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Again and Again, They Use

Facebook is an anti-intellectual medium. It mangles expression and cramps thought. Its net effect on human culture is significantly degenerative, but, partly because this is so, it is an important medium, one worth participating in — carefully.

In the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, an old friend of mine shared Robin Sokoloff’s “Open Letter For People Looking For Open Letters” to her Facebook feed. I was then, as I continue to be now, very curious to learn more about how the Blue team, especially Blue-team women, were interpreting the Kavanaugh confirmation fight, including Blasey Ford’s accusations. So I read the letter. It is a work of magical realism, not very interesting in itself, not very insightful in itself, but it was plain to me that it must have been expressing exactly what many Blue-team women wanted someone to express on their general behalf. Or at least it was expressing a significant part of what they wanted expressed. At the time of this writing it has nearly twenty thousand Facebook “shares,” and a similar number of “likes.” I strongly recommend you read the whole thing.

While most of it was a narrative manifestation of boilerplate Blue-team feminist catechism, this passage in Sokoloff’s letter struck me; it was the heart of the matter:

If I had a nickel for every seemly nice guy who’s tried to mack on me this week by saying, “So… this Kavanaugh thing, huh?”

And I just stare back. I figure it’s their turn to make this nice.

And they go, “Well, I mean… do you think there is any… absolutely any chance that he didn’t do it? Like what if….. I mean, there’s very little evidence and I was wondering like what if… ”

And I stop him there. I try to help him out. I try to take his side.

“Bro – Humor me. Imagine you were overcome by a bunch of piss drunk men, half suffocated, and brought to the point of ‘about to be raped’, if not actually raped in this manner as so very many women are. Think about it for a sec. Would you tell anyone? How would the people around you act if you said you had been raped? Would your family believe you? Would your job believe you? Would the WHOLE WORLD believe you? Are you prepared to be the laughing stock of every where you go for the rest of your life just to stop one man from having a job? Tell me – Is there a world in which YOU would make this up knowing it would pretty much end your life as you currently know it? And if you actually worked up the courage to tell your story, what would you do if some guy like you, no, millions of guys like you were standing here going ARE YOU SURE???”

He says, “oh…. I …shit. Yeah…. But wait, were the guys that raped me gay or straight.”

I stare back. I blink once, very slowly.

He knows he’s an idiot. He admits he’s an idiot. He just needed a sec.

“Well the thing is, women don’t get a sec when they are being sexually assaulted.”

Robin Sokoloff’s letter isn’t really about Kavanaugh. It’s really about the power dynamic the Blue team believes exists between men and women; it’s about the so-called “patriarchy.” The letter doesn’t really have a thesis, but if it did, it’s thesis would be: “Men have been exercising power over women forever, and Kavanaugh’s confirmation has sharpened women’s rage against this injustice to a spear’s point. Therefore, men: beware. Change is coming.” But although Sokoloff’s letter isn’t really about Kavanaugh, it depends on Kavanaugh, or on his guilt. For the letter to have the impact it aims to have, he simply must be guilty. The facts be damned.

As I see it, erasing Kavanaugh as an individual, forcing him to serve as a symbol for a cultural movement that may, in fact, have nothing to do with him, is a gross injustice. Those who participate in it are morally repugnant. So I commented on my old friend’s repost of Sokoloff’s letter:

This writer seems to believe that it is possible to confidently deduce Kavanaugh’s guilt from a psychological model she has constructed — of Blasey Ford. This is a remarkable position to take, although I see many people seem to be taking it. I would be very interested to hear a fully developed argument in favor of this method.

It should, I think, come as no surprise to most readers that this argument that I so much wanted to hear was not forthcoming. On the contrary, my friend insisted that Kavanaugh and his guilt or innocence had little to do with her own reasons for posting Sokoloff’s letter. And while, to her credit, she offered to argue the merits of the letter with me in private, she insisted that we not pursue the matter then and there. (I did not take her up on her offer for a private discussion, although perhaps I should have.) For her, she made it clear, the letter was about a visceral expression of the bullshit that women have to deal with under the patriarchy. It was a catharsis.

But suppose Kavanaugh is, in fact, innocent. In that case, the Blue team seems to be more than happy to sacrifice him and his name, and, along with them, any general commitment to sound principles of justice, just so they can have their catharsis when they want it, when it feels right to them. This is monstrous. This is savage. This is cause for grave concern, and more than that.

