The Loss of Fatherhood and the Rise of the Nanny State

Is it possible that almost every disturbing trend in American society shares a common theme – one that is both obvious in its harm, and yet politically unspeakable? If so, then Mary Eberstadt has named it for us in this brilliant essay just published in First Things. The culprit: a veritable epidemic of fatherlessness.

A wave of violence gripped the United States over the past summer, causing over a billion dollars in property damage and claiming at least twenty-five lives. While it is easy to pin the blame for this “unrest” on the usual suspects – Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, racism, political polarization, etc. — Eberstadt sees it as “but the latest eruption along a fault line running through our already unstable lives,” as “deprived of father, Father, and patria, a critical mass of humanity has become socially dysfunctional on a scale not seen before.”

The social science research could not be clearer: statistically, children do best when raised by married biological mothers and fathers. Eberstadt notes that “absent fathers predict higher rates of truancy, psychiatric problems, criminality, promiscuity, drug use, rape, domestic violence, and other less-than-optimal outcomes.” And yet today, almost one in four children in the U.S. grows up without a father in the home, a figure that includes 65 percent of African Americans.

Of course, such an environment is not possible for every child. Divorce and death have long separated parents from their children, and even a two-parent home does not guarantee a healthy family dynamic free from abuse and neglect. Demography is not destiny. Success stories abound of individuals who have overcome difficult childhoods to attain great success as adults: consider two-time president Barack Obama or Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, just to name a couple.

However, one could compare these success stories to people who have lost a limb: the fact that it is possible to live a happy, fulfilled life without an arm or a leg does not meant that having two arms and two legs is no more advantageous than being an amputee. People survive absent, abusive, and/or neglectful fathers, but the wound remains. And it hurts. And in their pain, many seek out dangerous father substitutes like gangs and extremist groups like Antifa.

While Eberstadt is Catholic, her argument also accords with the eastern wisdom of Confucianism. She makes frequent references to “filial piety,” the traditional Chinese virtue of respecting one’s parents and ancestors. Confucius taught that the father-son relationship was at the core of all other relationships, including that between ruler and subject. Moral duties and obligations flowed both ways, whether one was in the dominant or subordinate position. The virtue of empathy (shu) was meant to counterbalance the need for loyalty (zhong).

Eberstadt speculates that the decline of fatherhood has accelerated the decline of religion (loss of God the Father) and patriotism (love of the father-land and respect for the Founding Fathers), dubbing this the “threefold crisis of paternity.” Deborah Savage laments: “they have been left alone in a cosmos with nothing to guide them, not even a firm grasp of what constitutes their basic humanity, and no means of finding the way home.”

Fatherlessness results not only in aimlessness, but also anger and resentment. This is the rage fueling the destruction not only statues of Confederate fathers, “but of Founding Fathers and town fathers and city fathers and anything else that looks like a father, period.”

Police officers certainly fit this category as well, be they male or female, black or white. Since the death of George Floyd and even before, they have been subject to countless brutal attacks and assassinations. Recent demands that we deploy social workers to the scenes of conflicts instead of police may be tantamount to “keeping Dad out of it and letting Mom handle it.”

Almost all of our institutions have been feminized, from school to church to the workplace. While some of this has been for the better, in certain cases it has been for the worst.

In our schools, offending students are offered seemingly endless “second chances” by well-meaning teachers, counselors, and administrators. While zero-tolerance policies represent a likewise undesirable extreme, the lack of consequences is also destructive — to both the bullies and the collective, who must put up with their ongoing misbehavior.

Sometimes kids need a cookie and a hug and to be told everything will be okay. Other times they need to be challenged and disciplined and made to take responsibility. Usually (but not always) mom is the “good cop” to dad’s “bad cop.” In the memoir now movie Hillbilly Elegy, it was J.D. Vance’s grandma (“mamaw”) who stepped into the role of father.

Many people – but especially young men – are desperate for someone to demand more of them, not less; to insist that they clean their room, stand up straight with their shoulders back, and take some damned responsibility, bucko! How else can we explain the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson, best-selling author of Twelve Rules for Life? People don’t just want hugs and cookies, they want rules! And rules tend to come from Dad.

The sad truth is that even kids being raised in homes with their biological fathers are often missing out on just such “tough love” and guidance. It is within the maternal instinct to shelter one’s children from physical harm. Fathers understand somehow intuitively that children need to roughhouse and wrestle, even if it means getting hurt. But they are often overruled.

Considering the evidence presented in The Coddling of the American Mind, it would seem mothers are getting their way more of the time. Children are no longer allowed the same kind of free play and structured risk-taking enjoyed by previous generations. While this approach has resulted in fewer accidental deaths, it has also led to rising anxiety and diminishing self-reliance. Earlier generations of college students once protested for more free speech; now they demand trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Mary Eberstadt traces the decline of fatherhood and the family back to the launch of the birth control pill in the 1960’s, certainly a monumental development. But perhaps it is time for the feminist movement to consider how some of their tactics and messaging may have discouraged men from taking responsibility. When men constantly hear “women don’t need you; we can do everything just as good as men,” they will more often than not simply shrug their shoulders and fade into the background. Respect was historically the price men were paid for the immense responsibilities they shouldered on behalf of the family. Why assume this burden in the first place when the only rewards are insults and mockery?

Men, and especially fathers, should be respected and celebrated, alongside women and mothers. The unique needs of boys and men should be acknowledged in our schools, our churches, and our workplaces.

Of course, there is a limit to this course correction. Celebration of masculinity should never be used to denigrate femininity. Male or female, each of us contains both a masculine and a feminine nature, the exact balance of which may change over time. Recall the Chinese yin yang symbol. Yang represents the masculine, the orderly, and the known; while yin symbolizes the feminine, the chaotic, and the unknown. Though opposites, yin and yang are also complementary, relying on each other for their very existence.

I don’t want to live in a world where my sons are coddled, mocked, or ignored, but I also don’t want to live in a world plagued by sexism and male chauvinism. Masculinity itself is not “toxic,” but by repressing the healthy expression of masculinity, we force it into such unproductive channels as violence and machismo.

As a culture, we have grown to associate masculinity with the negative effects of its excess. However, femininity is not without its dangers; it can become “toxic” as well. Consider the storybook characters of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. Sleeping Beauty’s parents sought to shield her from all danger, thus their refusal to invite the Evil Queen to her baptism. But Maleficent was not to be thwarted; her revenge was to cause the princess to fall into a deep sleep, just at the point when she should have been reaching maturity. Likewise, Rapunzel’s mother locked her away in a tower.

The rise of what we may accurately call the “nanny state” shows that government need not wear a masculine guise to become tyrannical. Likewise, the fact that Anthony Fauci and Gavin Newsom and Joe Biden happen to possess Y chromosomes has not kept them from embodying and encouraging the worst of the “feminine” vices – lethargy, neuroticism, and cowardice.

Here we now sit – asleep in our towers, walled off from others, admonished not to work or play or worship or gather. It’s okay, we are told; the government will take care of us.

And yet we all – men and women – desire something more, some greater purpose than mere survival to give our lives meaning. Only by returning to the traditionally masculine virtues of fortitude and perseverance and responsibility can we free ourselves from the grip of the nanny state.

Personal Responsibility and the Parable of the Talents

Yesterday’s Gospel was the Parable of the Talents, as described in the Book of Matthew. For those unfamiliar with the story, it begins with a master who entrusts his servants with his property before embarking on a long journey. To the first servant he gives five talents, roughly equivalent to twenty years’ wages. To the second he gives two, and to the third only one.

The first two laborers invested their talents, doubling their value. When the master returned, he was very pleased with them, declaring to each: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”

But the third servant buried his talent in the ground. When his turn came, he said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’

The master is unsparing in his reply:

‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.  So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matthew 25: 26 – 30

First, a word about the context of this parable. The disciples have just asked Jesus for signs of the End Times. Jesus begins by warning them against false prophets and complacency. He explains that there will be signs of the Second Coming, just as a fig tree produces signs of its coming fruit. Yet He cautions them that no one but the Father knows the day or the hour, thus the need for vigilance.

The Parable of the Talents is followed by a reminder to love our neighbor, lest Christ on the last day declare: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me (Matthew 25: 41-43).”

This sermon seems to contain two contradictory messages. On the one hand, we are called to make use of the talents God has given us, a teaching which emphasizes personal responsibility. Yet we are also called to feed, clothe, and minister to the least among us, a teaching of social responsibility. We are reminded that failing to care for our neighbors is no less serious than failing to do so for Jesus.

The obvious answer to this dilemma is that we are both responsible for ourselves and for others. At times we need more reminding of the former, at others the latter. We should always strive to see Jesus in the face of every friend, every stranger, every person in need. But the Parable of the Talents serves as a timely reminder that we must also take responsibility for our own lives, for the gifts we have been given.

The first question a modern critic is likely to ask in reviewing the Parable of the Talents is: why were the servants given different amounts in the first place? Eight talents were distributed to three servants. Instead of a 5-2-1 breakdown, why not give each servant two and two-thirds?

