Like you, I saw some of my bookish friends on social media a couple months back posting their lists of books they'd polished off in 2022. What is too often missing from those lists is a tl;dr summary of the books (to save you a trip to Urban Dictionary, that means, too long; didn't read). Few books have more than but one Big Idea. And most – let's be honest, the vast majority – do not have even the one.
So I decided to take up a list of my own. Not a list to boast my exploits, but to share with you, my thoughtful but busy reader, the one or two Big Ideas I picked up from each book – each that had one, that is – along the way.
But then I hit a snag: A short way in to my list, I began noticing connections between the various Big Ideas. I had not intended this, not least because I think of myself as a promiscuous reader – I will pick up and start reading a new book merely because I heard it mentioned by a friend or on a podcast, or saw it referenced in an article or in another book. Perhaps this was unintentional self-selection at work, but it was, I assure you, unintentional. At any rate I found the connections stimulating enough that I'd like to share them with you.
I must warn you, however, that what I first intended as a list, or a short email to friends, or perhaps a social media post, turned into a read that may require an intermission. So in case this tl;dr book report has become tl;dr for your tolerance, here is a summary of summaries:
Our great men – our geniuses, our men at headquarters – they shape our world. That cannot be denied. But their manner of shaping the world is to break it first, into parts, for the sake of management. Our men at headquarters shape the world, then, in the same manner as a predator shapes the habits of its prey: we study and hearken to our great men for our own survival's sake. The character of humanity is the collection of habits formed to defend against its most deadly predator: its geniuses. This is the great conflict of our time: the conflict between those who would be predators, and those who will not be prey.
Louis Menand, American Studies
First out of the gate was Louis Menand's American Studies
. I first read Menand by the sheer curiosity of the title of his book The Metaphysical Club
, and have enjoyed his historical and biographical perspectives ever since. From American Studies
, I took the lesson that, in the contest in Hustler v. Falwell
, liberals supported speech causes not because they valued speech, but because they despised the people offended by it, which in the latter part of the 20th century tended to be the religious half of America. Happily, we achieved a pact on free speech, but, alas, the pact was only ostensible, for we did not achieve understanding. The pact was that we would be tolerant on all speech matters. But the understanding of Flint's defenders was different from the understanding of Falwell's defenders. "On the subject of pornography," writes Menand, "The People vs. Larry Flynt
seems to have nothing more to say than that it’s a harmless amusement...and that the people who actively seek to suppress it are a good deal more dangerous than the people who produce it." At least, that's the message the rubes took from it – and so social conservatives, by and large, would desist, by and large, from trying to defend virtue in the courts. They stipulated to the virtue of free speech.
But the left, it turned out, had stipulated to no such premise. The left had stipulated not to any inherent virtue in tolerating offensive ideas, but merely to the virtue of porn. The left's understanding was that there is nothing of a sexual nature that anyone could possibly object to, that could possibly harm any one. The other half of America had not stipulated to that premise. They had not agreed to abandon their morals: they only became more tolerant and willing to coexist with people of different views. They had agreed to promote free speech as an important value, that could still coexist with their private morality.
Today, we see a tension arising again. There is a call for censorship again, but this time by the left. Why? Because this time, they do not see the dissident messages as "harmless amusements" like they did in Larry Flynt's dirty magazines. And the left having culminated its long march through the institutions, and having never stipulated to any more general virtue of tolerance, we have an Orwellian situation on our hands.
Menand also related this observation about Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “'Every society rests on the death of men,' he liked to say. He thus could not see why if society, in order to make its view prevail, could call on its best citizens to sacrifice their lives (as the North had done in the Civil War), it could not also 'call upon those who already sap the strength of the State'—in this case, the woman sterilized under the Virginia law, Carrie Buck—to suffer 'lesser sacrifices,' such as sterilization."
Holmes's legal positivism is perennially disputed among legal scholars, but upon reading Menand's passage on this point, it occurred to me: For the positivist, law is war, or at least a continuous parlay under threat of war. What would Holmes think of gun control, for example, where law is just the preliminary maneuvers among warring groups? Holmes would have recognized gun control – an In-group depriving its rival out-group of its right to defend itself – as a incitement to civil war. Holmes famously said that our Constitution was designed for people of fundamentally differing views. But gun control – at least in its aggressive form – assumes a people of fundamentally shared views. And it assumes the In-group is always entitled to dominate the out-groups. But this is opposite the Founders' model, which assumed that any group, once it became the In-group, would seek to dominate out-groups, and that far from acceptable, this was to be prevented – that competition must be fostered among factions, that ambition must counter ambition – and so out-groups must be secured in its rights against the In-group.
A final observation from American Studies is from Menand's chapter on Christopher Lasch. I had not known there would be a chapter on Lasch going in, but I was delighted to encounter it because I have found Lasch's works to be prescient of the current moment, though his works are long and, sometimes, overlong. Menand provides a nice distillation of some of the main strains of Lasch's work, including Lasch's critique of specialization. Robert Heinlein's summation will serve: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
Lasch explained that specialization – spending one's day on the assembly line fixing the heads on pins, as Adam Smith put it – divorced man from the organic vibrations of the world. And so we became dependent upon the "helping professions": the doctors, psychologists, teachers, child-guidance experts, juvenile court officers, and so forth, who, by their constant intervention in people’s private lives, “eroded the capacity for self-help and social invention.”
Menand explains that this movement away from independence toward specialization "constitutes, in Lasch’s view, liberalism’s worst betrayal. For liberalism, he argued, had struck a deal: in return for transforming the worker from an independent producer of goods into a fixer of heads on pins, it was agreed that people would be free to pursue happiness and virtue in their private lives in whatever manner they chose. The workplace was thus severed from the home, and the family became the “haven in a heartless world.” But the moment the deal was struck, Lasch argued, liberalism reneged. Private life was immediately made the prey of the quasi-official helping professions and the “forces of organized virtue,” led by “feminists, temperance advocates, educational reformers, liberal ministers, penologists [let ugly things have ugly names], doctors, and bureaucrats.”"
This struck me as a very important observation. This growing influence of the cadre of "quasi-official helping professions" underscores why neither "liberal" nor "conservative" has sole claim on being "progressive." The whole person has been broken into pieces; the "liberal" wants to treat the pieces, while the "conservative" wants to reunite the pieces. They both want progress, but cannot agree on the problem.
Me, I have lost confidence in the would-be aristocracy – politicians, professionals, and managers
– the forces of organized virtue – who have made their livelihoods in treating broken men. How can I be persuaded the quasi-helpers are genuinely interested in ending those policies which cause the epidemic of brokenness on which the quasi-helper's very livelihood depends? To paint with an overly broad brush, I tend to agree that the quasi-helpers are noxious, and break faith with the individuals, families, and communities that make up our democracy. The rule of the quasi-helpers and managers, the forces of organized virtue, must be brought to an end. Mancipes delendum est.
This is the first Big Idea.
Ilya Shapiro, Supreme Disorder
Ilya's book, Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America's Highest Court
, illustrates a deep problem with our Supreme Court. And that is that confirmation battles have their origin in our unwillingness to decide our own important questions. And they have their origin in our acquiescence in the Court's deciding our highest policies and values for us. European countries, by contrast, each by the consensus of their elected representatives, have struck middle grounds on the issue of abortion. But we Americans, under Roe v. Wade
, have not had to face any hard compromises on abortion. And now with Dobbs
in a post-Roe
America, many of us worry that we are too far out of practice of the golden mean, and too long out of the habit of democracy and of debating and persuading others about deeply-felt moral issues, rather than rooting for our respective champions on the Supreme Court.
For over 40 years, each of us was free to insist on the appointment of judges who agree with our ideals in all their purity: either that life begins at conception, on the one hand, or that life does not begin until the second semester of college. As Ilya's book teaches, our own opinions on those points, or on any points in between, simply were not welcome in American politics, because the question was reserved to the Supreme Court. And so we fought very hard to ensure our views were represented there. And the fight has got nasty. Because as Holmes knew, when people with fundamentally differing values cannot argue, they can only fight.
That is the next Big Idea.
Strauss, Howe, The Fourth Turning
William Howe and Neil Strauss's thesis in The Fourth Turning
is that the broad arcs of human history are driven by certain moods and archetypes, which, though some at times will be in ascendance and others in descendence, must be kept always in balance. The study of human history reveals a new "turning" about every two decades, there being four turnings to a cycle, the cycle thus being about equal to a human lifespan. (Reflect that the Age of Heroes that caused God to lament creating man began at the end of the first human life cycle, after the first natural death.) The four turnings are the High (characterized by strong shared values, institutions, and social order), the Awakening (the introduction of a new value system, creating spiritual disorder), the Unraveling (a return to individualism, and weakening values and institutions), and the Crisis (the decisive era when the new set of values displaces the old).
Note that America has seen a Crisis about four times: in 1776 with an unprecedented new form of government; then in 1861 (about 75 years after the new Constitution) a Civil War; then its 1942 entry into World War Two, defeating European atheist Marxism; and now, a pandemic, and a movement toward international health and economic control. Each of these world-shaping Crises began roughly 75 years from the end of the previous Crisis.
Walter Lippmann, Preface to Politics
A couple years ago I clipped the passage that follows, from a 1940 speech delivered by the legendary political philosopher and journalist, Walter Lippmann – by then aged around 51 years – to the Association for the Advancement of Science. I had heard of Lippmann's idealism, so the cynicism of this passage intrigued me to read his earlier musings. See if you detect Lippmann's foreshadowing a Turning:
...during the past forty or fifty years those who are responsible for education have progressively removed from the curriculum the Western culture which produced the modern democratic state...the schools and colleges have therefore been sending out into the world men who no longer understand the creative principle of the society in which they must live...deprived of their cultural tradition, the newly educated Western men no longer possess in the form and substance of their own minds and spirits and ideas, the premises, the rationale, the logic, the method, the values of the deposited wisdom which are the genius of the development of Western civilization...the prevailing education is destined, if it continues, to destroy Western civilization and is in fact destroying it. I realize quite well that this thesis constitutes a sweeping indictment of modern education. But I believe the indictment is justified and there is a prima facie case for entering this indictment.
(This passage struck me as a version of the critique of modern education as teaching irrelevancies and disassociation. John Taylor Gatto, a refugee of the public secondary education system, related that "Society is composed of persons who cannot design, build, repair, operate devices on which their lives depend...They never escape fundamental bewilderment." In other words, if you don't teach people about the things on which their lives depend, eventually you will succeed in destroying those things.)
But Lippmann's cynicism could be detected even in his 20s. He anticipated historian Paul Johnson's thesis that elites love humanity as an idea more than they love humans in particular. Lippmann: "This is one of the paradoxes of the democratic movement — that it loves a crowd and fears the individuals who compose it — that the religion of humanity should have had no faith in human beings."
Lippmann anticipated James Burnham's thesis of the managerial state (now popularized by Vivek Ramaswamy), that politics would be controlled by a deep state: that "the real power was held not by the president, not by the voters or policy-holders, but by men who were not even directors. After a while we took it as a matter of course that the head of a company was an administrative dummy." And against these unseen managers there is little recourse. As the Roman historian Tacitus said, "better a Tiberius than a committee." Mancipes delendum est. We are connected back to our first Big Idea.
Lippmann also anticipated Gabriel Kolko's thesis that the biggest beneficiary of progressive politics was big business, who would use the spiderweb of regulations to box out competition: "May not this constant dodging or hurdling of statutes be a sign that there is something the matter with the statutes? Is it not possible that graft is the cracking and bursting of the receptacles in which we have tried to constrain the business of this country? It seems possible that business has had to control politics because its laws were so stupidly obstructive."
