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A Prayer for Trump’s Wall

Lord, I don’t believe in you. But know that this prayer is the true cry of my heart. Hear me:

Lord I have no great affection for white people, and no antipathy either. The same goes for people of all colors and shades. The best I can say about people of any race is that some of them are easy on the eyes, and that is nice. (Also, please do something about sickle-cell anemia.)

But the uppity mouthbreathers with lame degrees in the humanities and social sciences keep telling me that white men, and white people generally, have had too much say here for too long a time. I have always believed people should get what they ask for, good and hard. Lord, give it to them. Give them the change they ask for!

Let the United States of America take in millions of new immigrants. Start today! Let every one of these immigrants be brown or black, or really any color but white. Let half of them be gay, or all of them. Who cares? Let at least half of them have gender expressions that are at apparent odds with their biological sex. Let at least half of them be disabled. Let them all be atheists. Let them be all be poor and desperate, perhaps fleeing from oppression in their home countries.

But let them all be hard-core anarcho-capitalists. Or Objectivists. Or, best of all, Agorists. Let them all be well read in economics, Misesians tempered with an Objectivist’s sense for objective economic value. Let them be well read in Aristotelian philosophy, too. And since this is my prayer, let them all (even the deaf ones, if you can arrange it) be fervent lovers of Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Charles Ives, and, most of all, Gustav Mahler. The general taste in music needs improving.

Lord in short order let them infiltrate and bring under their control all our key institutions. Let the universities be staffed with these brown and black immigrants. Let all the anchors on NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, and the cable networks be replaced with them. Let them take all the key offices of government, pass a constitutional amendment, and then take the presidency. Let them end the Federal Reserve and restore the gold standard. Let them enforce the Ninth and Tenth Amendments with a passion so pure and hot that its beauty and terror makes all the faculty and students of Yale’s law school commit mass suicide by self-immolation. Harvard too, Lord.

Let them Make America Great Again. Great, and brown. Let them have lots and lots of babies. Let them intermarry with white America, ’till the country caramelizes coast to coast, and no one can figure out what race anyone else is anymore.

When the time is right, Lord, let them dissolve the government and bring at last a peaceful, permanent, civilized anarchy to this continent.

I know this is a lot to ask, Lord. If it is too much, then please just let Trump’s wall be built. Real high.

This I pray.

Amen.

Mein Kampf Is Feminist Scholarship

One of the strangest experiences I had upon quitting teaching was that I started worrying, quite a lot, about what my former students would encounter in college. I think the reason I hadn’t worried much about this before was that, as long as I remained in the classroom, even if former students of mine were having all the useful wrinkles in their brains massaged flat by their professors, I could still compensate for what was being done to them, in a way, by stirring new wrinkles into the minds I still had at hand. But once I quit, there could be no more of that, no more compensations, and so the worrying set in.

The truth is that American colleges and universities typically propagandize rather than educate. (There are some exceptions, but they make no difference when higher education is assessed as a whole.) While anyone can still get a good education in any number of narrow fields, as far as general education is concerned, colleges and universities are anti-educational institutions. Not only do they do more harm than good, they do harm exclusively. It is almost impossible to communicate just how bad they are, and just how ruinous the effect is that they have on the thinking of their hapless young victims.

But thanks to a trio of heroes, one of them an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University (of all places!) communicating just how bad they are has just become marginally easier. These heroes have been hard at work exposing the corruption at the heart of the contemporary university, a corruption they call “grievance studies.”

Have you heard of “white privilege”? If you have, you have grievance studies to thank for it. Even though the language of grievance studies is often mocked or entirely overlooked in mainstream American culture, its extensive cultural reach exceeds most people’s grasps. For the spirit of grievance studies is the spirit that animates the contemporary university. The attitudes and beliefs typical to it are those that universities impart, with varying degrees of success, to the young and impressionable. Learning to brainlessly parrot these attitudes and beliefs is what earns one — in far too many, far too influential social circles — the contemporary honorific, “educated,” as in “she’s an educated person; she recognizes her white privilege.”

I could go on at length about grievance studies, and perhaps someday I will. But for now, just note that a respected journal in the field has agreed to re-publish a chapter of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, having mistaken the content of that chapter for cutting-edge feminist scholarship. Yes. Re-read the sentence before last a few times, slowly.

