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

White Supremacist: The Problem with Pro-Lifers Is They Believe in Human Rights

Richard Spencer, the leader of the “alt-right” movement and a proud white supremacist, just provided the most damning defense of abortion I have ever encountered, and everyone should read it. If you believe abortion is a woman’s “right,” or that it is just a personal choice the government should stay out of – even if you are Pro-Life but consider it just another issue – you need to read what he said.

Jonathan van Maren offers a spot-on analysis here; feel free to skip the rest of this post and just read his instead.

The big problem with the Pro-Life movement, according to Spencer, is that it promotes human rights:

And so the anti-abortion crusade becomes this ‘human rights’ crusade… (the idea) that every being that is human has a right to life and so on. Well that’s not how we think… You are part of a community, you’re part of a family, you’re part of a collective. You do not have some human right, some abstract thing given to you by God or by the world or something like that. You’re part of a community and that’s where you gain your meaning or your rights. The anti-abortion crusade is often associated with family, the traditional family, but to be honest it’s descended into not just a human rights dogma but a kind of dysgenic “we are the world” dogma.

Did you get that? Well? Do we have human rights simply by virtue of being human, or do our rights depend on the opinion of someone else, or the decision of the group? If you support abortion in any circumstance, you have to place yourself in the latter camp. Also notice how the totalitarian right blends into the totalitarian left in that both ultimately dismiss the individual and value only the group.

Unborn humans are still humans. They don’t magically become homo sapiens when they exit the womb. Do their lives matter? The pro-abortion side says “that depends.” To them, an unborn child’s value is contingent upon the whims of the mother. If a pregnant woman is murdered in most states, it is considered a double homicide. But if a woman ends the life of the child growing inside her, it is simply a private decision.

As a culture, why should we care about the lives and rights of the unborn? They leave behind no friends to mourn them. Society has yet to invest in them; from an economic standpoint, they certainly consume more than they produce. The answer is that a human’s value is not determined by their productivity, intelligence, or social connections, but by virtue of the fact that we are all “endowed by our Creator” with the inalienable right to life.

In “alienating” the rights of some, we deny the rights of all. Either all lives matter, or no lives matter. “Some lives matter” may seem to work for a while, but it eventually leads to concentration camps and mass graves. The Nazis began their executions not with Jews but with the mentally and physically handicapped, individuals whose value was determined to be less than the cost of even allowing them to remain alive. World War II claimed the lives of 60 million human beings, most of whom were not Jewish. You may not personally mourn the loss of the unborn – fragile, helpless beings you never got the chance to meet – just as you may not personally mourn the shooting of an inner-city youth. But when one group’s rights are declared contingent upon the decisions of others, or when society offers only an indifferent shrug in the face of their slaughter, it inevitably diminishes the rights of all. A culture that tolerates or promotes abortion will also accept euthanasia, suicide, child abuse, and domestic violence. Instead of universal respect, the world becomes one in which, to quote Thucydides: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

According to Spencer, the abortion issue is “complicated” and not a “‘good or evil’ binary.” In his twisted world view, abortion is good when it is used to control the population of “undesirables” – for Spencer, the poor and minorities – but bad when it is used to control the reproduction of intelligent whites. Spencer bemoans the use of contraception by “highly intelligent career women” who should be passing on their superior genetics to advance the white race. He concludes:

We should recognize that the pro-life movement—this is not the alt-right… we should be genuinely suspicious of people who think in terms of human rights and who are interested in adopting African children and bringing them to this country and who get caught up on this issue… We want to be eugenic in the deepest sense of the word. Pro-lifers want to be radically dysgenic, egalitarian, multi-racial human rights thumpers—and they’re not us.

To echo Von Maren – no, we are not!

Don’t Blame Everything on Imperialism

The lessons we draw from the past often do more to shape the future than the past itself, even if they are the wrong lessons. Most of our errors and exaggerations contain more than a grain of truth. We are highly capable of taking a valid insight and pushing it a bit too far, or maybe blowing it out of all sense of proportion. In these cases, an incomplete reading of history can be worse than no reading at all.

In this post, I will examine a particularly pervasive “lesson” in world history circles: the idea that almost every problem ailing the world today is the product of western imperialism. This argument has been on my radar for the last week or so as various authors look back on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that infamous document where France and Britain divided the Middle East during World War I into their respective spheres of influence, a move that would contribute to the “arbitrary” borders of Syria and Iraq. Later agreements also slighted the Kurds, leaving them without a state. To say that Sykes-Picot was a self-interested move that neglected the will of the Arabs and Kurds is obvious. To blame two diplomats – one French and one British, both trying to preserve their country’s alliance against the Central Powers – for everything that ails the Middle East today is madness.