Lippmann also appreciated the populism of unrespectable initiatives – and that when respectable politics, obsessed with the virtue of its own ideals, ignores practical needs, the people will pursue their practical needs through unrespectable politicians: "But a Tim Sullivan is closer to the heart of statesmanship than five City Clubs full of people who want low taxes and orderly bookkeeping. He does things which have to be done. He humanizes a strange country; he is a friend at court; he represents the legitimate kindliness of government, standing between the poor and the impersonal, uninviting majesty of the law." This is the closest I've found to the maybe-aprocryphal quote I've heard attributed to William Jennings Bryan, that "the people of Nebraska are for free silver so I am for free silver; I will look up the arguments later." Even unrespectable people and causes deserve an advocate.
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
Yevgeni Zamyati's dystopian We, published in U.S. 1924, but banned in the USSR until 1988, focused on those who would be the "last" revolutionaries. Is history cyclical, or linear? Was our last revolution the last? How ever could one know such a thing! Imagine the person who would assume it – and the suffocating weight of hubris that daily forces its way into the mind from all sides!
Their mistake was the mistake of Galileo; he was right in that the earth revolves around the sun, "but he did not know that our whole solar system revolves around some other center, he did not know that the real, not relative, orbit of the earth is not a naive circle.”
To pity or fear the successors of Galileo, who would have rewritten the Scriptures' poetically true teachings about the sun, with scientifically wrong teachings about the moon? Perhaps both. And this is our next Big Idea: Is the world shaped by its great men, its geniuses? Yes, I must agree, but with this addendum: Yes, geniuses shape the world, but they do so in the same manner as a predator shapes the habits of its prey. The character of humanity is the collection of habits formed to defend against its most deadly predator: its geniuses.
RFK Jr., The Real Anthony Fauci
As far as I can tell, Dr. Anthony Fauci has never sought to treat a single patient, merely all humanity. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. catalogues his career. One must admit that Kennedy's biography of Fauci is overtly critical, and in places, takes on the tone of a screed.
Strip away the adverbs and the specific allegations, and the takeaway still holds: Government health is more about government than health. To my knowledge, there has never been any form of Church Commission or other reckoning over how the government health establishment falsely claimed AIDS could not be spread through blood, leading to 20,000 hemophiliacs becoming infected. As Thomas Sowell relates:
"From the beginning, various medical and other public officials have been preoccupied with reassuring the public on how they cannot get AIDS. As late as 1983, people were being reassured that their chances of catching AIDS from transfusions of untested blood were extremely remote. Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler went on nationwide television on July 3, 1983 to assure the American people that the blood supply was 100% safe. But just one year later, the centers for disease control began reporting dozens of cases of people who caught aids from blood transfusions. And just two years after that, the AIDs deaths from blood transfusions were in the thousands. More than half of the nations 20,000 hemophiliacs were infected with the AIDS virus as a result of the numerous blood transfusions they required. The long incubation period of the disease proved to be like a time bomb.
"The problem was not simply with what medical authorities did not know at the time but what they presumed to know and to proclaim to the benighted — to those who, in Secretary Heckler's words, had "irrational fears” and "unwarranted panic." looking back on this. Years later, a feature story in US News and World Report noted: "Americans have long believed the blood supply to be safer than it is. In a 1983 joint statement, for example, the Red Cross and two trade groups representing most other blood banks – the American Association of Blood Banks and the Council of Community Blood Centers — put the risk of getting aids from a transfusion at about one in a million. In fact, it was at least one in 660 — and up to one in 25 in high exposure cities like San Francisco."
Ask yourself: Since the 1980s, have our government health agencies become less politicized? If not, one must take their public relations with as much skepticism as can be marshaled. Trust the actions of public health managers in the same way a prey trusts the actions of its predator. Mancipes delendum est.
John McWhorter, Woke Racism
Wokeism is ideology, not fact. And the only way self-respecting white liberals could ever hear this message is from a black person, which is why, McWhorter says, he wrote this book.
What do wokesters mean by their critiques of America? McWhorter relates Glen Loury's suggestion: "whenever you hear the elect deem someone problematic, to understand what they are saying and hold them accountable for it, substitute the word witch: '"Well, isn't what X is saying problematic in that . . . [sip latte]' is another way of saying, with nothing whatsoever lost or added in the translation, 'Well, doesn't what X is saying make her a witch?'"
As evidence that this is explanation and not caricature, McWhorter submits a passage from a faculty demand to the president of Princeton for "A committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures."
Whites, McWhorter notes, are decidedly more vociferous about racism than are blacks. The examination of this phenomenon is covered by Shelby Steele – more anon.
Here is a thesis McWhorter relates that was new to me: "In the late 60s white leftists encouraged poor black women to sign up for welfare payments they hadn't previously thought they needed, the leftists hoping that this would cause the collapse of the economy and force a restart. in the wake of this, subsequent generations of poor black people came to think of it as a normal choice to not work for a living. Not that this was the choice most people made in poor black communities – but only after this hard leftist drive to make as many black people sign up for welfare as possible did it become one of many norms in poor black communities to not work nine to five, whether you were a man or a woman." This thesis is detailed further in McWhorter's Winning the Race (which I have not read).
This thesis was new to me, but it fits with the fact that today, the proponents of this alleged plot will be happy to know, a third of working-age men are not working
. And the inexplicable refusal of reformers and academics to accept that it is these kinds of bad habits and attitudes about work and dependence that explain their hardships – and not systemic racism – has led Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson to call these reformers and activists "cultural dopes
This is the devastating legacy of the "quasi-helper" manager class. Mancipes delendum est.
Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree
As kind of a practical joke, my dad sent me this book, with a note that I should read it without first looking up the author. I could not hold off my curiosity after I began to be charmed by such passages as this:
"As to folks saying, “How!” and then laughing when they see an Indian, Granpa said it all come about over a couple of hundred years. He said every time the Indian met a white man, the white man commenced to ask him: how are you feeling, or how are your people, or how are you getting along, or how is the game where you come from, and so on. He said the Indian come to believe that the white man’s favorite subject was how; and so, being polite, when he met the white man, he figured he would just say how, and then let the son of a bitch talk about whichever how he wanted to. Granpa said people laughing at that was laughing at an Indian who was trying to be courteous and considerate."
It still wrinkles my brain that George Wallace's speech-writer and a Ku Klux Klan member could make such a witty and broad-minded suggestion. I suppose the coins of the realm get tossed even into segregated fountains – though I wouldn't advise spending a lot of time splashing in those waters.
James George Frazer, The Golden Bough
This is the classic work on magic and religion in human history. And as I argue in my essay The Man at Headquarters
, human sacrifice is still at the core of the administration of government – albeit made more scientific, backed by unstoppable logic: If the good of the whole community justifies the sacrifice of a single innocent, then so also does the good of the community justify the sacrifice of the entire Fox News viewership. Q.E.D.
Tom Wolfe, I Am Charlotte Simmons
Raise your children right – religion, good values, solid education – and then what's the worst that college can do to them? Tom Wolfe had some ideas, none of them rosy. His thesis is in the prologue, relating a lab experiment in which a psychology professor removes the amygdala from 30 cats' brains, the mass that "controls emotions in the higher mammals.” This drives them into a frenzy of sexual hyperactivity. When one of the cats begins, er, courting the shoe of a scientist who drops by, the scientist notes the strong effect the amydgala must have on driving social dysfunction in the mammal. "But doctor," an assistant points out, "this one is from the control group!"
The genius of our managers defines the habits of their prey. Do not volunteer your children to their experiments.
Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men
But deep down, we already know how plastic and malleable are human norms and habits. We didn't need to remove cats' amydgalas or send chaste schoolgirls to four years of fatuous "studies" curricula at the University of Pleasure Island for that. Ordinary middle-aged men could be turned into mass-murders; that, we know. The only question is the scientific one of how.
Christopher Browning explored the problem in Ordinary Men, which catalogues the evolution of otherwise decent German working family men into inhuman killers during the 1930s. No manipulation of amydgalas or other brain parts – though plenty of alcohol was deployed to take the edge off shame and inhibition. But suppressing shame was not a long-term strategy. There was not enough depressant in the world to suppress the shame that was in store. No, shame had to be turned into virtue. So the Police Regiment Center issued this order:
"The battalion and company commanders are especially to provide for the spiritual care of the men who participate in this action. The impressions of the day are to be blotted out through the holding of social events in the evenings. Furthermore the men are to be instructed continuously about the political necessity of the measures."
Blessed are they who wear the boot that stomps the face.
But the greatest innovation – and this from a 35-year-old metalworker – was in vocabulary: the act that resulted in a dead child was not murder, not even killing, but release:
"I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbor then shot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that, after all, without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers."
Browning notes that "[t]he full weight of this statement, and the significance of the word choice of the former policeman, cannot be fully appreciated unless one knows that the German word for “release” (erlösen) also means to “redeem” or “save” when used in a religious sense. The one who “releases” is the Erlöser—the Savior or Redeemer!"
Human sacrifice is always for the greater good. The ancients had the stones only for a small number of human sacrifices. Marvel – and tremble – at the advancements in modern thought!
Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox
From whence derives this tangle of macabre mental innovations? Isaiah Berlin proposes this answer: from the desire to master a world he cannot understand by remaking it, in his own image. The faithful man prays only to get his head into heaven; the modern man forces heaven into his head – and in the process mutilates both his head and heaven.
Berlin's famous essay was an analysis of Tolstoy's counter-intuitive take on history: that the view of history through the eyes of the general on his high horse is limited, and it is rather the views from the eyes of the footmen and the laborers, and of the women caring for the children back at home, that comprise the broader view. ‘We are part of a larger scheme of things than we can understand. […] we ourselves live in this whole and by it, and are wise only in the measure to which we make our peace with it.’ Michael Ignatieff nicely summarizes the thesis in his foreword: “A hedgehog will not make peace with the world. He is not reconciled. He cannot accept that he knows only many things. He seeks to know one big thing, and strives without ceasing to give reality a unifying shape. Foxes settle for what they know and may live happy lives. Hedgehogs will not settle and their lives may not be happy.”
The great man on the high horse always quests after his Tower of Babel, and is always unhappy when he is reminded he has not attained godhood. The ancients needed to think their rulers gods, and so they worshiped their caesars and pharoahs. A Judeo-Christian people renders to caesar only what is caesar's, and reserves its worship for God – and their rulers have never forgiven them for that. "Those who went about their ordinary business," said Berlin, "without feeling heroic emotions or thinking that they were actors upon the well-lighted stage of history were the most useful to their country and community, while those who tried to grasp the general course of events and wanted to take part in history, those who performed acts of incredible self-sacrifice or heroism, and participated in great events, were the most useless."
The great men, the super-men or over-men, have never stopped resisting the first commandment: they insist on having the fruit of the tree of knowledge. They refuse to learn that "[o]nly unconscious activity bears fruit," and that "the individual who plays a part in historical events never understands their significance." The man at headquarters, it turns out, is powerless, for he is a man who will not contribute to the stream of concrete human activity: he insists on understanding and mastering that stream. And because of limitations he cannot overcome, "he is struck with sterility. To try to ‘understand’ anything by rational means is to make sure of failure.
The hedgehog (the super-man, the politician, the virtuous bureaucrat or activist, the wealthy donor of high causes) and the hobo are natural corollaries: the super-man exists only to create – and then to spend his life supporting – the hobo, for which he expects much recognition and praise. The rest of mankind, we foxes, go about our normal business, trying to avoid eye-contact with either of these wretched creatures.
Kurt Vonnegut, If This Isn't Nice, What Is?
Vonnegut is a good example of the scam the modern university has become: no one needs to spend their early adulthood working off a tuition debt so a professor could assign them Vonnegut. That's not a dig at Vonnegut. To the contrary, a writer should worry if his audience requires the assistance of a professional.
Vonnegut's fiction is a portal to a fairly common-sense post-war American wisdom. And as far as post-war American literature goes, it's a success. I don't know if he harbored any doubts about being asked to give commencement addresses at universities that, quite possibly, were taking tuition on the false premise that students required their professional assistance to read Vonnegut books. Vonnegut did lament that people were being treated as children longer and longer, and that religions and cultures with puberty ceremonies – ending childhood rather than indefinitely prolonging it – have the right idea.