How To Understand Resistance to Gun Control

Proponents of new gun-control legislation often seem genuinely baffled by their opponents’ position. They cannot understand how the other side can be so consistently uncompromising, especially as shooting after shooting claims scores of innocent lives. It would greatly illuminate contemporary political debate if the Left’s bafflement here could be resolved. But this is difficult. While the pro-gun crowd’s motivations are not mysterious, they are obscure. To clear away this obscurity, much that goes unspoken on the American Right must be said plainly. This way, at least, the debate over gun control might become less confused.

The basic reason why pro-gun Americans tend to resist even mild gun-control legislation is that, for them, guns are a symbolic issue. In their guts, they know that if gun-control legislation moves even a little in the direction that anti-gun activists want, then America will cease to be the kind of country it is. But pro-gunners often love America as it is, and therefore resist any fundamental change in its character. This is why they resist even sensible-seeming restrictions to freedom of gun ownership.

On its own, it is not too helpful to say that pro-gun activists resist change because of a gut feeling about the direction the country might go in. “So what?” a gun-control activist might wonder. “Why should I care about what these people’s ‘guts’ are telling them? We shouldn’t be basing important national policies on ‘gut’ feelings anyway!” And it’s understandable to react this way, although it doesn’t help the two sides to communicate. For that, the gun-controllers need to understand where this gut feeling comes from, and whether or not the feeling has any basis in fact.

If the pro-gun coalition’s feelings do have a basis in fact, then the anti-gun coalition is not merely arguing for a minor change in the specific public policies around gun ownership. Rather, because they see the world in a fundamentally different and incompatible way, their efforts to change gun policy are only one small part of a much broader, general effort to transform American society.

Is this true? To begin to see what the pro-gun coalition sees here, consider the way the Democratic, anti-gun coalition admires the more restrictive gun policies of other countries. Again and again, they hold up Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, or Western European countries as models for better gun policies. Using these countries as models for American policy reveals much about how the Democratic coalition views the world, and what they want to change about America.

Consider Japan. On the surface, it is very different from the United States. It has a culture and a history nothing like our own, and its people share very different attitudes, beliefs, and values. And yet, gun-control advocates are perfectly comfortable using it as a model for American policies. Why?

Because Japan is a democratic country, and, therefore, in the Democratic coalition’s typical view, it is “like us.” To someone in the Democratic coalition, if a country is democratic, its other particulars are often not worth concerning oneself over. In contrast, the pro-gun coalition sees every country in the world as fundamentally unlike the United States. This coalition believes in “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the United States is unique in the world, and that the root of this uniqueness lies within particularly American standards of personal and economic freedom, individual rights, and, often, a unique relationship with God. These opposing classification systems use completely different standards, and so it is very hard for anyone who intuitively classifies the world the first way to understand the concerns of anyone who classifies it the second way, and vice versa.

These divergent ways of classifying the world explain both why anti-gunners are happy to hold up Great Britain as a model, and why the pro-gun coalition shrugs this model off with contempt. Although, unlike Japan, Great Britain has a culture and a history intimately connected to our own, to the Republican, pro-gun coalition, it is nonetheless alien. Great Britain does not recognize individual rights. It has no formal constitution. Its people are “subjects” of the realm, not “citizens.” In Britain, it is the Crown, not the people, that is sovereign. From the characteristically American and republican point of view, Great Britain is a fundamentally different kind of country, and therefore not a natural or useful model for the United States.

Democratic-coalition members will not find Britain’s stance on rights interesting or important. To them, it is a technicality: trivial, non-essential, and certainly no basis for rejecting “policies that work” that happen to come out of such a country. After all, they might argue, Great Britain may not formally recognize individual rights, but people in Great Britain seem to enjoy many or most of the same freedoms Americans enjoy. Why focus on legal technicalities when lives are at stake?

It’s a fair question. To see why the Republican coalition continues to focus on these apparent technicalities, it is necessary to step away from concrete examples for a moment and contrast the competing classification systems directly. The least complicated way to do this is to contrast two “good” kinds of government: American-style, individual-rights-based government must be contrasted against a democratic government that does not recognize individual rights. This contrast must highlight the principles that distinguish these kinds of governments, as opposed to merely contrasting particulars.

In a democratic system without individual rights, there are no limits on what the government may do in order to achieve whatever purpose it has set for itself. A democracy of this kind may pass any law. It can reward or punish any kind of behavior, for any reason. The government’s power is, in formal terms, absolute. Another way of saying this is: the government is sovereign.

