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)


Anonymous said...

Can I ask about his religious beliefs?

Patrick Deneen said...

Carey was an elder in the Flemington (NJ) Presbyterian Church. And he wore an orange tie on St. Patrick's day. May Our Lord have mercy on his soul.

Tomar Pax said...

Thanks for posting this. I am a wayward student of Uncle Carey's c. 1979 and it is wonderful to see him again. The puckishness and erudition come through nicely amidst a lot of academic dithering. A great Socratic figure and a marvelous human being. I've followed you from this blog's earliest posts to Culture 11 and back, and despite my annoyance with some of your strait-laced stodginess and verbosity (son, you need a sense of humor - for Carey's sake), I am a fan. Keep it up.

Patrick Deneen said...

Tomar, thanks for the words (I think...). I dare say that if all you knew of Carey were his writings, you might not have the full measure of the man, either. (e.g., the orange tie comment, while true, was meant to elicit a smile...).

As for "academic dithering," Carey surely ought to have published more books. He thought himself an essayist, however, surely a noble calling. He published immense quantities of essays - many, many of them short masterpieces - and we hope that within a year's time they will be more conveniently available between two covers.

Tomar Pax said...

Sorry, Patrick, I wasn't clear (I violated my rule against posting after 1AM or 2 Manhattans). By "academic dithering" I was referring to some of the other participants' contributions, not Carey's. Giants though many of them admittedly are, Carey's insights and his way with words made them seem just a bit more plodding by comparison, that's all. He was simply nonpareil. Thanks for your reply. I eagerly await the collected essays. I keep misplacing my copy of Garrisons and Government and "Violence and Legitimacy."
Final point, on the subject of Carey's religious beliefs: I seem to remember some steps he took many years ago with his fellows in California to insulate a certain religious ritual from the potential return of the rigors of Prohibition. No account of his religion would be complete without including his appreciation of the human need for transcendence. From time to time. Bless his memory, the old rascal. Stay well. Keep working.