The blame-imperialism thesis fits into the larger “blame the West” narrative that has profound consequences for our politics. There’s almost no problem some people will not pin on imperialists of yester-century.

Global inequality between the western and non-western world? Blame imperialism.

Genocide and civil war in Africa? Imperialism.

Economic collapse in Latin America? Imperialism.

Paris terror attacks? Imperialism, obviously.

When people bemoan “imperialism,” they often mean western imperialism, of the sort practiced by white guys (American or European) in non-white places (Africa, Middle East, Asia) in the relatively recent (though not directly experienced) past. Sometimes this first category is enlarged to include the non-white Japanese, but with the added explanation that they must have gotten the idea to invade other people from the Americans, or else it would have never occurred to them.

But the West no more invented imperialism than it invented slavery. To cast problems of greed and selfishness as uniquely Western, as opposed to simply human pathologies, is to employ a double standard in historical judgment.

We don’t tend to blame Russia’s present-day problems on the fact that it experienced Mongolian imperialism in the 13th century. We don’t explain the U.K.’s current crises with the fact that they have been conquered or invaded by Romans, Angles, Saxons, and Normans. Somehow the Russians and the English survived their experiences with imperialism in ways Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians have not.

Why is western imperialism such a popular explanation?

First, because there is a large measure of truth to it. Belgian imperialism in Central Africa certainly contributed to the ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis that exploded into genocide in the 1990s. The Sykes-Picot Agreement did help set the stage for the somewhat-illogical division of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

But while it is important to recognize the influence of imperialism on more recent or ongoing tragedies, it would be a mistake to overstate the explanatory power of this argument. The Belgians were not the ones ordering bands of rage-filled Hutus to kill Tutsis. Poor Mssrs. Sykes and Picot did not draw up the plan for ISIS back in 1915, nor did they conspire to ensure that despots and tyrants would gain control of the Middle East. Nothing in history is inevitable. To blame Group A’s problems on Group B can have the unintended effect of turning Group A into passive victims of Group B’s villainy, depriving them of their agency in the past, present, and future. When people really don’t like their current borders, they act to change them. Sometimes attempt to redefine borders more “logically” can have the perverse effect of leading to more genocide and strife. Just look at South Sudan today.

Second, Western imperialism has a long history. In many ways, it has dominated the last 500 years of world history. It began in the late 15th century, when the Portuguese started seizing ports in the Indian Ocean and Spain started colonizing the Caribbean. At the time, however, Europeans were still suffering under the imperialism of the Ottoman Turks, who seemed poised to extend their control across the entire continent.

Western imperialism held off the Turks, but suffered a temporary setback in the 18th and early 19th centuries as large parts of North and South America broke free from European rule (thought they remained dominated by European descendants). It reached its peak in the 19th century, when European and American adventurists achieved a level of dominance over Africa and Asia, powered by industry and motivated by a potent blend of global capitalism, nationalism, and a newfound sense of moral and cultural superiority. Imperialism suffered two more setbacks in the First and Second World Wars, after which most colonized people gained independence. However, the blame-imperialism crowd will speak today of neo-colonialism, by which they mean the continued exploitation of the Third World by western business interests, international organizations, and even humanitarian agencies.

Again, there is some measure of truth to this. When the U.S. and U.N. try to impose a population control agenda on developing countries, this is neo-colonialism. When the U.S. criticizes African countries for failing to conform to the LGBT or abortion agendas, this is cultural imperialism of a particularly noxious variety.

But once again, there are limits to this argument, especially when explaining the origins of global inequality.

Why does the West still dominate “the rest” on many indicators of wealth and health? Why have China, Japan, and Russia imported far more elements of western civilization than we have borrowed from theirs? The blame-imperialism crowd would have us believe that this global imbalance in wealth and power is the cumulative effect of five centuries of plunder, while defenders of the West credit superior institutions. It’s probably not all one or the other, but what is the right combination?

If one believes the West predominates because it stole from the non-West, then the solution is for the western nations to “give back” the wealth they unjustly stole through some form of reparations, as some Caribbean nations have suggested. At the very least, westerners should feel very guilty for their ill-gotten advantage and non-Westerners should seethe with resentment. However, if one believes the success of the West is due to its superior institutions of private property and intellectual property protections, human rights, the rule of law, and the democratic process, then the non-West should be encouraged to emulate the West, to “westernize.”

But there is a certain degree of arrogance among the blame-imperialism crowd. No matter how distant the injustice, the West is always to blame. “It has to be our fault for their problems!” they insist. As if African and Asian societies did not have their own problems before the first white men arrived with their treaties or guns.

