My family is from New England, which meant none of us could ever relax unless we were in the state of Florida. So it was that every so often as a child, my parents would fly us down to Disney World for a summer vacation. Even back then, the place was a tourist trap—my uncle used to compare it to a vacuum cleaner sucking money out of your back pocket—and we cut costs where we could, shouldering around water bottles and coolers of sandwiches. Yet I also made many fond memories at those parks: braving the Tower of Terror for the first time, watching the SpectroMagic parade twinkle past.
Disney World was what it was, a campy hunk of plastic Americana proofed of all irony that after too long could start to feel creepy and compulsory (“you’re having fun at the happiest place on earth, right???“). But it was also something else: distinctly middle-class, the preferred vacation getaway for the family with three kids. Today, those same middle-class families are being priced out of the fun. During the 2010s, Disney World ticket prices soared at twice the rate of inflation. When the Magic Kingdom, the resort’s most popular park, opened in 1971, a one-day adult ticket cost $3.50; by 2004, it was $54.75; today it’s $109.
How did Mickey become such an avaricious lout? There are many answers to that question, some of them more justifiable than others. One is that Disney World has added three parks and countless new attractions since it opened, meaning there’s more to do and thus more to charge for. Plus, as anyone who’s ever tried to squeeze through Adventureland on a summer afternoon knows, the parks fill up rapidly, necessitating crowd control. But another answer is that Disney has its eye on the same financial trend lines as everyone else. They know that economic inequality is increasing, that there’s good money to be had among the top 10 percent, that catering to wealthy travelers and influencers can be very lucrative.
So it is that a Florida amusement park with something called a “Country Bear Jamboree” has increasingly become a playground for the global rich. (Think Jeff Bezos and Klaus Schwab putting their hands up before the Splash Mountain drop. Is there nothing left for the rest of us?)
I bring all this up because Disney would also like you to know that it stands with the marginalized peoples of the world. The company has lately gone full woke, releasing its first black and Pacific Islander princess movies. Its recent live-action Beauty and the Beast film co-starred a gay LeFou and its animated movie Onward featured its first openly lesbian character. Last summer, it struck a partnership deal with woke martyr Colin Kaepernick.
Disney’s Lucasfilm division recently made a point of firing Mandalorian actress Gina Carano because she had made comments that were deemed anti-Semitic or anti-Ewok or something. And thankfully the company remains ever vigilant as to the racist threat posed by the Muppets, adding a content advisory to The Muppet Show on its Disney Plus streaming service that warns of supposedly stereotypical depictions. (How do I get in on this racket? Grumbling reactionaries like me have been culturally appropriated by Statler and Waldorf for far too long.)
This woke blitz has even infiltrated the theme parks, long known for being allergic to controversy. Last summer, after the killing of George Floyd, Disney announced it was overhauling its Splash Mountain flume ride to make it more racially sensitive. It wasn’t entirely clear why. Splash Mountain is based on the animated movie Song of the South, which can certainly be accused of racism and has been attacked as such ever since its 1946 release. But it wasn’t as though Br’er Fox was popping up next to your log and screaming the N-word. The ride itself was harmless fun. It lifted the Song of the South characters out of their initial context and refashioned them into something more inoffensive, which seems like exactly what needed to happen.
Not so, apparently. My point here isn’t to bemoan every one of Disney’s ventures into wokeness: bring on the Kurdish princess, say I, as well as the Guyanan one and the Ulster unionist one. The more cultural representation of this wonderfully various world of ours, the better. What galls me is the superficiality of it all. The Disney way seems to be to ostentatiously extol the downtrodden while simultaneously screwing them with confiscatory prices and meager salaries. It’s all well and good to have a girl power-themed fairy tale; less so if the castle grounds have the lowest wages of any metropolitan area in the country. Yet here comes former CEO Bob Iger to assure everyone that Disney is committed to making its executive board more racially diverse. Well, thank God for that.
What makes this all the more surreal is that Disney has long been known as a conservative company, moving cautiously so as to avoid alienating its everyman customer base. To the extent it ever had an ideology, it was the beaming can-do capitalism of founder Walt. As it shifts now to wokeness, as it abandons that same middle class, perhaps it’s time we acknowledged that these two trends are ineluctably intertwined.
By now temperatures have risen and the immediate crisis in Texas has passed. Five members of the state’s Electric Reliability Council (ERCOT) are resigning; they do not even live in Texas. Ted Cruz is out a vacation, an optics lesson learned at least, maybe. But until the cascade of incidents and decisions that left millions of Texans abandoned to the cold without power and water is studied and learned from, the real crisis remains. Despite ERCOT’s name, or that of boards like it across the country, our infrastructure is not reliable. Not built for resilience, the postwar American grid was misbegotten in an ongoing tryst between efficiency and regulation for its own sake.
The two had a nice Valentine’s Day. ERCOT sent the Biden Department of Energy a letter on Feb. 14 requesting permission to set aside certain environmental permit limits on power generating facilities, in anticipation of the increased need for electricity and decreased output efficiency the winter weather event would cause. “This request is narrowly tailored to allow only the exceedances that are necessary to ensure reliability over the next few days,” it assures the DOE, and goes on to detail the ways any excesses of emissions standards would be monitored and reported.
The DOE granted the allowance, but its letter too highlights the tension between reliability, regulations, and market forces. The DOE ordered that when sufficient emergency conditions were reached as assessed by ERCOT, then certain generators could operate above regulated capacity: “This incremental amount of restricted capacity would be offered at a price no lower than $1,500/MWh.” Moreover:
All entities must comply with environmental requirements to the maximum extent necessary to operate consistent with the emergency conditions. This Order does not provide relief from an entity’s obligations to purchase allowances for emissions that occur during the emergency condition or to use other geographic or temporal flexibilities available to generators.
The narrowly tailored request for an ease of permit restrictions was granted as one of last resort. In a way I’m sure it worked, and some degree of excess emissions were minimized considering the situation, with plenty of offsets and even power bought from out of state. But it’s hard to imagine that the way things went down felt like much of a success from the perspective of residents of Houston or Austin, with sustained power outages and the possibility of enormous electricity bills. That five members of the ERCOT board are resigning doesn’t seem like an endorsement of how things went down either.
“And he said unto them, ‘The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.’” We should want our energy grids to be reliable, environments to be protected, and markets to be efficient, because of human beings. Indeed, reliability is a way of describing the limiting factor on those second two ends: We prevent emissions up to the point that regulation stops people from heating their home in subfreezing weather; we let market forces shape electricity supply up to the same point. Of course, in this case, it looks like enormous price increases in response to demand were tied more to exceedance of green standards, written into the order, than to actually limited supply. That’s putting the permit system before the citizens on whose behalf the emissions are regulated. Will five days of some power plant running at 100 percent capacity emit more pollutants than thousands of unused fireplaces and basement generators suddenly being lit? I don’t know. But I do know air quality in America has never been better in living memory, and I wonder what the point is of having cleaned up the air if you can’t fudge it for a few days—so people can keep the lights on!—without making it too complicated?
Part of the problem is that a place like the DOE or EPA necessarily has to pretend at a certain point, for the sake of its own existence as a national regulator setting national standards, that every place is pretty much the same. It’s the American environment, American air, American energy. But reliability is found in a system’s resilience; the bigger the system you’re looking at or working with, the more tenuous the threads tying it all together, the more complex the interplay, and the less predictable the ripple effects. There’s a fragility to big machines of many moving parts. Remember early COVID supply chain disruptions? Remember fuel shortages at the whims of OPEC? The local, on the other hand, can be comprehended and directed, can respond quickly with fewer conflicting interests and a clearer hierarchy of priorities. This is a tension at the heart of American energy and environmental policy: the local vs. the national, the dependable vs. the clean.
When we desire to preserve the environment, and thus to regulate human behaviors to that end, we desire to prevent a change for the worse, or to enable change for the better. Thus, we are guided by some idea of better and worse, and thus of a good to which we aim. Politics is the conflict over this good, the setting of opinions about it in contest with each other. It is a prudential matter, limited and contextual. But human beings have generally agreed that it is aimed at something we might call human flourishing. The great danger of the debate over environmental and energy policy today is that we forget, as Protagoras said, that “man is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not.” The weather is cold because we are cold. The lights are off because we cannot see them.
Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.
I had a different column or six in the hopper for this week, but then Ted Cruz ran into a buzzsaw of criticism for trying to sneak in a Cancun vacation during the massive storm that saw bitter cold and massive losses of power and water in Texas. Without looking to add to the dynamic in which—to steal a phrase—progressives circle the wagons while conservatives circle the firing squad, I think it is worth talking about Cruz’s misstep, for the benefit of conservative voters and officeholders. Officeholders in particular may one day find themselves in a similar situation, and it’s worth their while to know how not to screw up as Cruz did, and also why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was in a place to make hay from the situation.
Let’s dispense with the formalities: Unlike Andrew Cuomo, who can get away with killing truckloads of senior citizens until a new administration is in office and the elderly president’s vice president starts looking to knock off potential challengers for 2024, Republican officeholders have to deal with the fact that any press attention they get will be negative. Cry about media bias all you like, but it’s a fact on the ground and you have to live with it. So forget that as a factor.
Traditionally speaking, the job of Congresscritters in a time like this is pretty simple: shake the tree for money, stay out of the way, ramp up basic constituent service. For example, during one of our rounds of wildfires here in Southern California, Rep. Ted Lieu was front and center at the press conferences. He didn’t do a lot. He matched the tone of the first responders, verified that shelters were well-run, and told people to call his office (or their own congressman’s office) if they needed help with a FEMA claim or lost Social Security check. That’s all he needed to do. A lot of the value of a representative or senator in a situation like this is just being an 800-pound gorilla when one is needed.
In Cruz’s case, because Texas is so big, the logical thing to do immediately would have been to reach out to FEMA to see what resources there were, reach out to the governor and Texas’s congressional delegations to see what they needed, and let the voters know to reach out to their own congressmen, who would filter any needs for an 800-pound gorilla up to him or Sen. Cornyn. It’s not complicated. Voters like to see their elected representatives helping; it makes us feel like they might actually work for a living.
But Cruz didn’t do that. And his abdication allowed AOC to steal his march and get some good press. She started raising money for Texas organizations, mostly food banks, using ActBlue. Leftist organizers posted helpful replies to her fundraising tweets with links to more radical mutual aid groups, including chapters of the Socialist Rifle Association and the John Brown Gun Club, raising money and recruits for them.
Note that while AOC is now going to Texas for photo ops, promoting mutual aid is something that can be done from NYC or even, dare I say, Cancun.
Which raises the question: Why didn’t Ted Cruz do that?
It didn’t occur to Ted Cruz to organize a mutual aid drive because he couldn’t. The reason donations could be sent to food banks and radical mutual aid groups in the wake of the storm in Texas was that those groups already existed (in the case of the mutual aid groups, usually as offspring projects of existing radical organizations). Mutual aid work isn’t something you announce and build when in a crisis; you have to have existing relationships with organizations that are already on the ground and doing the work.
Cruz doesn’t have those relationships. He could reach out to prominent donors, but they don’t have organizations on tap either. If he wanted to build relationships with conservative-leaning organizations, he wouldn’t have a lot of options. Conservatives don’t build organizations as a matter of course, and don’t think much about repurposing the ones we have. Maybe he could reach out to the Knights of Columbus or other religious groups, as a lot of conservative charity tends to be more religious. But a lot of it operates on an individual level, as in the case of prominent Houston businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who turns his furniture stores into storm shelters.
The organizers in AOC’s mentions take a different approach. They build organizations for what leftists call dual power, summed up pretty neatly by the DSA’s libertarian socialist caucus: “1) building counter-institutions that serve as alternatives to the institutions currently governing production, investment, and social life under capitalism, and 2) organizing through and confederating these institutions to build up a base of grassroots counter-power which can eventually challenge the existing power of capitalists and the State head-on.”
They’re not subtle about it. It’s not a reformist movement; it’s a slow revolutionary one, essentially creating the various departments that can be repurposed to become, in effect, a new state:
Democratic labor unions can seize the workplace; worker-owned cooperatives can build it anew in democratic form; tenant unions can take control of housing; our councils and assemblies can restructure political authority around our own processes of confederal direct democracy. This framework of building popular power outside the governing institutions of our present system, to challenge and eventually displace those institutions with truly democratic ones of our own making, is the heart of dual power.
The effort is prefigurative. That is, it offers a vision of the socialist future, while at the same time building capacity for socialist groups on the ground and giving normal people an immediate material reason to think well of socialists. Or, as the Libertarian Socialist Caucus puts it, “building collective power with immediate material demands as well as providing our vision for the revolutionary overthrow of capital and all its associated oppressions.” In other words, well before you can have a revolution, you have to build elements with the potential to coalesce into a new government.
That’s the key to understanding the overarching leftist strategy, even among leftists who aren’t revolutionaries: create or access organizations and networks, and then repurpose them. If you doubt how powerful this approach can be, consider the recent admiring profiles in the NYT and Time magazine of the establishment-oriented organizing coalition that secretly coordinated progressive efforts in the post-election period. I saw some grumbling from notable Hard Lefties about these efforts while they were happening (specifically, the urging from national organizations to not turn out in the street and to keep their powder dry was unpopular with Hard Lefties), but it worked out well for them.
