Category: Taylor Lewis

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Trump and the Media Dialectic


When journalists want to appear intelligent, they’ll attach the term “postmodern president” to Donald Trump.  Their reasoning goes that because Trump so often exaggerates and embellishes basic facts to reflect favorably upon himself, he has no moral compass for truth.  “Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?” asks New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall.  Jeet Heer of The New Republic calls the denizen of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue “America’s first postmodern president.”  David Ernst of The Federalist points out that Trump, without knowing it, turns “postmodernism against itself.”

Reading these hand-wringing accounts of Trump’s assault on ontological truth is pretty entertaining, given that they come from the jittery hands of discomfited journalists.  Trump, who has an instinctual knack for spinning good, bad, and neutral news all to his benefit, beguiles reporters because he’s figured out their trick: they care more about being arbiters of reality than reality itself.

The media, particularly in the Trump era, care more about dialectics than fact-finding.  The platonic ideal of unbiased, truth-seeking journalism is, at worst, a myth, a marketing tool used to sell papers.

Our journalists aren’t journalists; our reporters don’t report.  What they do is engage in Hegelian conversations to establish good and bad, heroes and villains.  This narrative-crafting is used to smear lawmakers they oppose and bolster those whom they support.

The dialectic was on full display when the New York Times purposefully reported that the State Department paid $52,000 on drapes for the residence of the ambassador to the United Nations.  The story was marketed in such a way that it implied that Nikki Haley, the current ambassador under President Trump, ordered the payment.  The original headline read, “Nikki Haley’s View of New York is Priceless. Her Curtains? $52,701.”  The image featured on the article was one of Haley looking cold and aloof.

The author of the report, some bug named Gardiner Harris, admits that Haley never paid for the luxurious curtains (they were ordered during the Obama administration).  But the impression given by the headline and featured image was that she did – a detail the NYT made no effort to correct while promoting the report over social media.  And since most news is digested by Facebook-users and Twitter scamps reading headlines only, the image of a hypocritically profligate Trump State Department stuck.

A long correction note came after, but the damage was already done.  In Hegelian terms, the process goes as follows: Haley spends lavishly on drapery is the thesis; Haley did no such thing is the antithesis; the notion left of the Trump administration still being composed of spendthrifts is the synthesis.

“Drapegate” demonstrates how little facts matter in reporting.  If the narrative is strong enough, and if the dialectic remains consistent, no number of errors will break perception.  “If it rings true, it is true,” said journalist Michael Wolff when met with criticism about anecdotes and conjectures he included in his negative portrayal of the Trump White House, Fire and Fury.  Wolff’s book was a bestseller despite many of its fabulist accounts.  Readers didn’t much care that his reporting was unsubstantiated and, in some cases, clearly made up.  Wolff painted a portrait of a bumbling administration that was already hung in the minds of the president’s disparagers.  He provided the thesis of an incompetent, mercurial commander-in-chief; the antithesis came in the form of questions raised about its authenticity; the synthesis is Wolff’s unproven assertions being made into a television series that will further perpetuate his cooked up account.

To get a sense of what direction the dialectic is going for any political occurrence, you need only consult Twitter, journalism’s own fan fiction message board.  It is on the blue check-marked digital diary that reporters let their imaginations run wild by testing messaging, floating ideas, and launching narratives in real time.

On Twitter, where 280 characters are viewed as the optimal limit of human expression, the dialectic is established.  New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who just easily swatted away a far-left primary opponent, ridiculed this dynamic upon victory.  While boasting of his victory over a highly publicized challenger, Cuomo declared his win a “wave,” citing the exceptionally large number of votes he received.  His dominance, he asserted, was the real wave “on the numbers – not on some Twittersphere dialogue where I tweet you, you tweet me, and between the two of us we think we have a wave.”

Silly Andy.  Surely, he knows he shouldn’t antagonize the narrative gods and their own Mount Olympus.  That’s the president’s job, after all, and he’s the only one who has been effective at it.

As of this writing, the Twitter scribes are at it again, trying to scuttle the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.  A woman has come forward alleging she was sexually assaulted by the circuit judge in high school.  There is no evidence to corroborate her claim, and 65 women have testified on behalf of Kavanaugh’s gentlemanly character.  Journalists are taking the allegations seriously, despite California senator Dianne Feinstein making them public just before the confirmation vote, even though she was informed about them back in July.

The thesis is established: Trump’s Supreme Court nominee sexually assaulted a woman; the antithesis is the dearth of evidence backing up the accuser; the synthesis will be a permanent black mark that follows Kavanaugh around, even after he reaches the high court.

The Hegelian farce of our journalism continues.  “News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read,” wrote Evelyn Waugh.  The only way to dispel false narratives is to care, and to think as well as read.  Discernment is the best weapon against the dialectic.

When journalists want to appear intelligent, they’ll attach the term “postmodern president” to Donald Trump.  Their reasoning goes that because Trump so often exaggerates and embellishes basic facts to reflect favorably upon himself, he has no moral compass for truth.  “Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?” asks New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall.  Jeet Heer of The New Republic calls the denizen of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue “America’s first postmodern president.”  David Ernst of The Federalist points out that Trump, without knowing it, turns “postmodernism against itself.”

Reading these hand-wringing accounts of Trump’s assault on ontological truth is pretty entertaining, given that they come from the jittery hands of discomfited journalists.  Trump, who has an instinctual knack for spinning good, bad, and neutral news all to his benefit, beguiles reporters because he’s figured out their trick: they care more about being arbiters of reality than reality itself.

The media, particularly in the Trump era, care more about dialectics than fact-finding.  The platonic ideal of unbiased, truth-seeking journalism is, at worst, a myth, a marketing tool used to sell papers.

Our journalists aren’t journalists; our reporters don’t report.  What they do is engage in Hegelian conversations to establish good and bad, heroes and villains.  This narrative-crafting is used to smear lawmakers they oppose and bolster those whom they support.

The dialectic was on full display when the New York Times purposefully reported that the State Department paid $52,000 on drapes for the residence of the ambassador to the United Nations.  The story was marketed in such a way that it implied that Nikki Haley, the current ambassador under President Trump, ordered the payment.  The original headline read, “Nikki Haley’s View of New York is Priceless. Her Curtains? $52,701.”  The image featured on the article was one of Haley looking cold and aloof.

The author of the report, some bug named Gardiner Harris, admits that Haley never paid for the luxurious curtains (they were ordered during the Obama administration).  But the impression given by the headline and featured image was that she did – a detail the NYT made no effort to correct while promoting the report over social media.  And since most news is digested by Facebook-users and Twitter scamps reading headlines only, the image of a hypocritically profligate Trump State Department stuck.

A long correction note came after, but the damage was already done.  In Hegelian terms, the process goes as follows: Haley spends lavishly on drapery is the thesis; Haley did no such thing is the antithesis; the notion left of the Trump administration still being composed of spendthrifts is the synthesis.

“Drapegate” demonstrates how little facts matter in reporting.  If the narrative is strong enough, and if the dialectic remains consistent, no number of errors will break perception.  “If it rings true, it is true,” said journalist Michael Wolff when met with criticism about anecdotes and conjectures he included in his negative portrayal of the Trump White House, Fire and Fury.  Wolff’s book was a bestseller despite many of its fabulist accounts.  Readers didn’t much care that his reporting was unsubstantiated and, in some cases, clearly made up.  Wolff painted a portrait of a bumbling administration that was already hung in the minds of the president’s disparagers.  He provided the thesis of an incompetent, mercurial commander-in-chief; the antithesis came in the form of questions raised about its authenticity; the synthesis is Wolff’s unproven assertions being made into a television series that will further perpetuate his cooked up account.

To get a sense of what direction the dialectic is going for any political occurrence, you need only consult Twitter, journalism’s own fan fiction message board.  It is on the blue check-marked digital diary that reporters let their imaginations run wild by testing messaging, floating ideas, and launching narratives in real time.

On Twitter, where 280 characters are viewed as the optimal limit of human expression, the dialectic is established.  New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who just easily swatted away a far-left primary opponent, ridiculed this dynamic upon victory.  While boasting of his victory over a highly publicized challenger, Cuomo declared his win a “wave,” citing the exceptionally large number of votes he received.  His dominance, he asserted, was the real wave “on the numbers – not on some Twittersphere dialogue where I tweet you, you tweet me, and between the two of us we think we have a wave.”

Silly Andy.  Surely, he knows he shouldn’t antagonize the narrative gods and their own Mount Olympus.  That’s the president’s job, after all, and he’s the only one who has been effective at it.

As of this writing, the Twitter scribes are at it again, trying to scuttle the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.  A woman has come forward alleging she was sexually assaulted by the circuit judge in high school.  There is no evidence to corroborate her claim, and 65 women have testified on behalf of Kavanaugh’s gentlemanly character.  Journalists are taking the allegations seriously, despite California senator Dianne Feinstein making them public just before the confirmation vote, even though she was informed about them back in July.

The thesis is established: Trump’s Supreme Court nominee sexually assaulted a woman; the antithesis is the dearth of evidence backing up the accuser; the synthesis will be a permanent black mark that follows Kavanaugh around, even after he reaches the high court.

The Hegelian farce of our journalism continues.  “News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read,” wrote Evelyn Waugh.  The only way to dispel false narratives is to care, and to think as well as read.  Discernment is the best weapon against the dialectic.



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Trump's Syria Attack: Praiseworthy or Bad Precedent?


It’s hard to think of the last time America didn’t have a wartime president.  From Franklin Roosevelt on, the U.S. military has been ordered to engage in hostilities at least at one point during each administration.

Donald Trump, the nationalist businessman from Queens who spoke with isolationist tones on the campaign trail, had the potential to break this cycle.  Trump violated Republican orthodoxy by denouncing the Iraq War as foolish, disparaging the legacy of NATO, and decrying how much blood and treasure we’ve lost to Middle East nation-building.

It’s one year into his presidency, and things have changed.  Trump, working with Britain and France, ordered missile strikes against military and weapon research sites in Syria.  The country’s leader, Bashar Assad, still in the throes of a civil war, allegedly deployed chemical weapons against rebels in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.  The sarin-based attack killed 80, including civilians and children.

The strikes come nearly a year to the day after Trump ordered a unilateral strike on a Syrian airbase in response to a similar chemical attack.  The Syrian regime, leading another front against the concept of rhetorical consistency, decried the U.S.-led assault as “brutal, barbaric aggression.”  Russia has called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, defending its ally Assad by denouncing the multilateral strike’s “devastating impact on the whole system of international relations.”

Dostoyevsky would be hard pressed to imagine the irony of Russia upholding international norms in the year 2018.

Washington loves a good war, and Trump received rare favorable coverage for his decisive intervention.  However, the president’s more vocal antiwar supporters aren’t happy.  Trump has seemingly gone back on his promise of America-first, and has embraced the country’s leading role in world affairs.  In other words, Trump has, to quote neocon Irving Kristol, been mugged by reality.

This was evident in Trump’s late-night address announcing the tactical measure.  “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” he declared.  Should Assad deploy lethal chemical weapons again, he shouldn’t be surprised by a more forceful riposte.

As Noah Rothman explains in Commentary, Trump really had no choice but to levy punishment on Syria’s army.  The precedent was set with last year’s attack on the Shayrat Airbase.  To demur would establish uncertain terms.  Likewise, the use of chemical weapons must remain prohibited, not just in letter, but in action.  “Reestablishing deterrence is in America’s vital national interest,” Rothman writes.  If we don’t do it, we can be sure someone else will.

It took me a while to understand this dynamic.  As a former Ron Paul acolyte, I was enraptured by the romantic notion that the United States is just another country, an equal nation in a world of nation-states.  But the United States is not just another country.  We are, and I don’t mean this pejoratively, an empire in the real sense of the world.  Our military presence dots the globe, and our values and regard for human life are imbued within international norms.  How we act on the world stage directs the behavior of other actors.