The truth is, imperialism has a complicated legacy. Some members of indigenous societies actually benefited from European colonization. Just ask the Native Americans not subjected to human sacrifice, or the Indian women not forced to commit sati. Several sources from Indians themselves attest to both the benefits and drawbacks of their experience with British colonization. On a big-picture scale, imperialism resulted in the diffusion of modern science and technology to peoples eager to exploit them. India and China once fell victim to European capitalist expansion. Today, they use the global free market and many western innovations to increase the standards of living for their people.

In the history of humanity, one would be hard-pressed to find a group that has never suffered injustice, never been defeated in battle, never been encroached upon by territorial rivals. The fact that we are all alive today can be viewed as a sort of historical “privilege,” to use the popular buzzword. We all descend from the people who did not die before they could reproduce. But we likewise descend from a mixture of conquered and conquerors, invaders and invaded. The Peruvian mestiza may have a hard time determining whether to blame or praise their European ancestors on behalf of their Native American ones, as might the Brazilian mulatto. The Spanish conquistadors who subjugated the Americans likely carried the blood of Moorish invaders who once subjugated Iberia.

But the blame-imperialism crowd suffers from a pervasive double standard. Somehow, everything must be the fault of the lighter-shaded group, while darker-shaded people must remain blameless. In this paradigm, the Crusades were a terrible case of Europeans trying to take over lands that didn’t belong to them, but little is said of the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries that devastated the earliest Christian communities. Israel is loathed as an illegitimate state built on the theft of Palestinian land and culture, while the ancient claims of the Jews are dismissed. The Atlantic Slave Trade is rightly criticized, but the Muslim-dominated trade that predated and out-lived it is ignored.

A more complete and honest reading of history would acknowledge the challenges imposed by past imperialism without laying all the blame at the feet of long-dead colonizers. We should be able to acknowledge the damage the slave trade and imperialism did to Africa, while also examining the roles of indigenous slavery, lack of women’s rights, and cruel dictators like Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin. We can acknowledge that Sykes-Picot did little to help the Middle East, while also examining the problem of extremist violence within Islam.

By blaming the West for everything, we let off the hook many of those directly responsible for present-day atrocities. It is an odd reality that much of the rhetoric of extremist groups like ISIS is virtually indistinguishable from left-wing accounts of history. Young Muslim radicals in Europe gush over the film-making of Michael Moore, while left-wing intellectuals seem to argue that if non-Western groups hate us, we must have done something to deserve it.

It’s a cliché that “those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.” A less-acknowledged truth may be that those who draw the wrong lessons from the past are doomed to never move beyond it. If someone were to confess to an unhappy or even abusive childhood, we would not look at them and say “what a pity you will never get ahead.” Instead, we would encourage them to not let their past define them, to seek out new opportunities, and to accept personal responsibility for their future. The same should be the case for peoples with unhappy histories, as most histories at some point are.

Questions for Each Candidate after the 11th GOP Debate

Here’s my analysis of the 11th Republican Primary Debate in Detroit, as well as some general observations and questions for each candidate.

First, Trump. It should be clear by now that Donald Trump lacks the seriousness, maturity, temperament, policy knowledge, etc. to be President of the United States. Last night, he brought the Republican primary race to a new low by reassuring a national audience of 15 million about the size of his penis. I didn’t really appreciate Rubio’s schoolboy joke about Trump’s small hands at the time, but now I think I get it. It was all bait, and Trump took it.

Trump has dictatorial tendencies like Benito Mussolini and Vladimir Putin. He has to see himself as the alpha male, the top dog. He can’t let a dig at his privates go unanswered. But by answering it, Trump revealed that all his braggadocio and bluster may mask a deep-seated insecurity. It’s never a good sign when you have to fall back on bragging about the size of your manhood. It’s quite pathetic, really, like a bunch of teenage boys measuring themselves with rulers in the locker room. Does Trump realize that he is vying to run against Hillary Clinton, who will be attempting to make history as the first woman president? Does he really think voters care about his size? Trump may have sealed up the frat boy vote, but his short standing with women likely shrunk even further (pun intended, can’t help myself).

I actually think Trump’s low of the night was when he said that the military would do whatever he told them to do because that’s leadership. This is the biggest confirmation that Trump does not understand the difference between being a womanizing CEO and the leader of the free world. It is one thing for a “wolf of Wall Street” to go around bragging about his affairs and penis size, rating women on their physical appearances, and insisting that all his underlings do as they are told or “you’re fired!” The military doesn’t work that way, and neither does this country.