Vonnegut was a liberal back when that word meant being critical of the government. He was a humanist and a fan of science, but thought that humans and science didn't mix well. "[W]e would be a lot safer if the Government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms. I used to think that science would save us, and science certainly tried. But we can’t stand any more tremendous explosions, either for or against democracy. Only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash."
Amen to that.
Vivek Ramaswamy, Woke, Inc.
Ramaswamy's book is a modern application of Burnham's thesis about the managerial class, and Shelby Steele's thesis, about which more anon. Basically, money derives from power, and power derives from legitimacy. And being "woke" is the ticket to legitimacy – and thus maintaining power and wealth status.
Managers, Ramaswamy argues, have a reputation to maintain. Unlike shareholders, their primary asset is not ownership in the corporation, but their stature in the community of elite members. Being public-minded, rather than shareholder-minded, gets them their next jobs, political appointments, ambassadorships, etc. So it is a fallacy to assume that stock prices are the sine qua non of managerial success. Stock prices are relevant, of course, but one must consider time-horizons: a stock price is only a marker of the value today, as perceived by the collective. But the managers' decisions have impact on the future, and the value of that impact can be measured only according to prevailing virtues. So shifting time-horizons to the future means a shift of power to those who promulgate the standards of virtue.
This is how the big banks not only survived but benefited from the Obama bank bailouts: banks were given the opportunity to pay half their fines if they paid them to Obama-favored charities like La Raza. Money derives from power derives from perceived legitimacy. This is why social justice is merely the latest innovation of media- and politically-aligned big business. We will hear more along these lines in a bit via James Burnham and Neema Parvini.
Will Durant, Fallen Leaves
A radical as a young adult, the late historian Will Durant's parting thoughts include these surprisingly conservative notions:
On making young people fight the financial wars before starting a family: "He who denounces the “immorality” of youth, and then stands by idle while financial caution postpones marriage, and therefore promotes promiscuity, and makes unnatural demands upon the sex to which love is life—such a man is a hypocrite or a fool. Desire is too strong to be dammed so unreasonably with moral prohibitions.... Perhaps when it is too late we shall discover that we have sold the most precious thing in our civilization—the loyal love of a man for a woman—for the sake of the desolate security that cowards find in gold. Wisdom, if it were young, would cherish love, nursing it with devotion, deepening it with sacrifice, vitalizing it with parentage, making all things subordinate to it till the end."
On the decline of Christendom: "To me the “death of God” and the slow decay of Christianity in the educated classes of Christendom constitute the profoundest tragedy in modern Western history, of far deeper moment than the great wars or the competition between capitalism and communism. I felt this when, in 1931, I wrote On the Meaning of Life, and asked prominent persons in Europe and America what life meant for them now that God had disappeared. I went through, in those years from 1906 to 1931, all the wondering and anguish and sense of irreparable loss that afflicted the existentialists of France in the years that followed." "I, too, have shot my pebbles against the Church, and now I am not at all confident that man’s unsocial impulses can be controlled by a moral code shorn of religious belief."
On liberty: "I cannot admit the claim of many young enthusiasts that every person has a right to reject any law that his conscience finds unacceptable; no government could subsist on such a basis; the judgment of the community, as expressed by its elected legislators, rightly overrides the judgment of the individual. The individual may still carry legitimate protest to active disobedience, as Thoreau did, but he should take his punishment as due process of the law. I mourn when brilliant writers like Andre Gide in his early works, and some unfaithful followers of Freud, tell us that we should yield to every impulse and desire, and “be ourselves”! What jejune nonsense! Civilization, as Freud recognized and proclaimed, is at almost every moment dependent upon the repression of instincts, and intelligence itself involves discrimination between desires that may be pursued and those that should be subdued."
Hold that thought on those strange things we call "rights" – that disputed territory between liberty and order – until a bit later, where I will offer my own view while discussing Menand's The Free World.
On the purpose of education: "I would ask each state to establish and encourage organizations, like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, that might give to the growing character such vigor and health as could never be instilled by precept alone. Moral excellence, as Aristotle said, is a habit, not an idea. Nor should I hesitate to build up in the child a profound and generous patriotism; for, though I respect and cherish all nations and races that have enriched our racial inheritance, I do not understand how a country can defend itself against attack if its citizens have not learned to love it in some special way as their national hearth and home.... In short, I should never think it the purpose of education to make scholars, so much as to form human beings."
On women: "They give the race fewer geniuses than men do, but also fewer idiots." (Given that geniuses and imbeciles are equally to be feared, I make this a credit on the female ledger – and a debit to the male's – on both counts.)
On the limitations of reform: "[H]istory tells us how we have behaved for six thousand years. One who knows that record is in large measure protected in advance against the delusions and disillusionments of his times. He has learned the limitations of human nature, and bears with equanimity the faults of his neighbors and the imperfections of states. He shares hopefully in the reforming enterprises of his age and people; but his heart does not break, nor his faith in life fade out, when he perceives how modest are the results, and how persistently man remains what he has been for sixty centuries, perhaps for a thousand generations."
Will we learn the lesson of Phaethon – who extracted the promise from his unwise father, Helios, for control over the sun in the heavens – that the fool asks for what he should not have? Will we learn the ancient lesson of the golden mean, to seek modest progress, that sweeping reforms are folly, that the middle way is best?
Not likely. Sadly, I predict the twenty-first century will prove even bloodier than the twentieth.
M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History
Years ago I wondered how an AP history student in the Trump era would respond to the prompt, "Compare and contrast witch trials and communist trials." Here is an outline of the answer I'd expect:
"Witches and communists both were thought to be part of conspiracies to bring people under their power to kill and harm others. The members of both these conspiracies were secretive about the existence and intentions of the conspiracies. So the prosecutors used special pleading because of the extraordinary nature of the conspiracies and the inherent difficulty in proving them. Today, however, we know those prosecutions were wrong, because now we know there's no such thing as conspiracies. Witches and communists are just superstitions."
This was a lament at how we have missed the point about the Red Scare. The 17th century Americans, though their benighted brethren had tortured and burned supposed witches, managed to learn that convicting people based on spectral evidence and coerced confessions was shameful, and so they stopped doing it. One wishes they had learned this sooner.
But to their credit, they did learn it. They didn't leap, as though from one folly to another, to the yet further unsupported conclusion that there are no such things as witches. Had they done so, they would have failed to learn the more important lessons about using coercion and other unreliable evidence. Our 17th century man maintained his major premise, that is, that witches are filthy quislings whose influence over our children and morals should be avoided. But he corrected his minor premise, namely, that we cannot conclude that Jones is a witch based upon such things as evaluations of her neighbor's dreams, or by testing Jones's buoyancy in water.
We moderns, though, do not take lessons upon minor premises when we can sweep right on to the grand fallacy. Why learn about the reliability of evidence or the proper formation of belief, when we can simply conclude that the suspect – the President of the United States, say, or a nominee to the Supreme Court – is the modern equivalent of a witch? Instead of learning to evaluate whether to adopt or reject a belief because the evidence is reliable or not reliable, we decide whether to adopt or reject a belief based on whether that belief is virtuous.
Was there evidence of communists in high places in the United States government in the 1940s and '50s? If we are evaluating this question based on evidence, then yes, as derived from our very intelligence agencies, as Evans recounts. But though the evidence was reliable, the conclusion of the existence of communists is, today, as unfashionable as belief in the existence of witches.
This is what Glen Loury meant in the quip related by McWhorter above: our public debates are no longer about trying to decide whether a position is or is not supported by evidence, but whether holding the proposition makes one a witch.
This is the next Big Idea: The modern woke American believes not merely that we should not persecute witches or communists, but that witches and communists do not exist in this country, and have never existed. The modern man has no time to reflect upon his methods or minor premises. This epistemic error in the modern mind has gone unnoticed because a few witches and commie spies have done relatively insignificant damage (save to Senator Feinstein's staff and to Congressman Swalwell's love life). But the woke American does have his bogeymen, including anyone wearing a MAGA hat, and anyone not wearing a mask or an "I got my Covid vaccine" pin. And he finds them and persecutes them just the way you'd think: surprise, fear, ruthless efficiency, and almost fanatical devotion.
Paul Johnson, Jesus, A Biography
Paul Johnson is such a readable historian not only because he is a cultured man, but because he is a big-picture man. Life is too short for a lot of historical tangents. Johnson's slim volume on Jesus covers the gospels as the history of the most important man who ever lived, and the most important events that ever occurred: Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection.
"There is more agreement in the sources about the death of Jesus than there is about the assassination of Julius Caesar in the Roman senate less than a century before, despite the fact that Caesar was a world famous figure, and the senate house the governing center of the known universe."
What struck me about Johnson's account is the idea of the age-old role of the scapegoat turned on its head – which is also Rene Girard's thesis, discussed next. Many cultures have had their scapegoats, their human sacrifices to save the established order and save human lives. Yet by accusing, convicting, and executing Jesus, the Jews and the Romans brought everlasting shame on their otherwise venerable legal traditions: "Every vice and weakness which vitiates justice was present, from cowardice and perjury to mob rule. Both Jews and Romans, in their different traditions, revered the law. They were the two greatest lawmakers of all time. But here they combined to enact a joint travesty, which has tolled through the centuries as the antithesis of law."
And to the ultimate embarrassment of human wisdom, which then as now would sacrifice one man to save the many, the perfectly corrupt execution of the son of God fulfilled His plan to expose worldly powers as wholly corrupt, and to save the lives of the whole world.
Rene Girard, The Scapegoat
Girard's scapegoat thesis is the big idea at the core of my essay The Man at Headquarters
, that human elites have always used their planning and intelligence – including magic, religion, and science – to preserve order. The Aztec religion can be seen as an example of a wildly ineffective example, brutally killing far more than needed to preserve order. The Jews and Romans, by contrast, were far more efficient, executing just one man for the same reason. And yet it was the Jewish-Roman example, the most scientific and efficient that could be imagined – to sacrifice but a single individual, to save the entire world – that the Lord chose to embarrass human wisdom.
The wisdom of human sacrifice lives on, as I wrote in my essay, carried on now in the doctor-policeman's perversion of love: "Dr. Fauci loves You. I don't mean that Dr. Fauci loves you, personally. He doesn't even know you. When I say Dr. Fauci loves You, I mean that he loves You in the sense that there are 330 million of You. And when I say love, I mean that Dr. Fauci would do anything to protect You. He loves You, corporately, so much, in fact, that he is even willing to kill you, personally."
"The morality of the man at headquarters – the morality of technocratic man, the man of science, of pragmatism, of sound social policy – is the morality of the pagan religions. The man at headquarters is not ideological about killing. Killing is just another tool of social policy: if, by killing some, a greater number may live, then this is no different from any other decision that comes up in the administration of men. But this morality, a humanitarian morality, was replaced by the sixth commandment against shedding innocent blood. There is a difference between the Mosaic commandment, which says you must not kill, and the perversion of the commandment, which says, to preserve life, you must kill. The two are not the same, because, sometimes, preserving lives – which is good – requires killing innocent lives – which is evil. Not all death is evil, but many ways of avoiding it are evil."
The Mosaic law was a revolution, because it taught both the sanctity of human life, and the limits we must impose on our own powers to preserve it. The Sixth Commandment remains still: You shall not take up the knife that Yahweh bade Abraham lay down.
As Girard concludes, "'the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.' Witch-hunters are encompassed by this revelation, as are totalitarian bureaucrats of persecution. In the future, all violence will reveal what Christ's Passion revealed, the foolish genesis of blood-stained idols and the false gods of religion, politics, and ideology. The murderers remain convinced of the worthiness of their sacrifices. They, too, know not what they do and we must forgive them."
I find the last the most difficult to accept.
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
In Peterson I do not know if there are many original ideas, but rather something perhaps even more valuable: a reification of many of the most powerful ideas, sharpened and focused directly at our unique modern predicament. In Peterson there is an awareness and reverence of the patterns and archetypes, and his observations have reawakened in me a curiosity in the Pentateuch.