And yet there was something off with the way we went about striking Syria that isn’t exclusive to this latest salvo.  President Trump failed to cite any domestic law to justify his assault against Syrian armed forces.  The congressional mandate to fight Islamic insurgents doesn’t cover hostile actions against an officially recognized government. And as Daniel Larson points out, Trump also lacked the imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council for the strike, which puts America on even shakier legal ground (if any ground at all).  “While the attack is being sold as the enforcement of a norm against chemical weapons use, it isn’t possible to uphold an international norm while violating the most fundamental rule of international law,” Larson laments.

I know it’s popular for conservatives to pooh-pooh the U.N., but the post-World War II global system is anchored by laws set by the worldwide body.  There is a case to be made that since Russia would veto any Security Council vote on an attack against its ally, the block would be illegitimate, but that case wasn’t made.  Without lawful, congressional, or U.N. approval, Trump took military action against another country.  The credibility gained in the strike was tainted by this omission.

This is unfortunate but all too common.  The United States hasn’t formally declared war since Pearl Harbor.  Our political class is composed of craven opportunists unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of the office they hold.  So Congress outsources it to the executive branch, giving near complete deference to the president on waging war.

As for the U.N., we may soon rue our disregard for its legal strictures.  We benefit from the clear rules set down by the international organization.  When we act in violation, we invite others to do the same – the danger of which can’t be stressed enough.  As Robert Bolt’s Thomas More replied when asked if he’d let laws apply to the Devil, “Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”

Knocking down laws in the name of expediency is exceedingly myopic.  President Trump should think about that the next time we’re called to bombard Syria – or any other country – with missiles.  Sometimes a swift response is needed.  But going by the book has its benefits.  Unfortunately, that meek little truth is too oft lost in the heated temper of war.

Image: Michael Theis via Flickr.

It’s hard to think of the last time America didn’t have a wartime president.  From Franklin Roosevelt on, the U.S. military has been ordered to engage in hostilities at least at one point during each administration.

Donald Trump, the nationalist businessman from Queens who spoke with isolationist tones on the campaign trail, had the potential to break this cycle.  Trump violated Republican orthodoxy by denouncing the Iraq War as foolish, disparaging the legacy of NATO, and decrying how much blood and treasure we’ve lost to Middle East nation-building.

It’s one year into his presidency, and things have changed.  Trump, working with Britain and France, ordered missile strikes against military and weapon research sites in Syria.  The country’s leader, Bashar Assad, still in the throes of a civil war, allegedly deployed chemical weapons against rebels in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.  The sarin-based attack killed 80, including civilians and children.

The strikes come nearly a year to the day after Trump ordered a unilateral strike on a Syrian airbase in response to a similar chemical attack.  The Syrian regime, leading another front against the concept of rhetorical consistency, decried the U.S.-led assault as “brutal, barbaric aggression.”  Russia has called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, defending its ally Assad by denouncing the multilateral strike’s “devastating impact on the whole system of international relations.”

Dostoyevsky would be hard pressed to imagine the irony of Russia upholding international norms in the year 2018.

Washington loves a good war, and Trump received rare favorable coverage for his decisive intervention.  However, the president’s more vocal antiwar supporters aren’t happy.  Trump has seemingly gone back on his promise of America-first, and has embraced the country’s leading role in world affairs.  In other words, Trump has, to quote neocon Irving Kristol, been mugged by reality.

This was evident in Trump’s late-night address announcing the tactical measure.  “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” he declared.  Should Assad deploy lethal chemical weapons again, he shouldn’t be surprised by a more forceful riposte.

As Noah Rothman explains in Commentary, Trump really had no choice but to levy punishment on Syria’s army.  The precedent was set with last year’s attack on the Shayrat Airbase.  To demur would establish uncertain terms.  Likewise, the use of chemical weapons must remain prohibited, not just in letter, but in action.  “Reestablishing deterrence is in America’s vital national interest,” Rothman writes.  If we don’t do it, we can be sure someone else will.

It took me a while to understand this dynamic.  As a former Ron Paul acolyte, I was enraptured by the romantic notion that the United States is just another country, an equal nation in a world of nation-states.  But the United States is not just another country.  We are, and I don’t mean this pejoratively, an empire in the real sense of the world.  Our military presence dots the globe, and our values and regard for human life are imbued within international norms.  How we act on the world stage directs the behavior of other actors.

And yet there was something off with the way we went about striking Syria that isn’t exclusive to this latest salvo.  President Trump failed to cite any domestic law to justify his assault against Syrian armed forces.  The congressional mandate to fight Islamic insurgents doesn’t cover hostile actions against an officially recognized government. And as Daniel Larson points out, Trump also lacked the imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council for the strike, which puts America on even shakier legal ground (if any ground at all).  “While the attack is being sold as the enforcement of a norm against chemical weapons use, it isn’t possible to uphold an international norm while violating the most fundamental rule of international law,” Larson laments.

I know it’s popular for conservatives to pooh-pooh the U.N., but the post-World War II global system is anchored by laws set by the worldwide body.  There is a case to be made that since Russia would veto any Security Council vote on an attack against its ally, the block would be illegitimate, but that case wasn’t made.  Without lawful, congressional, or U.N. approval, Trump took military action against another country.  The credibility gained in the strike was tainted by this omission.

This is unfortunate but all too common.  The United States hasn’t formally declared war since Pearl Harbor.  Our political class is composed of craven opportunists unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of the office they hold.  So Congress outsources it to the executive branch, giving near complete deference to the president on waging war.

As for the U.N., we may soon rue our disregard for its legal strictures.  We benefit from the clear rules set down by the international organization.  When we act in violation, we invite others to do the same – the danger of which can’t be stressed enough.  As Robert Bolt’s Thomas More replied when asked if he’d let laws apply to the Devil, “Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”

Knocking down laws in the name of expediency is exceedingly myopic.  President Trump should think about that the next time we’re called to bombard Syria – or any other country – with missiles.  Sometimes a swift response is needed.  But going by the book has its benefits.  Unfortunately, that meek little truth is too oft lost in the heated temper of war.

Image: Michael Theis via Flickr.



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The Luddites Were Right!


“Is It OK to Be a Luddite?” asked novelist Thomas Pynchon all the way back in 1984, the year, according to George Orwell’s prediction, that we’d all be living in a technologically advanced dystopian hell.  At the time, the digital revolution was just taking off, the personal computer only a few years away from reality.

Pynchon questioned if the advent of the P.C. would be opposed by those who took after the Luddites of old – literary and intellectual humanists.  During the Industrial Revolution, the European intelligentsia fretted over the effect things like textile machines and the steam engine would have on manual labor.  This concern was wound into the works of Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, who warned of technological progress gone awry.

Then the electronic word processor came along and shut the snooty intellectuals up.  “Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead,” Pynchon lamented.  The Luddite mindset looked defeated at the hands of a few college dropouts tinkering in their garages.

Fast-forward almost three and a half decades, and Pynchon may think differently.  Two recent events have muddled our understanding of technological innovation, clouding and confusing what we thought we knew about the promise of advancement.

The first was the implosion of every techie’s dream: the self-driving car.  An auto-piloted Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian near Phoenix, Arizona.  At the time of the accident, the vehicle, a Volvo SUV, was in a state of full mechanical autonomy; the driver behind the wheel was there only for emergencies.  An emergency did occur, as Elaine Herzberg attempted to cross the road at night.  The car’s lights didn’t spot her in time.  The brakes failed to kick in. Herzberg lost her life on the darkened street.

This was no human error.  The Associated Press consulted two experts, who found that the SUV should have sensed Herzberg before the collision.  “The victim did not come out of nowhere.  She’s moving on a dark road, but it’s an open road, so Lidar (laser) and radar should have detected and classified her,” explained law professor Bryant Walker Smith.

Researcher Sam Abuelsmaid concurred, pointing out that the car’s detection system “absolutely should have been able to pick her up.”  The word “absolutely” is apropos – we’ve been conditioned to expect tech to operate perfectly as planned, yet we find ourselves disappointed when the copier gets jammed for the thousandth time.

The second incident to raise our suspicion of technology’s benefits was Facebook’s admission that the data firm Cambridge Analytica had “violated” its terms of usage by accessing the private data of an estimated 50 million users.  Cambridge, a British consulting firm employed at one point by the Trump presidential campaign, mined individual data by paying Facebook users for take a personality quiz via a third-party app, then turned around and used the participants’ contacts lists as its own address book.

If the tactic sounds familiar – gathering minute details about individual voters by using Facebook’s interconnectivity – it should.  It was the near exact tactic the 2012 Obama campaign used, all to adoring fanfare.  But since the Trump people did it, it’s all of a sudden the equivalent of summoning Satan with a Ouija board.

Nevertheless, Zuckerberg made the rounds on cable news, apologizing over and over for the lapse in their oversight.  “I wish we’d taken those steps earlier,” Zuckerberg told a scolding a CNN host about Facebook’s updated standards to protect user privacy.  “That … is probably the biggest mistake that we made here.”

The company’s mea culpa didn’t prevent its stock from tanking or big industry names like Elon Musk from completely disassociating with the brand.  And just like that, Zuckerberg’s social media superstructure was struck on its Achilles heel: public perception.

The hubbub is all nonsense, of course.  Only the most mendacious critics attest that Facebook was weaponized by dark forces.  This is a center-left-driven moral panic used to excuse the communicative failings of the political class.  Zuckerberg’s a simple scapegoat, driven out for the sin of allowing his platform to be used by those without elite approval.

Modern-day Luddites should take heart over these developments.  Uber has temporarily put the kibosh on testing autonomous vehicles.  Facebook will never slough off the shame of enabling a boor like Trump to enter the White House.  And now the social giant has to contend with a Federal Trade Commission investigation.

Noah Rothman of Commentary worries that the backlash we’re seeing to technology’s failures may inhibit our want for innovation.  After Elaine Herzberg’s death, Rothman predicts that the “temptation to put the brakes on this paradigm-shifting innovation will be immense.”  But we should fear not, as “this inevitable development will produce more winners than losers, as has virtually every other technological advancement of its kind.”

Like Stalin’s apocryphal omelet, death is sometimes the cost of betterment, whether it’s mortal death, the death of privacy, the death of freedom, or the death of our attention spans.

There’s something comically all too human about how many movies and books we produce about the dangers of technology, yet we still seek to slake our unquenchable thirst to push the cyber-frontier.  One viewing of Terminator 2: Judgment Day should be enough to shear our tech fetishes, yet the technologists of Silicon Valley press forward with the development of the cybernetic endgame: self-aware artificial intelligence.

Pynchon recognized as much the year the first Terminator hit theaters.  “[T]he next great challenge to watch out for will come,” he wrote with a littérateur’s foresight, “when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.”

What Pynchon described sounds eerily like the singularity, the epochal change when A.I. becomes self-reinforcing, awakening a new technological renaissance and changing humankind forever.  Once it hits, which some researchers believe may have already happened, there is no going back.  We’ll have said our vows to our new algorithmically designed cyber-bride, locked into marriage ’til death do us part, where we then upload our consciousness into cyberspace to “live” forever, in the loosest sense of the word.

Elaine Herzberg need not be a necessary fatality on our way to the brave new world of technological enhancement.  A little bit of that Luddite spirit could help us to distinguish between necessary technological change and our self-sacrifice before the digital gods.

“Is It OK to Be a Luddite?” asked novelist Thomas Pynchon all the way back in 1984, the year, according to George Orwell’s prediction, that we’d all be living in a technologically advanced dystopian hell.  At the time, the digital revolution was just taking off, the personal computer only a few years away from reality.

Pynchon questioned if the advent of the P.C. would be opposed by those who took after the Luddites of old – literary and intellectual humanists.  During the Industrial Revolution, the European intelligentsia fretted over the effect things like textile machines and the steam engine would have on manual labor.  This concern was wound into the works of Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, who warned of technological progress gone awry.