And what do you know? It turns out that coordinating a combined command and control nexus for organizations that have access to very large numbers of people can, in certain specific circumstances, be kind of handy. Heck, if the United States of America were to ever dissolve into Red and Blue nations, the folks profiled in the NYT and Time are probably Blue America’s version of the Continental Association, and it’s where the representatives to write their new constitution would come from.
To bring this back to Ted Cruz: Now that he’s back in town, without orgs to highlight and involve on the ground, the only thing he can do is be the 800-pound gorilla. But this is a column about hows. So, how do we conservatives, as office-holders and normal people, change that?
The good news is you don’t have to wait for a once-in-a-generation storm. And you shouldn’t. Waiting to organize until there’s a crisis is like waiting until summer to get beach-body ready. Like the man says about planting trees: “The best time was ten or twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”
Hard Lefty mutual aid groups tend to get started as an offshoot project of an ideologically friendly group that already exists. They don’t start in crisis mode; they pick a sustainable, ongoing task that relates to their ideology but serves as outreach to people who aren’t ideologically onboard. Food service is a classic one: Food Not Bombs feeds the homeless, and they’re also an onramp for radical leftist action for a lot of people.
Your conservative church could do that. Maybe they already do. That’s a network you can activate in times of crisis. Or say you’re a member of a local pro-life group. What if you put together regular formula-and-diaper drives to help out families of young children? That’s serving a purpose; it’s outreach. And it’s related to your core mission. Maybe you’re a member of a local gun range and you’re among the crew who do Wednesday bowling pin shoots or benchresting or what have you. You could put together a local group to help volunteer at food banks, and maybe investigate the possibility of meat donation come hunting season. Odds are there’s already some kind of community-helping activity you can join. Look for a way you can already do something to safely help your neighbors.
And once you’re doing it, let other people on your ideological team know you’re there.
David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.
While doing research for an early TAC essay about abandoned buildings, I did a lot of Google Maps satellite viewing. One rural town in central New Jersey, not far from where I grew up, provided some fascinating aerial views. A tad south of the town of Washington, one can make out what appears to be an aborted attempt to build expensive New York and Philadelphia exurbs. The image shows an almost entirely vacant mid-90s strip plaza surrounded by fields dotted sparsely with McMansions. I find this remarkable because it clearly shows the land frozen in a transitional state. (Absent the 2008 financial crisis, which dealt a still-reverberating blow to the exurbs, the fields might well be gone today, and the plaza, which once sported a large, higher-end A&P supermarket, might be thriving.)
Only a few miles away from that plaza, I found another interesting transition in retail and lifestyle. A shuttered and long-vacant Ames—a slightly downmarket discount department store similar to K-Mart—was converted a few years ago into a Tractor Supply Co. Another old Ames location 30 minutes away, in another largely-vacant plaza, also became a Tractor Supply Co.
At first I took this as anecdotal evidence that lightly developed exurban areas were shrinking, and that rural land uses and lifestyles were actually growing at those edges. The swapping of Ames for Tractor Supply seemed to suggest that. That was the story I planned to write in 2017, but it isn’t quite correct, and the Tractor Supply angle turned out to be a dead end.
While there is some evidence that the exurbs are shrinking or declining—many of the most expensive and distant D.C.-area exurban homes, for example, stagnated for a long period after the 2008 recession—it isn’t that simple. Ames was in fact well-known for having locations in rural areas and long-established smaller towns; it was especially widespread in New England and the Northeast. I recall shopping at Ames when my family vacationed in lightly developed Vermont in the late 1990s. The retail blog Labelscar writes: “Ames was ubiquitous. Every decent-sized town in New England had an Ames.”
The story of Ames, which collapsed under debt and competitive pressure from Walmart in 2002, actually suggests the withdrawal of decent corporate retail and access to goods from rural areas—retail that was there long before the trappings of McMansion suburbia cropped up. Anyone who lived near an Ames, and not that near to much else, had access to a full-line discount department store, if not an especially glamorous one.
And for a long time following a raft of early-aughts retail mergers, bankruptcies, and sector concentrations, much of rural America lost this kind of brick-and-mortar variety and convenience.
The narrative around rural and small-town retail tends to focus on 50-mile round trips to distant Walmarts, empty shells of stores that sucked the life out of the local retail ecosystem and then packed up, and junky, exploitative dollar stores.
There’s any number of articles criticizing dollar stores, either for what they’re alleged to represent—the hollowing out of local vitality—or for specific, and in some cases quite serious, instances of corporate malfeasance. They impoverish communities by outcompeting higher-quality alternatives, particularly in heavily black communities. They attract crime, in part because they intentionally go cheap on store security, camera quality, and things like wide aisles and uncluttered windows. They sell more food than Whole Foods, but offer mostly junk. They’re not a neat response to poverty or decline, but exist in a reinforcing feedback loop with it.
All of this may have been true at some point, and much of it remains true. But I had something of an epiphany when I took a long road trip down U.S. Route 11 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Just south of the small town of Buchanan, I was idling in a strip mall parking lot waiting for some Chinese take-out. I wandered into the dollar store anchoring the little plaza, which had a name I hadn’t quite seen before: Dollar General Market. This was a regular Dollar General with a miniaturized supermarket attached. Fresh meat, veggies, and a much fuller line of canned and frozen goods than the perfunctory shelves and freezer in an ordinary location.
It turns out the Market concept was launched all the way back in 2003, but from 2007 to 2010 it did not add any new locations. There’s not much information about it, and Dollar General does not list a number of locations. Clearly, however, they haven’t given up on the concept, despite it being unfamiliar territory for the chain.
If you’re not finding this fascinating, I’ll spell it out: The Dollar General Market is a tiny version of the “supercenter.” The combination of discount retail with grocery has its origins in the 1950s and ’60s, when a number of now-defunct retailers experimented with it. (Chains like Korvette’s, Two Guys, and Great Eastern Mills included supermarkets in at least some locations; some of these embryonic supercenters were nearly 200,000 square feet). However, it turned out that grocery and discount retail were very different industries, and it was not until the 1980s that Walmart cracked the code, and the supercenter went mainstream.
But even the ordinary dollar store is not exactly a “dollar store” anymore. As junky as their food may be, they do sell food. Many stock at least some brand-name merchandise. And in most of them, very little of the stuff is literally $1.
The evolution of the dollar store—from selling generic general merchandise for a dollar, to selling somewhat more expensive and higher-quality general merchandise, to morphing into miniaturized full-line stores, and finally to dabbling in fresh grocery—almost perfectly recapitulates the midcentury evolution of the discount department store category. Walmart, K-Mart, and Woolworth’s, for example, all began as small variety stores in the first half of the 20th century. The dollar store concept is undergoing a sort of convergent evolution, paralleling the last century’s development of a slightly different retail concept.
In other words, it is almost as if a large chunk of the country has backslidden into the turn of the last century and is experiencing the retail evolutions of the 1900s all over again. Dollar stores might not turn out to be a phenomenon of post-industrial decline and rural despair, but rather a reincarnation of the first dime stores and variety stores, out of which the discount department store and supercenter eventually evolved.
All of this is to say that over the last 20 years, dollar stores may have been finding their way, and that in some ways the withdrawal of rural retail may have been a transitional state. Today’s dollar store isn’t quite Ames, let alone the Sears of old, which extended a middle-class lifestyle to the remotest parts of the country. But it isn’t yesterday’s dollar store either. That isn’t often recognized, and it’s a good start.
This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.
“The past is malleable and flexible, changing as our recollection interprets and re-explains what has happened,” wrote sociologist Peter L. Berger. Though certainly true, it’s also often not so much our recollection of the past as it is what we would prefer to believe about it, regardless of the veracity of such memories, whether they be ours or others’. And there may be no place that this is more true now than in contemporary historical fiction.
The blatant disregard for any veracity in historical fiction, and the media’s fawning celebration and normalization of woke “alt-history,” becomes more absurd by the day. One might object that to complain about the facts of historical fiction is inappropriate and unfair—it is fiction after all. But the descriptor prior to the word “fiction” suggests authors aim for their imagined tales to have some basis in the historical record. Readers, in turn, expect the characters in such books to manifest qualities and inhabit roles that are appropriate to their historical age, and for that age to be described in ways that more-or-less correspond to how things actually were.
Vox reporter Anna North’s new novel Outlawed—glowingly praised in a January Washington Post review and an instant New York Times bestseller—is a reimagined Wild West defined by “feminist consciousness,” cross-dressing religious rites, and a messianic hero who “rejects male and female pronouns.” It features a feminist commune of “brave” people who live nonconformist, queer, and gender-fluid lives. That doesn’t sound anything like the actual 19th-century American West…but it sure does sound a lot like the woke world progressivists hope to fashion in 2021.
Or consider The Prophets, the debut novel of Robert Jones, Jr., also lately lauded by WaPo. This one “reimagines a past in the antebellum American South and pre-colonial Africa in which Black queer lives are foregrounded.” The Prophets is both a love story between two enslaved men and a presentation of a “queered vision of Black history,” that includes a “mythical African kingdom ruled by a female king where same-sex desire is honored.” I think “female kings” are typically called “queens,” but maybe such titles are too beholden to cisgender norms. Either way, we are once again far beyond the bounds of anything remotely resembling the real antebellum South. But the intersectionality of this story is just too delicious not to imagine!
Outlawed and The Prophets are not outliers. In 2019, Ta-Nehisi Coates—who demonstrated his own historical amnesia in naming his son after a powerful West African chieftain who enslaved thousands of Africans—published his debut novel The Water Dancer, which stars a slave in antebellum Virginia with the power of “conduction.” This is a magical ability to transport oneself and others from one place to another—pretty helpful when you’re working on the Underground Railroad! One might also note the insanely popular Thomas Cromwell trilogy of Hilary Mantel, beginning with Wolf Hall, which are more fictionalized history than historical fiction. Mantel, among other things, seeks to discredit the legacy of Thomas More by portraying him as a sex-obsessed religious fanatic. Yet, as Cambridge historian Richard Rex has noted, “there is more talk of sex in the Wolf Hall trilogy than in More’s complete works.”
These stories seem to write themselves. Step one: decide on an age in human history defined by patriarchal, cisgender, racist norms and power structures (this is not hard, as basically all historical periods fit this description). Step two: craft a heroic character who bucks all the aforementioned oppressive hierarchies via his, her, or zir’s intersectional personality. Step three: write your story of self-actualization and realization, and eagerly await the accolades.
The mythic reimagining of our history is entirely unnecessary, and I write as a former high-school history teacher. The actual history of the American West, the antebellum South, Reformation England, and any other historical period are wonderfully and ceaselessly interesting. Moreover, as great fiction writers like Patrick O’Brian, Sigrid Undset, and C.J. Sansom have proven, the closer one actually adheres to the complexities and curiosities of the past, the more enthralling the story becomes. An intelligent, well-researched historical novel can bring an earlier epoch alive like almost nothing else (and certainly more than my old AP European History lesson plans).
Would that the problem of treating the past like ideological Play-Doh were limited only to historical fiction. The person of Christopher Columbus is now so reviled by the left that one doubts whether the federal holiday in his honor will survive this presidential administration. The Genoan explorer, as scholar Robert Royal notes in his recent book Columbus and the Crisis of the West, has become whatever bogeyman serves the purposes of our outrage culture. There is Columbus the white supremacist, Columbus the misogynistic oppressor, Columbus the imperialist, Columbus the exploitative capitalist, and even Columbus the ecoterrorist. These are gross oversimplifications, if not anachronistic canards, but they do present a useful weapon for enterprising activists selling a victim narrative. “Christopher Columbus and those like him were no different than Hitler,” asserted an undergraduate Nikole Hannah-Jones, who would go on to found the NYT’s 1619 Project.
It’s not just that reinterpreting the past to suit our pet ideological fetishes results in an erroneous understanding of human history. In its cynicism and chronological snobbery, it also evinces its own unique form of oppression and subjugation, enacted upon our ancestors, whom we effectively silence and coerce to articulate our own words. What they actually believed—say, about family, power, race, gender, or sex—is subordinated to whatever we reimagine them saying, either as forerunners of our woke world (e.g. Samori Touré) or villains worthy of censure and cancellation (e.g. Columbus). As much as book publishers and media outlets celebrate such silliness, perhaps obliged to pay what Kyle Smith at New Criterion calls the “woke tax,” the quality of both our nonfiction and fiction, reduced to so much self-worship, can only decline.
History serves many important functions. One of them is to serve as a mirror, helping us see ourselves as we are and can be: supremely flawed, but capable of heroic virtue and remarkable accomplishments whose legacy may far outlast our few years on earth. The closer we peer into that mirror, and appreciate the profound complexities of every human person, the more we develop both empathy and much-needed perspective. Unfortunately, in both our fiction and non-fiction, many writers and historians choose instead to violently paint over the glass in ways that validate their own vanities and prejudices. “History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there,” declared philosopher George Santayana. I never much liked that quote, but given our blinkered view of the past, I can see his point.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.