In Peterson also there is a disarming response to the question whether we should believe in Heaven: that anyone who has looked into his own soul knows, sure as sin, that there is a Hell, and unless he is ready to throw himself into that Abyss then the only choice is to climb and scrape in the opposite direction – and no choice like that can begin except by belief. We do not know God and Heaven, then, in the same way that we know the razors of the jagged rocks under our fingernails or the saline sweat stinging our eyes as we struggle away from the Abyss – that is, by mere, cruel, sensation. Sensation is not consensual, it does not ask you to believe, only to sense, to experience, like a social media doomscroll, forever. No, we know God and Heaven better than by mere sensation: the Heavenly knowledge is superior to the knowledge of sensation when we choose that, for me, God's knowledge shall drive what sensation I might experience. Those who only know bubbles of bliss are those who will despair, as Dostoyevsky said, because a man loses himself in bliss, so that he will strike out in nastiness. Blissful sensation and its pursuit drives a man not to knowledge but to the Abyss. Only upon becoming accustomed to the knowledge of the struggle against the siren song of the world does man realize that sensation is the lowest kind of knowledge. There is a different kind of knowledge, a knowledge that is volitional – a knowledge that is the product of God's grace and your obedience – a knowledge that masters sensation, and that knowledge, friends, is the superior.
James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution
James Burnham was a communist-turned-conservative intellectual who presaged Allan Bloom's prediction of the coming doctor-philosophers, as I alluded to in my essay, The Doctor-Policeman Will See You Now
. As Orwell summarized Burnham's thesis, "Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralized society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham under the name of 'managers.' These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands."
The fact that managers – the ones who hold control rather than merely hold office – have ascended to power will, in turn, be the thesis of Vivek Ramaswamy's book, Woke, Inc.
John Blumberg, Persuasion Science for Trial Lawyers
After reading this book on persuasion trial trips supposedly based in science, I brought Stefan Love, who published a review of the book, on to the California Appellate Law Podcast
to discuss his conclusion that the trial tips are in greater abundance than the science. True, there is much interesting science on the limits of human attention: for example, you can get a jury to remember a few things, but one too many and they forget it all. But does this mean you should ditch a particular piece of secondary evidence at trial? That, as ever, still comes down to discretion and common sense.
Mattias Desmet, The Psychology of Totalitarianism
Lasch presaged Desmet. Lasch had suggested the neo-liberal ideology that preached man could be reduced to his constituent parts had erred, and badly. Desmet also takes up this criticism that industrialization has broken up the signposts and guardrails that helped man navigate his existence without falling into the Abyss. And it has been replaced by a mechanistic ideology, boasting a short but already bloody record.
The pendulum, Desmet's favorite example, exhibits behavior that seemingly can be reduced to fairly predictable patterns and formulas. Yet attempting to reduce natural behavior to a computer program divorces it from unpredictable, sometimes undetectable, "noise," noise that is part of the natural world, and which results in a "lively chaos." This is in part why theoretical models can never capture anything fully; they always leave some unexplained remainder.
Is this "remainder" just insignificant, random “noise”? Or is it part of an essence that we are missing? This is a question that can only be answered by an ideology. Those who command the scientific and technological apparatus understand the power of the apparatus is defined by how much it can predict. So the ideology of the proponents of the apparatus preach that all "unexplained remainders" are insignificant. This view, once established as orthodox, yields to those who control the apparatus totalitarian power.
Fear is the key to establishing control. Fear of discomfort, pain, and death. And those most susceptible to these fears are the irreligious, who reject – or refuse to acknowledge – worse things than these. Despite the steep reduction of discomfort, pain, and, if not death itself at least early and painful death, Desmet notes that fear
of these things has increased. "Twenty-first-century people’s lives are dominated," says Desmet, "by fear of physical adversity." Suffering is, of course, unpleasant, but were we always such damned sissies about it? Desmet relates this memorable anecdote. The 17th century American Indians (I still call them Indians
), unaccustomed to luxuries, were perplexed at the Jesuits' lack of creativity in coming up with tortures to compel conversions: When the Jesuits burned the Indians at the stake to save their souls, Thoreau had it that the Indians, trained in resilience to pain, found the Jesuits' means poorly fitted to their ends:
"Why always at the stake?" some of the Indians asked them. Surely there are more painful measures within your power. For if our very souls be in issue, and if our sin be mortal disease which only pain can cure, and which only pain can deter, then mercy is a cruelty, and to pardon us is to condemn us! Spare not, then, the most gruesome tortures that your trained minds can conjure. For if truly you loved us, then you must hurt us."
This, in turn, relates to C.S. Lewis's observation about the humanitarian theory of punishment: "Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with approval of their own conscience."
Desmet's point about orthodoxy, even so-called scientific orthodoxy, is that ultimately it must be based on ideology. Does orthodoxy often seem silly and unreasonable? Of course it is unreasonable. The unreason is the point. Masks, for example, are ritual. If there were a benefit, then conformity would demonstrate merely prudence – what is wanted, instead, is a demonstration of solidarity. Solidarity, the in-group against the out-groups, is the point of any orthodoxy. It is not necessary that everyone believes
the orthodoxy, only that a substantial percentage of the population become totalitarized – either believing, or going along with the rituals of belief (as I wrote in my short post, The Various Translations of the Simple Plea, "Please Don't Hurt Us"
). This is the same theme as Hannah Arendt's and as portrayed in Koestler's Darkness at Noon
and Orwell's Animal Farm
: as Desmet puts it, "they meekly accepted their sentence and pleaded guilty," and even "diligently adduced evidence to prove their own guilt and cooperated in their own conviction, if only to ensure that their status as a party member would be preserved."
No one wants to be in an out-group. "Devoted to solidarity" as the masses are, however, Desmet says they "aim for the greater good in the belief that it will lead to an ideological paradise. The outcome, however, is invariably the same: an infernal abyss. Crowds and their rulers are blindly dragged into a maelstrom of destruction, until they are confronted with the ultimate consequence of the rationale that has monopolized their mind: the mechanistic logic of a dead, soulless universe."
Desmet holds out this key to defeating the totalitarian ideology: "The totalitarian system doesn’t have to be overcome so much as one must somehow survive until it destroys itself." This, it seems to me, is the answer to the problem of conservatism, the problem that conservatism is not a driving force but a preservationist one. The right's conundrum is the left doesn't care what it destroys in the name of "progress," while the right cannot break what it seeks to preserve. True, conservatism is not an opposition to change nor a defense of the status quo; it's an opposition to radicalism, which contains an infinity of unproven and probably bad ideas. Man has so many more bad ideas than good ones. It is easier to destroy, observed Gibbon, than to restore.
The answer Desmet suggests here is that those who would conserve a traditional culture and order only need to endure the siege of totalitarianism long enough for the spasmodic forces of radical masses to run their course. If conservatives are correct that there is nothing sustaining in the left's ideas, then conservatives do not need to defeat them, only to outlast them.
Michael Malice, The New Right
By this time in history, the managers in the ruling class are neo-liberals, and the task for conservatives is to conserve a system that favors their ideological enemies to the left against the radical reactionaries on the right. In these odd circumstances, one might ask: of what use are the labels "liberal" and "conservative," "left" and "right"?
Enter the popular anarchism of Michael Malice, whose thesis carries forward that of the pseudonymous Mencius Moldbug's in his famous articulation of the Cathedral – the amalgam of the public school system and universities and the mainstream media. "You have no more reason to trust these institutions," Moldbug wrote, "than you have to trust, say, the Vatican. In fact, they are motivated to mislead you in ways that the Vatican is not, because the Vatican does not have deep, murky, and self-serving connections in the Washington bureaucracy. They claim to be truth machines. Why wouldn't they?"
The ascendant left has increased the influence of the New Right, says Malice. Distinct from the "alt-right," the New Right does not seek to marginalize out-groups. The ascendant New Right is simply the natural consequence of making the left the in-group. The New Right are those who opposed to the orthodoxy of the managerial class, the Cathedral.
But the New Right was not the creation of the left, but of the neo-liberal-neo-conservative unified orthodoxy that first began with William Buckley and National Review. Malice recounts how in 1960 NR proclaimed that "Leadership in the South . . . quite properly, rests in white hands" because "[in] the Deep South the Negroes are, by comparison with the whites, retarded[.]" By 2013, NR had apologized, sort of, but stood by the principle. As Malice puts it, " The claim that comparatively "retarded" Americans should not have their views heard in political discourse is still precisely how both Progressives and National Review conservatives regard populists to this day."
As Mark Steyn has put the problem, if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain issues, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones. Put this together with approved social unrest as in the summer of 2020, and you get the conundrum Rod Dreher has described as “anarcho-tyranny”: "we refuse to control real criminals (that’s the anarchy) so we control the innocent (that’s the tyranny)."
Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond
Enough social control. Time to get back to nature. For Jack London, nature provides reason enough for fear in To Build a Fire, and for Algernon Blackwood in The Willows, before nature attacks the body it terrorizes the mind. But I had not read Thoreau's observations from his own retreat to nature since high school, when, frankly, I was ready to plunge into the world and not very interested in the observations of a man seeking to retire from it.
This observation, from the baroque Victorian era, captures Thoreau's American version of minimalism:
"An afternoon sufficed to lay out the land into orchard, wood-lot, and pasture, and to decide what fine oaks or pines should be left to stand before the door, and whence each blasted tree could be seen to the best advantage; and then I let it lie, fallow perchance, for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."
For Thoreau, minimalism was not just an aesthetic. Thoreau had a critique of over-ambitious reformers, without any concrete interests in their reforms. Thoreau's charming wood-cutter sets out the standard of what to reform, and what to let alone:
"I loved to sound him on the various reforms of the day, and he never failed to look at them in the most simple and practical light. He had never heard of such things before. Could he do without factories? I asked. He had worn the homemade Vermont gray, he said, and that was good. ... When I asked him if he could do without money, he showed the convenience of money in such a way as to suggest and coincide with the most philosophical accounts of the origin of this institution, and the very derivation of the word pecunia. If an ox were his property, and he wished to get needles and thread at the store, he thought it would be inconvenient and impossible soon to go on mortgaging some portion of the creature each time to that amount.
"He could defend many institutions better than any philosopher, because, in describing them as they concerned him, he gave the true reason for their prevalence, and speculation had not suggested to him any other."
Upon reading this, the following occurred to me: What a democracy needs is people who have a concrete interest in democracy, in its institutions. Not mere aspirations, ideals, or platitudes. Having actual needs, and working through democratic channels to meet those actual needs, is what makes democracy scientific, in the sense it is measured against the results it delivers (or fails to deliver).
Democracy that is measured merely by our own ideals, rather than our interests, is not a branch of political science or statecraft at all. A people more attentive to ideals than to concrete interests is not practicing civics, but rather something closer to religion.
“Think for yourself," said Thoreau, "or others will think for you without thinking of you.”
Yoram Hazony, Conservatism: A Rediscovery
Yoram Hazony explores the difference between liberalism and conservatism in Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Liberalism is nice, Hazony admits, but there is nothing in liberalism that holds a society together. Liberalism is just what Holmes said of our Constitution: a system for people of fundamentally differing values. Perhaps it can provide roads and fences for our 350 million Walden ponds. But even Thoreau, having had enough of his cabin after two years, returned to society – a people of fundamentally shared values. So, how can a liberal people make our social order tolerant and stable?
I found this quote from Hazony's book fitting after California Governor Newsom signed AB2098, which will subject doctors to investigation who express opinions deemed to be Covid-19 "misinformation." The passage is about the 16th century debate between Richard Hooker and the Puritans about the role of orthodoxy in political life:
"The crux of Hooker’s debate with the Puritans was thus a disagreement about epistemology: Protestant radicals believed that by their understanding of nature and revelation, they had attained certain knowledge of God’s will, which applies in all times and places. Hooker, on the other hand, remained deeply skeptical as to what human beings can know with certainty. He excoriated those who believed that they had put their finger on the “cause of all the world’s ills” and had “a comprehensive solution to all these problems.”
