This is a special review. It is special because it is the last of its kind. I no longer intend to spend my time, and your time, on books that I know to be completely wrong, merely to show they are completely wrong. I am keenly aware of what I call “the closing door,” embodied in the words of John 9:4 – “the night cometh, when no man can work,” which Samuel Johnson had engraved on the inside cover of his pocket watch. This does not at all mean that I am stopping writing, only that I will no longer write in the vein of correcting errors of the political Left. For the hour is late, and the Right has better things to do.
Thus, I will no longer review, or read, leftist claptrap. That includes a substantial majority of modern popular works; essentially all books on history and politics that receive wide publicity, from the latest anti-Trump screed to anything on race, along with a great deal else. It also includes many, though not all, older leftist works that are leftist canon. Does it profit me to read any such book and demonstrate its innumerable falsehoods and logical errors? No, because I know the truth already, and I know the minds of all these writers and the vast majority of their readers are a closed circle, filled with lies and impervious to the truth. I will discover nothing new; and they benefit by me wasting my time, because opportunity costs.
True, my writing about such books might profit others who are less informed or have spent less time evaluating leftist claptrap, and who are drowning daily in the disinformation spewed out by leftist media and culture. But I can add the same value for those people by sometimes discussing leftist propaganda when I am discussing legitimate works. All the leftist agitprop I am now going to ignore is worse than worthless. It is total lies, which, fascinatingly, is a relatively new departure for the Left.
Over decades, the Left was rewarded for slanting and twisting the truth, never punished, and now that they have total control over the organs of communication, culture, and power, simply disregarding the truth in the service of power, serving instead lying propaganda, is the inevitable consequence. What you reward, you get more of. For the Left, since 1789, after all, the ends justify the means, and the purported goal of their Utopian cult is now in sight, so any tool is justified. So I understand why they lie, and how and why the New York Times today became no different than the Pravda of 1988. But I see no reason I should legitimate their webs of lies.
It is all a question of priorities. My core priority is to establish the Foundationalist state, under which human flourishing may again occur. What is the chief obstacle to the Foundationalist state? The power of the Left, and the corruption of the West it has wrought, by rejecting the pursuit of excellence and accomplishment, and by corroding individual virtue. Working to demonstrate that the Left lies as it breathes merely grants power to their lies. As I have said, the only way out is through, and that means, most of all, offering a positive vision of what the future can look like, as opposed to the world visible around us wrought by the Left—and them implementing that vision.
More broadly, I no longer care what any organ of the Left, or any individual leftist, thinks or says about any topic. At all. I don’t need to understand them better; I already understand them completely, and what they have to say that is not lies, is evil that has led us to our current degenerate and decayed society, for which they bear primary responsibility. Nor is it important to understand better their motivations: greed, love of power, millenarian fervor, sheer stupidity, love of destruction, hatred driven by racist ethnonarcissism, animal rage generated by envy of beauty and accomplishment. No, there is no reason whatsoever to engage the Left, except in the act of utterly and permanently breaking their power and imposing a decent society. The time for debate with the Left is over; the time for the re-imposition of reality arrived long ago.
The Left, always and everywhere, has known the existential nature of the struggle, and the exterminatory character of their program, and in every case acted to the extent its power allowed. Today in America, they no longer pretend the Right is even permitted to debate; after all, error has no rights. They are now imposing their final end-state on us, a project they will soon complete if they are not stopped. Our only goal should be to smash the Left and impose the will of the Right, in a complete reformation of our society—if we can, a topic for another day. What form that imposition of will might take remains to be seen. It could be a democratic turn to a Viktor Orbán-type leader, though more aggressive, who combines economic populism and nationalism, and is not afraid to use existing tools to break the Left. It could be a fragmentation of the country, along Kurt Schlichter lines, where the Left is confined in their own new country to descend into Venezuela, or worse, and the Right can form a renewed society. It could be many other things, each prefigured by history. But the path leads inevitably to war, whether hot war or cold war. It already is war, though a war fought only by the Left. Time to fight back, effectively.
Oh, I will read plenty of books I disagree with, in whole or in part. But those will be books that illuminate the way forward. I will no doubt still find much to criticize in some books. I will continue to read and analyze books that I know are partially wrong, such as those written with a whole or partial Left bias that are not works of politics or history (e.g., science or economics), because in those something of value can often still be found.
I may sometimes read books that I strongly suspect are completely wrong, say anything new from Jonah Goldberg, but that could still contain something of interest, especially books whose readership may include those on the Right working toward victory. I may read classic Left works, because they are classic, thus they may contain something of value, and moreover I know they inform my enemies, so knowing their contents is of use. Lenin, for example. (Not all old Left works are classic, of course. Take Edward Said’s Orientalism—I tried reading that, and it was worthless, lying trash, and laughably, obviously so.) But for the most part, I will read either books that are not political at all, but of interest to me for other reasons, or books that I see as useful in building Foundationalism.
More generally, I intend to spend as little time as possible discussing political matters with the Left. They can read my works, or not, and there may be exceptions to my general rule. But why discuss political matters with leftist commenters on my writing, or with my left-leaning relatives? Their worldview consists wholly of lies, destructive lies, lies that corrode all societal virtue and wholly block all societal accomplishment. They cannot be convinced otherwise; like any cult member, and cult is what the Left is, as shown by that their ideology does not permit any new fact to contradict their prebaked conclusions.
Someone must rule; now it is them, and changing that is the challenge of the next decade, followed by the suppression of their evil works and the proper education of both our children and our brainwashed adults. Meanwhile, with leftists with whom we have a social relation, we can talk about other things—although since the Left insists on politicizing all of life, there is, sadly, often very little we can talk about.
But before I call it a day, let us discuss this book. In it, childlike naivete alternates with low malice, combining in an execrable stew. I read Why Liberalism Works because it claims to be an answer to Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, a key text of today’s post-liberal Right. To my disappointment, other than in its title and one unbelievably stupid sentence inside, this book completely ignores Deneen’s book, and also ignores all claims and arguments of today’s post-liberals. Instead, it substitutes, for engaging with ideas, heated repetition of bogus ideological claims. It’s crushingly boring and tiresomely predictable. But reading this book made me understand more fully why and how we are all force fed propaganda, of which this is merely an exemplar, on a daily basis, and led me to the decision outlined above. I’m happy for that, at least.
The author, Deirdre McCloskey, is what we can call a “choice extremist.” This is a type of libertarianism, but not confined to limiting the state. Rather, it is an endorsement of man as mayfly, impelled by no other desire than maximizing pleasure, and insistent that any limitation on such pleasure is evil incarnate. People like McCloskey, who claim to be centrists seeking human flourishing, offer the distilled essence of the worst of the Left, without the leavening concern for social fabric that some of the Left offers, or used to offer. A clean sweep will begin with these people, McCloskey and his [indeed, his, ed.] neoliberal allies, many long falsely seen as conservatives. For me, this book was unpleasant to read, and this review a drag to write. Still, I read the whole book, every word, hacking through the ignorant writing and annoying tone of unjustified superiority combined with a jarring, oily pseudo-femininity. You’re welcome.
Totally aside from its other defects, McCloskey’s book is poorly structured, because rather than writing a new book, he cobbled together numerous existing short writings, added some filler, divided them into four rough groups, and presented the results as a tasty pottage to his masters at the American Enterprise Institute and other similar bastions of mendacious toadies to leftism and chaos. Constant repetition is therefore the hallmark of this book; it could have been a fifth of its length and said the same things. Again, you’re welcome. Rather than analyze the fifty essays in this book sequentially, I’m going to summarize the author’s key claims, which are merely repeated with slight variations and emphasis throughout the entire book. Let’s get on with it.
First, McCloskey draws the line of demarcation that snakes through the entire book. We have “true liberals.” And we have everyone else. True liberals are awesome. Everyone else is bad, and bad precisely to the extent he differs in any way from true liberals. By “true liberal,” McCloskey means someone who is a fan of the core tenet of Enlightenment political philosophy, of emancipation from all unchosen bonds, an atomized free actor in every facet of his existence. True liberals, you see, adhere to the Golden Rule, which is, properly viewed, merely Adam Smith’s principles of free trade applied to all activities of life. In fact, total emancipation is dictated by God—McCloskey claims that some fictional “Abrahamic egalitarianism” is common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and in case we are unclear, calls Smith, ad nauseum, “the Blessed Adam Smith,” who revealed the correct interpretation of the Gospel, which previously had escaped all of us.
The rest of the book is merely endless variations on ascribing superlatives to “true liberals” and attacking everyone not a “true liberal,” though flavor is added by changing the adjective occasionally from “true” to “humane,” “sisterly,” or “motherly.” To support this division as an intelligent way to view the world, McCloskey’s tool is not evidence or reason. Rather, his only tool is ignoring or totally mischaracterizing opposing arguments while using tendentious, emotion-laden terms. In the second paragraph of the Preface, for example, he contrasts true liberals, who have “splendid arts and sciences,… toleration,… inclusiveness,… cosmopolitanism” with “illiberal regimes,” from whose “violent hierarchies” true liberals have liberated us, though “brutal, scaremongering populists” such as Viktor Orbán are still fighting their inevitable defeat by the true liberal paladins. The rest of the book does not vary from this pattern.
Second, in order to praise true liberals as the source of all that is righteous, McCloskey offers a puerile and false chain of historical causation. It is hard to exaggerate how simplistic this book is. In a nutshell, which is all we are offered, in the late 1700s, true liberalism began, when demands for emancipation and atomized liberty, that is, the Enlightenment, began. This political philosophy created the “Great Enrichment,” “economic betterments for ordinary people,” by “giving voice” to people who were formerly voiceless and utterly passive. This has continued, so now we are rich and getting richer, which is all that matters.
Now, McCloskey does recognize the glaring problem in this set of claims, which is that only clowns believe that the Industrial Revolution had any connection to the Enlightenment. So he dodges by trying to separate the supposed Great Enrichment from the Industrial Revolution. He claims that the latter was a mere commonplace, frequent throughout history, of doubling income, but that the Enrichment was a new thing in history, created purely by true liberalism. In one of the most bizarre passages of a book that is filled with them, McCloskey claims that equally important industrial revolutions also occurred in Islamic Spain and Song China. Before 1800, you see, progress was regarded as dishonorable and sinful, something “economists and historians are starting to recognize”—led, of course, by the most insightful historian of the modern age, McCloskey himself. Our unexceptional industrial revolution continued, creating the Great Enrichment, because “liberalism inspirited the masses to devise betterments and to open new enterprises and to move to new jobs.”
These are radical historical claims, but no evidence at all is offered for them, or any other historical claim. McCloskey is a historian by trade, but almost zero history appears in this book. To be fair, that may be the nature of such a cobbled-together book; he mentions his trilogy of other books about “bourgeois values,” with a passing claim that those books support what he says here, so perhaps one has to read those too to get any actual arguments from history. I won’t read them, because life is too short.
But back in the real world, there is no mystery as to how the Industrial Revolution created the economics of the modern world, and there is no such thing as a separate Great Enrichment. The West, starting in England, combined the advances of the Scientific Revolution (created purely by Europeans) with the right cultural practices, such as hard work and the rule of law, added some other factors endlessly debated (coal? intelligence? sea power?) and thereby escaped from the Malthusian Trap, which had never occurred a single time anywhere else in the world. Once created by the West, this package feeds on itself, and can be exported to any culture willing and able to adopt the gifts of Western technology and culture.
Some are; most aren’t either willing or able, and haven’t been for the past two hundred years. If they do, and to the extent they are willing to adopt these cultural and technological practices (which do not include frippery such as democracy), countries are lifted out of poverty, a process continuing, in fits, starts, and steps backward, today. The end. The rickety and ahistorical claims that McCloskey makes are simply objectively false, which he probably realizes, since beyond announcing conclusions, he makes no effort to support them. (No surprise, McCloskey ignores China’s and Singapore’s adoption of Western technology and methods to escape the Malthusian Trap, since those successes alone disprove every single claim he makes).
Third, there are enemies of true liberalism, who want to cast the whole world into darkness and end the Great Enrichment by opposing choice extremism. These are, today, primarily the parties democratically elected in Hungary and Poland, though occasionally Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are thrown in too. As with all of his odious neoliberal caste, McCloskey hates and fears those in power in Hungary and Poland, because their success and popularity prove everything he says false, and he is afraid their powerful ideas will spread to dominate throughout Europe and the United States (a fear that is, fortunately, well on its way to being a reality).
McCloskey does not deign to tell us why Hungary and Poland are bad, or how the policies enunciated by their governments will end the Great Enrichment. He just mouths the usual total lies that the press is attacked and the rule of law eroded, without any actual attempt to demonstrate those claims. In reality, of course, censorship and erosion of the rule of law is far more prevalent in the United States and Western Europe; but that’s censorship and erosion of the rule of law McCloskey likes. He’s very much a fan of flexible principles – for another example, despite his claim that we should all operate only on “sweet talk,” he openly celebrates in this book how he helped destroy the life of J. Michael Bailey, a Northwestern University professor who failed to adequately celebrate sexual degeneracy.
In addition to Viktor Orbán and some Poles, there are also domestic enemies. McCloskey hates American conservatives, that is, anyone on the Right not a corporatist, Koch-type Republican, with an ill-concealed burning passion. No surprise, he never once engages their arguments, even though he chants “let’s listen, really listen, to the arguments of our supposed enemies, and consider their logic and evidence.” The core of McCloskey’s “thinking” is a crude logical trap. We should have “a society held together by sweet talk among free adults rather than by coercion applied to slaves and children.” What if that sweet talk concludes that most people want to, let’s say, ban pornography? That’s coercion! So, in other words, McCloskey wants talk, as long as that talk has no chance of ending in conclusions other than the ones he has already mandated as the only acceptable ones for society. That’s just dishonest. But that’s this book.
We reach the nadir of McCloskey’s hate and stupidity in the single sentence devoted to Deneen. I was excited to get there, figuring I would get an actual response to post-liberal arguments. What I got was this, in toto. Brace yourself. “Liberalism, intones Deneen, entails ‘the loosening of social bonds’ (bonds such as slavery in the British Empire), ‘a relentless logic of impersonal transactions’ (so unlike the transactions of pious Israelites selling lumber to Egyptians, say), and the proposition that ‘human beings are thus, by nature, non-relational creatures, separate and autonomous’ (as for example in the non-relational exploration of human relationships in the bourgeois and liberal English novel since 1700).”
That’s it. That’s the entirety of McCloskey’s “argument.” The first parenthetical, about slavery, is apparently meant to be a refutation of Deneen in some way I cannot fathom. I have no idea what the second and third parentheticals, about Israelites, lumber, and English novels, are trying to say; they are not tied to anything else McCloskey says elsewhere. I am still scratching my head. But I can assure you that McCloskey thinks he has crushed Deneen, which says a lot more about him than anything else.
Fourth, for McCloskey, there are no enemies on the Left. Sure, some on the Left are mistaken, notably Thomas Piketty, on whom McCloskey spills a lot of gently-phrased words. But everyone on the Left is “earnest and amiable,” just a little wrong, like the “sweet slow socialist” George Soros or McCloskey’s unnamed “beloved and extremely intelligent Marxian friend.” The New York Times is wrong sometimes, but “sweet” and “benevolent.” Anyone on the Right, though, is “vicious,” a “thug,” or any of innumerable similar terms, and McCloskey certainly has no friends who are conservatives.
Fifth, true liberalism must struggle against bad policies, some of which are pushed by evil people and some by ignorant people. Any policy that has any element of “coercion” is bad. The worst policy of all is any restrictions whatsoever on immigration. We are told that “bad people” in the United States “wish to deport law-abiding and hardworking immigrants, in response to a scientifically bankrupt economic notion, which is anyway unethical, that immigrants take jobs away from natives, or a scientifically bankrupt sociological notion, also unethical, that their children will never become properly American.” If the “Hungarian farmer or West Virginia coal miner” complains that he can no longer feed his children, he has no legitimate complaint, rather, “what is being complained about is change, and as it happens desirable change.” We know it is desirable because it is happening because of the free market, for “Profits are a signal of general worthiness.” The end. Really.
You can see why neoliberals love this stuff, but the normal reader wonders why no effort, none at all, is ever made to demonstrate the truth of these claims and why we are never, not once, given any suggestion that we should perform cost-benefit analysis on any social policy. McCloskey’s claims and demanded social policies are uniformly and without exception wonderful and costless, and this truth is self-proving. Any questioning proves you are “authoritarian” or “fascist,” not “humane” and McCloskey’s “dear friend.”
Sixth, total emancipation in all areas of life will lead to total human flourishing. We are guaranteed that it is an absolute certainty that so long as we are true liberals, unlimited wealth will be ours, which will make us happy (not for McCloskey any wondering about the relationship, beyond a certain point, of wealth to happiness). And not just happiness—the resulting “enrichment will cause . . . a cultural explosion, casting into the shade the achievements of fifth-century Athenian drama and T’ang poetry and Renaissance painting.” His evidence for this? That the 1960s, the dawn of emancipation in America, were culturally, especially in art, far superior to the Renaissance. Yes, that’s what he claims.
Woven throughout the endless repetitions of this six-point plan is much other dumbassery. We are lied to that the “classical definition of liberty/freedom is the condition of being liberated/free from physical interference by other human beings,” which is the exact opposite of the truth. Pericles would reject everything McCloskey says out of hand, then have him flogged for corrupting the virtue of the body politic. Economic fallacies abound, most of all the exaltation of GDP as a measure of human flourishing (combined with the only other measure of human flourishing, the absolute right, derived from nothing in particular, to not be “pushed or bossed around without voluntarily given consent or contract”). “Leisure… should be accounted as income.” If you can’t find a job because an illegal immigrant took it, you are still making money, peasant, so stop complaining! Third-rate thinkers like Tyler Cowen and Eric Hoffer are extolled as brilliant. If some things are better now, everything that exists now must be good. And, most of all, culture doesn’t matter for anything, and no human motivation other than the desire for maximized freedom exists.
I’m not going to waste any more time on the claims of this book, but I want to examine what this book means. That is, on its face, nearly everything in this book is shockingly dumb, and I don’t think McCloskey is dumb (though he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is). So why did he write it? Ah, there’s where it gets interesting, and indicative of our politics today. Every so often the real agenda’s slimy face peeks through. We see it in the occasional obeisances [sic] to a free-floating “dignity.”
McCloskey’s project is to endorse a vision of humanity completely atomized, and he knows that to sell this he has to claim that all the worthwhile advances of the modern world are created by atomization. Okay, but why is McCloskey paid to purvey propaganda under the guise of being a purveyor of history and ideas, and then lionized across many forms of media? It’s because this is merely one small facet of the giant propaganda machine that spews its output across our society today.
We are everywhere surrounded by endless propaganda designed to push an agenda that simultaneously pushes the Left goal of emancipation combined with forced egalitarianism while lining the pockets of our neoliberal overlords. Every movie, computer game, or other form of media involving violence or the military features a complete inversion of reality, where female warriors exemplifying alpha male characteristics triumph over weak men with feminine characteristics. Every movie and TV show, for children or adults, celebrates homosexuals and sexual degenerates. Advertisements do the same. Wise Latinas instruct stupid white people. The propaganda machine is kept going by aggressive censorship across all media and social media, silencing the strongest voices of opposition and ensuring that those that remain self-censor to avoid deplatforming.
Still, at the end, this is a clarifying book. It made me realize what I started this review with—that debate is a waste of time, and the choice is utter defeat by the Left, or destroying the Left. Dispose yourselves accordingly.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The image shows a detail from the Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych, by Jan van Eyck, ca. 1430 and 1440.
In the September 11, 2020 issue of the New York Times, Kurt Anderson wrote a critique of Milton Friedman entitled, “How Liberals Opened the Door to Libertarian Economics.” There are numerous errors in Anderson’s assessment. Let us try to correct at least some of them.
He starts off on the wrong foot, characterizing Friedman’s view as “extreme free-market libertarianism.” In the libertarian movement of Ludwig von Mises, Murray N. Rothbard, Ron Paul and Robert Nozick, the 1986 Nobel Prize winner in economics was regarded (along with his fellow University of Chicago colleague, Friedrich A. Hayek) as a very moderate supporter of free enterprise, barely a libertarian. One market fundamentalist libertarian commentator even probed, seriously, as to whether or not Friedman was a socialist, given his many and serious deviations from pure laissez faire capitalism (the negative income tax, tax withholding, anti-trust, support for school vouchers and the Fed, rejection of gold as money). No one who claims “We’re all Keynesians now” can be located at the furthest reaches of free enterprise.
It, of course, cannot be denied that Prof. Friedman opposed unions – they unfairly restrict entry into the labor market; that he wanted fewer pernicious business regulations; and he opposed socialist medicine. He was as least a moderate supporter of economic freedom after all.
Mr. Anderson states, “The New Deal … out of which our well-functioning, prosperous postwar political economy grew.” Not so, not so. It grew in spite of this policy, not because of it. This Hoover-Roosevelt bout of economic interventionism prolonged the depression of 1929 for a decade. Compare this to the depression of 1921 which lasted months, not years, as a result of a “do nothing” (don’t interfere in the market) governmental policy.
Our author conflates libertarianism and libertinism. The former maintains that “capitalist acts between consenting adults” in the felicitous phraseology of Robert Nozick, all of them, commercial ones and also those regarding drugs and sex, should be legal, but takes no position whatsoever as to whether or not these practices should be followed. The latter urges participation in them, the weirder, the better.
Mr. Anderson characterizes the desire to maximize profits as “coldheartedness,” lacking “decency or virtue,” “selfish, callous and reckless,” and sets as the ideal operating “somewhere in the broad range between break-even and absolute-maximum profitability…” In doing so, he demonstrates a lack of understanding of this economic phenomenon. When a hiker is lost in the woods, in order to be rescued he shouts, “Help” (whether verbally or in some other way). Accepting “slightly smaller profit margins” when a businessman could maximize them is akin to imposing a decibel control over the endangered hiker. Profits are in effect a cry for help. When a firm accepts lower profits than were otherwise obtainable, it is reducing the economic welfare of the very “employees, customers, communities, society at large” championed by stakeholder supporters.
