Alan Jacobs

My Carefully Considered Views on the Upcoming Presidential Election

Donald Trump’s likely Supreme Court nominee (Pixabay)

The last time I voted for a Presidential candidate from one of the major parties was 1988 (George H. W. Bush). In succeeding elections I have never seriously considered voting for the Democratic nominee, but I have always given the Republican nominee a close look, and have tried also to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Those days are over.

The Republican capitulation to Trump — complete with rhetorical reversals, especially on the part of Marco Rubio, that rival or perhaps even exceed any Trumpian schizo-inversions — marks the end of that party as a coherent and non-laughable body. If I were thirty I could imagine its renewal in my lifetime. I haven’t been thirty for a loooong time. So long, GOP. It was sucky knowing you.

As for Trump himself: if anything is more ludicrous than the Republican Party it’s the idea that Trump can be relied upon to nominate a solid conservative to the Supreme Court. He is more likely to nominate his daughter. Or Corey Lewandowski. Or Bill Clinton. Or Incitatus.

There are no — zero — positions held by conservatives of any stripe, from the neo to the paleo to the social, that Trump could be counted on to implement or support. Nor do I even think that the leaders of the GOP believe he can be relied on. Each of them is merely feeding the crocodile in hopes that it will eat him last.

Charles Norris Cochrane’s long-ago comment on Julius Caesar provides a useful metaphor from elsewhere in the animal kingdom: “A force like this, however, does more than divide, it destroys. Hostile to all claims of independence except its own, it is wholly incompatible with that effective equality which is implied in the classical idea of the commonwealth. To admit it within the community is thus to nourish the lion, whose reply to the hares in the assembly of beasts was to ask: Where are your claws?”

Were Trump to read this, he’d think: Dude thinks I’m a lion. Damn straight.

We all know what Trump is: so complete a narcissist that the concepts of truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are alien to him. He knows only the lust for power and the rage of being thwarted in his lust. In a sane society the highest position to which he could aspire is apprentice dogcatcher, and then only if no other candidates presented themselves.

If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I would but whisper, “Goodbye cruel world.” But if my family somehow managed to convince me to stick around, in preference to Trump I would vote for Hillary. Or John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi. In preference to Trump I would vote for the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson, or for that matter that of Julius Caesar, who perhaps has learned a thing or two in his two thousand years of afterlife. The only living person that I would readily choose Trump in preference to is Charles Manson.

Those are my thoughts about the upcoming Presidential election.

Co-Living, Extended Families, and Hidden Persuaders

When I was growing up in Birmingham in the Sixties and Seventies, my parents and I lived with my paternal grandparents — or did they live with us? I actually don’t know quite how to put it, and that is a telling fact.

By the time I was old enough to notice, my grandfather had been forced into retirement after suffering a stroke while driving. In those days nobody wore seat belts, so when, unconscious, he smashed his car he also smashed his body. I do not understand how he survived, but his rehabilitation lasted months and months and he never walked again.

A series of events then occurred in an order that I cannot confidently recall today. My father spent several years in prison, as did his younger brother — for unrelated reasons, I believe, though I know little about either circumstance; my grandfather, as if he didn’t have enough troubles, was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and, after holding on for longer than anyone thought possible, thanks largely to the devoted care of my grandmother, died. That same grandmother also cared for my younger sister and me, since my mother was working long hours to keep a roof over our heads and supper on the table.

Eventually my father got out of prison and got a job as dispatcher for a trucking company. He worked the night shift: when I left for school in the morning he was still at work, and when I returned in the afternoon he was sleeping, and on the weekends he tended to be drunk, so I didn’t see much of him. (His temper was sufficiently unpredictable that I was just fine with that.) But by this time I would have said that my grandmother lived with us, because it was obvious that my father, for all his shortcomings, was the head of the household.

And yet we were all living in the same house that my father had grown up in, and at some point, after spending ten years in the Navy and marrying and divorcing and marrying again, had returned to. Presumably, had I been fully aware in those earlier days, I would have said that we were all living in my grandfather’s house, and he would have been the head of the household.

I found myself thinking about my history after reading this thoughtful and moving meditation by Navneet Alang. His essay is, among other things, a meditation on getting what feels like a late, an impossibly late, start in life: “How do you start to actually live your life when you’re already an old man?”