"In the end, the statesman must proceed with humility, attempting to gain guidance from the sources available to him and proceeding in “whichever way greatest probability leads.”"
Hazony's thesis is that, in the debate between the philosophical rationalists who hold that rights can be detected and deduced with sufficient IQ points, and the conservative traditionalists who hold that rights are only those actions consistent with accepted manners, norms, and customs, the rationalists have not made their case. When discussing abstractions about religion and rights, there was no state of nature. No point zero where it all made sense together. Rights are just part of a broader web of the relationships of a community, a people, and their God, and when the philosophy makes mockery of that relationship, then to the flames with the philosophy!
Hayek, a great proponent of philosophical rationalism, ultimately acknowledged defeat in his project of deducing the existence of rights by pure reason: "We shall not achieve the results that we want if we do not accept [individual freedom] as a creed or presumption so strong that no considerations of expediency can be allowed to limit it…. Where no such fundamental rule is stubbornly adhered to as an ultimate ideal about which there must be no compromise… freedom is almost certain to be destroyed by piecemeal encroachments."
Hayek, then, becomes just another ideologue. But maybe it is necessary – expedient – to adopt such a dogma. There has to be a firm ground on which to stand at least at the start – and at the last. Neema Parvini's The Populist Delusion argues that a people cannot ever truly rule, and if that is true, then don't bother trying to find the firm ground in the volk or people or nation – the state by definition speaks for the people. Only the individual is concrete enough – "the people" is an abstraction, as they have no voice except through a strongman.
But the individual can speak – puny and pathetic, but unquestionably authoritative as to his own miniscule domain. And maybe, if he sticks to the middle way, and is not a maniac, the individual can touch the mind of his family and community, and speak to them, and perhaps even for them. Robert Bolt had Thomas More try to teach this to the wicked social climber Richard Rich:
“Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one."
Richard Rich: "If I was, who would know it?"
Sir Thomas More: "You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”
But we know how that story ends: Rich, having the heart of a man at headquarters, would not have the hearts of his community for free, when he could have the allegiance of Wales – at the cost of his soul.
The whole man only seeks to master himself, to serve God, and serve his family and community. For him, that is the public. For the man at headquarters, on the other hand – the doctor-policeman, maniac savior of the whole world – his domain is nothing if not the whole world. He has no interest in knowing or serving it, for, seeing himself no less worthy than a god, he would have mastery over his public, who are not his public at all, but his subjects.
Rick Jaffe, Galileo's Lawyer
So we must serve God, our family, and our community, and beyond that seek not to control the world. But in 2020, there was a great rush to control the world, ostensibly by controlling the spread of Covid-19. Some allowances must, perhaps, be made given the unknowns and the risks in the early stages. But now, three years later, it is difficult to keep track of the official scientific pronouncements that have proved wrong, and yet doctors are being investigated who express doubt over those pronouncements.
Think these are just the quacks, the fringe? Think again. Almost half of Americans use unorthodox remedies, like supplements, herbs, chiropractic, acupuncture, or alternative medicines. And Big Health isn't taking this lying down. Rick Jaffe is a lawyer with a science background, and he has spent his career representing mavericks in the health industry, helping patients whom orthodoxy has failed.
But helping people is a liability. Jaffe writes that "the medical profession 'owns' the diagnosing and treatment of diseases or medical conditions, because they have convinced the legislators of every state that only a trained and licensed medical doctor can safely diagnose and treat diseases. In many states, only a licensed dietician can give nutritional advice for a fee, even though most dietitians work in food production or in institutions such as hospitals, schools, and prisons."
Vaccines are a matter of official public health orthodoxy, so watch what you say about them. And probably you may be compelled to submit to them, even if you believe they are ineffective, or unsafe for you. Nutrition, too, is a question of public health. Remember during the debates over the Obamacare mandate, critics said that, if the state can make you buy health care for your own good, then what stops the state from making you eat broccoli? These critics were taken as jesting. And probably even they thought they were jesting. But it is not a jest anymore. Everything is public health, because public health is the doctor-policeman's jurisdiction. And the doctor-policeman is not amused at the suggestion of limits to his jurisdiction.
Remember in The Giver, the young-adult dystopian novel-turned-film, in which the adolescent Jonas learns how people have been habituated to allowing the state to choose their occupations, their families, even their clothes, when Jonas learns why choosing is dangerous?
Then he laughed a little. “I know it’s not important, what you wear. It doesn’t matter. But—”
"It’s the choosing that’s important, isn’t it?” The Giver asked him.
“He might make wrong choices.”
"Oh.” Jonas was silent for a minute. “Oh, I see what you mean. It wouldn’t matter for a newchild’s toy. But later it does matter, doesn’t it? We don’t dare to let people make choices of their own.”
“Not safe?” The Giver suggested.
“Definitely not safe,” Jonas said with certainty. “What if they were allowed to choose their own mate? And chose wrong?
“Or what if,” he went on, almost laughing at the absurdity, “they chose their own jobs?”
“Frightening, isn’t it?” The Giver said.
Jonas chuckled. “Very frightening. I can’t even imagine it. We really have to protect people from wrong choices.”
“Yes,” Jonas agreed. “Much safer.”
This, to me, was the most frightening realization of Covid-19: that so many were willing to trade their autonomy over their personal health choices, for so little in return.
C.S. Lewis, The Space Trilogy
In his children's novels, Lewis related an exchange between one of the children and a star they visited on their voyage on the Dawn Treader:
"'In our world...a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.'
'Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of...."
I believe this. Jordan Peterson said somewhere that "The world is made up of what matters—not merely matter."
This theme runs through the Space Trilogy, in which a philologist, a professor of language, learns that words are more real than he knew. It is only that, to transmit certain truths, the only chance is to publish in the form of fiction what would certainly not be listened to as fact.
Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Against the doctor-policemen of the modern age, Peterson is our doctor-theologian. C.S. Lewis was, until his adult conversion, an atheist. Peterson, too, is a convert of a sort, at least in that he is converting his training as a clinical psychologist into an instrument of perception into the unseen world. Does Peterson believe in heaven? Maybe, but he certainly believes in hell. Look into your own mind, and you will see the darkness of hell. Look at human history, and you will see the chaos of hell.
Order and chaos is a big theme for Peterson. But in one of life's great ironies, mindless rule-following leads to a tyranny that might be no better than anarchy. The line between free inquiry and keeping order, cabining heresy, may not be easy to spot. Peterson references Christ's breaking the sabbath to feed his men and heal the sick. Jesus said, O man, if though knowest what thou doest, thou art blessed, but if not, thou art accursed. If you understand the rules and their necessity, their sacredness, the chaos they keep at bay, the communities they unite, and that you shoulder the risk and responsibility in breaking those rules, then that is an elevated moral act. But if you break the rules out of mere convenience or vainglory, then woe to you.
Compare Christ's prayerful rule-breaking to Galileo's vainglorious rule-breaking. He was on to something with his theories, of course. But he had two problems: he couldn't prove them yet, and he was an impetuous ass. Along with his (basically correct) heliocentrism, he had a (risible) theory that the movement of the tides proved it. And he couldn't explain why, if the earth moved around the sun, the stars remained relatively fixed. The Church actually urged Galileo to continue his research, but Galileo wouldn't have it: he was a genius and the world needed to know it. More than that, the scriptures needed to be rewritten to conform to a Galilean theology. It was for this, in the end, that Galileo was shut up in the tower.
Sometimes, rules need breaking. But it is a grave affair. We carved out a tradition of free inquiry and speech in order that we may think and worship and explore high things, not so we can pull our pants down and wiggle our bottoms in teacher's face. Rule-breaking must be taken up prayerfully.
A certain number of arbitrary rules must be tolerated to maintain order. But also a certain amount of rule-breaking must be tolerated to maintain the process of regeneration. Every rule was once a creative act, the breaking of an order rule. Those who break the rules ethically are the ones who have mastered them first, who discipline themselves to understand the necessity of the rules – and who break them to keep with the spirit rather than the letter. The careless demolition of tradition is the invitation to the re-emergence of chaos. When ignorance destroys culture, the monsters re-emerge.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed
"Now read me another passage. . . . About the pigs," he said suddenly. "What?" asked Sofya Matveyevna, very much alarmed. "About the pigs . . . that's there too . . . ces cochons. I remember the devils entered into swine and they all were drowned." ... "You see, that's exactly like our Russia, those devils that come out of the sick man and enter into the swine."
This is Dostoyevsky's thesis: A nation, a people, is God's good creation, but it will become corrupted by a desire for Babel: to seek heaven on earth by refusing to follow its own God and instead to follow a god held in common by all nations – a god of Reason, who has never had the power even to define good and evil, or to distinguish between good and evil, even approximately. To be rid of these demons that come to inhabit a people, there must be the radicals, lunatics, swine, for the demons to possess. The villain of the gospel story is not the swine, but the demons. And just as to swine in the gospel story, a nation's radicals – into whom the demons rush when the sick nation is healed – are not to be hated, but pitied.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
"I was told by a minister, for example, that I should never, on any public conveyance, under any circumstances, rise and give my seat to a white woman. White men never rose for Negro women. Well, that was true enough, in the main – I saw his point. But what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me? What others did was their responsibility, for which they would answer when the judgment trumpet sounded. But what I did was my responsibility, and I would have to answer, too – unless, of course, there was also in Heaven a special dispensation for the benighted black, who is not to be judged in the same way as other human beings, or angels." "Whoever debases others," concluded Baldwin, "is debasing himself."
What would Baldwin make, I wonder, of ADL's redefinition of racism
as "The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people"? Baldwin would say, I think, that this definition removes agency from people of color, that it removes a piece of their basic human nature – taking away their
responsibility to be decent takes away their
decency. To judge the conduct of nonwhites by a different standard is to judge them "benighted." For responsibility is a possession, too. Our political-legal vocabulary, even our social-justice vocabular, do not credit our responsibilities as a right or a property or a liberty interest, yet it is part of what makes a man whole; to take it and hold it away from a man keeps him fragmented, broken, less than whole, dependent upon the quasi-helper managers.
Mancipes delendum est.
Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies
“Why in the world are you down in the North End? That's a slum!” This was the response of a city planner when Jane Jacobs told him of her visit to Boston's North End. When Jacobs reported it did not seem like a slum to her, the city planner proceed to rattle off density statistics proving it a slum. Yet in most every other respect, the area was quite functional and its residents content. "You should have more slums like this," Jacobs concluded.
Sowell relates this story to illustrate the planner's fallacy: that the world as viewed through the planner's idealistic lens is quite different from the places where the rest of us actually live. As Heather MacDonald has put it in her book The Burden of Bad Ideas, "If you want to know how well social policies are working, ask the poor – when their advocates aren't around."
This is also the basic point Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson makes about our "cultural dopes
": "Black youth in particular have insisted that their habits, attitudes, beliefs, and values are what mainly explain their plight, even after fully taking account of racism and their disadvantaged neighborhood conditions. Yet sociologists insisted on patronizingly treating blacks in general, and especially black youth, as what Harold Garfinkel called "cultural dopes" by rejecting their own insistence that their culture mattered in any understanding of their plight.... Never treat your subjects as cultural dopes. If you find yourself struggling to explain away your subjects’ own reasoned and widely held account of what they consider important in explaining their condition, you are up to something intellectually fishy."
Here again is the managers fallacy, the assumption that our managers seek to solve problems, which in fact is quite dissimilar to their business of managing problems. To ask, "Why aren't people's lives getting better?" is to ask the wrong question. Instead, "What new pathologies are arising, at what rate, and how does this consolidate the managers' power?" are more fruitful lines of inquiry.
Mancipes delendum est.
Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
In his quest for perfect liberty, the libertine has sold us into the slavery of our own insatiable desires. So recognized Maugham a century ago, whose protagonist found freedom in family and honest work that he had thought would enslave him, and who discovered that his years freely pursuing his passions had, in fact, been time spent in bondage:
"He was free once more. Free! He need give up none of his projects, and life still was in his hands for him to do what he liked with. He felt no exhilaration, but only dismay. His heart sank. The future stretched out before him in desolate emptiness.... He had lived always in the future, and the present always, always had slipped through his fingers. His ideals? He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect?"