Then the electronic word processor came along and shut the snooty intellectuals up.  “Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead,” Pynchon lamented.  The Luddite mindset looked defeated at the hands of a few college dropouts tinkering in their garages.

Fast-forward almost three and a half decades, and Pynchon may think differently.  Two recent events have muddled our understanding of technological innovation, clouding and confusing what we thought we knew about the promise of advancement.

The first was the implosion of every techie’s dream: the self-driving car.  An auto-piloted Uber vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian near Phoenix, Arizona.  At the time of the accident, the vehicle, a Volvo SUV, was in a state of full mechanical autonomy; the driver behind the wheel was there only for emergencies.  An emergency did occur, as Elaine Herzberg attempted to cross the road at night.  The car’s lights didn’t spot her in time.  The brakes failed to kick in. Herzberg lost her life on the darkened street.

This was no human error.  The Associated Press consulted two experts, who found that the SUV should have sensed Herzberg before the collision.  “The victim did not come out of nowhere.  She’s moving on a dark road, but it’s an open road, so Lidar (laser) and radar should have detected and classified her,” explained law professor Bryant Walker Smith.

Researcher Sam Abuelsmaid concurred, pointing out that the car’s detection system “absolutely should have been able to pick her up.”  The word “absolutely” is apropos – we’ve been conditioned to expect tech to operate perfectly as planned, yet we find ourselves disappointed when the copier gets jammed for the thousandth time.

The second incident to raise our suspicion of technology’s benefits was Facebook’s admission that the data firm Cambridge Analytica had “violated” its terms of usage by accessing the private data of an estimated 50 million users.  Cambridge, a British consulting firm employed at one point by the Trump presidential campaign, mined individual data by paying Facebook users for take a personality quiz via a third-party app, then turned around and used the participants’ contacts lists as its own address book.

If the tactic sounds familiar – gathering minute details about individual voters by using Facebook’s interconnectivity – it should.  It was the near exact tactic the 2012 Obama campaign used, all to adoring fanfare.  But since the Trump people did it, it’s all of a sudden the equivalent of summoning Satan with a Ouija board.

Nevertheless, Zuckerberg made the rounds on cable news, apologizing over and over for the lapse in their oversight.  “I wish we’d taken those steps earlier,” Zuckerberg told a scolding a CNN host about Facebook’s updated standards to protect user privacy.  “That … is probably the biggest mistake that we made here.”

The company’s mea culpa didn’t prevent its stock from tanking or big industry names like Elon Musk from completely disassociating with the brand.  And just like that, Zuckerberg’s social media superstructure was struck on its Achilles heel: public perception.

The hubbub is all nonsense, of course.  Only the most mendacious critics attest that Facebook was weaponized by dark forces.  This is a center-left-driven moral panic used to excuse the communicative failings of the political class.  Zuckerberg’s a simple scapegoat, driven out for the sin of allowing his platform to be used by those without elite approval.

Modern-day Luddites should take heart over these developments.  Uber has temporarily put the kibosh on testing autonomous vehicles.  Facebook will never slough off the shame of enabling a boor like Trump to enter the White House.  And now the social giant has to contend with a Federal Trade Commission investigation.

Noah Rothman of Commentary worries that the backlash we’re seeing to technology’s failures may inhibit our want for innovation.  After Elaine Herzberg’s death, Rothman predicts that the “temptation to put the brakes on this paradigm-shifting innovation will be immense.”  But we should fear not, as “this inevitable development will produce more winners than losers, as has virtually every other technological advancement of its kind.”

Like Stalin’s apocryphal omelet, death is sometimes the cost of betterment, whether it’s mortal death, the death of privacy, the death of freedom, or the death of our attention spans.

There’s something comically all too human about how many movies and books we produce about the dangers of technology, yet we still seek to slake our unquenchable thirst to push the cyber-frontier.  One viewing of Terminator 2: Judgment Day should be enough to shear our tech fetishes, yet the technologists of Silicon Valley press forward with the development of the cybernetic endgame: self-aware artificial intelligence.

Pynchon recognized as much the year the first Terminator hit theaters.  “[T]he next great challenge to watch out for will come,” he wrote with a littérateur’s foresight, “when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.”

What Pynchon described sounds eerily like the singularity, the epochal change when A.I. becomes self-reinforcing, awakening a new technological renaissance and changing humankind forever.  Once it hits, which some researchers believe may have already happened, there is no going back.  We’ll have said our vows to our new algorithmically designed cyber-bride, locked into marriage ’til death do us part, where we then upload our consciousness into cyberspace to “live” forever, in the loosest sense of the word.

Elaine Herzberg need not be a necessary fatality on our way to the brave new world of technological enhancement.  A little bit of that Luddite spirit could help us to distinguish between necessary technological change and our self-sacrifice before the digital gods.



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Too Kind to the Media


He who indulges hope will always be disappointed.  So said Dr. Johnson in one of his many apothegms.

The sudden departure of Ms. Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, was indeed a disappointment.  It’s not that Hicks, who has been close to Trump since her days at the president’s real estate company, close enough that she earned the nickname “the Trump whisperer,” had any talent for political communication.  She was one of the few constants in Trump’s inner circle, a non-ideological assistant to a president who doesn’t need any help making his thoughts known.

Hope’s departure leaves yet another hole to fill in a White House slowly hemorrhaging talent.  Trump seems dissatisfied with every major player around him: he constantly rails on Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the press; national security adviser H.R. McMaster is rumored to be on his way out; Chief of Staff John Kelly is engaged in a quiet war with the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump; and secretary of state Rex Tillerson is none too liked within the Oval Office.

The loss of Hope does present an opportunity.  If you’re like me, you’ve grown tired of the amateur hour antics spilling out of the West Wing onto Pennsylvania Avenue.  You’re tired of the media greedily grasping onto any morsel of gossip to report, framing the Trump administration as one big backstabbing drama.  You want a return to order, to normalcy.  And, above all, you want a modicum of professionalism.

Trump should hire a cool, calm, and competent communications director.  But at this point, it’s clear that such a thing isn’t coming.  Trump is Trump.  He’s always going to be Trump.  At 71 years, his habits are more established than a glacier-carved moraine in the Midwest.  The tweets, the gaffes, the misstatements, the policy reversals – they’re now par for the course.

But if order is irreparable, perhaps something productive could still be gained.  For all his expertise in constructing beautiful buildings, Trump is a wrecking ball.  His blunt-force style is useful for tearing things down.  And what better to demolish than the president’s number-one enemy?

I talk of the media and their crazed crusade to chase Trump out of office.  For too long, the White House communications office has played too nice with its main foil: the media.  It’s been the school nerd, endlessly pounded into the schoolyard pavement by a bunch of know-nothing bullies with a sense of importance so inflated, it would make the Goodyear blimp shrivel up in embarrassment.

There’s no need for this pusillanimity. The D.C. press corps is the most despicable group of preening, self-obsessed, pharisaical nitwits ever not to sit in the jury box during a Salem witch trial.  Puritanical in demeanor, hypocritical in nature, dense in understanding, these malevolent scribblers are an offense to everything good and true in this world.  They deserve to be treated as the rotten souls they are.

Granted, some journalists remain fair-minded – Jake Tapper and Maggie Haberman come to mind.  But most are more focused on blasting off pithy takes on Twitter than doing any actual hard-nosed reporting.

Here are a few suggestions for how the next White House communications director should deal with the press.

First things first: end the dreaded White House press briefing.  This exercise in administrative masochism accomplishes nothing.  It only provides a forum for grandstanding, where blackguards like CNN’s Jim Acosta try to run up the “gotcha” score in the name of civic duty.  The briefings are cheap theater, where exchanges are all tilted toward creating viral social media clips.  Deny glamour-seeking journalists their daily pageant of jackassery and restore some dignity to the White House.

Second, turn Twitter’s verification system into a banishment list.  Cease all individual communication with anyone bearing a blue check mark next to his Twitter handle.  And for Heaven’s sake, stop responding to press inquiries over the platform.  Journalists have a home field advantage on Twitter – except, that is, when they take on Trump himself.

And lastly, why not write an order to lock one or two muckrakers up from time to time?  Trump would gleefully sign it.  Jailing journalists is a fine American tradition.  All the great presidents have done it, from Adams to Lincoln to Wilson.  Certainly an example could be set by throwing the next journo who publishes Democrat-provided classified information behind bars.

The last proposal is meant in Swiftian jest.  The free press remains one of our best institutions.  But the rabid hatred many members of the press have for Trump is nonpareil.  “I think the media have been harder on Trump than any other president certainly that I’ve known about,” former president Jimmy Carter recently told the New York Times.

When the soft-spoken Carter is defending Trump, you know something’s wrong.  The media’s penchant for publishing false, unsubstantiated stories has gotten out of hand.  The eagerness with which professional reporters breathlessly praise the poise of a murderous dictator’s sister over their very own vice president reveals a deep animus toward the current administration.

Hicks was too kind to a press that’s more than eager to sacrifice the duly elected leader of the country on the altar of online page views.  The one-sided arrangement can’t sustain itself.  The media’s credibility is slowly burning out, along with our shared set of common truths we use to make sense of things.

Enough with hopeful niceties – we need reprisal and ridicule in large amounts.  Overly anxious journalists are begging for a swift kick in the pants.  The next White House communications director should be able to give it to them, good and hard.

He who indulges hope will always be disappointed.  So said Dr. Johnson in one of his many apothegms.

The sudden departure of Ms. Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, was indeed a disappointment.  It’s not that Hicks, who has been close to Trump since her days at the president’s real estate company, close enough that she earned the nickname “the Trump whisperer,” had any talent for political communication.  She was one of the few constants in Trump’s inner circle, a non-ideological assistant to a president who doesn’t need any help making his thoughts known.

Hope’s departure leaves yet another hole to fill in a White House slowly hemorrhaging talent.  Trump seems dissatisfied with every major player around him: he constantly rails on Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the press; national security adviser H.R. McMaster is rumored to be on his way out; Chief of Staff John Kelly is engaged in a quiet war with the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump; and secretary of state Rex Tillerson is none too liked within the Oval Office.

The loss of Hope does present an opportunity.  If you’re like me, you’ve grown tired of the amateur hour antics spilling out of the West Wing onto Pennsylvania Avenue.  You’re tired of the media greedily grasping onto any morsel of gossip to report, framing the Trump administration as one big backstabbing drama.  You want a return to order, to normalcy.  And, above all, you want a modicum of professionalism.

Trump should hire a cool, calm, and competent communications director.  But at this point, it’s clear that such a thing isn’t coming.  Trump is Trump.  He’s always going to be Trump.  At 71 years, his habits are more established than a glacier-carved moraine in the Midwest.  The tweets, the gaffes, the misstatements, the policy reversals – they’re now par for the course.

But if order is irreparable, perhaps something productive could still be gained.  For all his expertise in constructing beautiful buildings, Trump is a wrecking ball.  His blunt-force style is useful for tearing things down.  And what better to demolish than the president’s number-one enemy?

I talk of the media and their crazed crusade to chase Trump out of office.  For too long, the White House communications office has played too nice with its main foil: the media.  It’s been the school nerd, endlessly pounded into the schoolyard pavement by a bunch of know-nothing bullies with a sense of importance so inflated, it would make the Goodyear blimp shrivel up in embarrassment.

There’s no need for this pusillanimity. The D.C. press corps is the most despicable group of preening, self-obsessed, pharisaical nitwits ever not to sit in the jury box during a Salem witch trial.  Puritanical in demeanor, hypocritical in nature, dense in understanding, these malevolent scribblers are an offense to everything good and true in this world.  They deserve to be treated as the rotten souls they are.

Granted, some journalists remain fair-minded – Jake Tapper and Maggie Haberman come to mind.  But most are more focused on blasting off pithy takes on Twitter than doing any actual hard-nosed reporting.

Here are a few suggestions for how the next White House communications director should deal with the press.