The master in the parable gives his servants different amounts based on their different abilities. While this seems unfair at first glance, we can find plenty of similar examples in the modern day. Lebron James averaged over 34 minutes per game in the 2020 season, while Alex Caruso averaged 18.4. James was given more opportunities to contribute to the team’s success, and thus more was expected of him. However, Alex Caruso was still required to do his part. At the end of the season, head coach Frank Vogel could look at both players and say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

In almost every workplace, those with greater skills and/or experience are given greater responsibilities. Writer Nassim Taleb references the Parable of the Talents repeatedly in his book The Black Swan. He notes that certain fields are dominated by a few high-achieving individuals at the top: book sales, record labels, and professional sports to name just a few. Others, like dentistry, are more evenly distributed.

Yet there are certain fields where results are not so easily measured in dollars and cents, wins and losses. In these settings, a lack of “skin in the game” can lead to a mismatch between one’s skills and one’s responsibilities, most notably government bureaucracies and academia. In these situations, it really is unfair that certain people are given more than their abilities would otherwise dictate.

Putting these exceptions aside, however, we can generalize the following: “People vary greatly in their abilities. To whom much is given, so too much is expected,” with the caveat that: “Everyone is given something, and thus something is expected of everyone.”

The third servant is particularly instructive on this last point. A Marxist would advise him to overthrow the other two, and the master; then redistribute all the talents throughout the land so that everyone could be equal. But one does not have to be a Marxist to get this parable wrong.

Millions of Americans today believe themselves to be the victims of an unfair system, for no other reason than their race, sex, or sexual orientation. They see that they have not been given as much as others have, others whom left-wing critics denounce as “privileged.”

Yet simply living in the United States of America entails a certain level of opportunity, the chance to make the most of the talents one has been given. How can someone demand more from society in good conscience when he won’t take advantage of the opportunities he already has?

In the parable, the third servant claims he was too afraid to lose what he had been given, too afraid to take the risk. But risk-taking is necessary in any profession, as it is necessary in all of our lives. He who would enjoy the rewards must take the risks.

Fear is no excuse for failing to utilize one’s talents, and neither is inequality, or perceived victimhood. One could imagine the third servant today whining that he had been given less than the other two. I expect the master’s fury would have been even greater in this instance.

Everyone has talent, though our talents differ in degree and in kind. If your talent is business, invest your money wisely and honestly so that others might be employed. If your talent is to sing, then sing loudly from the rooftops, and let your voice always glorify the Lord. Don’t bury your talents in the sand for fear of failure; this sort of behavior is not pleasing to God. Even those at the bottom have a responsibility to put their gifts to use, lest they be judged harshly.

Social and economic hierarchies have always existed, and will continue to exist to some degree as a result of naturally-occurring variation. We should strive to create a system not where everyone is equal in terms of “having the same,” but rather one in which everyone has the chance to more fully develop their talents and utilize them for the common good.

As the broader context of this reading suggests, we must put our talents to use not simply for our own advancement, but for the benefit of God, our heavenly Master, who cares for the poor and the sick. There are people in this world living in such dire circumstances that they must be fed, clothed, and sheltered before they can better develop their own gifts. But there are others who would benefit much more from a sharp kick to the rear than another handout or excuse.

Trump vs. Biden: Who Do You Want Flying the Plane?

This is the question Americans should be asking themselves right now; that is, aside from the fifty million who have already voted. Which of these two men – both in their seventies, both unafraid to go on the attack, and yet with two very different visions for America – do you want flying the plane at this particular moment in history?

This election is not about the offensive comments Trump made in an Access Hollywood tape in 2005. It’s not about the fact that Biden plagiarized his way through law school and lied about his academic record, forcing him to drop out of his first presidential campaign in 1988. We now have 2020 Trump and 2020 Biden. There are no realistic alternatives at this point; like it or not, these are the choices.

The Pandemic

Of course, the biggest political boon to the Democrats has been the COVID-19 pandemic; in the words of Jane Fonda it was a “gift from God.” Democrats have built their entire campaign around the pandemic, requiring them to make it seem as bad as possible, death and case numbers as large as possible, and economic and social life as miserable as possible, all in the hopes that Republicans will be hurt. They have tried to pin each one of the 220,000 U.S. COVID deaths on President Trump, suggesting that all 220,000 would still be alive were it not for his ineptitude.

This is patently absurd. The pandemic was certainly not handled perfectly, hindsight being “2020.” In the final debate, Trump noted that even Anthony Fauci was downplaying the threat and discouraging masks as late as March. The biggest credible charge Democrats have against Trump is that he was briefed on the disease’s severity in January, and did not communicate this to the American people. In the VP debate, Kamala Harris suggested that Americans could have used this time to “prepare”… but by doing what exactly? Buying more toilet paper? Shutting down two months earlier?

We cannot ignore the role of the media in all of this. If Barack Obama were still president, they would have been touting the “2 million American lives saved.” Recall that in late March some models were predicting 2.2 million deaths, with 200,000 presented as a “best case scenario.”

Far from winning on this issue in the final debate, Biden came across as incredibly pessimistic. To hear Biden tell it, there is no end in sight, not even a glimmer of the “old normal” at the end of this long tunnel. He remained open to future lockdowns, especially of areas where cases are rising. In Biden’s words, Americans are facing a “dark winter.”

Trump, by contrast, sounded optimistic on America’s chances of recovering from COVID-19, both medically and economically. Having personally survived the disease thanks in part to new therapeutics, he reassured Americans that we know a lot more about the coronavirus than we did last spring. Trump returned to a familiar refrain that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease,” something that likely rings true to the millions of Americans suffering from mental and other health-related issues, their lives thrown into chaos by school closures.

How bizarre and telling that after insisting upon the need for a vaccine, liberals and media elites are so uninterested in the fact that one may be just weeks away. Andrew Cuomo is even suggesting (on the basis of no evidence) that Americans should not trust a vaccine that is developed under the Trump administration. Behavior like this only reveals the extent to which the COVID media hysteria has been about damaging Trump.

Foreign Policy

While Biden did not quite appear to be a bumbling dementia patient for the entire debate, Thursday was not a good night for him, eliciting some rather bizarre statements. In criticizing Trump for working with Kim Jong-un to avoid nuclear war, Biden claimed America “had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded Europe.” This is untrue; FDR was president at the time and under no illusions about the Nazis. Obama was praised for making a (very bad) nuclear deal with Iran, an oppressive regime and state-sponsor of terrorism.

While I am personally disgusted by the North Korean regime – likely the most totalitarian state in the world – I am also glad that we did not go to war with them. In fact, we haven’t gone to war with any new adversaries under Trump’s presidency, the first time this has happened since Eisenhower. We did however, defeat ISIS — a threat that emerged after Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq and mishandling of the civil war in Syria.

We cannot forget that the North Korean regime only survives because of support from China, a country that in this and so many other ways is no friend of the United States.

This brings me to the elephant in the room: recent revelations about Hunter Biden suggesting massive corruption and unethical behavior at the very least. As the New York Post recently reported:  

Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to emails obtained by The Post.

The never-before-revealed meeting is mentioned in a message of appreciation that Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma, allegedly sent Hunter Biden on April 17, 2015, about a year after Hunter joined the Burisma board at a reported salary of up to $50,000 a month.

“Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure,” the email reads.

An earlier email from May 2014 also shows Pozharskyi, reportedly Burisma’s No. 3 exec, asking Hunter for “advice on how you could use your influence” on the company’s behalf.

The blockbuster correspondence — which flies in the face of Joe Biden’s claim that he’s “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings” — is contained in a massive trove of data recovered from a laptop computer.

Hunter Biden also received 3.5 million dollars from Yelena Baturina, the richest woman in Russia and wife of the former mayor of Moscow, to help gain access to American markets. Several members of Biden’s family have grown rich trading off of his name. This is incredibly relevant to the election for multiple reasons. While the issue obviously speaks to Biden’s character, it is also concerning that hostile regimes like Russia and China might be able to use this leverage to get Biden to enact policies in their favor, to the detriment of average Americans.

The Biden campaign is literally trying to run the clock out on this story, a strategy that can only work with the help of a totally compliant and dishonest media. Big Tech recently obliged the Biden campaign by killing the Post story on twitter and suspending their entire account, while Facebook also slowed traffic to the story. The media is so desperate to avoid a repeat of 2016 that they have dropped even the façade of objectivity in their reporting.

Millions of Americans are waking up to the fact that Trump was impeached for something Biden allowed and that his son did… colluding with foreign governments in an apparent “pay-for-play” scheme and then lying about it shamelessly. Biden repeated the debunked claim that the whole Hunter Biden laptop story was just Russian disinformation… something you can apparently do these days with no supporting evidence.  On the contrary, Trump cited his record of getting NATO allies to contribute more to the common defense, an alliance that mainly exists to guard against Russian aggression.

Domestic Issues

Biden has likely grown so accustomed to the kind media treatment that he now believes he can spout outright lies with impunity and won’t be called on it. In the debate, he repeatedly claimed that he was never against fracking, despite video evidence to the contrary. Whether this was enough for the good people of Pennsylvania who care about this issue, Biden went on to commit his biggest unforced error of the night, claiming his goal would be to get rid of the oil industry. As any rational thinker knows, this can’t happen without destroying millions of jobs, eroding the foundation of our economy, and sacrificing our hard-fought energy independence.