There’s much in this essay worthy of discussion, but this is the passage that set my memory working: “Now, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I have roundly and thoroughly f*ed up my life. After all, though it’s true I started and then cultivated a writing career while completing the dissertation, I am still living out that most obvious North American symbol of a life gone wrong: I’m single, nearly 40, and typing this in my parents’ home, where I have lived for the past four years.”

I think Alang is right to say that his experience is an “obvious North American symbol of a life gone wrong” — Failure to Launch and all that — but as I read his words I realized that it never would have occurred to my father to be embarrassed about living with his parents. It was too common in that era. Other families in our neighborhood were structured like ours, and our own extended family contained several similar groupings.

And of course if you move further back in time, or look elsewhere in the world today, you’ll find that multi-generational families sharing living quarters is, if anything, the norm. And it’s a norm that, though it certainly has its shortcomings, works well in various dimensions of “home economics”: if one wants to looks at it in the most grossly utilitarian terms, through living as an extended family my parents got free child care, my grandparents got free rent, and I grew up surrounded by family members who loved me, even when my father was in prison. How did living this way become an image of “a life gone wrong”?

Well, for one thing, the separation of the extended family is good for many industries, especially those that are housing-related and, of course, restaurants. (Few of those young adults who move out of the house learn to cook right away.) The more atomized people are, the more they need to buy — which also means: the more they need to work outside the home, in order to make the money to do the buying.

But it seems to me that the single most important contributing factor here — the most important by far — is the sexual revolution. Young adults need to live apart from their parents in order to be free to hook up without interference, explanation, or embarrassment. This is why we’re seeing increasing interest in “co-living” arrangements, especially in megalopolises — here’s a London example, and here’s one in Manhattan: the benefits of sharing at least some resources coupled with sexual freedom, which sounds like a great trade-off except that you’re basically living in a college dorm.

Some people like living in dorms, I guess, and de gustibus non est disputandum; but another way to interpret all this is to see it as an indication of the significant sacrifices in general quality of life that people are willing to make in order to insure maximal sexual freedom and avoid the “failure to launch” stigma — which, again, is largely a stigma because it suggests an insufficiently high valuation of sexual freedom. In the social world most younger adults inhabit, it’s simply unthinkable to change the hierarchy of values in such a way that erotic opportunity drops down the list.

But for other people, in other times and places, it was and is thinkable — which is worth remembering, however you explain it. The place of sex in current hierarchies of value is not a given of human nature; it’s an artifact of a particular socio-economic era, a particular ideology, a particular set of “hidden persuaders.” You may genuinely like your Controllers, but it’s always good to know who they are and what they want you to do.

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Hollywood and Cultural Appropriation

Image via YouTube

I generally have little patience for denunciations of “cultural appropriation” — I tend to think that appropriation is at the very heart of all culture, and absolutely intrinsic to creativity — but yesterday’s tweetstorm by artist/writer/photographer Jon Tsuei gives a sense of the complications.

Tsuei was writing about the forthcoming adaptation of the classic manga Ghost in the Shell and explaining why he doesn’t like it. After explaining that Japan in that era was a disarmed country whose identity was largely invested in technological pre-eminence, he wrote:

And therefore:

Then this final warning:

I want to take Tsuei’s argument seriously here, but I also have some questions. Let me focus on two of them.

1) Would casting Japanese, or Japanese-American, actors address any of the issues Tsuei raises? (I ask this question because much of the controversy here seems to be focused on the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.) If the actors were ethnically Japanese but the film were in English, and marketed to a Western audience, would that not be removing the story from its proper context just as much as the current adaptation-in-progress would? Is there a way to present this story to a non-Asian audience that wouldn’t, in Tsuei’s view, fundamentally “bastardize” it?

2) In light of the argument that Tsuei makes here, what should we say about Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran? How would Tsuei respond to, say, a Shakespearean actor who denounced Kurosawa for wrenching the stories out of their proper context, who said, “Macbeth is inherently a British story, not a universal one … Respect the work for what it is and don’t bastardize it into what you want it to be”?