In the course of the debate, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and yes – Megyn Kelly – were able to reveal the full extent of Trump’s “flexibility.” Trump has no core, no principles, just blind faith in his own power of personality to get things done. But Trump has spent his entire life abusing the very system he now seeks to change. He wrote checks to Democrats and checks to Republicans, and you can bet he expected something in return. He defrauded thousands of students at “Trump University,” and left a trail of failed businesses in his wake.

Through it all, Trump always manages to come out unscathed. He has lived the most sheltered, protected, privileged life one can imagine. He already has everything. The question for Trump is: why does he even want to be president to begin with? Despite his oft-repeated red baseball cap slogan, I have not yet been able to answer this question. Was it all just a big joke, a publicity stunt, except too many people took it seriously? The question for America is how long his supporters can persist in their delusions. I still have a little bit of sympathy for the unemployed blue-collar worker still clinging to the hope that Trump can bring back American manufacturing and stick it in the eye of the establishment. I have none for people like Sean Hannity and Chris Christie who should know better.

Second, Rubio. I think it’s pretty clear why fewer candidates attacked Trump early on. Attacking a fellow Republican candidate never makes you look good in the process. But Trump must be exposed, and Rubio is doing the country a favor by unmasking him as a con man and a scam artist. Rubio gave mostly solid answers to questions on foreign policy, gun control, and the economy. But while John Kasich was able to rattle off a long list of governing accomplishments, Rubio’s resume looks pretty thin in comparison. He also got down in the gutter with Trump, interrupted too often, and seemed a little under the weather. His voice was raspy, his energy lower than usual. It’s hard to be the Republican “hope and change” as well as attack dog for the establishment at the same time.

I still love Rubio for his ability to inspire, his appeal to Millennials, and his beautiful family. I’ve seen people falling over each other to get his autograph. I’ve pushed through crowds trying to shake his hand. Like Obama, he has a bit of the celebrity factor. But so much of Rubio’s appeal is the idea of what could be. His lack of experience and willingness to work with the establishment in the past (both Democrats and Republicans) leaves some real questions. I think he has the biggest upside, but also the biggest potential downside if things don’t pan out. The question for Rubio supporters (myself included) is: is he worth the risk? Can he be trusted? I still think so, but in the words of Donald Trump, I’m flexible.

Third, Cruz. I honestly believe Ted Cruz is probably the smartest man to ever run for president. In last night’s debate, he was sharp, prepared, and focused throughout. If voters are serious about turning the establishment upside down, they should vote for Ted Cruz. He would be the most principled, uncompromising man to ever hold the office. But I still have doubts about whether he could get there in the first place. The rest of the country is not nearly as conservative as Cruz, and he would need to build on his existing support. Cruz can be charming at times, but he remains personally unlikeable to much of the electorate. The question for Cruz is: can he grow his support in swing states? If I knew Cruz could defeat Clinton in November, he would have my support now.

Fourth, John Kasich. I hate to say it, but Kasich had a great debate. He didn’t speak as well as Ted Cruz, but he probably picked up more new supporters. He didn’t attack Trump; with Rubio and Cruz leading the charge, he didn’t have to. He got to be the “adult in the room,” as he likes to say. He also reassured conservatives like myself on the issue of religious freedom, a topic over which he had stumbled in the previous debate. I personally know at least four moderates, some of them Democrat-leaning independents, who voted for Kasich in the Virginia primary. They would support him over Clinton, but not Rubio or Cruz.

The question is, would the moderates Kasich picks up outweigh the loss of enthusiasm on the conservative end of the spectrum? My guess is yes. One of the biggest conservative goals is a balanced budget, and Kasich seems like he might be the guy to do it. Usually nominating a moderate Republican is a bad bet (see Romney, McCain, Dole), but this year moderate Democrats are looking to jump ship. They’re not all socialists like Sanders, and they’re not all so forgiving of Clinton’s pretty obvious corruption.

In terms of personality, Kasich still reminds me of a high school guidance counselor, or your awkward-but-sincere uncle. He’s Mr. Responsible, at the ready with some old-fashioned life advice, or (when needed) a hug. Kasich’s a little too “aw-shucks-y” for my taste, but based on resume alone he’s the most qualified for the job. The question for Kasich: is it too late? Also, would he be tough enough to take the fight to Hillary Clinton, or would he once again stay “above the fray,” this time to his detriment?

Of course, the bigger questions are for the Republican Party (can they survive Trump?) and the country (will we go from eight years of Obama to at least four years of Clinton?). I think the answers can still be yes and no, in that order, but only if we are very careful.