A few days ago, a dear friend of mine reminded me of a letter she had written to another friend in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting. The context of this letter was that their friendship had become strained because they disagreed about whether or not Brown’s shooting could be justly held up as an example of everything the Black Lives Matter movement rails against. I excerpt it here. All emphases are mine:

… I said that I was wondering why there weren’t articles from the left that went back and re-examined the evidence …. I was referring specifically to articles written from a leftist standpoint that laid out a step-by-step, detailed justification for elevating Mike Brown to the status of a definite victim of racial injustice (What makes him a fitting figure to use as fuel for a movement?). I wanted to see almost a play-by-play analysis of the specific evidence people on the left were using to justify their take on the case accompanied by a narrative that went along with it, explaining how each event and moment (interpreted through a left-leaning lens) that happened on the day Brown was shot contributed to or fit with their argument that Brown was definitely a victim of race-based police brutality and deserves a place as figurehead of their cause. So far, in my perusal of articles, what I have seen has not been evidence-based justification for why Brown really is the perfect victim to rally behind in this way, but rather, the majority of the articles I have read (many of them coming from my activist graduate school friends) have been about the bigger, broader issue of racial inequality in America that claim to be anchored in Brown without ever quite providing a reasoned justification for that anchoring.

The reason I think that kind of article is so important is because articles like that create an essential middle ground on which both sides can meet, weigh their evidence, and have a real discussion. To illustrate sort of what I am talking about, here is a link to a Washington Post article from a neutral perspective that discusses based on evidence only, how the actual facts of the case did not provide any reason to doubt Wilson’s testimony. This does not mean that the article proves Wilson was honest, but it does lay out evidential details and discusses how they do or do not fit with claims made by Wilson.

Here is the article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/11/28/the-physical-evidence-in-the-michael-brown-case-supported-the-officer/

I guess what I am looking for from the left is something similar to this article in its level of detail and commitment to evidence, but that ultimately comes down on Brown’s side. I’m looking for something that takes into account all the evidence and integrates it together into a comprehensive narrative in support of Brown, dissecting what happened with the same level of detail as the article I linked to. It doesn’t need to show that Brown is perfect, but I want to see something that shows that the Brown issue is definitely connected to structural racial problems in the country. The majority of articles I’ve seen have shown that at best, the connection is ambiguous.

It seems like people on the left (and you have said this yourself several times now) are not interested in having that kind of conversation about Brown. They don’t want to discuss the details of what he actually did or did not do. Maybe he did attack Wilson. Maybe Wilson shot him unnecessarily. I don’t know the answer to that question because, like you said, the evidence is confusing. But what I do know is that evidence matters, and if we are ever going to bridge the huge divide in this country surrounding issues of race (the divide seems to correspond with political lines), then the left is going to need to make their case using evidence and careful argument. Lefties are never going to convince a conservative Christian to give up his idea that “racism has long been eradicated in this country” if they aren’t able to offer him a rational reason anchored to real-life events that explains why he should see things their way.

I found one comment you made to be very interesting. You said that you could see how people might be able to “see their own narrative in the evidence,” kind of like how people read the Bible. I agree with this emphatically. And I think that this is what is indeed happening. People are taking a cause that they believe in and are anchoring it to a specific person (Mike Brown) and a specific event (Ferguson), but they aren’t quite making the connection black and white for others so that they too can also see it. They seem to be depending primarily on the narrative they have already decided on and are making the evidence fit that narrative, rather than the other way around (using the evidence to shape their narrative, or anchoring their narrative in undisputed evidence only).

More than anything, the thing that disturbs me about Ferguson is that it seems to be more about feelings than evidence. I just “know” that Wilson was a racist. I just feel that Mike had his hands up. I can just tell! And to that I would say, “You may be right, but show me the evidence before you form a movement!” Or I would say, “If you can’t quite pin down the evidence with Brown, then anchor your movement in another case that is clearer, that you can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt!”