Please understand that these are not “gotcha” questions. I think one could legitimately argue that Kurosawa indicated that he was using rather than translating Shakespeare’s plays by creating his own titles and taking significant liberties with the story, and that therefore he’s not simply “bastardizing.” (In that case, would a film “based on” Ghost in the Shell but with a different title and a somewhat different story line be acceptable to Tsuei?) One could also distinguish, as Tsuei is implicitly doing, between stories that are “universal” and hence theoretically translatable into other cultures and stories that are so deeply embedded in a particular culture that they are simply incapable of translation — but how can we tell whether a given story is one or the other? Or whether some elements of it are translatable and others are not?

Again, I’m a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom kind of guy — to use a phrase that may be untranslatable — and am not inclined to think that harm is done to any original culture or original work of art by even the schlockiest and crassest Hollywood adaptation. But Tsuei raises some fascinating issues. I hope to return to them later.

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Charity for Francis!

I am not a Roman Catholic — I am not even what is usually called an Anglo-Catholic — but I do think of myself as a Catholic Christian in the Anglican tradition. And if you can’t figure that one out …my apologies. One day I’ll explain myself. I mention all this now only in order to explain that while I am not an insider to the kerfuffle over Pope Francis’s new apostolic exhortation, I am not altogether an outsider either. I think what the Pope says matters, in one way or another, to all Christians, especially in the Western world, and even more especially to me; so it’s worth taking the time and trouble to understand him as well as we can.

Many — not all but many — of the conservative responses to Amoris Laetitia are exercises in uncharitable interpretation. For instance, Father Raymond J. De Souza: “From the first pages of Amoris Laetitia to the last, the exhortation evidently yearns to declare what it never declares: that the teaching on marriage and holy Communion can change.” Antonio Socci goes further, claiming that Francis is engaged in a “continuous demolition of Catholic doctrine” and is doing so by “cancelling the notion of ‘mortal sin.’”

Indeed, not only does Pope Francis not demolish Church teaching, or declare that such teaching can change, he insists upon the opposite:

In order to avoid all misunderstanding, I would point out that in no way must the Church desist from proposing the full ideal of marriage, God’s plan in all its grandeur: “Young people who are baptized should be encouraged to understand that the sacrament of marriage can enrich their prospects of love and that they can be sustained by the grace of Christ in the sacrament and by the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church”. A lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing that ideal, would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves. To show understanding in the face of exceptional situations never implies dimming the light of the fuller ideal, or proposing less than what Jesus offers to the human being. [p. 238 in the English version of Amoris Laetitia]

It turns out that you cannot avoid misunderstanding when people are determined to misunderstand — or rather, are insistent that they have read your heart and know what you truly intend, even if it’s the precise opposite of what you say. There’s no defense against that kind of reading.

Now, I suspect that conservative critics of Francis will say that they are reading a passage such as the above in light of what he says elsewhere, including elsewhere in the same document — as when he quotes with approval the Relatio Finalis of the recent Synod:

Under certain circumstances people find it very difficult to act differently. Therefore, while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking into account a person’s properly formed conscience, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of actions taken are not necessarily the same in all cases. [quoted on p. 234]

The argument here relies on two principles.

The first is the principle of equity, which goes all the way back to Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle points out that it is in the nature of law, and of any particular law, to be deficient insofar as it is general. Equity lies in the discerning, prudential application of a general law to particular cases. Thomas Aquinas agrees with Aristotle on this, and in a passage that Francis quotes (p. 235), says

Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail.

From this principle follows a second one: subsidiarity, which requires that issues that can be dealt with locally should be dealt with locally. Now, in Catholic teaching — see the Catechism, citing Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno — this principle is usually applied to governmental matters, but it seems, certainly in Francis’s view, to have relevance to the Church as well. The relevant passage from Quadragesimo anno: “A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.” So for Francis, doctrine (in this case moral doctrine) is established by the Magisterium, where within Catholicism is the only place it can be established, but the pastoral application of discipline in light of that doctrine belongs to a subsidiary realm, usually the parish.

Francis is simply declining the (inevitably fruitless) attempt to settle at the level of the Papal office, and by further specification of law, issues that can better be settled at the local level by pastors who, knowing the people they serve, can apply prudential, equitable judgment. The principles he recommends are, when they’re invoked in other contexts, universally recognized as classically Catholic and classically conservative.