Some months ago, President Biden was filmed meeting a young girl, to whom he gave the advice, "no serious guys until you're 30
." Presumably he meant not to marry and have children before age 30 – these, the sources of the greatest satisfaction, we are now called upon to forgo, for the sake of lucre and professional advancement. The manager-in-chief would take from us even our tiny havens in his heartless world.
Maugham's theme is not dissimilar to Thoreau's and to Lasch's: that we are too quick to give ourselves over to a world who wants us only for parts. As I wrote in my 2019 essay "I Am Important,” She Said Sadly: The Unexpectedly Depressing State of Being Liberated
, studies show that women – and men, but especially women – fare better under traditional marital norms like mutual consent rather than unilateral divorce, and that "[t]he cranks have been proven right. Liberation has been depressing." But fragmenting individuals has created better consumers, better workers, and more problems to be "managed."
"To the modern elite," I concluded, "the individual is reduced to constituent parts. The individual is specialized. The individual is an insect." The pact, as Lasch put it, is broken. There will be no haven, only heartless world.
Jack London, The Scarlet Plague
The veneer of civilization is thin, and we would do well to remember that through war, famine, or pestilence, we may at any moment be plunged back into the darkness. And then will we learn what folly it was to have created a class of people habituated to drunken idleness.
"I offered him my horse, my pony, my dogs, all that I possessed, if he would give Vesta to me. And he grinned in my face and shook his head. He was very insulting. He said that in the old days he had been a servant, had been dirt under the feet of men like me and of women like Vesta, and that now he had the greatest lady in the land to be servant to him and cook his food and nurse his brats. ‘You had your day before the plague,’ he said; ‘but this is my day, and a damned good day it is. I wouldn’t trade back to the old times for anything.’"
The managers should have a care for the lives they break down for the sake of having something to manage, for the direction of the winds may change.
Neema Parvini, The Populist Delusion
I confess to having difficulty discriminating among the many excellent insights to share from Parvini's fascinating analysis of the various theories of political elites of Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Robert Michels, Carl Schmitt, Bertrand de Jouvenel, James Burnham, Samuel Francis, and Paul Gottfried. There are just so many rich veins here.
But here is Parvini's thesis: The slogan "We the People" is an empty one, and the romantic notion that change can happen from the bottom-up is entirely ahistorical. Instead, majorities have always and everywhere been ruled by minorities, for the simple and obvious reason that majorities are disorganized. And this is no different in a representative democracy. In reality, representative democracy is simply elected oligarchy. Change flows top down as against the individual wills of the disorganized majority.
Any doubts about this were resolved after Donald Trump's term as President of the United States. Though duly elected, he lacked support from the managers in the high places in politics, media, or business. So while he managed to avoid further foreign military entanglements, Trump's only lasting achievement in office was to expose, by way of uniting it against him, an aristocracy hidden for generations by a cloak of nominal bifurcation.
And this is not the only problem in our political tradition. Take one of our most sacred political ideas: The Will of the People. Why, even the Divine Right of Kings is less dangerous than The Will of the People! The Divine Right of Kings is based on supernatural premises, which – who knows? – might actually be true. The monarch, at least, bears ultimate responsibility for vice or folly: "if his cause be wrong," said Shakespeare's lowly soldier to the disguised king in Henry V, "our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us." But what is The Will of the People, wielded as it is by our political managers? The Will of the People is a euphemism, for if taken literally such a thing cannot be known. In the hands of the people's managers, their Will becomes merely a device to make practical politics out of the philosophy of enlightenment rationalism, a philosophy which is not only demonstrably false, but far more bloodthirsty. The Crusaders, to their credit, got their dogma out of their system a millennium ago, while the 20th century rationalists made them look like pikers. And don't count out the third millennium! Our 21st century Malthusians may top them all yet.
The romantics thought that mass-education and mass-communication would bring enlightened liberty to the majority. True, but as the majority cannot organize and thus cannot lead, one must see the potential of mass-education and mass-communication not as the majority sees them, but as the rulers see them: as tools of mass-reeducation and mass-indoctrination. Communication opens the people's minds to propaganda and indoctrination at least as much as to truth and the canon. The 21st century world with the greatest access in history to the beauty, art, and religion of the renaissance produced last year the Medusa statues of MLK and RBG.
Communication has done good service to the ruling class by, for example, maintaining the illusion that there are meaningful differences between the two major American political parties. As Walter Lippman observed, "Although it is the custom of partisans to speak as if there were radical differences between the Ins and Outs, it could be demonstrated, I believe, that in stable and mature societies the differences are not profound. If they were profound, the defeated minority would be constantly on the verge of rebellion. An election would be catastrophic, whereas the assumption in every election is that the victors will do nothing to make life intolerable to the vanquished and that the vanquished will endure with good humour policies which they do not approve." This was the state of play until approximately the first Tuesday of November 2016. Until then, elections passed nominal control between two factions of a uniparty. After 2016, in which an out-group successfully challenged the In-group, elections would be deadly serious business.
But what about the Rule of Law? The Rule of Law is nothing more than the name we give to quiescence, the status quo, orderly operation in between crises, during which time the sovereign does not need to assert its prerogative. But come a crisis and the Rule of Law becomes subject to its opposite: the Exception, the anti-Rule. And because the sovereign decides the Exception, he is not, in the end, subject to the Rule of Law, except as a slogan. Parvini notes that "It may surprise some people to learn that the United States has been in a near continuous state of national emergency since 1917." "Emergency" is a euphemism for power.
The first half of Parvini's analysis is essentially review, perhaps, of what one knows by studying Machiavelli. What is truly new since Machiavelli is the rise of the managerial state. This was the subject of James Burnham's thesis in The Managerial Revolution, who, a former Trotskyist, realized that Marxism was wrong: it was not the proletariat who overthrew bourgeois capitalism, but a new class: the managerial class. The rise of the managers, Burnham argued, traces to the divorce of control and ownership in the public corporations. Ownership equated to control – so long as held by a single person or family or small group. "But when the enterprise became more vast in scope and, at the same time, the stock certificates became spread in small bundles among thousands of persons, the managers were gradually released from subordination to the nominal owners. De facto control passed, for the most part, to nonowning management." And as the influence of the manager increased, the power of the stockholder, voter, member, consumer, faculty, taxpayer, et cetera, decreased. "Totalitarianism," Burnham concluded, "is nothing more than an integrated front of managerial groups achieved either by mutual agreement or unilateral coercion.”
Managerial control winds up being a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. Where Parliament was sovereign over a limited capitalism, the bureaus – headed by invisible managers – were sovereign over an unlimited state of managerial society. This is carried off by a series of MacGuffins – novel "problems" which it is only ostensibly the managers' objective to solve – whose "solutions" are the true focus of the managers' interest, as their solutions have more utility to remake public attitudes and behaviors than in resolving the stated problem. Examples of managerial MacGuffinism might include arbitrary compliance standards such as “unconscious bias training,” “net zero carbon," the ratio of men and women on executive boards, etc. Parvini notes that, "in the managerial state of the Soviet Union, such managers would simply be called commissars of the CPSU; in the managerial state of the United States they will simply be called things like “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Ford Motor Company,” but their function is identical."
But the managers hold power only so long as they maintain internal cohesion. Once a schism of thought enters the picture, a minority of elites, if supported by a large share of the population, can mount a successful challenge to the ruling class.
And in fact there does appear to be a schism in the managerial elite, with a new elite minority commanding and organizing a large share of the population. When Dr. Robert Malone gave an interview with Joe Rogan and made remarks critical about the Covid-19 vaccine, the managers at YouTube and Twitter censored him, and major media organs reported that "experts" had declared that Dr. Malone had "no academic credibility." The desperation of this false pronouncement proves Burnham's thesis: the ruling elite, while almost impervious to challenge from without, is self-consciously vulnerable to challenges from within. And Dr. Malone is part of the doctor-policemen's inner circle. Dr. Malone is the inventor of nine original mRNA vaccine patents and author of nearly 100 peer-reviewed papers with more than 12,000 citations. And he leads a coalition of 16,000 doctors and scientists who, as technical experts, represent a substantial and vocal contingent within the managerial elite.
Despite the media campaign against Dr. Malone, a large percentage of the population realizes he's on to something, prompting CNN's Oliver Darcy to observe that "people are not really living in the same bubble ... that the media is messaging toward." The "general population," Darcy concludes, is "just ignoring everything and living their lives." This is also reflected internationally, as Ngaire Woods observed at the November 2021 World Economic Forum: "The good news is the elite across the World Trust each other more and more weeks, so we can come together and design and do beautiful things together. The bad news is that in every single country they were polling, the majority of people trusted that elite less."
So a new managerial elite, headed by splinter managerial in-groups like Dr. Malone and his 16,000 doctors and scientists, appear to have the support of the general population. These are the makings of more than a mere ineffectual populist revolution, but the kind of revolution that could actually succeed: the replacement of the prevailing managerial elite by a new managerial elite challenger.
Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War
I had begun the year reading Menand, and ever after I kept wondering if there was more to his reactionary streak. A liberal in good standing, Menand does not come right out and assail liberalism, but his coyly-connected series of essays in The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War could be said to fairly summarize many of Tom Wolfe's bombastic critiques of readers of the New Yorker, but for consumption by those same readers.
Carrying on the vein of the doctor-policeman elite I'd stumbled upon in my readings thus far, Menand quotes John Stuart Mill's warning of the "rise of an elite power" who, through their "enlargement and the centralization" of their means of power, "carry more consequences for more people than has ever been the case in the world history of mankind." Among these we might find those who Hannah Arendt said gaze up at the stars so intently they fall into a well. They are "trapped by their own ideas." So let those among the elite explain the Heideggers in their company, who supported Nazism till the end. Or their Rousseaus, who issue prescriptions to the whole world how to care for their children, yet abandon their own. While elites scoff at those less intelligent than they, the bloody 20th century will forever keep the score of how much more humanity's mensch are to be feared than its idiots.
In this vein, Menand writes that Lionel Trilling did not go after Stalinists as much as he went after people – supposedly learned, civilized people – who couldn't (wouldn't?) see that Stalinism was a problem. What was their stumbling block? Curiously in The Liberal Imagination, Trilling never defined "liberalism" but lumped in among the "liberals" in his critique John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, and John Dewey. What possible connection existed among these? Menand answers: "In Trilling's view, the faith that all liberals share is that human betterment is possible, that there is a straight, or reasonably straight, road to health and happiness. A liberal is a person who believes that the right economic system, the right political reforms, the right undergraduate curriculum, the right psychotherapy will do away with, or significantly mitigate, unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy."
Progress can be prescribed, as by a physician. And that prescription merely needs the encouragement of government to see it carried through. Progress is not an aspiration, it is a mandate. To those ailing from a lack of progress, the doctor-policeman will see you now
One of the tools of the doctor-policeman to enforce progress is the arts-turned-propaganda. Eisenhower, Menand points out, was a great believer in propaganda, which is cheaper than maintaining a standing army. And by lowering standards – to include Coca-Cola bottles and Levi's, for example – the 20th century put art within the reach of propagandists. Modern art no longer attempted to represent or imitate the world, but merely to imitate art – "the imitation of imitating," as Clement Greenberg put it. Art became an homage to the creation of art, and thus to artists themselves – art had turned its penetrating gaze squarely at its own navel. This kind of art called for neither approval nor disapproval. Greenberg's own taste, Menand points out, was for representational art. But by the 20th century, we had lost the ability to create first-rate representational art, only the ability to mimic the activity of flinging paint onto canvas: “by no other means is it possible today to create art and literature of a high order.” Art had become a silent gesture toward what was no longer possible.
Kitch art, for example, was art created for mass markets. Kitch is "for profit" art that replaced folk art "with what were essentially commodities." Kitch, writes Menand, "was a way for dictators to ingratiate themselves with the masses," because it satisfied a new yearning for something resembling art, without connecting people with their own history and values.