Jones now earns 5% profit. How could he increase this rate? Why, by producing more of what consumers are clamoring for. If he sticks to the status quo, he will not be rescuing as many “lost hikers” as he could have. True, he could also increase profits by lowering salaries. But if he decreases them below marginal revenue productivity levels, he will lose his best employees and reduce profits, not increase them. Profits can be maximized by paying optimal compensation, not a penny more, but not a penny less, either. Yes, Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, are the true heroes, and only economic illiterates can fail to see this primordial point. Friedman is to be congratulated for trying to educate people in that regard.
No, it is simply not true that in Friedman’s view that “Any virtuous act by businesses beyond what the law requires is simpering folly.” Rather, it is fraud. Suppose you deposit your money in a bank, and the officer of that institution gives these funds to good charitable, stakeholder, causes. Not kosher! It is one thing to be kind and generous with your own property. It is quite another, to do so with other people’s wealth. That is a violation of the fiduciary relationship of the savings institution. The CEO has a responsibility to the shareholder, not to the stakeholder. There is nothing wrong, a la Friedman, with both of them, all of us, with being “decent” and “virtuous” with our own money. But the very opposite obtains when accomplished with, in effect, stolen cash.
Mr. Anderson attributes Friedman’s support of free enterprise to “screw-the-Establishment confrontationalism” of the Woodstock 1970s. I have known this Chicago economist for many decades and never did I discern even a whiff of this sort of thing. Who knew that my friend Milton was a secret hippie?
Our critic accuses Friedman of wanting to “rewrite the social contract.” But no one ever signed this “contract,” so it is without any legal power to control our lives. He all but criticizes him of hypocrisy for using “his noncommercial government-subsidized PBS platform to argue that the Food and Drug Administration, public schools, labor unions and federal taxes, among other bêtes noires, were bad for America.” But Friedman also used public parks, the U.S. post office, museums, sidewalks, even though he might have wanted to privatize them.
Mr. Anderson, presumably, is an egalitarian. Yet, he undoubtedly lives in a nice neighborhood, has a quality car, air conditioning, color tv, a computer. Why doesn’t he give most of this away to the poor? But a retort is open to Friedman: The government financed these amenities, in part, with Friedman’s tax dollars. He is hence justified in using them. Mr. Anderson has no such defense against the charge of hypocrisy.
To the extent that Friedman can take credit for Gordon Gekko (greed is good), it is a feather in his cap. Here, Mr. Anderson’s target is merely channeling Adam Smith’s “invisible hand;” a basic premise of economics: People are led by the lure of profits to cooperate with others for mutual gain. The “Wealth of Nations” is based on just this sort of consideration.
Our critic is particularly exercised about a “S.E.C. rule change (which) effectively gave free rein to public companies … to buy up shares of their own stock on the open market in order to jack up the price.” But what, pray tell, is wrong with voluntary exchanges of this or any other sort, which are necessarily mutually beneficial at least in the ex ante sense, and usually so ex post? He is also upset that “U.S. executive pay … shifted from consisting mainly of salary and bonus to mainly stock and stock options.” Banks sometimes give out toasters and radios to depositors. Must all financing consist of cash? There are also good and sufficient reasons for this alteration in terms of taxation and the aligning of incentives.
Our critic then bewails the fact that “the richest 10th of us have 84 percent of all stock shares owned by Americans, and a ravaged economy in which the stock market is close to an all-time high.” Should we also regret that a similar proportion of NBA players are African American? Thomas Sowell, a student of Milton Friedman’s, has done more than any other economist to pierce the myth that if strict proportionality does not prevail everywhere, it is untoward.
Mr. Anderson mentions “the full Friedmanization of our economy for the last four decades (which) has generated such greed-driven extremes of inequality, insecurity and immobility that the system is now on a path that looks crazily self-destructive.” This man is living in a dream world. Full Friedmanization would include a world with no tariffs or interferences with free trade, the end of licensing, not only for hair braiders, Uber, AirBnB, but also for medical doctors! Governmental tax would be in the neighborhood of 10% not 50% of GDP. Such “destruction” of the economy, to the extent it exists, stems not from Friedman’s public policy proscriptions, but mainly from their rejection.
Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He has taught at Rutgers, SUNY Stony Brook, Baruch CUNY, Holy Cross and the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). He lectures widely on college campuses, delivers seminars around the world and appears regularly on television and radio shows. He is the Schlarbaum Laureate, Mises Institute, 2011; and has won the Loyola University Research Award (2005, 2008) and the Mises Institute’s Rothbard Medal of Freedom, 2005; and the Dux Academicus award, Loyola University, 2007. Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shook his hand. Block has never washed that hand since. So, if you shake his hand (it’s pretty dirty, but what the heck) you channel Mises.
The image shows a portrait of Milton Friedman by Lindsay Mitchell.
There are many forms of intolerance and many different kinds of explanations, motives, and defenses for the various forms. There is no presumption here that intolerance is always and everywhere unacceptable. In this essay, I shall focus on that form of intolerance manifested as censorship of what is permitted in writing and speech, limitations on what kinds of questions, the manner of their formulation and the kinds and range of answers permitted. In addition, I shall focus on censorship that takes the form of editing, reinterpreting and reporting what other people say; finally, I shall focus on censorship of the presumed motives (not just the reasons) of what other people are thinking. The particular historical and institutional context I have in mind is contemporary so-called free societies such as the US and the UK and specifically within them government bureaucracies, universities and all forms of public communication, such as newspapers, magazines, blogs, internet, publishers, TV, radio, etc.
Precisely because of the foregoing focus and the kinds of individuals that would be relevant, my explanation will be interested primarily in the intellectual origins of the intolerance, or, if you like, the kinds reasons offered or that might be offer in defense of the intolerance.
Human beings sometimes, but not always, find it necessary to offer a formal reason(s) for their public policy positions. We do so when we believe that the people to whom the formal explanation is addressed are, or will be, members of the same moral community as ourselves. Otherwise, the offering of reasons is irrelevant, often counterproductive, or dishonest.
When I refer to the ‘Left’, I shall mean those who advocate radical social change instituted by the force of the state and justified by appeal to some moral abstraction or Utopian aim. Given my understanding, the ‘Left’ will refer in general to so-called progressives, modern liberals, socialists, Marxists, those who self-identify in terms of identity politics, and the like. Political affiliation is no longer particularly helpful here.
Intellectual Origins of Social ‘Expertise’
In the 18th-century, the French philosophes developed the idea that there could be social sciences, modeled after the physical sciences. These alleged social sciences would be able to explain, predict, and control social phenomena. Thus was born the idea of a social technology. The belief that a social technology would enable us to create a Utopian society was the shared intellectual inheritance of liberals, socialists, and Marxists (Becker 1962). Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity expressed such a view. Fromm described it in the following way: “[Skinner’s] system attracts those psychologists who are liberals and who find Skinner’s system an argument to defend their political optimism. He appeals to those who believe that desirable social goals like peace and equality are not just rootless ideals, but can be established in reality. The whole idea that one can ‘design’ a better society on a scientific basis appeals to many who earlier might have been socialists. Did not Marx, too, want to design a better society. Did he not call his brand of socialism ‘scientific’ in contrast to ‘Utopian’ socialism… Moreover, Skinner’s theory rings true, because it is (almost) true for the alienated man of the cybernetic society. In summary, Skinnerism is the psychology of opportunism dressed up as a new scientific humanism” [The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1973].
[T]he conviction that the world, or nature, was a single whole, subject to a single set of laws, in principle discoverable by the intelligence of man; that the laws which governed inanimate nature were in principle the same as those which governed plants, animals and sentient beings; that man was capable of improvement; that there existed certain objectively recognizable human goals which all men, rightly so described, sought after, namely, happiness, knowledge, justice, liberty, … that these goals were common to all men as such, were not unattainable, nor incompatible, and that human misery, vice and folly were mainly due to ignorance either of what these goals consisted in or of the means of attaining them-ignorance due in turn to insufficient knowledge of the laws of nature… Consequently, the discovery of general laws that governed human behaviour, their clear and logical integration into scientific systems of psychology, sociology, economics, political science and the like… would, by replacing the chaotic amalgam of guesswork, tradition, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy…that hitherto did service as human knowledge and human wisdom (and of which by far the chief protector and instigator was the Church), create a new, sane, rational, happy, just and self-perpetuating human society, which, having arrived at the peak of attainable perfection, would preserve itself against all hostile influences, save perhaps those of nature.[Berlin, 1993, pp.27-28].
The social science disciplines now housed in the universities claim to possess the relevant truths that would enable them to produce a social utopia if they can gain control of the only institution capable of controlling all the other institutions, namely the government.
Hence, the social sciences, which have colonized all other disciplines including the arts, sciences, schools of communication, law schools, and even schools of business, have produced a faculty that overwhelmingly supports government that is ever more powerful. This is what intellectuals tell themselves makes them the most important people in society. It is there raison d’être. Since education is now understood to be a form of technology, education is indistinguishable from indoctrination. Universities and colleges may advertise to parents that a college degree increases lifetime income but that is not the major mission of present higher education. Its mission is social reform.
Unfortunately, for them, The U.S. has a constitution, an electoral college, and a republic as opposed to a pure democracy. This makes it difficult to obtain the correct personnel for the government. Hence, it is necessary to indoctrinate the ignorant public. This requires:
First, purge the faculty of those who do not believe in either the intellectual legitimacy of the social ‘sciences’ or the practical effectiveness of social technology. Academic freedom is a relic of a bygone pre-scientific era. It may have been necessary at first to entrench leftist professors, but it is no longer needed. This exemplifies the old saying that “when in the minority demand tolerance on your host’s principles but when in the majority deny it on yours.”
In an analogue to the Vatican, only some have access to all writings; all others, including authors (instructors) must be silenced. A catechism displays the only admissible questions and the only admissible answers.
Second, sanitize and redefine the curriculum. Remove all offensive and counter-productive material.
Third, create a paid group of monitors to observe and report on faculty and staff who might deviate from or sabotage the curriculum.
Fourth, insist that everyone get a college degree and adjust the requirements (lower standards) to facilitate this.
Fifth, train journalists to spread the truth. Since these journalists will be taught the hidden truth about how people think, in the same way that physicists understand the behavior of unseen molecules, journalists do not report what people actually say because it is mere surface phenomena. They report what people really mean, the hidden structure, even if that is not what those people say. This is not in their eyes fake news or misrepresentation. It is social ‘science’. It is telling the ‘real’ hidden truth.
It is not only permissible but also morally required to do or say whatever is necessary because the end justifies the means. The end always justifies the means only as long as the end is incontrovertibly acceptable (i.e. beyond dispute). Presumably, only the ‘elect’ know that ‘end’ and therefore are in a position to impose it on others.
Working with allies in the bureaucracy, this may at times look like spying on a campaign, sabotaging an election and an administration, and rigging the outcome of future elections, but what it really means to advocates of social technology is the giving of total fulfillment. They know the truth and they will make us really free.
There are many prominent thinkers, such as Hayek, who have debunked the whole idea of a social ‘science’. Human beings are not mechanisms and not simply organic entities. Moreover, there cannot be a science of humanity or of the social world. Any description of the human world would be valid only if agreed to within a pre-existing social/cultural framework. Any attempt to explain that framework (as opposed to describing it) would be a further explanation that would be valid only if agreed to within some other framework, and so on ad infinitum!
My argument should not be confused with the older claim that you cannot deduce a norm (an ‘ought’) from a fact(s) (‘is’), an argument wrongly attributed to Hume. There cannot be facts or anything designated as a fact unless we already agree on a prior set of (epistemological) norms/practices. So, norms are more fundamental than facts, and hence it is obvious why we do not deduce norms from facts – a trivial point and not a profound insight. This goes to the heart of the argument: all (any) civilization is possible only if there is some kind of agreement on norms. What the new left does is to obscure this point by talking as if they are articulating an intellectual or symbolic position when in fact they reject a common set of norms (e.g., burning the flag or not kneeling at the national anthem). That is why they systematically obscure (or are confused about) the distinction between the existence of a norm and the extent to which we instantiate the norm in our practices.
Let me give an example of how this works.
I shall refer to this maneuver as CYA. Progressive advocates of social technology claimed for many years that dysfunction within the African-American community was solely the result of poverty or the lack of resources and that a variety of welfare programs would solve the problem.
As Charles Murray documented it in his book, Losing Ground, that progressive strategy not only failed to solve the problem but also made it worse! Two consequences followed. First, Murray was vilified as a racist for this book. Second, progressives invented a new or meta-theory to cover the failure of the first theory/policy.
The new theory was ‘institutionalized racism’. I shall ignore the fact that such an expression is a meaningless abstraction that confuses different categories (if you are a logician you will understand this) and hence cannot be, and is therefore not, confirmable. The explanans is identical to the explanandum. On the contrary, by every objective measureable the U.S. is not racist (Connerly, WSJ, 7/24/20), and popular opinion increasingly favors doing everything reasonable to improve opportunities for Blacks. ‘Reparations’ is not reasonable because it is more of the same failed program of transferring resources.
CYA also reflects another dishonest intellectual stratagem. Advocates of social technology assume that whatever is true of physical science is the model for everything else. There are two versions: elimination and exploration. In elimination, there is an explicit substitution of new ideas for old ideas. Elimination is a form of radical replacement through innovation. Examples are the elimination of Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the universe and its replacement by Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the universe; another is the elimination of traditional theories of disease by the discovery of microbes. Elimination makes sense if there is some prior agreed upon framework in terms of which we can judge that one new theory is better than an old theory.
In exploration, on the other hand, we begin with our ordinary understanding of how things work and then go on to speculate on what might be behind those workings. The new understanding replaces the older one by appeal to underlying structures. The underlying structures are discovered by following out the implications of some hypothetical model about those structures. The discovery is empirically confirmable and replicable by using telescopes, microscopes, and other sophisticated devices. Exploration is exemplified in the use of the atomic theory to explain chemical behavior or the behavior of gases.
Exploration is the mode of thought of academic social science. By analogy with physical science, the social sciences have persistently sought to discover the hidden structure behind the everyday understanding of social activities. From Durkheim to Marx, and beyond, social scientists have persistently sought to reveal a structural level of which we are not immediately aware. Exploration is the search for structure rather than for meaning, the search for the formal elements underlying the everyday world rather than believing that the everyday world can constitute its own level of understanding.
The problem with exploration is that there is no way to confirm or disconfirm an exploration in the social sciences. There are no sophisticated devices such as social microscopes to reveal what cannot be seen by the naked eye. There is no progress in the social sciences like the progress in the physical sciences. There is merely the substitution of one fashionable language for another. The riders and the tunes change, but the carousel only moves in a circle.
We are unable to choose among competing explorations. Denied formal criteria or extra-systematic criteria for evaluating their own hypotheses, social theorists can only fall back upon aesthetic and/or informal criteria. Immense prestige is accorded to those individuals skillful in formulating clever, ingenious, and sometimes bizarre hypotheses. Ingenuity becomes the benchmark of success, and as in present day movements in the arts leads to sudden shifts in fashion. Another dead-end is the appeal to intuition so that rival explorers claim that their hidden structure hypothesis ‘better’ captures some private intuition about our ordinary understanding. There is, of course, no independent way of establishing this.
How, then do we avoid nihilism? Progressives do so by offering a further or meta-exploratory account of why their opponents opposed the first level exploratory account. Therefore, if I disagree that the lack of resources is the cause of dysfunction, the progressive accuses me of racism, of harboring a secret dislike or revulsion of some group of people. This is no more rational or confirmable than the first level exploration, but it is a very clever and sometimes effective political/rhetorical maneuver, especially with the intellectually unsophisticated. One Tower of Babel replaces another.
There are alternative and competing accounts of what underlies our normative framework, but there is no way of resolving, in exploratory terms, which one is correct. Without a consensus on the framework, there is no way of distinguishing between when a thinker helps us to alter our norms by clarification of the alleged underlying structure and when he or she is just an advocate of a particular set of norms. Without a consensus on the framework, we might be led to the cynical conclusion that the very idea of a framework is a myth. That is, we are led to nihilism. Once we are willing to face nihilism, we can well ask “Why seek to resolve differences peacefully?”
By subscribing to scientism, theorists are also led to embrace determinism. Rawls is an example of an environmental determinist when he says that “Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances” [Theory of Justice (1971), p. 74]. That is why these theorists deny things like the Augustinian or Kantian conception of the moral free will and deny, as well, the notion of an autonomous internal self. The traditional, pre-Enlightenment, conception of a moral agent subject to internal sanctions is denied. It is plausible to such theorists to take seriously the question “Why should I be moral?” If there are no internal sanctions, then there can only be external sanctions. Social equilibrium is to be maintained through external social control, i.e. intolerance and ultimately force!
There are enormous and insurmountable problems here. If we are nothing more than creatures of stimulus and response then why choose to institutionalize any one particular set of norms? Of course, we can maintain that these ‘machines’ have an internal telos or purpose, but how do we confirm this allegation or decide which alleged goal is the true one. You cannot establish the truth of teleology in an empirical way, and neither can you square individual free will with teleology.
I shall refer to the ‘old left’ as those who sincerely believed that they could win the argument on purely intellectual grounds. However, as epistemological sophistication grew in the physical sciences (1960s and 1970s), it became increasingly clear to philosophers of science (e.g. Kuhn, Feyerabend) that there was no independent way to establish the objective truth or the notion of objective progress even in the physical sciences. The Enlightenment Project dream of a social technology needed a new foundation.
As opposed to classical thinkers, modern or post-Renaissance thinkers have come to recognize that norms and standards (truth, beauty, goodness) are not grounded in, nor do they refer to, structures independent of human perspectives. One sees this in Copernican astronomy, Einsteinian relativity, the revival of ancient skepticism and what Kant, influenced by Hume, called the Copernican Revolution in philosophy. This notion of relativity to human perspective is already present in Renaissance works of art. For the benefit of the obtuse, to proclaim that something is true, beautiful, or good, etc. is to say that members of some relevant community will agree with that assessment. You might not agree with this modern epistemology, but there is nothing contradictory or irrational about it.
Postmodernists consider all norms as products of historically contingent circumstances that reflect cultural hierarchies. As such, any prior claim to social authority is delegitimized. This involves two separate beliefs: (a) the empirical claim that there are no universally significant facts about humanity and (b) the existent norms are historically accidental and therefore challengeable.
For our purposes, the second claim is the most significant. To begin with, whatever current norms there are for scholars and journalists (including the norms of academic freedom, veracity, interpretation, etc.) are challengeable or deconstructable. We live in a world of norm pluralism. If so, how do we go about managing disputes or replacing norms? There are traditional norms of challenge and replace, but those norms are themselves contingent. Here we have reached a dead end. You cannot even say that “anything goes” because that too is a contingent norm. We are left with the appeal to force.
Some postmodernists are undismayed by the foregoing. They will claim that they speak for a previously unrecognized set of norms variously described as the norms of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the exploited, etc. The Marxist provenance of this view is obvious and should be kept in mind. In fact, these particular postmodernists claim to be the articulators or spokespersons of those norms. Put into action, these spokespersons will try to persuade advocates of the traditional norms by various means to embrace the norms of the downtrodden. Those means include direct action and violence if necessary. There is no set of super-norms in their eyes for resolving these disputes.
Personally, I think these postmodernists are correct in pointing out the limits of rational discourse. It also seems historically accurate to claim that many disputes were resolved only by conflict (rebellion, revolution, civil war, etc.). Under such circumstances, intolerance is a perfectly consistent response.
Friends, colleagues, and others who do not get this point dismay me. The latter keep trying to find some logical flaw in postmodernism. For example, how can we agree that all norms are historically contingent? Does that not show that we agree on something? Of course it does; but ‘agreement’ is a social process. Philosophically, we do not all agree on what ‘agreement’ means.
My other friends seek some ‘rational’ way, some form of negotiation or concession, perhaps secession, to resolve the dispute. These otherwise ‘good’ people understandably want to avoid the use of force. In failing to understand those partisans of the left who are postmodern, the ‘good’ people (Neville Chamberlain comes to mind) are helpless, if not hopeless intellectually, and they will lose without a fight.
The well-intentioned but obtuse readers will jump-in at this point and claim that the appeal to historical events is a self-contradiction on the part of postmodernists. Again, this misses the point. Agreement on the occurrence of one event shows at best that we share at least one norm. Sharing one norm does not translate into sharing a set or framework of norms. Even agreement on the application of a norm to a set of circumstances is compatible with different interpretations of the same event in the light of a set of norms. No single norm operates in total independence of the set to which it belongs.
It is not simply the case that there are significant ethical disagreements about substantive issues. Many if not most of these controversies do not appear to be resolvable through sound rational argument. On the one hand, many of the controversies depend upon different foundational metaphysical commitments. As with most metaphysical controversies, resolution is possible only through the granting of particular initial premises and rules of evidence. On the other hand, even when foundational metaphysical issues do not appear to be at stake, the debates turn on different rankings of the good.
Again, resolution does not appear to be feasible without begging the question, arguing in a circle, or engaging in infinite regress. One cannot appeal to consequences without knowing how to rank the impact of different approaches with regard to different ethical interests (liberty, equality, prosperity, security, etc.). Nor can one uncontroversially appeal to preference satisfaction unless one already grants how one will correct preferences and compare rational versus impassioned preferences, as well as calculate the discount rate for preferences over time. Appeals to disinterested observers, hypothetical choosers, or hypothetical contractors will not avail either.
If such decision makers are truly disinterested, they will choose nothing. To choose in a particular way, they must be fitted out with a particular moral sense or thin theory of the good. Intuitions can be met with contrary intuitions. Any particular balancing of claims can be countered with a different approach to achieving a balance. In order to appeal for guidance to any account of moral rationality one must already have secured content for that moral rationality.
It even does not matter if I am wrong in my understanding and partial defense of postmodernism. It does not matter if there are non-trivial universal truths about humanity or universal/timeless norms. If a group of people do not believe in or accept those norms the consequences are the same. It does not matter if some postmodernists are advocating some benign change, for others can consistently demand something more radical. It does not matter if one is willing to allow co-existence or partition or secession if the other side wants dominance. The need for dominance will be discussed in the next section.
The transition from social technology to postmodernism marks the transition from liberalism to socialism and/or Marxism. The ‘new’ left has replaced/superseded the ‘old’ left.