Because the truth is, there are hundreds and thousands of race-based crimes that happen in America. That is a true thing that happens! I see absolutely no need to debate this particular question because it is real. Police officers sometimes racially profile black men and then treat them unfairly and get away with it. So if you feel that Mike Brown (if he was killed unjustly) is not the only one and that this kind of thing happens all over the place and needs to be stopped, you are right. But was Mike Brown actually totally innocent in this case? People might say, “The answer to that question doesn’t matter because police brutality against blacks is a huge problem and Brown is just a symbol of a bigger problem, whether the facts are black and white or not.” But I would argue that the facts always matter, and if you are going to build a movement and try to bring racial equality to full fruition in this country, you have to stick with the evidence. You have to. If you don’t, then how do you plan to get dissenters to see things your way? If you want to build a case, build it! But go back first and carefully reason your way through what happened so that you have a clear justification for both yourself and others. Then, I think you can begin to change the world. When groups and movements try to win their case without using evidence as their tool of communication, what methods are left to them to try to convince people to take their side? Feelings? Divine insight? Violence and force?

The parallels between Brown’s case and Blasey Ford’s are obvious. It is also fairly obvious that the Blue team is largely content to use any Ford or Brown they have at hand as symbols for their causes. But it is far from obvious that this willingness is not evidence of a monstrous moral void in the heart of contemporary leftism.

But that is not what interests me at the moment. What interests me now is this: Have you, reader, ever heard a leftist argue the merits of their team’s take on Brown or on Blasey Ford? Have you ever personally witnessed a lengthy, substantive exchange between a Blue teamer and anyone in opposition, where the Blue teamer gave reasons for their take, and answered challenges and criticisms forthrightly?

I know the answer. You haven’t. And this is what interests me: What does this mean? What does this great sucking vacuum of reasoned argument mean? Myself, I think it means there is no reason on the left, and little reason left in our culture as a whole. And I think this means we should all be trying to rekindle reason in public discourse, and we should be trying with a desperate energy and focus.

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.

An Outline Toward Turning the Tide

What I am about to say will be of little interest to most readers. I post it here nonetheless, because it might be of interest to some, and because I could not stomach the prospect of typing out something this long in a Facebook comment. If you do happen to find yourself among the few who will find what follows interesting, please keep in mind that it is nothing more than an overgrown Facebook comment, and should not be mistaken for more than that.

Recently I was asked what I suggest ought to be done about the impending collapse of what I have variously called “Western,” “Aristotelian,” and “American” civilization. This is what I suggest: I think sensible people ought to gather together, in a formal, purposeful, organized and disciplined way, to catalog and assess the assets of the enemy, to find ways to disable or minimize those assets, to catalog, asses, and develop our own assets, and to find ways to deploy them to maximum effect. This project should be undertaken on the premise that it is possible to save our civilization, because it is, in fact, possible. I have in mind not a discussion circle, but an intellectual militia, volunteers planning and carrying out, on their own authority, attacks on only those targets of full-spectrum warfare that can be captured and controlled without violence or the threat of it. But this is speaking so broadly that it conveys little, and I could only expect what I have said so far to be shrugged off, if I stopped here.

Before I go any further, however, it is necessary to define “sensible people.” Sensible people are Aristotelians (usually: careful readers of Ayn Rand), especially those who already understand that their civilization is collapsing and who would be willing to act strenuously to prevent this. I think it is fairly obvious that if sensible people as I have described them exist in any numbers, they must believe that there is now little they can do to halt the collapse of their civilization, or else they believe, also incorrectly, that some efforts already underway will prevent this collapse. Otherwise, signs of their work would be more evident.

If this analysis is correct, then it is incumbent upon me to explain why anyone who has seen it coming, especially sensible people, should believe that the collapse of civilization is not inevitable after all. And so I shall. But what follows, a gloss of an argument for rejecting fatalism, is in a kind of shorthand. If you’re not well versed in Objectivism, it will make little sense to you. Fix that if you like.

Objectivism recognizes that ideas move history:

Contrary to the prevalent views of today’s alleged scholars, history is not an unintelligible chaos ruled by chance and whim—historical trends can be predicted, and changed—men are not helpless, blind, doomed creatures carried to destruction by incomprehensible forces beyond their control.

There is only one power that determines the course of history, just as it determines the course of every individual life: the power of man’s rational faculty—the power of ideas. If you know a man’s convictions, you can predict his actions. If you understand the dominant philosophy of a society, you can predict its course. But convictions and philosophy are matters open to man’s choice.