Late last year, PBS aired Laura Ingalls Wilder: From Prairie to Page, a new documentary in the American Masters series. Plugged as the real story of the author’s life and a critical look at Wilder’s work, it is visually attractive, and occasionally interesting for anyone who isn’t familiar with the Ingalls-Wilder backstory. But there is an unfortunate series of woke progressive talking points awkwardly shoe-horned in, largely due to the American Library Association’s 2018 decision to drop her name from its children’s literature award (of which she was the first recipient in 1954) due to her alleged racism against Native Americans. In this uniquely stupid time, everything must be political.
From Prairie to Page begins with Wilder’s reflection on the extraordinary eras her life had overlapped: first, the frontiersmen; then the pioneers, the farmers, and the towns. “Then I understood that in my own life, I represented a whole period of American history,” she told an audience in Detroit. Wilder was born in 1867 and died in 1957: from the covered wagon to the atom bomb; from settlers to superpower. It all seems very long ago, but in fact, one can still reach out and almost touch it. There are a handful of people left living who knew Laura Ingalls Wilder, although all with lifespans approaching a century. I tracked several of them down last year.
William Turner, the former chairman of the Great Southern Bank in Mansfield, Missouri, told me Wilder was a “prim lady, very proper” who’d once given him a hand-written poem for a pie supper fundraiser. Retired newspaperman Dale Freeman, who frequently saw her at church, recalled that she was a “quite religious Methodist” and a great cook. He remembers his father playing billiards with Almanzo Wilder. Roscoe Jones, who lived next door to Rocky Ridge Farm, ran errands for her as a boy, and she’d invite him in to sit by the stove and tell him stories of the old days. “She would say: Now, this is the way it actually happened,” he told me. Speaking with them, I felt as if I was brushing the edge of history.
It is a history well-known to millions, and so I won’t belabor the details here. However, the documentary does fill in a few interesting bits. The events in Little House on the Prairie, for example, actually take place prior to Wilder’s memories of Pepin, Wisconsin, recorded in Little House in the Big Woods. Readers will be familiar with the Ingalls girls Mary (born in 1865), Laura (1867), Carrie (1870), and Grace (1877). Less known is Charles Frederic Ingalls—Wilder called him Freddy—who was born in Walnut Grove on November 1, 1875. The following year, Freddy got sick, and a doctor was called. “But little brother got worse instead of better,” Wilder wrote, “and one awful day he straightened out his little body and was dead.” Freddy died on August 27, 1876. Wilder left him out of the books.
Despite the hardships Wilder detailed in the Little House books, the reality was often worse. Wilder lived in 15 different homes by the time she was 14 and worked to support the family from the age of nine onwards. Charles Ingalls was a wonderful father, loving husband, and a dedicated family man—From Prairie to Page makes clear that Wilder’s books are, in many ways, an homage to him. But he also lurched from one financial failure to the next, often borne out of his profoundly incompatible desires for both a profitable farm and his longing to live in the unsullied wilderness. Even Wilder herself may not have realized how dire their financial situation was at times.
One example of this is the Ingalls family’s situation after the devastation of the Rocky Mountain locust plague in 1875, which Caroline Fraser describes in chilling detail in her magnificent Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and which Wilder details in On the Banks of Plum Creek. The locust swarm, Fraser writes, was “110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to half a mile in depth. The wind was blowing at 10 miles an hour, but the locusts were moving even faster, at 15. They covered 198,000 square miles…the cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects.” It was the largest in recorded human history. Charles Ingalls, as Wilder’s readers will know, desperately fought—and failed—to save his crops. In their wake, the locusts left the fields and creeks filled with eggs, ensuring the farm would be a failure. Charles walked 200 miles east for work, and on November 30, was forced to sign a statement in the presence of county officials that he was “wholy [sic] without means” in order to get two half-barrels of flour for his family. Fraser, who features prominently in From Prairie to Page, suspects that he never told them how he acquired the supplies.
One very much gets the sense that the documentarians—as well as nearly everyone they selected to opine on Wilder’s life and legacy—are deeply suspicious of Wilder’s conservatism and her daughter Rose’s well-known libertarianism. Both mother and daughter despised Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Wilder felt that the New Deal was too much government overreach, and that people needed to work more and whine less. Some have interpreted this as callousness or obliviousness to the way government tipped the scales for her own family (the Homestead Act being an obvious example), but Wilder’s life of poverty and backbreaking labor certainly granted her an informed perspective on the matter. Wilder found the “Communists in Washington…exasperating.”
From Prairie to Page does put to rest the persistent theory—a hobbyhorse of some fans of Rose Wilder Lane—that mother and daughter were co-authors rather than collaborators. Even their collaboration was a well-kept secret. Lane, who coached her mother, gave her writing tips, did extensive edits, and worked with her on the narrative structures of her books, had no desire to be associated with children’s books. Some, however, have claimed that her contributions amounted to co-authorship, which Caroline Fraser thoroughly debunks in both Prairie Fires and From Prairie to Page. Lane, in fact, used many stories from her mother’s childhood for her own books, written for adults. (Her best-known book today is the libertarian manifesto The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority.)
Of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder can no longer be mentioned without a long, boring, and unconvincing screed on her alleged racism towards Native Americans, which is now taken as fact by the sorts of folks who get asked to appear in documentaries. I always thought the books were positive towards Native Americans, aside from Caroline Ingalls’ fears—well-founded considering the brutal Indian wars that were then underway, and the fact that any woman had reason to fear men who walked into her cabin unwelcomed. From Prairie to Page, however, notes concerns that Wilder’s books are “deeply dehumanizing to children of color,” with awful messages for white children to boot.
Linda Sue Park, a Korean-American author, even claimed to be “deeply hurt by those books” and said that they “took me 50 years to reconcile.” To which one is tempted to say: Grow up. Perhaps Park was culturally appropriating the experience of Native Americans, got carried away, and was thus traumatized—or perhaps she merely missed the stories of resilience, compassion, and familial love throughout the series. But the idea that it took her a half-century to get over the wartime fears of folks on the frontier well over a century ago is, to put it bluntly, pretty pathetic.
It is a shame that these sorts of allegations must now feature prominently in biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She deserves better. But because we insist on projecting the political sensibilities of the current moment on people who were in many cases far more hard-working, patriotic, moral, and family-minded than we are, Wilder’s life story must always be accompanied by several representatives of the woke community, who solemnly remind us that they are better than she was and that her work is, unfortunately, tainted by its times. It is cheering to remember that children reading these books recognize Laura and her family for what they were—and her stories often trigger in them a nostalgia for the sort of life too many of them have been denied in these, our more enlightened times. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories are not a cautionary tale. They are stories of the deep family connections that made America what she was—and can be again.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist. His commentary has appeared in National Review, The European Conservative, the National Post, and elsewhere. Jonathon is the author of The Culture War and Seeing Is Believing: Why Our Culture Must Face the Victims of Abortion as well as the co-author with Blaise Alleyne of A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide.
“You watch, he’s going to win.” That was U.S. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, election eve 2016. As he sat in his house on Pine Valley Road in Winston-Salem, Burr was bullish on Donald J. Trump’s chances of capturing the White House. Longtime aides and family members rolled their eyes. OK, whatever you say.
Burr had good reason to believe. The 60-year-old former appliance salesman was on the same ticket with Trump, running for his third term as a Republican from the Tar Heel State. For more than a year, Burr watched voters turn out with building intensity. In tiny places down east such as Rose Hill, Trump rallies would be scheduled for 12,000 supporters; 25,000 would show up. And the first 5,000 of them waited in line for two hours.
The crowds listened as Trump gave away the game, one Burr had spent a career playing. The Manhattan real estate developer ridiculed George W. Bush’s presidency, railed against bipartisan trade deals that closed thousands of American factories, attacked policies that favored illegal immigrants over U.S. citizens, and picked apart spymasters and their benefactors for shoddy track records and pushing a fraudulent war in Iraq.
Burr could admit some of these inconvenient facts (in 2004 he said that NAFTA was “a net loss for North Carolina”) but he resented Trump’s lambasting of the Bush family and GOP orthodoxy. He realized, though, that it was in his best interest not to make waves and to focus on winning his own race. The evidence at GOP headquarters in Forsyth County was clear: Everyone who came in asked for a Donald Trump yard sign. Every other person asked for a Donald Trump and a Richard Burr yard sign.
Burr’s campaign style harkened back to his days in sales. He would slide into his Acura and drive from place to place, spend half the day walking up and down Main Street in little towns across the state. Talk to voters, shake hands. When they asked why he wasn’t in one of the big cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, or Greensboro, Burr would answer, “That’s not where my people are.”
If Burr grew tired, he checked into a Comfort Inn. “Can I get access to the conference room?” he would ask the front desk clerk. Sometimes at two o’clock in the morning, the senator would get up out of bed and go print something he needed for the next day’s campaign schedule.
Now, in the most unpredictable campaign in modern American history, Burr seemed to be coasting to victory against a liberal state rep from Raleigh, Deborah K. Ross. As the days to the election dwindled, the man at the top of the ticket was catching tailwinds, too. Hillary Clinton’s line that Trump was a sinister, shadowy figure tied to Russian president Vladimir Putin wasn’t getting traction with voters.
On election night, Burr made his way to nearby Forsyth Country Club where his supporters gathered. Phillip Phillips’ song “Home” played over the sound system: “Hold on to me as we go/As we roll down this unfamiliar road/And although this wave is stringing us along/Just know you are not alone/’Cause I’m going to make this place your home…”
At 10:32, Burr bounded up on the podium in the dining room to celebrate victory. His supporters cheered. “Wow!” he said. “This one is better than all the rest… This is a victory for all those who have believed in me, and those who have continued to have confidence in the fact that my values match your values.”
Burr thanked his family, and quoted from a sermon delivered by his father, the late Rev. David Burr, who pastored the First Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem from 1962 to 1986. “He said there’s always work to be done by the living and it’s our responsibility to get in on the action. He taught me to do my part. I intend to carry out my duties through this next Senate term, as I’ve tried to do to the best of my ability for the past 22 years.”
The usual GOP tropes followed. “We will not retreat in the cause of freedom”; “we have freedom coursing through our veins”; “we live in the greatest land known to mankind.” It should have been a freewheeling, relaxed night for a man who announced months earlier that this would be his final race, but Burr read from a script. He seemed uneasy.
Just as Burr said, “We don’t know what we might face in the nation ahead,” Trump was coasting to critical victories in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
“Life is and always will be a circle,” Burr continued. “People are born, they live their lives, hopefully making a difference, and then their lives come to an end and they’re replaced by a new generation.”
At 2:30 a.m., the networks declared the winner of the presidency. Chyrons spread across every channel: DONALD TRUMP ELECTED PRESIDENT. With that news, Richard Burr was forced into a decision, one that would define his character and chart a divided course for the nation.
* * *
Until 2017, when Burr became chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I hadn’t given a serious thought to his career since he got elected to the U.S. House in 1994. Why should I? For most of a decade, Burr was a standard-issue, post–Cold War GOP congressman. Ran for and won a Senate seat in 2004, focused on constituent services, reelected twice.
The idea of Burr overseeing all of the spy agencies called to mind Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene’s darkly comic 1958 novel that parodies espionage bureaucracies. Greene writes about a vacuum cleaner salesman, James Wormold, who gets approached by a British intel officer. “We must have our man in Havana, you know,” the officer says. London is setting up the Caribbean network and wants Wormold to spy for them. The salesman accepts the offer because he needs additional income to support his extravagant teenage daughter. He makes up information about Russian threats, draws diagrams of vacuum cleaners that he says are missiles, creates fake agents from names in the phone book, and then packages the reports to his spymasters. London is impressed.
If you ask former aides to name Burr’s chief accomplishment, they don’t mention his work with spy agencies. Instead, they cite things such as his maneuvering of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to benefit North Carolina. “Richard came up with the idea that if you’re going to drill off the coast, we want royalties and we want them coming in to help beach nourishment, the intercoastal waterway, and dredging,” a longtime aide says. “This made the environmentalists say, ‘Wait, we’re going to get a pile of money for this?’”
As much as I love my home state and still follow politics there, I had never heard that Richard Burr got this money coming in, or that it mattered. The media always gets things backwards or misses the real story. Other than Burr being a fellow Demon Deacon, to me he was just another D.C. Republican who sang from the same songbook that got him elected to Congress.
When Burr arrived in Washington in 1995, another Wake Forest alumnus and I met him in the bar at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. Richard ordered a beer. “Bring it in the bottle,” he told the waitress, “makes me think I’m back home.” He struck me as the personification of Tom Wolfe’s good old boy. It never occurred to me that one day Richard would become so skilled at playing the game.
He wasn’t destined for the game, the United States Senate, or the chairmanship of a committee that oversees all of America’s spies. His father was a prominent preacher and president of the Rotary Club. Burr’s most overt connection to politics was ancestral—he’s a distant relative of Aaron Burr, who for many Americans has gained notoriety as the character in Hamilton who kills Lin-Manuel Miranda in a duel. Before that, Aaron Burr was vice president under Thomas Jefferson, a fate that would cause him to become one of the most reviled figures in American history.