In fact, we do live in a world, and even in our own U.S. society, of moral pluralism. There is one social tradition (norm, practice), namely the Anglo-American one, where moral pluralism has been largely and successfully managed. It is called the rule of law. We live in different substantive moral communities (Christian, Jewish, etc.) and, at the same time, we all subscribe (or we used to) to the procedural norm of toleration. Despite these different substantive communities, all of them contain within themselves the resources to adopt the procedural norm of toleration. Of course, this tradition (articulated by Milton, Locke, Mill, Hayek, Oakeshott) is historically contingent.
Many post-modernists reject this tradition (they claim it is an expression of a hidden structure of oppression). This tradition does nothing to glorify/redeem the status of intellectuals, activists, or those with a radical agenda.
Oakeshott has captured this mindset of these particular post-modernists in his description of the anti-individual. Throughout most of history and everywhere in the world, human beings have identified themselves as members of a community. There were neither autonomous individuals not anti-individuals.
The most important event in modern European history is the rise of the autonomous individual beginning in Renaissance Italy (13th – 15th centuries). There are no autonomous individuals anywhere before the Italian Renaissance. Autonomous individuality is a feature of Western European civilization and later spread elsewhere. All creative activity [creative/destruction] is the product of autonomous individuals: “It modified political manners and institutions, it settled upon art, upon religion, upon industry and trade and upon every kind of human relationship.” Not everyone makes the transition – some are left behind (by circumstance and by temperament): Individuals manqué and anti-individuals.
The mind-set of the new ‘individual’ (Hobbes, Kant) is auto-nomous (self-rule is the translation). They impose order on themselves; self-disciplining, not self-indulgence, rather than requiring outside control and direction; risk-takers; self-defining; self-respect (something you give to yourself); pursue self-chosen courses of action rather than playing traditional roles. Policies advocated by autonomous individuals include encouraging creativity, a free-market economy, limited government, limited to being an umpire – enforce the rules of the game and not pre-determine the outcome; liberty and equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome; the rule of law. Society is viewed as a civil association: there is no overall collective good/goal. Economic entrepreneurs and conservative lawyers are the ones with superior status in this world.
The new left, the new breed of post-modernists, do in fact hold a kind of substantive account of morality. They can no more step out of all historical contexts than anyone else.
What is that mind-set? It is the mind-set of the anti-individual. They like being part of a protective community that takes care of them and relieves them of the anxiety of making choices; they are risk-averse –dominated by the fear of failure; they seek self-esteem (something that other people give you). There were some people, by circumstance or by temperament, less ready than others to respond to this invitation to become autonomous. Once some people become autonomous individuals and others do not, those who do not make the transition become anti-individuals. Anti-individuals are a reaction against autonomous individuals.
They are resentful of autonomous individuals and feel envy, jealousy, and resentment. They have feelings rather than thoughts, impulses rather than opinions. They need a leader; they want equality and solidarity. They blame autonomous individuals for the anxiety; want to destroy the prestige of autonomous individuals and make everyone an anti-individual; they want equality of outcome. They are not necessarily poor, not necessarily ignorant, and often members of the intelligentsia. Because of their mind-set, they cannot and will not function in a market economy; hence, they are dysfunctional in a modern commercial society.
The public policies advocated by anti-individuals include encouraging uniformity, the Democratic-Socialist abolishment of private property, government ‘guarantees’ and the regulation of everything. Law is reduced to politics – laws are supposed to achieve a political agenda. Society is conceived of as an enterprise association: there is a collective goal (vouchsafed to the elect) in which each person sublimates his/her own goals and is fulfilled by their social roles.
As you can see their substantive account of morality is wholly negative – they know what they are against but are unclear on what they favor – or – they favor a laundry list of abstractions that temporarily allow them to pour whatever meaning they want into it. What holds them together is what they are against. One cold maintain, as Ortega did, that this is actually the absence of morality as opposed to an alternative morality.
Ideology as Religion
It has been observed for some time, e.g. Nietzsche’s assertion that ‘God is dead,’ that Western societies are increasingly secular. The older comprehensive religious cultural narratives such as Christianity and Judaism seem less and less relevant or meaningful to more and more people. One could argue that THIS IS A FURTHER CONSEQUENCE OF EMBRACING The Enlightenment Project.
Even new variants of these older narratives keep moving further and further ‘left’ in their orientation. By this, I mean that they increasingly support policies that promise immediate earthly postponement or resolution of the human predicament, to wit that we can suffer physical and mental dysfunction from the time we are conceived and that as we grow older we become more infirm and then die. Perhaps in a broader sense we all seek to make sense of our mortal lives.
Politics is now the new religion. Politics, understood as some institutional arrangement that defines the master moral community, has replaced the family and religion or what we used to call civil society. In some cases, the alleged new community can go beyond traditional nation states and now encompass a super-state (e.g. EU) or a global entity (e.g. U.N.) or even encompass non-human things such as animals, plants, the whole earthly environment. “Today, the New Left is rushing in to fill the spiritual vacuum at the center of our free and capitalist society.” [Irving Kristol, 1972, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism”]. There is no longer any pretense that centralized control of the economy is more productive or efficient; equality of outcome and communal solidarity are intrinsic ends that take absolute precedence over everything else. They no longer care about the reasons that past agents had for what they did; all history is to be judged and written from the progressive moral perspective.
Post-modern thinkers have a better understanding of our epistemological predicament than do hopeless advocates of older forms of liberalism (libertarian, classical liberal, etc.). Many traditional religious thinkers also understand the limits of discursive reason but they have either stopped believing the literal truth of their tradition or simply do not know how to defend their commitment. The latter have forgot that the advocacy of toleration is a largely cultural or civil achievement.
Religions have traditionally been enterprise associations, that is, promoting a collective goal to which individual goals, freedoms, etc. are subordinated. In practice, that has meant excluding others, i.e. intolerance. Christianity and Judaism, notably among others, subsequently (i.e. after centuries of religious wars) found the internal resources to accept procedural tolerance. This is not true of some others. Among the latter (supply your own list) there is a strict policy of intolerance if not hostility and outright suppression of dissenters. After all, it is not possible to win an argument rationally. The ‘left’ of late has adopted this attitude even in the U.S. and the U.K. Once you understand the logic of enterprise association, the felt need of salvation and total meaning (a comprehensive purpose to everything), you can understand the policy of intolerance.
Domination is not some intrinsic feature of the human predicament, rather, it is the response of those who fear any threat to their enterprise association. Since they ARE UNWILLING TO LIVE WITHOUT A TOTAL VISION, they can prevail only by eliminating opposition. Intolerance is a simple reflection of how the new left has become a religion that brooks no opposition.
I offer a crucial example. What a religion or political system understood as a religion offers is total meaning, total commitment, and salvation (fill in the content). The major policy proposal in the U.S. and elsewhere of the ‘left’ is single-payer health care – you will be kept alive as long as possible (in case there is no after-life or you might fail to qualify for it) at ‘public’ expense. Once this part of the economy is under central government control, there is no going back and total control of the economy and of all institutions is inevitable in order to guarantee that there is no going back. If you subscribe to this, intolerance of all kinds is permitted/required, or you are guilty of destroying the lives of millions upon millions of other human beings. Intolerance in the eyes of the new left would be a small cost to pay given the benefits.
What is Really Wrong Intellectually/Morally With The New Left
As I have argued above, you cannot defeat the new left with arguments about objective truth, and you cannot refute them by claiming that post-modernism is somehow incoherent. Simply restating your own commitment is not a refutation of those who do not share that commitment.
What can we do? On the positive side, we can appeal to the Anglo-American cultural inheritance which is grounded in custom/practice (not theory) and the practice of resolving disagreements about practice. This does not require an abstract theory, nor a theory of history, nor a narrative of any kind. People either share or they are willing to share these practices or they do not. Histories (narratives, theories) do not resolve these matters because, at best, history can only legitimately tell us what happened (e.g. a battle took place on such and such a date) or what the agents involved understood themselves to be doing (not some theory of what we attribute to them).
If we do not share the same understanding of the practices, then there is nothing more to be said. Yes, I know we yearn for more. Holding on to the illusion of some ‘objective’ truth either turns us into the same direction as those we oppose or it undercuts our ability to fight back. We do not have to hold onto the belief in an objective truth except as a private substantive view; what we need to hold onto is the belief in the validity of our practice of procedural tolerance. Some of us have no difficulty in squaring this procedural norm with our different substantive views. The ‘left’ is incapable of doing this, and that is why they not only want to change the rules but also want to change the rules for changing the rules.
What the new left does is to say that they share the practices (e.g. free speech, democracy, etc.) but reserve the right to interpret them in a way with which we do not and cannot agree. There is a word for this, and it is ‘dishonesty’. The new left understands this game, but their critics do not.
The left is constantly calling for “equity” and “diversity” and tolerance, but as soon as you say something they don’t like they’ll attack you personally, and in a really mean way. And, when you try to talk with them about it, they tell you that you’re hurting their feelings and they can’t talk about it. This among academics, who are supposed to be trained in rational argument! There is so much resentment in the anti-individual—the calls for group solidarity and the constant airing of endless grievances really do seem to point to a kind of pathology in the soul.
In failing to see that the left is a form of religion what is missed in all of this is that the left will argue that things like free speech, the right to self-defense, in fact the whole of the Bill of Rights is not a set of procedural norms but a substantive morality that is being imposed on them. To disagree with them is to impose the Judeo-Christian morality on them. Who knew that Locke’s invocation of our God-given natural rights was a form of aggression? So the new scholarship is meant to make us understand that it’s actually the non-left that is now being accused of intolerance.
We must face what is really going on. Intellectuals who oppose the new left have difficulty with accepting reality because as intellectuals they naturally want to believe that we can arrive at agreement through free and open discussion, that we can either refute the other side or that the other side can convert us rationally. After all, that is what intellectuals do (like the man with a hammer who sees everything as a nail) or is their only claim to superiority, and that is also why they have never been able to resolve our deepest conflicts. Activists (e.g. Alinsky) understand this weak point and exploit it without hesitation.
As I write this, I have become acutely aware that what I have written will be rejected by some because it is not wholly scholarship but a form of advocacy. Perhaps it is time to recognize the limits of scholarship and the point at which rhetoric needs to take hold.
What would the left do with their lives if everything were made perfect, in their estimation? That’s the real question. They thrive on injustice and dissatisfaction. The pertinent other question is, I think, what ought I myself to be doing to promote a flourishing life for myself and my family?
Many ordinary people have a better grasp of this than do our educated elites. That is because our educated elites have undergone a process that has blinded them with abstractions. This is no longer a parlor game; it is no longer an issue of saving American civilization. It is an issue of saving civilization itself. What we tend to forget is that civilization is a product of evolving practices and not a product of theory.
In the end, we have to take responsibility for how we choose to understand ourselves and our relationships with others. If we are honest with ourselves, we shall recognize that we are about to engage in a civil war or revolution; there is no theoretical justification for our choices. But we can hope to God that we are doing the right thing.
As Herbert Butterfield once put it, “When we have reconstructed the whole of mundane history it does not form a self-explanatory system, and our attitude to it, our whole relationship to the human drama, is a larger affair altogether – it is a matter not of scholarship but of religion… Ultimately our interpretation of the whole human drama depends on an intimately personal decision concerning the part we mean to play in it” [Christianity and History (1949), pp. 27 and 86].
This month we are so very pleased and honored to present this interview with the renowned philosopher, Nicholas Capaldi, who is the Legendre-Soule Distinguished professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, USA. He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, who himself is a philosopher and author of several important books and is currently working on a collection of articles, entitled, Gods Will Have Blood: Rise of Totalitarianism in America.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): My image of Nicholas Capaldi is that of an American intellectual and academic, rather than a philosophy professor. The reason is, correct me if I am wrong, that in your books you always try to tackle a big intellectual problem, just like in your book on analytic philosophy, which you inscribed in the Enlightenment Project. It is not just narrow philosophical problems that you see, but you see them in a broad historical context. The same goes for your other books and the one you have just finished,The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law. Is my description of you correct?
Nicholas Capaldi (NC): Yes! Thank you. Philosophical issues do not exist in a vacuum but within a larger context. It is always important to ask “why” an issue is an issue and for whom. The academic world, wrongly modeled along scientific grounds, forces people to know or think they know more about less and less. The result is a series of fashionable discussions akin to a carousel on which the riders and tunes change but there is no progress or direction.
ZJ: Your other book is a biography of John Stuart Mill, the father of the Liberal Idea. What made you write it?
NC: As an undergraduate seeking to find my own voice, I was inspired both by Mill’s defense of individual autonomy and by the critique of censorship. A career in academe has only reinforced the need to seek for the truth and to be free to articulate it, even more so as the academic world becomes increasingly politicized and intolerant.
ZJ: As the author of two books on Mill, you are well qualified to assess Liberalism as a doctrine. Liberalism travelled a long way from where it started in 1820, as a criticism of the establishment of the aristocratic Anglican order to what it became in Mill, and to where it is now, essentially a form of Politically Correct orthodoxy. One could probably find a number of other intermediate stages in the 20th century (welfare state, extension of suffrage, etc.) How do you explain its plasticity, the ability to adapt itself to the changing circumstances? In ten years, it will be roughly 200 years since the emergence of the Liberal Idea in Oxford in the 1820s, as Cardinal John Henry Newman explained it in his Apologia.
NC: I think it is a mistake to talk about Liberalism. It would be better to focus on the importance of individual freedom and how it emerged/developed historically within the European psyche, but most especially in the English world. Once you try to understand this as an isolated concept (philosophical, political, economic, etc.) you have created a contextless abstraction – and abstractions can be interpreted to mean anything. The best discussion I know is Oakeshott’s distinction between civil and enterprise association, wherein the former is a society without a collective end, but exists to allow individual members to pursue their own individual ends with a minimum of conflict.
The existence of people (anti-individuals) who are incapable or unwilling to live in such a world enables them to take an abstract concept and make it mean the opposite of its original meaning. I might add that intellectuals who are limited to using only Greco-Roman models have bought into an intellectual frame of reference that limits their ability to understand individual freedom. Such intellectuals want to be free to impose their own model on others – freedom of speech for them means freedom to impose their private vision on others.
ZJ: What, in your opinion, were the classical characteristics of Mill’s Liberalism and which are the ones which today’s Liberals promote?
NC: Mill sought to respect individual freedom; today, many so-called Liberals seek to “promote” individual freedom by collectivist means. Assuming they know what they are talking about, they are blind to the inherent contradiction of ‘forcing people to be free’ (Rousseau). It all goes back to what Voegelin called “Gnosticism.”
ZJ: Let me give you one example, from his On Representative Government. Mill was a great proponent of universal suffrage. Yet, he understood that it was not a God given right, like the American inalienable rights, but contingent upon certain factors – education, for example. “Universal teaching must precede universal enfranchisement.” In other words, basic education, which he considered to be the knowledge of basic mathematics, reading, geography, national and world history is the foundation on which suffrage rests. We, today, on the other hand, believe that it is a right, that democracy can function anywhere, and that regardless of our personal and intellectual qualities, democracy can function. Democracy in Mill’s writings appears to be a very fragile and complex mechanism. How would he see the democratic world today?
NC: Mill wrote the essay, On Liberty, in part, to call attention to the difference between the negative role of democracy in the eighteenth century (favored by the U.S. founders) and the “tyranny of the majority,” against which Tocqueville argued so eloquently. Mill also called attention to the difference between what the majority might think and what those who claim to speak for the majority (power elite) claim on behalf of the majority.
ZJ: We seem to be obsessed with the idea of wide participation of the masses. No exclusions; in fact, every exclusion is called discrimination. Mill, sympathetic as he was to the idea of extending the right to vote, was very clear that, first, criminals’ right to vote should be suspended, that people who live off others should not have a right to vote, and those who are unemployed for an extensive period of time (he thought of 3-5 years), should not have a right to vote either. Today, Mill would be accused of discrimination.
NC: Today, democracy has become a mask for oppression. So-called “identity politics” brings together all the of the anti-individuals (mentioned earlier – see Oakeshott) to undermine the achievements and prestige of autonomous individuals. Instead of transferring resources from the rich to the poor, we transfer power from individuals to the state (de Jouvenel). Political discourse has become Orwellian.
ZJ: Let me go back to his educational requirements – literacy, national history, global history and geography. This is what he thought was necessary in 1861 when he published his work! The world of 1861 and the world of 2020 are not the same, and by that, I mean the world is so much more complicated and complex that even the best educated among us cannot claim to be experts in political matters.
Let me draw a parallel, I am not sure how useful it is, between criticism of Socialism by Hayek and democracy’s ability to sustain itself. According to Hayek, one major reason why Socialist economics is not viable is because no one can have complete knowledge that goes into pricing, and therefore, only free market can provide us with correct price of goods. Planned economy can’t work. The idea that the masses somehow have enough knowledge to run the social and political realms seems to me Utopian in nature, in the same way that Socialism was.
NC: You are absolutely correct. Keep in mind that Hayek’s argument against planning is a restatement of his mentor Mill’s position that no one can be infallible (remember the context of 19th-century debate on infallibility). The U.S. was founded as a Republic (constitutional protection of individual liberties) as opposed to a DEMOCRACY (majority-tyranny).
ZJ: In the beginning of his On Liberty, Mill states: “The struggle between Liberty and Authority is the most conspicuous feature of history with which we are earliest familiar, particularly in that of Greece, Rome, and England. But in old times this contest was between subjects, or some classes of subjects, and the government.”
This idea sounds very familiar to the readers of Marx and Engels, who at the opening of the Communist Manifesto formulated their vision of progressive history as well. In their view history is a class struggle, between oppressors and the oppressed. The oppressors are in Mill’s scheme the Party of Authority, and the oppressed are the Party of Liberty. Is it a coincidence that Mill – the Liberal – and Marx and Engels sound so alike? Or does the similarity stem from the popular understanding of History as Progressive, a popular conception in 19th-century.
NC: Great question. There were different conceptions of history in the 19th-century debate. For the mature Mill, history evolved but did not progress; as in the common law, we constantly seek to retrieve, explicate, and restate for new contexts the inherent norms of our inherited civilization. For Marx, Comte, etc. “history” was understood “scientifically” as a form of teleology or progress. The great attraction of the latter view is that it allows you to invent self-serving narratives.
ZJ: Do you think there are consequences of such an interpretation of history? In Marxism it was called “Historical Inevitability,” which in practice gave the communist apparatchiks a theoretical tool to eliminate the enemies: If History is progressive, if it unfolds itself in a certain direction, there is nothing wrong in eliminating the enemies of Progress. The idea had serious consequences in real life. Millions of people killed! The Stalinist trials, for example, are a good exemplification of it.
Let me quote a few sentences from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a book about trials, in which Gletkin, the interrogator, explains what kind of historical thinking drives the communists and what justifies the elimination of the enemies: “My point is, one may not regard the world as a sort of metaphysical brother for emotions. This is the first commandment for us. Sympathy, conscience, and atonement are for us repellent debauchery… to sell oneself to one’s conscience is to abandon mankind. History is a priori amoral; it has no conscience.”
Thus, one can torture, kill. History provides justification. Are today’s Liberals heading in the same direction? Not necessarily by physically extermination, but by destroying everyone who disagrees with them? I am asking this question because their intolerance is growing; they attempt to shout down any critical voice; they become increasingly more violent; and the words, such as progress, progressive agenda, progressive policies, etc. are their only vocabulary.
NC: I fear that you are correct. All of this nonsense reflects the fact that the British and U.S. Revolutions were “conservative” in the sense I attributed to Mill above. The Russian and all subsequent Revolutions have been “radical,” that is, based on abstractions. Furthermore, the intellectual origin of all of this dangerous nonsense is what I have described as “the Enlightenment Project” – the belief that we could construct a social ‘science’ and thereby a social technology. You alluded to this in mentioning my other book. Like all bad ideas it originated in 18th-century France. If there is a social technology then dissent undermines utopia. Again, this appeal to infallibility is what Mill objected to in Comte.
ZJ: These dangerous tendencies in mass behavior are not new. They were noticed by philosophers, sociologists and psychologists. Let me begin with Mill who talks about tyranny of the majority in a democracy often in his On Liberty. How do you account for his favorable, even enthusiastic support for the rule of the majority, on the one hand, and his contempt for them (the collective mediocrity), as he refers to them?
NC: Mill saw political democracy as inevitable—curiously a product of industrialization. What he advocated was a cultural and political bulwark against its excesses.
ZJ: Was his contemporary, Nietzsche, a more perceptive critic of democracy and majority rule than Mill? Sometimes they sound the same, but Nietzsche took the masses for what they are – mediocrity, and saw what Mill refused to see – lack of aristocratic virtues. In fact, Mill hated aristocracy; wrote nasty things about it. Do you think it was a well-argued position, or was it a psychological suspicion of someone who did not belong to an aristocratic order, and who gave support with the power of his considerable intellect to the rule of mediocrity?
NC: lan Kahan has written a good book, Aristocratic Liberalism, in which he makes the case that Mill, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt were exemplars. I have argued that England (individual autonomy tradition) was different from the Continent (long history of collectivism). I see Nietzsche as responding to the more threatening Continental context.
Elsewhere, I (following many previous writers) have identified the extent to which intellectuals are attracted to holistic, collectivist, and Utopian thinking (e.g. Enlightenment Project, Hoffer’s men of words in his book True Believer). So, it is no surprise that the ‘Continental Disease’ has slowly infiltrated the Anglo-American world.
I also believe that the cultural dimension is more important than the purely intellectual one. In the U.S., many ordinary people understand and respond positively to Clint Eastwood’s Western films and to Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way.” This is behind Buckley remark that some of us would rather be governed by the first 300 people in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard.
ZJ: Ever since the beginning of the 20th-century, that is, the rise of psychology and sociology, we know not only how, but why masses behave the way they do. Freud devoted an interesting book, The Group Psychology, to the topic. In a nutshell, man loses his individuality and identity in a crowd. Following Le Bon, Freud claims, man goes back to his primitive instinct and nature, and acts like a member of a herd, again, an expression that Nietzsche uses frequently to describe what he calls slave-morality. Only individuals, not crowds, not masses, have a moral compass. How does it square, in your view, with the idea of a democratic, mass society? Is such a society bound to be immoral?