So why the hostility from so many conservative Catholics? I am not certain, but from what I have heard over the years, I don’t think many conservative Catholics have much trust in the average parish priest, especially here in America. But then, they don’t seem to have much trust in bishops, taken as a class, either. And from these responses to Amoris Laetitia they clearly don’t trust the Pope. So I find myself wondering in whom, or in what, they do place their trust.

I crave clarification or correction on all these matters.

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Thinking about Transgenderism

p>Deirdre McCloskey, via Wikipedia

Some years ago I was conversing with a Christian academic who is very conservative theologically — and conservative in his social views as well. We were trading ideas about a possible conference in which Christian scholars from a variety of disciplines would talk about what distinctively Christian approaches to their work might look like.

One person we discussed was the eminent economist Deirdre McCloskey, who at that time had recently written an extremely thoughtful essay on what it’s like to do economics as a Christian. My friend had read the essay and thought highly of it — but then he grew meditative. And I knew why. It was because Deirdre McCloskey had once been Donald McCloskey, but had undergone sex-reassignment surgery in the mid–1990s, an experience documented in the memoir Crossing. But when my friend finally spoke, he said something that surprised me:

“I’m reluctant to ask McCloskey to participate in such a conference — I’m not dead-set against it, and I’m open to persuasion, but I’m reluctant. Here’s the thing, though: it’s not because I think her gender change was sinful. It’s because the fact that Deirdre used to be Donald, or Donald is pretending to be Deirdre if you want to put it that way, is the only thing we’d hear about. Nothing that any of us actually said at the conference, including what McCloskey said, would even be noticed. All we’d get to do is field questions about what her presence there meant.

“Was it sinful for Donald to transform into Dierdre? Honestly, I don’t know what to think. I mean, yes, ‘male and female created he them,’ but to use that to settle the question would be the grossest kind of proof-texting. I think we have clear biblical evidence that homosexual behavior is wrong, but if we say that we can’t use surgery to change sex because we are altering the way we’re made, then is cosmetic surgery also sinful? Maybe … but sometimes the line between ‘merely’ cosmetic surgery and surgery to restore full bodily function, or achieve it for the first time, is hard to draw. You get dictatorial about this kind of thing and you end up becoming a Christian Scientist. I’m just not sure where to stand on this. This is probably not what you expected to hear from me, is it?”

No, it wasn’t. I was somewhat taken aback. But in his view — and as soon as he stated it I realized that he was correct — the theological and moral issues raised by homosexuality are completely different than those raised by transgenderism. And if we’ve all had a long time to think about homosexuality, we haven’t had much time at all to think about transgenderism, which is effectively new. (There have been crossdressers forever, of course, and men who have “passed” as women and women as men, but surgery and the role of the law in establishing identity create a new situation.)

And nobody is thinking about it now. Nor are many people likely to think about it, because it has become the new battleground in our endlessly absurd and absurdly endless culture war.

For some a rejection of transgenderism is now intrinsic to Christianity, on theological grounds that are almost never articulated (and that they almost certainly could not articulate); but they are largely responding to others for whom making every accommodation to transgender people has become The Great Civil Rights Issue of Our Time and for whom the nuclear option is always the first and only option — because error has no rights, remember? Among these people there’s no interest in thinking, or talking, or persuading; the demand is instant capitulation, or else.

And, it should be noted, most of those making such demands are people who, to put it in the mildest terms I can manage, didn’t give a rat’s mangy ass about transgendered people until about six months ago.

This is no way to live. And it’s certainly no way to think. It’s impossible, I believe, to read Deirdre McCloskey’s memoir with even a modicum of charity and not be moved by the plight Donald McCloskey found himself in for decades; but it is also impossible to take seriously casual cross-dressers who insist that their moral and legal situation must be precisely the same as McCloskey’s. If we were to think about all this, we’d realize that a great many experiences, beliefs, and behaviors are currently being lumped together under amorphous notions of “transgenderism” and “gender fluidity” — but meanwhile the idea that anyone, even a child, might have temporary gender dysphoria is not just rejected put punished to the fullest extent.

Such oversimplifications serve and promote extremism, which in turn promotes more ingroup/outgroup thinking, which leads to intensified culture wars. And I’m not at all convinced that all this is going to help the tiny, tiny number of transgendered people in America; I suspect we will end up with more people like Don/Dawn Ennis.