Richard’s dad was devoted to debunking the attacks against Aaron Burr, his ninth-generation cousin. Most of them stemmed from Jefferson’s determination to crush him because he was threatened by Burr’s appeal. Jefferson accused Burr of treason, without evidence (as we now say). Burr, he asserted, was guilty of “stoking a rebellion, deceiving and seducing honest and well-meaning citizens, under various pretenses, to engage in their various criminal enterprises.” In 1807, Jefferson had Aaron Burr arrested for “suspicious activities.” Of Burr’s guilt, Jefferson declared, “there can be no doubt.” Burr was put on trial. And acquitted twice.
“Aaron Burr has been given a bad deal,” Rev. Burr said to the Associated Press in 1987. At the time, he was president of the Aaron Burr Association. On the matter of the duel, Rev. Burr said, “Hamilton is the one who challenged Burr and Hamilton lost, obviously.” About whether Burr was a traitor, Rev. Burr said, “It’s taken some time for the real facts to surface… he was completely exonerated.”
With no proclivity for politics, Richard turned to athletics. At the R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, he played football. Burr became a star linebacker and helped take the team to a district championship where he was selected Forsyth County’s offensive player of the year in 1973. His performances caught the attention of Chuck Mills, head coach of the football team at Wake Forest University, the “Demon Deacons.” Mills signed Richard to a football grant-in-aid to play in 1974.
Going into that season, Mills told the campus newspaper, the Old Gold & Black, “We honestly feel we are on the precipice of a solid and respected football program.” To anybody who followed sports on Tobacco Road back then, there seemed to be a specter hanging over Wake Forest. In an unguarded moment on local radio discussing the upcoming football schedule, Mills alluded to it. “Saturday, September 28, will be the best Saturday of the season,” he said, “because on the 28th, we don’t have to play anybody.”
Demon Deacons are accustomed to losing in athletics. In fact, in the 71 years before Richard joined the football team, Wake had only 25 winning seasons. In Richard’s freshman year, they lost game after game. By mid-season, the Deacs were listed on the Los Angeles Times “Bottom 10” rankings.
But Richard still looked promising. At 6’2’’ and 195 pounds, he was a solid player, big and fast, who stayed banged up. (My parents were friends with another player, Solomon Everett, and we attended many games.) Richard kept moving and sustained so many injuries and scars that teammates nicknamed him “Zipper.”
* * *
There was a time when the giants of North Carolina politics, in both parties, were outraged over abuses from the national security state. Long before Sen. Sam Ervin became a folk hero for presiding over the Watergate hearings, the Democrat from Morganton led a crusade against Army spying on civilians. He was celebrated by Robert Sherrill, Washington correspondent of The Nation, for being “the closest thing we have to a Federal Ombudsman in the crusade against Big Brother.”
Sen. Jesse Helms, a staunch anticommunist, condemned FBI wiretapping and bugging as “the whole smelly mess of American politics.” In 1974, Helms said, “Bobby Kennedy tapped telephones of everybody in sight, including 38 Senators… let’s see who else has been doing it.”
In 1975, the Senate voted 82-4 to establish the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Agencies, to launch a massive investigation into allegations of wrongdoing. Members included Sen. Robert Morgan of North Carolina, a graduate of Wake Forest University Law School, who took a special interest in the probe.
Morgan said he was drawn to the inquiry when he heard how I.R.S. agents had “engaged in a lot of illegal activities” to entrap taxpayers. “I remember a case of a banker from the Bahamas being in this country and they investigated,” Morgan said. “The I.R.S. wanted some papers in his briefcase so they literally set him up with a woman in Florida, in Miami, and then got him about half drunk, and while he was drunk with the woman, they robbed his briefcase, photographed the records, and put them back.”
The committee exposed espionage on U.S. citizens, such as opening mail, listening in on phone calls, and bugging bedrooms; interference in domestic politics; harassment and character assassination of civil rights leaders, Vietnam War protesters, and radicals; and subversion of foreign governments.
In August 1975, Committee chairman Sen. Frank Church of Idaho appeared on Meet the Press to explain why the committee was vital. “In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air,” Church said. “These messages are between ships at sea, they can be between military units in the field—we have a very extensive capability of intercepting messages wherever they may be in the airwaves… no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability, to monitor everything—telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.”
“If a dictator ever took charge in this country,” Church said, “the technological capacity that the intel community has given government could enable it to impose total tyranny and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know.”
Committee members were hopeful that what they launched in 1975 would be permanent. They wanted to inspire an enduring mission of “seeing to it that all government agencies… operate within the law and under proper supervision.”
* * *
In 1978, Richard graduated with a communication degree from Wake. He emerged into a state that was the headquarters of industry—tobacco, textiles, and furniture. Cannon Mills in Kannapolis produced half of the nation’s towels and a fifth of its bed sheets. Almost 35 percent of North Carolinians worked in manufacturing, more than any other state. Rev. Burr helped Richard get a full-time position with Carswell Distributing Co., which sold appliances in the Winston-Salem area. One of his first jobs was demonstrating kerosene heaters to potential customers.
Richard purchased a house on Polo Road, near the Wake Forest campus. The place needed a lot of work, and Richard had just the man for it, an undergraduate named Tom Fetzer. They met when both were students who landed jobs at The Hub Ltd., a men’s clothing store at Hanes Mall. Soon, Fetzer learned a key fact about his friend: “Richard Burr is the tightest man you have ever met.” Richard showed Fetzer his new house and said, “If you help me fix this place up, I’ll let you live here for free.” Fetzer agreed and moved in. “I went in as his indentured servant.”
The house needed a lot of work. “There was scraping paint, painting, all kinds of stuff,” Fetzer says. “One day Richard asked me to mow the backyard. I said, ‘Alright.’ So I’m out there mowing the backyard and, all of a sudden, my legs just catch on fire. I had hit a ground wasp’s nest that he knew was there—he just didn’t know where it was. Richard stood on the screened porch and watched me to find out where it was.”
Oil prices were high during the winter of 1979 and Richard’s house had an oil furnace in it. “But he never burned a drop the whole time we lived there,” Fetzer recalls. Instead, Richard purchased a wood-burning stove from his employer, put it in the basement, and it theoretically heated the whole house. “Well, I lived in the bottom floor bedroom and I would go to bed with a sweatshirt, a stocking cap, and ski gloves. You could see your breath in my room,” Fetzer says.
During the time they lived together, Fetzer, not Burr, was the one interested in politics. That summer, a prominent Republican lawyer, Fred Hutchins, hosted a fundraiser at his residence for John P. East, a political science professor from East Carolina University. He was running to defeat Sen. Morgan in the 1980 election, the same senator who exposed the spy agencies’ wrongdoings. Fetzer was friends with Hutchins’s daughter and Hutchins asked him to bartend for the event. It was there that Fetzer met Thomas F. Ellis, the top strategist for East and Helms, who had also helped engineer Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary victory in North Carolina. “Come see us when you finish school,” Ellis told Fetzer. When classes were completed that fall, Fetzer went to Raleigh to meet Ellis and was hired for $850 a month to work in East’s campaign. In November 1980, East defeated Morgan by a little more than 10,000 votes.
For the next decade, Burr continued to work for Carswell as a salesman. He married a girl from nearby Salem College, Brooke Fauth, and they had two boys (Fetzer is godfather to their oldest son). Fetzer kept active in politics and in 1988, he challenged incumbent congressman David Price, a Democrat from the Triangle. “Even though George Bush won the presidential election I got soundly trashed,” Fetzer says.
During a Christmas visit to the Burrs following that defeat, Burr informed Fetzer he might run for Congress. “We were in his kitchen and I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, the boys are getting to be of age and I’m really worried about where this country is headed, what kind of future they’re going to have. It’s something I want to do.’ I never saw it coming,” Fetzer says. “But Richard turned out to be a natural politician.”
* * *
Between 1969 and 1975, North Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District was represented by a former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell. After Watergate he was defeated by a 40-year-old mortgage banker and newspaper publisher, Stephen L. Neal, a Winston-Salem native.
I remember Neal as a centrist Democrat who was able to hold on through the Reagan and Bush landslides of the ’80s. In 1992, Burr declared against him. “We will run a campaign based on a theme of ‘It’s time to make Washington work again.’” (Has it ever?) He came to the Wake Forest campus, where I was a student, looking for support that fall. His pitch was that he was prompted to run by “lack of representation” from Neal. After a year in which the insurgent candidacies of Patrick J. Buchanan and Ross Perot revealed voter outrage toward the establishment, Burr’s anodyne message was ill-suited for the political climate.
When he spoke to a small meeting in the Benson Center that I attended, he said, “I truly believe we’re at a crossroads in America this year. America must choose between decay and prosperity. As long as our policy is anti-business… anti-growth, we are not going to change.” In addition to generic platitudes, Burr also expressed support for the line-item veto, something even Reagan couldn’t get passed despite pushing for it during his two terms.
Nobody on the national GOP level thought Burr stood a chance at winning, for good reason. Bill Clinton was running for president at the top of the Democratic ticket and Neal dismissed Burr as a “Japanese-appliance salesman.” (As a top North Carolina Democrat puts it, “At that time, Japanese products were not real welcome here in North Carolina.”) Sure enough, Burr went down to defeat.
“We thought we had a shot,” Chuck Greene says. He was just out of Wake Forest and worked as Burr’s western field director. “Actually, we didn’t do too bad. If you look at the final outcome, and it being a big Democratic year with Bill Clinton’s victory, and Steve Neal outraising us, to get to 47 percent, where we ended—we thought that was pretty good.”
For Republicans in Washington, the race put Burr on the map. As for Neal, he decided to get out while he was still ahead.
* * *
In 1994, North Carolina had a “blue moon election,” as it’s known in the state, a rarity where contests for the Senate or governor aren’t on the ballot. President Bill Clinton had grown unpopular in North Carolina and Hillary’s plan to overhaul health care had hit roadblocks. Sensing an opportunity to chalk up a win, then-House minority whip Newt Gingrich put the big GOP money behind him. Burr raised more than $600,000. For the first time since 1972, the Fifth District seemed winnable for Republicans. Neal announced his retirement and Democrats drafted state senator Alexander “Sandy” Sands as their successor to Neal.
While the GOP pushed Gingrich’s Contract with America as its nationwide theme, the biggest local issue was NAFTA. Burr declared his support for the free trade agreement and followed the party line that NAFTA would be a winner for the district. He also attacked Sands for raising his own salary while in the General Assembly. “That was technically not correct,” Sands recalls. “We voted as a legislature to adopt the budget which gives every state employee a certain percentage raise. It applies to everybody, and never went into effect until you got reelected.”
That November, Burr won with 57 percent. SALESMAN BURR HEADS TO WASHINGTON was the headline in the Charlotte Observer. There was a pullout quotation from Burr’s wife, Brooke: “He was always a leader. He was on the football team. He was in a fraternity. He never missed a Sunday at church.”
Before Burr was sworn into office, he met with his campaign strategist Paul Shumaker. “You have ten years to find a landing place for me statewide,” he said. His message to Shumaker was, I believe in term limits, and five terms is the most I am going to serve in the House. For the next few years, “We went through a process of preparing him to run statewide and building relationships,” says Shumaker.
It didn’t take Burr long to master the way people in Washington speak without saying anything. Appearing with a group of House Republicans in 1995 to announce the formation of a group called the Mainstream Conservative Alliance, Burr said the mission was “fiscal sanity.” He declared, “Solutions are bipartisan. We’ve got a long way to go in this institution, but this is the first step of one that I think will be many in the foreseeable future and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Later that fall, Burr appeared at a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event, the Washington Issues Seminar, moderated by Rep. Bill Hefner, an old-line Democrat and former gospel singer in the Harvesters Quartet, who represented the Eighth District. In the morning session, Hefner urged everyone to get their coffee and danish and settle in as he introduced the new congressman. “Richard’s a very articulate young man from Winston-Salem, and in just the short while that he’s been here, I’ve learned to have a great amount of respect for him.”
Burr strode to the front wearing his horizontal striped tie and congressional pin, shaking a few hands as he moved along. He joked about trying to work his way through Gingrich’s reading list. Referring to the 53 Republicans who got elected nationwide with him, Burr said, “This is not a partisan class,” even though what had happened was considered a political revolution and the first time the GOP would have control of Capitol Hill since 1952.
Before signing off, Burr acknowledged another participant in that morning’s affair, Albert R. Hunt, Jr., then the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, and also a graduate of Wake Forest, class of 1965. Hunt was one of the most prominent mediocrities in all of Washington journalism, always a reliable source of useless conventional wisdom and left-wing takes. Outside the Beltway, reporters marveled at how Hunt kept his job. But Burr took a different approach. “I don’t think there’s an individual who has a better grasp of what’s happening in the city,” he said. When I heard that line, I knew Richard was well on his way to punching all the right tickets for success in D.C.