There is no fatalistic, predetermined historical necessity. Atlas Shrugged is not a prophecy of our unavoidable destruction, but a manifesto of our power to avoid it, if we choose to change our course.

This integration can seem at odds with some salient features of contemporary life. For one, the vast majority of people might seem to be impervious to ideas. They don’t understand them, can’t articulate them, and show no interest in them. And yet, if Rand was right, the masses are no less moved by ideas than elite intellectuals are. How can this be?

The standard Objectivist answer is that the masses follow the ideas of their local leaders, and those leaders follow the ideas of their own leaders, and those of theirs, and so on and so on, until the hierarchy terminates at a pyramid’s apex, with Plato, or some other philosopher (but probably Plato). As impervious to ideas as John Q. Public may at first seem, he is, in fact, as permeable, and as indiscriminate, as a sponge. He sucks up whatever ideas are nearby. If the ideas are good, he will repeat them, in his attenuated, sometimes garbled way. If they are bad, he will repeat them just the same. He will live his life by them either way.

Therefore, according to Objectivism, it’s not the hand that rocks the cradle that rules the world, but the hand guiding the Op-Ed pen, drafting the party platform, writing the academic paper, and, ultimately, the hand writing Atlas Shrugged. Unless it is the hand behind the Republic.

After Ayn Rand’s death, Leonard Peikoff attempted to put this theory of history into practice. Through the Ayn Rand Institute, he attempted to change the course of history. He followed Ayn Rand’s implicit advice:

History is made by minorities—or, more precisely, history is made by intellectual movements, which are created by minorities. Who belongs to these minorities? Anyone who is able and willing actively to concern himself with intellectual issues. Here, it is not quantity, but quality that counts (the quality—and consistency—of the ideas one is advocating).

The strategy that ARI settled on was simple. If ideas move history, and if ideas in contemporary culture are disseminated downward from the university system, then a movement may change the course of our culture simply by capturing the commanding heights of academe. Therefore, ARI set out to do just that. Their goal became to fight an intellectual war of attrition against the entrenched forces of Plato, Kant, Mill, Dewey, Foucault, Rawls, and Derrida, to gradually replace academics loyal to these masters with academics learned in Objectivism. The last time I checked, ARI was calling their strategy the “Funnel.”

A sober person could have taken the Funnel seriously in 1985, possibly even in early September of 2001. But the pace of this thing, the collapse of American civilization toward civil war and ultimate implosion, has been picking up for some time. I won’t argue the point here, but I don’t think a sober person, let alone a sober and sensible person, can reasonably take the Funnel seriously today. Time is just too short. The Objectivists’ plodding, Quixotic conquest of academe cannot possibly succeed in time.

It has long been my habit to suss out interesting questions that aren’t getting asked, and ask them, ask them, ask them, and ask them, until they get answered. Now here’s an interesting question that doesn’t get asked enough: If the Objectivist theory of history is true, and if the Funnel is a terribly ineffectual implementation of this theory’s principles, what is it that Leonard Peikoff, the Ayn Rand Institute, and all orthodox Objectivists have missed?

Ironically, the answer is: Ellsworth Toohey. In Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, arch-villain Ellsworth Toohey, a pathetic husk of a human being, is able to wield considerable power by the cunning application of a certain kind of leverage. Toohey possesses a subtle understanding of how social institutions work, from cocktail parties, to newspaper offices, to his own ad hoc, invitation-only pseudo-professional organizations. These institutions become his fulcrum, his Archimedean point. He applies his understanding to amplify his ideas through these institutions, thereby reaching and manipulating thousands or millions of minds. Toohey carefully chooses not only what to say, but when to say it, to whom, and under what circumstances. If Toohey wanted to take control of a respected university, he would never be satisfied with anything so one-dimensional and crude as setting up his own graduate training program, like the Ayn Rand Institute’s Objectivist Academic Center. He would not meekly hope that his trainees could secure influential academic positions through their own merit and hard work. Nothing of the kind!