On the economy, Biden had little more than recycled platitudes from the 90’s. When he started talking about average Americans sitting around their kitchen tables wondering if they could afford new tires that month, I half expected him to bring up the high cost of VCR’s. Trump called him out on it hard as empty politician-speak. Biden’s effort to connect with the American voter by referencing the “kitchen table” and the “empty chair” at the dinner table fell incredibly flat. It is also hard to imagine how raising taxes or upping the minimum wage would help small businesses right now who are currently struggling to make ends meet, a point Trump again hammered him on.

Demeanor

Biden was visibly angry by the one-hour mark. Either his medication was wearing off or the seventy-eight-year-old was simply wearing out after an hour and a half of actual work. The media likes to present Biden as a foil for Trump’s abrasive personality, but Biden has never been a “nice guy.” He gets incredibly hostile whenever the issue of his son is brought up. At a town hall, he even called an average citizen a “damn liar” and challenged him to an IQ test. He lashes out in the same way to journalists, as if the mere question of impropriety is an unwarranted attack.

As the debate wore on, Biden seemed increasingly unfocused and unhinged. At one point he called Trump a racist Abraham Lincoln. He claimed he only couldn’t do immigration or criminal justice reform in his eight years as Vice President because Obama was president and there were Republicans in Congress. To this, Trump reminded him that you have to persuade people. You have to negotiate.

Biden tellingly fell back on his standard interjection: “C’mon, man,” a crutch he uses whenever he gets frustrated. There were even accusations of “malarkey,” a clear sign that Biden has nothing substantive left to say.

By contrast, Trump was calm but tough, complimenting the moderator for her performance but routinely raising a finger to demand a response. He repeated his promise to replace Obamacare with something better that would cover pre-existing conditions.

Trump attempted to pin the cages at the border on the Obama/Biden administration, repeatedly asking “who built the cages, Joe?” This issue is probably Trump’s biggest liability among suburban women; more importantly, it does have important humanitarian implications. No one wants to see parents separated from their children. But it is also true that some adults were “renting” children from other families to gain entry to the U.S., hoping to take advantage of the catch-and-release policy that Trump ended. See more evidence of this here and here.

Heaven and earth must be moved to reunite the 500+ children to their families, but the fact remains… this election is about who we want flying the plane right now, not the mistakes of the past.

On race, Trump passed on a chance to empathize with Black parents who reportedly must have “the talk” with their children about how to behave in police encounters. Based on my twitter feed at least, this is a talk that many white men receive as well… keep both hands on the steering wheel and address the officer with “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”

Trump is no Bill Clinton. I think he does feel the pain of many average Americans, but he has no interest in saying so for political gain. He is not a Counselor-in-Chief, but rather a Commander-in-Chief. So instead Trump touted his record of helping the Black community through record pre-pandemic employment levels, full funding of HBCU’s, criminal justice reform, and Tim Scott’s plan to create opportunity zones.

Trump did not attempt to walk back his criticism of BLM, referencing their anti-cop chant of “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon.” But while almost every major corporation has rushed to embrace the BLM movement, Trump has attempted to reach out to middle class African-Americans and Latinos likely tiring of the constant protests and now-routine violence. Trump has tried to address the material concerns of Black Americans without pandering to a blatantly political and quasi-Marxist group… one that has received millions of dollars in donations without improving the material condition of a single Black American.

By the end of the debate, Biden was checking his watch, with his campaign staffers likely counting down the seconds.

Unlike Mike Pence, who brilliantly concluded his debate performance with a heartfelt call to unity, Trump missed a chance to do so in his last question. He mentioned how Democrats had been coming to him to work together on issues before the pandemic hit and election season started heating up. Trump’s performance was sharp and effective, but not necessarily “presidential” or unifying. But at this point, does it really matter?

By now, we know who Trump is. He is a bold but flawed man: one who tends to take things personally, though he has recently shown some capacity for self-deprecation. Trump built a business empire on the basis of his own image: his brand, his name. It should be no surprise, then, that he more often sells himself as the solution rather than detailing overly-specific policies.

Again, imagine you are stepping onto a plane. Who do you want in the pilot’s seat: the guy with the detailed knowledge of aerodynamics and a plan that looks good on paper? Or the one with the right experience, the right instincts — someone who can take advice when needed, but also commit to a decision when necessary?

Would you even get on a bus, much less a plane, being piloted by Joe Biden? By electing a Biden administration, voters have no idea who would even be in the driver’s seat: Kamala Harris? Nancy Pelosi? The DNC? The extreme, progressive left wing of the Democratic Party? BLM? Antifa?

One thing is for sure – it would not be Joe Biden, not alone anyway. Between his old age, visibly declining cognitive faculties, history of aneurisms, and now the Hunter Biden scandal, Biden would almost certainly not complete even one four-year term as Commander-in-Chief. It was an insult to the American people and electoral malpractice for the Democrats to even put him forward as their candidate, as Democrats talk brazenly of using the 25th Amendment to replace him. It was dereliction of duty on the part of the media not to challenge Biden in any serious sort of way, as they should for any candidate seeking the highest office in the land.

You don’t have to love the character of the pilot flying your plane, or agree with all of his past actions; you just have trust that he is capable of getting you safely to your desired destination. There are stormy skies up ahead; we need a strong and capable leader to guide us. The final presidential debate was a clear win for Donald Trump, as he proved himself up to the task.

Do Women Need Equal Treatment or Special Treatment?

Midway through the Vice Presidential debate, it was already obvious how the media was going to spin it. The narrative was predetermined: all Mike Pence had to do was challenge Kamala Harris (a guarantee considering the nature of the event, a debate), and they could accuse him of sexist bullying, or – to use a word that has no place in any self-respecting woman’s vocabulary – “mansplaining.” Harris was able to deploy her obviously rehearsed response to Pence’s comparable mild interruption: “I’m speaking.” She delivered this brave assertion of feminist self-confidence with the joyless snark of everyone’s least favorite substitute teacher, garnering instant praise and adulation.

Actor Mark Ruffalo obliged with one of the first narrative-supporting tweets:

So now a white man debating a woman “of color” is both misogynist and white supremacist. This despite the fact that Harris actually got the same amount of time as Pence by most accounts.

Other tweets, like this one from Brittany Johnstone focused on the evening’s racial dynamic:

White women in 2020 are like the kulaks of 1930 – just the right blend of “privileged” and “oppressed” to be an easy object of scorn. A similar sentiment was recently expressed in a viral article by Leigh Stein entitled “The End of the Girlboss Is Here.” The article tells the story of Sophia Amoruso, CEO of fashion site Nasty Gal, who released a memoir by that name. Amoruso did not seem to think that women needed special treatment, nor that it was necessarily remarkable to see them in positions of power. She asked, “Is 2014 a new era of feminism where we don’t have to talk about it? I don’t know, but I want to pretend that it is.”

Some might have praised Amoruso’s honesty and her refusal to see her success in a political light. But for Stein, the brief era of Girlboss couldn’t end quickly enough:

The white girlboss, and so many of them were white, sat at the unique intersection of oppression and privilege. She saw gender inequality everywhere she looked; this gave her something to wage war against. Racial inequality was never really on her radar. That was someone else’s problem to solve.

Welcome to intersectional feminism, where simply being a woman is no longer enough. In the woke moral universe, one’s moral standing is inversely correlated to one’s privilege, increasing only to the extent that one is percieved as victimized. Ironically, this system tends to hurt women, who seem to rank pretty low compared to other oppressed groups.

Almost any time there is a conflict between women and another group said to be oppressed – say, Muslims or trans people – the rights and safety of women are quickly disregarded. In the U.K., authorities ignored evidence of Pakistani rape gangs preying on lower-income white girls, all because the perpetrators were of Asian origin. To investigate accusations of rape against these men would have meant opening themselves up to accusations of racism and Islamophobia. And so, for years, they did nothing. At least fourteen hundred girls suffered for their cowardice.

The conflict between women’s rights and the trans agenda has recently come to light, best illustrated in the attempted cancellation of beloved author J.K. Rowling. I say the trans agenda and not trans individuals because most of the people raising a fuss over issues like letting trans women into women’s spaces are not trans themselves. Are biological women entitled to their own dressing rooms, prisons, and sports leagues? According to the woke, no. All it takes to be a woman is simply the feeling that one is a woman. For anyone to deny that trans women are women is to invite accusations of transphobia. All this from the party of science.

Even lesbians are not let off the hook; their refusal to consider trans women as potential romantic partners makes them transphobic in the eyes of some (“Some women have penises. If you won’t sleep with them you’re transphobic.”)

But let us put aside, for the moment, issues of race, trans/cis, and sexual orientation to return to the original question: do women need equal treatment or special treatment?

When I play basketball with my kids, I go easy on them. With my oldest son, I can now play at about 80% and still have a good game. Why? Because my skills in this area are superior to his. Because I am an adult and he is a child. He will inevitably be stronger than me one day, and at this point I will no longer have to hold back. This will be a milestone moment, a sign of respect. Anyone who has ever been on a team so bad that the other side instituted something like a “five pass rule” before a shot knows that it doesn’t feel good. If you are a full-grown adult and we are competing in something, I do not want you to hold back. To do so would be insulting to my abilities and my intelligence.