* * *
“Are you familiar with Wilkes County?” Neal Cashion, the former mayor of North Wilkesboro, asks me. He’s describing the long odds he faced in 1996 when he tried to unseat Richard Burr. “I’ve lived here all my life. Hell, when you live here and you’re a Democrat, you have to fight the weather, the devil, and the Republican Party—and just about in that damn fashion, to tell you the truth about it.” I checked, and the last Democrat to carry Wilkes County for president was Andrew Jackson, in 1832. Cashion says Governor Jim Hunt asked him to run to fill the Democratic ticket. “They needed a full slate that year,” he says.
He recalls putting some $100,000 of his own money into the race, and getting a little help from the Democratic Party, but it was impossible to persuade big business to give him a listen. Cashion called the Miller High Life plant in Rockingham County to ask if he could tour and meet the workers, and executives said, no, we’re for Richard Burr, we can’t let you in here.
“The Clinton-Gore bunch came out against tobacco so, you know, it was kind of like standing on the corner raising money,” Cashion recalls, “wishing in one hand and taking shit in the other and seeing which fills up first.”
Burr and Cashion did meet for one debate, in Winston-Salem. “I probably did a pretty good job,” Cashion says. “That was my first ever debate as any kind of a candidate. In a small-town race you don’t have that type of thing. That’s where Burr kept bragging about being a Presbyterian minister’s son. They made a video of it.”
How did you size up Richard Burr? I asked. “He was very polished, very familiar with the issues, he was in Newt Gingrich’s pocket.”
Cashion says, “I’m not a Richard Burr fan. I always thought his daddy was a nice fella. He used to come up here and preach in our church some. His son didn’t like staying a Presbyterian for one reason or another.” The Burrs now attend Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown Winston-Salem, known more for the social climbing of its members than the teachings of its reverend.
“I grew up in my grandfather’s house and my grandfather was a big Presbyterian,” Cashion says. “And you always hear about, ‘Well, we got to do this for the preacher, we’ve got to help the preacher’s son do this, we’ve got to help the preacher’s wife do that, we’ve got to help the preacher’s daughter’—always wanting to do something for the preacher’s young’uns, all the time having to take up a collection. And it made me think, Burr bragged about being a Presbyterian minister’s son and the first time he gets a chance he changes his religious affiliation to something else. I thought, damn, what a traitor. It’s the damn truth. He sucked on the Presbyterian teat for years, and then spit it out for some reason.”
With the district leaning more Republican, Burr carried 62 percent of the vote and secured his place in Washington. Neil Cashion says he’s happy these days just watching the Golf Channel.
* * *
In February 1999, a small group of businessmen who supported Burr asked him to run for governor. Shumaker talked Burr out of it by saying they were looking to protect their own business interests. “My job is to protect your interest,” Shumaker told him. “You’re not ready for this, nor is this your issue set.”
Burr stayed in Congress and, after 9/11, grew to believe that spies were the first line of defense against the jihadists. He took a spot on the House Committee on Intelligence, where he sat next to Nancy Pelosi and questioned top intelligence officials. In October 2002, he voted in favor of the war in Iraq and became a strong supporter of President George W. Bush. He began to view the FISA court and the Patriot Act as tools spies could use to beat back the terrorist threat.
When top political aides in the Bush White House went looking for potential U.S. Senate candidates to run for 2004, Burr impressed them as being someone they could rely on. (“Their main criteria were people who would do what they wanted,” says longtime North Carolina political strategist Carter Wrenn, who worked for Helms and East.) Karl Rove says he talked to the Burrs—“he does not make a political decision without his wife, Brooke, she’s very smart”—and told them that if Richard decided to run, “we’re in, money, marbles, and chalk.”
Burr never had to worry about an election again. His commitment to deal-making was viewed in the Senate as serious-mindedness and earned him plaudits from Teddy Kennedy and Harry Reid. Among GOP Senate leadership, Burr was the workhorse guy. There’s no drama with him, he’ll put his head down. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Burr turned to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the spy agencies for guidance on next steps. McConnell groomed Burr to take the place of the retiring vice chairman on the Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia (one of Burr’s close friends).
While the tobacco, textiles, and furniture industries that once filled little cities all across North Carolina closed, Burr grew to love the briefings and the collegiality with the spymasters. He even refused to condemn waterboarding. In 2013, during an interminable hearing with CIA director John Brennan, Burr joked, “I’m going to try to be brief because I notice you’re on your fourth glass of water, and I don’t want to be accused of waterboarding you.” He said he considered any effort to hold hearings on CIA torture as an attempt to smear the Bush administration. When a staffer for Sen. Dianne Feinstein discovered that the CIA was spying on committee computers, Burr didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Living in the world of espionage—“It’s what he gets up and breathes for,” says one former aide.
* * *
If Donald Trump’s trip down the escalator in 2015 revealed anything, it was that he did not belong to The Club. As Gore Vidal describes in his 1967 novel Washington, D.C., “No one was ever quite sure who belonged to The Club since members denied its existence, but everyone knew who did not belong.” Burr knew right off that Trump was not a member, nor would he ever be. This was reinforced when Trump said the espionage business was a waste of money and incompetent, insofar as they missed the end of the Cold War, 9/11, WMD, and the rise of China.
I spent a year conducting the Playboy Interview with former NSA and CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden when Trump was running for president. The last spymaster to sit for a Playboy Interview was William Colby in 1978. Colby’s more than 10,000-word interview maintained the tradition of publicly staying out of domestic politics. Hayden’s did not.
In August 2016, Hayden and other former national security officials, from the Nixon to the Bush administrations, signed an “open letter” that was publicized through every media outlet in the world. “Trump has dangerous qualities in an individual who aspires to be President and Commander-in-Chief, with command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” they wrote. “We are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being. None of us will vote for Donald Trump.” Trump responded by saying that people such as Hayden were the same ones who brought us the war in Iraq and allowed Americans to die in Benghazi.
Days after Trump was elected, President Obama ordered our 17 intelligence agencies to conduct an investigation and write a report about alleged Russian interference in the election. The report was released to the public on January 6, 2017. It said that all of the spy agencies were in agreement that “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. Presidential election.” The document was a tool meant to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s election.
With six years remaining in his political career, Burr was in the position to correct the narrative that the election was stolen by Putin for Trump, as chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence. He refused to push back and decided that he was going to undertake the same investigation that Obama had ordered, except this time run it through the Senate committee.
A few days later, BuzzFeed published the notorious “Steele Dossier,” written by a British spy, Christopher Steele, who hated Trump and was paid by Hillary’s campaign. The document portrayed Trump as a Russian stooge cavorting with prostitutes in Moscow. Despite its lack of evidence, it circulated among top U.S. spies, who seemed to relish reading and disseminating it. Over Twitter and in person, President Trump attacked the dossier and the espionage apparatus that generated it.
This “antagonism, this taunting to the intelligence community,” as Rachel Maddow described Trump’s response, caused Hayden, Brennan, NSA director James Clapper, CIA deputy director Michael Morrell, and FBI director James Comey to double down against the president. They broadcast their antipathy for him through a myriad of channels, continued spying on Trump and his advisors, and sought to neutralize him through leaks. Their anger was telegraphed in the interview Sen. Chuck Schumer gave Rachel Maddow shortly after Trump was sworn in. “Let me tell you,” he said, “you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday of getting back at you… From what I am told, they are very upset with how he has treated them and talked about them.”
On March 29, 2017, I watched as Burr appeared on the podium in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery studio. He was sweating as he announced his probe. “Our mission is to earn the trust and respect of the intelligence community so they feel open and good about sharing information with us because that enables us to do our oversight job that much better,” he said.
For the next three years, Burr said he was overseeing “one of the biggest investigations that the Hill has seen in my tenure here.” He didn’t really “oversee” it. He put a longtime aide, Chris Joyner, who had also worked as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, in charge and ceded considerable authority to the committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat, of Virginia. In public, Burr bragged about the extraordinary number of witnesses he and the committee questioned. In reality, some vital witnesses never even laid eyes on Burr.
Tom (I shall disguise his real identity) got subpoenaed by Burr and Warner for “documents related to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.” Tom was ordered to appear in person at the committee or go to jail. Tom hired a lawyer, complied with Burr’s request, and appeared on Capitol Hill for what he thought was going to be an interview with Chairman Burr. “Not only did I not see Burr, but the staff played a game with me where they pretend, ‘Oh we’re so bipartisan, you won’t even be able to guess who works for whom.’ You’ve got all these people in the room with various agendas and in between questions they run outside and leak to the press. A bunch of really shitty, untalented people. In the intelligence community, they’re looked down on as losers and wannabes, people who couldn’t get into the agencies.” In the end, Tom spent close to $250,000 on lawyers and his life was ruined.
Burr and Warner released five volumes of a study that concluded that Russia did what they had been doing since the Bolshevik Revolution—though in 2016 they were so stupid they spent $100,000 on Facebook ads, some of which appeared after the election. Out of some 200 witnesses, none could swear to having any evidence that the Trump campaign colluded, conspired, or coordinated with any member of the Russian government.
While committee staff members were investigating Trump and Russia, FBI agents caught the committee’s director of security, James A. Wolfe, leaking classified and disparaging information about Trump and others close to the president to reporters, including one with whom he was having sex. (“I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else,” Wolfe texted the reporter in 2017. “I always enjoyed the way that you would pursue a story like nobody else was doing in my hallway.”) After Wolfe pled guilty to lying to the FBI and was set to be sentenced to prison, Burr, Warner, and Feinstein wrote to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and beseeched her to give Wolfe leniency. In December 2018 she sentenced Wolfe to two months in prison and fined him $7,500.
At the end of Our Man in Havana, Wormold confesses. His “intelligence” has been a scam. There is no threat. The spymasters in London need to keep this quiet. Determined to avoid embarrassment, they give Wormold an award, the Order of the British Empire, and a prestigious teaching post at headquarters.
Soon after President Trump left office in January, officials at the Department of Justice contacted Burr. For almost a year, they’d investigated him because following a private briefing from intel agencies in early 2020 regarding the coming pandemic, he liquidated his stocks. The Burrs were spared some $250,000 in losses. We won’t be charging you with any crimes, Justice officials at long last informed him.
“The case is now closed,” Burr announced in a statement. “I’m glad to hear it. My focus has been and will continue to be working for the people of North Carolina during this difficult time for our nation.”
John Meroney is contributing editor of Garden & Gun and consulting producer of the upcoming CNN Originals documentary series, The Woman Who Took Down the KKK.
Mike Carey is not surprised that Gov. Andrew Cuomo failed to protect vulnerable New Yorkers in nursing homes during COVID. In fact, as shown in emails he shared, he and others warned Gov. Cuomo’s office in March 2020 that a crisis was forming.
“If you, the governor and all other top NYS mental health officials continue to ignore our whistleblower complaints,” Carey stated in an email to an official in the State of New York Office of People with Developmental Disabilities, on March 23, 2020, “regarding the coronavirus pandemic your negligence could lead to the catastrophic loss of lives of people with disabilities, as well as state and private caregivers.”
Carey knows first-hand how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deals with New York State’s most vulnerable. Fourteen years ago, his son Jonathan died at a group home after an employee abused him. Jonathan Michael Carey “was developmentally disabled, he had autism and he was non-verbal and only 13 years old when he was killed. Almost all of dozens of safety and abuse prevention bills along with the critical 911 Civil Rights Bill have been blocked from becoming law by the Cuomo administration who runs the mental health care system,” Carey recently stated in a press release on the anniversary of his son’s death on February 15.
Carey’s story was featured in a series of articles in the New York Times in 2011; the publicity led Gov. Cuomo to proclaim he would act to clean up abuses in about one thousand group homes for the mentally challenged throughout New York State. Cuomo created the Justice Center, which was supposed to take over all investigations into abuses at these homes.
Rather than solving the problem, according to Carey, Cuomo’s solution only exacerbated it. He claims the Justice Center has buried most complaints, while accused group home employees have been shuffled from one home to another. He has watched as Cuomo’s administration has acted with impunity, often ruling through executive order and refusing to provide data on complaints of abuse at group homes.
Carey was one of several New York whistleblowers featured in a 2018 documentary entitled Whistleblowers. “It’s not documented, it didn’t happen,” he said in the documentary. “This agency is a complete fraud,” Carey continued, referring to the Justice Center, “Corrupt to the core and literally burying thousands of cases every single month. Criminal cases.”
He then explained the process by which the state buried these cases. “What the state is doing is circumventing, bypassing the 911 call systems. So, if you’re a victim of a sex crime, basically the call goes from the mandated reporter into a state abuse hotline, which is all internal. They funnel the complaint right back to the facility where the state crime occurred.” He said, “Then, basically, they give the facility all the time and the ability to move and destroy the evidence.”
In 2018, Cuomo fired Jay Kiyonaga after he engaged in “improper and sexually inappropriate acts” directed at female subordinates, according to a 2018 New York Post article. He was then administrator of the Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs.
Carey said in the documentary he believes one third of the residents of these group homes continue to be sexually abused in them. The state paid $3 million to the family of a boy abused in one of these homes in 2018; according to a press release from Carey, the abuser called the home“a predator’s dream.” “The lack of supervision there made it easy to do what I did,” he said of the group home system under Cuomo. “I could have stayed in that house for years and abused him every day without anybody even noticing at all.”
