The powers that be,
that force us to live like we do,
bring me to my knees.
But I’ll die as I stand here today
knowing that, deep in my heart,
they’ll fall to ruin one day.
The powers that be,
that force us to live like we do,
bring me to my knees.
But I’ll die as I stand here today
knowing that, deep in my heart,
they’ll fall to ruin one day.
A few days back, the Wall St. Journal published an editorial written by Yuri Vanetik about the Mueller report. Or, more specifically, about his personal connection to the subjects wound up in the just-released Mueller report.
Mr. Venetik is a wealthy individual from Orange County, California who uses some of that wealth to be politically active. If the Orange County, California isn’t enough of a tip-off, he supports Republicans. He also was born in the former-Soviet Union. His family were Jews who fled Ukraine in the 1970s when he was a child.
Mr. Venetik has contributed to conservative campaigns. Being a substantial contributor at that, he is knows and is known among the money circles of national politics. He has some decidedly superficial connections with some of the other names associated with Trump. He says, however, that he supported neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton in the last election; he backed Bush and Rubio in the primary and voted for an unnamed-third party in the general. More importantly, though, his first name is Yuri, a name that just drips with intrigue. It has even been used as shorthand for a Russian spy.
Mr. Venetik has not been investigated by the FBI nor by the Special Investigator’s team. He was never charged in that investigation and, apparently, has never been prosecuted for any criminal activity. However, a selfie taken with Paul Mannefort was enough to net him a four-part exposé in the newspaper chain which publishes the Sacramento paper The Daily Bee. The article juxtaposes various suspicious-sounding or minor incidents over the course of his lifetime into a narrative that implies Venetik is a Russian spy who works to manipulate Trump and the American body politic. He has sued the paper and obtained partial retractions but, as he suggests in his editorial, the accusations and innuendo will forever be tied to his name. Whatever he does until the day he dies, be it politics, charity, or just business activity, a Google search is going to bring up that he was part of this whole “Trump thing,” whatever that was.
I always assumed it was understood that the Left, particularly the hard-left, saw the Soviet Union as fellow travelers in the struggle for, well, whatever the hell they’re struggling for. It seemed to follow that they might look at the counter-reformist new Russians as inheritors of the Soviet’s mantel. I should be glad, shouldn’t I, that they too have come to see those ex-Soviets as the enemy of freedom – as an “Evil Empire,” if you will? The anti-Russian frenzy I’ve personally witnessed surpasses even that of the most ardent Cold Warrior of the early 80s. It is shocking, sometimes, but let us all agree. The Soviet Union was bad. Full Stop.
It makes me wonder, how out of place are the current tactics – both the political actions of the Progressive Left and the actions of the “Deep State” with regard to the Trump wiretapping and Hillary email revelations – how out of place would they be in Stalin’s Russia? Or maybe Kruschev’s Russia?
Could we find a case where a fairly successful resident of Russia had some opinions, and a propensity to express them, that didn’t jive with those of the Supreme Soviet. While that in itself wouldn’t get you shot in the back of the head, it might draw the wrong kind of “official” attention. Suppose also this figure had some relatives who fled to the West and on to America at the end of World War II. The possibilities might open an intensive investigations on the potential threat to Soviet security. Maybe somewhere along the line, they find he illegally imported something (literature, denim jeans, who knows) from Germany.
Maybe he’s brought up on charges for tax evasion or customs violations. He might end up in jail or a gulag. If so, from a societal standpoint, the man broke the law and, caught, he paid the price. You believe in the rule of law don’t you? Society and even the officials that control it have a plausible deniability that what, objectively, is tyranny is, for them, merely the rule of law, a fundamental pillar of freedom. Maybe the charges are minor, but the public association of that individual with improprieties means he loses a job, or misses out on promotions, or has difficulty forming and maintaining the relations that made him “successful” to begin with.
One can imagine this happening in the Soviet Union. I am almost certain I could find clear documentation of something very similar happening in Putin’s Russia. This is stock copy describing how a tyrannical government goes about controlling its people while avoiding the outright “gun them down in the streets” stuff that sparks revolution. I could probably, also, post a dozen variations on the story involving conservative figures in the United States, all taking place within the last couple of years.