This is not to say that this kind of government operates on whim, or that it does, in fact, tend to reward and punish behaviors without any outside considerations or limits. In practice, governments are limited by tradition, and by the expectations of the people they govern. It is only to say that in such a government, in a culture overseen by such a government, any measure that makes it through the democratic process is, by default, considered legitimate, proper, and good.

So government power in such a democracy is subject only to soft limits, by which I mean that the limits themselves are informal and can (and do) change over time. If the people in a democratic country find some kind of law repulsive to their sense of justice, that law probably will not be enacted. But the popular sense of justice can change over time, and so laws that might have seemed inconceivable in a great-grandfathers’ time become uncontroversial for his great-granddaughters. Sometimes it happens that different factions in a democracy like this will disagree about which laws are too burdensome. For example, Great Britain recently voted to leave the European Union, partially because people involved in business were finding the very comprehensive EU regulations to be too much. But many Britons, especially younger ones, disagreed, and thought that the benefits of EU membership far outweighed the hardships that these regulations imposed. But the Britons who voted for Brexit were not asserting a right to be free of particular regulations, or rejecting regulation on principle. They almost certainly believed that their government had the right to join any union it wanted to join, or to subject its people to whatever economic regulations seemed best. For Britons, exiting the EU was not a question of restoring lost rights (because Britons have no rights, not in the American sense); it was merely a question of whether the government was exercising its unlimited right to govern in an effective and worthwhile way.

Because there are no formal or hard limits to what democratic governments permit themselves to do, and because their citizens would probably become uncomfortable with this unlimited power if certain assurances were not made, these governments always advertise that they use their power for benevolent, humanitarian purposes. These purposes do change over time, or else they would become too much like hard limits, and no government of this kind would tolerate such limits.

The advertised purposes for which an unlimited and democratic government deploys its power are continuously negotiated and renegotiated. Every such government operates within an informal consensus — a flexible, ever-changing agreement both within the government and with the people — about what purposes its unlimited power can legitimately serve.

Since these agreements are informal, there is no way to list them accurately, but it is possible to briefly describe a few of the ideas that tend to come up in this area again and again. First, unlimited democracies, like all governments, believe that government power should be used to keep the peace. Policies that punish criminals and regulate dangerous activities (like driving, flying airplanes, or transporting deadly chemicals) are universal. Second, unlimited democracies tend to aim at some kind of vision of the future, a “common good,” and pass laws seeking to encourage society to develop in the areas that are favored, while curtailing any trends that are not favored. For example, common aims that unlimited democracies have for the future include increasing the general level of happiness, increasing the general level of health, increasing the general prosperity, helping more people to reach their own potential, keeping the poorest people from falling below a certain minimum level of security and opportunity, correcting for injustices of the past, maximizing fairness, or protecting and enhancing the quality of the environment.

Unlimited democracies never settle for only one of these organizing goals. Through the continuous renegotiation of priorities, some administrations will focus on increasing economic prosperity, others might focus on increasing fairness, still others focusing on other benevolent and humanitarian ends.

The contrast between this unlimited-democratic form of government and the individual-rights form is very sharp, even when the differences that result in people’s lives are much harder to see. In an individual-rights based country, government is not only limited in what it is permitted to do, it is only permitted to do something if the people have given it explicit permission. This is exactly the opposite of an unlimited democracy, where the government has total freedom, and the people are exactly as free as it lets them be.

The central idea that animates a country based on individual rights is that individuals should be free to pursue the values that sustain and enhance their lives, without interference. Individual rights are therefore incompatible with the kinds of guiding purposes or “common goods” that unlimited democracies use to justify their unlimited power. For example, an unlimited democracy might enforce a regulation requiring all passenger vehicles to meet certain crash-safety standards. But each individual who buys a vehicle values certain features more than others. Some buyers value safety very highly, while others value sportiness, or style, or fuel economy, and so on. If all vehicles are required to meet a certain safety standard, then cheap, dangerous, but fun-to-drive vehicles are no longer made. And when they become impossible to buy, then the “private good,” of the buyers who wanted them is sacrificed to the “common good” of fewer deadly crashes.