When women compete with men – say, in the context of a debate – we should only ask to be judged by an equal (not a special) standard.

Now, it’s important to remember that not everything in life is a competition. Throughout our history, men and women have also had to cooperate. If anything, men compete more against other men for resources and status, while women compete against other women for superior mates. This pattern applies to many other species as well, as Matt Ridley describes in The Red Queen. Simply making this observation should not be taken as sexist, though it often is.

One problem in today’s society is that women have been trained to compete with men so much that we have forgotten how to cooperate. This dynamic is based on two fundamental truths: 1. Men and women are biologically and (to a smaller degree) psychologically different. 2. These differences are complementary, meaning society needs both. In the context of the family, children certainly do.

How remarkable – how beautiful – that the same sex differences that can cause so much conflict (see: every Jane Austen novel or Shakespearean play) also provide the key to our collective success when properly channeled. How sad that we can no longer appreciate it.

I would argue that if such a thing as “male privilege” exists, then so too does female privilege. Certain things are easier, and others harder, depending on your sex. For women, the biggest sex-imbalanced challenge is safety. Considering the fact that women have on average only half the lower body strength and thirty percent of the upper body strength of men (and that men commit the vast majority of all rapes) and it is clear that women will always need to take certain safety precautions. There are also certain stereotypes that women have to confront, which is only to say that they must take the time to prove them untrue, not that they are insurmountable.

But being a woman carries certain privileges as well. In certain situations, strangers are nicer to you. You are not immediately assessed as threatening. You can talk to someone of the opposite sex in a social setting and even make the first move without coming across as “creepy.” You can express a fuller range of emotion without having your sexuality or virtue called into question.

While men could theoretically set up a Handmaid’s Tale-style dystopia in which they controlled everything – they are, after all, physically stronger – they don’t usually do so, especially not here in the West. Instead we have classically liberal notions of equality along with the vestiges of chivalry, a code of ethics whereby men channel their superior physical strength and risk-taking nature towards the service of women and children.

I’ll never forget how a male colleague volunteered to give me his classroom when I was pregnant with my youngest son. He rolled his materials from class to class on a cart for an entire year for my sake, despite the fact that we were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I will always appreciate this act of sacrifice and generosity.

When I got a flat tire in the faculty parking lot, a male teacher helped me get my car to the autobody class where another male teacher enlisted his male students to replace it, free of charge. There are countless other stories like this… you get the idea. Men need women and women need men. This is not a bad thing, but rather a beautiful one.

In his book The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray points out that women have historically had one lopsided power over men: the ability to drive them crazy with desire. Women in general just aren’t as susceptible to male charms that we will risk life and limb to obtain their company. There’s a reason that turkey hunters call in male gobblers by pretending to be females in heat. There’s a reason males of many species devote precious bodily resources to seemingly pointless ornamentation (bright feathers, large antlers, etc.): they would rather die trying to attract a mate than fail to reproduce. Students of history can find ample evidence of powerful men taking crazy risks to obtain the female companion of their choice; just consider how Henry VIII broke his kingdom away from the Catholic Church, all so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

Perhaps Kamala Harris too exercised this power when she used her relationship with corrupt San Francisco mayor Willie Brown to jumpstart her political career. Either way, it makes no sense for her to cry sexism or racism now, when both aspects of her identity have been a boon to her career and not a hindrance to it, as I have previously argued.

To conclude, we cannot ignore sex differences between men and women, or how they have shaped our interactions over the thousands of years of our evolutionary history. In almost every culture prior to about a hundred years ago, men have been the ones in positions of political authority. Notable exceptions like Catherine the Great and Chinese empress Cixi only prove the rule by their relative rarity. Going back to the ancient Greeks and likely further, governance was considered part of the male domain. This is not to say that women did not have a role in political society: as the ones primarily raising and educating children, they had the important power to shape future citizens.

Starting around the eighteenth century, women began to demand full political participation and legal equality. The right of women to vote in this country was only gained in 1920, a mere century ago. Since then, women have made impressive inroads into almost all branches and levels of governance, the last remaining hurdle being the presidency.

If a woman and a man meet on the street, chivalry may compel him to hold the door open for her, and good for him if it does. But when a woman throws her hat into the political or corporate arena, she should expect nothing more and nothing less than equal treatment. She should be ready to advocate for herself if she does not get it. Presuming that women need special protection or advocacy against “mansplaining” is nothing short of condescending. Women like Kamala Harris who have built their careers by playing political hardball, only to suddenly cry “sexism” when they find themselves on the receiving end, are guilty of trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Kamala Harris Privilege

There are many things to know about Kamala Harris. Americans will take a closer look at the former presidential contender tonight, as she debates Vice President Mike Pence. But in this post, I’d like to start with her unique background. Most Americans will be surprised to find Kamala Harris among the most elite-pedigreed candidates to run for high national office. She is truly the 1% of the 1%.

Per Kamala’s father, she is descended from a notorious slave owner in Jamaica. Donald Harris, a former economics professor at Stanford, wrote: “My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (née Christiana Brown), descendant of Hamilton Brown, who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town.” Hamilton owned over 1,100 slaves over the years, including some as young as one month old.

Per Kamala’s mother, she is a member of the highest caste in India. In the words of Shyamala Harris (now deceased): “In Indian society, we go by birth. We are Brahmins, that is the top caste. Please do not confuse this with class, which is only about money. For Brahmins, the bloodline is the most important. My family, named Gopalan, goes back more than 1,000 years.”

Kamala’s parents (both with elite backgrounds) met at U.C. Berkley (an elite institution) in the 1960’s. Far from being limited by race or gender, Kamala benefited from affirmative action and used her sex appeal as a woman to jumpstart her political career. In law school, Kamala participated in the Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP) where she received free tutoring and course outlines unavailable to other students. Her relationship with Willie Brown, a married man thirty years her senior, is well-documented. As the speaker of the state Assembly, Brown named Harris to well-paid posts on the California Medical Assistance Commission and Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. In these roles, she received lots of tax-payer money for very little work. As mayor of San Francisco, Brown supported her district attorney campaign in 2003. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016.

And yet if Kamala Harris becomes Vice President, her success will be touted as a win for the disadvantaged and underprivileged. Why? Because according to post-colonialism and intersectional feminism, her group identity as a Black woman trumps the numerous privileges in her individual background (elite parents, good looks, preferential treatment).

I am not blaming Kamala for her privileged past. She should be judged on her own merits, just like everyone else. Voters should consider, for example, the fact that Harris abused her power in the politically-motivated prosecution of David Daleidan, the Pro-Life activist who secretly recorded Planned Parenthood employees nonchalantly discussing the sale of aborted baby parts. They may also find it relevant that, as District Attorney of California, she fought to keep nonviolent offenders locked up in spite of extremely overcrowded prisons, a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

But Harris does not seem to have many deep convictions, aside from the desire for power and willingness to do whatever it takes to get it. She accused Biden of racism in a primary debate for opposing bussing, but then laughed off the matter after accepting his offer to run as Vice President. After representing the worst of prosecutorial excess as California’s District Attorney, she twice promoted a fund to help bail out the violent criminals burning down Kenosha, including known sex offenders.

I don’t care whether Kamala Harris can rock a pair of Timberlands or whether she thinks Tupac is still alive. I don’t care that she is a woman, or that she identifies as Black. I care about her record (which is disturbing, to say the least) and apparent lack of principles. With a visibly frail Biden well into his seventies, this woman could well become President of the United States, and sooner than you might think.

I pray to God she doesn’t.

Memento Mori and Be Not Afraid

October is paradoxically both a favorite month for many and also a time typically associated with fear and death. Leaves turn orange, gold, and crimson before falling to the ground to shrivel and decay. The faint chill lacing the morning and evening air is a clear warning that summer, with all its easy lethargy, is over. We know in our bones what this means, despite modern technology’s insulating effects: life is about to get harder, days shorter, survival less certain.

And yet there is an undeniable beauty in the dying. The end of the month brings Halloween, a holiday based in part on the Celtic festival of Samhain – a disorienting, ambiguous time when the traditional boundaries between worlds could more easily be crossed. For Catholics, this became the night before All Saint’s Day, or “All Hallows Eve” – saints by definition being both deceased in body and spiritually present in heaven. The following day is All Souls Day, when we pray especially for dead loved ones. It is a time to memento mori (remember your mortality) and to ask “considering that I must die, how ought I to live?”

We may be the first culture in history to deny the basic fact of our mortality. The most cursory of glances at American life in 2020 reveals that we have forgotten how to live. Sooner or later, death comes for us all, no matter how wealthy or powerful. No one is immune from this most human of conditions. Illness and old age are but its precursors. We were recently reminded of this yet again when it was revealed that President Trump tested positive or COVID-19.

I feared for the president and the country when I heard President Trump was flying to Walter Reed, as he checks a lot of high-risk boxes. Like millions of others, I prayed for his good health. This Saturday, I was very happy to hear he was doing better, though he is clearly not out of the woods yet.