Is there even a discussion left to be had? We have become what we have feared. We have met the enemy, he is us but, hell, he isn’t so bad after all.
The real question might be less about how far down a previously-unthinkable path we have come, but which direction are we headed? What horrors lie in the darkness under those trees, upon which we are quickly coming. Are we about to become Stalin’s Russia? That is most unlikely, as we have the example of Stalin’s Russia from which to learn. Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. What rhymes with “enemy of the State?”
I know any number of what we’ll call “libertarian anarchists.” These are people who believe, strongly, that no government at all is preferable to any government and, further, that this belief is the only moral stance that one can have about the very nature of government. Obviously, their political involvement is going to be limited. To the extent that they comment on politics, their commentary usually takes one of two forms. First, they like to point out the hypocrisy of any political stance that claims to believe in X, except where it applies to Y. The purpose of this seems to be to demonstrate the superiority of their own world view. The second assertion is that both parties (focusing, of course, on the American two-party system) are wrong on roughly half of what they advocate, meaning that both the parties are equally bad. The purpose of this seems to be to justify the anti-political nature of their activities (or non-activities, as the case may be) by demonstrating that all politics and politicians are wrong. And bad.
What this often means is that the worst criticisms, the worst attacks, are reserved for those who almost entirely agree with them, but not quite. This is perhaps because one feels that those most in agreement with them are the most likely to be influenced. It may also be a variation on the idea is that the greatest sin is when you fully understand the nature of your evil, but choose to do it anyway. In other words, isn’t the “limited government” libertarian, who fully comprehends what’s wrong with government, doing the most harm, by advocating for government anyway?
Next in line for invective are those actively involved in politics who claim to have common cause with the libertarian activists. The “Liberty Republicans,” in particular, seem to be singled out. While the theme, at least on its face, is anti-politics or, particularly, against the two party system, the negativity isn’t really spread evenly. The “both are to blame” seems to smack around the right harder than the left. “While Democrats are for increasing the size and reach of government, the Republicans want to [fill in the blank.]” It would seem to me that if your fundamental philosophy is to reduce the size and reach of government, albeit reducing to zero, it doesn’t matter what fills in that blank. You’ve just identified the real enemy and the enemy of your enemy, whatever his faults, is still your friend.
I’m picking on a particular political sub-type here, but this flaw seems to be a problem throughout the right side of the political spectrum. Conservatism is thick with people who say “I’m an independent.” Granted, the left has always had a huge chunk of “I’m an independent,” but (in my experience) it is usually intended as commentary about themselves. What they mean by “I’m an independent” is “I have an open mind and consider all sides of the issue before I choose to back the leftist view.” At least that’s been my experience. A left-leaning person who claims political independence is at least as locked into their views as the one who acknowledges their allegiance to the party, if not more so. Think about it, “I’m a Democrat but I don’t agree with…” leaves a lot more room for dissent then merely planting your open-mind flag on the hill you’re about to defend.
On the right, by contrast, “I’m an independent..” is as often as not preceding an attack on Republicans. Republicans are too radical, or not radical enough, or really Democrats, or not like Republicans used to be, etc. Even if its true (and worded thoughtfully, it probably is), aren’t we missing out on the bigger picture. If you’re libertarian, or conservative, or even that which used to be considered “moderate,” isn’t it that case that whatever you see as wrong with Republicans is also wrong with Democrats, and then some? Can you really justify the “Republicans are even worse on [core Republican issue] than the Democrats?” You can’t believe that. Even if you did, hasn’t post-election 2019 made you rethink your position?
The more I reflect on the state of society, the more it seems that we are in the early stages of a civil war – simply a stage where the bullets have yet to fly. At some point it seems that everyone is going to have to pick a side and learn to get along with their adopted brothers-in-arms. The alternative is to stand between two closing armies screaming “I’ll take on the lot of you” until somebody shoots you just to shut you up.
Or am I becoming too cynical?
This past weekend, I read an editorial (“Baby, There’s a Chilling Effect Outside”) today by Peggy Noonan in the Wall St. Journal. As I write this today, the entire article can be read on-line. That may or may not be true by the time you read this.