Not sure about that. But I do have a firm prediction: We will eventually see the Supreme Court rule whether the Constitution allows separate public restrooms for men and women. The arguments against such “separate but equal” provisions will mimic, as that phrase suggests, the case against school segregation in the Civil Rights era, though perhaps the more central arguments will be based on the claim that we have an inalienable right to self-definition. Because at bottom that’s what all these fights are about: not sex or gender, but about whether society is morally and legally obliged to defer to each individual’s self-understanding, and to do everything possible to enable each person to achieve a public identity that matches that internal one.

The existence of separate but equal public restrooms is an intolerable imposition on this right to self-definition, this right to live out to the fullest my own sense of self, however fluid that sense may be — so the argument before the Court will go. And I further predict that SCOTUS will accept that argument and order the elimination of men’s and women’s public restrooms.

The media will rejoice at this great victory for human flourishing — and perhaps most Americans will join them. After all, it will be an excellent excuse to forget about poverty, war, infrastructure collapse, porn addiction, universal governmental surveillance, and all the other problems we don’t have the first idea how to approach, must less to solve.

When will this court case happen? I’m setting the over/under at nine years.

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The Outgroup and Its Errors

Top Vector Studio /

One of the most troubling features of our current political and social climate is how powerfully it is shaped by sheer animus.

A couple of years ago, Scott Alexander wrote a post titled “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.” I strongly recommend that you read the whole thing, but essentially Alexander sets out to answer a question: How is it that, say, straight white men can be gracious and kind to, say, lesbian black women while being unremittingly bitter towards other straight white men? What has happened here to the old distinction between ingroups and outgroups? His answer is that “outgroups may be the people who look exactly like you, and scary foreigner types can become the in-group on a moment’s notice when it seems convenient.”

Then Alexander gives a powerful example. He mentions being chastised by readers who thought he was “uncomplicatedly happy” when he expressed relief that Osama bin Laden was dead.

Of the “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people I knew, the overwhelming emotion was conspicuous disgust that other people could be happy about his death. I hastily backtracked and said I wasn’t happy per se, just surprised and relieved that all of this was finally behind us. […]

Then a few years later, Margaret Thatcher died. And on my Facebook wall – made of these same “intelligent, reasoned, and thoughtful” people – the most common response was to quote some portion of the song “Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead”. Another popular response was to link the videos of British people spontaneously throwing parties in the street, with comments like “I wish I was there so I could join in.” From this exact same group of people, not a single expression of disgust or a “c’mon, guys, we’re all human beings here.”

Even when he pointed this out, none of his readers saw a problem with their joy in Thatcher’s death. And that’s when Alexander realized that “if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.”

Since Alexander wrote that post, an article has appeared based on research that confirms his hypothesis. “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization,” by Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, indicates that Americans today do not simply feel animus towards those who disagree with with politically, but are prepared to act on it. Their research discovers a good deal of racial prejudice, which is to be expected and which is likely to grow worse in the coming years, but people seem to think that they shouldn’t be racists or at least shouldn’t show it. However, people of one Tribe evidently believe, quite openly, that members of the other Tribe deserve whatever nastiness comes to them — and are willing to help dish out the nastiness themselves. “Despite lingering negative attitudes toward African Americans, social norms appear to suppress racial discrimination, but there is no such reluctance to discriminate based on partisan affiliation.”

That is, many Americans are happy to treat other people unfairly if those other people belong to the alien Tribe. And — this is perhaps the most telling finding of all — their desire to punish the outgroup is significantly stronger than their desire to support the ingroup. Through a series of games, Iyengar and Westwood discovered that “Outgroup animosity is more consequential than favoritism for the ingroup.”

One of my consistent themes over the years — see, for instance, here and here — has been the importance of acting politically with the awareness that people who agree with you won’t always be in charge. That is, I believe that it is reasonable and wise, in a democratic social order, to make a commitment to proceduralism: to agree with my political adversaries to abide by the same rules. That belief is on its way to being comprehensively rejected by the American people, in favor of a different model: Error has no rights.

What is being forgotten in this rush to punish the outgroup is a wise word put forth long ago by Orestes Brownson: “Error has no rights, but the man who errs has equal rights with him who errs not.”