First things first: end the dreaded White House press briefing.  This exercise in administrative masochism accomplishes nothing.  It only provides a forum for grandstanding, where blackguards like CNN’s Jim Acosta try to run up the “gotcha” score in the name of civic duty.  The briefings are cheap theater, where exchanges are all tilted toward creating viral social media clips.  Deny glamour-seeking journalists their daily pageant of jackassery and restore some dignity to the White House.

Second, turn Twitter’s verification system into a banishment list.  Cease all individual communication with anyone bearing a blue check mark next to his Twitter handle.  And for Heaven’s sake, stop responding to press inquiries over the platform.  Journalists have a home field advantage on Twitter – except, that is, when they take on Trump himself.

And lastly, why not write an order to lock one or two muckrakers up from time to time?  Trump would gleefully sign it.  Jailing journalists is a fine American tradition.  All the great presidents have done it, from Adams to Lincoln to Wilson.  Certainly an example could be set by throwing the next journo who publishes Democrat-provided classified information behind bars.

The last proposal is meant in Swiftian jest.  The free press remains one of our best institutions.  But the rabid hatred many members of the press have for Trump is nonpareil.  “I think the media have been harder on Trump than any other president certainly that I’ve known about,” former president Jimmy Carter recently told the New York Times.

When the soft-spoken Carter is defending Trump, you know something’s wrong.  The media’s penchant for publishing false, unsubstantiated stories has gotten out of hand.  The eagerness with which professional reporters breathlessly praise the poise of a murderous dictator’s sister over their very own vice president reveals a deep animus toward the current administration.

Hicks was too kind to a press that’s more than eager to sacrifice the duly elected leader of the country on the altar of online page views.  The one-sided arrangement can’t sustain itself.  The media’s credibility is slowly burning out, along with our shared set of common truths we use to make sense of things.

Enough with hopeful niceties – we need reprisal and ridicule in large amounts.  Overly anxious journalists are begging for a swift kick in the pants.  The next White House communications director should be able to give it to them, good and hard.



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Libertarianism Is Still a Mess


Remember Gary Johnson?  The former New Mexico governor was supposed to be the rational presidential alternative to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – 2016’s respectable choice among the morally compromised.  Standard-bearer of the Libertarian Party, Johnson pitched himself as fiscally conservative and socially not giving a damn, a hilariously out-of-touch selling point for a country predominantly composed of socially conservative economic moderates.

Johnson also played the miscast part of an outré ideologue incapable of articulating an ideology well.  Unable to locate basic Middle East cities, he wore suits with Nike trainers, like a halfwit intern interviewing for his first job.

It’s the least of wonders why Johnson received only 3% of the popular vote in an election year featuring two historically unpopular major party candidates.  The man embodied everything wrong with libertarianism: its puritan devotion to abstract concepts, the male-exclusive creepiness, a childlike love of pot.  He also lacked its most ennobling traits: bookish brilliance, a sardonic disposition toward politics, and any kind of sophisticated understanding of economics.

It’s not little ol’ Gary’s fault he fumbled his way into failure.  The Libertarian Party, despite being organized enough to have a spot on the presidential ballot in all 50 states, is a shambolic organization, complete with overweight men stripping on stage at the national convention.  The party leaders don’t seem to understand the first intuitive rule in politics: never say what you really think.

Arvin Vohra, vice chairman of the Libertarian National Committee (LNC), recently faced a storm of criticism for reciting libertarian dogma.  In a heady Facebook post that would make good fodder for a college discussion group thick in the haze of marijuana smoke, Vohra went full libertarian.  From calling U.S. soldiers bought-and-paid-for killers to likening public school teachers to S.S.-Totenkopfverbände, nothing in Vohra’s hyperbolic comparisons is surprising to anyone who’s read the daily headlines of LewRockwell.com.

Where Vohra crosses libertarianism’s faint line is his comments on teenage romance: an area into which no libertarian of any age should venture without adult supervision.  On the tricky subject of adult-minor relations, Vohra asks, “Should an adult be allowed to have sex with a teenager?”  In true liberty-loving fashion, he answered, “Only the adult, the teenager, and their families/culture should have a say.  There is no reason to bring government into it.”

It’s hard to think of a more quintessential flaw in libertarian thinking than the notion that adults having sex with teenagers is a private matter outside the realm of lawful censure.  If you squint your mind’s eye hard enough, you can almost understand the libertarian enthusiasm for sanctioned drug use and cutting the military budget to an eighth its current size.  But adults macking on teens?  In our increasingly standard-less society, thank heavens we haven’t totally dismissed our aversion to fully grown men stalking outside the high school gym.

The LNC thinks different.  The committee failed to vote Vohra off, not even mustering the support to rebuke him publicly.  Vohra’s comments stand as a living testament to the libertarian rabbit hole: the dangerous place you fall into when you follow the philosophy to its logical conclusion.

In the age of President Donald Trump, of #MeToo outings of powerful figures, and vertiginous economic dynamism unleashing anxiety among the middle class, philosophical bickering over the age of consent seem quaint, the subject of endless chirping on internet message boards.  But that’s where organized libertarians find themselves these days, circling the fringes, begging to be let into polite company.

Back in late 2014, when the first rumblings of the 2016 election were heard, the New York Times Magazine asked, “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?”  Kentucky senator Rand Paul, son of erstwhile congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, was ascendant.  His floppy russet curls graced the cover of Time.  Americans, we were told, were tired of state prohibitions on marijuana, fine with redefining marriage, and exhausted with our far-flung foreign policy.

Paul, who inherited his father’s enthusiastic following, would champion a new politics, one open to less government intervention in private life and more respect for personal choice.

Then Trump came along, a squall blowing all elitist notions of voters to the periphery.  It turns out the country wasn’t ready for a libertarian moment.  And it certainly wasn’t ready to embrace third parties, eccentric and diverse as they may be.

Contra Jonathan Chait, Trump put the libertarian moment to bed, and not too soon.

As a former dyed-in-the-wool Rothbardian, I understand how alluring the idea of totally unencumbered freedom can be.  But age and adversity bring wisdom.  Libertarianism doesn’t work without equal doses of traditionalism and deference for collective decision-making.  The individual suffers outside the community.  We’ve known as much since Aristotle.

The Libertarian Party is as ineffectual as it’s ever been and has even managed to regress some.  Its members have gone all in on social leftism, embracing libertine lifestyles, adopting liberal shibboleths about race and gender, discarding any trace of the cultural conservatism of the party’s intellectual forefathers.

What has been the return on this investment?  Qualified candidates abandoning the party.  Infighting among the ranks.  The former president of the leading libertarian think-tank outed as a serial sexual harasser.  A total shedding of former principles.

The Libertarian Party lacks a future other than playing the pretend role of a spoiler.  An enclave of stoners, sex hounds, basement-dwellers, pagan ritualists, amateur philosophers, goldbugs, and crypto-currency enthusiasts isn’t fit to run a laundromat, let alone a country.

If the Republican Party doesn’t want to go the way of the Whigs post-Trump, it should continue cultivating the natural constituency already drawn to it.  Until the Libertarian Party decides to get up and leave the perpetual graduate seminar, it will remain inconsequential.  As it should be.

Remember Gary Johnson?  The former New Mexico governor was supposed to be the rational presidential alternative to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump – 2016’s respectable choice among the morally compromised.  Standard-bearer of the Libertarian Party, Johnson pitched himself as fiscally conservative and socially not giving a damn, a hilariously out-of-touch selling point for a country predominantly composed of socially conservative economic moderates.

Johnson also played the miscast part of an outré ideologue incapable of articulating an ideology well.  Unable to locate basic Middle East cities, he wore suits with Nike trainers, like a halfwit intern interviewing for his first job.

It’s the least of wonders why Johnson received only 3% of the popular vote in an election year featuring two historically unpopular major party candidates.  The man embodied everything wrong with libertarianism: its puritan devotion to abstract concepts, the male-exclusive creepiness, a childlike love of pot.  He also lacked its most ennobling traits: bookish brilliance, a sardonic disposition toward politics, and any kind of sophisticated understanding of economics.

It’s not little ol’ Gary’s fault he fumbled his way into failure.  The Libertarian Party, despite being organized enough to have a spot on the presidential ballot in all 50 states, is a shambolic organization, complete with overweight men stripping on stage at the national convention.  The party leaders don’t seem to understand the first intuitive rule in politics: never say what you really think.

Arvin Vohra, vice chairman of the Libertarian National Committee (LNC), recently faced a storm of criticism for reciting libertarian dogma.  In a heady Facebook post that would make good fodder for a college discussion group thick in the haze of marijuana smoke, Vohra went full libertarian.  From calling U.S. soldiers bought-and-paid-for killers to likening public school teachers to S.S.-Totenkopfverbände, nothing in Vohra’s hyperbolic comparisons is surprising to anyone who’s read the daily headlines of LewRockwell.com.

Where Vohra crosses libertarianism’s faint line is his comments on teenage romance: an area into which no libertarian of any age should venture without adult supervision.  On the tricky subject of adult-minor relations, Vohra asks, “Should an adult be allowed to have sex with a teenager?”  In true liberty-loving fashion, he answered, “Only the adult, the teenager, and their families/culture should have a say.  There is no reason to bring government into it.”

It’s hard to think of a more quintessential flaw in libertarian thinking than the notion that adults having sex with teenagers is a private matter outside the realm of lawful censure.  If you squint your mind’s eye hard enough, you can almost understand the libertarian enthusiasm for sanctioned drug use and cutting the military budget to an eighth its current size.  But adults macking on teens?  In our increasingly standard-less society, thank heavens we haven’t totally dismissed our aversion to fully grown men stalking outside the high school gym.

The LNC thinks different.  The committee failed to vote Vohra off, not even mustering the support to rebuke him publicly.  Vohra’s comments stand as a living testament to the libertarian rabbit hole: the dangerous place you fall into when you follow the philosophy to its logical conclusion.

In the age of President Donald Trump, of #MeToo outings of powerful figures, and vertiginous economic dynamism unleashing anxiety among the middle class, philosophical bickering over the age of consent seem quaint, the subject of endless chirping on internet message boards.  But that’s where organized libertarians find themselves these days, circling the fringes, begging to be let into polite company.

Back in late 2014, when the first rumblings of the 2016 election were heard, the New York Times Magazine asked, “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?”  Kentucky senator Rand Paul, son of erstwhile congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, was ascendant.  His floppy russet curls graced the cover of Time.  Americans, we were told, were tired of state prohibitions on marijuana, fine with redefining marriage, and exhausted with our far-flung foreign policy.

Paul, who inherited his father’s enthusiastic following, would champion a new politics, one open to less government intervention in private life and more respect for personal choice.

Then Trump came along, a squall blowing all elitist notions of voters to the periphery.  It turns out the country wasn’t ready for a libertarian moment.  And it certainly wasn’t ready to embrace third parties, eccentric and diverse as they may be.

Contra Jonathan Chait, Trump put the libertarian moment to bed, and not too soon.

As a former dyed-in-the-wool Rothbardian, I understand how alluring the idea of totally unencumbered freedom can be.  But age and adversity bring wisdom.  Libertarianism doesn’t work without equal doses of traditionalism and deference for collective decision-making.  The individual suffers outside the community.  We’ve known as much since Aristotle.

The Libertarian Party is as ineffectual as it’s ever been and has even managed to regress some.  Its members have gone all in on social leftism, embracing libertine lifestyles, adopting liberal shibboleths about race and gender, discarding any trace of the cultural conservatism of the party’s intellectual forefathers.

What has been the return on this investment?  Qualified candidates abandoning the party.  Infighting among the ranks.  The former president of the leading libertarian think-tank outed as a serial sexual harasser.  A total shedding of former principles.

The Libertarian Party lacks a future other than playing the pretend role of a spoiler.  An enclave of stoners, sex hounds, basement-dwellers, pagan ritualists, amateur philosophers, goldbugs, and crypto-currency enthusiasts isn’t fit to run a laundromat, let alone a country.