She begins by focusing, as the title implies, on the recent brouhaha over Baby, It’s Cold Outside, framing the topic of artistic expression with the words from a 1999 papal letter (hey, it’s Peggy Noonan). She then moves on to what, apparently, is one of her favorite record albums from the 1970s, Good Old Boys by Randy Newman. Focusing on a few lyrics she points out, quite correctly in my opinion, that songs like these could not be released today.
Just yesterday I was reading about how now Seinfeld is drawing ire for its political incorrectness*. We needn’t go back very far into our memories at all to find examples of art that would no longer be tolerated.
Noonan’s argument, in the last third of the article is that, in order for us to recover from this malady, it is the left that must lead the charge. As she says, when someone from the right points out this deterioration of our culture, they are dismissed as merely covering for racist, sexist beliefs. Near the end she states, “[T]here is hardly an American the past quarter-century who hasn’t been shamed for saying, doing or thinking the wrong thing.”
I can’t speak for other Americans, but I don’t think she’s too far off base here.
Americans are being cowed in terms of our speech and our thought. It has gone on for most of my life but, at present, it seems to be moving into a new and universal phase. This is the antithesis of what it has long meant to be “an American.”
Immediately after reading the Journal editorial, I remembered a story told to me decades ago. The company I worked for, at the time, was involved with an effort by the U.S. government to constructively engage the Russian defense technology infrastructure to prevent bad things from happening as a result of the unraveling of the Soviet Union. My company, and many others, were encouraged to engage in joint projects involving technology with the Russians (OMG!!! He has ties to Russia!). As part of this, a number of employees traveled to Moscow for tours, meetings, and glad-handling. Mostly it was the bigwigs, but the occasional regular person also got to go, including someone I worked with closely.
This coworker told me a story. One day, when he was free to roam about a bit in Moscow, he decided to go to the newly-opened McDonalds. It was extremely popular, for the novelty if nothing else. Lines were long and seating was short. After my coworker got his Big Mac, he sat down at a table to eat. Fairly soon, he was approached by a woman, a Muscovite, who asked to share his table, as no empty tables remained. While she did speak some English, it wasn’t a lot. Still, she was able to make herself understood to my coworker, who didn’t know any Russian**. After sitting down, she asked if he was an American. He said, “Yes, how can you tell?”
She mimed the answer. She pointed around to the other tables, said “Russians” and assumed a meek stance; Head down, legs together, hands tight to the body. Then she said “Americans,” and she leaned back, spread her legs, stretched out her arms, and held her head high.
Americans are not supposed to fear our government. The resultant mannerisms extend to when we travel abroad. This creates a caricature of rude Americans who seem unable to express a polite humility in the face of other cultures. It can also mean that we fail to have a healthy respect for the danger of truly-tyrannical foreign governments. It also means that we have internalized our natural right to individual freedom in a way that projects forth when we walk into a room. Good and bad, it was even in the way we sat down to eat our hamburgers.
Yet today, we are being trained in the same way the Soviets trained the residents of Moscow under a generation of totalitarian rule. We now must always be careful what we say and how we say it. We must be careful about how we sit (no manspreading!) and how we stand. As we change the way we speak and act, we’re also inevitably have to watch what we even think and feel. The Soviet Union didn’t just police truly subversive thoughts, they tried to be in your head all the time. In your religion, in your culture, and in your entertainment.
It works. If you are constantly second-guessing even your most trivial of thoughts, there is no way your going to be able to form an opinion that is contrary to the will of the State.
*I have this theory about the phrase “politically correct” itself. In our current lexicon it has an actual, specific meaning. Part of that is the words don’t have concrete meaning outside of the context which we use them. I have yet to be able to back up, but wasn’t the original phrase “politically correct discrimination?” In other words, the idea is that “discrimination” is not always bad. If you discriminate against a racial minority, that’s bad. Evil, even. If you discriminate against a “privileged” white male, yes it is still “discrimination” but it is good discrimination. “Correct” discrimination. I sometimes think about this because I think the origin of the phrase is instructive about its present impact, even though the meaning of “political correctness” has grown and morphed through the years.