Now, as Cuomo’s controversial decisions regarding his state’s elderly and disabled citizens during the coronavirus crisis come under scrutiny, whistleblowers like Carey recognize the same patterns they have been concerned about for years. In fact, they warned Cuomo’s administration early and repeatedly that New York state’s most vulnerable were not being protected from COVID.
“Dear Commissioner Kastner: Why is OPWDD sending vulnerable medically frail individuals from OPWDD group homes and non-for-profit agencies to day programs during the COVID-19 outbreak?” one whistleblower asked via email on March 11, 2020. “OPWDD has trained me to take proactive approaches to situations that could jeopardize our individual’s health and well-being.”
“Dear Commissioner Kastner & all others in positions of responsibility. People with disabilities MUST be minimally protected as anyone else,” Carey stated in another email from March 11, 2020. “Neglecting them in this Coronavirus CRISIS would be considered ‘gross & deliberate indifference’ and felony criminal according to NYS penal law 260.25. EMERGENCY ACTION MUST BE TAKEN NOW TO PREVENT DEATHS.”
As in the widely reported nursing home COVID deaths, the extent of the abuse in homes for the disabled was initially obscured, with relevant data hidden. Carey said he only discovered how far the group home crisis went after filing numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and piecing together the data himself. Much like with COVID, the Cuomo administration took significant steps to control the flow of information, denying repeated FOIA requests as Carey continued to ask for data for Justice Center abuse numbers.
“Dear Records Officer Delia,” Carey says in an email on July 20, 2020, “As you are fully aware, your response is in direct violation of NYS FOIL law. The PUBLIC information I requested is a click of a button away.”
Carey was able to get enough data early on to show that abuse continued to be a huge problem in group homes. In a FOIA request from 2016, Carey asked how many reports the hotline, which was created to handle complaints, received since its inception on June 30, 2013. The response stated the hotline had received 18,145 substantiated complaints and another 37,474 unsubstantiated complaints.”
Carey said in his analysis of current data he’s been able to gather, he estimates this hotline continues to receive approximately 8,000 complaints monthly.
An email to Governor Cuomo’s press office was left unreturned.
Michael Volpe has worked as a freelance journalist since 2009, after spending more than a decade in finance. He’s based in Chicago.
China’s human rights violations are both widespread and well-documented. Yet so far Western criticism has had little impact on Beijing’s behavior, whether in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or elsewhere on the mainland.
Some of China critics advocate boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics, set to take place in the PRC. The 2008 summer games gave Beijing a major propaganda boost; the Xi regime no doubt plans to turn next year’s competition into another self-love fest. A boycott would tarnish the competition and embarrass the hosts.
So far the Biden administration has said nothing publicly, though it reportedly has begun talking with allies about the games in light of the Trump administration’s determination that Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs is legal genocide, a conclusion endorsed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Congressman Tom Malinowski argued: “If you’re going to accuse a government of genocide, you can’t then have an Olympics in that country as if it’s a normal place.”
The boycott idea is worthy, but good intentions are not enough. Such a stand would not improve human rights in China.
Twice assigning the world’s premier sporting event to one of the world’s most repressive nations in little more than a decade demonstrates the need to rethink eligibility rules. Not that there is any easy answer.
Excluding undemocratic states would mean ruling out many potential hosts and might cause an exodus from the Olympics, perhaps even triggering the establishment of a competing contest. Moreover, how authoritarian would be too authoritarian? Setting a standard requires more than claiming to know it when one sees it. Anyway, Olympics games are already assigned through 2028, with France, Italy, and the U.S. next up. Focusing on 2030 won’t do anything to aid oppressed Chinese.
Republican legislators have introduced a resolution urging the International Olympic Committee to strip Beijing of the upcoming contest. But the IOC is unlikely to reverse itself, especially so late, after a host country has invested so much. In October, Hunter College’s Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer, met with the Committee for the same purpose. He complained, “We were given the same response Olympic officials once gave to justify the Nazi Games—that politics and sport should be kept apart.”
Moreover, the competition is set to begin less than a year from now, leaving little time to prepare a new venue. Perhaps the games could be delayed or returned to a past host with facilities in good working order. But the 2014 host was Russia, which presumably would be ineligible under a human rights standard. Four years later, South Korea held the winter games, but, having suffered commercial retaliation from Beijing for deploying the THAAD missile defense system, the republic would be reluctant to risk further Chinese displeasure. Other potential candidates might be equally reluctant to court retaliation from Beijing.
With the games almost certain to go forward in China, British MPs are pushing for a boycott. Olympics controversies are not uncommon. Spain and the Soviet Union stayed home in 1936 when the games were held in Nazi Germany. In 1956, four countries abstained to protest the short-lived invasion of Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel; three stayed home because the Soviet Union was allowed to participate (despite its invasion of Hungary); and the PRC boycotted because Taiwan was invited.
Eight years later China, Indonesia, and North Korea refused to participate as part of a dispute over an alternative sports contest. In 1976, 29 mostly African nations boycotted after the Olympic Committee refused to ostracize New Zealand, whose All Blacks rugby team had toured Apartheid-era South Africa. Twelve years later, Cuba and North Korea refused to attend because Pyongyang was not made a cohost alongside South Korea. In none of these cases did anyone much miss the absent athletes or nations.
The most important boycott occurred in 1980, when the U.S.S.R. was hosting the summer games. Led by Washington, 66 countries stayed away to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, Moscow returned the favor, though less effectively, when it boycotted the contest in the U.S., along with 17 of its allies and friends.
The most important impact of the latter two episodes probably was to increase general distaste for mixing politics and sports, which would incline the U.S. Olympic Committee against a redux in 2022. Any serious boycott proposal would have to answer several questions.
First, would anyone else back the U.S.? The militarily threatening but economically isolated Soviet Union was a much easier target than the PRC. Beijing announced that it would retaliate against any nation that spurned the games, a promise it almost certainly would keep. For instance, China targeted Norway, which hosts the Nobel committee, after Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize; six years passed before the two governments finally repaired relations, after Oslo issued an excruciatingly obsequious statement dictated by the PRC.
Today, even American allies exhibit profound reluctance to confront Beijing over political and trade issues. Most Asian and European states have significant economic ties with China; the investment accord inked by Europe and the PRC late last year offers Beijing even more leverage. Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, told the Washington Post: “I’ve spoken with European ambassadors and friends here, and the appetite to take on China with a boycott is zero.”
A solitary, or almost solitary, holdout by the U.S. might make some people feel righteous, but it would likely be counterproductive. It would look like a politically motivated bout of moral vanity at the expense of athletes who would lose the opportunity to compete. (It is easy to argue on behalf of a supposedly noble cause if someone else is paying the price.) Worse, a unitary action would highlight America’s isolation, even impotence, making any future effort at coalition building more difficult. Finally, Beijing would feel emboldened, more convinced that no one was prepared to confront even its worst behavior.
Second, would anyone else be willing to take the lead in promoting a boycott? No one wants to be caught between the U.S. and China, especially since any campaign pushed by Washington would be seen as part of a new cold war. Mike Pompeo’s ostentatious efforts to conscript Asian and European nations for America’s attacks on the PRC failed badly. Add to that Washington’s infamous inconsistency on human rights: attacking adversaries for violations while ignoring even worse crimes by friends. Many nations would automatically dismiss a U.S. effort, even if led by the Biden administration. A boycott campaign would have greater credibility if organized by someone else.
Third, would walking away from the 2022 contest diminish opportunities to highlight Beijing’s violations of human rights? The Olympics brings enormous numbers of foreigners and substantial amounts of media coverage. Could governments and athletes use the competition to highlight Chinese misbehavior? Would a boycott focus coverage on the U.S.-China dispute rather than on China’s mistreatment of its people? Would an America-only refusal to attend galvanize foreign opinion against the U.S. or Beijing?
Fourth, would such action help the oppressed? Embarrassing the Chinese leadership might feel good, but would that lead to an improvement in the treatment of Uyghurs or others? Or would the Xi government respond with even tougher controls over its own population? Beijing already spends more on internal security, meaning holding its own people in bondage, than on its military. A high-profile attack from America or others likely would send the regime into a defensive crouch. Would a boycott cause other governments to treat the PRC in ways that would benefit China’s people?
Fifth, would a boycott be seen by China’s population, and especially the young, as an attack on the nation rather than on the regime and its policy of repression? The PRC’s future will be determined by its own people, not foreigners. The best hope for positive reform is an internal demand for change. Younger Chinese don’t like government restrictions on their lives but even more dislike attacks on their country. A boycott, especially one led by the U.S. tarnishing China’s reputation, would risk driving people to support the Beijing regime. That would strengthen the position of Xi and other hardliners and make political reform more distant.
Finally, are there alternative measures to take to highlight Chinese human rights abuses? There could be, for instance, a diplomatic boycott, in which top government officials and celebrities around the world avoided the games. Or a high-profile campaign might urge sponsors to withdraw their backing. Or a boycott of game advertisers could be organized. All of these could display public displeasure and encourage discussion without punishing athletes.
The claim that the Olympics should be politics-free deserves debate, which next year’s contest makes more urgent. However, the best time to disqualify states from hosting the Olympics is before the games are awarded. A change of venue or mass boycott of next year’s competition is about as likely as Xi Jinping becoming a born-again democrat.
It would be better for Western athletes, activists, and governments to set more modest objectives and find other ways to publicize Beijing’s crimes and aid Beijing’s victims. This approach would better give substance to the Olympic Charter’s commitment to the “preservation of human dignity” and “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
The post Don’t Boycott the 2022 Olympics Because They’re in China appeared first on The American Conservative.
We the People are spiritually sick. The discovery of evidence needs no diligent search. Discussion—if that’s the word I want—surrounding any trending news story offers conclusive proof. Take, for example, the death of Rush Limbaugh last week.
If you happened to be unfortunate enough to peek at social media in the aftermath, you would have found the disgusting spectacle of gleeful grave-dancing even before the corpse was cold. If you are a member of the punditocracy, or a person who reads the New York Times or watches CNN on purpose and not for the laughs, or if you live in Yorba Linda, please allow me to say very clearly and very slowly that my point has nothing to do with Rush’s politics. One’s reaction to the death of a human being ought not to be determined by whether that person was on your team. Imagine we are talking about someone you like, and adjust accordingly. It could be Antonin Scalia. It could be Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Why this happy spite? What is wrong with us?
We cannot, I think, say “politics.” Our politics is a febrile attempt to fill a spiritual and existential void; our despairing and diseased political gamesmanship is therefore a symptom of that void rather than its cause. Calling our problem “politics” is similar to treating a brain injury with a nose job, and leaving it at that. And, anyway, it is merely one symptom. To put the diagnosis more generally, we like bad news, particularly when it has to do with someone else. The Psalmist says that the righteous man “is not afraid of bad news.” Well, neither are we, the unrighteous. We relish it.
The phenomenon puzzled Walker Percy, who found himself wondering about the following in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book:
THE ENVIOUS SELF (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self—though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill—in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces
But the problem is not an instance of American exceptionalism. We can find it already in one of the earliest Greek dramas we have, the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. Upon his arrival at home after a decade-long absence, the title character, commander of kings at Troy, says to his wife Clytemnestra:
In few men is it part of nature to respect
a friend’s prosperity without begrudging him,
as envy’s wicked poison settling to the heart
piles up the pain in one sick with unhappiness,
who, staggered under sufferings that are all his own,
winces again to the vision of a neighbor’s bliss. (Trans. Richmond Lattimore)
Though Agamemnon is not, it is true, a neutral (ahem) observer, he is only expanding on a point that has just been made by the Chorus. We are ready to grieve with those who grieve, but we do not really share their grief. In the same way, we do not share their joy when they are happy.
If one is distressed, all others are ready
to grieve with him: yet the teeth of sorrow
come nowhere near to their heart’s edge.
And in joy likewise they show joy’s semblance,
and torture the face to the false smile.
The Chorus means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to enter into another’s experience, because “you” must always also mean “not-I.” Agamemnon extends this observation in an understandably cynical direction: we would not wish truly to enter that experience even if we could, because the success of others is a distress to us; another’s good fortune makes our misery more acute. Envy is soul-sickness, caused by one’s own unhappiness and the desire for everyone else to be as miserable he is.
The ancient Stoics, too, were preoccupied with the perils of envy. Thus Epictetus, in his Enchiridion, cautions that worldly success is only apparently, rather than actually, good:
You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation.
His warning is in reality a mechanism of self-defense to prevent the root of envy from taking hold in the first place. Envy is so common, in fact, that Marcus Aurelius begins the second book of the Meditations by advising his reader that he should begin every day with the recognition that he will encounter the envious. Seneca the Younger lists it as one of the things that “goad man into destroying man.”
Let us stipulate, then, that the contagion is ubiquitous. There is nothing peculiarly “modern” or “late capitalist” in feeling bad about good news, or good about bad news. And yet it stands to reason that not all of envy’s causes are the same everywhere. Doubtless one might think some of them are, at least if one believes in a universal human nature. But there is still ample room for a concomitant variableness—both nature and nurture, as it were. A nail can blow a tire anywhere, but it takes a special set of circumstances to get a flat from an armadillo.