I was annoyed but not surprised by the media reaction. Many leftist individuals and outlets could not restrain their schadenfreude at the president’s diagnosis. This is what you get, they said, in more or less words. Serves you right for not “taking the virus seriously.” Now they are attempting to present Trump’s Rose Garden announcement of Judge Barrett as needlessly reckless, running tape of people talking and hugging and shaking hands (The horror! Pearl clutch! Gasp!). 

But I’d rather live in a world where people talk and hug and shake hands and even spread germs on occasion than a sterile, controlled, “safe” world… where people still spread germs (though perhaps more slowly), where they still get sick and still get old and ultimately, inevitably die.

The media did not cover the recent COVID diagnosis of Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam (a Democrat) with near the same level of scorn or hysteria. Millions of people have contracted this disease, many of whom followed all the recommended steps and precautions. You can wear a mask and maintain a “social distance” of six feet and avoid crowded areas, but unless you are prepared to live in a completely self-contained, total isolation bunker, you can still catch this virus and you can still get sick from it.

If you choose to stay home or take other steps to minimize risk, that is your freedom and your right. But with hospitals in no immediate danger of being overwhelmed, by what logic do you get to tell others to do the same? 

The “new normal” has never become normal for me. Every day begins a new struggle to adjust to a world that has forgotten such fundamental truths. It is not normal to blame people for getting sick. It is not normal to pretend we can do this forever, either maximal prevention (a short-term stalling tactic at best) or a vaccine (a long-term strategy, if it ever gets here).

It would be far better to focus on treatment and improved overall health. COVID-19 is here to stay. We could have done more to slow its spread in our country, but it would have gotten here eventually. Now it’s going to be similar to the common cold; we’re all likely to get it, eventually. Even so, CDC statistics show that it is no more deadly than seasonal influenza for younger Americans. For those under 49, survival rates are 99.997%. Those 50 to 69 have a 99.5 percent chance of surviving COVID, while for those over 70 – a long life by historical standards – it’s still 94.6%, and likely to increase with better treatments.

Considering these numbers, how ought we to respond to COVID?

To put it briefly, we should resume our normal lives. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, we implemented a few sensible (and some unnecessary) restrictions and regulations, and then more or less got back to work. To do less, our leaders cautioned, would be to “let the terrorists win.” During the Cold War, we faced the challenge of nuclear annihilation not with despair but with action – again, some sensible and some ill-advised, but all with a certain level of resolve. In World War II, we took the threat of Nazism and Japanese aggression incredibly seriously… so seriously that we sacrificed over 400,000 American lives to stop them.

The majority of us are called to live normal lives, lives as filled with kindness and compassion and purpose as possible. Our lives are not insignificant in their ordinariness, assuming we live them well.

But some of us are called to heroism. In the Revolutionary War, Nathan Hale’s only regret was that he had “but one life to lose” for his country. A hero is someone who shoulders the risks of others while refusing to hoard their rewards. Heroes display all the traditional virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, and courage, virtues our depraved culture has almost completely forgotten. In their place we have “niceness” and “safety,” which are really fake virtues that prevent the development of others.

In this extra spooky election-year October, many Americans are more afraid that their side will lose the upcoming election than they are of catching COVID. I put myself squarely in this former camp. But like fear of death, fear of political defeat can become paralyzing, depressing, and if we let it soul-destroying.

The ancients of every civilization knew better, be they Greek, Indian, and Chinese. So too did early Christians. Saint Augustine wrote City of God as the Roman Empire was crumbling around him. He didn’t know then that five centuries of darkness and destruction would follow. Still, he urged Christians to focus on building the City of God: certain, fulfilling, and everlasting, not the City of Man: uncertain, unfulfilling, and temporary. Every empire, every polity will in time prove itself just as mortal, just as fleeting, as every human life. Politics, while often necessary, is thus a poor focus of our concern. Even if America crumbles, our true home is in heaven and we will not be fully happy until we get there. 

In the meantime, memento mori, and Happy Fall.

How Tocqueville Predicted Cancel Culture and Political Correctness

Perhaps it is no surprise that the best characterization of American life comes to us via an outsider: the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who published Democracy in America in 1835. Outsiders have a way of noticing unique and bizarre aspects of society that can seem “normal” to those who live there. We are all strange in our own way, but we cannot see our strangeness. As a man of the Enlightenment and self-described leftist, Tocqueville shared enough of a philosophical foundation with his American counterparts to understand where they were coming from, but with enough distance to see where their path had diverged from that of Europe. Like Solzhenitsyn in the 1970’s, Tocqueville had the perfect vantage point from which to undertake his sociological study.

What’s more surprising to me is just how well someone writing in the 1830’s could foresee the events of 2020, almost two hundred years before they occurred. This suggests that many of our present problems are not recent in their origin. Rather, they evince dangers that have always been present to some degree, perhaps inherent in our own brand of democracy. Only now they are reaching new levels of absurdity.

Both a critic and admirer of America, Tocqueville has remained eminently quotable. This, despite the fact that most people have not waded through Democracy in America in its entirety (I myself have not). Some popular ones: “America is great because she is good.” Here Tocqueville locates the source of America’s strength in the particular religiosity of its people. America was then experiencing the Second Great Awakening, as Europe continued its slow drift toward secularism. Tocqueville understood that: “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”

Tocqueville also said: “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” Yep.

And: “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”

Stop it, Alexis. It hurts us.

But I would like to draw the reader’s attention to these two, longer passages, which are of particular interest considering recent debates over freedom of speech. Consider this first passage, in which Tocqueville describes what we today might call “cancel culture”:

Tyranny in democratic republics does not proceed in the same way, however. It ignores the body and goes straight for the soul. The master no longer says: You will think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do. You may keep your life, your property, and everything else. But from this day forth you shall be as a stranger among us. You will retain your civic privileges, but they will be of no use to you. For if you seek the votes of your fellow citizens, they will withhold them, and if you seek only their esteem, they will feign to refuse even that. You will remain among men, but you will forfeit your rights to humanity. When you approach your fellow creatures, they will shun you as one who is impure. And even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they, too, be shunned in turn. Go in peace, I will not take your life, but the life I leave you with is worse than death.

We are all imperfect. We all make mistakes. What strikes me today is how unforgiving people have become, especially on the internet. Most people have heard the story of Amy Cooper, the infamous “Central Park Karen.” A few months into the quarantine, she was walking her dog when Christian Cooper approached her and insisted she put her dog on a leash. When she refused, he threatened to “do something you’re not going to like,” and proceeded to start calling her dog over with treats. This is all based on a post he later made; see below:

Christian Cooper then began filming the encounter. In the tape, Amy Cooper asks him to stop filming her (he doesn’t). Then she threatens to call the police. His response: “Please do,” something he repeats several times. Again, I don’t know all the details, but he certainly doesn’t sound like someone who’s afraid of the cops. On the video, Amy Cooper proceeds to call the police, stating “an African-American man is threatening me and my dog.”

Now, I don’t know Amy Cooper. I don’t know Christian Cooper. Most of the thousands of people who have shared their opinion on the confrontation don’t know either of its participants. Amy Cooper has been accused of “weaponizing her whiteness,” as if by making that call to NYPD her intention was to initiate a scenario where Christian Cooper was killed by the police. A self-described progressive liberal, Amy Cooper quickly apologized profusely for her actions on social media. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough. She lost her job. She lost her dog. I can’t imagine she’ll ever work again. She just may be the most hated woman in America.

Now Amy Cooper has been charged with making a false report to police, a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to a year in jail. The twitter mob is gleeful at the thought of Amy Cooper being put behind bars. You get the impression that for some people, she could be burnt at the stake and it would not be enough to satisfy their bloodlust. But here’s the kicker… Christian Cooper, the man who posted the video, now says he does not want to see her in jail and will not cooperate with NYPD in their investigation!

A few years ago, this action would have earned almost universal praise. Christian Cooper would have been heralded as having taken the high road, and we would have all celebrated the power of forgiveness. Not today. The twitter mob literally turned on Christian Cooper, saying in so many words that the fate of Amy Cooper was no longer up to him, and that he was part of the problem for not seeking to punish Amy Cooper to the fullest extent of the law. For example:

Again, it is remarkable to me how uncharitable and unforgiving we have become, and this is just one example of many. See this recent article in the Atlantic about how ordinary folks have had their lives ruined.

People cancelling Amy Cooper make the point that there is an uneven power dynamic at play. For a white person, especially a white woman, to accuse a black man is to jeopardize his life. It conjures up memories of Emmett Till, the black teen who was lynched after supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955 (it was later revealed that he did not), or Tom Robinson, protagonist of America’s favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

But today a different power dynamic is also at play, as this other viral video indicates. If Christian Cooper were a white man and Amy Cooper a black woman, we would not be talking about this incident. If anything, she would be seen as the victim. A single bad encounter between a white and a black person should not lead to the black person being killed OR the white person being cancelled, which – though less severe a fate – is still a kind of metaphorical death. (I think most people would rather be dead than be Amy Cooper right now.) We cannot live in peace and harmony with each other if we are always afraid of each other!