**This, by the way, was a sore point with a number of us who had actually taken some Russian language instruction in hopes that we might be able to participate in this effort. Bah.
When they turn the pages of history,
when these days have passed long ago,
will they read of us with sadness
for the seeds that we let grow?
We turned our gaze
from the castles in the distance,
eyes cast down
on the path of least resistance.
Cities full of hatred, fear, and lies,
withered hearts, and cruel, tormented eyes.
Scheming demons dressed in kingly guise
beating down the multitude
and scoffing at the wise.
The hypocrites are slandering
the sacred halls of truth.
Ancient nobles showering their bitterness on youth.
Can’t we find the minds that made us strong?
Oh can’t we learn to feel
what’s right and what’s wrong?
This weekend in the Wall Street Journal is a piece called Shall We Have Civil War or Second Thoughts? As I type this, the article appears to be available without a subscription, but that may well change before you manage to click on it.
Briefly, it leads in with some commentary on our fragmented politics today and, in particular, the racial component of identity politics. From there, the author brings up the career of his great-Grandfather, a cavalryman in the Civil War and in the Indian Wars across the Great Plains that followed. It then stumbles into the reference in the subtitle of the piece (“Some of my relatives joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. But they soon thought better of it.”) before wrapping it all up with the assertion that our current civil strife is but a continuation of the civil strife of generations past.
I read through it to the end because I found some of the historical references enlightening*. Getting all the way to the end, however, I had to wonder what the point of this was.
The opinion piece is a guest author filling in for Peggy Noonan’s column while she is on her summer vacation. My first thought was perhaps they couldn’t find any decent talent and they picked someone with what sounded like a solid idea, but without the writing skills to make good on it. A little later I went back and checked the bio of the author. It says, “Mr. [Lance] Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a former essayist for Time.” In other words, an man who made his living through his writing.
It now occurs to me is that what I am seeing is one of the more pernicious effects of the current culture wars and the political correctness that surrounds them. We are now used to seeing writing that is overly, sometimes absurdly adherent to political correctness, as well as the counterpieces which take things to the other extreme. What this may be is the unseen effect of this warfare. The writer attempts to take his thoughts towards certain conclusions, but then backs off, knowing that finishing his thought – indeed actually drawing a conclusion – is bound to offend somebody and therefore could potentially damage or even end the career of a writer.
The article starts off with a reference to an old Lone Ranger joke, whose punch line is has Tonto responding to the Lone Ranger with “What do you mean ‘we?'” But the author can’t bring himself to repeat the joke, or even directly state what he thinks the joke means, either then (during the time of the Lone Ranger radio broadcasts) or now (when even using the name “Tonto” seems to risk accusations of racial bigotry).
As he meanders through his family tree, he seems to be on the verge of making various points about culture and racism, then versus now, but never quite makes them. Perhaps he felt if he stated outright what was hidden away in his head, it would bring upon him the racist epithet. Nobody wants that. So we all keep our inner thoughts to ourselves, just in case.
On the other hand, maybe he is just a terrible writer. I don’t know.
* The author makes reference to some of the problems his great-Grandfather had with duties and authority and contrasts this with another story: “On the other hand, I admired the style of his wife, my great-grandmother Ella Mollen Morrow. One night at the fort, when the colonel was away scouring the plains for Native Americans, she shot a would-be rapist dead with a Colt .44. The Army didn’t even bother to investigate the incident.”
I looked at a number of things over the past weekend. They all seem to me to fit into one grand pattern.
In The Wall Street Journal was printed a review of Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. The reviewer is Richard Aldous, a professor of British History at Bard College and an author of works of his own on conservative themes (Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship and The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs. Disraeli are named in his bio). The review leads in with much exposition on the nature and history of conservatism.
I’ll likely not be reading the book any time soon. Although it is only 164 pages and, apparently, a good and quick overview conservative philosophy, my list of “must reads” has grown rather lengthy.