If the Republican Party doesn’t want to go the way of the Whigs post-Trump, it should continue cultivating the natural constituency already drawn to it.  Until the Libertarian Party decides to get up and leave the perpetual graduate seminar, it will remain inconsequential.  As it should be.



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Identity Politics Hits a Brick Wall


Dave Weigel, the portly, nesting doll look-alike reporter for the Washington Post, is no fan of Mark Lilla, the Columbia University professor who issued a distress call to liberals about embracing identity politics following Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

Identity politics, Lilla argues in his new book The Once and Future Liberal, is a myopic tactic for regaining political ground. “As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity you invite your adversary to do the same,” he explains. “Those who play one race card should be prepared to be trumped by another, as we saw subtly and not so subtly in the 2016 presidential election.”

The Spectator columnist Ed West made the same point in a piece published not long after Trump’s astonishing win. Trump, West observed, is “the triumph of identity politics,” a man who turned the Democrats’ emphasis on minority races upside down and cobbled together a winning coalition of whites, spanning from the well-to-do to the working class.

Licking their wounds and nursing their pride, Democrats woke up the morning after Election Day desperately searching for an answer as to why Trump outsmarted them at their own game. More than a year later, they have yet to devise a foolproof plan to resist the President, outside of rabid outrage over trivialities and vulva-shaped crochet hats.

Weigel, intrepid reporter that he is, thinks Democrats have figured out a way to fell Trump, or at least his Republican allies in this fall’s midterm elections. Following the President’s highly-praised State of the Union address, not one, not two, not three, but five Democrats gave rebuttals, each tripping over one another to deliver the most concise, “like”-friendly salvo that would, hopefully, be looped endlessly over social media. The party employed its usual cast of characters to give the team rebuttal: a Kennedy, a grandfatherly socialist, a Spanish speaker, an insipid third-party nobody, and a black woman who’s temperamentally incapable of not calling everything racist.

The messages were all the same. President Trump is simultaneously incompetent and masterfully devious; a hapless stooge and a cunning oligarch; a friend of benighted provincials and an ally of big business. Nothing of note stuck out in any speech other than Chapstick-laden lips of Bobby Kennedy’s grandkid.

One theme did stick out, however, according to Weigel. He notes the “debate about ‘identity politics’ that briefly distracted Democrats after 2016” has been “long forgotten.” In a tweet promoting the report, Weigel bolsters his conclusion, directly naming Lilla: “One takeaway: The battle over ‘identity politics’ has been settled, and Mark Lilla (remember him?) lost.”

Au contraire, Mr. Weigel, but to paraphrase Chesterton, ditching identity politics has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

The so-called squabble over identity politics that was supposed to swallow up the Democratic Party never actually happened. While a few introspective types like Lilla considered ditching the civically poisonous belief system, howling lonely in the cold night, the rest of the Democrat coalition kept right on chugging along, cutting and pasting political interests based on skin color, private parts, and troublesome legal status.

If there was any serious conversation among Hillary Clinton voters about the pitfalls of identity-centrism, it was vanquished when the first Women’s March crowded the streets of Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration. It lost further ground in the outrage following the administration’s first executive order limiting travel from a handful of Muslim-majority countries.

By the time liberal precincts started removing monuments dedicated to Confederate Army generals last summer, it was more than obvious the liberal obsession with racial and sexual identity wasn’t withering. If anything, Trump’s rise made it a more potent weapon.

In attempting to malign Lilla’s admonition of identity politics, Weigel creates a straw man, only to knock it down. Lilla’s small but instructive monograph was dismissed too quickly by the media set to have any sort of impact on voters. It was a shame. His message of social solidarity over sowing division, of reaching out to rural whites over dismissing them in favor of urban centers, is still a compelling one.

Democrats, if they’ve any care left for politicking, will be kicking themselves soon enough for not heeding Lilla’s advice. Already, the tenuous strands holding together the identity-driven voting bloc are stretching beyond capacity.

Chelsea Manning, the soldier-cum-transgender activist, was vilified by his fellow leftists for associating with pro-Trump writers. Rose McGowan, the actress who helped out Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein for being a lecherous abuser, was recently drawn into a shouting match with a transgender person over not doing enough to help trans women. A Snapchat video of a Hispanic girl calling black people “trash” who “need to die” recently went viral, eliciting a wave of backlash.

These small but significant outbursts portend a greater blowup for those motivated primarily by personal grievance. The identity politic coalition cobbled together by Democrats can’t last because, ultimately, identity is a selfish ideal. There’s nothing wrong with valuing the history and culture of people like you. But to maniacally focus on your own living traits, to put your superficial characteristics above thoughts of your own countrymen, destroys the potential for democratic governance.

Identity politics is a misnomer because it’s only effective at one thing: tearing a society apart. Politics is an art of persuasion and compromise. Linking it to identity is a sure way to tank cordiality, and, by extension, the democratic republic we call home.

Dave Weigel, the portly, nesting doll look-alike reporter for the Washington Post, is no fan of Mark Lilla, the Columbia University professor who issued a distress call to liberals about embracing identity politics following Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

Identity politics, Lilla argues in his new book The Once and Future Liberal, is a myopic tactic for regaining political ground. “As soon as you cast an issue exclusively in terms of identity you invite your adversary to do the same,” he explains. “Those who play one race card should be prepared to be trumped by another, as we saw subtly and not so subtly in the 2016 presidential election.”

The Spectator columnist Ed West made the same point in a piece published not long after Trump’s astonishing win. Trump, West observed, is “the triumph of identity politics,” a man who turned the Democrats’ emphasis on minority races upside down and cobbled together a winning coalition of whites, spanning from the well-to-do to the working class.

Licking their wounds and nursing their pride, Democrats woke up the morning after Election Day desperately searching for an answer as to why Trump outsmarted them at their own game. More than a year later, they have yet to devise a foolproof plan to resist the President, outside of rabid outrage over trivialities and vulva-shaped crochet hats.

Weigel, intrepid reporter that he is, thinks Democrats have figured out a way to fell Trump, or at least his Republican allies in this fall’s midterm elections. Following the President’s highly-praised State of the Union address, not one, not two, not three, but five Democrats gave rebuttals, each tripping over one another to deliver the most concise, “like”-friendly salvo that would, hopefully, be looped endlessly over social media. The party employed its usual cast of characters to give the team rebuttal: a Kennedy, a grandfatherly socialist, a Spanish speaker, an insipid third-party nobody, and a black woman who’s temperamentally incapable of not calling everything racist.

The messages were all the same. President Trump is simultaneously incompetent and masterfully devious; a hapless stooge and a cunning oligarch; a friend of benighted provincials and an ally of big business. Nothing of note stuck out in any speech other than Chapstick-laden lips of Bobby Kennedy’s grandkid.

One theme did stick out, however, according to Weigel. He notes the “debate about ‘identity politics’ that briefly distracted Democrats after 2016” has been “long forgotten.” In a tweet promoting the report, Weigel bolsters his conclusion, directly naming Lilla: “One takeaway: The battle over ‘identity politics’ has been settled, and Mark Lilla (remember him?) lost.”

Au contraire, Mr. Weigel, but to paraphrase Chesterton, ditching identity politics has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

The so-called squabble over identity politics that was supposed to swallow up the Democratic Party never actually happened. While a few introspective types like Lilla considered ditching the civically poisonous belief system, howling lonely in the cold night, the rest of the Democrat coalition kept right on chugging along, cutting and pasting political interests based on skin color, private parts, and troublesome legal status.

If there was any serious conversation among Hillary Clinton voters about the pitfalls of identity-centrism, it was vanquished when the first Women’s March crowded the streets of Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration. It lost further ground in the outrage following the administration’s first executive order limiting travel from a handful of Muslim-majority countries.

By the time liberal precincts started removing monuments dedicated to Confederate Army generals last summer, it was more than obvious the liberal obsession with racial and sexual identity wasn’t withering. If anything, Trump’s rise made it a more potent weapon.

In attempting to malign Lilla’s admonition of identity politics, Weigel creates a straw man, only to knock it down. Lilla’s small but instructive monograph was dismissed too quickly by the media set to have any sort of impact on voters. It was a shame. His message of social solidarity over sowing division, of reaching out to rural whites over dismissing them in favor of urban centers, is still a compelling one.

Democrats, if they’ve any care left for politicking, will be kicking themselves soon enough for not heeding Lilla’s advice. Already, the tenuous strands holding together the identity-driven voting bloc are stretching beyond capacity.

Chelsea Manning, the soldier-cum-transgender activist, was vilified by his fellow leftists for associating with pro-Trump writers. Rose McGowan, the actress who helped out Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein for being a lecherous abuser, was recently drawn into a shouting match with a transgender person over not doing enough to help trans women. A Snapchat video of a Hispanic girl calling black people “trash” who “need to die” recently went viral, eliciting a wave of backlash.

These small but significant outbursts portend a greater blowup for those motivated primarily by personal grievance. The identity politic coalition cobbled together by Democrats can’t last because, ultimately, identity is a selfish ideal. There’s nothing wrong with valuing the history and culture of people like you. But to maniacally focus on your own living traits, to put your superficial characteristics above thoughts of your own countrymen, destroys the potential for democratic governance.

Identity politics is a misnomer because it’s only effective at one thing: tearing a society apart. Politics is an art of persuasion and compromise. Linking it to identity is a sure way to tank cordiality, and, by extension, the democratic republic we call home.



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Bradley Manning to the Rescue…of Republicans?


Bradley Manning, who goes by “Chelsea” because he thinks he is a woman, could end up as the unlikeliest hero in history for Republicans.  The soldier-traitor-“transgender” activist recently announced a bid for Senate in the deep blue state of Maryland, securing a place on the ballot in the Democratic primary.  Manning is challenging incumbent Senator Ben Cardin, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Wonder of wonders, Manning could end up handing a safe Senate seat for Democrats to the GOP, balancing out the loss in Alabama for the Grand Old Party.

Manning is many things to many people.  To veterans and current military personnel, he is an unrepentant traitor who carelessly handed over classified information to WikiLeaks, putting active-duty troops in danger.  To leftists and libertarians, Manning is a whistleblower who bypassed traditional media outlets to warn the world about America’s war crimes.

Even the government is split on what Manning is.  For indiscriminately sending 700,000 military field reports and diplomatic cables to a Russia-friendly foreign entity, Manning was charged with numerous crimes, including espionage.  But, after serving seven years of his 35-year sentence, former president Barack Obama commuted his sentence.

Traitor or hero, treason or bravery – whatever your take, Manning has come to represent the radical, anarchic side of the progressive ideology.  His social media profile depicts him clad in black Antifa wear.  His postings are a sugary mix of feel-good pabulum and emojis more befitting of a teenage girl than a man in his thirties.

Manning’s campaign announcement video is a low-budget mix of confused righteousness.  In this one-minute clip, Manning declares that we live in “trying times” with flashing clips of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The problem, Manning insists, is that nobody is willing to fight back against our feckless leaders.  Therefore, we need to “stop expecting that our systems will somehow fix themselves” and, in return, “take the reins of power” back.

Manning confidently asserts at the end, “You’re damn right we got this,” repeating the same banal hashtag that has become a staple of his self-focused Twitter missives.

The contradictions overwhelm.  Manning denounces the political class while simultaneously pleading to be part of it.  He claims that “we don’t need more or better leaders” while, again, pitching himself as a worthy Senate candidate, one of the highest leadership positions in the country.

The whole aporia reminds me of the Yeats poem “The Great Day,” where the Irish poet facetiously heralds a revolution:

HURRAH for revolution and more cannon-shot!

A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.

Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!

The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

Manning denounces the very system he wishes to be a part of.  What his message is, outside being a vessel for identity politics to actualize within the world’s greatest deliberative body, is unclear.