This is only one example. In any society that uses government power to force everyone to submit to a “common good,” individuals’ private goods are endlessly frustrated and destroyed. In their daily lives, individuals adjust to this. They come to accept dreams that will never be realized. They mourn and move on as countless opportunities slip from their grasp. This process becomes automatic, so few individuals even recognize that it is happening. In unlimited democracies, those who cheerfully endure the diminishment of their private goods, or those who volunteer to sacrifice their private values to the values of the state, are upheld as “good citizens.” Do you give up the lake house you’ve saved for for twenty years, so that you can afford to pay higher property taxes for public schools? You are a good citizen. Do you cheerfully spend an extra two hours each day to use public transportation, because gasoline taxes and other government policies have made commuting by car too expensive? Do you not complain about missing those two hours with your family? You are a very good citizen. Do you sell your guns to a government-sponsored buyback program, even though you live far out in the country, where help from the police is always twenty minutes away? When a violent home invasion takes the lives of your wife and son, do you swallow your bitterness over that needless loss, because giving up your home-defense firearms had served the “common good”? Now you are a citizen-hero, because you are a broken man.

In a society based on individual-rights, each individual is free to decide which values are worth pursuing. Each individual is free to take whatever actions she deems necessary in order to gain new values or maintain old ones. Each individual is free to choose any personal standard by which to measure and choose among values. If a mother wants to own an AR-15 because, according to her standards, the lives of her loved ones merit this kind of protection, she is free to do so. If she does not want to own an AR-15, because, by her standards, some abstract ideal of public safety is more important, she is free not to own one. In fact, with one exception, her freedom is total: She is not free to force anyone else to pursue, to use, or to transfer values according to her own standards. Or, put more simply: she is not free to force anyone else to do anything.

This degree of freedom makes a society-wide pursuit of any “common good” impossible. Precisely because individuals’ standards of value differ, and because their applications of these standards also vary, any society-wide pursuit of any “common good” requires individuals to sacrifice their own standards and their own values. The “common good” relies on force; it relies on the power of a government to force these sacrifices on a massive scale. Because individuals will not make sufficient sacrifices voluntarily, the general pursuit of any “common good” is only made possible by the constant threat of violence. In any society that does not allow threats, there can be no “common good.” And any society that allows total individual freedom can only do so by disallowing all threats. Individual rights and the common good are fundamentally incompatible.

There is no area where this incompatibility is clearer than around weapons of war. The most jealously guarded power of governments is the power to make war. This is because, no matter what standard of the “common good” a country claims to follow (and even if a country claims to follow individual rights instead), other countries have their own standards. But any given resource in the world can only be used, at any given moment, to serve one master, according to one standard of value. This leads to conflict. War can be seen as violent, large-scale conflict over which standards of the good will guide the use of which resources. When one country wants resources controlled by another country, if it thinks it can get them more cheaply by killing than by trading, it attacks. This is always perfectly justified by the standards of the attackers. When American colonists displaced and murdered Native Americans, there is no doubt that this was justified by the colonists’ standard of the “common good.” The same would have been true, from the opposite perspective, whenever Native Americans murdered colonists.

War is the means by which the supremacy of one standard of the good is asserted over another. Any entity with the power to go to war can potentially impose — or defend — its standard of good, by force. Any entity that has this power is a sovereign. In countries like the United States, where government power is shared between different entities, the offices that hold the war power reveal which government entity is truly in charge. California and Texas and Massachusetts each have laws regulating every aspect of their citizens’ lives, but only the Federal government can declare war. So one is tempted to conclude that the Federal government is sovereign.

Except this is not — quite — true.

In the United States, any citizen can declare war at any time. His unilateral power to declare war is implicit in the Second Amendment, and a presumption of that text is that if any citizen were to exercise this power, it might be against his own government. The Second Amendment guaranteed three things: First, that the people did not need permission to keep and bear military-grade arms. (Rather, the government needed the People’s permission to keep and bear them.) Second, that because of this, the People would be empowered to declare war — on their own government, on invaders, or on or their fellow citizens — if they came to believe that war was necessary. Third, that both of these rights would be formally recognized in the Constitution, making it much harder for future government officials to discredit or to deny them.

The reality of the meaning of the Second Amendment, once it is understood, makes it more natural to think of America in a new way. It is not, exactly, a union of States. It is a union of individuals, each of them a sovereign unto himself or herself. Unlike Europeans, who submit to a “common good” that is chosen and revised through the endless renegotiations of the unlimited democratic process, Americans, when they are distinctly American, recognize no common good. There exists only each individual’s own private good, which he is free to discover and then pursue, without limitation or interference, unless he initiates force against others in the process. Individuals in America retain the right and the prerogative to do just what nations do: go to war to enforce (or defend) their own standard of good.