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After Trump, Revisited

In a strong column, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes that “there are reasons to believe this moment is unsustainable and the basic status quo of the Republican Party will eventually emerge triumphant.”

The party has been unable to co-opt Trump, unable to endorse him, unable to oppose him effectively. But Trump is not going to bequeath to Republicans a squadron of Trumpistas in Congress. He is not going to build the kind of institutions that ideologues use to pressure a major political party. He’s just going to make a spectacle of himself. Barring a black swan event, he will fade away.

The GOP will still have all the problems that pre-dated Trump and that only he exposed. A plurality of its voters will still be unsatisfied with the party’s agenda, especially on the economy. It will still have problems with young voters, and still have a long-term demographic problem. Its philosophy will still be outdated.

But by 2018, all the talk of bloodbaths and schisms and fracturing will go away. The party will have powers to exercise, sinecures to offer, and orthodoxies to protect again. The party will get out of its hospital ward and move on. It will shock you how much it never happened.

As might be expected, I like this argument, since I have made it myself. In that post I wrote, “I would be very grateful if some wise person who is convinced that Trump is permanently changing the GOP would explain to me the mechanisms by which this change will be effected.” The power of incumbency is great, and not just in elected office. I expect the people who run the GOP now to be running it in 2020.

But I want to suggest one factor that might complicate the long-term effects of Trump. If he wins the party nomination — and Dougherty’s argument assumes that that is likely, though not inevitable — Republican politicians will have to decide whether to support him. And anyone who does, anyone who speaks up on Trump’s behalf and encourages voters to choose him in preference to Hillary Clinton, will carry that albatross around his or her neck permanently.

Among the major figures in the Republican Party, the one least likely to defend, endorse, or support Trump is surely Marco Rubio. (A point recently reinforced.) And if Rubio denounces Trump, or just stays silent, then that will significantly increase the likelihood of the scenario I imagined in that earlier post: an essentially intact GOP leadership in 2018 wheeling out as their preferred candidate a four-years-older, four-years-wiser, four-years-more-seasoned Marco Rubio.

Dialogue on Democracy, Part Eleven

B. What do you mean, “Easy for me to say”?

A. “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral,” as Brecht said — grub first, then ethics. It’s a false dichotomy: either economic prosperity or human flourishing. People who are economically deprived don’t have the leisure to develop their … to start a Finer Things Club.

B. So we’re back to bread and circuses, then. In your model — in your Brave New World, if you want to keep the literary references going, we give up democracy, give up self-rule to the World Controllers, and in return get the bread that allows us to pursue the Finer Things.

A. That’s a rather dismissive way of —

Subjection in small affairs manifests itself every day and makes itself felt without distinction by all citizens. It does not make them desperate; but it constantly thwarts them and brings them to renounce the use of their wills. Thus little by little, it extinguishes their spirits and enervates their souls, whereas obedience, which is due only in a few very grave but very rare circumstances, shows servitude only now and then and makes it weigh only on certain men. In vain will you charge these same citizens, whom you have rendered so dependent on the central power, with choosing the representatives of this power from time to time; that use of their free will, so important but so brief and so rare, will not prevent them from losing little by little the faculty of thinking, feeling, and acting by themselves, and thus from gradually falling below the level of humanity.

— Hey, can you turn that down?

B. I’m not doing it. What is that?

A. That’s not coming from your laptop?

B. Nope. What was it saying? Something about obedience and servitude? Losing the faculty of thinking?

A. There must be a radio around here somewhere.

B. Yeah, must be. That was interesting, though. Hang on, let me google this… Oh. Hmmm. It’s from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Near the end of the second volume.

A. You’re kidding.

B. No. Apparently we have an eavesdropper.

The moral empire of the majority is founded in part on the idea that there is more enlightenment and wisdom in many men united than in one alone, in the number of legislators than in their choice. It is the theory of equality applied to intellects. This doctrine attacks the pride of man in its last asylum: so the minority accepts it only with difficulty; it habituates itself to it only in the long term. Like all powers, and perhaps more than any of them, therefore, the power of the majority needs to be lasting in order to appear legitimate. When it begins to establish itself, it makes itself obeyed by constraint; it is only after having lived for a long time under its laws that one begins to respect it.

