Thursday, March 5, 2009
When Giants Roamed
I often have occasion to mention here two of my great intellectual influences - Alexis de Tocqueville and Wilson Carey McWilliams, professor of political theory at Rutgers University until his death in 2005. Most know Tocqueville, or at least have heard of him; fewer know of McWilliams. Carey (as he was called) was very well-known and even better liked throughout, and beyond, the political science profession. He wrote only one book - the magisterial tome, The Idea of Fraternity in America, as well as several hundred essays, a number of which his daughter Susan and I are currently gathering for a set of volumes. He was enormously learned, deeply wise, and capaciously generous. As well known as he was to many in the profession, many people never had the great good fortune of meeting, or at least hearing him. Well now, courtesy of C-Span, you can at least see him in action at a 1997 colloquium that was devoted to exploring the theme of "Tocqueville and Conservatism." Carey speaks at the 22nd, 49th, 1hr07th, and 1hr20th minutes. What's more, the assembled group is a virtual who's who of giants of political theory and history, including Harvey C. Mansfield Jr., James Ceaser, Peter Lawler (who raises a crunchy or Marxist question in his first intervention...), Dan Mahoney, Tracy Strong, Nancy Rosenblum and a number of other notables (all looking a bit younger, as we all did 12 years ago). And, there are some sadly and recently departed giants - John Patrick Diggins and Delba Winthrop, in addition to Carey.
If you have a spare hour and a half, it's worth watching. The best part, in my view, occurs toward the latter third when the discussion turns from Tocqueville and conservatism (mainly focused on a comparison with Burke) to Tocqueville and religion. McWilliams, Lawler and Mahoney are particularly good in those sections. Most of the others exhibit customary academic tin-earedness on the subject of religion, desperate to historicize religous belief in ways unrecognizable to Tocqueville.
For those who knew Carey - or Delba or JP Diggins - I'm sure you'll see some moments through mist. For those who didn't - well, enjoy.
(Hat tip, Mr. Sitman of Virginia)