But by now, I hope and expect that readers have realized how strange this individualist America sounds to our contemporary ears. Do we really live in a country that allows individual citizens to declare war? Do we really live in a country that follows the complementary principles of individual rights and enumerated powers, one that believes the government is only permitted to pass and enforce laws within a narrowly defined scope? Or is the United States’ government more like a typical European or Asian unlimited democracy? Do we consider it normal for our government to try to shape our society into something fairer for all, or more prosperous, or more responsive to the structural inequalities that disproportionately affect minorities?

Although the Union of the States was explicitly founded on radical principles of infinitely broad individual rights coupled with strictly limited government power, these principles have never, at any time in history, been shared by a clear and vocal majority of Americans. In the beginning, at the time of the founding, individualist views were popular, but the elites who codified them in law were by no means expressing a broad national consensus. The truth is far, far more complicated than that. America has always been a nation of divided loyalties and contending principles. There were, for example, roughly as many loyalists to the Crown at the time of the Revolution as there were revolutionaries. More profoundly, Christian ethics have always been at odds with political individualism, and America has always been an individualist country with a predominantly Christian population. When America is looked at this way, it is easy to see why many Americans are happy to model our future on Europe’s present: many Americans never stopped being European at heart, because many Americans never stopped believing in the common good.

But whenever one wants to understand the essence of a thing, one must first look to what makes it unique, what makes it different, what sets it apart from every similar thing. If we discover what sets America apart from other countries, we will have discovered its essence. And this is not difficult to do: the essence of America is individualism, because no other country in history has ever been founded on individual rights. No other country in history has ever even recognized that they exist.

Contemporary debates over gun control occur in this context: Roughly half of the American people prefer the European way of life, centered on the “common good,” over the distinctly American way of life, rooted in individual rights. And this is nothing new. European thinking has been predominant in America, and increasingly so, almost from the beginning. As a result, American history has been characterized by centuries of drift away from the radically individualist principles of the Declaration of Independence. Collectivism has won contest after contest. It has won so many contests in so many areas that now, when the founding principles of the United States are described, they seem alien to many Americans. American culture has been transformed, nearly out of existence.

This transformation, however, has been uneven. In a few key areas, despite having become collectivist nearly everywhere else, Americans have held on to elements of their original, individualist identity. One of these areas is gun rights. And this is why the pro-gun coalition resists “common sense” gun legislation so stiffly: the smallest change here will erase lines that have tenuously held the original, individualist America together. Gun policy will decide whether the long American drift toward collectivism will be corrected as a mistake, or embraced as “progress.” Where the Second Amendment goes, America goes.

In this context, it is possible to recognize that the political coalitions divided over guns really represent much deeper factions, divided over a much deeper issue. The pro-gun coalition loves America for exactly what makes it uniquely American. The anti-gun coalition is done with America, and wants to return to its European roots. That’s it.

These are not consciously held beliefs. You will not confirm the reality of this division by taking a poll. You will not too often find anti-gun Americans who freely admit they prefer European unlimited democracy in every way to American limited government. But everyone can understand the power of symbols, and everyone, I think, having read this far, can now understand what the AR-15, high-capacity magazines, and other weapons of war symbolize to the millions of Americans who refuse to give them up.

They symbolize an entire way of life, one that rejects the “common good” in favor of a personal pursuit of happiness. Guns symbolize, perhaps more than anything else an American can put his hands on, the idea that he is in charge of his own life. He gets to decide when to defend that life with deadly force. He gets to decide when to go to war, for what reasons, and against whom.

If those in the Democratic coalition want to be heard by their opponents on this issue, they need to address this openly and honestly. Tell the truth. Say what you mean. Explain why the “common good” is a better organizing principle for society than individual rights. The confusion around this issue will be lifted. Your opponents will really listen to you then.

Reason and Rights: the Last of the Wine

My thinking about the world changed in June of 2016, as I considered the media analyses of Pulse nightclub shootings, and the popular response to it. Predictably, drearily, the red phylum of boobus Americanus emphasized the Islamism of the shooter, while the blue phylum emphasized his choice of weapons. It was terrible, terrible that more hadn’t been done to root out the threat of radical Islamic terrorism! It was terrible, terrible that the shooter had had such ready access to deadly firearms! Nearly everyone agreed that more government action, of one kind or another, was urgently needed. Oh my.