Tocqueville also tackles the issue of political correctness, explaining how it can benefit a tyrannical state by making it harder for the people to criticize the government. Too much regulation restrains action by compressing the range of acceptable thought, stupefying the masses into passivity:

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

Now, a few disclaimers. By criticizing cancel culture, I am not arguing that people should not be held accountable for their actions. They should and they must, especially people with actual political power. What we don’t need is the cancelling and public shaming of random civilians: filmed, doxxed, and reported by complete strangers. We should also extend an extra dose of charity to those under the age of eighteen, who (for their own good) should be kept as far away from social media as possible.

Likewise, by criticizing political correctness, I am not disputing the notion that we should adhere to certain norms of civility and sensitivity. There are some views that are unacceptable to express in polite society, such as support for the Nazis. But a difference of opinion should not be presented as a personal attack. We have to be free to at least question the prevailing view, and follow the evidence where it leads.

I recently had a phone conversation with an old friend, who is much further to the left than myself. I told her that while I am conservative in many ways, I also hold certain classically liberal beliefs. For example: the belief that people should not be judged on the basis of race or skin color, that we should tolerate those with different views, and that freedom of speech is of the utmost importance. I agreed with her that it was a good thing that so many white people were waking up to something Black Americans have been saying for so long: that racism does in fact still exist, and that they suffer as a result. However, I explained to her my concern that in the effort to do something truly noble – to eradicate the last vestiges of racism from our society – we risked losing an essential element of our identity, perhaps even our humanity.

We will not achieve racial equality by tearing down statues of the Founding Fathers. We will not achieve racial equality by imposing a totalitarian system wherein one is not allowed to question the methods of the radical Left. We will not achieve racial equality by employing prejudice and discrimination against white people, as some in the “anti-racist” movement have demanded. (See Robin DiAngelo’s claim that all whites are racist, or Ibram Kendi’s call to use discrimination to address discrimination.) While I completely support the goal of racial equality, I object to these proposals on the basis that they are illiberal (even, one might even say, racist). If implemented, they would lead to the end of America as we know it, and not in a good way.

Despite disagreeing about almost everything, my friend and I ended the conversation on a positive note. She remarked on how good it was to have her ideas challenged, whereas most of her other friends just agreed with her and said the exact same things.

And this is exactly why we need freedom of speech: to avoid the echo chamber that results when it is absent. No author or scientist has ever handed over a manuscript to an editor with the directive to “tell me how wonderful I am.” Only by challenging each other’s arguments and assumptions can we better approximate the Truth, which is such a formidable goal that no man can reach it unaided.

In the words of Tocqueville, “Men will not accept truth at the hands of their enemies, and truth is seldom offered to them by their friends.”

Solzhenitsyn’s Critique of the West as a Warning for Our Times

The last few months have been difficult for many Americans. We have watched our nation struggle with a global pandemic, a history of unresolved racism, and violence in the streets. Economic and social turmoil have engendered feelings of helplessness and despair, as events continue to spiral out of control. Many are left doubting the foundations of American democracy, if not western civilization itself. Radical forces are currently seeking the destruction of both. Few seem capable enough or brave enough to defend them.

Years ago, a friend asked me to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address, a task I only recently got around to completing. Like Orwell’s 1984, Solzhenitsyn’s message is bound to resonate no matter the historical circumstance of one’s reading, but perhaps now more than ever.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a famed Russian novelist, philosopher, and outspoken critic of Soviet communism. He served in the Red Army during World War II only to be sent to the gulag for the crime of criticizing Josef Stalin in a private letter. Even after his release, Solzhenitsyn continued to provoke the ire of Soviet authorities. He was exiled from his native land, ultimately taking up refuge in the United States.

Two years later, when Solzhenitsyn stepped up to the podium at Harvard, the audience likely expected an attack on communism delivered by a grateful exile. Instead, they were treated to a blistering critique of their own supposedly more virtuous way of life. Solzhenitsyn prefaced his speech with the warning that “truth seldom is pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.” Consider these seven points with corresponding excerpts from the text. One need not strain to see their relevance to the present day.

  1. The Impossible Trap of Materialism

“The constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”

  1. The Limits of Legalism

“(In the West) the limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad… Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.”

  1. Unlimited Freedom Leads to Decadence and Irresponsibility

“Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror… Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil…

“Mere freedom does not in the least solve all the problems of human life and it even adds a number of new ones…

“The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It’s time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations…”

  1. The Pernicious Role of the Press

“Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none — and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay on in the readers’ memories. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus… we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: “Everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it’s a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.”

  1. The Convergence of Opinion around a Few “Fashions”

“Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges.”

  1. Dissatisfaction with Society and Calls for Socialism

“It is almost universally recognized that the West shows all the world a way to successful economic development… However, many people living in the West are dissatisfied with their own society. They despise it or accuse it of not being up to the level of maturity attained by mankind. A number of such critics turn to socialism, which is a false and dangerous current… Socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind into death…”

  1. A Lack of Courage

“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days…

“No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West until it overcomes its loss of willpower… To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being. Nothing is left, then, but concessions, attempts to gain time, and betrayal.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Soulless materialism, the shirking of responsibility, a pernicious press, a decadent and depraved “mass” culture, a lack of courage. These features have continued to characterize American life in ways that Solzhenitsyn himself likely could not have imagined at the time of this speech (he died in Russia in 2008).

There is an ongoing debate among political philosophers as to whether liberal democracy can withstand the current storm, or if the end is near. The former position can be found in Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, while the latter is best expressed in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.

Solzhenitsyn falls firmly in the latter camp, locating the source of the West’s spiritual crisis at the very root. The humanism of the Renaissance and the secularism of the Enlightenment put man at the center of his own universe, in particular his material needs. Solzhenitsyn decries the folly of making man the “touchstone” of everything on earth — “imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, vanity, and dozens of other defects.” He notes:

We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it. This is the real crisis.

America was founded on the Enlightenment philosophy of the likes of Locke and Montesquieu, who inspired our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Solzhenitsyn acknowledges that at the time of the American founding, a strong sense of religious responsibility remained as a check against unlimited human freedom. However, since then we have discarded every limit on the individual’s ability to satisfy his whims. We have lost a proper understanding of freedom, and society has become increasingly materialistic as a result. Communism too developed out of humanism, taking man’s earthly happiness as its highest aim. In this sense, the competing ideologies of East and West have more in common than either side cares to realize.

But Solzhenitsyn points out that “if humanism were right in declaring that man is born only to be happy, he would not be born to die.” The basic fact of man’s mortality negates it, while pointing to the worthier goal of moral growth. He advises against “attach(ing) oneself to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment,” declaring that “we cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society.” He concludes:

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: We shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but — upward.

In our quest for spiritual renewal, we cannot simply crawl back into the comfort of the Middle Ages, an era as imperfect as our own. What is needed is a great infusion of the spirit, a moral awakening. Man has both a material and spiritual nature, and the needs of both must be met. However, our spiritual needs are always greater, as they pertain to that immortal part of ourselves. As Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” has witnessed a recent resurgence in popularity, a predictable development considering the rising uncertainty and unrest. Based on the rule of St. Benedict, founder of western monasticism, Dreher calls upon orthodox Christians to turn inward, seek support from like-minded families and building “arcs” capable of weathering the coming secular Dark Age.

Dreher was criticized for surrendering mainstream culture too easily, after the publication of The Benedict Option in 2017. However, his book contains practical, common sense advice. We can start by taking back control of our children’s education, fighting pornography, limiting smartphone use, engaging in meaningful work, and building real communities. In the battle for hearts and minds, we should never compromise the truth. Perhaps most importantly, we can pray.

Sometimes it seems like we are fighting against forces so large and powerful that it is hard to maintain hope. For conservatives, it can be difficult and disheartening to accept that we have lost the battle to define our nation’s culture: in the arts, in the schools, and in the courts. But no lie can last forever, no matter how widespread; “the truth will out.”

Forty-two years ago, a Russian dissident called Americans out for our lack of courage. Only by reorienting ourselves to the truth can we rediscover the strength of will and self-confidence we have been missing for far too long.

On Liberty, Order, and Revolution

Two separate but related movements are playing out across our country right now.

The first is a grassroots protest movement driven by widespread outrage over the tragic death of George Floyd. Over the past few weeks, it has taken the form of speeches, peaceful demonstrations, discussions about the persistence of racism in America, and debates over police brutality.

The second is a radical, revolutionary movement seeking nothing less than a complete restructuring of our society and government. Its aim is to tear down America as it currently exists and replace it with something fundamentally different. Members of this movement are not interested in dialogue or the democratic process. They are determined to impose their will through intimidation and force, not debate.

This first group may be considered “liberals,” in both the classical and contemporary sense. They are concerned primarily with liberty and equality, and thus naturally skeptical of order, authority, and hierarchy.