Everyone is talking about the need for more candidates to drop out, but I think that would actually be a mistake. If any of the remaining three non-Trumps leaves the race now, it just means more votes for Trump and a greater risk that he wins the required number of delegates outright. None of the three are currently strong enough to take Trump down on their own. In my opinion, they should all stay in the race and take us to a brokered convention in July. Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich should start building the necessary bridges between their campaigns now to pave the way for the coming reconciliation.

As for Trump supporters, there’s a very real chance they refuse to come along and instead go full-rebellion mode. There’s also the chance that the GOP establishment resigns itself to the fate of a Trump candidacy, but a smaller one after the recent allegations of racism and the prospects of a 2016 shellacking in the House and Senate. But each week that goes by exposes more Trump weaknesses. The coming onslaught of attacks will prevent him from gaining additional followers, as he has already failed to win over late-deciders. We may have already hit peak Trump. My guess is the rural, working class whites who form the base of Trump’s support are more interested in sending a message to the establishment that they will no longer be ignored than they are personally loyal to the New York billionaire.

The breakup of the Republican Party and the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton are still possibilities, but they are far from certainties. There is still time for the party of Lincoln and Reagan to rally. For the sake of this country, I pray they do so quickly.

Are We Serious?

In the wake of their resounding victories in New Hampshire, the excitement emanating from the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump campaigns is palpable. Both (old, white) men are populist leaders. Both have built their campaigns on the promise of what they can do for the people, though in somewhat different ways – Sanders by getting the government to fund everything from your health care to your college education, Trump by using his force of personality to revive the economy and stop illegal immigration.

Even if you disagree with Trump and Sanders, which I emphatically do, it’s not hard to understand their appeal. Both men are unapologetic “straight talkers” who claim to be beyond the influence of big corporations and their party’s establishment. In fact, both men only recently joined the parties they are now vying to represent.

I get it. People are fed up with Washington. They’re fed up with Wall Street. They’re tired of both parties, let down by Bush and Obama. Voters are sending the message that they will not be controlled. They will not dutifully line up behind their party’s Chosen One. This year, people are choosing passion over pragmatism.

And perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing. Party leaders who would prefer to bypass the people will now have to persuade them. In a democracy, this is where all power originally resides. But the same can be said for a lynch mob. What keeps our system of government from descending into mob rule, anarchy, and despotism? Respect for the rule of law, certainly, but also the virtues of moderation, prudence, and humility. In embracing Trump and Sanders, I fear we have abandoned both.

My question for America after New Hampshire is, are we serious? Do we realize that we are choosing someone to do a job here, the most important job in the world? This is not reality TV, and it’s not a popularity contest. We are not deciding the next American Idol here, but the leader of the free world.

The next President of the United States will have to work with Congress to pass legislation that the American people will accept. Not a passionate quarter of the electorate, but the whole country. You might love the idea of socialized medicine, but guess what? The rest of the country doesn’t. You may want to deport all twelve million illegal immigrants currently residing here, but this is never going to happen.

The main task of the next president will be to deal with the international crises that have been accumulating over the past seven years, as well as any others that may arise. These include, but are not limited to: the Syrian Civil War, the spread of ISIS, deteriorating security in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russian and Chinese aggression, the threat of a nuclear Iran, saber-rattling in North Korea, and European democracies threatening to buckle under the weight of millions of Muslim refugees.

And yet it is on foreign policy that both Trump and Sanders are at their weakest. Trump offers few specifics beyond “getting along” with Putin, killing the families of terrorists, and doing “much worse” than waterboarding. For all his tough trade talk on China, he erroneously identified them as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Sanders is even worse, preferring to ignore foreign policy altogether. I don’t doubt he would dissolve the military entirely if it meant being able to fund his domestic agenda. When Sanders does address the issue of global terrorism, it is to utter something truly idiotic, like the claim that ISIS is the result of climate change.

I know that a good chunk of the American electorate would prefer to ignore the rest of the world and focus on things here at home. I recently had a Bernie Sanders supporter tell me that ISIS doesn’t matter because more people die from car accidents than terrorist attacks. But whether we like to think about it or not, these are dangerous times. In an era of globalization and terrorism, the distinction between domestic and foreign policy is increasingly blurred.

Just think beyond the rallies and debates and campaign trail euphoria, and imagine an actual Trump or Sanders presidency. Do you really want to see either of these men in the Oval Office? Do you want them representing America, negotiating with Congress, and handling all the inevitable crises and surprises of a presidential term?