Instead, Toohey might find some doddering septuagenarian multimillionaire who had been frustrated, fifty years ago, in his own academic ambitions. Through a series of subtle manipulations, Toohey would convince the old fool to endow a foundation. The foundation would be chartered as a grant-giving organization. Toohey would, of course, insinuate himself into total control of the foundation’s board. After several careful interventions, giving grants to just the right up-and-comers at just the right times, Toohey would have captured key positions at his target university. He would have simultaneously infiltrated student organizations, and would have used them to agitate for more university resources to be diverted to his pet programs. Before long, provosts and deans would be dancing to his tune. Not long after that, other major donors. Not long after that, the university would be his. His investment in time and resources would have been minimal, compared to the scope of the resources he had captured. That’s leverage.

The key thing about Toohey, and the thing that Peikoff and ARI seem to have missed, is that he’s not pure fiction, not merely Ayn Rand’s invention. He’s real.

The Funnel strategy, which ignores Toohey and learns nothing from his methods, is the kind of plan a half-reformed cargo cultist might come up with. The cargo cultist sees power emanating from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. He determines to capture that power. He doesn’t bother to ask himself how that power came to be in the first place, or precisely how those who currently hold it got where they are, or whether displacing them is the optimal way to transfer their power to himself. He simply sees power in a particular place, and tries to put himself into to that place, by whatever means is most obvious at the moment.

But power in the Western world did not come to rest in Harvard, Princeton, and Yale by accident or happenstance. Universities have a history. And that history is rife with Tooheys setting up foundations, and councils, and astroturfing organizations, and generally worming around with levers, sniffing out fulcrums. And the same turns out to be true when every cultural power center is examined. The Federal Reserve isn’t an accident of history; Toohey made it. The mass media aren’t an accident of history; Toohey made them. Public education isn’t an accident of history; Toohey made it.

The significance of this for the future of our civilization becomes very clear as soon as one notices two peculiar facts about Toohey. One: he is still hard at work. Two: he works unopposed.

It is significant that Toohey is still hard at work because a clever fellow like Toohey does only as much work as is necessary to accomplish his goals. The fact that he is still hard at work implies that hard work is necessary, that cultural forces will fly out of his control if he does not keep constant pressure on his levers. In turn, this implies that if someone were to kick the levers out of his hands, then cultural forces would fly out of his control.

It is significant that Toohey works unopposed because it means all the terrifying progress that American collectivism has made so far has been made under ideal conditions. (Conservatives and libertarians, among others, have played the Washington Generals to the Left’s Harlem Globetrotters. They are not now, and never have been, real opposition.) But what if the conditions Toohey works under were suddenly made less than ideal? It seems obvious that this could upset his plans. Toohey’s works are a hothouse flower. Bust up the hothouse walls, expose them to the elements, and watch them wilt.

Ayn Rand’s theory of history is right. But she was a philosopher, not a strategist, and certainly not a tactician. Even a cursory look at ARI’s Funnel, the only serious attempt to apply her theory to the problem of Leftism, reveals how clumsy, ham-fisted, and inapt it is. What is needed, since the Funnel shows it has never been tried, is for sensible people to get together, organize, plot, scheme, and get to work at beating Toohey at his own game.

It can be done.

Now, it would be very helpful to my case here, I’m sure, to offer some specifics. But I won’t do that, for a number of good reasons. First among these is that I don’t understand why the argument I have just made has not independently occurred to hundreds of other sensible people, and inspired them to action. I do not believe that the observations upon which it is based require extraordinary subtlety or skill. Rather, something — some belief or assumption — seems to be holding most sensible people in the grip of fatalistic passivity. I have what I think are very good guesses as to what these incapacitating beliefs and assumptions might be. But I need to know for sure.

I need to know for sure because the third step in turning the tide of collectivism back is for those who are equipped to oppose it to organize themselves effectively. And before we can do that, we must recognize the same pertinent facts. The facts are there, plainly to be seen. And yet sensible people act as though they were invisible. So the first thing any sensible person should do about the impending collapse of our civilization is to find other sensible people, point out the facts they have overlooked, and find out why they have overlooked them. And here we are.