According to the review, while the book itself is not “dour,” the message of Scruton is that the conservative tradition is dying. Aldous goes on to suggest that, if there is a hope of survival, conservatism must draw upon its best traditions. Scruton himself, much to the delight of Professor Aldous, suggests that it is the liberal-arts colleges where conservatism can remain alive, no matter what happens in greater society. For those following the news, this may seem particularly improbable.
Also over the past week, I have seen some defenses of conservatism as the election of 2018 gets up to full-speed. William F. Buckley opined that “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!'” That surely resonates with conservatives, but doesn’t that explain to a progressive exactly why conservatives are wrong?
Aldous draws a quote from the book that makes, perhaps, a clearer argument.
Speaking about the progression of conservatism from defense of monarchy through its anti-materialism and finally the alignment of conservative and “classical liberals” (libertarians) against socialism.
In all these transformations something has remained the same, namely the conviction that good things are more easily destroyed than created, and the determination to hold on to those good things in the face of politically engineered change.
This quote seems very much on point in today’s political environment.
Also this weekend, I started watching the BBC series from 1985, The Day the Universe Changed.
This 33-year-old show is about the discoveries that shape our view of the world and, in doing so, shape who we are as a society. It goes without saying that much of technology has seen tremendous change over the past three decades. In a particularly glaring example, narrator and creator James Burke makes a statement about how “the telephone” still looks the same as it always has (pointing to the standard issue AT&T model of the early 1980s) but has far more capabilities. But does that even look like a “telephone” to the teenager of today? Or does it look it merely look like an antique that she knows to be an “olden times” telephone because she’s seen it identified as such in pictures?
But oddly enough, his commentary on technology (if not the examples) still seems relevant. The comment about the form and function of telephones is a lead-in to the potential of the “microchip” to enable telecommuting. And while, indeed, technology enables telecommuting today, the discussion of pros and cons in which he engages remains relevant.
Counter-intuitively, the ideas that conflict with modern sensibilities are the philosophical ones. The ideas that most of us, and certainly 1985 Burke, would consider to be far more timeless.
The opening show is about the foundations of Western Civilization in Greek thought and particularly the pursuit of practical knowledge and understanding of the world over superstition and religion. This pursuit not only changes our understanding of the universe that we live in, but changes in a fundamental way who we are as a culture and even as individuals. The foundation is an argument for “Western Exceptionalism” that immediately hits the 2018 viewer as bordering on “crimethink.” Could someone get on TV today and say that Western Culture is superior to (as is his example) the Eastern traditions of Nepal? I don’t think so.
Towards the middle of the show, he talks about the rituals and institutions that we have. He specifically dwells on marriage, universities, and courts of law. He explains that we have made these institutions particularly conservative, both in traditions and in trappings. Each of these, we are shown on screen, have examples of its participants dressing up in archaic costumes to participate in the proceedings. Burke explains that this reliance on extreme conservatism in particular corners of our lives is a critical part of what allows our society to progress and flourish. Our culture is built upon the disruptive change that comes from scientific inquiry. A large part of the way we manage the change, and the individualistic thought that drives those changes, is by having certain cornerstones of society upon which we can rely. Deeply conservative institutions – like marriage, universities, and the law – anchor today’s tumultuous world in the ancient traditions of Western Civilization. Our identity can persist in a way that keeps us all sane even as our surroundings change at an astounding rate.
James Burke was not trying to be politically provocative with these statements and these examples. He did not mean “conservative” in the political sense. I would say he meant to draw examples that were self-evident to all his viewers.
Yet, to the viewing in 2018, each of these examples is indeed controversial and very political. Marriage is being devalued across the board while its conservative traditions are being systematically dismantled by the law. In the Law itself, we are moving away from the self-evident situation where law and order was a bastion of conservatism. Political control of the machinery of government remains heavily contested, particularly in America. But recent years have seen opinions abound that progressive has reached (or, at least, is on the verge of) a “permanent majority.” Law an order no longer is no longer the symbol of conservatism.
