. Edwin Locke prostitutes Veterans Day and Flag Day. Robert Tracinski, Christmas. Now John Ridpath does it for Presidents’ Day. We won’t have any unsmirched holidays left after ARI gets done with the calendar.