The second group can be considered “radicals,” as they share many features of past radical, revolutionary movements. Unlike liberals, who are generally peaceful and accepting of gradual change, radicals view violence as a necessary and even righteous path to achieving their ends. Some are motivated by the naive belief that getting rid of existing institutions like the police will bring an end to problems inherent to the human conditions (i.e. greed, inequality, scarcity). However, many radicals are less concerned with building a better world than with burning down the old one. The thrill of rioting and looting and desecrating can become an end in itself. What they don’t realize is that there is always a smaller, better organized group waiting in the wings to capitalize on the chaos. Unlike the young, starry-eyed radicals being used to create the power vacuum, they know exactly what they will do once they step into it.

Of course, there is a third group: conservatives. These are the law-and-order types who have been watching the nation’s descent into anarchy with mounting horror and disbelief. They generally value liberty and security and support law enforcement, though they are more likely than liberals to own firearms for their own protection. Many conservatives do not recognize their country anymore. They are currently either thanking God that they live in rural, suburban, or red-state America, or else making plans to move there.

As I write this, a group of radicals has taken over a six-block area of Seattle, including a police station. They have declared it an autonomous zone, free from police interference. The irony that they have erected barriers (much like border walls), implemented ID checks, and posted armed guards is not lost on conservatives. How quickly do high-minded ideals melt away when injected with an infusion of power.

The radical Left has been equally merciless in the cultural arena. Even the popular kids show “Paw Patrol” has come under attack for depicting positive portrayals of police (talking cartoon dogs). A&E has pulled its hit TV-show Live PD. The Academy award-winning classic Gone with the Wind has likewise been pulled from HBO. Beloved author and liberal J.K. Rowling has been denounced by the radical Left for daring to defend the common sense notion that biological sex exists. When it comes to “cancel culture,” nobody is safe.

Where is all of this going? What is the end game?

I was discussing this with a friend recently. She wanted to know my take, as a student of history. My response: “The revolution will eat its own.” Allow me to explain.

While it can be exciting in the initial phases to denounce authority and demand drastic changes, the majority of people eventually tire of the unceasing demands of revolution. This includes even liberal “fellow travelers” who may have initially backed some of the radicals’ demands. At a certain point, the need for a return to normalcy overrides the desire for change. There’s a reason Mao needed a “Cultural Revolution” to bring back the spirit of revolution a few decades into China’s experiment with communism.

The irony now, as with the French Revolution of 1789, is that the liberals always give birth to the very radicals who eventually escort them to the guillotine. In 1791, the French National Assembly penned the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a document full of Enlightenment high ideals. Less than three years later, King Louis XVI’s head was rotting on a pike, and France was in the grip of the Reign of Terror. Five years after that, the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte was cheered as he entered Paris. This from the same crowds who had only recently demanded “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” They were ready for the madness to end, and eager for a return to law and order.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 followed a similar pattern. What began as liberal criticism of Nicholas II and frustration with Russia’s continued involvement in World War I ended with the radical Bolsheviks seizing power, a bloody civil war, and decades of totalitarian rule.

Of course, America was also born in revolution, but ours was an oddly conservative one. Men like Washington and Franklin saw themselves as restoring rights that stretched back to the Magna Carta and English common law, not creating something radically new. We drew our inspiration from John Locke, who argued that governments exist to protect our natural rights to life, liberty, and property. These ideas can be found almost word for word in our own Declaration of Independence.

The French had for their inspiration one Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Coming at the tail end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic Era, Rousseau was critical of the overly rationalistic manner of earlier thinkers like Locke. He made a name for himself criticizing civilization itself in his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in which he presented man as a “noble savage” corrupted by society, and the institution of private property as his original sin.

In his later, more extensive work The Social Contract, Rousseau posits the state as the ultimate expression of the General Will, or the people collectively. As such, the state cannot be wrong. People who differ from the General Will must be rooted out and brought in line by force. But in the words of Rousseau, this means only “that he will be forced to be free.”

If you want to know how someone can go from denouncing inequality to demanding totalitarianism, look no further than Rousseau. I find his call for a civil religion particularly telling and prophetic:

It follows that it is up to the sovereign to establish the articles of a purely civil faith, not exactly as dogmas of religion but as sentiments of social commitment without which it would be impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject…. While the State has no power to oblige anyone to believe these articles, it may banish anyone who does not believe them… As for the person who conducts himself as if he does not believe them after having publicly stated his belief in these same dogmas, he deserves the death penalty…

The dogmas of civil religion should be simple, few in number, and stated in precise words without interpretations or commentaries… As for prohibited articles of faith, I limit myself to one: intolerance. Intolerance characterizes the religious persuasions we have excluded.

Did you get that? If you don’t toe the line of the General Will, you will be banished. Pretend to do so and you will be executed. But all this in the name of tolerance!

In the case of Russia, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin provided the intellectual inspiration. A Germany historian and philosopher, Marx viewed all of history through the lens of class conflict. He saw mankind as divided fundamentally into two camps: the haves and have-nots. In Marx’s day, the haves were the bourgeoisie, the ascendant middle class of industrial capitalist society. The have-nots were the “workers of the world,” the proletariat. Owning nothing but their own labor, they were forced to sell themselves at starvation wages to the owners of the means of production.

An atheist and a materialist, Marx rejected all divisions based on race, nationality, or religion – “the opiate of the masses.” He thought it was only a matter of time before the workers began to think of themselves as a class and unite against their oppressors. Then the workers or proletariat would seize power from the bourgeoisie through a revolution. They would run society temporarily as a dictatorship of the proletariat until such a time as class enemies were eliminated (they could not be reformed). At that point, there would be no need for government, as Marx saw government as just a means by which the ruling class oppressed the others (surely the proletariat could not oppress itself?). The reward for their hard work would be nothing short of heaven on earth, the “anarchist utopia” that would signal the arrival of true communism.

Vladimir Lenin made one key revision to Marx’s outline of revolution. The people themselves could not be trusted to guide the revolution. They would need an elite core to tell them what to do and crush all dissent.

Marx may have died in 1883, but his ideas live on in America’s colleges and universities. America’s Marxists have shifted their concern from the shrinking blue-collar working class (who tend to be Trump voters), to other “oppressed” groups: racial minorities, undocumented immigrants, and the LGBT community. As with original Marxism, the first step is to convince the majority of people that they are being oppressed. The second is to divide people into haves and have-not’s. After all, the flip-side of oppression is “privilege.” Just like the show trials in the old Soviet Union, class (now race) enemies must be made to publicly confess to their crimes, even the crime of simply belonging to a privileged group. But no apology can ever erase the stain of being an enemy of the people, a speed bump on the route to utopia.

Left-wing radicals are attempting to channel the legitimate grievances of historically underprivileged groups into an ax that they can wield against all the institutions they seek to overthrow: organized religion, law enforcement, the nuclear family. A cursory glance at the official Black Lives Matter organization reveals an agenda that goes far beyond saving black lives; it is saturated with Marxist thinking.

Marxists tend to denounce all authority and hierarchy as arbitrary. But as Jordan Peterson has explained, proper authority is not arbitrary; it is tied to competence. On an airplane the passengers listen to the captain; not because he is some tyrannical dictator, but because he is the only one knowledgeable enough to get them all safely to their destination. No sane person would suggest overthrowing the captain for the crime of elevating himself above the passengers; the result would be death for all.

Many hierarchies are just the natural results of variation across groups. There are necessarily fewer outstanding than mediocre basketball players. The same goes for plumbers, artists, and musicians. The excellent athletes, artists, and tradesmen make more money and receive more attention than their mediocre peers. This isn’t “unfair”; it’s life.

Perhaps academics and bureaucrats have a hard time understanding this, as their positions are more determined by connections than by merit (The same goes for the overfed children of the upper middle class who formed the core of Occupy Wall Street). They begin to see all hierarchy and authority as bad. There can be no families, as families subordinate children to their parents; no small businesses, as these subordinate employees to their bosses. Society appears like a house with far more people dwelling in the basement than in the upper levels. The only way to make everyone equal is to burn the house down.

And this would be a good solution, if one’s only goal was to make everyone equal, in some vague, amorphous sense. But what about liberty?

The radicals may be expressing themselves in the language of Karl Marx, but the real prophet of the nineteenth century was Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the book Demons (also translated as The Possessed), Dostoevsky describes how the generation of 1840’s liberals unwittingly gave birth to the radicals of the 1860’s. Even as the youth of the town descend further and further into nihilistic violence, the older, liberal generation looks on with mild bemusement until it is too late.

In Demons, one young radical proclaims:

“I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.”

Ha!

As Dostoevsky notes with both the title and epigraph of his book, there is something akin to demonic possession in the frenzy of the radicals. It defies logic or reason, but rather grips hold of a person or group, spurring them to commit violent acts. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the radical Saul Alinsky dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to the original rebel himself: Satan.

It’s worth looking over those rules now and seeing how they are being implemented. One in particular stands out: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

What the conservative understands is that freedom is not simply the license to do whatever one pleases; such a world would quickly descend into hell on earth. True freedom, properly understood, is the ability to choose the good. This kind of genuine freedom only thrives where there are structures in place to channel human passions toward constructive rather than destructive ends. We are not born “noble savages” as Rousseau once claimed; society is not the enemy of morality, but rather its teacher. We are not each other’s enemies, as Marx later claimed; the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, not between “good” and “bad” classes of persons.