NC: This is the very issue that Oakeshott addresses in his essay, “The Masses in Representative Government.” His conclusion was that “….[the anti-individual or mass man] remains an unmistakably derivative character…helpless, parasitic and able to survive only in opposition to individuality….The desire of the ‘masses’ to enjoy the products of individuality has modified their destructive urge.”
ZJ: Let me turn to something that has been on my mind, and which made me put out a new edition of Mill’s writings, where I think one can trace the trajectory of his development; namely, the idea of authority, which is so inimical to Mill. He made it, as the quotation from his On Liberty which I used before reveals, the centerpiece of his philosophy. Authority is the enemy of Liberty. Plato, in Book. VIII of his Republic, on the other hand, saw the dissolution of authority as the beginning of anarchy, which, in turn, is the result of expanding equality in a democracy.
Now, Mill, as you know, translated several of Plato’s dialogues and knew his philosophy well. Did he miss something? Did he expect democracy to last despite Plato’s warnings? Or did he think that everyone is rational? Or was he just too steeped in the English tradition of respect for law, order, conservatism in private life, etc.? Did he think that the social order is self-sustaining, that we will not cross a certain line? How would you explain his position?
NC: The intellectual and moral responsibility of the public intellectual, whether he/she be Plato, Mill, or us, is to (1) identify the social problem, (2) defend one alternative solution/policy against others, and (3) offer a rhetorical (artistic) expression, designed to persuade others to see the world as we do. Plato clearly did this in writing dialogues. You captured some of this in your collection of Mill’s more popular writings. You also capture this in some of your own cultural writing. It has been my great failing not to have done more of this in my own.
ZJ: Is the suspicion or hostility, in your view, as it is in Mill, characteristic of Liberalism? And if so, how far can the Liberals go, you think, without destroying social order?
NC: The greatest threat to tyranny is the capacity of a few people to stand up and say, “The Emperor has no clothes.” Keep it simple, clear, and authentic. It takes enormous courage to do this. In the end, the question is never how far tyrants will go, but how far we are willing to go to oppose them.
ZJ: Let me return to the idea of order. In Aristotle, we find a claim that the function of a good law giver is to make citizens good. In his defense, one of Socrates’ accusers makes the same point. When I taught those thinkers, it struck me that if Aristotle had a chance to read the American founding documents—pursuit of happiness, that is, leaving an individual to his own devices, without any moral compass—he would give the Founding Fathers an F. The idea that human behavior can be left unregulated would be preposterous to the ancients.
Now, given the American Founding Fathers’ brilliance, did they miss something? It is unlikely, which leads me to my question. The US was founded by the sectarian Protestants, with a very strict moral code. They, particularly Jefferson, could believe that the public realm can remain neutral because the citizens’ religiosity, or the Churches, will keep pumping, so to speak, the moral code. What are your thoughts on this?
NC: I think you are correct. The U.S. is, as Samuel Huntington said, an Anglo-Protestant culture. I would also make the case that since Mill and Nietzsche, it has become necessary to find an intellectual/cultural defense of the values of such a Protestant culture not tied to a specific theology as traditionally understood. I have tried to make such a case in a way that is compatible with some but not all traditional forms of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Curiously, we live now in an increasingly secular culture where clergy who no longer believe in God are attracted both to mindless defenses of abstractions, like tolerance of intolerant religious sects and movements, and, at the same time, a therapeutic view of the welfare state as the new moral community. When I meet such people, I am not sure whether I should laugh or cry. Perhaps we need a new Reformation. This is part of what it means to retrieve our moral tradition in a new context. Retrieving a tradition can never be a simple matter of an uncritical return to the past. Instead, it is the re-identifying of something that is a permanent part of the human condition, even though it is always expressed in specific historical contexts.
ZJ: Now, 250 years later, with the decline of religiosity, low church attendance—and the same seems to be true of Judaism (as my Orthodox Rabbi friend tells me, reformed Judaism is likely to cease to exist in a few decades) – there is no moral or ethical powerhouse. It is almost as if Sartre and de Beauvoir’s dream came true. Everyone invents his own moral code, lives according to his own rules. Are we becoming a nihilistic society? Is this nihilism?
NC: I would make two points. First, there are lost souls, some of whom embrace the latest fashionable, and sometimes destructive, enterprise association. Second, nihilism is not to be confused with moral pluralism. We have always lived in a morally pluralistic world. The mistake we have always made is to try and find the one new true collectivist faith and impose it on others.
What we need, and what we have to some extent, is a plurality of substantive moral communities who need to agree on common procedural norms. I think many such communities exist. I think some of those communities presently lack the internal resources to agree to common procedural norms. In our book on The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law, my wife Nadia and I have tried to show how this is possible and actual.
ZJ: Just like Mill, Jefferson was hostile to aristocracy, in his own, so to speak, American way. He saw it as an extension of monarchical order rather than a class, or much less so, because in one of his letters, he made a very strong case for aristocracy of spirit, education. He even designed a way how such a democratic aristocracy should be bred. In one letter he made a list of mad European monarchs, which, he thought, to be a very good case for abandoning monarchy as an institution.
Now, let me make this point – seceding from the British Crown, declaring independence from Britain, is one thing, establishing a new political order is another. So, after painful debates, the Americans chose the republic. Here is my question – one could believe, as Jefferson did, back then, that a monarch can become crazy and corrupt, but, one could argue, that one can replace a corrupt or mad monarch. However, when the masses become corrupt, what then? What can you do? And our present social and political situation seems to point to a number of problems which, on an individual scale, you could term unhealthy, or even insane.
NC: There are a number of issues here that need to be separated. First, I do not believe that the “masses” correctly captures the major issues. There are many people who cannot be classified as “intellectual,” but who are decent individuals and responsible citizens. You do not get to be decent and responsible by having a Liberal education. Second, the social pathologies I do see reflect the failure of major institutions (e.g. family, schools, religions). The failure of those institutions I would attribute to the false idea that we can have a social technology (i.e. the Enlightenment Project).
ZJ: You are an academic, having spent your life in academia. But you are more. You are associated with the Liberty Fund. When I think of the several conferences that I attended, I cannot resist the feeling that I have never, and I mean it, participated in more intense intellectual life than during the two days of their sessions. It is not only a well-organized setting, but it is a place where ideas matter. I am sure that you will agree with me. No university produces such an intense intellectual atmosphere as does the Liberty Fund. Do you agree?
NC: I would indeed agree. As long as the administration of Liberty Fund is true to donor intent, and is not captured by ideologues with a program, it remains the premier educational institution in America. Again, I would argue that the intellectual world in the last century has been a captive of the Enlightenment Project program of social technology. So-called higher education now disfigures the intellectual world, the worlds of the clergy, government administration, communication and journalism, law schools, teacher training, business, the arts, etc. At the risk of sounding self-promoting, higher education now controls the commanding heights of all that is wrong with our society.
ZJ: Given the absolutely dreadful state of education and universities in America, do you see a way out? The tenured academics will not give up their positions. Has academia been destroyed? Almost every week you can read an article of complaint from retiring academics stating how bad things are. Few people have the courage to stand up; and the majority of professors are afraid—afraid of students and administration. How did we come to be where we are?
NC: This is a long story. I started writing a book about it and became too depressed to finish it. It cannot be reformed internally, in part for reasons to which you have alluded. It can only be reformed from the outside. I do not see that happening in the short run. Our only hope is that it will collapse on itself, and the current financial crisis (student loan debt) may be how it happens. This is not an excuse for doing nothing – we keep up the rear-guard action. What we need to prepare is a positive alternative.
ZJ: What about the Liberty Fund method of education? Don’t you think that there is room for it to do the same kind of seminars with students? That Liberty Fund and other foundations could start real universities where education is what it used to be?
NC: I think the Liberty Fund model is a good one. I also think that education cannot be left to professionals alone. The articulation, defense, and critique of our fundamental norms should go on in every institution. The life of the mind also has intrinsic value. I end this interview as I plan to enter retirement with a program called “Community of Scholars.” Free from the constraints of teaching those who do not want to learn, freed from administrative B.S., free from the tyranny of journal editors and university presses; and with the help of the new technology and social media we can create a vast network of scholars who want to search for and articulate the truth, who want to share – for free – the wisdom of a lifetime of searching, and to do so in the spirit of Mill’s and Nietzsche’s ruthless self-examination. It requires both intellectual and moral virtue. It is our way, perhaps the only way, of keeping the Socratic faith.
ZJ: In 1977 Leszek Kolakowski published his opus magnum,Main Currents of Marxism. Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution. The first volume deals with the founders; the second with the golden age; the third with Marxism’s demise. Kolakowski’s work is, as I like to think about it, a death certificate of Marxist thought issued twelve years before the actual burial of Communism in Eastern Europe, and fourteen years before the end of the Soviet Union.
The range of your interests is impressive, but you also wrote a fantastic biography of John Stuart Mill – a great read! Would you feel tempted to write a work on Liberalism à la Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism? You could even title it, “Main Currents of Liberalism.” From our private conversations, I gather that you are thinking about it. Any thoughts on this and how would you structure it?
NC: I am most definitely interested in writing such a book. The general thesis is that what I have called the Enlightenment Project (18th-century French idea that there can be a social science modeled after physical science and that such a social science will give us a social technology) is the origin of Doctrinaire Liberalism, Marxism, and Socialism – these are all expressions of this bad idea (all bad ideas, by the way, come from France).
Doctrinaire Liberalism, I shall argue, is a French abstraction that (a) misunderstands Anglo-American culture, (b) and tries to introduce Anglo-American virtues into the Continent, but mistakes the abstraction for the reality. The mistake is then read-back into Anglo-American culture by British and American scholars and activists – thereby providing a fake history. All versions of the Enlightenment Project ultimately become totalitarian – hence, why what is happening in the U.S. (under the Democrats, not Trump) parallels what happened under Marxism.
ZJ: Marxism died not merely because the countries of real Socialism could not compete with the Western Liberal democracies, because the economy started to crumble, because of politics, etc., but because faith in Marxism died. Marxism, in its different stages of development, was not only a philosophy and political orientation, but a religion that required faith. One could say that its longevity depended on the existence of the believers. A host of intellectuals, writers, artists were Marxists; they gave support to the idea. When they lost faith in it – partly because of the form in which it manifested itself politically and socially – Marxism lost its magical power. Do you find any parallels between Marxism and Liberalism? Liberalism has also evolved, manifesting itself in different ways.
NC: I think you are correct that ideologies die when people lose faith in them. I do not think that this will happen soon in the U.S. In the U.S., the weakening has just begun; we need to make people aware that they are succumbing to an intellectual disease. We need to persist in weakening the faith.
ZJ: At the very end of volume one, Kolakowski characterized Marxism as man’s greatest 20th-century utopia, a flight to freedom. Today, the young generation is not familiar with such a hope and the Socialist idea, but being Politically Correct (with its call to social justice, the abolishing of “power structures,” etc.), which is a reformulation of Marxism. Do you think that the Liberal Idea is another utopia which replaced the old one, Marxism?
NC: Liberalism is just another version. What people confuse is our institutional structure with theory; we need to remind them that our structure is an historical product and not a theoretical product. I tried to initiate that in the book on The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law.
ZJ: There are a number of books on Liberalism, beginning with Hobhouse’s classic, Liberalism (1911), which, in my opinion, comes very close to what we find in Mill’s writings; Harold Laski’s book The Rise of Eurpean Liberalismis another minor landmark in the development of the idea, and a number of minor works (O’Sullivan’s Liberalism, Schapiro’s Liberalism, Brinton’s The Shaping of the Modern Mind, part of which is devoted to liberalism, and so on). What is probably the most ambitious and serious book on the subject is De Ruggierro’s History of European Liberalism. It occurred to me that one could write a book on the development of Liberalism by tracing books called “Liberalism” or “History of Liberalism.” This is a phenomenon in itself, which makes one wonder why Liberals must redefine or readjust the notion of what Liberalism is every decade or so. Do you have an explanation?
NC: There is a disconnect between theory and practice, a disconnect that the discipline of philosophy has encouraged, namely, the belief that we can theorize the relation of theory to practice. Intellectuals, as Schumpeter noted, are the culprits here. Intellectuals so want to be the new clergy, they are unwilling to acknowledge the limits of discursive reason.
We cannot defeat them with more theory; we need to root out the notion that reason exists independent of all context (almost every major philosopher from Plato on has made this mistake). In the 20th-century, only Oakeshott and a few others have tried to reign in this rationalism.
ZJ: Do you think there is a need for a work on Liberalism, like Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism, particularly now that Liberalism has assumed a freedom-threatening posture (I mean the PC movement, which is very destructive, socially, politically and culturally), just like Marxism before? Need the people be reminded how Socialism began and deteriorated? Liberalism is no longer an idea that promises liberation from the shackles of oppression but, like Marxism, has become an oppressive system, very much like what Tocqueville feared democracy would become.
NC: Several of us should write about it – not one book but a host of books. I do not think “democracy” is the problem. I think the problem is a collection of elites (academe, journalism, military, business, Hollywood, technicians in IT, etc.).
ZJ: Does Liberalism require and depend on faith as much as Marxism did? When this faith dies, does the Liberal Idea die with it?
NC: It is the same faith. We need to make clear what that faith is. Voegelin identified it as Gnosticism, a form of Pelagianism. It will never disappear; it will simply assume new guises. We have to be patient in dealing with its eternal return.
ZJ: Under Communism, where I spent the first 25 years of my life, we had a mild Marxist-Leninism indoctrination (it was not that mild in the 1950s or the 1960s); but no one believed this ideological rubbish. Opposing it meant serious consequences, losing a job, interrogations, prison, sometimes “an accident” (death). But people opposed it; there was an underground/ samizdat press. We would read Hayek, Milton Friedman, Roger Scruton, Kolakowski, and others in horrible underground editions. One book would be read by twenty individuals. People made the effort to clear their minds of the ideological pollution. But now they attend official university classes in feminism, gender studies, environmental justice, domination, patriarchy, colonialism, women in art, literature, and many others.
Here is my question: Why this weakness of man under Liberal Democracy, why such blindness? Is it because Liberal Democracies do not go after your body, but your soul, as Tocqueville observed? People prefer to lose their souls – integrity, conscience – than their jobs? This is not a recent phenomenon. Tocqueville saw it in 1835!
NC: We have to remember that the vast majority of Americans do not have college degrees; that the U.S. culture is not primarily an intellectual culture but a practice/pragmatic culture. The infected part of the population consists of two groups: (a) Intellectuals taking their cue from the Continental abstractions I previously identified, and (b) College students – most of whom are disinterested in ideas.
The public has been totally turned off by the media journalists (“fake news”), so they remain uninfected; and the public is largely oblivious to what goes on in higher education and still thinks it is about getting a better job. The problem is the intelligentsia (vast literature on why totalitarianism appeals to them) and the intellectual students who are indoctrinated. Most students are ignorant, disinterested, turned off, and remain quiet as a defensive maneuver.
It is OUR job to attack the intelligentsia (and remain unpopular with fellow faculty) to educate and re-educate those bright students with whom one comes into contact, and to reassure, by our opposition, the disinterested students that they do not have to take left-wing intellectuals and faculty seriously. The latter, ironically, may be the most effective thing we do.
ZJ: Thank you, Professor Capaldi, for this wonderful conservation!
The image shows, “Danish soldiers return to Copenhagen, 1849,” by Otto Bache; painted in 1894.
A Polish version of this interview appeared in Arcana.
My opportunity to meet Sir Roger Scruton was close at hand, but the event of his illness was swift and too soon complete. As associate editor of St. Augustine’s Press, a proud publisher of some of his books, I feel an affinity toward the personal wagers that lay beneath the foundations of his public efforts, and his need not simply to educate but to ‘speak to’. And yet Sir Roger’s bones would rattle if anyone took this to mean he cared about “his voice”.
I cannot share anything about our encounters other than what he did for the intellectual imagination. What I can offer in the wake of his death and in celebration of his life are the musings about what she might be like, if liberalism as he described it were incarnated a woman. I believe beauty demands a notion of conservatism, and Sir Roger’s daydreams serve as proof of beauty’s quittance of the establishment.
There is little interest here for ranking the sexes, for, as Sir Roger I think would agree, beauty (and indeed all the transcendentals) often demands reference to the well-formed beckoning incomplete. If liberalism were rendered woman, the purpose is merely to drive home the fact that liberalism as feminine especially accommodates the fear of remaining unnoticed (a less economic form of slavery?).
Let us suppose also that the realm of ideas is a garden, and the effect of human agency is transposed on this landscape according to self-fascination and the ability of articulating one’s self as a cause. Liberalism is indeed a ‘spirited’ woman, but in order to be what she wants to be she walks through the garden with the expression of a certainty of being observed. She is indeed striking, as confidence is often the odor of perfection, though she is very unlike the classical rose––dour silk, disinterested.
Liberalism like other wanderers seeks to change the landscape. But unlike the man passing by, she does not construct the giant stone edifice pressing itself out of the canopy like a child out of bed. She does not build a temple and twist her figure to lay the mosaic tiles or narrative frescoes. In her corner of the garden one finds, simply enough, trees and flowering beds next to a pristine stream of water. In short, her garden seems no different than the woods through which she has passed. But if one were to place a hand on her art it becomes clear––her leaf is not membrane and her water not drink. Her realm is a synthetic version, her vision of what she knows to be true, something fine pressed through cheesecloth and branded as hers.
The woman liberalism is full of a wonder derived from intuition, though she is secretly repulsed by the hiddenness of the conscience. But this is a creature who cannot admit that it is familiarity and controlled intimacy that informs her, that the water in her stream could never be cold like naturally clean water because she is uneducated. Sir Roger walks into her space and asks her if she had been inspired to make her garden appear as creation or as complement, and if she considered her own power in similar terms. She responds differently each time he passes by, eager to impress and enthrall––but God protect him from her loathing if he does not consistently tell her that she and her logic are flawless, timeless and new! He looks at her hands unsoiled, and he is dismayed.
But today Sir Roger is smiling, now that the answers are no longer his concern, his eyes at last on matchless beauty, and beauteous eyes on him.
Catherine Godfrey-Howell is associate editor of St. Augustine’s Press (South Bend, Indiana) and adjunct professor of canon law at the University of Notre Dame. She holds a doctorate in canon law summa cum laude from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome), and is author of the unromantic history of canonical marriage jurisprudence in the United States, Consensual Incapacity to Marry (July 2020).
The image shows, “A Vision of Fiammetta,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted in 1878.
In the last several months, Conservatism lost two of its family members: Norman Stone, a historian, and Sir Roger Scruton, a philosopher. How important they were is testified by the fact that they and Jonathan C. D. Clark, the author of a very important work on English history, entitled, English Society, 1688-1832, became objects of the liberal historian Timothy Garton-Ash’s attack in 1990. Attacks are never pleasant to those who are their object, but sometimes they tell the reader whose views deserve attention.
What do these three men have in common? They were staunch defenders of hierarchy, privilege and the Past. The Past is sacred; it is our guide to the future, and, therefore, to use one of Sir Roger’s favorite words, it must be approached with “piety.” The Liberal sees nothing sacred in the Past. Like hierarchy and privilege, it is an instrument of the oppressive “power-structure,” which today’s Liberal finds it imperative to destroy.
The chaos and lawlessness on the streets in America has brought to light what the philosophy of Liberalism has become, but it also highlighted the importance of the role that the State plays in upholding social order.
The State and History are what Liberals waged an open war against. The destruction of monuments, Nancy Pelosi’s (the Speaker of the American House of Representatives) wholehearted support for the removal of statues and paintings from the Congressional buildings, the destruction of Columbus’ monuments all over the country, and those of the American presidents (Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt) are open admissions that American history is in the process of being abolished even by American politicians.
The Washington D.C. mayor’s refusal to lodge members of the National Guard, while the President, for reasons of security, was put in a bunker, is also a telling fact: the enemy is not the thugs, looters and vandals who took over the protests, but the State.
Paradoxically, this sentiment is shared by many high State officials whose salaries are paid for by the State. According to the mayor of Durham, in North Carolina, the function of police, which White folks need to understand, was to police Black people, and to protect White people and their property. The absurdity of such an utterance becomes obvious when we reflect on the fact that police are present in all African countries with no White population. The function of police in every civilized and advanced society is not to protect one race from another, but to protect decent citizens from harm by anyone.
To be sure, America has a race problem which cuts both ways, but the racial conflict is augmented by media and demagogues, and the mayor’s statement propagates a socially dangerous view, according to which, the American police is an oppressive arm of the White race. That may have been true to some extent a very long time ago, but it is hardly the case nowadays. Even the most hideous racially motivated killings are the work of individuals rather than the White “power-structure” or effects of “systemic racism;” and very few Whites in the U.S. can be called racist.
I doubt that Durham’s mayor propagates her views out of malice or even ignorance. Such an outlook on American history is the effect of about three decades of multicultural indoctrination by an intellectually semi-literate academic establishment.
Many of the American politicians and activists see the political realm as theatre, on whose stage we are watching an eternal racial conflict where the Whites play the role of the oppressors and the Blacks the role of the oppressed. If it is politically expedient, the actors are the oppressed American Indians, or the privileged class and those without privileges, the obscurantists who look to the Past and the Progressives who look to the Future.
The script changes, depending on who wants to enter the stage. Last year, during the weeks of Congressional testimony by Justice Kavanaugh, the actors embodied the two sexes: men and progressive women. Several years earlier, when the Supreme Court, after several-thousand years of human history, was deciding what marriage is, the participants were the heterosexual oppressors and the oppressed homosexuals.
Next came the “transgendered” party and those who feel comfortable in their original skin. There are already signs that the future conflict will erupt between the monogamist oppressors and the oppressed groups of polygamists who will demand further changes in the structure of family. This scheme is like a mathematical equation, with one unknown, which can always be substituted by whatever minority variable one wants.
Nothing in this theatrical scenario is very original. The script was written in the second half of the 19th-century by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of Socialism, in The Communist Manifesto, and by John Stuart Mill, the founding father of Liberalism, on the very first page of his On Liberty and the last two pages of his Utilitarianism. Both Marx and Engels, on the one hand, and Mill, on the other, view social conflicts always as bi-polar. History’s purpose is to abolish hierarchy and replace privileges by rights. At the end of History, once equality reigns supreme, there will be no need for the use of force! The State—its coercive institutions—will wither away.