I realize the Democrats don’t have much of a choice here, as a Hillary Clinton presidency would be no better. Their rejection of Jim Webb, the only Democratic candidate qualified to do the job, is truly disturbing. But Republicans still have options. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are conservative alternatives to Trump, though I still don’t see how Cruz gets elected. Even Jeb Bush and John Kasich, though too moderate for my liking, could do the job of commander-in-chief.

You wouldn’t choose a doctor, a pilot, or even a dog-walker on the basis of their rhetoric alone. Why are we treating this election with less seriousness?

Rubio’s Night Not as Bad as Reported

The big story being reported by the media this morning is that Marco Rubio had an awful debate. Marco Rubio did not have a bad debate. He didn’t say anything offensive, there were no “gaffes,” and he never even appeared flustered. He had a bad ten minutes of what was otherwise a solid performance.

First of all, Rubio gave the best answer of the night on foreign policy, explaining with force and nuance a clear strategy for defeating ISIS. He articulated an intelligent and appealing definition of conservatism’s three pillars – limited government, free enterprise, and strong national defense.

He also gave a good answer on abortion, with a particularly memorable line that he would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue of life. He was brave to defend all life, even life that results from rape (a crime of the father, not the child). He was pragmatic enough to accept signing a law that limited abortion even if it kept these exceptions. However he also accepted the faulty premise that abortion pits the rights of a pregnant mother against the rights of her unborn child. But, otherwise solid and principled.

Rubio did have a shaky start. It usually takes him about twenty or thirty minutes to settle in and move beyond his talking points. In the past few debates I thought Rubio started off too fast and took a tone that was too angry before he was able to relax and be more natural. But this time, Chris Christie was waiting. He pounced on Rubio early, and kept hitting him hard.

When asked about the question of his limited experience and accomplishments, Rubio smoothly rattled off a list of accomplishments before pivoting to his message, that Obama is a failure because of his ideology, not his inexperience. Christie interjected that Rubio was too inexperienced to be president, as all he had were canned stump-speeches. Rubio responded, most unfortunately, with a canned stump speech.

Now, usually it is smart politics to repeat yourself, to hammer your message home. Think Trump’s “build a wall” and “make America great again.” Your message needs repetition to stick with voters. You also don’t want to be seen as retreating from your points. However, this was the one moment when Rubio desperately needed to speak off the cuff. He needed to appear authentic, not automatic. This was his moment to shine the spotlight on his ideas, his record, and his potential, not rehash Obama’s failures. Instead he repeated, almost word for word, his previous answer. Then he followed with a pretty weak attack on Chris Christie, that the New Jersey governor didn’t want to go back to his home state to deal with the recent snow storm.

Chris Christie may be feeling pleased with himself for drawing blood, but he did himself no favors. If anyone benefits from a Rubio slide, it will be Kasich and Bush in New Hampshire, and possibly Cruz in the long-term. Chris Christie is a bully with baggage who will not be the nominee. His “I’m a tough guy, I don’t care what people think about me” persona is much better-suited to his former job as a prosecutor than it would be to President of the United States.

Still, the ten-minute exchange did hurt Rubio, and that’s unfortunate. Rubio is the brightest young star in the GOP. He has stood up to pressure in a way that Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker have not. Ben Carson would love to be able to deliver a stump speech with Rubio’s ease. His answers may be more impromptu, more “from the heart,” but they are often too stilted to really follow, and he always looks on the verge of falling asleep. Rick Perry would be happy to just remember all three points to his three-point plan. He may have been an effective governor, and he can pull off the “average guy” demeanor, but voters also want a good communicator. This is an asset for Rubio, not a liability.

Rubio might emerge from last night’s debate bruised, but he is not broken. If anything, he will be hurt more by overblown reports that he “lost the debate” than what he actually said or didn’t say. Remember, Cruz also had his worst debate of the campaign before going on to his greatest victory in Iowa. Once again, we will have to wait until the results come in from New Hampshire to know for sure.

Still, I doubt we are about to witness a major resurgence for Kasich, Bush, or Christie. The biggest criticism against Rubio is that he is “too perfect,” not real enough, a GOP version of Barack Obama. But that is far less troubling than Cruz’s personality (and equally inauthentic tone), Jeb’s legacy issues, Kasich’s moderate mushiness, and Christie’s Bridge-gate scandal.

If this were an NBA game, I’d say Rubio turned the ball over early, but then recovered to score a solid 20 points on 10/18 shooting. Unfortunately, politics is not sports. What matters isn’t the score at the end of the debate, but the moments that will survive beyond it, and the impressions they leave. Still, if this is a Rubio “bad night,” then that just goes to show what an All-Star he is. 20 points from Kobe Bryant or Lebron James is a “bad night,” but for other players it would be a career-best. In sports as in politics, it is easy to play the Monday-morning quarterback. It is something else entirely to actually go out and perform.