Like Little Whiteboards: Propaganda and Contemporary Minds II

The March for Our Lives is a work of propaganda. In the last piece in this series, I looked at some supplementary propaganda, from The Washington Post, which aimed at associating the March for Our Lives with the famous Children’s Crusade of 1963. Although the parallels between the March and the Crusade are obvious, Steven Levingston, writing for the Post, was prudent not to rely on the obvious. This is because of a paradox inherent in propaganda: its ideal consumer must be acute enough to understand what he is being told to believe, but obtuse enough not to understand that he is being told to believe something. And under no circumstances must the consumers of propaganda begin to recognize who is doing the telling, or why. Propagandists naturally get some help from their victims in this area. People do not prefer to recognize themselves as mere receptacles for others’ ideas, with minds like little whiteboards, to be scribbled on and erased, in accordance with some larger lesson plan. But even though people prefer to remain ignorant about what politicians, public-relations firms, media conglomerates, lobbying groups, think tanks, foundations, schools, universities, and non-profit organizations are scribbling on the surfaces of their minds, if the propagandists press too hard, people will take notice. So propaganda requires some finesse.

Unless, that is, it is targeted at people who are completely helpless. Which brings us back to the March for Our Lives.

With this preface, I invite you to consider the best treatment of the March, in the broadest context, that I have come across so far: “The Making of A Mindless Movement – A Teacher’s Perspective On Student Walkouts,” from Brett Veinotte’s School Sucks Podcast. In this episode, Brett reads a letter from an elementary school teacher who sees more going on with the March for Our Lives than propagandists will be comfortable with.

I detest the way that children have been used as pawns for political protest. To capitalize on a tragic event like the Parkland shooting and manipulate young people’s emotions for a political cause is absolutely disgusting. Since the progressive movement in education, youth have been idealized as agents of change who possess the powers to solve society’s most profound problems. But youth are also highly impressionable, and there is a fine line between promoting activism and indoctrination.

Read or listen to the whole thing.

Like Little Whiteboards: Propaganda and Contemporary Minds, Introduction

It’s a bad joke if it has to be explained. A similar rule might apply to propaganda.

So, here’s the joke, or the propaganda:

In case this NBC video later disappears down the memory hole, that was an excerpt from Cameron Kasky’s speech at the so-called March for Our Lives. He says:

My generation, having spent our entire lives seeing mass shooting after mass shooting, has learned that our voices are powerful and our votes matter. We must educate ourselves and start conversations that keep our country moving forward — and we will. We hereby promise to fix the broken system we’ve been forced into and create a better world for the generations to come. Don’t worry; we’ve got this! … The people demand a law banning the sale of assault weapons! The people demand we prohibit the sale of high-capacity magazines! The people demand universal background checks! Stand for us, or beware: the voters are coming!

That seems clear enough on its own, but The Washington Post felt it would need some prefatory remarks:

The school gates were locked. But that didn’t keep hundreds of students from crawling up and over the fences, defying their parents, teachers and school principals to march against segregation.

It was May 1963 in Alabama, and Birmingham’s brutal public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, was waiting. His police moved in, herding the children into squad cars, paddy wagons and school buses for the trip to jail.

When the students kept coming, Connor turned fire hoses on them, knocking the children to the ground and spinning them down the street. To fight the high-powered blasts, some children joined hands trying to keep their balance in a human chain. But the torrents were too fierce; hit by the rocket-bursts of water the kids whirled one way, then the other, dragging down their comrades.

The 1963 children’s crusade changed history. Now 55 years later, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., are rising up — staging protests and walkouts in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 slaughter of 17 people at their school.

Even as they’ve been attacked as “crisis actors” and disparaged on social media, the students have put elected officials on notice: They want America’s gun laws changed.

Steven Levingston, writing for the Post, wants to make sure Americans don’t miss the parallel: the Parkland kids are like the kids of the 1963 Children’s Crusade. The kids of the Children’s Crusade were righteous. The Parkland kids are righteous. The kids of the Children’s Crusade were brave. The Parkland kids are brave. And, most importantly: The kids of the Children’s Crusade were on “the right side of history.” And so goes the implication: The Parkland kids are on “the right side of history.”

Contemporary propaganda enthusiasts use the term, “optics” to mean “the way something looks at first glance.” For example, if a politician receives significant money from the NRA, the “optics” suggest the NRA is buying his loyalty on gun-control policy. Some situations have “good optics” for those involved. Some situations have “bad optics.” And the “optics” of a situation can also be good or bad for a given cause. The “optics” of the March for Our Lives movement are good for the cause of gun control. The movement looks, at first glance, like an authentic, spontaneous uprising of student-led activism. It looks as though thoughtful, well-spoken, heart-warmingly diverse, and remarkably precocious young people are standing up against the NRA and other backward-looking interests, advocating for common-sense measures, measures needed in order to keep kids from getting torn to bloody ribbons by bullets. On the surface, by its “optics,” their platform is so sensible, so reasonable, and so right-feeling that only a monster could reject it. And that’s the whole point. That’s the axis around which the March’s propaganda spins.