By calling on the police to be “defunded,” the current protesters want to accelerate this process. When the mayor of Minneapolis said that he would not do it, the angry crowd shouted: “Jacob, go home.” Jacob, unless he does what the mob says, is likely to be voted out, and we can be almost certain that the new mayor will be elected on the promise of defunding police, or seriously limiting the scope of its power. The movement is aiming at further “withering” of the already weak liberal State.
To anyone with a modicum of critical-mindedness, such ideas are at best utopian and at worst dangerous. The danger seems to suggest, however, that the Western world may have reached the point where its two socio-political options—Conservatism and Liberalism which originated at the beginning of 19th-century — are no longer two forces mutually controlling and enriching each other in their occasional clashes over social policies.
Liberalism, which for the last sixty years or so has been slowly corroding social hierarchies, degenerated into a destructive social force. It is no longer the philosophical doctrine which drew our attention to unnecessary cruelty, brutality, arbitrariness in administrating the system of justice, and the abuse of power.
In its nascent stage, Liberalism promoted serious policies—unemployment benefits, education for the poor, taxation, greater participation of women and lower classes in political decision-making—that would help the poor and weak. All these items were addressed and tackled with high degree of theoretical subtlety by J. S. Mill in his Considerations On Representative Government.
Today’s Liberalism is not a doctrine that encourages the underdogs to make an effort to ennoble themselves, but encourages them to feel resentful. This resentment, as Nietzsche saw it, encourages the destruction of the social fabric and institutions that protect all individuals from one another. As New York authorities announced, they will not prosecute the protesters for damages, which is another way of saying, that one can participate in the destruction and still pay no legal consequences.
Is what is happening on our streets a matter of badly designed social policies or discrimination? One can seriously doubt it. What I would like to suggest is that what is taking place is the consequence of the Liberal doctrine.
Liberals have always been hostile to the use of force or coercion in human relationships. This is clear from reading Mill. The meaning of the term “force” or “coercion” in the Liberal dictionary is extremely wide. It can signify burning human beings alive, torture, lynching, brutal beatings, but it can also mean light spanking, screaming at someone for rudeness, using so-called “offensive” language, or any form of what was once considered discipline.
Lack of discipline is responsible for the state of American education and lack of respect among children and young people, without which polite society is impossible. Everything that is not negotiated is considered coercive and evil. Therefore, to achieve their social and political goals, the Liberals prefer to use legislation in order to regulate human relationships rather than discipline.
They see no contradiction between mounting legislation which regulates every aspect of human relationships and the diminishing scope of individual freedom. This paradox was noticed already by Tocqueville, who understood that the reason why there is so little freedom in America is that the democratic man does not understand that the laws he enacts can be the source of his own enslavement.
The Liberal State that sees power as evil does not know how to act in situations of national emergency, for example, nation-wide riots, which threaten social order. Can one defend the destruction of property, physical violence, or the killing of police? A commonsensical person should agree that the State can, should, and must intervene to deter the destruction of property, and the harm or death of many persons. Accordingly, it would appear that in such situations the Liberal is pushed into a corner and forced to renounce his naïve idea that, either there are no circumstances under which we could use force, or that all problems can be negotiated. But the Liberal mind can defy logic.
During recent protests, the liberal news outlets spared no effort to augment the protesters’ grievances, which go back to 1619, when the first slaves were brought to the New World. Grievances either obfuscate or justify the destruction, as they did in 1789 in France and 1917 in Russia. And as grievances grow, the destruction of cities and the deaths of several policemen become irrelevant. Today’s victims are the currency with which the Present pays off its historical debt. This is how the Communists thought and what they did.
In the words of Gletkin in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, “History is a priori immoral; it is not a brothel of emotions,” and, therefore, no point in shedding tears over the death of a few innocent men who died defending the Old order. Lack of coverage of those deaths in the liberal media proves that the old communists are today’s liberals.
The case in point is the behavior of Nancy Pelosi, after Congressional presentation by the sister of Patrick Underwood, the Black policeman who was killed by a looter. The Speaker of the House, who stood eight feet from her, did not even bother to express any condolences for his death. Why? Most likely because in defending order, the murdered policeman was on the wrong side of History, whereas his killer was part of the social movement whose origin can be traced back to 1619.
We should note, however, that American conservatives who believe that the imposition of curfew or martial law measures for a very brief period of time could have saved us from the destructive power of protests, do not have a firm conviction that one can find justification for the use of power.
This seems to have always been the case in American Conservatism, which from the beginning of the Republic was dominated by the Liberal idea of abstract rights. As Ronald Raegan said: “The state is not a solution; the state is a problem.”
To be sure, at that time in American history, conservative Raegan thought of the State as a huge bureaucratic machine, which needs to be reduced to make room for private initiative in the economic realm – but this leaves the problem of how much power the American conservatives would be willing to grant the State to prevent society from falling into chaos.The only legitimate realm where Americans feel the use of force is rather unproblematic is foreign lands—a matter of little interest to the uninformed majority of the American public.
The problem can be ultimately reduced to how Liberalism and Conservatism perceive the role of the State. While the former sees it as a means to shape and impose abstract social and political norms, always by legislative means, the latter sees the State as a product of a historical process, and considers its power as legitimate only when it is used in defense of the historical nature of the country: its institutions, religion, customs and traditions. The Liberals do not consider any of the above as particularly important. At best, they think of them as ingredients of what they term “multiculturalism.”
In a Conservative vision, on the other hand, there is no room for the State to use its coercive power to intervene in the family structure, educational programs (unless they are harmful to the development of children), forms of religious worship, marital relationships, let alone defining who is a man or a woman. These structures and institutions established themselves through a long historical process (and continue to evolve), and this is a sacred Conservative realm. They can never be changed according to an a priori blueprint or a legislative fiat of a democratically elected legislative body.
The decision of the Supreme Court concerning marriage is the most glaring demonstration of how divorced the Liberal mind is from History. Given the fact that there are no historical precedents, not in the entire human history of all peoples and races, to take marriage to be anything other than a union of man and woman, the decision of five American Justices of one of the youngest countries in the world tipped the historical scale.
The same disregard for History can be observed in the treatment of traditional educational curricula, Christian religion, or History of the United States. The books by minorities, despite the fact that they have had a marginal role in shaping the mind of the nation, are considered more important than the gigantic classics which shaped it; Protestant Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, despite the paramount importance of the role of Protestantism in creating American culture, are put on a par; and the three monotheistic religions are put on par with Eastern religions and different “New Age” doctrines.
What is ultimately responsible for this state of affairs is the idea of equality, which does not tolerate discrimination, despite the fact that only some religions, books, cultures, peoples, and ideas have forged nations and their institutions.
The Liberals, who traditionally boasted that they are the defenders of a “minimal” State, are today the greatest defenders of an all-powerful State, one which constitutes a threat to traditional structures, social mores, and individual freedoms. Why is that?
The liberal polis is an abstraction, the denial of previous forms of social organizations, and its ultimate goal is the unconditional equality of all people and all cultures. It is inhabited neither by the Germans in Germany, the Poles in Poland, the Italians in Italy, nor the Americans in the United States.
The citizens of this Liberalopolis are abstract human beings, stripped of their historical identity. They are neither American nor Kenyan nor Japanese; nor are they White or Black or Yellow. And last but not least, they are neither men or women, and their sexual “preferences” are neither Natural nor of Divine design. They, like culinary taste, are a matter of individual taste and subject to change. The criterion of choice is not rational; it is a subjective feeling, or whim.
The conservative State in their eyes is a threatening “power-structure,” which is the bedrock of social hierarchy and privileges rather than rights. Even the old traditional educational programs are the enemy because they inculcate reverence for the Past, and in doing so, they unconsciously perpetuate old forms of oppression. For this reason, they deserve to be quietly destroyed. A superficial glance at the state of American universities suffices to understand how successful Liberalism is in destroying education.
The Conservative mind, the liberal argument runs, is implicitly biased and discriminatory against other groups or cultures. An Englishman has no more reason to feel proud for being English than a Gypsy or an Eskimo. English “superiority” on account of England’s achievements is an illusion because both an Englishman, and a Gypsy or an Eskimo, are simply human beings.
The superior attitude of, say, a proud Englishman named, “Nigel” can even be threatening to a Gypsy or an Eskimo; and calling a Gypsy “Gypsy” rather than “Roma” is a sign of English-supremacy. The threat, of course, is not of a physical nature. It is psychological. To ensure that a Gypsy and Eskimo have an equally high self-esteem as “Nigel”, colleges make sure that English history is not taught there, or, at best, it is one of many history courses, including Gypsy and Eskimo histories.
In the eyes of the Liberal, the defense of the Past, including the defense of programs which teach English history, is a sign of English or White (cultural) supremacy, and this must be fought against—lest it occur to “Nigel” to recreate the British Empire.
This way of thinking, crazy as it sounds, forms the basis of democratic-liberal politics in America and Western democracies. For example, in the words of former Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, “There are no illegal immigrants, because there are no illegal human beings.” Gillibrand, you might think, is an extremist! Not at all. Consider what American children learn in schools daily: fixed “gender” is a social construct. And since it is a construct, it can be deconstructed and changed.
For instance, the State’s refusal to accept my claim that I am what I claim to be (a woman in the case of someone who was born with male genitals and who shaves everyday) is oppressive, and the judge, the college professor, or the co-worker who refuses to acknowledge how I feel is a manifestation of “structural oppression.” Ergo, we must fight the State, educational institutions, and the way others see and think of us.
A most recent item in the Liberal Catechism, which American children are taught, is that there is no genetic basis for race. Accordingly, there is no White, Yellow, or Black race—there is only the human race. From here, there is only one step to Senator Gillibrand’s proposal for open borders: there should be no borders, no states, since our true citizenship is defined in terms of a shared humanity which overrides the old national categories, which teach us to be prejudiced against others.
As part of her campaign to raise racial consciousness, Senator Gillibrand even made a few trips to meet with White small-town folks to explain to them that they are beneficiaries of “White privilege.” The trip did not go well, and because individual calls to end “oppression” fall on deaf ears, the solution is to institute sensitivity trainings, and give the State more power so no student or employee in America can escape it. This is a pure form of ideological brainwashing on a national scale – which had never taken place under communism in Soviet Russia and its satellite countries.
Many such ideologically driven rules are already in place and govern our speech (the mandatory use of preferred pronouns, the censure of “sexist” language) and conduct (reorientation of sexual mores; correction of racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, and Islamophobic attitudes). So far, no university or institution has dared to defy it.
Rather, they have been at the forefront of its cause, ensuring that the new generation of American children learns the new catechism of social insanity.
Many of us believe that we fight barbarism. This is not quite true. Fascism and Communism were barbaric in the sense that they twisted historical heritage so that it would conform to the official ideology of a country. What we are facing is insanity, which is in the process of annihilating Western cultural heritage and our own understanding of ourselves as men and women.
What else but insanity can one call the state of mind of someone who, standing in front of a mirror, has doubts about his sex? What does one call the legal system where the judge rules, as happened in the UK last year, that Biblical teaching from the Book of Genesis about two sexes is “inconsistent with human dignity”? What justice system is it that redefines what marriage is? (Couldn’t one stop by granting homosexual couples exactly the same rights without abrogating the entirety of human tradition?)
Does one really need to be a religious bigot to defend his refusal to bow to insanity because he refuses to call a man a woman? Common sense should be enough. But ever since the new gender studies dominated education, common sense, as Orwell’s Winston discovered, became the greatest heresy. In his ruling, the British judge acted like Orwell’s O’Brian who made Winston believe that 2 + 2 = 5. There is nothing “dignifying” in making people with psychological problems believe that they are OK, and at the same time force the insanity of a few onto others. It is totalitarian oppression in its purest form.
Instances of insanity that defy common sense are endless. It has become common practice in America to reward failure. The members of school sports teams, which happen to lose the game, receive trophies. “Trophies for what?” you may wonder. For losing! This way a child, as I was told by my daughter’s coach, whose team never won, will not lose self-esteem. Clearly, no one thought what long-term psychological consequences such methods can have. Imagine a child whose room is full of trophies for losing! Self-esteem grows out of success in the face of adversity, and no new “psychology for losers” will ever change that.
These trophies for losers reveal only what Liberalism aims at: abolishing hierarchy. Hierarchy exists only in societies which retain a sense of excellence. For example, the idea of a “grade” or a “mark” (received in our schools) used to show your placement vis-à-vis an objective standard of excellence, and would thus signify where you are relative to others. But as excellence disappeared from education, so did a serious grading system. Almost everybody today is an A-student!
Why is that? As equality made its inroads everywhere, so hierarchy and its sister, privilege (right based on merit) disappeared. Right is the new form of privilege to which everyone is entitled; but since in every game there are winners and losers, to uphold equality, it is only natural to reward losers with a trophy.
This egalitarian mentality became all-pervasive, and it seized the minds of almost everyone. There is virtually no way to argue today about, say, the superiority of Beethoven’s “Fűr Elise” over Jay-Z’s rapping about “White bitches;” or the superiority of musical pieces performed by Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra over the sounds produced by street rappers on Michigan Avenue. Vulgarity and the greatest achievements of human spirit have finally reconciled.
Our inability to discern between the High and the Low is the result of a blurred distinction between “Culture” (like in “High Culture”) and “culture” (in the old anthropological sense).
The same goes for dress code. I have seen many people giving each other “strange looks” when they saw young men wearing pants sagging down, exposing their buttocks to the public, but have never heard anyone explain to them that what they think is a fashion is, and would have been called decades ago, “public indecency,” lack of manners, bad taste, or vulgarity. Today, we call it culture! Expecting that someone keep his pants above the waist would be considered an expression of “oppression” and “supremacy,” an “imposition of ‘your’ values” onto others, or, simply, intolerance. Many among us still know what is proper, but we lack the courage to say it.
The Liberal Left is becoming more and more anti-capitalist, anti-free market; and the defense of capitalism should be one of the goals of conservatives. However, the defense of capitalism is likely to be unsuccessful, if it means a defense of corporate business, which the Republican politicians in America are in the habit of partaking in.
Values of Conservatism are not the same as those of a political party, and the values of corporations are not the same as the values of a nation. As Lord Acton noted in his letter to Mary Gladstone, corporations have neither a body to kick nor a soul to redeem. They are soulless creatures, looking only after themselves.
The old slogan, “What is good for business is good for America” covered this truth for decades. It was accepted because, so long as most of the powerful world corporations were American, the American public profited from them. The true nature of business was realized about twenty years ago when American businesses moved to Asian countries. Once they discovered that what is good for business is cheap labor, they left their tricolor national dress behind on American soil, leaving American workers jobless.
The corporate world, however, can sometimes be an instrument endangering national interest. Everyone remembers the famous incident in a Starbucks two years ago when two Black men were arrested.
Instead of applying appropriate measures with respect to the employees’ posture in the location where the incident took place, Starbucks turned the isolated problem into a national problem of racism. It immediately instituted a nation-wide shut-down of all its stores for several hours to conduct “bias” trainings for all employees. It was a spectacle, the purpose of which was to demonstrate Starbucks’ commitment to fighting undesirable attitudes. How good was Starbucks’ decision for the nation?
As I write these words, destruction and anarchy are sweeping through a number of cities in the U.S., millions of Americans are burning cities and many young White people are feeling ashamed of being White. Some of them denounce their parents for being “racist.” Norms of civility are being crushed. All of this is done in the name of the same ideology which seeks to render the world free of biases.
Yet, those young people know little to nothing about racism. They are too ignorant about history and are too young to remember what racism was. They attend the same schools that Black children attend, they have Black classmates, Black friends, and some have Black girlfriends and boyfriends. They did not watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, to fathom the obstacles of interracial marriage in the past. Yet the protesters act as if America was still a pre-Civil Rights country, and some think that as long as prisons exist, slavery still exists, too.
When we visit what we call “White trash” neighborhoods, we realize that the problems one finds there are the same that exist in Black: they are human problems, and most human problems come down to the disintegration of marriage, single-parenthood, familial troubles, lack of religious ties and moral code, and a weak sense of community. Those among the Blacks who talk to other Blacks about “acting White” do a profound disservice to Black Americans; just like the college teachers in poor community colleges who tell “White trash” students about “White privilege.” This is a language that can only anger people and further divide America.
Why have only few journalists and politicians dared to make a connection between the high level of incarceration among young Black men and the disintegration of the Black family, or the lower academic performance and the lack of appreciation for learning in Black communities? The answer is not shrouded in mystery: only certain, historically discovered and established methodologies, ways of thinking, cultures, and forms of behavior proved successful. All of them have roots in Western intellectual tradition, which far-East Asians do not reject because Dead White European Males invented or discovered them. They have adopted the White intellectual tradition because they know that that is the way to success. So do some of the Muslim-Arab and African countries.
But the Western intellectual tradition is under attack in America and Europe by the partisans of multiculturalism who promote the idea of equality of all cultures. If we are serious about “no child left behind,” we should educate every Black, Brown and White child in the Western tradition. There is nothing that can change the fact that the Frenchman Descartes invented analytical geometry, the German Leibniz, calculus, and the English Newton formulated the laws of Modern physics. If you want your child to be successful, you should make sure that they know it, rather than accuse them of acting White.
The hysterical nature of the protesters’ behavior, tearing down monuments of historical icons, is reminiscent of the “Two Minutes Hate” in 1984. Given their age, they should not act this way. If they do, it is because their behavior is the result of an artificially induced hatred of Present and Past America, of the West, and as long as there are any signs of it left, they will continue their destruction of the country and of Western civilization.
Today’s protests are not the end but, more likely, the beginning of a series of protests. Everything suggests that democracy, as Plato predicted it in Book VIII of his Republic, has entered the stage of disintegration of authority. Just like France in 1789, and Russia in 1917, the US shows the same symptoms of revolutionary fervor, including the attempt to erase the Past. After several years, in 1793, the experiment ended with the Reign of Terror that was followed by the seizure of power by Bonaparte. Revolutionary disorder ended with one man’s tyranny.
Only the blind in reason can claim that there is no connection between the mass indoctrination concerning race that young people are subject to in schools and colleges, and what is happening now in American cities. The same goes for gender indoctrination.
The crowds of hysterical women demonstrating against the appointment of Justice Kavanaugh on the steps of the Supreme Court looked like a religious chiliastic movement. Finally, the protesters’ disregard for recommended safety measures during COVID-19 showed that their desire for a perfect world overcame the natural fear of death. Such an attitude was not uncommon among the believers in eradicating evil from the world.
George Floyd’s death does not fit the category of American police brutality or “targeting” Blacks. His murder was an act of bestiality and sadism of one sick individual who happened to wear a police uniform. There was not a single American who did not condemn it. If anything, Floyd’s death made all Americans feel repulsed at the sight of unspeakable cruelty. Yet almost within hours, this moment of national unity was hijacked by different factions which gave it a label: racism.
After several days of anti-racial protests, the frenzy assumed anti-Confederate tones to underline the continuity of American history: 1619, the Civil War, and today. Several monuments of Robert E. Lee have been torn down. What followed was the destruction of the monuments of Christopher Columbus.
One could wonder, however: what does Columbus have in common with General Robert E. Lee, who lived almost four hundred years after Columbus discovered America? As American students learn now, Columbus was the father of “genocide.” Confederacy means “White,” “White” means “racial supremacy,” and since Columbus was White, he and Robert E. Lee belong to the same family: White European oppressors.
Accordingly, Columbus’ discovery of America in 1492 appears to have only been a preparation for 1619, when the first Black slaves were brought to America.
This script is known all too well. The general formula, as I said earlier, comes down to a bi-polar Marxian-Liberal view of history, in which the oppressed are dominated by the oppressors. Today’s protests carry the banner of anti-racism; tomorrow, they will carry the banner of anti-sexism, anti-misogyny, anti-homophobia, anti-xenophobia, and finally, the banner of anti-oppression of the transgendered by the “birth-naturalists,” and anti-monogamist.
Each protest will repeat the destruction of the part of historical heritage, removal of monuments, burning books, renaming buildings, all of which represent the ills that must be eradicated before we can enter the new egalitarian Utopia. Hierarchy and privilege—the foundations of “polite society”—will be two words erased from the American Webster’s Dictionary. This is a pattern that we know from the history of the French and Russian Revolutions, which aimed at equality, though somehow ended up with a Great Terror and purges.
America, the West, have reached a point where the only question left is: can anything be done? And if so, what can we do?
Ideas have consequences, and the current cultural climate is a direct result of what happened in the educational institutions since the beginning of the 1990s, or even earlier, as Allan Bloom suggested in his The Closing of the American Mind (1987). The philosophical doctrine of Relativism propagated by academics assumed the voice of a social message of multiculturalism—equality of all cultures. It purged from the curricula the greatest works of the human mind. Intellectual discipline, which the old classics would inculcate in the college graduates, was replaced by the idea that there is no Truth, only subjective feelings.
This idea went counter not only to Truth absolutists but also to the Classical Liberal notion that we find in John Stuart Mill: at no point in history, as Mill claims, is any single person in the possession of absolute Truth. We are progressive beings and as we travel through history, we discover more. Quest for Truth animates our lives. But relativism undermined both.
Individual sensitivity became a new cognitive criterion. Moreover, since every individual has his own threshold of sensitivity, different things appear true to different people, and different things offend different people. Today’s fight over the removal of names, monuments, and changing curricula is the direct result of relativism.
The Left today is offended by President Trump’s disregard for Truth and facts, but it was the Left of the 1990s which wholeheartedly promoted Relativism. It also invented the methodology of Culture Wars, which says that we can choose from among “competing interpretations.” Now the Left is crying “wolf” when Mr. Trump uses their own weapon to fight his adversaries. The Trumpian presidency is an unintended creation of the Liberal Left, which created the intellectual and moral conditions that made disregard for Truth and rational discourse possible.
The Classical Liberal idea of a rational society proposed by Mill, in which only people who are in possession of rational powers can be granted equal right to participate in a social conversation, has no place in the new America. The winner is not the one with the strongest argument, but someone who expresses the strongest emotion.