That hasn’t stopped and outpouring of support for his candidacy, though.  The more strident parts of the leftist coalition that forms the Democratic Party are cheering his bid while denouncing naysayers as “transphobic.”  When Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden spread the theory that Manning is a Putin patsy who is purposefully taking on one of the most hawkish Russia critics in the Senate, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald went for the jugular, penning an incisive commentary titled “Centrist Democrats Launch Smear Campaign Against Young Transgender [sic] Woman [sic], All to Keep an Old, Straight, White Man in Power.”

As schoolchildren like to chant when two classmates exchange blows: fight, fight, fight!

For all the talk of a civil war between Republican voters and the party elite, little attention is being paid to the internecine squabble threatening to destroy the Democratic Party from within.

The tension within the party has always been there.  From the Port Huron Statement to Ralph Nader’s insurgent candidacy in the 2000 presidential race, hardcore progressives and middle-of-the-road liberals have bitterly fought out their differences, only to mostly settle on the party standard-bearer.  The short-lived feud between Hillary Clinton and socialist Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 was more of the same, with Sanders eventually conceding support to Clinton despite her campaign’s underhanded tactics to handicap his candidacy and disenfranchise his supporters.

Manning’s campaign is different.  The forces that drive the progressive left have been made manifest in a belief of non-conciliation – of hostile aversion, not traditional politics.  As Mark Lilla writes in his new book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, the identity-focused politics behind Manning is the legacy of the New Left of the ’60s.  Lilla notes that the activist wing of the Democratic Party has broken with the solidarity ethos of the Roosevelt era, embracing hyper-individualism.  “And as interest slowly shifted from issue-based movements to identity-based ones,” he writes, “the focus of American liberalism also shifted from commonality to difference.”

The Democratic Party is irreparably split between one faction obsessed with personal liberation and another willing to work within the system for incremental change.  There’s nothing moderate Democrats can offer Manning and his ilk.  Unisex bathrooms aren’t enough.  Affirmation of their sexual identities isn’t enough.  Even a commuted sentence isn’t enough to stop the assault on the party elite.

The left wing of the Democratic Party already is slamming incumbent Senator Ben Cardin for voting to end the government shutdown.  This may presage backing for Manning in the June 26 primary election.  Given the low turnout customary in primaries, the activist base conceivably could turn out in numbers sufficient to give Manning a win.  While Maryland is a deep blue state, its residents are capable of electing Republicans to statewide office when the Democrats become too dysfunctional. Ask Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan.

There are innumerable reasons why Manning is unfit for public office.  His previous crimes, however well intentioned, were recklessly treasonous.  He has a known history of attempted suicide attempts, which, if the science is to be believed, is driving his current gender dysphoria.  Then there is the obvious question: why should Manning be a senator?  What experience does he bring to the table, besides spending countless hours in the brig?

The vacuity of Manning’s message won’t deter his supporters.  For them, this isn’t about politics.  It’s about expressing anger, discontent at the status quo.  Fury is no way to govern, but it does fuel political campaigns.  The problem is, crusades of resentment are liable to combust.

Republicans should prep themselves to watch it burn.

Bradley Manning, who goes by “Chelsea” because he thinks he is a woman, could end up as the unlikeliest hero in history for Republicans.  The soldier-traitor-“transgender” activist recently announced a bid for Senate in the deep blue state of Maryland, securing a place on the ballot in the Democratic primary.  Manning is challenging incumbent Senator Ben Cardin, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Wonder of wonders, Manning could end up handing a safe Senate seat for Democrats to the GOP, balancing out the loss in Alabama for the Grand Old Party.

Manning is many things to many people.  To veterans and current military personnel, he is an unrepentant traitor who carelessly handed over classified information to WikiLeaks, putting active-duty troops in danger.  To leftists and libertarians, Manning is a whistleblower who bypassed traditional media outlets to warn the world about America’s war crimes.

Even the government is split on what Manning is.  For indiscriminately sending 700,000 military field reports and diplomatic cables to a Russia-friendly foreign entity, Manning was charged with numerous crimes, including espionage.  But, after serving seven years of his 35-year sentence, former president Barack Obama commuted his sentence.

Traitor or hero, treason or bravery – whatever your take, Manning has come to represent the radical, anarchic side of the progressive ideology.  His social media profile depicts him clad in black Antifa wear.  His postings are a sugary mix of feel-good pabulum and emojis more befitting of a teenage girl than a man in his thirties.

Manning’s campaign announcement video is a low-budget mix of confused righteousness.  In this one-minute clip, Manning declares that we live in “trying times” with flashing clips of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The problem, Manning insists, is that nobody is willing to fight back against our feckless leaders.  Therefore, we need to “stop expecting that our systems will somehow fix themselves” and, in return, “take the reins of power” back.

Manning confidently asserts at the end, “You’re damn right we got this,” repeating the same banal hashtag that has become a staple of his self-focused Twitter missives.

The contradictions overwhelm.  Manning denounces the political class while simultaneously pleading to be part of it.  He claims that “we don’t need more or better leaders” while, again, pitching himself as a worthy Senate candidate, one of the highest leadership positions in the country.

The whole aporia reminds me of the Yeats poem “The Great Day,” where the Irish poet facetiously heralds a revolution:

HURRAH for revolution and more cannon-shot!

A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.

Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!

The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

Manning denounces the very system he wishes to be a part of.  What his message is, outside being a vessel for identity politics to actualize within the world’s greatest deliberative body, is unclear.

That hasn’t stopped and outpouring of support for his candidacy, though.  The more strident parts of the leftist coalition that forms the Democratic Party are cheering his bid while denouncing naysayers as “transphobic.”  When Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden spread the theory that Manning is a Putin patsy who is purposefully taking on one of the most hawkish Russia critics in the Senate, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald went for the jugular, penning an incisive commentary titled “Centrist Democrats Launch Smear Campaign Against Young Transgender [sic] Woman [sic], All to Keep an Old, Straight, White Man in Power.”

As schoolchildren like to chant when two classmates exchange blows: fight, fight, fight!

For all the talk of a civil war between Republican voters and the party elite, little attention is being paid to the internecine squabble threatening to destroy the Democratic Party from within.

The tension within the party has always been there.  From the Port Huron Statement to Ralph Nader’s insurgent candidacy in the 2000 presidential race, hardcore progressives and middle-of-the-road liberals have bitterly fought out their differences, only to mostly settle on the party standard-bearer.  The short-lived feud between Hillary Clinton and socialist Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016 was more of the same, with Sanders eventually conceding support to Clinton despite her campaign’s underhanded tactics to handicap his candidacy and disenfranchise his supporters.

Manning’s campaign is different.  The forces that drive the progressive left have been made manifest in a belief of non-conciliation – of hostile aversion, not traditional politics.  As Mark Lilla writes in his new book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, the identity-focused politics behind Manning is the legacy of the New Left of the ’60s.  Lilla notes that the activist wing of the Democratic Party has broken with the solidarity ethos of the Roosevelt era, embracing hyper-individualism.  “And as interest slowly shifted from issue-based movements to identity-based ones,” he writes, “the focus of American liberalism also shifted from commonality to difference.”

The Democratic Party is irreparably split between one faction obsessed with personal liberation and another willing to work within the system for incremental change.  There’s nothing moderate Democrats can offer Manning and his ilk.  Unisex bathrooms aren’t enough.  Affirmation of their sexual identities isn’t enough.  Even a commuted sentence isn’t enough to stop the assault on the party elite.

The left wing of the Democratic Party already is slamming incumbent Senator Ben Cardin for voting to end the government shutdown.  This may presage backing for Manning in the June 26 primary election.  Given the low turnout customary in primaries, the activist base conceivably could turn out in numbers sufficient to give Manning a win.  While Maryland is a deep blue state, its residents are capable of electing Republicans to statewide office when the Democrats become too dysfunctional. Ask Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan.

There are innumerable reasons why Manning is unfit for public office.  His previous crimes, however well intentioned, were recklessly treasonous.  He has a known history of attempted suicide attempts, which, if the science is to be believed, is driving his current gender dysphoria.  Then there is the obvious question: why should Manning be a senator?  What experience does he bring to the table, besides spending countless hours in the brig?

The vacuity of Manning’s message won’t deter his supporters.  For them, this isn’t about politics.  It’s about expressing anger, discontent at the status quo.  Fury is no way to govern, but it does fuel political campaigns.  The problem is, crusades of resentment are liable to combust.

Republicans should prep themselves to watch it burn.



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What Liberals Think America Is Doing Right


America’s in trouble, we’re told.

Our politics is coarse and divided.  The media have been driven mad by the need to break scoops first, leading to clumsy and embarrassing errors.  Social media are turning us all into Narcissus, staring distractedly into digital pools, erasing our ability to think critically.  The world’s rising powers no longer fret over our might.

Doomsaying is prominent, but not all are saturnine.  Haley Britzky of Axios recently tried to lighten the country’s dark skies by listing “9 things America is getting right.”

“With a number of natural disasters raging across the country this year, and political discourse at its peak, it’s important to remember that there is good news out there,” Britzky informs us.  Her list, while optimistic, is broad and largely uncontroversial: higher economic growth, healthier kids, cleaner air, more charitable giving, better medical technology.

One item sticks out.  “We’re becoming more tolerant,” Britzky notes, citing a rising acceptance, specifically among baby boomers, of the idea that two men or two women are capable of marrying each other.

Britzky includes “tolerance” without a hint of what the word means or why it’s good that more Americans are loosening their views on moral strictures.  That’s not surprising.  Tolerance has become a catch-all word that implies progress.  But consider the form this progress takes.  It is with increased tolerance that’s we’ve become more accepting of broken marriages, sexual deviancy, alternative lifestyles, and drug use among minors.

More tolerance in some areas has certainly been a positive thing.  The abolition of Jim Crow laws was a victory for both freedom and acceptance.  That we no longer maim homosexuals and other sexual minorities in the streets with impunity is also welcome progress.

But tolerance qua tolerance is not a universal good, despite its cheery connotations.  As with any virtue, there are moral limits to its application.

To better understand why, we must first understand the point of discussing the benefits of tolerance in society in the first place.  What good does tolerance fulfill?  How does it encourage behavior that benefits the collective as well as the individual?  Does tolerance ever interfere with the rights and liberties of a people?

These are deep questions that get to the heart of politics.  At stake in all political discourse is the kind of society we long to live in.  Since the time when Plato and Aristotle discussed the governing principles of society, the essence of politics has been the supreme value around which we organize.

That value fluctuates depending on the society.  For instance, the jihadists in the Islamic State designed their caliphate to usher in an apocalyptic struggle between holy soldiers and hordes of infidels.  For a more familiar example, the Amish eschew individualism and modern technology to strengthen their communal bonds.

America was founded on an enlightened view of human nature that attempted to reconcile liberty with the collective good.  While personal freedom was emphasized in the Bill of Rights’ proscriptions against government interference, the Constitution itself formed a public-minded body within the federal government.

Underlying this balance was a higher vision, one that pointed toward Providence.  The natural law tradition that influenced the Declaration of Independence was drawn from many sources, including the great theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas emphasized the necessity of submitting passion to reason and action to faith.  By aiming our deeds toward God, and thus the greater good, we exercise liberty as it is meant to be exercised.  “Freedom,” George Weigel writes, “is the means by which, exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is built into us as human beings.”

Freedom that diverges from the greater good is not freedom at all; it’s just another form of slavery.  That brings us back to tolerance.  In order for a value to be virtuous, it must comport with the dictates of reason, which, in turn, should be directed toward the divine.

Toleration is beneficial inasmuch as it bolsters our ability to live freely and righteously.  It is not a value by itself – it is bound by shared ethical standards.

To understand the bounds of tolerance, ask yourself the following questions.  Would it be OK to legalize pedophilia?  Should incest be allowed?  What about bestiality?

Only the most morally lax of liberals are undisturbed by such sexual practices.  But is not acceptance of practitioners of pedophilia, incest, and bestiality a form of tolerance?