So perhaps some of the reasons for our widespread spite are unique. What is different about the “nurture” in our case, as opposed to that of, say, the ancient Greeks or Romans? What is our cultural armadillo?
Let us return to Percy for a moment. Percy notes that man’s discovery of self-consciousness introduced a duality into his existence that makes him fundamentally different from other types of (biologically) living things. We are not only organisms in an environment; we are also selves in a world that we build up and maintain through the use of signs. That is, these signs—and language preeminently—allow us to create our human world that is superimposed on our natural environment, as well as to communicate it to and share it with others. Consider: chlorophyll absorbs the morning sunlight in plants and allows photosynthesis to occur, which makes plants green. But only a human being tells another human being, “Your love is like the morning sun,” or claims that his love “is like a red, red rose.” Self-consciousness—the recognition that “I” am different from the material environment, that, while I have a material dimension, I am also, and more fundamentally, a knowing spirit—is correlated in turn to our sense of transcendence, our recognition, even if cloudy, of the things of the spirit and of eternity beyond our material and temporal environment, while our physical, fleshly aspect is correlated to our sense of immanence in that same environment. Language is the vehicle of the spirit and helps us to grapple with the problem of transcendence. We deal with the problem of immanence by feeding, fighting, or fleeing.
The “transcendent self,” then, is constitutive of what it means, in the deepest sense, to be human. Without it, there might be a species called homo sapiens, but there would be no human person.
But now we encounter a difficulty. Human beings have traditionally coped with transcendence via myth and religion. But according to Percy, we now live in a post-religious age. (It seems to me that this descriptor needs to be drastically nuanced and restated, but this is not the place for that. I shall stipulate that it is more difficult in the industrialized and secularized West for religion to do its public work with unanxious vitality than it has been in other times and places, and I shall leave it at that. That claim is (a) true, and (b) gets me far enough for what I want to say.) Yet the transcendent side of our existence has not actually been eliminated; it has just been displaced to other domains, particularly science and art.
Science and art, however, are poor substitutes for scratching our eternal itch. They are not open to everyone in the way that religion and myth are, and their psychospiritual effect is brief. I once heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed in the Tonhalle in Zürich. It was glorious. Its effect had mostly faded by the second sausage and beer I had afterwards.
Percy puts it like this—it is a long quote, but worthy of your attention:
The impoverishment of the immanent self derives from a perceived loss of sovereignty to “them,” the transcending scientists and experts of society. As a consequence, the self sees its only recourse as an endless round of work, diversion, and consumption of goods and services. Failing this and having some inkling of its plight, it sees no way out because it has come to see itself as an organism in an environment and so can’t understand why it feels so bad in the best of all possible environments–say, a good family and a good home in a good neighborhood in East Orange on a fine Wednesday afternoon—and so finds itself secretly relishing bad news, assassinations, plane crashes, and the misfortunes of neighbors, and even comes secretly to hope for catastrophe, earthquake, hurricane, wars, apocalypse—anything to break out of the iron grip of immanence.
This is why we love bad news. It provides a temporary transcendence of the nullity we fear to be at the non-existent center of our existence.
In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer observed that the bored and resentful will look for something—for anything—to fill the void at the nil-point of lives that seem empty and meaningless. Politics will do. This accounts quite well for the error, the fundamental misguidedness, both of the riots this past summer and of those staged more recently at the Capitol. It is the root of our radicalism, whose name we dare not speak. And it is probably the root of the perverse spectacle of gloating over the death of one’s political bogeymen. As Hoffer remarks,
There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed….When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored. The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom.
But note what this means: The issue is not the issue, whatever just-so stories we want to tell ourselves about it. Spiritual sickness cannot have a political cure. We cannot do an end-run around the problem of lost transcendence by an intensification of our immanent urges. By making the attempt, we accomplish nothing more than turning society into “a wilderness of tigers,” as Titus calls Rome in Titus Andronicus.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I trust that readers will recall that play’s denouement. Politics as substitute-transcendence is a dead-end, literally and figuratively. It promises euphoria, and even delivers it, like a shot of grain alcohol. But it doesn’t last, and the hangover is severe. Promising salvation and escape, it only enmeshes us more inextricably in the machine of mass-produced and commodified resentment. In the end, we devour one another—and are just as depressed as we were before.
E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.
When Pope Francis steps off the plane in Baghdad on March 5, he will become the first pope in history to visit that overwhelmingly Muslim country. But Iraq has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Ancient tradition claims the foundations of the Christian church in what was then Mesopotamia were laid down by the apostle Thomas and his disciples Aggai and Mari. At least two bishops from the region were present at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 to promulgate the Nicene creed, still recited every Sunday by most orthodox Christians.
But the Christian community in Iraq that will greet the pope is, according to many inside the country, in danger of extinction. Before the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is estimated that there were more than 1.3 million Iraqi Christians, mainly Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. Now, although figures differ, it is likely that there are less than 200,000 Christians, of all denominations, left in the country.
There is no doubt that the visit is long awaited and the cause of much hope for such a beleaguered community. Iraqi Christians, along with many other persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East, especially in Syria, have long felt that the Western church has paid scant attention to the near total destruction of the church in the lands where Christianity began. I have heard many times, on my visits to Iraq and in Syria, including from senior ecclesial figures that, deep down, they feel abandoned, certainly by the media, but also, more disturbingly, by Christian leaders in the West. Iraqi Christians look forward to welcoming the Bishop of Rome, but some fear that even this visit will fail to make their suffering known.
The emergence of the Islamic State, and their conquest of many of the Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain in July and August of 2014 was not the cause of the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq. That was only the latest and most deadly persecution, after years of murder, kidnapping, and ethnic cleansing. The city of Mosul was already almost uninhabitable for Christians by the time ISIS took control. Mosul, which Pope Francis will visit for a short time, is the biblical city of Nineveh preached to by the prophet Jonah. Its Chaldean Catholic Bishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and murdered in 2008. A year earlier, one of his priests, Ragheed Ganni, and three deacons were shot dead by Islamists outside their Church. Many in Iraq were hoping that Pope Francis would beatify them during his visit next month, but that seems unlikely.
From the Caliphate’s rise in 2014 to its defeat in 2017, more than 120,000 Christians were driven from their ancestral homes on the Nineveh Plain, along with many thousands of Yazidis and other religious minorities. Many of them finding shelter with the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan. I vividly remember, on the first of my many visits to the region, in early 2015, seeing the Christians and Yazidis living in abandoned buildings, in shipping containers, and in prefabricated huts, with nearly all the food and shelter being provided by Catholic Church organizations and Christian NGOs.
Iraqi Christians I have spoken to, and whom I have gotten to know well over multiple visits in the last six years, have told me they pray Pope Francis will do three things on his historic visit. More than anything else, they want him to highlight what happened to them, not only the severe persecution under ISIS, but the long history of persecution they have endured for centuries. Critically, they hope the visit will draw the world’s attention to the ongoing persecution of Christians, not just in Iraq and the Middle East, but across the world. Making that his central focus, and the media coverage it will gain, will go some way to redressing the inattention this persecution has received. They need the successor of St. Peter to comfort them, and to strengthen them, not just by words, but by challenging authorities, speaking truth to power, to give Christians and other minorities equal status as citizens—something they are denied under the Iraqi Constitution. Lastly, for the visit to be seen as a success by those who really matter, the Pope needs to listen to those who will speak with transparency and honesty, not always a feature of those in power, both in civil society and the church.
However, according to sources I have spoken to, there are growing concerns about the feasibility of the visit and its central focus.
Concerns center on the narrative emerging from the Vatican and, it must be said, from the Pope himself, about religious dialogue and the “Document of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Pope Francis will pay a courtesy visit to the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani in Najaf on the second full day of his visit. The Vatican had hoped the Ayatollah, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite community, would also sign the Abu Dhabi “Human Fraternity” project document, which sounds like something produced by a U.N. commission. However, it now seems the Ayatollah will not sign any such thing.
The speech the pope will make at Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, on the same day as the visit with the Ayatollah is a most appropriate occasion to speak about the need for the three Abrahamic religions to live in peace, but even the title and logo of the Pope’s visit, “You Are All Brothers,” leads many Iraqi Christians to worry that those who suffered so much from Islamic extremism will be lectured about living in peace with their neighbors. As one Iraqi priest said to me, “My home was stolen by neighbors and my Church became an ISIS torture center. I don’t need to be told to live in peace. We were living peacefully.” Iraqi Christians responded with great pain when, in May 2016, on his visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos, the Pope brought back to Rome three Muslim refugee families, and not one Christian family. Similarly his comments after the murder of the 85-year-old French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel by Islamists in Normandy, France, in July 2016, in which he said that if “I speak of Islamic violence, I have to speak of Christian violence,” caused much confusion and anguish for people who had been driven from their homes, had their women kidnapped and raped, and who had refrained from responding with violence.
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Younan said in recent days that he would have preferred the visit be “postponed,” because Iraq has been severely hit by COVID-19, with cases rising in the last few weeks. He also expressed a concern I have heard from others on the ground: The Shia militias under Iranian direction, which are the real powerbroker on the Nineveh Plain despite it being nominally under the control of the Iraqi army, will use this visit for their own purposes. Among other things, the militias will claim that they are providing security and protection for the Christians who have returned to Nineveh, when in fact they are engaged in a policy of demographic and economic ethnic cleansing, changing formerly Christian towns into majority-Shiite strongholds.
The security situation has deteriorated in recent weeks, with at least fourteen rockets landing on February 15 around Erbil International Airport, where the pope will arrive on March 7. The attack killed one contractor, and injured several others, with rockets landing in other residential areas. It is widely believed this attack was directed by Iran to test the new Biden administration.
Pope Francis has the opportunity, and the tremendous good wishes of all the Iraqi Christians, to make this visit a turning point for Christians across the Middle East, by acknowledging their persecution and giving them a sign of hope for their future. But that could be lost in a trip with a U.N.-style focus, complete with well-meaning phrases about dialogue and brotherhood, but with little reference to the experience on the ground.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is the Founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians.
It’s easy to forget, but the United States by the end of 2001 thought it had won in Afghanistan. The CIA had undertaken an unofficial policy of war against Osama bin Laden back in 1998, and after 9/11, their agents were able to draw upon that planning to move quickly against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The bombing began in October; Northern Alliance fighters were inside Kabul by mid-November. Osama bin Laden fled, possibly to Tora Bora and eventually to Pakistan. A new age was declared in Central Asia.
So rapid was the Taliban’s defeat that it threw some antiwar sorts off balance. The mood at the time was best summed up by Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a piece for The Guardian called “Ha ha ha to the pacifists.” Hitchens crowed, “It was obvious from the very start that the United States had no alternative but to do what it has done. It was also obvious that defeat was impossible. The Taliban will soon be history.”
Today, we might ask how much longer history is supposed to take. Make a running chronological leap over the invasion of Afghanistan, past Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, above Arab Spring revolutions come and gone, landing and skidding into the present day, and you find the Taliban not only not defeated but in their strongest position in 20 years. The group now claims to control 70 percent of Afghanistan’s territory; a more cautious estimate by an Afghan news service puts it at 52 percent. Taliban fighters have seized highways and supply lines into Kabul. They’ve been inching towards the vital city of Kandahar.
All this during the Afghan winter, when frigid temperatures make fighting prohibitive; come springtime, observers expect the situation to only get worse. We are confronted now by what once would have seemed an unthinkable, even unpatriotic possibility: The Taliban could win in Afghanistan. After two decades of war, the United States could end up back where it started.
The prospect of a resurgent Taliban has prompted some to argue that America should stop withdrawing troops. Under the peace deal ratified at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, the remaining 2,500 U.S. forces in Afghanistan are supposed to be out by May 1, though this was also contingent on the Taliban halting their offensive, which hasn’t happened. Still, it’s not like anything else we’ve tried has worked either, starting with Barack Obama’s troop surge in 2009. No amount of boots or dollars or willpower has achieved more than a lull in the violence. Yet we refuse to acknowledge as much. A congressional study group recently took a hard look at Afghanistan and came away with this groundbreaking conclusion: We should draw down only after security has improved. That, of course, is what we always say we’re going to do, only for that better security to remain elusive.
So why are we still in Afghanistan? Why can’t we finally succumb to reality and cut our losses? Three reasons come to mind.
The first is honor. No nation likes to lose a war, especially one with roots in the trauma of a terrorist attack. Because Afghanistan really was linked to 9/11—there’s no question Al Qaeda bombed the Twin Towers and was sheltered by the Taliban; Saddam Hussein, not so much—the conflict there has always maintained a certain Teflon in the American imagination. We think of it as the Good War amid the less palatable and more confusing Iraqs and Syrias. Even Barack Obama, elected during a year of war fatigue, maintained that the solution wasn’t to withdraw from the Middle East but to shift our focus from Iraq back to Afghanistan.