A prime example of how emotions can influence the political realm is the Swedish teenager’s walkout from school to protest climate change. Her protest was followed by the walkout of millions of children all over the world. Needless to say, the children do not know what to do about the changing climate, but climate change became the single most important socio-political issue, and as its importance grows, so the election of candidates who are concerned with the problem will be given high priority.
Election of a twenty-eight-year old Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to the American House of Representatives is a telling fact. AOC is by far the most emotional and politically ignorant member of the House of Representatives, but her influence is growing. Like Greta, AOC is a climate activist, the author of the Green New Deal, and is a furious anti-capitalist.
New Green Deal anti-capitalism is the fastest growing ideology. Whether we like it or not, we need to take it seriously, just as we need to take seriously the fact that rational conversation with teenagers and political adolescents is not an option.
They do not understand that capitalism is the most efficient system of creating wealth, and that creating it has roots in the human desire to maximize profit, not to benefit anyone. “It is not because of the benevolence of the butcher, the baker or the brewer that you have your lunch, “Adam Smith writes in his The Wealth of Nations (1776), “but because of their self-interest.” The young people are not interested in maximizing profit, becoming entrepreneurs, or building anything. Their objective is the division of the wealth created by “selfish” individuals.
The mental universe of the New Green Deal anti-capitalists revolves around a few terms: sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and islamophobia. It is a world of intellectual and cultural poverty. Those words are like lenses which concentrate your vision on “evil.”
This new social theology says nothing about the world’s beauty, complexity, or the grandeur and tragedy of human existence, and since it is a world without God, there is no redeeming power. Collective, social activism is the only power which operates in it, and it claims it can save the world. Social activism has great appeal: it requires no knowledge, learning, or expertise. That is why it appeals to children, who, by definition, do not like school.
The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and conservative parties holding power in a few European countries (such as Poland and Hungary), may signify a temporary win for conservatives. However, we should not assume that this situation shall continue.
As things stand, it is unlikely that conservatives will retake education and that we will return to the old forms of learning. One can suggest serious reform proposals, as did American philosophy professor Nicholas Capaldi, but the chances of their acceptance are slim. This means that the new anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-Islamophobic indoctrination, supplemented by social justice courses, will reign supreme and will continue to shape the minds of the new generation.
There is only one way, in my opinion, which in which Conservatism has a chance to succeed long term. Climate change is an almost exclusive political property of the Left, and insofar as it is something that all children deeply care about, unless conservatives present their own Green alternative, they are likely to lose the new generation for good.
We need to realize that conserving the environment can be presented as the most conservative of conservative causes. What, if not the beauty of Nature, is the most thrilling of human experiences? The English “landed” aristocracy and Thomas Jefferson’s attachment to land are expressions of it. Jefferson, who knew as much about agriculture as he knew about politics, understood that there is a direct relationship between Nature and aristocratic-republican virtues.
Unless Conservatives come up with a political program that makes the preservation of Nature a top priority, we will be in danger of losing the political power and social force which can defend all other conservative values and causes.
It is high time to stop airing programs that undermine the Left’s research about climate change. We need to understand that the people who are against racism, sexism, homophobia etc. are the same people who last year protested against the failure to restore climate.
Following the Roman rule of politics divide et impera (divide and rule), one could, and indeed should weaken and divide the Left by proposing a serious Conservative Green Deal. In this way, one could attract many reasonable Left-leaning Liberal individuals to a more conservative side. Without the “Conservative Green Deal,” the ignorant and psychologically unstable are likely to become the most powerful party in the world.
The experience of Communism taught us about the power of manipulating language. The books by the French intellectual historian, Alain Besançon, are an excellent guide to understanding how it worked, and they were appreciated even among the former denizens of socialist countries.
American English, as I have written elsewhere, displays all the signs of the communist Newspeak. In some cases, it twisted reality even greater than was done under Communism. Therefore, we should avoid using it and, with a little courage, we can return to Oldspeak to clear up our social reality.
Terms such as “sexist,” “misogynist,” “homophobic,” “islamophobic” and “racist” are not helpful in dealing with social problems. In fact, they obfuscate real problems which might otherwise be resolved. What is more, using them means that we have bought into the categories created by the adversary.
Here is an instructive example. Communists liked using the term “socialist economy,” and at each time of deep economic collapse, they would propose to “improve the socialist economy.” It was a futile attempt because a socialist economy meant the absence of private property, which is the basis of economy. Therefore, no reform could improve the economic situation of “the working class,” and people’s miserable condition existed for as long as they were imprisoned by language.
In the country of my birth, Poland, the 1980s were the years when socialist economy reached its peak: for several years the entire population lived off of food-stamps; buying basic goods, such as toilet paper, was hardly possible, and most of one’s time was spent waiting in lines for hours to buy whatever one could.
When the “socialist economy” was replaced by real, capitalist economy, the shelves were filled with all kinds of goods one could only dream of under the socialist dictatorship. What happened was not any miracle, but a change of language. No one believed that a “socialist economy” made sense, or that it is an alternative to the Western form of creating wealth.
A similar explanation can be applied to American Newspeak. Almost everybody uses the superfluous “he or she.” There is no reason to do it, and the old generic “he” (which meant “he” and “she”) is good enough. Yet since the beginning of the 1990s, people say it out of fear of being branded “sexist,” to keep from being accused of “excluding” women.
There is nothing “exclusive” about using the generic pronoun “he” instead of the cumbersome “he or she.” Gender is a grammatical, not a social, category, and everyone who studied other languages is familiar with it.
Nouns in English have no gender, with the exception of a few which follow the Latin gender (Church, in British English; ship, occasionally pieces of machinery, and some animals). In other languages, the gender of pronouns follows the gender of the noun (masculine, feminine, or neuter). In genderless English, ignorance of grammar evolved into a political problem: “exclusion,” “oppression,” and so on. It would take but a minor act of courage to return to the Oldspeak to create a different socio-political reality.
Self-Expression. Its Avoidance In Education
This term is used increasingly in education and politics. It even became synonymous with the word “speech,” like in “freedom of expression” instead of “freedom of speech.” That they are not the same can be shown by invoking Justice Holmes’ example of someone shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theatre. I can be held liable for causing harm to others only if there was no fire and someone got hurt because I shouted “fire.” I am liable because my speech did not correspond to the facts (there was no fire, and what I said was the direct cause of someone’s harm), or because what I said was untrue.
However, if the term “speech” was to be substituted by “expression,” I could defend myself by saying, that my shouting “fire” did not need to correspond to anything. I was expressing the state of my soul and my expression was genuine! The notion of “genuine” abolishes the idea of Truth.
Why did “self-expression” become so popular? Partly because it is a counterpoise to discipline, one thing that democratic man lacks, as Ortega y Gasset noted. Mastering skills and crafts was always a long and laborious process, and it was done under someone’s direction. Only when the apprenticeship was over could one claim intellectual or artistic independence. It was not a guarantee of being a genius but a good craftsman.
Today’s students, including art students, instead of being encouraged to master something well (like grammar, style etc.) are told to be “creative.” The result is that most of them write insignificant stories about themselves, how they feel about the text, instead of precisely answering a question assigned by the teacher. Their work is genuine but often without merit.
This was something that the great German poet, Goethe, in his conversations to his friend Eckermann, warned against. The world around us is richer than what we find inside ourselves, and to be a great writer or poet, we must study Nature, learn from others who discovered many things before us. By imitating the best of our past predecessors, we learn techniques and gain insights that we could never discover or create on our own.
Self-expression may give us a momentary sense of lightness, liberation from the shackles of the past, the discipline that the Past demands of us, and sometimes even a momentary success, but in the long run it will throw us back on ourselves and leave our souls empty.
In education, we need to go back to serious and difficult classical texts and teach the youngsters to read what great writers and philosophers said, rather than allow the student to “disagree” with great minds. Self-expression is not an educational method. It is a dangerous anti-educational tool. However, as Nietzsche observed, it fits the frame of mind of the democratic man, who claims to be equal to everyone.
Gender And The Professions
It is a commonly accepted claim that the low enrollment of women in, say, physics or civil engineering departments is a result “sexism.” And since no one wants to be branded “sexist,” we accept the idea, just as how under communism people talked about the “socialist economy.” Is it because of “sexism”? An alternative explanation could be that it is a result of innate differences between the sexes.
One could ask, for example: is the low percentage of men in the teaching profession at elementary schools (it changes as we go higher) a result of “sexism”? Women, generally speaking, are simply better at dealing with little children; no man would consider this assertion sexist. Would it benefit children if the profession was 50% women and 50% men? One can easily doubt it, but, once again, instead of opposing such policies, we accept the language of equality and discrimination, and frequently create policies which are hurtful.
Striving for equality is tantamount to creating a problem, and the problem in this case was created by extending the idea of equality beyond the legal realm (i.e. equality before the law). The demand that we have equal representation of the sexes, races, ethnicities, sexual minorities, and so on in any profession and politics, on any level, is utopian, unrealistic, and, above all, it runs counter to the idea of excellence.
There will never be a situation in which all minorities will have a sufficient number of qualified members to fill every profession at any given time. The only criterion that is truly just is to admit and hire people on the basis of what they know, and how good they are at what they do.
A critic might say: it is naive to think that the idea of excellence will always win, and that we will never be discriminated against. However true, this argument is rather weak. The push for more equality is tantamount to creating a situation in which nearly all standards of excellence have been abrogated, and an individual failure is never perceived as failure, but as the result of discrimination based on sex or race or religion.
The social, educational, and political costs of such policies are already proving to be too high. Secondly, we will never be able to make sure that someone’s decision is not influenced by his prejudices; and the only way to make sure that he is bias-free is by a system of repeated trainings (as commonly done in American already).
If a condition of employment consists in going through a series of training, we should make it clear that we do not live in a free country, but a totalitarian boot-camp. Furthermore, the State is not a moral institution. It has no right to intervene into anyone’s ways of thinking and perceiving the world. It can, however, intervene when traditional social norms are violated.
We need to decide whether we want to live in a totalitarian democracy, where all people are equal and, consequently, the same, or, in a society with many problems and imperfections in which we are free to act as different and free individuals.
Blind tests, examinations, and job applications would do the trick, but they would soon be attacked, as they are, for being culturally biased. This, of course, is nonsense, but very few people have the courage to oppose such sentiments.
Conservative Notion Of Law In A Liberal State
We are told that Justice Gorsuch’s recent ruling was a slap on the face of Conservatives. The prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of sex extends, according to him, to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” In other words, today’s notion of “gender” is what Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act considered “sex;” that is to say, biological differences between man and woman.
According to Nature there are only two sexes, but according to “Tumblr,” there are 112 of them (in 2020). One can ask, what happened between 1964 and now? Nature did not change. Culture did. Culture became subjectivist, and the old notion that there is a stable, unchangeable reality out there, has been abandoned.
In this new reality, a man who imagines himself to be a woman is therefore a woman; a White woman (e.g., the Black activist Rachel Dolezal) who imagines herself to be a Black woman is therefore a Black woman, and someone who claims to be an animal—trans-species-ism—is consequently an animal. One could simply end the conversation by saying that my being a woman is no more valid than my saying that I am 19 years old. There are things which we cannot change.
The Liberalism of today is committed to the unconditional defense of subjectivism and minorities, and even if some of the minorities are imaginary and self-created, Liberalism does not have the needed theoretical tools to reject individual self-identification. My being me is what I imagine myself to be, and because the Liberal State was created in response to the oppressiveness of History and Tradition, it is bound to defend social attitudes which are destructive to, and incompatible with, the preservation of national Culture and civilization. As a matter of fact, Liberalism is committed to the destruction of national heritage and civilization.
One does not have to believe that the idea of “human rights” is totally useless, but when confronted by recent rulings of the American Supreme Court Justices, one wants to join the English Jeremy Bentham in saying: It is nonsense upon stilts. Why did a conservative Justice Gorsuch rule the way he did? Either because he lacked courage to go against his liberal colleagues or because he does not believe in rights grounded in Natural Law.
Reforming The Police
Any foreign visitor to America, including her Mexican and Canadian neighbors, is surprised by the ubiquitous presence of police on American streets. Why is that? The immediate answer is: American attachment to guns, unheard of in most countries. American police deal with dangerous criminals who have weapons, and so must possess higher mental alertness than the police of other countries.
The other observation is that Americans are more aggressive and violent than other peoples. (Hollywood movies, TV programs about crime and criminals, shootings, etc.) The moment one crosses the American border, one gets the impression of entering a highly militarized zone. This feeling is additionally strengthened by the attitude of immigration officers, who do not make any effort to welcome you, as is almost universally the case in other countries.
The presence of guns, however, can only partly explain violence in America. Australia, for example, shares the same British roots: it was a colony, attachment to guns exists there too. Yet the level of violence there is much lower, and serious gun reforms had been undertaken without massive opposition.
But America has something that Australia does not. Australia was colonized by British criminals; America was colonized by Protestant Puritans. They were people who displayed an uncompromising theological spirit and who wanted to eradicate all evil. A cultural historian could say that such an attitude might foster a psychological state that causes violent responses.
Today, not much of this bellicose religious spirit is left. However, it is possible that the high-level of religious temperatures survived in a secular form, as national characteristic. The alcohol prohibition of the 1930s, and the anti-smoking campaign of twenty-years ago bear resemblance to the religious crusade against sinfulness. Now vegetarianism is becoming a new theological movement. (Meatless Mondays were introduced in California, in restaurants, and in all schools in New York City.). Now the fight against sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia causes equally violent responses. The Protestant Spirit seems to be today’s “social justice warriorism.” Criticism of it meets with condemnation, ostracism, and public annihilation; and this has been described already by Tocqueville.
When Sinclair Lewis, an American author, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930, he was not only denounced, but met with threats by those whom he described. As he said in his Nobel Lecture, “Now and then I have, for my books or myself, been somewhat warmly denounced—there was one good pastor in California who upon reading my Elmer Gantry desired to lead a mob and lynch me, while another holy man in the state of Maine wondered if there was no respectable and righteous way of putting me in jail.”
The causes that the population of a country fights for may change over time, but the historically shaped character of people seems to persist. One cannot change the character of a people overnight. Violence will likely continue, and will have to be dealt with by finding imperfect solutions to preserve the social order. However, to be successful, we should attempt to minimize wrongs and vices, not eliminate them completely.
Any attempt to make the world sinless, or to turn a blind eye to the violence and hatred of social justice warriors, is to encourage intolerant behavior and allow disorder to grow in the name of alleged future social benefits. The Left’s proposal to defund the police in order to dismantle them is naïve and dangerous. Any reform must begin by taking into account the use of force, something that the Liberal Left does not wish to consider.
Here, another opportunity for conservatives presents itself. Reasonable, but very firm restrictions on the police’s use of lethal force, which would include a guarantee of the officer’s safety, is in place. However, we must keep in mind that making police gentler will not change the behavior of criminals. If the desired reforms will not increase public safety, even the liberal public may come to the conclusion that avoiding walking on the streets for fear of harm or death is not the realization of their program of social justice.
Civility, Toleration and Politeness. Common values.
The 1990s witnessed the publication of several books about toleration. In a climate of diverse views, created by relativism, toleration is a virtue. The meaning of the term that emerges from John Locke and Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration means, “putting up” with views and behaviors that we loathe, disapprove of, dislike, and do not want our children to imitate.
The idea of toleration was invented to put an end to religious persecutions, and the killing of people who claimed to profess a different theology. Today, being tolerant means something else: accepting someone’s opinions and behavior as equal to our own. Any forms of disapproval, including mental acts, are considered to be acts of bigotry, and since all Cultures are cultures, all cultures are equal, and so are all forms of behavior.
In reality, only a few of us believe this, and most would prefer to live in a society in which all behave like us and have opinions similar to ours. This is not a utopian dream, but the psychological inclination of everyone who believes that it is better to share a common system of values and behavioral patterns than not. Violation of norms would traditionally meet with social and personal disapproval, which would also help the norm-breakers to act in a “civilized” way.
Such social norms no longer exist. They have been in decline since at least the late 1960s. Those who dare to uphold them are labeled “fascist.” Absence of common norms does not make life easier, but more difficult, and when conflict arises, we cannot appeal to the notion of “unacceptable behavior.” We must have recourse to law to arbitrate between parties.
Toleration, today, means that it is our duty to accept quietly any behavior from any individual, and if we do not, let alone if we openly oppose it, then we will be prosecuted by law on account of discrimination. Such a situation creates a social atmosphere in which a minority has the upper hand, and keeps the majority silent through fear that they may be labeled as “intolerant.”
This is true not only of all past cases of so-called “discrimination,” but of all future cases as well. Tocqueville and Mill feared that democracy will create a tyranny of the majority. What it turned into was rather a tyranny of the minority.
The tyranny of the minority exists not because the majority cannot stop or oppose it, but because the majority accepts the premise that all views are equal, and none can be suppressed. In the absence of recognized, rational, cognitive criteria, no argument can be persuasive. Our thought has no absolute or universal grounding; it is nothing other than “self-expression,” which is neither true nor false because it is always genuine.
This is one of Liberalism’s greatest weaknesses. Mill, as much as he was in favor of the Party of Progress, understood that what passes for the opinion of the majority is the opinion of the most vocal individuals in a society. Yet, despite the danger that he described in Chapter 3 of On Liberty, he never resolved the theoretical problem of the threatening power of the minority’s demagoguery. He believed that traditional rules of civility and politeness would guide us. Today, we know that this is not true, and that such rules must be inculcated; they stem from Tradition and a respect for authority, something that his Party of Progress waged the war against.
Thus, for example, we find ourselves in a situation where a single member of a minority can make demands that are destructive to the very tissue of culture and civilization. This mental attitude is most prevalent in academia, where a number of administrative emails to the faculty is about “name preference” (a male student can request that he be called by his chosen female name). Or, as it happened in Sweden, a group of Muslims who fled Syria demanded that a mosque be built for them in a small town. The quiet outrage of the local population was met with criticism, accusing the “Christian folks” of being intolerant.
Unlike Liberalism, Conservatism’s solution to resolve such conflicts is thorough appeal to the tradition and history of a nation. Thus, a Conservative could refuse, for example, to build a monument of the Prophet Mohammed next to Jefferson, Washington or Lincoln memorials on account of the tradition, religion, and history of the United States.
No matter how large the Muslim population of the US is today, Islam had no historical role in shaping the soul of the American people. The same goes for educational curricula and Protestant religion; they should not reflect the diversity of the population, but the ideas which created the United States of America. Similarly, no Catholic or Jew should feel “offended” by the Protestant religion and history, nor by History of Britain being prioritized in American history books.
Since Liberals are committed to a vision of the world in which a people and a nation do not exist, they are indifferent to a nation’s cultural heritage. Pulling down historical monuments is not an act of Al-Qaeda-like barbarism, but an act of liberation.
Church, Religion, Faith.
One could say that only people of faith or churchgoers should pronounce themselves on matters of religion and how the Church should act. This is certainly true, but one could also claim that insofar as religion and the Church is an important cultural and moral institution, what She does should not be a matter of indifference to those who may not be as engaged in Her life as others may be, or even atheists.
One could draw a parallel with status of monarchy. There are many of them in Europe: Spain, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and, of course, Britain. British monarchy is the most visible and, relative to other countries, occupies a special place among them.
The British monarch’s power is mostly symbolic, but symbols matter. They point to the Past. They speak the language with which History talks to us about ourselves. Monarchy is the last visible symbol of the old hierarchical order. “You, too, can become president” is a very well-known American phrase. “You can’t become a queen or a king” would be its British counterpart. (As a matter of fact, this is what the arch-Liberal J.S. Mill said).
It is a language of gentle submission that teaches us that our political ambitions must have limits. Such limits also exist for the monarch, and they do not come from legal limitations. The royals, nobility, are limited by aristocratic code. One can be almost sure that monarchy in Britain, and elsewhere, will last so long as the Royals behave like royals, not like celebrities. Once they do, monarchy will be gone.
The Church and its officials are not in the same situation. They, unlike the Royals, represent an eternal, not a worldly order, and, one could say, will never become spiritual celebrities. Someone might say that this is not necessarily true. It is enough to have a closer look at the state of Protestant churches in America, many of which turned into mega-churches, while their pastors behave like actors, peddling the “gospel of wealth,” rather than the attitude of humility, love, and forgiveness.
Protestantism was always more egalitarian and democratic (sola scriptura, as Luther said) than the Catholic Church, and Protestant Christianity’s slow demise, which we observe in America, is unlikely to be the lot of the Church of Rome. It is a hierarchical institution, with the Pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests, and therefore much resistant to changes. Any attempt to introduce democracy into it must fail.
This is true, but what matters the most is the message. It’s been decades since I heard a sermon when the word “sin,” “corruption of human nature” were used. Confession is frequently called dialogue/confession. But dialogue presupposes that the two interlocutors are equal. This is not the case of confession, where the sinner is not equal to the priest.
Some twenty or thirty years ago, the most popular language of the sermon was that of psychology (self-understanding, self-esteem); today, the language is that of social justice. In both cases, then and now, the language of theology (and this concerns also Judaism in America; particularly the reformed synagogues, which are becoming increasingly progressive) is the same that is heard on the street, on television, or in a coffee shop.
One could say, cultural trends are almost impossible to stop, and, unless religion adopts the language that the people respond to, it is likely to lose. This is not true. The changes in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council are proof. One of the “tricks” was to introduce popular music (guitars) into the Church. Reason? To attract more young people. But it did not work well, and much of the Catholic music was, luckily, preserved in High Anglican rituals, and those who wanted to listen to guitar music found better places.
The same goes for the religious message: “social justice” is likely to be better propagated by social justice warriors than by priests and pastors. There is also a danger: the Christian or Biblical message is not the same as that of the secular world, and by trying to squeeze the two together, we may confuse what is good for one’s soul with a secular ideology of intolerance and violence.
Many of today’s protesters who commit acts of violence call themselves social justice warriors. If they are the same people who attend Sunday mass and do not see a contradiction between religious values and what they are doing, the Church has then lost its battle for the souls. The more appropriate message is the old theological language of sin and corruption. It tells us that evil is in us, not in the institutions representing “power structure.”