It is, which is why our judgment should always be filtered through the strainer of reason.  In his 1931 essay “A Plea for Intolerance,” Fulton J. Sheen wrote, “Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to truth.  Intolerance applies only to truth, but never to persons.  Tolerance applies to the erring[,] intolerance to the error.”

Today’s leftists take the opposite approach.  On college campuses, it is people who aren’t tolerated, while nearly every belief that isn’t associated with conservatism is accepted.  This is a misunderstanding of tolerance.  It demonstrates a severe confusion over the spirit of the word.

Too often, tolerance is tied to a liberal belief to make it more palatable to the public.  That was the unfortunate case of its inclusion on the Axios list of the best American trends.  A rise in tolerance should not be blithely celebrated.  Rather, it should be scrutinized to see if its application meets a noble standard.  Otherwise we forfeit the gift of discernment given to us by our Creator and are left adrift in a sea of moral anarchy.

America’s in trouble, we’re told.

Our politics is coarse and divided.  The media have been driven mad by the need to break scoops first, leading to clumsy and embarrassing errors.  Social media are turning us all into Narcissus, staring distractedly into digital pools, erasing our ability to think critically.  The world’s rising powers no longer fret over our might.

Doomsaying is prominent, but not all are saturnine.  Haley Britzky of Axios recently tried to lighten the country’s dark skies by listing “9 things America is getting right.”

“With a number of natural disasters raging across the country this year, and political discourse at its peak, it’s important to remember that there is good news out there,” Britzky informs us.  Her list, while optimistic, is broad and largely uncontroversial: higher economic growth, healthier kids, cleaner air, more charitable giving, better medical technology.

One item sticks out.  “We’re becoming more tolerant,” Britzky notes, citing a rising acceptance, specifically among baby boomers, of the idea that two men or two women are capable of marrying each other.

Britzky includes “tolerance” without a hint of what the word means or why it’s good that more Americans are loosening their views on moral strictures.  That’s not surprising.  Tolerance has become a catch-all word that implies progress.  But consider the form this progress takes.  It is with increased tolerance that’s we’ve become more accepting of broken marriages, sexual deviancy, alternative lifestyles, and drug use among minors.

More tolerance in some areas has certainly been a positive thing.  The abolition of Jim Crow laws was a victory for both freedom and acceptance.  That we no longer maim homosexuals and other sexual minorities in the streets with impunity is also welcome progress.

But tolerance qua tolerance is not a universal good, despite its cheery connotations.  As with any virtue, there are moral limits to its application.

To better understand why, we must first understand the point of discussing the benefits of tolerance in society in the first place.  What good does tolerance fulfill?  How does it encourage behavior that benefits the collective as well as the individual?  Does tolerance ever interfere with the rights and liberties of a people?

These are deep questions that get to the heart of politics.  At stake in all political discourse is the kind of society we long to live in.  Since the time when Plato and Aristotle discussed the governing principles of society, the essence of politics has been the supreme value around which we organize.

That value fluctuates depending on the society.  For instance, the jihadists in the Islamic State designed their caliphate to usher in an apocalyptic struggle between holy soldiers and hordes of infidels.  For a more familiar example, the Amish eschew individualism and modern technology to strengthen their communal bonds.

America was founded on an enlightened view of human nature that attempted to reconcile liberty with the collective good.  While personal freedom was emphasized in the Bill of Rights’ proscriptions against government interference, the Constitution itself formed a public-minded body within the federal government.

Underlying this balance was a higher vision, one that pointed toward Providence.  The natural law tradition that influenced the Declaration of Independence was drawn from many sources, including the great theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas emphasized the necessity of submitting passion to reason and action to faith.  By aiming our deeds toward God, and thus the greater good, we exercise liberty as it is meant to be exercised.  “Freedom,” George Weigel writes, “is the means by which, exercising both our reason and our will, we act on the natural longing for truth, for goodness, and for happiness that is built into us as human beings.”

Freedom that diverges from the greater good is not freedom at all; it’s just another form of slavery.  That brings us back to tolerance.  In order for a value to be virtuous, it must comport with the dictates of reason, which, in turn, should be directed toward the divine.

Toleration is beneficial inasmuch as it bolsters our ability to live freely and righteously.  It is not a value by itself – it is bound by shared ethical standards.

To understand the bounds of tolerance, ask yourself the following questions.  Would it be OK to legalize pedophilia?  Should incest be allowed?  What about bestiality?

Only the most morally lax of liberals are undisturbed by such sexual practices.  But is not acceptance of practitioners of pedophilia, incest, and bestiality a form of tolerance?

It is, which is why our judgment should always be filtered through the strainer of reason.  In his 1931 essay “A Plea for Intolerance,” Fulton J. Sheen wrote, “Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to truth.  Intolerance applies only to truth, but never to persons.  Tolerance applies to the erring[,] intolerance to the error.”

Today’s leftists take the opposite approach.  On college campuses, it is people who aren’t tolerated, while nearly every belief that isn’t associated with conservatism is accepted.  This is a misunderstanding of tolerance.  It demonstrates a severe confusion over the spirit of the word.

Too often, tolerance is tied to a liberal belief to make it more palatable to the public.  That was the unfortunate case of its inclusion on the Axios list of the best American trends.  A rise in tolerance should not be blithely celebrated.  Rather, it should be scrutinized to see if its application meets a noble standard.  Otherwise we forfeit the gift of discernment given to us by our Creator and are left adrift in a sea of moral anarchy.



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Law vs. the Human Heart


By any measure, the past year was nothing short of monumental: a new president dogged by allegations of foreign election meddling, a media class working in overdrive, a remaking of the federal bench, the routing of the Islamic State, and the end of the Clinton political dynasty, all concluded with the passing of a large tax cut.

But the most notable event of 2017 had surprisingly little to do with politics.  The imbroglio caused by Ronan Farrow’s eye-opening exposé on Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was the news story of the last twelve months.  Whatever your position or persuasion, low or high class, conservative or liberal, the fallout from the lurid Weinstein revelations was inescapable.  Major public figures, from actor Kevin Spacey to TV anchor Matt Lauer, justly lost their careers for their libidinous predacity.  Others, such as Senator Al Franken and humorist Garrison Keillor, were also forced into unemployment by more slippery accusations of impropriety.

The #MeToo movement, like any social reformist cause, is coming dangerously close to overstepping its bounds.  But it has unquestionably brought much needed scrutiny on powerful men who use their position to abuse vulnerable women.  “Among us, it seems, lives a class of men who call to mind Caligula and Elagabalus not only in their depravity, but in their grotesque sense of impunity,” writes Claire Berlinski.  It was well past time to bring these men down a peg.

Notice how many of these power perverts are being outed.  There are no charges; there is no law.  A federal case was not made.  These men are losing their status through the soft power of public persuasion.

And when things go awry?  The same social pressure is used to correct rushed decisions.  Take the case of MSNBC contributor Sam Seder, who was fired from the network for making a bawdy joke about his daughter being raped by Roman Polanski.  Sick?  Undoubtedly.  But a sarcastic remark posted on Twitter nearly a decade ago that nobody actually found offensive?  Yes, and yes.

After public backlash and some behind-the-scenes cajoling, Seder was reinstated.  MSNBC president Phil Griffin admitted to making a mistake.  All parties moved past the unfortunate episode.

There’s a lesson to glean from all of this.  The most important cultural event of last year has not inspired a demand for legislative remedies.  Rather, it has spurred action through public awareness.

Tocqueville, in his early studies of American democracy, wrote about this process:

When the members of an aristocratic community adopt a new opinion or conceive a new sentiment, they give it a station, as it were, beside themselves, upon the lofty platform where they stand; and opinions or sentiments so conspicuous to the eyes of the multitude are easily introduced into the minds or hearts of all around.

Weinstein’s sordid antics were exposed by his fellow elites.  Thankfully for the rest of us, Washington wasn’t called to act.  As Tocqueville warned on increased government interference in the private sphere, “[n]o sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny.”

If only all our conflicts, big and small, could be solved so simply without appealing to the busybodies in Congress.

In their insatiable hunt for perfection, leftists will often call for legal solutions to right societal wrongs, avoiding the discomforting situation of speaking straight to their neighbors.  Lobbying for a law is an easy alternative to informal compromise.  Government is a detached actor – it often sees things mechanistically rather than humanly.

This past year, we saw the negative consequences of the state’s over-intervention in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which was argued before the Supreme Court.  In 2012, Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused to design and bake a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple.

Upon being informed by Phillips that his deeply held religious beliefs barred him from creating a cake for a same-sex ceremony, Craig and Mullins had a choice.  As David Brooks pointed out, they had “two possible courses of action, the neighborly and the legal.”

The neighborly approach would have kept the issue personal and prompted a dialogue between the two men and the Christian baker.  “The legal course,” Brooks explains, “was to take the problem out of the neighborhood and throw it into the court system.”

By choosing the legal route, Craig and Mullins needlessly created conflict where none need be before.  Phillips’s shop is located in Lakewood, Colorado, while the ceremony was to take place in Massachusetts.  Was there not a bakery in the Bay State that would happily accommodate the couple?

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case will be decided later this year, but the damage is already done.  By pushing for legal intervention, this couple further inflamed the tension between gay rights activists and religious liberty advocates.  Would it not have been more civil, and more productive, to take a step back and simply find another baker and clean their hands of the whole mess?

For 2018, we’d all be better off adopting a more neighborly approach to divisive issues and stop letting the law in places where the heart should rule.

By any measure, the past year was nothing short of monumental: a new president dogged by allegations of foreign election meddling, a media class working in overdrive, a remaking of the federal bench, the routing of the Islamic State, and the end of the Clinton political dynasty, all concluded with the passing of a large tax cut.

But the most notable event of 2017 had surprisingly little to do with politics.  The imbroglio caused by Ronan Farrow’s eye-opening exposé on Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was the news story of the last twelve months.  Whatever your position or persuasion, low or high class, conservative or liberal, the fallout from the lurid Weinstein revelations was inescapable.  Major public figures, from actor Kevin Spacey to TV anchor Matt Lauer, justly lost their careers for their libidinous predacity.  Others, such as Senator Al Franken and humorist Garrison Keillor, were also forced into unemployment by more slippery accusations of impropriety.

The #MeToo movement, like any social reformist cause, is coming dangerously close to overstepping its bounds.  But it has unquestionably brought much needed scrutiny on powerful men who use their position to abuse vulnerable women.  “Among us, it seems, lives a class of men who call to mind Caligula and Elagabalus not only in their depravity, but in their grotesque sense of impunity,” writes Claire Berlinski.  It was well past time to bring these men down a peg.

Notice how many of these power perverts are being outed.  There are no charges; there is no law.  A federal case was not made.  These men are losing their status through the soft power of public persuasion.

And when things go awry?  The same social pressure is used to correct rushed decisions.  Take the case of MSNBC contributor Sam Seder, who was fired from the network for making a bawdy joke about his daughter being raped by Roman Polanski.  Sick?  Undoubtedly.  But a sarcastic remark posted on Twitter nearly a decade ago that nobody actually found offensive?  Yes, and yes.

After public backlash and some behind-the-scenes cajoling, Seder was reinstated.  MSNBC president Phil Griffin admitted to making a mistake.  All parties moved past the unfortunate episode.

There’s a lesson to glean from all of this.  The most important cultural event of last year has not inspired a demand for legislative remedies.  Rather, it has spurred action through public awareness.

Tocqueville, in his early studies of American democracy, wrote about this process:

When the members of an aristocratic community adopt a new opinion or conceive a new sentiment, they give it a station, as it were, beside themselves, upon the lofty platform where they stand; and opinions or sentiments so conspicuous to the eyes of the multitude are easily introduced into the minds or hearts of all around.

Weinstein’s sordid antics were exposed by his fellow elites.  Thankfully for the rest of us, Washington wasn’t called to act.  As Tocqueville warned on increased government interference in the private sphere, “[n]o sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny.”

If only all our conflicts, big and small, could be solved so simply without appealing to the busybodies in Congress.