This dissociation and detachment from history and values proves to be much more corrosive than mere adversity to history and values. Adversity to a culture, after all, is still part of that culture. Menand writes that "Trilling imagined culture – in the anthropological sense – as a Mobius strip. You can invert mainstream values but it is mainstream values that give the inversion meaning. You're still on the strip." Radical arts and poetry, Menand went on, "don't come from someplace not on the strip. They do not represent an independent alternative to the way things are. They are among the things that are, even when they belong to what Trilling would later call 'the adversary culture.' The adversarial is part of the system; It helps to hold the other parts in place. They are, in Dostoyevsky's telling, "the possessed." This is why, in the sort of phenomenon that fascinated Trilling, responsible liberals feel better adjusted for having an appreciation of art and ideas that are contemptuous of the values of responsible liberals. It validates them in their place because it makes the world seem round. There is, in the end, no right or wrong side of the strip, just different ways of fooling yourself about where you are."
So art that resents the culture at least is still connected to the culture by its resentment. (We will hear more about resentment later from Shelby Steele, who echos Reinhold Niebuhr's warning that only forgiveness can save democratic-liberal pluralism from developing into a self-destructing archipelago of resentment.) Art that merely seeks to use culture to stir resentment or turn a buck, however, is something different, because it leaves the stream of its own history. Dissociative art is the art of those ancient builders who said, "come, let us make a name for ourselves." But in remaking their world they will find, as the ancient builders found, that they cannot make a new name for themselves: they can only make a new name for each self – this time around with the added enhancement of new pronouns. Unlike the ancients, however, modern dissociative liberalism does not need God: the moderns scatter themselves.
But we moderns are more free, are we not? This brings us to our current unhappy relationship with the ideas of rights and liberty. Both the modern American and the Marxist versions look to external conditions as the font of freedom. In America during the Truman years, the "balance" between safety and liberty trended toward safety, then toward liberty starting around 1956. Was this because Americans learned something about liberty in 1956? No, Menand says: the shift "wasn't because there was something inherently unsustainable about the degree of censorship exerted by officials (government agents), quasi officials (ecclesiastical and educational authorities), and pseudo officials (editorialists and ad hoc anti communist organizations) that prevailed after the war." Instead, the shift from security to liberty occurred simply because "other priorities asserted themselves" – much in the way other priorities have asserted themselves since 2016. "Assuming some minimum," Menand concludes, "there is no 'natural' level of liberty."
Marx's picture of freedom may not be so different from the American conception. Menand writes that, for Marx, the essence of communism was the freedom "to choose what to do with one's labor." Marx, like Thoreau, was a romantic: in a communist society, said Marx, it will be possible “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner... without ever becoming Hunter, fishermen, shepherd, or critic.”
Isaiah Berlin's problem with Marxism, says Menand, had to do with its prescriptive elements, its "insistence that freedom requires something that is not freedom in order to come into being. When you tell people that they don't understand what freedom really is, that, whatever they may imagine, they are not free until X is the case, then you are on a path to coercion. You are compelling people to give up conceptions about themselves that you have decided are false in order to accept conditions that they would not otherwise have known how to choose." Freedom cannot be bought, sold, or prescribed. Freedom is something intrinsic, not extrinsic. “Everything is what it is,” as Berlin put it later. In a statement that made today would warrant assignment to sensitivity training, Berlin said: “Liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.” Neither is liberty, one might add, a right to healthcare, or to a vaccine, or to have his neighbors vaccinated, or otherwise to a feeling of safety or security.
By the time a doctor-policeman becomes necessary to have freedom, freedom has already been lost. This is why I found it so frightening that so many Americans in the wake of Covid-19 yielded so easily to their doctor-policemen.
True freedom, instead, says Menand, "does not necessarily align with external conditions." That is what Arthur Koestler meant when he wrote about waiting to be executed in a fascist jail in Seville in 1937, "I feel that I have never been so free as I was then.” It is also what Epictetus meant when he refused to hold his tongue, even under pain of death: "You will do your part, and I mine. It is yours to kill, mine to die without quailing: yours to banish, mine to go into exile without groaning."
Freedom, in this sense, is not the freedom of a voluptuary – freedom does not suggest the enjoyment of an ever-expanding array of pleasures. Freedom is the simple exercise of sovereignty. If you tell me I may not, and I acquiesce, then it is true that I may not. For it is at the moment of my acquiescence that I forfeit my sovereignty, however many pleasures I might gain in return. Sovereignty is a use-it-or-lose-it attribute: one possesses sovereignty only to the extent one asserts it. And in this sense, true rights are not pursued, but merely exercised. In this sense, there is no need to fear your rights being taken away: true rights may never be taken, only abandoned. You may imprison a free man without making him any less free, for a prison has power only to restrain a man's body against his will – it has no power over his conscience: over matters of conscience a man may yield voluntarily, or not at all. But any man who yields in matters of conscience and thereby forfeits his sovereignty is made a slave, even though, given license to wiggle his bottom in teacher's face, he fancies himself freer than any in history.
The truly free man knows he has a perfect right to do those things which duty binds him to do, and that threats of force, punishment, and even death neither forbid nor excuse the execution of that duty. The notion of natural right is nothing more than the understanding that a man will not beg permission to do what he must.
All this leads, eventually, to the rule of the golden mean in politics, to avoid extremes. Berlin's critic E.H. Carr attacked Berlin's essay "Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century," by characterizing Berlin as really saying that any political program if carried to an extreme will have authoritarian consequences. "Surtout, point de zele," chided Carr, borrowing Talleyrand's phrase – "Above all, gentlemen, no zeal" – reducing Berlin's message to something like one should just avoid politics altogether. According to Menand, Berlin dismissed the criticism, but "he liked the phrase so much that he added it to his essay when he reprinted it, and "surtout, pas trop de zele" became, for the rest of his life, his motto."
In this, Berlin and now Menand continue the tradition of Christopher Lasch in recognizing that Adam Smith failed to establish any limiting principle when he argued that civilized men and women needed more than savages did to make them comfortable, and that continuing to expand the standards of comfort and convenience would continue to expand the world's wealth, ad infinitum. But in pushing beyond natural limits in all things, western man became like Phaethon, demanding what he should not have. The trouble with progress is that it knows no middle way.
How can we achieve a politics that respects each other's rights? The notion of rights, remember, is the acknowledgment that my neighbor has a duty to do his conscience, and that to insert myself into my neighbor's duties to conscience is, in the end, theocratic – that my God, and my duties to Him, are superior to my neighbors'. The only alternative to this holy war, this war of all against all, is pluralism. As Berlin put it, “I think that what I am pleading for is really what used to be called Liberalism, i.e., a society in which the largest number of persons are allowed to pursue the largest number of ends as freely as possible, in which these ends are themselves criticized as little as possible and the fervor with which such ends are held is not required to be bolstered up by some bogus rational or supernatural argument to prove the universal validity of the end.”
That is the heart of pluralism. But is it a virtue or a vice? Does it require us to be existentialists – that nothing matters? That we should not only allow our neighbor to go to hell if he wishes, but even to help him?
People do have a tribal urge, and this is why it is important for the elite class to inculcate the masses into a virtue of pluralism. But one must also grapple with the uncomfortable truth that, while in most of history tribalism is associated with the lower classes, in the 20th and 21st century it is the rationalists who are the most tribal and puritanical. The apostates from pluralism are the managers and doctor-policemen. The lower classes, meanwhile, have learned and adopted the lessons of pluralism and persevere in the faith. It is the elite who would not abandon their ancient dreams of rulership and domination. "I doubt that any Calvinist of the sixteenth century," said Tom Wolfe, "ever believed so completely in predestination as these, the hottest and most intensely rational young scientists in the United States at the end of the twentieth." No matter how many times God has knocked down their towers, the men at headquarters never cease to whisper to each other, "come, let us bake bricks."
John Kenneth Galbraith said that, until the second part of the 20th century, no one had needed an ad man to tell him what he wanted. But the denizens of liberalism, consumers of novel "rights" as much as anything else, now need hucksters to tell us how they're aggrieved.
Menand then moves to the right of speech, "the right denied to Anna Akhmatova and other victims of the Zhdanovshchina." In addition to the natural right, Menand nicely puts the democratic rationale for free expression: "unless all views are heard, the will of the majority will not have legitimacy."
But here, too, our mench strayed from the golden mean, and yielded to the pleas of pornographic publishers to debase the right of free expression by including within it Lady Chatterley first, and later Fanny Hill, on the grounds of – please, do not laugh – their "social importance." And so obscenity was elevated by the Supreme Court to public discourse. In Menand's nice aphorism: "The court basically said, If it's good enough for Archibald MacLeish, it's good enough for the United States Constitution."
And so Lady Chatterley and Fanny Hill were added, along with the Coke bottle and the Campbell's soup can, to the modern canon of America's artistic output.
Somehow in this milieu, American democracy elevated the artist, along with its managers, to a status above the law. Norman Mailer, for example, stabbed his wife, and all he got was more famous (and a suspended sentence). And of Mailer's book An American Dream, in which he cashed in by relating his crime, Menand writes: "In the novel, the protagonist strangles his wife, has sex with her maid, throws the wife's body out the window of her apartment building, has sex again with the maid (in case the point was missed that violence against women is a turn on), and in the end gets away with it. The book was reviewed in Life, the Atlantic, Partisan Review (twice), National Review (by Joan Didion), the New Republic (by Joseph Epstein), the New York Times (twice), the New York Review of Books (by Phillip Rahv), and Commentary (by Richard Poirier). About half of the reviewers called the book powerful and compelling; the rest called it a disaster – pretty much the normal distribution for Mailer's fiction. Not one of them mentioned that the story about a man who kills his wife and gets away with it was written by a man who had nearly killed his wife and had gotten away with it. To the extent that the incident was alluded to at all, it was subsumed under the category of what Poirier called Mailer's 'acts of self-debasement.' The act of spousal abuse was turned into a dark night of the soul. Mailer's soul."
That which is outside the purview of Mailer's interests cannot really matter much – and that within is nonjusticiable. Jeffrey Epstein perhaps pushed things too far, but his friends at headquarters continue to expect the Mailer treatment. Plus ça change.
The managers' vanity also defined the civil rights movement. Menand notes that Johnson was unhappy when he learned that King had been among the people present for the signing of the Civil Rights Act. “I'm sorry he was there,” he complained to his press secretary, George Reedy. Not to be misunderstood, he repeated, “It was very unfortunate he was there.” Like the Kennedys, Johnson, says Menand, "did not want to appear to be dancing to a tune played by black Americans. He wanted the civil rights act to be seen as the moral and political doing of white people coming to the rescue of an oppressed group. It would not do to have it appear as though the members of that group had too much agency. They were oppressed."
Menand concludes by reminding us of Eisenhower's farewell address of January 17, 1961, warning about American university losing "intellectual curiosity" upon becoming "the captive of a scientific-technological elite" – managers and doctor-policemen. And then reviewing the true conspiracies, hiding in plain sight, about how the CIA has funded domestic front organizations, putting even Gloria Steinem on its payroll. One reaction of writers who learned that were unwitting purveyors of spook propaganda was surprise, as no one had ever told them what to write. "But that was exactly the point," explains Menand: "They did not need to be told. They were already saying the things the CIA – that is, the U.S. government – wanted the world to hear." There is an important lesson here: If you're not being attacked for your political beliefs, then you're either irrelevant or a willing dupe.
Menand makes another interesting observation about censorship. The government rarely engages in direct censorship not because of its respect for free speech but because of the propaganda value of respecting free speech. As Menand says, the CIA believed "the fact that dissent was tolerated in the United States was a major Cold War selling point." So writers who imagined themselves as independent or even critical of the government "were actually taking the party line. They did not need to be bought out because they had been on board all along."