The optics already suggest it, so it shouldn’t need to be explained that, like the heroic black kid-crusaders of 1963, these kids deserve our empathy and our political support. It shouldn’t need to be explained that questioning or analyzing their platform is mean-spirited. It shouldn’t need to be explained that whatever these noble youth feel is right must be right, just because they feel it. It shouldn’t need to be explained that it is our duty to feel along with them, not train our critical thoughts on them, like a school shooter trains the iron sights of his AR-15 on helpless victims.

Levingston continues:

History shows that kids, with their innocence, honesty and moral urgency, can shame adults into discovering their conscience. It worked in Birmingham. During the children’s crusade, young people swarmed in to redirect the arc of history.

In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had targeted the Alabama city as the key to ending the segregation throughout the South. As his close aide, Wyatt Tee Walker, put it, “We knew that as Birmingham went, so would go the South.”

But the Birmingham movement was flagging. In need of a radical shift in strategy, James Bevel, an adviser to King, recommended turning young blacks into foot soldiers for equal rights. King was hesitant, fearing for the children’s safety. He prayed and reflected and finally accepted that putting children in danger could help determine their future.

If Levingston’s historical analysis is correct, and I have no doubt it is, leaders of the civil rights movement consciously chose to put children in harm’s way because they knew that the “optics” of that harm would be bad for the racists responsible. Frankly, it’s hard to disagree. King and Bevel made the right decision: manipulating Americans’ natural empathy for children to advance their cause was, in fact, in the children’s long-term interests, in their parents’ long-term interests, and in everyone’s long-term interests.

The Children’s Crusade was effective propaganda. It was righteous propaganda. But it was propaganda.

[Y]oung protesters hit the streets en masse, confronting police armed with snarling German shepherds in addition to the water cannon blasts.

To supercharge the water jets, firefighters had funneled the flow of two hoses into one nozzle, packing it with such ballistic fury it dislodged bricks from buildings. These jets were driven across the kids’ bodies, lacerating their flesh, tearing clothing off their backs; hitting the elm trees in nearby Kelly Ingram Park, the blasts ripped off the bark. The children, knocked to the pavement, crawled away; some struggled to their feet with bloody noses and gashes on their faces.

The morning newspapers that landed on Kennedy’s breakfast table showed students braving the assaults on the front lines. In one shot, a uniformed officer in round shades and a narrow tie yanked on high school sophomore Walter Gadsden’s sweater while a German shepherd lunged toward the student’s stomach with mouth open, fangs bared.

Gazing at the images of water cannons and police dogs, [President John F.] Kennedy was disgusted. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy later noted the students’ impact: “What Bull Connor did down there, and the dogs and the hoses and the pictures with the Negroes, is what created a feeling in the United States that more needed to be done.”

Levingston, it seems to me, wanted to make sure his readers were primed and optimally ready to receive the message of the March for Our Lives. He wanted to amplify the propaganda, by tying it to a historical precedent that still evokes strong emotions. He did not trust his readers to have made this association on their own.

In future posts on this topic, I would like to consider why this distrustful move was a prudent one for Levingston. Because it was very prudent indeed. It’s a bad joke if it has to be explained. And a similar rule does apply to propaganda, since the best propaganda speaks for itself. But sometimes, when propaganda seeks to incite action on an urgent matter, the prudent propagandist sets subtlety aside, and just tells you what to think. Like Levingston has told you what to think about the March for Our Lives.

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.

A Hasty and Inadequate Introduction to a Serious Problem

I have developed a keen interest in persuading sensible people that Western civilization is an a dire state, that they should take a personal interest in this, and that they can, and should, do something about it.

For my purposes, “sensible people” are Aristotelians (whether they know it or not). In brief, this means that they reason inductively. Nothing is more real or more authoritative to them than the evidence of their own senses. It also means that they reason logically: they recognize that contradictions do not exist in reality, and that, therefore, apparent contradictions are always indicative of cognitive error. In approaching any question in any field, Aristotelians first identify the basic facts in that field. They then integrate these facts into a non-contradictory cognitive whole. Then they do something useful with this whole, whether communicating it to others, or using it more directly to produce values. To be an Aristotelian is to follow this method. It is not essentially a matter of education, and has nothing to do with whether or not one has ever read Aristotle.