Maybe GOP voters should remember that, despite his youth and inexperience, Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008. Don’t Republicans want to beat her in 2016?

Dear Western Civilization, Please Stop Hating Yourself

The challenges confronting America and the West are manifold and well-documented, but the biggest problem we face today is a crisis of confidence. Any problem is surmountable if you have the courage to look at it with clear eyes and act on principle. This is how we built the Hoover Dam, defeated the Nazis, secured civil rights for all races, and put a man on the Moon. But if you lack this resolve – if you are determined to blindfold yourself to the truth and wallow in apathy and self-doubt – then even the simplest task becomes nearly impossible. A gust of wind could blow you over, a pinprick result in paralysis.

This crisis of self-doubt is not confined to one country; rather it afflicts western civilization as a whole. According to Samuel Huntington, a civilization is the largest unit by which people can be divided. Beyond civilization, we all belong to the human race. Within civilization exist various nation-states and ethnic groups. Even within these states and groups, we divide further by party and ideology.

Historically, western civilization has rested on two pillars: Greco-Roman rationalism and Christianity. The first gave us the confidence to use reason to understand the world, thus freeing ourselves from superstition and fatalism. The embrace of reason led to the most advanced classical civilization in the world, and then the most powerful empire. It gave us democracy and the rule of law.

But it was not enough. For despite the technical, military, and legal prowess of both the Greeks and the Romans, such evils as infanticide and slavery were widespread. It took the dawn of Christianity to take the moral ideals first developed in Judaism and make them universal. Christianity offered protection to the weakest members of society – the disabled, the young, the ill – but it did even more than that. Christianity put forth the powerful and previously unimaginable idea that the poorest members of society were actually the most beloved by God. Women and slaves understandably flocked to this new creed. More surprising was the fact that even the powerful, who had the most to lose and least to gain, were also attracted to its teachings. The triumph of Christianity was near total in the West. Today it is the world’s most popular religion, while virtually no one still worships Jupiter or Zeus.

While some might have predicted a conflict between the Christian faith and Greco-Roman reason, the two were beautifully synthesized in the Middle Ages by such intellectual geniuses as Saint Thomas Aquinas. Classical scholarship and legal traditions endured, despite the fall of the Roman Empire and near-constant invasions from Muslims, Vikings, and other groups. Beginning in the Late Middle Ages, Europe became the birthplace of modern commerce, science, and industry. Europeans went from being relatively poor and insignificant vis-à-vis their Asian and Middle Eastern neighbors to dominating the globe by 1900, when 90% of the world was controlled by Europeans and their descendants. The twentieth century continued to see advances in technology and science, as diseases were cured and standards of living rose. But it also witnessed two destructive world wars, both originating in Europe, and the ascendancy of communism as a global threat to freedom.

Still, considering its many gifts to mankind, one would expect people in the West to be proud of their civilization’s accomplishments and eager to secure its blessings for their posterity. Instead, we see the opposite. Westerners are made to feel guilt and shame for the misdeeds and alleged shortcomings of their ancestors. Violence and greed – once understood to be flaws inherent in human nature – are now viewed by many as uniquely western, while non-western societies past and present are mythologized as utopian Edens.

European colonial powers certainly had their share of injustices. The Atlantic Slave Trade, the destruction of Native American tribes, and the use of forced labor in Africa were all inexcusable. But so was the indigenous slavery and warfare practiced by both Africans and Native Americans, by no means the “noble savages” of the romantic imagination. It has become routine every October to charge Christopher Columbus with crimes against humanity, but not Tlacaelel, the Aztec leader who sacrificed at least 4,000 and as many as 84,000 victims to dedicate a new temple.

The fact that someone is born into western civilization is no guarantee that each individual will accept or practice all of its values. Every human society has its share of deviants and criminals, as well as its heroes and saints. Consider the examples of King Leopold of Belgium and Bartolome de las Casas. The former was responsible for as many as 10 million deaths in the Congo, while the latter famously defended the human rights of Native Americans in Spanish colonies. Much less noted than the crimes of certain individuals and groups is the fact that the West was the first civilization to abolish slavery and give all people equal protection under the law.

But things are different now. We have lost ourselves. People who still champion the superiority of western values are accused of bigotry, racism, and intolerance (ironic for sure, as tolerance and equality are some of the western values its proponents seek to protect). Europe is told it must fling open its doors to millions of immigrants who do not share their values, some coming with the stated goal of replacing western civilization with Islam. Yet we would never demand that Saudi Arabia, China, or Pakistan open its doors to European immigrants (not that many westerners would want to live under sharia law or communism).