Jesus’s teaching may have been the most culturally transformative experience of the Western world, and without Him, our world would be what all ancient civilizations were – cruel. Jesus was not a forerunner of today’s social justice movement. “My kingdom is not of this world” were His words. They point to us, our souls which must become pure. Nothing in His message is about changing “power structure.” “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – another of His important sayings – means that we owe obedience to the State; or, that the world cannot be fundamentally reformed.
If the Church is to play any social role it must remain the guardian of 2000 years of Western Tradition and historical memory. Any changes in it – music, rituals, rapid changes in theology — can only break Her historical ties to the Past. This is particularly important now as the secular Past is being destroyed.
The protests, the protesters’ demands, the government’s reluctance to use force to restore order: all of these problems lead us to ask, What’s next? Americans are scared and many are even thinking of leaving the country, suspecting that the situation can only deteriorate. And they are likely to be right.
Walmart has already announced: “Inside the company, our work to recruit, develop and support African Americans and other people of color will be even more of a priority.” Other companies will, undoubtedly, follow suit. This is nothing but a policy of appeasement, which, however well-intended, is not very likely to eliminate the inflammatory social situation. The opposite policy could be most desirable.
Instead of enticing African-Americans and other minorities to violence and destruction of their country, one should encourage them to be more American, show them that the Anglo-Protestant Western heritage belongs to them as much as it belongs to the Whites. There is nothing in the biological and genetic make-up of the Whites that make them “Westerners.” Culture—a people’s way of acting and thinking—is inculcated through education and patterns of the acquired behavior, not genetics.
It is truly instructive in this case to recall a classic movie, To Sir with Love, with the Black American actor, Sidney Poitier. It is a story of a Black man from the former British colony, British Guiana, who came to London to look for work. Unable to find a job as an engineer, he becomes a teacher in the working-class of East London. What are the English teenagers like? To put it simply, they are unruly, destructive barbarians, whom the Black man, the man whose people the British colonized, teaches the principles of civilization, civilized behavior and appreciation of civilized behavior.
What can bring Americans together is the collective effort to rid America of the destructive myth of multiculturalism. On a cultural level it means little, and in practice it promotes the mediocre works of other cultures, instead of those great works that elevate the spirit of those who need to be elevated. We should promote humanity’s greatest achievements which everyone, regardless of color, can recognize. The beauty of Leonardo’s “Lady with the Ermine,” Botticelli’s “Primavera,” or Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” are beautiful to everyone, regardless of color.
Multiculturalism, despite its pronouncements to the contrary, is a form of racist ideology. It insists that we look at ourselves as members of a single race or sex, leaving little room to perceive ourselves as people who may actually have something in common. In doing so, it fosters suspicions and hatred, the very things it claims to fight.
The question of the end of America is by no means rhetorical, and even very wise men, like Victor Hansen of the Hoover Institution, openly draw parallels between what we see on American streets and the French Revolution. As we know, the enthusiastic beginning brought the Reign of Terror and ended with Napoleon’s rule. Napoleon’s seizure of power fits Plato’s description of the tyrant who emerges to restore order after a democracy, by extension of equality, slides into anarchy.
Plato did not think this cycle applicable merely to the experience of Athens, but that it inheres in the logic of democracy. The expansion of equality is bound to dissolve all authority and social structures. The protesters’ demands to dismantle the “power structure” (defunding police, abolishing history by tearing down monuments, abolishing all intellectual and moral criteria that differentiate us, and, above all, making politicians responsive to protesters’ whims) fit Plato’s description perfectly.
If Plato was right, and everything indicates that he was, we are witnessing the end of democracy and of America, the American system of government. American historians of the past century would talk about the United States in self-congratulatory language, as if the American founding principles were solid, immune to criticism, and no structural problems could be found in this new political edifice.
A closer look seems to point to a fundamental crack in the foundation – equality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” But equality is what Plato identified as the problem of government. Equality causes the collapse of political structures, including democracy itself. It is an acid which dissolves authority, without which political order is impossible. Thus, the long-celebrated and idealized founding principle of the American Republic was flawed from the very beginning. Equality is a form of political steroid which worked for a while (about 200 some years), but now the runner is about to collapse without ever fulfilling his promise to leave no one behind.
Matthew Arnold predicted it in his essay, “Democracy,” arguing that the Anglican-hierarchical order is the glue which keeps England’s political system stable. But, as he warned, if the English adopt an American system of government by expanding equality, “the fate of America will be ours.” The protests in Britain, the behavior of a part of the British population, who demand that the statues of Winston Churchill be torn down, the adoption of American slogans, etc., only confirm that Britain is becoming another America, and the growing social disorder in America will show up there, too.
Today we see the secular consequences of the old war. In 1776, Americans fought the old hierarchical oppressive order. Today, they are fighting the oppression that was established in 1776. However, unlike in 1776, there are no new founding fathers who can offer an alternative to the old-new oppression, and the reason is simple: founding principles of political life presuppose a degree of hierarchy to ensure social cohesion, which a people must be willing to accept. It appears that the American understanding of freedom is what Plato termed “license.” It was what buried Athenian democracy.
Can anything be done? Yes, the return to the three concepts of Conservative thought that I mentioned at the beginning: reverence for the Past as the guide to the Future, privilege based on merit, and social hierarchy. If equality is the sole principle that animates social and political life, we are in danger of even further destroying the Past.
In 1974, philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked “What Is it Like to be a Bat?” Nagel rejected reductionism, the idea that all consciousness can be reduced to simpler components identical for all sentient beings. Instead, he held that for each type of conscious being, there is a unique mindset embodying what it feels like to be that type of being.
These subjective experiences are called the “qualia” of consciousness, the internal viewpoints inherent to a sentient creature. Nobody can say what the qualia of a bat are, but I am here to analyze a closely related question: what are the qualia of a liberal?
By liberal, I do not mean classical liberal, or even the American moderate Left that until the 1960s was ascendant in the Democratic Party. Rather, I mean left-liberal, or progressive, the ideology of cultural Marxism, of the Frankfurt School, now dominant in the Democratic Party, as it has been dominant for some time in the academic world and in other worlds controlled by the Left, such as the media-entertainment complex.
What goes on behind their eyes? To a neutral observer, the externally visible political actions of today’s liberals are irrational and incoherent. The simplest explanation for their behavior is that liberals are people of low intelligence, and that they are not educated (whatever degrees they may have).
An alternative simple explanation is that they desire evil and hide that desire, so their actions and stated reasons do not match. But, while both are possible explanations, it seems unlikely that that any of this is how they perceive the world and their actions. So again—what are the qualia of a liberal?
We should be clear that specific policy prescriptions are not examples of qualia. For example, demanding gun control every time there is a shooting, or demanding gun control in general, despite the demonstrable total irrationality of using that policy prescription to fix the problems liberals claim it will fix, is not an example of qualia. Nor are the ever-increasing Left demands for censorship of views that oppose theirs.
These are only the external appearances resulting from internal phenomena—equivalent to a bat turning in the air upon echolocating a mosquito to eat. The deeper question is what is the bat thinking upon making the turn? He is trying to achieve a goal, but what mental visions impel that effort? Upon this question, and similar ones, translated to the liberal brain, much turns, for if we can understand, even a little, we can more effectively combat their poison.
This question of liberal qualia first occurred to me when listening to a new podcast put out by the New York Times, called “The Argument.” Having listened to three episodes, it has become clear that this podcast alone provides all I need to complete my analysis. I conclude that liberals have four key qualia, ones unique to liberals, compared to normal human beings. I note, by the way, that all human beings share most of their qualia.
There is no reason to believe that liberals perceive, say, the color red differently than the rest of humanity, or the taste of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Here we are seeking the qualia distinctions that explain political action. (Furthermore, naturally, we are relying to a certain extent on generalizations.)
The first quale is that liberals do not see reality as it is. What their eyes perceive is not the truth, because everything is filtered through an ideological lens, which removes anything that contradicts their ideology before it can enter their minds. Reality is totally subordinated to political ends, which are derived purely from abstractions.
Unlike a bat’s echolocation, this is not merely a different way of seeing the world. It is an inferior, neutered, way of seeing the world. If a bat could not see the world accurately, it would starve. Liberals are able to avoid such consequences, the hammer blows of reality, because in America today they live in bubbles of their own creation in which everyone else believes the same thing, in which they are never exposed to the consequences of reality and where everyone whose opinion they care about acts as if unreality is real.
Critically, in those bubbles, liberals also control the levers of power, and of reward and punishment. In this walled ecosystem, they do not starve, because food is stolen for them from those who can produce value because they see reality clearly.
Liberals are thus like the Old Bolshevik, Rubashov, in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, who, on his way to be shot after conviction for crimes he knows to be wholly imaginary, truly believes that his execution is necessary and correct, since the Party is always right, history dictates that his death is required, and through this lie the Promised Land will be achieved.
Even as the bullet enters his skull, Rubashov cannot free himself of the prison his mind has created for him, and so it is for liberals today—except that the rest of us, not them, suffer and die for their distorted vision of reality.
The second quale, related to but distinct from their divorce from reality, is that liberals use key words, first inside their heads and then spoken out loud, only after mentally assigning them new meanings designed to serve their abstract political goals. For example, in current political discourse, we constantly hear that anything not Left, and especially Trump, is “corrupt” and “illegitimate.”
These words are used because liberals know that anything not in agreement with them is bad, and they know that the words “corrupt” or “illegitimate” designate bad things.
But corruption is objectively defined, Webster’s says, as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery.” (Or, more broadly, corruption means that someone with power claims to be performing a defined, neutral, role, and is instead performing a different, self-interested, one).
Illegitimate means “not authorized by the law; not in accordance with accepted standards or rules.” Liberals’ complaint about Trump has nothing to do with those meanings. Instead, the words have been redefined to mean “nebulously very bad, in a way I need not explain.” In practice, this is a rhetorical device, what Scott Adams calls “linguistic kill shots.” Critically, though, in liberals’ own minds the meanings have not changed.
The third quale, again related but distinct, is emotivism ruling rationality. Any matter perceived by a liberal that affects his political worldview is not analyzed objectively, nor are his conclusions supported logically, but rather with unbridled emotion.
Occasional efforts at rationality are made, but upon any examination or challenge, emotion swamps any such attempt. Why? Well, we can’t really tell directly, of course, but this phenomenon seems to let the liberal avoid the consequences of denying reality, to serve to indicate tribal affiliation to other liberals, and to signal virtue and righteousness to the world at large, as well as to the liberal himself.
Emotivism often appears as projection in the service of self-exculpation, used by liberals to whip themselves up into a righteous rage and justify ever more vicious attacks on those who stand in the way of their utopian political goals.
The fourth quale is breathtaking arrogance, blended with a nebulous, yet unshakeable, conviction of their own moral superiority, both tied to the belief that history is a wave and liberals are destined to ride it like the Silver Surfer.
The origin of this is not anything rational, such as an analysis of the past and measured predictions about the future, but an insatiable desire to lord it over supposed inferiors, feeding the human desire to feel that one is on a higher plane than others.
This characteristic is often the most evident in particular political discussions, such as those surrounding global warming. It is reinforced, as with the anti-reality quale, by liberals’ living in a walled ecosystem, where they can daily reassure each other that yes, indeed, we are superior. And it often comes out in the visceral belief that anyone who disagrees with them is evil, since that belief allows feeling superior without any need to demonstrate superiority.
So those are the four liberal qualia. I will note that my analysis of qualia is done with a somewhat broad brush. Some liberals, for example, do see the world clearly; they are just evil and want evil ends. Such was Lenin. But in America today, few liberals are like that, though probably more than are willing to admit that their main difference from Pol Pot is that their field of action is in North America, not Asia.
It might also be objected these are not true qualia, since they are ideologically driven distortions of mental processes, not purely organic products of the brain. True enough, though it’s not clear that the ideology came first. Just as likely, some defect in the liberal mind resulted in them believing this way, and that same defect reinforces the qualia driving specific political demands.
As Jonathan Haidt has noted, morality derives largely from pre-existent mental states; so (probably) with liberal qualia, although we will never truly know, since normal people cannot get inside the liberal mind, and if we are liberal, we lack the ability to self-analyze in this fashion.
Finally, this analysis is not without its dangers. One logical progression of identifying the mental defects of one’s political opponents is to view them less than human, a path that has led to disaster ever since the French Revolution.
That path is primarily one the Left has trodden, and in recent times, they have increasingly become unrestrained about wanting to step onto it in America. But the same temptation can occur on the Right. We should be careful that understanding the liberal mind is used as a tool to combat their political program, and to strip them of power, forever, but not to dehumanize them.
OK, let’s illustrate these characteristics through examples from the podcast. The declared reason for “The Argument” is “for democracy to work, we need to hear each other out. . . . [We] explain the arguments from across the political spectrum.”
The podcast features three regular New York Times columnists, Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt. Douthat is the only conservative who writes for the NYT and he is very conservative, although also very much infected by inside-the-Beltway thinking (which he admits). Goldberg and Leonhardt are very far left. Goldberg is farther left; that the newspaper thinks that Leonhardt can be the centrist in this trio is charming.
But it isn’t surprising—every other person who writes for the NYT is also very far left, except for house “conservative” David Brooks, since the paper has reimagined itself as a full-time organ of attack upon Trump and anyone right of center, providing a safe space bubble for its clueless readers to imagine that they have the moral high ground, while reminding them of the looming powers of those wishing to attack the Left.
Whenever I read the NYT, to which I have to admit I subscribe, I often find it weirdly compelling, even hypnotizing, until I step back and realize that almost all articles are packed with demonstrable lies, both of commission and omission, and, perhaps more importantly, skilled writing is used to weave deliberate propaganda, of which Joseph Goebbels would be proud.
Anyway, in the first episode, “Is the Supreme Court Broken?,” the three columnists did a good job of being civil. All three are well-informed. But a good part of what Goldberg especially, and Leonhardt as well, said was quite literally insane and utterly divorced from reality, which made me think of bats as an explanation—maybe she just sees things in a way normal humans don’t.
Despite appearances, I don’t think Goldberg is a mental defective. Instead, she is an outstanding illustration of the externally visible results of liberal qualia, as is Leonhardt, to a somewhat lesser degree.
The pivot of the discussion in this episode was the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, with the premise being Leonhardt’s statement, “For the first time in decades, the court is firmly conservative. And now Democrats are calling it a broken, partisan body.”
Leonhardt, acting as de facto moderator, first asks Goldberg, “When you realized that Brett Kavanaugh was going to be Justice Kavanaugh, how did it feel?” She responded, “[I]t’s hard for me to emphasize the extent to which this is, just, like, personally degrading, right, there’s political disagreement and there’s political loss, and then there’s personally feeling like you have been dehumanized and degraded and a sinking punch in the gut that, you know, these hostile men basically have their boots on our necks and are not going to remove them. . . . It is grueling.”
We see here three of the four characteristics of the liberal qualia. We see rank emotivism—it is grueling; doom is coming; they are bad; I am choking. We see an unreal reality; no normal human being could conclude that the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation was anything other than “political disagreement” and “political loss,” or that it was objectively, in any way, “dehumanizing,” degrading” or that “hostile men . . . have their boots on their necks and are not going to remove them,” metaphorically or otherwise. And we see “partisan” redefined to mean “no longer dominated by the Left.”
Moving on, Douthat, after abasing himself to a small degree with preemptive apologies, something never done once in any episode of this podcast by either Goldberg or Leonhardt, or anywhere else by them, probably ever, notes that “for forty years, after World War II, the Supreme Court was run by a cabal of pretty liberal justices who spent a lot of time overturning a lot of laws and effectively sort of moral customers in America. . . . The way liberals are feeling right now about the prospect of a conservative Court is the way conservatives felt about the real Court for generations.”
Leonhardt responds that what we have now “feels qualitatively different” and maunders on that the Court is “more partisan, I think it’s much more radical than when it had a center or center-left majority.”
Again, no attempt is made to demonstrate this in even the slightest way, because the assertion is self-evidently ludicrous—it is more pure unreality and emotivism, as shown by the dead giveaway verb “feels,” along with more redefinitions.
Goldberg jumps in to endorse shrinking or expanding the Supreme Court to pack it with liberals, rejecting that the possibility that will lead to a downward spiral of reaction and counter-reaction.
She rejects it not for any rational reason, but because otherwise the End is Nigh. “The situation we have now strikes me, and I think not just me, as intolerable, and I think that most liberals have the sense that there is no limit to the right’s kind of determination to impose its power on us by any means possible, and so inasmuch as you sort of lose faith that we’re all playing by some set of ground rules or that we all have some shared commitment to the process, you just start feeling that like you’re a sucker if you don’t use every single tool at your disposal.”
So, decades of rule by the Supreme Court in favor of the Left and in opposition to democracy may be ending, though no court ruling has been made yet, but the Apocalypse has arrived. Again, we see three of the four liberal qualia (this time, we are missing word re-definitions, but we have unreality, emotivism, and claimed moral superiority).
Then Goldberg, without seeing the contradiction to what she just said, suggests that the real problems (for the Left) will not show up “unless and until this Supreme Court starts handing down really radical 5-4 decisions that, say, thwart what a President Elizabeth Warren tries to do with corruption reform—I think you will see a popular demand that something be done.”
Leonhardt chimes in to say that despite “this enraging moment,” “the right answer is for Democrats and progressives to continue pointing out the ways in which this Court is illegitimate.” And here we have my original example, of redefinition of “corrupt” and “illegitimate.” In no plausible universe does either of these words apply to the Supreme Court as currently constituted (which Court, as I say, has not issued a single ruling).
But, using the transitive property, to liberals, “conservative majority on the Supreme Court” equals “rulings that do not comport with Left desire to rule through the Court” equals “bad” equals “corrupt and illegitimate.”
Leonhardt asks Douthat what he hopes for out of this Court, to which Douthat says he wants some victories for conservatives on social issues, but modestly rejects “an aggressive activist Court that’s trying to strike down every law that a President Warren passes. I think the way we get back to sanity around the Court is for the Court to give some victories to social conservatives . . . [but] respect democracy when it leads to liberal outcomes too.”
In turn, Goldberg answers the same question, unleashing a barely coherent rant. “I don’t really have hopes. I think that they’re just going to do their worst.” We will have “extremely sinister effects, not just on the hot button social issues, but really on the power of corporate money, on the abilities of Democratic majorities to pass laws restraining corruption and inequality.”
Brett Kavanaugh was chosen so that Donald Trump could neuter Robert Mueller, who is, any day now, going to find Russian meddling in some broom closet. “So I think we could have a real breakdown of the rule of law.” Leonhardt wraps up by saying “I hope the whole mess of this confirmation makes the Court a little more humble. . . . I think a humble Court right now, rather than a Court that tries to remake America and society in its own image, would be much better for the country.”
We see here all four qualia. “Humble” is redefined to mean “subservient to liberal goals.” When the Left spends decades remaking America, that is justice; when the possibility arises that the Right may reverse some of these Left gains, they need to be subservient instead, because that is “better for the country”—i.e., better for the Left.
We also see here bizarre claims of moral superiority, akin to the man who, having killed his parents, throws himself on the judge’s mercy as an orphan. No acknowledgement is made of the hatred and confusion engendered purely by leftist attacks on Kavanaugh by obvious liars and perjurers, whipped up in organized fashion.
Their purity is unassailable; their opponents, by merely defending themselves from slander, are “sinister” and trying to achieve “the breakdown of the rule of law.” All this in just a few sentences—and note that nowhere in any of these podcasts can Douthat be even once accused of exemplifying any of the four liberal qualia.
I could multiply these examples endlessly, and maybe I already am, but let’s just see two more, from a different podcast in the series, “How Screwed Up is American Democracy?” Goldberg hyperventilates, “We’re already in a situation where I and a lot of other people feel like we’re being ruled by an illegitimate, undemocratically elected cabal of our enemies.”
When Douthat queries the use of “enemies,” asking “do you pause at all before using the word ‘enemies’ ”, she shrilly responds, “Not any more. . . . I look at a President whose basic raison d’etre is ‘owning the libs,’ is making people like me, and my family, and my friends, scared and afraid and humiliated, and I see people cheering for him, I see people cheering for him precisely because he does that, and I don’t know how to describe them anyway except ‘my enemies.’”
On the surface, this is a mirror image of conservative complaints about their enemies. Maybe conservatives just live in their own bubbles, a topic I am going to address in a different analysis. But poke a little, and it’s not just ludicrously unmoored from reality, but malevolently so.
Does anyone actually believe that Goldberg is ever “scared and afraid and humiliated”? Is she attacked when she goes to restaurants or in public places? Might she lose her job if she says something liberal? Might her children be ostracized by some political position she takes? Do people in power that she cares about treat her with contempt? Of course not. Those things only happen to conservatives, every day, to millions of them. Never to liberals, and most especially never to powerful liberals like her.
But that’s not what Goldberg sees, and that’s my point. What Goldberg actually objects to, even if it is hidden from her, is that she may not be on top anymore; she may no longer be able to dish out contempt and humiliation to conservatives, forcing them to accept her radical political programs, because they may succeed in neutering a chief method of liberal power.
That’s why they are her enemies—because the peasants are revolting and trying to throw off the liberal yoke and whip, not because they are actually causing her any type of harm. Filtered through the four liberal qualia, though, Goldberg sees herself as the persecuted, yet resilient and ultimately triumphant, Angel of Justice, pure in thought and deed.
And in the same podcast, in addition to continuing to use “corruption” and “illegitimate” with redefined meanings, both Goldberg and Leonhardt repeatedly, more than twenty times, refer to the Republican Party using “damaged,” “broken,” “beyond repair,” “fundamentally sick,” and similar terms. They never say once what they mean by that; they treat it as obvious.
But it’s transparently not a normal use of those terms—when one refers to something as “broken,” that means it cannot perform its function. In the case of a political party, its function is to gain power for its adherents.
By that measure, the Republican Party is very much not broken, and no case can be made that it is. No, what they mean is a complete inversion of the actual meaning of “broken”—they mean that the Republican Party is effective and dominant, and eroding the power of their own political party.
Once Leonhardt reverts, and says the Republicans are “doing so much damage,” which is an accurate phrasing. That reversion unveils the redefinition, of course.