In their insatiable hunt for perfection, leftists will often call for legal solutions to right societal wrongs, avoiding the discomforting situation of speaking straight to their neighbors.  Lobbying for a law is an easy alternative to informal compromise.  Government is a detached actor – it often sees things mechanistically rather than humanly.

This past year, we saw the negative consequences of the state’s over-intervention in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which was argued before the Supreme Court.  In 2012, Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused to design and bake a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a same-sex couple.

Upon being informed by Phillips that his deeply held religious beliefs barred him from creating a cake for a same-sex ceremony, Craig and Mullins had a choice.  As David Brooks pointed out, they had “two possible courses of action, the neighborly and the legal.”

The neighborly approach would have kept the issue personal and prompted a dialogue between the two men and the Christian baker.  “The legal course,” Brooks explains, “was to take the problem out of the neighborhood and throw it into the court system.”

By choosing the legal route, Craig and Mullins needlessly created conflict where none need be before.  Phillips’s shop is located in Lakewood, Colorado, while the ceremony was to take place in Massachusetts.  Was there not a bakery in the Bay State that would happily accommodate the couple?

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case will be decided later this year, but the damage is already done.  By pushing for legal intervention, this couple further inflamed the tension between gay rights activists and religious liberty advocates.  Would it not have been more civil, and more productive, to take a step back and simply find another baker and clean their hands of the whole mess?

For 2018, we’d all be better off adopting a more neighborly approach to divisive issues and stop letting the law in places where the heart should rule.



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The Age of Reflexive Antagonism


When the obituary is written on American democracy, Jonathan Haidt will merit a mention.

No thinker has done a better job documenting the dizzying deterioration of our national fabric than this social psychologist.  Through his many books, lectures, and popular articles, Haidt has diagnosed our condition, and his verdict isn’t good.  In fact, at our current trajectory, it’s fatal.

Haidt first earned his fame with his moral foundations theory, which explains how our ethical beliefs, and thus our political voting habits, are shaped by particular values we hold.  For example, conservatives rank feelings of loyalty and respect for authority high on their personal scale.  Liberals, on the other hand, laud fairness and care for others.

It was from this formulation that Haidt branched out to how political strife is threatening what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called the “vital center.”  His first target: American universities and the vapid ideology thrust upon hapless students.  In Haidt’s estimation, our institutions of higher learning are mollycoddle factories churning out aggrieved graduates who’ve never had their beliefs challenged.  This incubated sanctimony renders civil discourse impossible, as contrary views are seen as inherently malicious and thus illegitimate.

Anyone who’s had a five-minute conversation with a recent college graduate knows exactly what Haidt is talking about.  Despite a freshly minted degree, most are dilettantes in everything other than reciting late-night comedy show monologues about Donald Trump.

In a recent speech before the Manhattan Institute, Haidt identified a new corrupter of comity: the Republican Party.  Haidt’s conservative fans may take issue with this, but it would be to their detriment.  The man has a point: Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” in the mid-’90s ushered in a new era of gamesmanship that has only worsened the divide between the two major parties.

Gingrich, Haidt writes, deliberately shortened the legislative calendar to ensure that members would not move to Washington and “develop personal friendships with Democrats.”  The chummy backroom dealing that previously defined politics was lost.  The bipartisan consensus that saw America through two world wars and a decades-long standoff with the Soviet Union vanished.

These two centrifugal forces – Republican brinkmanship tactics and university-sanctioned fealty to identity politics – have made us an enraged and unhappy people.  They pull us apart, testing the relational bonds that form a society.  Haidt doesn’t limit his critique to just these two phenomena, though.  He also names the biased media, increased diversity through immigration, and the lack of a great enemy as other elements that tug at the sticky substance that keeps our national identity together.

Is it any surprise, then, that each new policy battle brings outrage followed by irrational retaliation?  The Republicans’ big tax cuts package was protested vigorously by leftists, who claimed that allowing working people to keep more of their pay is the equivalent of genocide.  When the House of Representatives was voting on the final package, a woman in the gallery took her top off in hopes of jamming the process.

In a similar vexed fashion, when the FCC voted to end net neutrality regulations, which prevented big internet companies from providing faster access to certain content, Chairman Ajit Pai received hundreds of death threats.  Some people were so enraged at the idea of slower Netflix speeds that fantasizing about murder became OK.

Much of this senseless dissent is driven by news media that have, for all intents and purposes, dropped the veil of impartiality.  Trump’s win shattered reality for many journalists; the America they thought they understood was made a mystery.  They react by adopting the rage of their readers.  Their language belies an immense hatred of the president and his supporters.

Following the passage of the GOP tax reform plan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and speaker of the House Paul Ryan were snapped in a picture, thumbs up and jubilant smiles on their faces, with President Trump and Vice President Pence.  Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama adviser, joked that the picture would be on the front page of the New York Times “the day Trump is indicted.”  Ben Rhodes, another former Obama staffer, chimed in with “alongside the obits for Ryan, McConnell, and Pence.”

Had these been former George W. Bush staffers, our ears would be assaulted by the screeches of a thousand pundits decrying violence-filled, death-wishing rhetoric.  Instead, House whip Steve Scalise, who nearly died last April after a Bernie Sanders-supporting madman pretended he was on a fox hunt in a baseball field with defenseless congressmen, was left to chastise them.  That was unacceptable.  Since liberals hold the monopoly on victims shaming oppressors, it was left for Jonathan Chait of New York magazine to blithely dismiss his concern.

This isn’t thinking; it is the reflexive antagonism Alasdair MacIntyre called “emotivism.”  Partisan allegiance has clouded our ability to empathize and think clearly about problems that require collective action.  Pressing issues are no longer viewed through the lens of happy disagreement; rather, bitter rivalry sets the sights.

Anger is an easy drug.  It feels good being sanctimonious.  When we’re pissed, we’re invested in something.  That easy satisfaction has bled too deeply into our politics.  We, in the words of Iago, no longer have “reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts.”

All’s not lost, however.  Washington may be damned, but the wellsprings of talent may be improving.  As Haidt points out, more and more professors and students are pushing back against the stifled academic atmosphere on campus.  Haidt’s own organization, Heterodox Academy, has exploded in size as liberal academics join with conservatives to stand up against intolerant suppression of ideas.

Just as Washington doesn’t have to be a swamp where civil discourse goes to die, college doesn’t have to be a bog of stagnant groupthink.  Change is possible.  But it starts most effectively at the personal level.  We must ask ourselves: how do we have disagreements that don’t devolve into screaming matches?  How do we debate issues without letting hot emotion take control?

Next time you’re knee-deep in all-caps arguments over Facebook with someone you know personally, here’s a mild suggestion: quit griping.  Offer to grab him a drink.  Your heart, and your blood pressure, will be better off.

When the obituary is written on American democracy, Jonathan Haidt will merit a mention.

No thinker has done a better job documenting the dizzying deterioration of our national fabric than this social psychologist.  Through his many books, lectures, and popular articles, Haidt has diagnosed our condition, and his verdict isn’t good.  In fact, at our current trajectory, it’s fatal.

Haidt first earned his fame with his moral foundations theory, which explains how our ethical beliefs, and thus our political voting habits, are shaped by particular values we hold.  For example, conservatives rank feelings of loyalty and respect for authority high on their personal scale.  Liberals, on the other hand, laud fairness and care for others.

It was from this formulation that Haidt branched out to how political strife is threatening what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called the “vital center.”  His first target: American universities and the vapid ideology thrust upon hapless students.  In Haidt’s estimation, our institutions of higher learning are mollycoddle factories churning out aggrieved graduates who’ve never had their beliefs challenged.  This incubated sanctimony renders civil discourse impossible, as contrary views are seen as inherently malicious and thus illegitimate.

Anyone who’s had a five-minute conversation with a recent college graduate knows exactly what Haidt is talking about.  Despite a freshly minted degree, most are dilettantes in everything other than reciting late-night comedy show monologues about Donald Trump.

In a recent speech before the Manhattan Institute, Haidt identified a new corrupter of comity: the Republican Party.  Haidt’s conservative fans may take issue with this, but it would be to their detriment.  The man has a point: Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” in the mid-’90s ushered in a new era of gamesmanship that has only worsened the divide between the two major parties.

Gingrich, Haidt writes, deliberately shortened the legislative calendar to ensure that members would not move to Washington and “develop personal friendships with Democrats.”  The chummy backroom dealing that previously defined politics was lost.  The bipartisan consensus that saw America through two world wars and a decades-long standoff with the Soviet Union vanished.

These two centrifugal forces – Republican brinkmanship tactics and university-sanctioned fealty to identity politics – have made us an enraged and unhappy people.  They pull us apart, testing the relational bonds that form a society.  Haidt doesn’t limit his critique to just these two phenomena, though.  He also names the biased media, increased diversity through immigration, and the lack of a great enemy as other elements that tug at the sticky substance that keeps our national identity together.

Is it any surprise, then, that each new policy battle brings outrage followed by irrational retaliation?  The Republicans’ big tax cuts package was protested vigorously by leftists, who claimed that allowing working people to keep more of their pay is the equivalent of genocide.  When the House of Representatives was voting on the final package, a woman in the gallery took her top off in hopes of jamming the process.

In a similar vexed fashion, when the FCC voted to end net neutrality regulations, which prevented big internet companies from providing faster access to certain content, Chairman Ajit Pai received hundreds of death threats.  Some people were so enraged at the idea of slower Netflix speeds that fantasizing about murder became OK.

Much of this senseless dissent is driven by news media that have, for all intents and purposes, dropped the veil of impartiality.  Trump’s win shattered reality for many journalists; the America they thought they understood was made a mystery.  They react by adopting the rage of their readers.  Their language belies an immense hatred of the president and his supporters.

Following the passage of the GOP tax reform plan, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and speaker of the House Paul Ryan were snapped in a picture, thumbs up and jubilant smiles on their faces, with President Trump and Vice President Pence.  Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama adviser, joked that the picture would be on the front page of the New York Times “the day Trump is indicted.”  Ben Rhodes, another former Obama staffer, chimed in with “alongside the obits for Ryan, McConnell, and Pence.”

Had these been former George W. Bush staffers, our ears would be assaulted by the screeches of a thousand pundits decrying violence-filled, death-wishing rhetoric.  Instead, House whip Steve Scalise, who nearly died last April after a Bernie Sanders-supporting madman pretended he was on a fox hunt in a baseball field with defenseless congressmen, was left to chastise them.  That was unacceptable.  Since liberals hold the monopoly on victims shaming oppressors, it was left for Jonathan Chait of New York magazine to blithely dismiss his concern.

This isn’t thinking; it is the reflexive antagonism Alasdair MacIntyre called “emotivism.”  Partisan allegiance has clouded our ability to empathize and think clearly about problems that require collective action.  Pressing issues are no longer viewed through the lens of happy disagreement; rather, bitter rivalry sets the sights.

Anger is an easy drug.  It feels good being sanctimonious.  When we’re pissed, we’re invested in something.  That easy satisfaction has bled too deeply into our politics.  We, in the words of Iago, no longer have “reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts.”

All’s not lost, however.  Washington may be damned, but the wellsprings of talent may be improving.  As Haidt points out, more and more professors and students are pushing back against the stifled academic atmosphere on campus.  Haidt’s own organization, Heterodox Academy, has exploded in size as liberal academics join with conservatives to stand up against intolerant suppression of ideas.

Just as Washington doesn’t have to be a swamp where civil discourse goes to die, college doesn’t have to be a bog of stagnant groupthink.  Change is possible.  But it starts most effectively at the personal level.  We must ask ourselves: how do we have disagreements that don’t devolve into screaming matches?  How do we debate issues without letting hot emotion take control?

Next time you’re knee-deep in all-caps arguments over Facebook with someone you know personally, here’s a mild suggestion: quit griping.  Offer to grab him a drink.  Your heart, and your blood pressure, will be better off.



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