‘Anglo-American Heritage’ is a Sheep-Dog Whistle. It Only Scares Wannabe Wolves
Charles Cooke at National Review has patiently dismantled the really stupid parts of this controversy. As he points out, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to our “Anglo-American heritage” he was talking about sheriffs. Which come from England. As part of our heritage. Here in America. Cooke scrupulously dug up speeches where that (presumably) anti-Latino dog-whistle was blown by … Barack Obama. Cooke cited law books and other references to note that the phrase is neutral. Even … factual. And facts are stubborn things.
But they’re also inert things. They can’t defend themselves. And when they’re stupidly handled, they can turn into bludgeons and truncheons. The left loses nothing by picking up the poor helpless facts here and trying to turn them into another “racist” controversy. At worst, their trick gets exposed, and everybody moves on. They throw a different piece of spaghetti at the wall, and watch to see who salutes it. Rinse and repeat.
Slandering Jeff Sessions Was Just the Appetizer
I don’t in fact believe that any of the lawmakers, journalists, or activists who complained about “Anglo-American heritage” believed that it targeted immigrants. Or grandchildren of non-Anglo immigrants, with Habsburg subject surnames like “Zmirak.” On the surface, they were just looking to score cheap political points by lying about an honorable man, Jeff Sessions. All they wanted to do was smear his good name with one of the three most hateful epithets in today’s value system: “racist.” (They couldn’t find a way to make “Anglo-American” a dog-whistle for “rapist” or “pedophile,” but give the stupid-but-clever folks time.) That’s all.
But dig a little deeper here. In fact, let’s go down to the core. The “Anglo-American heritage” refers to a lot more than quaint titles like “Sheriff” or annoyances like jury duty. It taps into values, institutions, and traditions that benefit more than a billion people around the world — from the USA to India, from Kenya to Hong Kong. Many of them don’t speak English, but they are mostly thankful for the legal principles and precedents of English Common Law. For things like:
- The right to remain silent.
- And the right to an attorney.
- The right to bear arms and defend yourself.
- And the right to have an attorney provided for you if you cannot afford one.
- The presumption of innocence.
- The adversarial system of justice (as opposed to the aptly named “inquisitorial” system).
- Protections against invasive searches at home.
- Equality before the law.
- Firm, clear property rights immune to arbitrary seizure.
- Freedom of speech, except for slander, libel, and incitements to violence.
- The free exercise of religion.
- Freedom of assembly.
The Blessings of the Anglosphere
The list could go on and on. None of the countries in what Daniel Hannan calls the Anglosphere is perfect. But contrast them with nations which never had Common Law, and you’ll begin to be grateful too. As Hernando de Soto proved in The Mystery of Capital, the single biggest common factor in global poverty is lack of secure property rights. Billions of people outside the Anglosphere can’t secure their small businesses or even their homes against seizure.
Look at the EU countries where political speech is criminalized if it offends the governing oligarchs. Such “hate speech”regulation has even begun to infect the U.K., Canada, and Australia. We’re still a little shy in the U.S. about imprisoning opponents of mass immigration or sharia. We’re probably one presidential election away. Elect another progressive Democrat, and watch the judges he appoints bring us “in line” with such “international norms.” The Constitution be damned.
The “Anglo-American heritage” refers to a lot more than quaint titles like “Sheriff” or annoyances like jury duty. It taps into values, institutions, and traditions that benefit more than a billion people around the world — from the USA to India, from Kenya to Hong Kong.
Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the long list of countries with Islamic or socialist legal traditions, where individual freedom isn’t even a central value. Just like those ancient city-states where every person was treated as merely a cell of the greater organism, in such lands despotic clergy or fake philosopher kings treat the people as clay to be molded. Archbishop Sánchez Sorondo has made his sympathies clear, praising Communist China as a better model of “Catholic social teaching” than the United States.
Who Complains About “Legalism”? The Lawless, of Course.
The left here at home has long resented Anglo-American jurisprudence and Common Law. Radicals try to “expose” it as the tool of hegemonic classes. Feminists claim that abstract norms are the fruit of “patriarchal” abstraction. They call for a “feminine” model that leaves judges free to rule arbitrarily, whenever that advances “social justice.”
Anyone who complains about legalism is a wannabe tyrant.
It’s a firm rule of thumb: Anyone who complains about legalism and abstract norms is a wannabe tyrant who finds the fact of rights, laws, principles, and historic norms too constraining. Those are speed-bumps that slow down and frustrate the use of government power. That’s why we should love them. And why petty despots wish to tear them down.
A new book by a professor at Notre Dame, Patrick Deneen, condemns the classical liberalism that grew out of the Anglo-American heritage as deeply defective. Too individualistic, too centered on the claims of citizens, not those of the community. For him it’s an atomistic model that was inevitably going to end up yielding decisions like Roe v. Wade, whatever our Founders intended. So we Christians must give up on the American founding and hope somehow, at some point, to refound something else — presumably on pre-modern, illiberal principles.
Other scholars such as Robert Reilly have answered Deneen on the details. (Seriously go read these two essays by Reilly.) The rich religious heritage of the Anglo-American tradition is much more than the ideas of Hobbes or Locke, lined up like falling dominoes.
The Poison of Post-Christian Americanism
That’s not to say that Anglo-American liberalism is free of dangers. It’s the most humane political system ever to grow up on earth. I would fight to my last bullet before living under any other arrangement. But such liberalism can be toxic, too, when stripped of its context and history. Judges can read it selectively, as they did in decisions like Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodge. If judges strip off the natural law, religious, and cultural assumptions which let us order liberty, of course they will generate chaos. The results will splinter the family, cripple civic institutions such as churches, and indeed turn us all into naked atoms, whirling around the nucleus of a hungry, expanding State.
But you could pervert any system, once you’ve corrupted its judges and severed it from its traditions. What cleared the way for this corruption in our case? Reducing the rich, culturally specific and Christian Anglo-American heritage to a few abstract planks in a platform. We slimmed down the Anglo-American way to an ideology for export during the Cold War. Then we hacked away at it further to make it less imposing for immigrants. We did so out of a kind of snobbish queasy-mindedness. Intellectuals feel in their element defending ideologies and abstractions. Ask them to stand up for old traditions, peculiar customs, and even the details of sacred history, and they start to mumble.
God Is in the Details
A few greats stand out as exceptions. Really serious thinkers see past the facile attraction of geometrical thinking in ideological soundbites. (See Edmund Burke, Wilhelm Röpke, Russell Kirk, and yes, Patrick Buchanan.) They look with reverence at the quirky details of the Magna Carta. Or the Swiss Confederation. They treasure the slow, organic growth of Common Law at the hands of thousands of nameless judges over centuries. They know that liberty can only last if it’s ordered, and that only tradition and institutions can do that job. Trash those traditions, corrupt those institutions, or too quickly replace the population of a country with alien newcomers, and liberty turns to chaos.
The tyrants smile at that, and hiss: “We knew this would happen. …” And then they step forward to measure us for our fetters.