It’s not just this podcast series, of course—it’s most liberal pronouncements today. Take, for example, a piece that the famous Holocaust historian Christopher Browning wrote a few weeks back in that liberal bastion, the New York Review of Books, shrieking that Trump is Hitler (and tacking on that it doesn’t matter, since global warming is going to kill us all).
Unfortunately for him, his writing totally beclowns him, and ruins his reputation. He, however, does not and cannot see that, for he has the qualia of a liberal (and lives and breathes in the walled garden of liberalism). But his pieces jarringly illustrates all four characteristics of liberal qualia, as you will see for yourself if you subject yourself to the link. I won’t go into detail, since this analysis is long enough, and dead horses should not be beaten, but I’m happy to discuss further if there is demand from the People!
In the meantime, you can take this analysis home with you, and when you listen to liberal demands, I hope you will have a better idea of what is actually behind those demands. How to fight back most effectively is a topic for another day, but, as always, forewarned is forearmed.
Charles is a business owner and operator, in manufacturing, and a recovering big firm M&A lawyer. He runs the blog, The Worthy House.
The photo shows, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin (Rattfaengler) by Oskar Larsen, painted in 1936.
In today’s world, discussion about morals is a lost art. In part, this is because stupidity is on display everywhere, and encouraged to be so, even though most people’s thoughts and opinions are less than worthless, as a glance at Facebook or The New York Times comment sections will tell you.
More deeply, it’s because America is dominated today by the nearly universal (but wholly unexamined) belief that the only legitimate principle of moral judgment is John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” – that no restriction on human action can be justified other than to prevent harm to another.
The Righteous Mind is an extended attack on the usefulness of the harm principle as the sole way to understand and justify human morality, combined with detailed explanations of the much broader ways in which people can and do view morality.
The author, Jonathan Haidt, uses this framework to understand political differences, and to plead for an increase in rationality and civility to arise from that understanding.
I am not hopeful such an increase will happen. But this book is fascinating beyond belief. For a relatively short book, it packs in a tremendous amount of insight. It is therefore difficult to review or summarize; I could spend pages discussing relatively minor matters covered in the book.
Haidt has that talent which eludes other science writers such as Steven Pinker – the ability to condense complex material without losing impact. The result is a work well worth reading.
The book is divided into three main parts. The first and third deal with how humans engage in moral reasoning, and how that affects politics. The middle part deals with, in essence, evolutionary psychology—how humans became as we are now in regard to morality, and what that implies for us today.
The first part of the book contains what is perhaps Haidt’s most counter-intuitive claim, on which the entire book rests – that the majority of moral reasoning is intuitive and pre-rational, and that the rational side of each person participates primarily to justify a conclusion already reached, which reasoning is “useful to further our social agendas.”
Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant (intuition) and rider (reason) – mostly, the rider does what the elephant says, although sometimes the rider can guide the elephant, or at least influence him.
He begins with a captivating review of how moral psychology has been studied and viewed by academics over the past few decades.
In the 1960s through the 1990s, it was believed, following Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, that children had no inborn moral impulses, but figured out morality for themselves through their interactions, so-called “rationalism.”
This theory believed that as children become able to see the world as others saw it, they come to understand that fairness is everything, and build their morality around metrics of equal treatment.
Moreover, as Elliot Turiel showed, children can differentiate between arbitrary and universal rules, nearly always believing that harm to others is wrong regardless of what is dictated by formal rules.
As Haidt notes, these researchers’ conclusion, that morality’s chief aim is reducing harm and creating fairness, and that any other moral judgment is imposed arbitrarily from without by societies and cultures, dovetailed precisely with the then-rising American liberal (i.e., progressive) consensus, of maximizing personal freedom without limitation or end.
This further reinforced its accuracy in the minds of its investigators, because it fit with what they personally believed.
But this science was all wrong.
These researchers fell into the trap of believing that because American children, and certain groups of Americans they studied, based their morality on fairness and non-harm, all others also did so.
Haidt relates how he personally started with the same beliefs that were popular at the time (in the 1990s), but when he started reading Richard Shweder, an expert in Indian moral psychology, and went to India for some time, immersing himself in the culture in a non-judgmental way, he began to understand that people there viewed the world very, very differently.
He began to wonder what that implied for morality – was the American view overly narrow and simplistic? At the most basic level, the difference in morality he saw was between individualistic, American-type views, and sociocentric views, “placing the needs of groups and institutions first, and subordinating the needs of individuals.”
Harm in this view is not irrelevant, nor is fairness, but they are far from the most important consideration, whereas in an individualistic culture, where society cannot make any non-harm based demands on its individual members, it is the only thing that matters.
Individualism basically came on the scene during the Enlightenment and only in the West; the rest of the world is still primarily sociocentric.
Beginning to see this, Haidt spent the next years conducting ever larger studies, among a variety of cultures and classes, to see what the moral views were of people in hypothetical scenarios, some of which involved harm, and some of which involved other possible moral principles, such as loyalty and purity.
He began to realize that it is simply false that children create morality for themselves out of the harm principle; instead, they have certain innate impulses, which are guided and enhanced by learning from the culture in which they grow up.
There are many more innate impulses than mere avoidance of harm to others (which is also innate, not formed by rational thinking, contrary to Piaget and Kohlberg) and there is a complex relationship between those impulses and culture.
Haidt then turns back to a history lesson, starting with Plato’s Timaeus and looking at various ways we have viewed the relationship among mind, reason, and morality. He discusses Hume, Jefferson, and most importantly for his book, Darwin.
Haidt notes how in the mid-twentieth century, the idea that there was any native, or inherent, element to human nature became toxic, leading to the demand that all right thinking people reject that human nature exists, with the necessary conclusion that morality is purely the result of reasoning, with no innate component.
He discusses how ideology was used to suppress those who thought otherwise, such as Edward O. Wilson, excoriated for daring to challenge the scientific consensus, but rehabilitated today.
Over time, as evidence built up to the contrary, this monolith eroded, and an inherent human nature became recognized (though it is still denied in some quarters).
For Haidt’s purposes, the crucial element of this realization was that various experiments showed that intuitions were critical to moral conclusions, with reasoning playing second fiddle: “Moral reasoning was mostly just a post hoc search for reasons to justify the judgments people had already made.”
We “see-that” before “reasoning-why.” We do this not to tell ourselves why we believe something, but, for evolutionary reasons, to “find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment.”
It is important to realize that intuitions are not irrational, they are a type of cognition, not inherently of less worth than abstract reasoning.
And, most critically, if you want to convince others you have to address their intuitions, not their reasoning, since the former comes first, and for the most part trying to address their reasoning is like addressing the rider where the elephant is actually in control.
In fact, people who don’t make moral judgments this way, who instead use pure reason, are psychopaths, incapable of normal human interaction. (Almost all psychopaths are men, Haidt mentions – throughout the book, although he does not emphasize it, it is obvious that Haidt views men and women as far from interchangeable, probably for the evolutionary reasons he stresses in other contexts).
Finally, in this section, Haidt demonstrates through the results of experiments that many of the reasons we state for believing as we do are social in nature – designed to enhance our popularity, justify ourselves to others, justify ourselves to ourselves, engage in confirmation bias, and, critically, find reasons that result in actions benefiting not just us but our group—all just like a politician, although here Haidt is not making specific political claims.
Our stated reasons are largely manufactured to accomplish these goals after we have already concluded our moral judgments.
This implies, among other things, that we cannot get good behavior by rationalism; that philosopher kings are not going to be more moral than anyone else; and that teaching ethics is worthless (which I have long believed, so I am sure Haidt is correct) – we should instead be conditioning intuitions.
So Haidt, in the second part, turns to the specifics of those innate intuitions. More specifically, he sets out to prove given that morality is largely based on intuition, that those intuitions are much more, and much broader, than the harm and fairness intuitions that are the sole focus of “modern secular Western morality.”
Haidt’s objection is not that the harm principle, in particular, is unjust or wrong, but that any moral theory resting on a single principle is not in keeping with how people really view morality, and therefore both are largely useless as an explanation and overly constraining as a hortatory method.
“Modern secular Western morality” is what Haidt also calls (following a group of cultural psychologists), WEIRD morality, where the acronym stands for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.”
“WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature.” They “see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.”
In other words, most people, and nearly all of the rest of the world, have totally different moral intuitions, and therefore moral concerns, from what we are told by the dominant voices in the West are universal intuitions and concerns.
WEIRD morality is “blind” to the concerns of others. (You’d think those obsessed with “multiculturalism” would welcome this conclusion, but you’d be wrong—liberals hate this conclusion, since it denies the primacy of autonomic individualism, a higher good.)
When he realized this, Haidt had a “red pill moment,” where he “stepped out of the matrix.” He realized, of himself and his fellow liberals: “We never considered the possibility that there were alternative moral worlds in which reducing harm (by helping victims) and increasing fairness (by pursuing group-based equality) were not the main goals.”
The remainder of this long section is devoted to expanding the foundations of moral judgments beyond harm and fairness (clarified as pairs of opposites, “care/harm” and “fairness/cheating”) to include four others: “loyalty/betrayal”; “authority/subversion”; “sanctity/degradation”; and “liberty/oppression.”
Again, it is hard to do justice to the incisive and insightful nature of this analysis. Suffice it to say that Haidt is correct, and once you view questions of morality, and of individuals’ views of morality, through this framework, rather than being confined in the straitjacket of mere harm and fairness, you understand what drives people much more than you did before.
Haidt emphasizes that these six ways of viewing the world (and perhaps others) are innate – not in the sense of being wholly predetermined, but in the sense of being “organized in advance of experience” – a “first draft” inherent in each person when born.
Those traits lead people along different paths, often reinforcing their inherent characteristics, though not always.
He notes repeatedly how, as with so many claims later proven wrong, a scientific “consensus” insisted until the 1990s that each person was a blank slate, but that has been proven definitively false.
All six foundations, Haidt believes, originated in evolutionary behaviors, which he identifies for each, but that does not make any one, or any set of them, more or less valid than another.
They all operate simultaneously in each human being. And they are all necessary for a good society: “…moral monism – the attempt to ground all of morality on a single principle – leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles.”
Of course, as will be obvious upon a moment’s reflection, and as Haidt explains, liberals draw their conclusions by relying on only three of these foundations (care, fairness and liberty), and often only two (fairness easily gives way to liberty, if oppression is thought to be present).
Haidt is himself liberal, and he admits his original personal response to these insights was to try to aggressively put them to use to help Democrats win elections (John Kerry’s election, to be specific).
His concern, then and now, was that since most conservatives (he identifies libertarians as very closely allied to liberals in their moral judgments, so here and elsewhere he means Burkean conservatives) rely more-or-less equally on all six foundations, their appeal is broader than the liberal appeal, which only offers something to a subset of the population.
Although he mentions Edmund Burke, Haidt’s exemplar of a conservative is not Burke. He also mentions other relevant thinkers, such as, Thomas Sowell (who invented the terminology of the “constrained vision” of human capacity, on which Haidt in part relies to characterize conservatives), and Robert Nisbet (the originator of modern conservative theories of community). But he relies on neither one.
Instead, Haidt chooses someone more obscure – the turn-of-the-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim, the polar opposite of John Stuart Mill.
Among other things, Durkheim believed in the centrality of the family and the critical importance of a society consisting of networked, overlapping groups, in which the individual as individual played little role.
He is Haidt’s exemplar of a conservative, fully realized in the sense of relying on all six of Haidt’s foundations of moral judgment, and Durkheim reappears repeatedly in the second half of the book.
While religion is the focus of a fair bit of discussion, it is all about the evolutionary value of religion. But the reader is left with the lurking feeling that much of what Haidt ascribes to evolutionary pressure, to the “first draft” of intuition, is in fact the latent Christianity that is the utterly dominant moral backdrop of the West, even now.
It may be true, for example, that human beings have an innate sense that others should not be unduly harmed, or that oppression is bad. (Haidt ascribes these to the evolutionary motives of keeping children safe and “a response to adaptive challenge of living in small groups with individuals who would, if given the chance, dominate, bully, and constrain others”—but when weapons were developed, could be resisted).
But our interpretation of our intuition, the second draft made after the first draft of intuition, flows purely from Christianity, and it is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.
To non-Christian cultures, for example, the Golden Rule is either unimportant or insane. Nobody has an innate urge to obey it.
The much more usual moral judgment of “care/harm” is that of the Roman dictator Sulla, who wrote as his epitaph, “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.”
This suggests that Haidt’s project of reclaiming some agreement on moral issues through better understanding others is doomed, since if it is true that what understanding we have relies largely or wholly on latent Christianity, as that disappears what agreement we have is likely to disagree as well.
As to the validity of Mill’s harm principle as the touchstone of moral judgment, we can do no better than examine the braying of progressive philosopher Martha Nussbaum.
Although Haidt does not mention her, she is in many ways the anti-Haidt. A large part of her recent career has revolved around her exaltation of the harm principle as the sole valid method of moral judgment, and the rejection of disgust, or what she claims to be disgust, as well as sanctity, as invalid.
She has become famous for this, mostly because her positions conveniently fit right into the Zeitgeist, in that she claims all traditional morality, especially sexual morality, is to be rejected in favor of total individual liberty, the holy of holies of modern progressivism.
Although I have not read her 2010 book From Disgust to Humanity, by all accounts its reasoning is exactly what Haidt finds most disturbing, and most cluelessly narrow.
Her book is an extended attack on any moral judgment that cannot be justified adequately to Nussbaum on the exclusive ground of Mill’s harm principle, and most especially on any moral judgment that depends in any way on a decision regarding sanctity or purity (i.e., in her mind, on moral judgments that are the opposite of “Humanity”).
Nussbaum further discovers a Constitutional imperative to enshrine in law her beliefs and way of looking at morality, which would have surprised any American jurist prior to 1950, and something Haidt, with his plea to understand and value all the different bases for moral judgments, doubtless finds troubling.
But that, of course, is why Nussbaum is so widely praised—she offers apparent intellectual cover for WEIRD individuals to write their preferences into law in a way that cannot be appealed and cannot be legislated against by the majority who still honor the morals of sanctity.
Presumably somewhere in her work Nussbaum enunciates why she believes the harm principle is the only moral criterion that can be permitted to exist; no doubt, her argument relies on assertions that only it is “rational.”
But as Haidt shows, this is just the result of a parched inability to understand human beings, and a rejection of the cognitive function of intuition – which is why Nussbaum and her many allies are, though they don’t realize it, on the wrong side of history.
The third part of the book focuses on why these intuitions developed from a Darwinian perspective, and in particular on “group selection” – behaviors in groups, especially moral behaviors, and why Haidt believes they developed, namely in order to confer evolutionary advantage on a group level.
This is another view that until recently was an utter heresy against the scientific consensus, and it is also the view that causes Haidt to attack the New Atheists (Dawkins, Harris, etc.) as blinkered and ignorant, for refusing to see the obvious truth that religion confers group advantages, especially “cooperation without kinship,” and is not a negative “parasite” or “virus.”
Haidt himself is an atheist, so this is in a sense an intra-atheist dispute. And his definition of religion, following Durkheim, is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things,” in order to create a community.
This definition is broader than revealed religion, and could easily include, for example, the belief system of modern liberals and their institutions sometimes called the “clerisy” or the “Cathedral” – but that’s a topic for another day.
Here also Haidt veers into brief discussions of evolutionary genetic change in the recent human past (he believes it can and did happen, and continues to happen, but avoids excessive exploration, presumably so as not to get into the disputes that have embroiled Gregory Clark and Nicholas Wade, although he cites the latter several times).
As the reader can see, Haidt relies heavily on evolutionary explanations. I have always been skeptical of evolutionary explanations for human characteristics – as Haidt acknowledges, they often shade into “just so” stories.
Even if these explanations are true, or largely true, Haidt’s six foundations of moral intuitions do not explain many related areas of human nature. For example, why do people seek transcendence? But perhaps explaining everything is too much to ask, and what Haidt does explain is plausible enough.
Haidt’s ultimate evolutionary conclusion is that humans are a unique combination of mostly chimpanzee with a little bee – we are mostly self-interested individuals willing to form groups, but sometimes willing to be “ultrasocial” (his term for human eusociality) and make sacrifices for the group as a whole, in ways chimpanzees never would (apparently chimpanzees can’t even agree to carry a log together, not ever, or engage in any other behaviors Haidt calls “shared intentionality”).
“We evolved to live in groups,” which implies that an ethic of extreme individuality, as the WEIRDs would run society, goes against the grain of human nature.
Community is critical to human flourishing: “When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.”
In other words, our society today exhibits “anomie—Durkheim’s word for what happens to a society that no longer has a shared moral order.”
Again, I am not doing justice to the volume of information and analysis contained in these pages, which manages to be both extremely dense and very readable, sweeping in everything from Aztec use of hallucinogens to Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Haidt ends with a series of political analyses. He offers two conclusions unpalatable to liberals – that conservatives are stronger politically, because as noted above their political offerings resonate with the moral frames of more people, and that conservatives are mostly right in their approach to human nature and its political implications.
Haidt says that liberals, in fact to their detriment, typically are unable to understand conservatives, because their own moral framework is relatively limited, such that they retreat, when confronted with incomprehensible opposing beliefs, into the belief that conservatives are inherently evil.
For example, liberals are far less able than conservatives to take a survey of moral beliefs and successfully pretend to be of the other political persuasion; they totally fail to grasp how and why conservatives really think, to a much greater degree than conservatives of liberals.
This is not without consequences. In fact, sometimes, as Haidt explicitly notes, liberals react to their incomprehension with the belief that conservatives should be “exterminated” – a belief not found among conservatives about liberals. (Apparently conservatives are wise to keep buying guns).
Haidt clearly struggles with his own self-image as a progressive, while being forced by his scientific analysis to admit the possibility that “conservatives [might] have a better formula for how to create a healthy, happy society.”
This is probably why he has been accused of being a crypto-conservative – not only because he attacks liberal pieties that traditionally go wholly unchallenged, but he goes even farther and seems to substantively edge toward endorsing actual conservative beliefs, by openly praising Durkheim, Burke, and the accretion of “moral capital.”
In his point-counterpoint, it’s conservatives who have something to offer everyone, and liberals/libertarians who have a pinched, unproductive, unrealistic view of the world.
Thus, he calls for understanding opposing viewpoints, but offers opposing viewpoints that are not opposite and equal. He says the “liberal wisdom” that conservatives should accept boils down to some regulation being good, and that corporations should be restrained.
But conservatives would not much dispute those two modest propositions; many would applaud the latter, especially today.
Then Haidt offers “conservative wisdom” that is vastly broader and more generally applicable: “You can’t help the bees by destroying the hive,” in which Haidt offers a full-throated defense of Burkean “little platoons” in opposition to emancipation of the individual, and of “Durkeheimian utilitarianism,” exemplified by when “Adam Smith argued similarly [to Burke] that patriotism and parochialism are good things because they lead people to exert themselves to improve the things they can improve.”
These are vastly broader propositions than modest regulation and corporate controls; they are entire visions of the good and human society, and if this is “conservative wisdom,” it is of massively greater import than the “liberal wisdom” Haidt offers.
Compounding his offense, Haidt piles on, among other things citing Robert Putnam to the effect that even if liberals claim to “stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion,” since they ignore important moral foundations such as loyalty and authority, their “zeal . . . . often lead[s] them to push for change that weaken groups, traditions, institutions and moral capital.”
In other words, liberals erode, if not destroy, society.
Two examples Haidt gives are liberal devastation of the African American family (as a result of the elimination of sanctity as a moral imperative) and increasing racism among Hispanics, resulting from pushing multicultural education (by over-exalting freedom from supposed oppression).
Just like Mark Lilla, Haidt has no use at all for celebrations of multiculturalism and diversity, nor, presumably, for “inclusion” as that word is used today, the celebration of the abnormal and corrosive, and the violent suppression of the normal and traditional.
He advises, “Don’t call attention to racial and ethnic differences; make them less relevant by ramping up similarity and celebrating the groups’ shared values and common identity. . . . You can make people care less about race by drowning race differences in a sea of similarities, shared goals, and mutual interdependencies.”
In passing, Haidt destroys other liberal shibboleths, such as the primacy of emancipation from all authority, noting that “authority should not be confused with power” and “authority ranking relationships are based on perceptions of legitimate asymmetries, not coercive power; they are not inherently exploitative.”
Or, “Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).”
To say that all this is wildly offensive to most of today’s American progressives would be a gross understatement.
Of course, Haidt’s work opposes much conservative thought.
He rejects the truth of both any religion and anything such as natural law – morality may be based on innate intuitions, and human nature exists, but that does not imply that there is a deeper law, much less a law set by God. Humans have no teleology; Darwin exists in a vacuum.
Still, it would be valuable to try to apply Haidt’s framework to a variety of issues, though I won’t do so here. What of guns? Or global warming?
Abortion, for example, can be viewed in different ways depending on the external information used to inform innate impulses. Thus, in any abortion debate, care/harm is a critical question – but whose? That of the unborn child? The mother? Both? In what proportion?
Haidt, of course, doesn’t claim that his framework answers all moral questions – his claim is much more limited, that people approach moral questions in a definable way with certain common characteristics among all people, but with key differences as well, and that understanding this truth makes it possible both to discuss political matters with others and, up to a point, attempt to influence them in more productive ways than might otherwise be possible.
Haidt begins this book by quoting Rodney King, “Can we all get along?”
Since he wrote this book, in 2012, Haidt has become perhaps the most prominent liberal voice today in America calling for both a concerted effort to increase civility in political discourse, by using the frames he presents in this book, and by also calling for the toleration of conservatives in the academic world.
His linking of these things pretty clearly shows that he thinks that most narrow-mindedness, at least among elites, is on the liberal side.
He has been thinking this for a while; this theme can be seen in his modestly famous keynote speech at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, and in his more recent founding of a group, Heterodox Academy, explicitly devoted to reducing ideological persecution of conservatives in the academic world.
These are honorable and valuable goals, though I suspect the answer is “No, we can’t all get along,” and both Haidt’s analysis and events in the past six years support that answer.
Just because people of good will want others with hugely divergent moral visions to see everybody’s point of view does not mean that those people can live together in harmony, or even peace.
That’s too bad, but at least when we’re manning the barricades, if we’ve read this book, we’ll understand the people storming them better than we would have otherwise.