B. Hmm. Someone seems to want to start an argument. Let me try to find out who said that … Well, that’s interesting.

A. What?

B. That’s Tocqueville too.

A. Odd. It sounded like almost the opposite of that first thing. Or different, anyway.

B. Yeah. You know, I think our eavesdropper might be on to something.

A. In what sense?

B. Well, we’ve been talking a lot about democracy, and we’ve been talking about America, but we haven’t had too much to say about democracy in America. Our models have been from ancient China, or England a century ago, or whatever world it is that the neoreactionaries are living in —

A. Now hang on a minute —

B. Sorry. Clerk, strike that last comment from the record. But you know what I mean, yes? Maybe we should think more about the particular circumstances of American democracy.

A. And Tocqueville is supposed to be The Guy about that, yes? He sounds interesting … That comment about how people “sink below the level of humanity” when experiencing “subjection in small affairs” — that reminds me of your emphasis on giving people more power, more “voice,” in matters close to home — because that’s going to help them flourish in ways you were talking about last time.


B. Exactly. But then the passage also makes me wonder what to do when people have been “subjected” in this way so long that they have fallen “below the level of humanity” — can they be brought back? Or must others rule for them? And to what extent does our particular social and political order create this problem that it’s supposed to be solving?

A. That second passage, on “the theory of equality applied to intellects,” is relevant too — what if that “theory” is wrong?

B. Well, you’ve been saying it’s wrong, and it may be, though I’m not sure its wrongness has the political implications you think it does. Maybe you haven’t been living long enough under its laws!

A. Maybe … but in any case, I think we have some reading to do.

B. I think we do.

A. Big book, though.

B. It sure is.

A. May take a while to get through.

B. We have time. Let’s start reading. We can check in with each other later.

A. You have a deal.

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Dialogue on Democracy, Part 10

photo by Walker Evans via Wikipedia

A. Changing the size of our political units? Is that really possible? Surely any serious reduction of the scope of the modern nation-state is a pipe dream.

B. Well, we’re both dreaming here, aren’t we? It’s not as though there’s any real chance of your creating a class of specially educated technocrats to rule the world. We’re both speaking in ideal terms, and neither of us has any real plan for bringing our hopes to realization.

A. Maybe — but since our world is already effectively ruled by technocrats, my model, of having it ruled by the right technocrats, a genuine neo-aristocracy, has a good deal more practical plausibility than any distributist fantasy.

B. The similarity between your ideal and the current reality is not a feature, it’s a bug. That’s what I meant last time when I said that your position is less a radical alternative to democracy than a mere CMS (Capitalism Management Strategy). My ideal can be pursued with less danger to the common good than yours can. Every step towards devolution, however small, is a step in the right direction. But I don’t think you can create a new aristocracy without first implementing a structure that will strengthen the old one — which will make the rule of our current idiocracy stronger. You would leave so much of the old system firmly in place that a successful replacement of the current social hierarchy by the one Moldbug et al. want would simply mean a repetition of the scene at the end of Animal Farm: “They looked from man to pig, and from pig to man, but already it was impossible to tell which was which.”

And don’t we already see the truth of this if we just look at the absorption of Silicon Valley radicals into the power elite? A plutocrat in a t-shirt and sneakers is a plutocrat all the same.

A. I don’t think —

B. Hang on, hang on — sorry, please bear with me. We’re on a tangent here, and I need to finish the argument I started last time, before I forget what I was saying. I said earlier that I had two critiques of the current model, and I haven’t gotten to the second one yet. My first critique, you may recall, is that I don’t think international capitalism can be effectively ruled by anyone, no matter how perfectly educated, because it operates at a transhuman scale. The second … well, I was put in mind of it by some of the things Kevin Williamson has been writing lately about “failed communities:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

This is a recurrent theme for Williamson. Last year he wrote, “Some towns are better off dead…. My own experience in Appalachia and the South Bronx suggests that the best thing that people trapped in poverty in these undercapitalized and dysfunctional communities could do is — move. Get the hell out of Dodge, or Eastern Kentucky, or the Bronx.”

A. My guess is that the answer a lot of those people would give Williamson is “I would if I could.” People with no jobs and no credit can’t rent a U-Haul; and even if they could, where would they unload it? You can’t get an apartment without a job and some credit, either.