But in the main, Menand says, "the values held by intellectuals had become indistinguishable from the interests of the modern state." As Christopher Lasch explained, “The American Press is free, but it censors itself. The university is free, but it has purged itself of ideas. The literary intellectuals are free, but they use their freedom to propagandize for the state. The freedom of American intellectuals as a professional class blinds them to their un-freedom.”
Menand concludes: "Those writers and students who were imagined to constitute the vanguard of social change turned out, as a class, to be doing the work of the state."
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution
Considering the rot in American liberalism, and Parvini's thesis that the people have no real power over their government, one might have recommended thatThe Populist Delusion include at least a nod to Burke. Burke would have agreed that the people ought not have the power to replace their governments at whim, because "cashiering kings" is a remedy "not made for common abuses," and is a matter too grave to leave to "common minds." "Governments must be abused and deranged indeed, before [revolution] can be thought of." "The very idea of the fabrication of a new government," Burke held, should be "enough to fill us with disgust and horror."
In other words, anyone who thinks things can't get any worse has no imagination.
Still, something has been turned on its head since Burke's time, when government preserved our customs and traditions, supported our religion and our families, and promoted our interests. "People will not look forward to posterity," advised Burke, "who never look backward to their ancestors." Burke detested revolution because it was imbued with the "spirit of innovation." But the character of liberal democracy beginning in the latter part of the 20th century has been marked by a "spirit of innovation." Our men at headquarters do not look backward to our ancestors except to scoff at them.
Rights have been reconceived at the neo-liberal headquarters. Above I said that rights, true rights, were merely the understanding that you cannot take from a man what he has a duty to do: to exercise his religion (in his duty to God), to speak (in search of truth), to work (to feed his family), to confront aggressors (in defense of self and others). But recent generations have been confronted by a new conception of rights, rights to monthly stipends, and to healthcare, and to abortions, and to various and multiple sexual partners, and to divorces, and to schooling, and on and on. Burke warned against revolution because revolutionaries would claim a right to everything and, once having a right to every thing, they would want every thing. A persistent and stable government was needed, then, to put the brakes on insatiable human passions: "the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection."
By this measure, the entire neo-liberal headquarters, our entire managerial class in government, have the character of Burke's revolutionaries. Imagining entitlements as "rights" is folly to begin with, said Burke, because it is not a matter of "right" but a matter of economics. "What is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food or to medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them. In that deliberation I shall always advise to call in the aid of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics." What was supposed to make democracy practical, scientific even, was that people who had real, concrete needs for certain things would vote for people who would provide those things. But what we got instead was outsized political agitation by a lot of do-gooders who don't have any real concrete needs of government, and so politics becomes more responsive to the loud cries for MacGuffins that will never be obtained – "diversity, equity, inclusion," “net zero carbon," the ratio of men and women on executive boards, etc. – while the people with concrete needs, people the government could actually help, are ignored.
Shelby Steele, Shame
What is the man at headquarters on about, then? Is he just misguided, badly mistaken? A maniac? A devil? What could possibly explain the fact that, with all our advancements in the science of management, we would be managed so badly, with an ever-expanding array of complicated government programs and public-private partnerships that not only consistently fail, but create and perpetuate an underclass of poor, undereducated, and addicted permanent dependents?
Here is Shelby Steele's thesis in Shame, published in 2015, a thesis which he first explored in White Guilt in 2007. The 1960s radicals succeeded. No, they did not overthrow the government. But they did something much more destructive: they overthrew the nation. The radicals were right: America was racist, sexist, and, of late, militarily promiscuous. And so America was no longer legitimate. That was what America's managers and future managers would take away from the '60s ever after. "America must now be reimagined," says Steele. "The political parties now needed to develop new self-sufficient ideologies, capable of projecting a new political and cultural vision of America. ... This mandate to create a new America launched a culture war."
For Steele, this culture war is almost literal, because for Steele liberalism is a nationality. America is illegitimate, but re-imagined via liberalism, it might become legitimate.
So what is this re-imagined nation of liberalism? Liberalism's "poetic truths," as Steele calls them, include the poetic truth that racism is still a great barrier for blacks. And wherever we see this poetic truth collide with the literal truth – that the real barriers for blacks are cultural – we see a flare up in our ongoing culture war. This was the mistake Daniel Patrick Moynihan made, Steele says, when he presented his research and history supporting the cultural and governmental causes of the Great Society that led to the creation of a black underclass. Moynihan's mistake, says Steele, "was to put literal truth on a collision course with liberalism's poetic truth." Moynihan's conclusions "were nothing less than prophetic," notes Steele, yet "liberalism's prevailing poetic truth has been that blacks are eternal victims." This was why Johnson and the managers of the Great Society wished to avoid allowing blacks any agency in the civil rights movement.
But what is their motive? Why would the managers, the men at headquarters, believe their "poetic truths" about blacks if they are demonstrably false? To call them hucksters would probably not be untrue, but Steele offers a more thoughtful explanation. It is not, however, a more charitable one – quite possibly it is more damning. For a huckster seeks only to enrich himself, to turn a buck. The men at headquarters, by contrast, propagate their programs to gain "moral authority and legitimacy." While program after program failed, their propaganda efforts succeeded, winning public support for their efforts, which, says Steele, would "stand in as evidence of an evolution of private conscience." In this way, headquarters' programs "became absolution for the American people and the government, and not actual reform for minorities." Steele does not mince words when he says that "[t]he appeal of affirmative action was not the uplift of blacks and women, but the fact that support for such a policy was a shield against charges of racism and sexism." This is what we now call "virtue signaling." The virtue-signalers' failures were beside the point: these policies were expressions of America's regret over its bigotries and sins. They weren't apologies so much as apologias."
Blacks are most directly harmed by this collision between literal truth and headquarters' politically correct "poetic truths." And worse, it has derailed their trajectory toward equality. Steele: "Rather than seizing as much control over our fate as possible after our civil rights victories of the 1960s, we turned around and looked to the government for the grand schemes that would result in our uplift. It was the first truly profound strategic mistake we made in our long struggle for complete equality." Liberalism was able to get black Americans to trade true rights – to work and worship and raise families – for a simulacrum of rights – welfare checks and pelvic liberties. "It made us a contingent people whose fate depended on what others did for us."
Blacks have become just another of the managers' MacGuffins, an ostensible excuse to continue holding and exercising power. Mancipes delendum est.
Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time
Tolstoy had it that true history was not the history told from the vantage of the general at headquarters or the decorated captain on the high horse, but as told from the vantage of the soldier in the muck, and from his peasant wife tending the farm and children back home. History is not the narrative of great men chasing their dreams of glory and honor, but the accounts of normal people who managed to avoid being trampled under the great men's feet, and to hide away from their ministers a few rubles to feed their children. Alexievich's Secondhand Time is a collection of such accounts from those who survived Marxism, the deadliest idea man has yet dreamed.
The accounts include those from the "kitchen dissidents," who, fearful of saying what they really believed against political orthodoxy, went about their daily lives with "fingers crossed behind our backs." But even the dissidents knew the poison of orthodoxy, even an orthodoxy of their own choosing: "Why didn't we put Stalin on trial? I'll tell you why. In order to condemn Stalin, you'd have to condemn your friends and relatives along with him. The people closest to you." Every orthodoxy awaits its turn to tie on boots made for stomping faces. Upon being confronted with an orthodoxy of absolute power, related Malcolm Muggeridge, one recognizes the urge to meet it with some alternative propaganda or ideology as futile and ridiculous. Instead, "you are driven to realise that the only possible response to it is not some alternative power arrangement, more humane, more enlightened. The only possible response to absolute power is the absolute love which our Lord brought into the world."
There is also a great wisdom here about the deadly power of judgment, that we ought exercise it only with deep reservation – indeed, with regret. This, I think, is what Dostoevesky meant in The Brothers Karamazov when he explained why the church, as emissary of God's truth on earth, must not be merged with the state: "The church holds aloof, above all, because its judgment is the only one that contains the truth, and therefore cannot practically and morally be united to any other judgment even as a temporary compromise. She can enter into no compact about that." Justice – true justice, through the judgments of the Lord, which are true and righteous altogether – is too terrible to bear. This is Christianity's great improvement over Judaism: that we may be excused from the requirements of justice, which demand death. Instead, we rejoice that God offered to lay down his sword against us, if only, at last, we be not His enemy, or our neighbors' either, and accept His mercy instead. And from within His embrace we shudder at the thought of Truth becoming united with the sword, and the unending rivers of blood that justice demands be taken from those who refuse mercy and demand justice instead.
Freedom, it turned out, was not what the Russians expected. Freedom undermined order, and whatever one could say against Stalinism, one had to admit it was orderly. "That's how army people like to live. In fact, that's how everyone likes to live."
Freedom also was more than a constitution or Levi's or Sevruga caviar with a side of horseradish. Freedom, as Ronald Reagan said, does not run in the bloodstream: it must be habituated. "For some reason, everyone was positive that it would all end well simply because Russia was full of educated people. Plus, it's an incredibly wealthy country. But Mexico is rich, too. The thing is, you can't buy democracy with oil and gas; you can't import it like bananas or Swiss chocolate. A presidential decree won't institute it. You need free people, and we didn't have them."
Also making an appearance here is Neema Parvini's thesis that it is never the masses who change political systems, but rather a rival minority in-group. "Stalin created a state that was impossible to puncture from below; It was impenetrable. But from above, it was vulnerable and defenseless. no one thought that they would start destroying it from the top, that the top leaders would be the ones to betray at first. Pererozhdentsky!"
I have grown fearful in recent years, and increasingly all the time, that we have lost the essence of liberalism. Berlin's formulation bears repeating: “I think that what I am pleading for is really what used to be called Liberalism, i.e., a society in which the largest number of persons are allowed to pursue the largest number of ends as freely as possible, in which these ends are themselves criticized as little as possible and the fervor with which such ends are held is not required to be bolstered up by some bogus rational or supernatural argument to prove the universal validity of the end.”
Perhaps it cannot be said that we ever had an easy time with liberalism. But certainly we are very far from it today. As I said at the top, my overarching theme is predator and prey, which is just a gloss on the ancient problem of tribalism, but with this difference: Tribalism suggests jockeying among groups. A predator, however, is not just another tribe: it is a minority tribe feared by all the others. Our human "predators" are those of our geniuses who have attained office at headquarters.
This is a relatively recent, and deadly, innovation in human history. The example of tribalism early in this nation's founding is the Congregational Principle, as John Taylor Gatto put it, in 17th century colonial New England, beginning with the first Puritan church at Salem. No “higher-up” was around to approve the selection of the church authorities, related Gatto, so the congregation took that responsibility upon themselves. "With that simple act, they took power that had traditionally belonged to some certified expert and placed it in the hands of people who went to church. That was the sole criterion of governance: that a voter took going to church seriously and joined a congregation as evidence." Predictably, this led to the formation of tribes, with each town excluding people it didn’t like. "People were able to choose whom they wanted to work with, to sort themselves into a living curriculum that worked for them. The words of the first Dedham charter catch this feeling perfectly; the original settlers wanted to (and did) shut out “people whose dispositions do not suit us, whose society will be hurtful to us.”"
Not very liberal. But the toleration of this religious discrimination was, at a higher level of abstraction, an even greater form of liberality. Allowing each congregation its prerogative, said Gatto, "was a way of ensuring enough local harmony that a community of people who suited each other could arise bearing a common vision." What was seen as error in one congregation could be corrected in another. One result, for instance, was that the Presbyterians "were driven off to the wilds of New Jersey where they founded Princeton."
The whole matter, Gatto concluded, "is a good deal more complicated than assigning a bad grade to religious discrimination." We cannot delude ourselves that we are of a common religion. We believe different things, and important things, and we cannot expect that we can all of us always be shut up about them. Herman Melville in Moby Dick struck close to the mark: "Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person's religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don't believe it also. But when a man's religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him."
I will end with a reprise of my take on rights and freedom, which is the same as Samuel Johnson's: every man has a right to speak what he thinks right, and every other man a right to knock him down for it. Martyrdom is the test. My sense of the mood of the times is that a great number of us are readying ourselves for that test.