Of course, a small contingent of libertarians resisted. No, they said, Americans do not need to submit more completely to the national security state. No, they said, Americans do not need to give up their guns. They were ignored, as always.

In the end, the Pulse shooting provoked no new depredations against Fourth- or Second-Amendment rights. The status quo prevailed. But this was no victory for libertarians; mere cultural inertia had carried the day. And because authoritarians were not effectively shamed for their attempted exploitation of the victims, they will surely seek to exploit them again. Authoritarians on the right and on the left alike have filed them away, each victim a bullet added to their talking points, each victim a rationale for expanding government power.

None of this was new. If the Pulse shooting was sprinkled with left-authoritarians’ crocodile tears, Sandy Hook was drenched in them. And neither of these can compare to 9/11, which was exploited by right authoritarians far more effectively than any crisis since. The aftermath of the Pulse shooting changed my thinking not because it brought about anything new, but because it delivered so much more of the same. I had seen too much of the same for too long: A crisis. A reaction. A solution. If Pulse didn’t bring some new authoritarian solution to fruition, it was only because the reaction hadn’t been fearful enough.

It is an insanity, if any force can be raised up to stop it, to permit this drama to continue any longer: a crisis, a reaction, a solution. A crisis: 9/11. A reaction: widespread fear. A solution: the USA PATRIOT Act. Without question, some new crisis, its reaction, and its “solution” will finally dissolve the lees and dregs of the West, and the last of the wine with it.

Is there a force that could be raised up to stop this? I’m quite sure there is. After the Pulse shooting, I stopped thinking I could wait for it. My math had been wrong.

Anyone who has the sense to see where all of this is headed: you should stop thinking you can wait for it, too. Your math is wrong.

Facile Critics of Ayn Rand

One of the more distasteful logical fallacies is the straw man, because its use implies a conscious intent to deceive. Honest, reasonable argument is noble on its face. But replying to an argument dishonestly makes a farce of what should have been fine. And it is shameful, and thus distasteful, to witness someone debasing themselves this way.

Ayn Rand’s critics are infamous, among her admirers, for their characteristic reliance on straw men. I myself have read perhaps hundreds of criticisms of her work, of which maybe two or three were straw-man free. The failing is pandemic. Since I am always looking for something to admire in my fellow man, it could be argued that I ought to read fewer of Ayn Rand’s critics.

But I don’t think I will stop reading them, because they fascinate me. The more persistent the gap between the phantasmagorical Rand they tilt at and the substance of what she wrote, the more fascinating the spectacle. What could be the cause of such “refutations,” I wonder? Why bother to rebut an imaginary argument? Why review a book that was never written?

It hasn’t sated my fascination that I already know, in outline, the answers to these questions. You, reader, likely know the answers as well. They are always the same. If we “seek the true by the light of the good,” we find nothing. If we believe we know what constitutes “the good” in some context, then we must think we already know, because the good is a species of the true, the truth in that context too. Thus we make ourselves unteachable. What if some might-be truth threatens our precious “good?” That might-be must not be. What if our own honesty threatens the good as we see it? Better be dishonest. What if being fair threatens the good as we see it? Better be unfair. If “progressive” values are good, Ayn Rand’s values, which threaten them, had better be degenerate. If progressives themselves are good people, Ayn Rand had better be a goon. So the answers are clear: Why rebut an imaginary argument? Because imaginary arguments have no power to disillusion; rather, they complement and sustain whatever illusion, or noble lie, one already cherishes. Why review a book that’s never been written? Because an unwritten book consists only of these safely imaginary arguments, or of characters, setting, plot, and theme equally anodyne.

It’s not enough to know, in the abstract, why Ayn Rand’s critics misread her. I want to know: what is it like to author such a misreading? What, exactly, is one telling oneself as it’s happening? I have a notion, and perhaps it’s wrong, but I want to find out for myself, that if someone were to recover from this particular form of self-delusion, he could return to the still-deluded, like Plato’s cave escapee, but he would know the secret words to whisper to them, the words that would finally set them free.