We also see that Burke absolutely agrees with Scruton and Aldous in that liberal-arts colleges are conservative foundations of Western Civilization, an idea that made far more sense in 1985 than in 2018. While universities were already rapidly changing in the 1980s, one could still identify as their purpose to insure that the instruction of the new generation of minds – the minds that are to go on and create the science, law, and culture of the future – had the same foundation in the Greek, Roman, and European traditions in common with generations of their predecessors. Yet today, it seems that the goal is to teach the new, progressive orthodoxy and stifle any opinions that might cause that orthodoxy offense. Certainly the “dead white males” from whom we learned in the 1980s must be offensive to the students and teachers today.
If Burke is right and these conservative rituals are part of what keeps society sane, what are we doing to ourselves in 2018? Progressivism is replacing these historical and universal truths with the “new truths.” Will we have to sacrifice society’s advancement in science and knowledge? Will we go insane? Or are progressives the ones that are right? Is there no virtue in going through the old motions for no better reason than that is the way they’ve always been done?
The last article I read, yesterday morning, finally throws a glimmer of hope athwart the steady march toward dystopia. The Wall St. Journal, again, published an opinion piece (Emily Esfahani Smith of the Hoover Institution) about the Heterodox Academy. A self-described “politically-diverse group” of professors and graduate students has identified and targeted the free-speech stifling environment of 2018 universities. If, truly, we are seeing a broad-based understanding that our society’s understanding of freedom may be hurtling in the wrong direction, we may be able to correct our course.
Hope remains that the twenty-teens may be seen as a weird cultural outlier where, very briefly, political discourse in the West was seized by the politically correct and became a black comedy. As long as the comedy sputters out allowing cooler heads to prevail, we may yet return to the path of progress that we all once enjoyed. But a few dozen professors at a conference is just one small step.
Finally, all this talk of revolution reminds me of a picture that popped up on my Facebook feed yesterday, courtesy of a political activist. The imagery here gives heart to conservatives who feel, one way or another, victory will be theirs. I have no illusion that the Second Civil War will be brief – it will be awful. However, if the recognition of the absurd imbalance between the warring philosophies becomes mainstream, we may yet walk away from this in one piece.
The hackneyed phrase in circulation among anti-speech liberals is “freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences”, which like most hackneyed phrases is a lie in service to an injustice. As a matter of fact, freedom of speech means nothing if it does not come with freedom from consequences. The only acceptable response to argument is counter-argument. It is never violence, it is never expulsion from society, it is never imprisonment or fines, it is never economic punishment–for if any of these things is allowed, then open debate is infringed. And if open debate is infringed, then our democracy itself is controlled by those with the power to sanction speech. Because men benefit from sanctioning criticism of their misdeeds, this inevitably means the ruin of democracy itself.
[…S]omeone a thousand miles away, whom you have never met, and to whom you have no meaningful social relationship, can attack you for your speech. Here I am drawing a distinction between arguing against you, which is permissible, and attacking your speech rights themselves, either by direct or indirect suppression. In this we have a one-way exercise of power and its only point is to prevent your speech rights from being exercised. This is as much in violation of the right to free speech as is a government agent fining or jailing you for criticism.
Important in this distinction is the element of balance. If two people wish to disassociate from each other over a difference of views, that is permissible and natural. If a group hears the speech of one person and chooses to ignore him, that is permissible and natural. But when groups of people choose to punish a speaker, or large corporations choose to take away his voice in public venues, then there is an imbalance that is plainly evil. The right not to hear speech is easily exercised, but it cannot extend to the right to force others not to hear it, or it becomes tyrannical.
Full post is here.
Related to the topic of my last political post, Dilbert artist Scott Adams posted an analysis, of sorts, suggesting that something like half the body politic is experiencing “Mass Hysteria” (and isn’t dat sexist right there?)
Earlier this year I called it “fantasy to the point of derangement,” which accounts for it on a case-by-case basis, but begs the question of why it is so widespread. Mr. Adams suggests a cultural phenomenon as a way to explain its breadth.
I guess it goes without saying that I’m one of the ones he describes as being “outside the bubble.” I also find it interesting that, for the purposes of his argument, the actual truth is irrelevant. In other words, even if Trump is proven to be a Hitler-loving, racist, National Socialist who is under direct control of the Russian government, it still doesn’t change the fact that those who assumed the truth have been suffering from a mass hysteria.