B. I think that’s right, but I want to look at something a little deeper.

A. Oh, excuse me for being so shallow.

B. Certainly. But what I mean by “deeper” is, something Williamson doesn’t openly acknowledge. Some years ago now the economist Richard Thaler made a distinction I think very useful, between Econs and Humans. Econs are the “rational agents” of rational choice theory, who always make decisions based on dispassionate calculation “expected utility” and suchlike criteria. Humans are the rest of us.

Thaler (along with his sometime collaborator Daniel Kahneman) suspects that the Econ is a fictitious species, but Kevin Williamson, at least in these articles about “dysfunctional, downscale communities,” sure sounds like one. For him economic calculations seem to be the only ones, and if you raise any other considerations he just calls you “sentimental.” That someone might stay in an economically failing town because he loves it, or because his mother lives there, evidently strikes Williamson as rationally indefensible behavior.

I think such an assumption, if Williamson really holds it, is based on a pretty impoverished notion of what counts as “rational.” And I think your system does too. Maximizing expected utility is not how to live the good life. I mean, you know this, we all know this. We need a social and political system that doesn’t elevate economic considerations above all others — and doesn’t confine “economic” to matters involving money alone. There’s such a thing as human flourishing, eudaimonia, that cannot be measured in monetary terms.

A. Easy for you to say.

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Naming the Dead

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, by Flickr user profzucker

In July of 1977 a young man named Richard Herrin murdered his ex-girlfriend, Bonnie Garland, by smashing her head in with a hammer as she slept. Herrin and Garland had met as students at Yale, and had dated for two years, but she had told him she wanted to be free to see other people.

Amazingly, Herrin was not convicted of murder, but only of manslaughter, in large part because of the support he received from the Yale community, including the University’s Catholic chaplain. Herrin’s supporters argued that as a Latino from a Los Angeles barrio, he felt out of place and marginalized at Yale, which put him in a precarious emotional state even before Bonnie Garland rejected him. He was, these supporters said, a young man of extremely good character.

A psychiatrist named Willard Gaylin followed the case closely and eventually wrote an extremely powerful book about it. I read that book when it came out, more than thirty years ago, and have never forgotten it. The puzzle Gaylin set out to explore was this: Why were Herrin’s supporters so completely lacking in sympathy for Bonnie Garland and her grieving family? Why were so many of them contemptuous of her father’s insistence that the man who used the claw of a hammer to smash his daughter’s skull into fragments needed to be convicted of murder? Why did they so loftily lecture him on the necessity of forgiveness, and tell him that he just needed to “get over it”?

Gaylin’s answer — and this is what makes the book unforgettable — is that it happened this way because Bonnie Garland wasn’t there. Had Herrin severely injured her, but in such a way that she could appear in the courtroom, the sympathy of the jury and the audience would have flowed inevitably and naturally towards her. But by killing her — erasing her presence, turning her into a thing — he left the human sympathy that naturally arises in response to horror nowhere to go but towards him. “Poor young man. How he must have been suffering to do that.”

Gaylin’s book has come to my mind in the aftermath of this week’s Brussels bombings, as it has after previous, simliar attacks. From the right we hear: Look at the terrible people who did this! From the left we hear: Look at the innocent people who will suffer because of this! But from no one do we hear: Look at the dead — because they cannot be seen. They have left our world; images of them may remain, but they are definitely in the past tense. It is more natural and more interesting for us to stare at security-camera footage of the bombers. We are drawn towards those who breathe the air we breathe.

Therefore, since we can no longer see the dead, we must make a special effort to remember them. This is the great genius of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial: it does no more — and no less — than to name the dead. Their bodies are buried, or lost; but their names we can still speak. And the deep implication of the Memorial is that we should.

We do not yet know all the names of those who were killed in Brussels. Some are missing and feared dead, but their families still await definitive news. A few we know: Adelma Tapia Ruiz, Olivier Delespesse, Léopold Hecht. May they rest in peace.

But this exercise can only remind us of those who have died by violence whose names we cannot find: so, so many of those killed by Daesh, or by Boko Haram, or in wars around the world. Confronted by so much destruction and misery, we may find it easier to turn our faces towards the perpetrators, or towards those we fear might be targeted. These are temptations to be resisted. We must, for a time at least, turn our faces towards those who have died, and say their names, when we can discover them. It is the least we can do for those whom evil has found.

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