None of this makes any sense unless one understands the depths of western self-doubt and self-loathing, the roots of which are brilliantly traced in an article by Jonathan Pidluzny. The actions currently being taken or avoided by western governments appear suicidal to the outside observer. But suicide is the only rational outcome of irrational self-hatred.

Open borders and mass immigration are perhaps the clearest signs of disdain for the West by Western elites. Women in European countries are now being instructed to change the way they dress for fear of provoking harassment. Free speech is censored. Unspeakable crimes are brushed under the rug.

Where else do we see this self-hatred? First in our schools, where both world history and U.S. history curricula downplay western achievements while dwelling on their faults. This is not to suggest that we whitewash the past or replace serious inquiry with cultural propaganda, just that context is important. Yes, European colonial empires witnessed many abuses. So too did the United States, the first nation to break free from European control and the current leader of the West. But so did the Mongols, the Aztecs, the Mughals, and the Turks. These empires saw the slaughter of entire cities, the sacrifice of innocent victims to appease angry gods, and the terrible torture of rivals. Women in western civilization had to fight long and hard for equal rights. But women in Chinese, Indian, and Islamic civilization were considered little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. They are still undervalued and marginalized today.

We see this self-hatred in the climate change movement. Forget the fact that industrialization has lifted millions of people out of poverty and eradicated diseases that once decimated entire communities. Forget that western nations have done much in recent decades to reduce pollution and conserve the environment. We are made to feel irrationally guilty over our “carbon footprint.” We are offered different ways of atoning for our sins, few of them rational. We may purchase green products like electric cars that are in fact no better for the environment than traditional ones. We are told we must transfer billions of dollars from western taxpayers to corrupt governments in developing countries to help them mitigate the effects of climate change. It makes sense to blame the West for imperialism in the Philippines, but not a typhoon.

We see this self-hatred in the restrictions placed on our natural rights to speech and religion. We are not to criticize other cultures or religions, even when they explicitly call for violence against non-believers, apostates, and blasphemers. We are not to notice when people of other cultures commit crimes or propagate injustice. Instead, we are to search our speech for microaggressions and our subconscious for unrecognized biases. Even if we disavow racism and come from modest backgrounds, we are told to feel guilty over the “privilege” bestowed by our skin color.

We see this self-hatred in the fight against Islamic terrorism, the greatest external threat to freedom today. We are told by our leaders that if the terrorists hate us, we must have done something to deserve it. It is not the terrorists who are to blame, but rather our past foreign policy mistakes, our reluctance to open our borders, or our perverse attachment to the Bill of Rights. Or maybe it’s just an 800-year grudge over the Crusades. It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with Islam, and to suggest as much would be bigoted. Instead of killing the terrorists who wish us harm, we are told to shut up and disarm. Hillary Clinton blamed the murder of four Americans at Benghazi on an amateur YouTube video criticizing the prophet Muhammad (who, to anyone who has ever studied his life, certainly merits criticism). This blaming of the West for terrorist attacks on the West is tantamount to blaming a victim of domestic violence for provoking her attacker, or the rape victim for her short skirt. In fact, it seems impossible for critics of the West to find blame anywhere outside of the West.

We must understand the roots of this crisis if we are to have any hope of reversing it. Jonathan Pidluzny identifies five causes of western self-doubt and self-loathing: modern science, which made us doubt anything that could not be empirically demonstrated; romanticism, which elevated subjective feeling over objective reason, democratic egalitarianism, which led to excessive individualism and isolation from the body politic; democratic materialism, which transformed us into mundane pleasure-seekers; and the erosion of the liberal arts, which no longer satisfy man’s thirst for higher knowledge and meaning.

How can these forces be countered? How can the West regain its confidence? These are difficult questions, but there are certain things we should not do. We do not need to export our civilization to foreign lands through Iraq- and Afghanistan-style nation building. Clearly this does not work well. We do not need Donald Trump-style populism. One real danger of elite disdain for the West is that it pushes people to embrace just such demagoguery. We should also not forget the real contributions made by other civilizations, or dismiss their potential to contribute to our future advancement. Having confidence in ourselves does not mean putting others down, or forcing them to change.

Pidluzny hopes for a revival of the liberal arts as a starting point. I agree that such a movement is needed, though the recent reaction on college campuses against freedom of speech leaves me doubtful that it can be spearheaded by the university. Our culture needs nothing short of a modern renaissance, a rediscovery of the habits and values that made our civilization great. I know such revitalization is possible. The only question is, will we have to endure another Dark Age to reach it?