If Western civilization collapses, which is the current trend, all sensible people will sorely miss it. But nothing they are doing now is likely to alter this trend. Insensible people are getting to have their way.

Why?

Because a sufficient minority of the sensible have not recognized these facts, and acted accordingly:

  1. Western civilization is collapsing.
  2. Collapse is probable within our lifetimes.
  3. There’s no limit to how bad the collapse could be, and no benefit in idly hoping for the best.
  4. The collapse can be prevented.
  5. No effort currently underway will prevent it.
  6. Preventing it can be fun and profitable, in short and the long run both.

Most sensible people would agree with at least the first point. I won’t try to persuade the insensible majority of anything, but I would very much like to convince even forty Aristotelians that all six of these facts are facts. Given the nature of Aristotelians, and given the nature of facts, one would think this shouldn’t be too hard. But I think it will be hard. Here’s why:

What do attentive Aristotelians think about the state of the world? They don’t like it. What are they doing about it? Certainly not nothing. Aristotelians are action-oriented thinkers. If most of them can recognize that Western civilization is collapsing, then they must be doing something about it. What, then?

One or more of these, I think:

  • Supporting “libertarian” policies through the political process
  • Trying to persuade others to support “libertarian” policies through the political process
  • Trying to persuade more people to become “libertarians”
  • Trying to teach more people to be sensible
  • Trying to increase “libertarian” influence in the academic world or other key institutions
  • Promoting or conducting research in the special sciences that supports “libertarian” policies
  • Building capital
  • Building a self-sufficient or partly self-sufficient farm, cabin, compound, or other dwelling
  • Preparing for social and economic collapse by gathering knowledge, resources, and weapons
  • Purposefully setting the problem aside and going about business as usual, on the principle that there’s nothing that can be done about it anyway

In essence, these responses to the impending collapse of Western civilization can be reduced to three basic strategies:

  1. Mass persuasion
  2. Escape
  3. Surrender

Sensible people have assayed the state of the world by their own lights, they’ve made their own sense of it, and they’ve already settled on their own strategies for dealing with it. I will argue — briefly here, and at length later — that all three of these strategies, in every extant variation, are ill-considered.

Mass persuasion will take longer than we have. Civilization will collapse long before the Ayn Rand Institute’s associates are tenured at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The Libertarian Party will never win the presidency. The mass of men do not yearn to be free, and they will not learn to be free, either.

Escape is probably impossible. And if it is possible, it is probably not worthwhile. Your compound in the woods will be overrun by the mob, or else taxed and regulated out of existence. (But I repeat myself.) Your bank accounts and bitcoins will be seized, your gold coins taken at gunpoint. There is nowhere to run to. Your resistance will fail.

Surrender, however, is premature. It is contemptible to surrender unnecessarily. Western civilization can be saved.

Contradictions do not exist. If these strategies are ill-considered, then those who devised them — you, when you devised yours — must have missed something. Missed one or more of six somethings, conveniently enumerated above, I think.

Now, this has all been rather slapdash, and the topic deserves more serious treatment. But I am eager to get to work, and some prefatory remarks were needed. These will have to do for now. I want to begin to show, as unequivocally as I can, that:

  1. If you think Western civilization isn’t collapsing, you’re confusing friezes for foundations.
  2. If you assume the collapse is far off, you assume too much.
  3. If you think the collapse can’t destroy everything you hold dear, your reach exceeds your grasp.
  4. If you think it’s inevitable, you have surrendered prematurely.
  5. If you think Objectivists, Libertarians, Free-Staters, Silicon Valley, floating cities, crypto-currencies, or anything else out there will save you, you don’t realize what you’re up against.
  6. If you think the only way to fight it is by sacrificing your happiness to some grim struggle, by breaking your body on the barricades, or by joining the charge of the light brigade, you haven’t studied your enemies’ victories.

I want to focus, straight away, on point 5. Too many sensible people, because they have not realized how dire the state of the world is, believe that someone, somewhere is doing good work, work that can turn this thing around. But no one, nowhere is. Not yet.

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.