Our country was founded on the concept of ordered liberty, or freedom limited by the need for order in society. Today our rights are being threatened both by anarchy in the streets and draconian lock-downs imposed by state governments to fight COVID-19 (limits that oddly enough do not apply to protesters). Both have enjoyed widespread support from liberals, most of whom don’t yet realize the radicals’ agenda or the greater threat posed by the globalists’ desire to establish a new world order with themselves at the pinnacle.

The Right is not immune from its own extremist tendencies in the other direction. Fascism results when the need for order becomes an obsession, and hierarchies become too rigid. But I would argue that too little order poses a greater danger to genuine human freedom than too much of it, for the reasons explained above. Chaos is only a temporary state on the path to a new order more tyrannical than its predecessor.

The revolution will eventually eat its own. The question is, how will we measure the collateral damage, both to individual families and freedom-sustaining institutions? How long will the process of rebuilding take, before a civilization more confident in its purpose than our own is able to rise from the ashes?

Viewing the COVID-19 Pandemic through the Lens of Fragility

I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s four-book Incerto collection.

In the first book, Fooled by Randomness, Taleb posits that we know much less about the world than we think. Published just months before 9/11, he infamously floated the scenario of terrorists flying planes into the Twin Towers.

In the second book, The Black Swan, Taleb discusses low-probability, high-impact events like the 9/11 attacks and explains how our current models (investment, economic, political) fail to account for them. Published a few months before the Great Recession, Taleb confidently asserts that the financial system of the United States will to crash, as it has simply built up too many risky bets.

The third book, and I would argue Taleb’s best, is Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. While the first two books mainly describe the world we live in – a world dominated by uncertainty and subject to Black Swan events – Antifragile lays out concrete tips for how to survive and thrive in the face of this uncertainty.

Incidentally, in Taleb’s fourth book, Skin in the Game (published in 2015), Taleb asserts matter-of-factly that the world will experience a global pandemic in the coming years. The current COVID-19 pandemic is thus not a “Black Swan” event, but rather something that anyone paying attention could have seen coming.

While Taleb has gained fame for his predictions, he cautions that the key is not to predict the future, but rather to structure our lives in such a way as to best handle the inevitable uncertainty and randomness of life.

According to Taleb, everything can be divided into one of three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. Fragile things, like teacups, break under stress and uncertainty. Robust things, like rubber balls, can withstand stress and uncertainty. Antifragile things, like human muscles, actually get stronger when subjected to stress and uncertainty (but only up to a point).

To use some examples from mythology, fragility is the sword of Damocles – hanging over our necks, just waiting to hurt us. Robustness is the phoenix, rising from the ashes. But antifragility is the hydra, growing back two heads for every one that is severed.

Common sense dictates that we arrange our lives, our societies, and our world in such a way as to at the very least minimize fragility and maximize robustness, with the added goal of antifragility. However, many of the things we are currently doing actually “fragilize” the system. The natural world understands robustness and antifragility, and the complex workings of many moving parts. The modern, man-made, globalized world oversimplifies things into models or theories that then break when subjected to stress.

Corporations prefer optimization to redundancy. In the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook, “Inventory is evil.” Well, maybe — when things are going according to plan. But in the face of a pandemic, when supply chains are disrupted, inventory is a blessing; its lack a curse that costs lives.

Here are some additional takeaways from Antifragile that we can apply to the current coronavirus pandemic:

  1. Don’t interfere with things you don’t understand.

Our first instinct is often to intervene in a crisis. However, certain interventions actually do more damage than the situation they are trying to address. Examples of this phenomena include unnecessary surgeries, micromanaging forest fires, urban planning, and overprotective parenting.

Often it is better to leave the system alone and let nature run its course. Let your body heal itself, let smaller forest fires occur, and let your kids make some mistakes every now and then.

Now, in the current crisis it would appear that non-intervention is actually riskier than intervention at the macro-level. However, at the individual level, most people who contract COVID-19 will be perfectly capable of fighting it off without needing to visit the hospital at the risk of spreading the infection.

Furthermore, we should seriously weigh the costs and benefits of any major interventions to our economic and political systems, carefully considering the downstream effects.

  1. Embrace Stoicism.

Stoicism has often been described as indifference to fate. However, Taleb views it more as antifragility to fate. Success brings fragility, as a successful person has more to lose than to gain from the unknown. This fact is compounded by the negativity bias, whereby we feel losses more deeply than gains. Many of us feel we have much to lose from the current crisis.

To counteract this predicament, Taleb directs us to Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher and statesman, who advised mentally writing off one’s possessions in advance. This way, if we indeed lose them in real life, it hurts less. In other words, assume the worst, and be happy when the actual result is better.

Many people are financially stressed by the recent blow to their stock portfolios, or just depressed at the cancellation of sporting events and concerts. But as long as we have our basic needs met, we should view surplus income and recreation as icing on the cake.

Don’t take anything for granted.

  1. Adopt a “barbell strategy.”

Taleb uses the metaphor of the barbell as an antidote to bell curve thinking. Barbells take the extremes into account, while bell curves largely ignore them.

How does one survive in an uncertain world?

First, decrease your downside by lowering your exposure to negative events. Second, increase your upside by making some limited, high-risk bets. Taleb advises putting 90% of your money in boring, safe investments like bonds, while investing the other 10% in high-risk, high-reward options. His own options-heavy portfolio is structured so as to benefit from volatility. Banking on this strategy, he was one of the few winners in 2008.

Taleb illustrates the concept of optionality using the example of Thales of Miletus. Tired of being derided as a do-nothing philosopher, Thales put a down payment on the seasonal use of every olive press in the region, thus taking on a small risk. When the olive harvest turned out to be extremely bountiful, he released the owners of the olive presses on his own terms, earning himself a large reward.

Barbell-style investors like Taleb are probably doing just fine during this crisis, while the bell-curvers are suffering.

  1. Embrace trial and error.

Historically-speaking, more innovations have come from tinkering than from formal research. According to Taleb, “America’s asset is, simply, risk taking and the use of optionality, this remarkable ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no comparative shame in failing, starting again, and repeating failure.”

This latest coronavirus outbreak was not the first, and will not be the last. We have to be prepared to learn from our mistakes. If history is any guide, we will not be saved by central planning, but by grassroots trial and error.

  1. Understand that fragility is nonlinear.

In other words, negative effects increase not arithmetically, but rather exponentially. Much like infection rates from COVID-19, they compound over time. Anyone who has ever sat through a traffic jam understands this.

We should identify the potential traffic jams in our supply chains and act accordingly. Resisting globalization might cost more in the short-term and/or when things are running smoothly, but localism is a more robust long-term strategy.

  1. Follow the Via Negativa, or addition by subtraction.

Let’s say you have a problem: you are overweight. It is both cheaper and more effective to eliminate the unhealthy things from your life – junk food, smoking, drinking – than to add in healthy options – expensive gym memberships, diet plans, etc.

Simpler is better.

Less is more.

Increasing complexity also increases fragility. Hopefully the coronavirus pandemic will help teach us to simplify our lives where we can by showing us all the things we really can live without.

  1. Avoid neomania; opt instead for what has stood the test of time.

Taleb defines neomania as being too quick to embrace the latest (often-untested) thing. For example, books have been around for a long time, e-readers much less so. While the e-reader user might seem smarter in some situations (consider how many books you can fit on one device!), the traditional book-reader does better in the event of a power outage.

  1. If something is too big to fail, it should be too big to allow.

Taleb notes that large corporations and nations are actually weakened by their alleged advantage – their size – as they are more subject to Black Swan events. Smaller entities like city-states and small businesses are often more robust in a crisis. We should remember this during normal times, when people start advocating mergers, acquisitions, and various other economies of scale. It is easier to turn a small ship than a large one.

(Anecdotally, I can attest that smaller school systems have responded better to the coronavirus pandemic than larger ones. Likewise, larger businesses will likely have to lay off workers first.)

  1. The need for skin in the game.

Heroes take on the downsides of others, putting themselves at risk for the greater good. Charlatans and frauds keep the upside for themselves while passing on the risk to some larger group. Ethically speaking, we should not allow any entity to privatize its profits while socializing its losses.

Conclusion

This is not a pointless philosophical exercise. All of this matters; it matters a lot. According to Taleb:

Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called “efficiency” that makes people sail too close to the wind… The world is getting less and less predictable, and we rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate, let alone predict.

We must consider – individually, communally, and globally – how best to navigate an increasingly unpredictable world. We can take steps to increase our resilience, and even antifragility, but this will likely necessitate certain sacrifices that seem unnecessary or even detrimental in the short-term.

At the micro-level, relying on the medical system makes us fragile. Learning basic first aid makes us more robust. Improving our body’s health through exercise utilizes our natural antifragility.

At the macro-level, there is a natural inclination to prop up the existing system. But perhaps we should utilize this crisis to build in various redundancies and fail-safes. This way, when the next crisis comes rolling inevitably along, we will all be better prepared to manage it. Instead of trembling in anxiety at the fragilities inherent in our daily lives, we can draw strength from traditional sources of wisdom and comfort – our communities, our families, and our faiths.

 

Featured Image Credit: DonSpencer1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87998491