Open Letter to the Blue Team

Blue Team:

As you may have noticed, it is possible, sometimes, to tell how someone votes by the arrangement of their yard. I say, “sometimes,” because most yards are neutral. There’s a lawn, probably, and some landscaping. There might be a fence, or a garden gnome. If there are children in the house, there might be toys scattered around. None of these tell us much about a homeowner’s politics.

But there are a few yards that do tell. The crisply mown lawn, edged to perfection, with a swept driveway cutting through it in stark contrast. The metal shed at the back, or a workshop, or a number of trim outbuildings, with clean walls of beige or gray, and bare, except perhaps for a thermometer. The faint chemical smell of fertilizer. A sense of readiness and order. This is a red-team yard. Count on it.

On the other hand: a compost pile, hidden behind a wild profusion of greenery. Sunflowers. A vegetable garden. A tangle of green so thick and profuse it seems more wild than an untouched field or forest. Flashes of color, stained glass and brass or copper. A path to the house through the green, made of natural stone. A neglected driveway, an afterthought. This is a blue-team yard, no question.

Have you ever wondered what causes these strange consonances?  Why should Obama voters prefer one style of yard, and Bush voters another? Certainly there’s no direct link between being pro-lawn-fertilizer and being pro-life. Certainly there’s no direct link between funky yard art and being pro-choice. What’s going on?

I’ll leave that for you to puzzle over, if you like. Whatever the cause, it’s plain that red teamers and blue teamers have more in common, intramurally, than mere politics. These commonalities can be found and contrasted in other areas, too.

For example: Blues, you’re earthier than the reds. You have an affinity for life as it is, growing on the earth. You don’t try to scold life into behaving “as it should.” You try to follow its grain, explore its nooks, taste everything it offers. It makes you better cooks.

It also makes you better company, often times. Reds are rigid thinkers, easily made uneasy. Consequently, their small talk is as bland as their canned dinner rolls. Tell a red teamer about that theme park you’ve always wanted to build — the one with roller coasters that toss you through waterfalls to land in pools teeming with android mermaids, where you must catch holograms of talking fish in nets made of laser light, then hold them to your ear to get the password to the water slide, the one that goes down to a hidden grotto bar, where strong drinks are served in goblets like conch shells and everyone drinks merrily until the coaster cars come around again — and they’ll just say, “Whoo-kay.” They’ll miss the invitation to talk about fantastic sights as yet unseen. A pity.

There are other points blue teamers can justly pride themselves on, I think. But at least one common point of pride among you is one you haven’t earned. Although false modesty prevents you from saying so plainly, you believe yourselves to have evolved beyond bigotry. Or at least, you believe yourselves more evolved on this point than the rednecks, Republicans, and Walmart shoppers you disdain. But you are bigots. You are the worst, most complete, most perfectly closed-off, vacuum sealed, and hopeless bigots I have ever, in my life, encountered.

The fulcrum of your bigotry is pride in your education. Those who oppose you are often, so you say, mentally ill (racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, etc.), they might be malevolent too (although you hesitate to say so, unless they’re winning), but they are almost always, as you understand it, ignorant. Everyone who disagrees with you is ignorant. You know this, because, if they weren’t ignorant, they would agree with you. You learned this in college. Your opponents must either have not gone to college, or they went, but somehow missed getting educated.

In the wake of the Trump phenomenon, several of your own have taken you to task for this obdurate smugness. Here’s an excerpt from a typical example, and a good one, from Emmett Rensin writing at Vox.com:

Elites, real elites, might recognize one another by their superior knowledge. The smug recognize one another by their mutual knowing.

Knowing, for example, that the Founding Fathers were all secular deists. Knowing that you’re actually, like, 30 times more likely to shoot yourself than an intruder. Knowing that those fools out in Kansas are voting against their own self-interest and that the trouble is Kansas doesn’t know any better. Knowing all the jokes that signal this knowledge.

… It is the smug style’s first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from “imposing their morals” like the bad guys do.

But the friendly critics like Rensin merely want you to modulate your rhetoric. They don’t deny that you’ve got science on your side. No, they just want you to try addressing the red team with arguments rather than insults, because they think this approach will be more likely to advance your political goals. They frame your smugness as a tactical misstep, not as what it is: a character flaw.

The problem isn’t that you are wise in matters of policy, but foolish in matters of strategy. The problem is that you are fools, full stop. And you are not benign fools, either. You are the worst and most dangerous kinds of fools; you are fools who think yourselves wise. You are sophomores who never graduate, who never stand to defend a thesis. You are Eternal Sophomores, mere beginners, who are aware that they have learned something, and mistake that tiny something for the whole of wisdom.

You vaunt your education, but I have seen the kind of work you do. I’ve seen how uncritically you accept your instructors’ framing of issues. I’ve seen how little time you spend in libraries, seeking out contrary views, how dependent you are on sources that are handed to you. I’ve seen how sloppily you put your papers together, how you raid your sources, just as Nietzsche says the “worst readers” do:

The worst readers are those who behave like plundering troops: they take away a few things they can use, dirty and confound the remainder, and revile the whole.

In short, I’ve seen how little you value ideas, even your own. You don’t take them seriously. You never have taken them seriously. You might never take them seriously. For you, an idea is good if it helps you fit in with the crowd you’ve chosen. An idea is good if supporting it earns you nods or Facebook Likes from the right people. You would disagree. You would say you think an idea is good if it is true, or perhaps if it is useful. But you have no way of measuring ideas against these standards, and you’re not interested in learning how to do it. When you say you care about the truth, you lie.

I’ve watched you long enough to know that this isn’t a passing phase. It’s not the shock of Trump’s victory that’s got you dabbling in sophistry. This is your true, authentic, ultimately self-expressive stance toward ideas: they don’t matter. What matters is being liked by the right people, holding the right opinions, and knowing, as Rensin says, the “Good Facts.” It’s all a game for you.

And this is what makes you bigots. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines a bigot as:

A person who is obstinately and unreasonably wedded to a particular religious creed, opinion, practice or ritual. The word is sometimes used in an enlarged sense, for a person who is illiberally attached to any opinion, or system of belief; as a bigot to the Mohammedan religion; a bigot to a form of government.

An unwillingness to honestly consider arguments or evidence is the essence of bigotry, not racial prejudice, or any of the boogeymen of the contemporary left. Bigotry is unreason; it is an indifference to reality. Bigotry isn’t fundamentally about our attitudes toward other groups. If it were true that, for example, gay marriage were a threat to our civilization, then to be against it would not be bigoted. To refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple would not be bigoted. But it is bigoted, right now, today, when blue teamers refuse to duly consider the arguments the red team marshals for this flawed thesis.

Blue teamers, it has become fashionable of late to distance oneself socially from those who hold differing political opinions. I’m sure you’ve noticed. Perhaps you’ve done this yourself. But when you do this, it’s not your instinct for self-preservation at work, or a cautious prudence, or some kindergarten ethos that bids you to say nothing at all, since you can’t say anything nice. It’s your bigotry. Your unreason. Your Eternal damned Sophomorism. You know this as well as I do. So do better.

Make an argument for once. Hear an argument for once. Take it all the way to the end. I really don’t think you can do it. I think you’re too far gone. But because some of you — when I choose to overlook your loathsome bigotry — are some of my favorite people, I’m rooting for you.

In Case You Ever Wonder

Why Ayn Rand Is “Not a Serious Philosopher”

Let us look more closely; what is the scientific man? A type of man that is not noble; he has an instinct for his equals and for what they need; for example, that claim to honor and recognition, that constant attestation of his value and utility which is needed to overcome again and again the internal mistrust which is the sediment in the hearts of all dependent men. He is rich in petty envy and has lynx eyes for what is base in natures to whose heights he cannot attain. Their sense of the mediocrity of their own type instinctively works at the annihilation of the uncommon man and tries to break every bent bow, or preferably, unbend it.

—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil § 206, as presented by Laurence Lampert, Nietzsche and Modern Times, pp. 34–35

CNN’s Least Favorite Syria Facts

Worth considering:

Slate Produced Something Not Entirely Worthless!

Wonders never cease.

Note: Nietzsche is wrong in the end, but right sometimes on his way there.

There’s Too Much Confusion

What you think this is: a dark satire that speaks to our disgust with commissars and oligarchs.

What this actually is: a confession of bloodlust, felt everywhere, but neither understood nor (openly) admitted to.

See, the thing is, people, keep it up like you have been — the rage and the fervent belief, unsupported by serious arguments — and in retrospect this kind of thing is going to look quaintly optimistic. Bloodlust isn’t nearly so sensible as the sensible hope.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.