The second reason is what we might call elites on autopilot. Among those who prosecute and influence the war, a sense has set in that this is how things have been and therefore this is how things must be. America has always been at war with Afghanistan. The conflict has taken on the feel of a conveyor belt, with men and materiel sliding into one side of the machine and then out the other, supervised by elites who never bother to ask why the contraption exists in the first place. Read that congressional study report, read the various white papers that flit through the D.C. air like debris from an office fire, and you detect a kind of methodical conservatism at work. To withdraw troops would be disruptive, so best to keep Afghanistan the way it is, even if it isn’t working. And here are a few in-the-know terms to tide you over in the meantime: regional partners, kinetic action.
The third reason is the least common and also the most delusional: ideology. There remains a small clutch of thinkers who still cling to the old 2001 dream, who really do think that it is America’s vocation to spread liberal democracy around the world. To these armchair theorists, Afghanistan was never going to be wrapped up in two months or even 20 years; this is a hundred-years war, pitting the forces of liberalism, helmed by the indispensable nation America, against the forces of illiberalism. In the sweep of such a grand struggle, real difficulties against the Taliban become minor blips. Choose between Afghanistan and Iraq? We must fight in both, of course. This thinking was once best espoused by Norman Podhoretz, who wrote a book called World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. Today it finds voice in Robert Kagan, whose recent essay at Foreign Affairs chides Americans for trying to duck their never-ending responsibility to the world.
It’s all twaddle, of course, but this way of thinking nonetheless has a grain of a point: The situation in Afghanistan was always bigger than Afghanistan itself. It includes Pakistan (“AfPak,” as Richard Holbrooke used to call the two nations, until Pakistan pointed out that they were in fact different countries); the Taliban operates there, too, and its border with Afghanistan has served as a crossing point for countless terrorist fighters. It includes Saudi Arabia, whose decades of funding for Wahhabist schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan helped give rise to the extremism we see there today. It includes, though in a different way, Iran, which helped us wage war against the Taliban after 9/11. But that was an “axis of evil” speech ago; today such a collaboration would be unthinkable as Iran strengthens its ties to the Taliban.
The situation in Afghanistan also includes the Afghans themselves, whose country has been plagued by corruption we can’t manage, opium we can’t interdict, defiance we can’t quell. And it includes American leaders, who knew the war had stalled and covered it up, as the Washington Post revealed in the so-called Afghanistan Papers. The picture that comes into focus is not of a missed opportunity or a needed correction, but a mission made impossible by forces too large for us to control. Ex post facto declarations like, “we could have done more to fight Afghan corruption,” run smack into a simple question, “how?” Initial victory against the Taliban was always possible, even easy; engineering an Afghanistan able to resist that same Taliban in the long term was not.
Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of empires.” And while America’s frustration there might not prove as dramatic as, say, the Soviet retreat in 1988, it’s worth taking stock of how much we’ve lost since the war began. Twenty years ago, we were optimistic about peace in the Middle East; today we’re cynical. Twenty years ago, we were respected throughout much of the world; today we wonder whether that same world has gone post-American. Twenty years ago, we had a fiscal surplus; today we run massive deficits and a national debt larger than our entire economy, thanks in part to our wars. Twenty years ago, our democracy seemed like a model for places like Afghanistan; today it’s as anxious and uncertain as it’s been in my lifetime.
That isn’t to say the Afghan war alone drove our decline. But it does stand as a relic of a past age, a manifestation of a folly that left us weaker than we were before. After all this time, after all this blood, there is only one thing left to do: Bring the troops home.
“These ideas are just as dangerous today as they were in 1940,” Rep. Liz Cheney told the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute this week, “when isolationists launched the America First movement to appease Hitler.”
It wasn’t subtle.
The most famous Republican in the country to vote to impeach Donald Trump last month all but explicitly linked “America First,” the foreign policy program favored by the former president (and until recently, Cheney’s own party), with the ancestor by the same name. That is, the now-controversial but once reasonably popular “America First” movement that questioned U.S. entry into World War II before the Pearl Harbor attacks. Conventionally hawkish Republicans have been lampooned by critics for incessantly seeing fresh “Munich moments” behind every corner. On that score, Cheney did not disappoint.
She played the hits.
“Weakness is provocative,” Cheney told the forum’s chair, Roger Zakheim. America must be clear-eyed in accepting its exceptionalism, she argued, and implicitly siding with Democratic characterizations of the Trump years, Cheney stuck the knife in further, saying the GOP must not “become the party of white supremacy.”
Cheney is a top member of House Republican leadership, having retained her post following censure by her hometown Republican Party and a failed backbench effort to remove her in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, told reporters emphatically, “yes,” it is appropriate for Trump to speak at the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) this weekend in Orlando. Cheney, alongside McCarthy, said equally as emphatically: “I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.” Channeling the anxiety in the high command over the party’s potentially riven future, McCarthy said: “On that high note, thank you very much.”
Cheney’s continued public fusillades against both Trump and Trumpism are a problem for a party licking its chops to get back into power as quickly as possible. Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the party’s main Senate campaign arm, authored a memorandum this week addressed to “Republican voters, activists, leaders and donors” saying in the language of the moment,”the Republican civil war has been canceled.”
Scott, who harbors 2024 presidential ambitions, wrote: “This is real life folks. If they can cancel the President of the United States, they will have no problem cancelling you and me….Today, we must show our Democrat adversaries that, as Mark Twain would say, reports of the death of the Republican coalition and the American Dream are wildly exaggerated. The truth is the exact opposite. The table is set for us.” But it remains to be seen how sharp the knives are on that table.
The divide in the Republican Party is perhaps best understood as four-part.
First, there are those loyal (enough) to the former president who emphasize a more classically Reaganite legacy—low taxes and the like. This includes former White House officials such as Larry Kudlow, who has returned to television on Fox News, and Brooke Rollins, a veteran of the Koch network who has founded a new think tank. Rollins is mulling a future political run in Texas.
Second, there are those loyal to the president who proclaim a thirst for the comeback—that is, that Trump should run in 2024 and seek a rematch with Biden, or whichever successor. Figures who have favored this course in recent weeks include Trump-favorite Rep. Matt Gaetz and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
Third, there are those (officially, at least) unashamed of the Trump years, but who would also potentially favor a “Trumpism without Trump.” This faction is underrepresented in frontline politics, and perhaps over-represented in intellectual circles.
Former Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought has started a new policy shop in recent days seeking to preserve the policy gains, as he sees them, of the Trump years. Other groups have signed onto pro-antitrust and anti-Big Tech statements, in a swipe at the party’s more market-deferent old guard.
Figures such as Tucker Carlson of Fox and potential Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance have charted perhaps more independent courses, but are at times seemingly borne back ceaselessly to Trump the man. Take Vance’s recent lamentation of the former president’s deplatforming. Add to that the cold reality that suspicions around voter fraud are now plainly in the party’s mainstream. Trump’s address this weekend in Florida for CPAC, potentially officially declaring a political future, is seen by this group as of preeminent importance.
But fourth and finally, there are those who would like to ignore Trump’s plans—their own plans, plainly, are expungement and restoration. Both Cheney and the Reagan Institute’s Zakheim are progeny of an ousted party elite. Cheney is the daughter, of course, of the former vice president. And Zakheim is the son of the former Pentagon comptroller, Dov Zakheim, who urged a tactical vote for Joe Biden last year.
Introducing her, the younger Zakheim openly flattered the Wyoming representative, comparing her to Margaret Thatcher. “If these past few months have proven anything,” Zakheim said. “It’s that Congresswoman Cheney certainly has the resolve, fortitude and conviction of 21st-century Iron Lady.”
Cheney was once spoken about as future Speaker, but mounting such a bid is now unimaginable, in the current landscape of the House. Only time will tell if political liability will simply make her aim higher—that is, if Cheney is imbued with the ambition to seek the presidency that eluded her father.
Generating much attention of late has been the re-introduction of the Equality Act under President Biden. Aiming to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to cover gender identity and sexual orientation, it is the game-set-match of the Sexual Revolution’s conquest. Biden—showing that his professed desire to govern from the middle was an electoral con—is using the political capital of his first one hundred days in office to etch the key tenets of the revolution into every corner of society, under the guise of purported “non-discrimination.” All told, it is a new orthodoxy—with a zealous plan for conversion and the installment of new blasphemy laws.
The problem with the Equality Act does not lie predominantly in the statutory language of the bill, but in its long-term effects, further transforming the moral imagination from anything resembling a Christian social order. The Equality Act, in my view, is a symbol for the de-conversion of the West.
We see this de-conversion on at least two horizons. First, we see it in the type of moral reasoning behind the bill itself. It is a bill of aesthetics and emotion instead of reason and principle. The Equality Act would have you believe Americans relish any opportunity to discriminate. That’s false. Second, by undoing the very ontology of womanhood, the core logic of the bill contradicts key tenets of progressivism’s own advances, such as feminism. How the Equality Act can move forward with so little resistance is only understood in light of the guiding ethic of today’s progressivism. Anything that fails to rise above solipsistic phrases like “live your truth” and “you do you” cannot impede such philosophically absurd bills.
The Equality Act contains a metaphysical revolution in its pages, and it seeks the evangelization of the West. The old order was one with an ethic of objectivity, reason, fixed nature, authority, and boundaries, where organic connections and family relations were seen as guiding, normative, and persuasive, with anything opposed to these as transgressive. The revolution well underway is to make all of these metaphysical fixities not only wrong, but harmful. Thus, in the Equality Act’s telling, anything that does not champion expressive individualism or limitlessness, or derive its existence by government fiat is, well, oppressive. We are witnessing, in real time, the final displacement of a Christian account of the universe by a wholly secularized one.
The Equality Act is an assault on the Christian imagination, and this is where its long-term consequences are most dire and calamitous. It aims to reconfigure not only the foundation of family life and biological connections to gender, but to catechize, inculcating a different way of conceiving one’s place and orientation to the world. Moral imaginations are guided by normative constraints, which give them definition and direction. Ideally, a human imagination ought to comport with what is good, true, and beautiful. To educate the moral imagination is to seek a shared imagination, rooted in a shared account of the world, and therefore binding and persuasive to all of the citizens beholden to it.
Such norming norms are found within the Christian cultural framework. It creates a metaphysical order that demands compliance by all. It offers an account of human flourishing and the common good. However, the so-called Equality Act now being proposed in Congress seeks to belie all such order by completely overturning its most basic definitions. Whereas the Christian metaphysical order upholds creational boundaries as instituted by God and enshrined in the natural world, the Equality Act promotes the metaphysic of sexual autonomy and expressive individualism as the highest goods of society. So good are they, in fact, that they must be upheld in law to protect them from prosecutorial examination. The self is the sole lens of reference for all moral guidance, making the tenets of natural law and divine revelation moot, mere objects of religious fascination rather than universal appreciation.
Such a double helix of the Sexual Revolution and the rise of the “Me Generation”—in the words of Tom Wolfe—conduces toward sexuality as personhood instead of an understanding of personhood that presupposes one’s sexuality as a quality among others, sovereignly established by God. Family, sexuality, and gender are products of our social imaginary, and if that imaginary is no longer defined principally by boundaries, the bare lineaments of the Christian metaphysical order are being jettisoned.
Our society is not only post-Christian; it is fundamentally neo-pagan. A 21st-century believer’s response to the culture is more akin to the defiance of the early Church against the revelry of imperial Rome than anything else. The Equality Act, then, is not an extremity of the most radicalized fringes of the Democratic Party; it is a corollary from the overturning of design and dignity as prescribed in Eden in which the Western world has participated, over the last decade in a rapidly increasing rate.
Norms shape laws, and laws either encourage or discourage other norms taking their place. To deny the expediency of Obergefell in bringing the Equality Act to a place of even remote legislative plausibility would be myopic. Because law is pedagogical, its capacity to reshape the collective conscience of a nation means its contents must be scrutinized by those most responsible for its ratification. According to Thomas Aquinas, law is an ordinance of reason communicated by one who has authority to care for the common good. For the architects of the Equality Act, law is a result of raw will. The supposed reasonableness behind the Christian worldview is rendered unreasonable since it does not submit itself to the hegemony of pure volition found within the tumult of the modern self. But history vindicates the stability of the Christian metaphysical order, as it far outlasted the decline of the decadence of Rome and constructed the core of Western civilization in its wake.
Thus, I possess a long-term optimism even though, in these tides surrounding the Equality Act, I confess a short-term pessimism. My optimism is bolstered by the notion that no society can march against nature without nature eventually striking back. Legislative jargon cannot suffocate the order enshrined within creation; at best, it can only obstruct its observation. In a sense, we are in the midst of a new Dark Age. And the uncertainty of Christ’s return makes us uneasy in Babylon. Despite that tension, thwarting creation at its own game never bodes well for the created. Already, many secularists are noticing the debilitating consequences of transgenderism, and the havoc it is wreaking upon our generation regarding identity and sexuality as a whole. It is as if they have noticed that swimming too far upstream, past the calm and orderly current, leads to infinitely more turbulent waters.
There cannot be order in society without the recognition of truths that make obtaining order possible, and there is no truth without which order flows. The Equality Act stands against these truths and promises the fulfillment of a progressive eschaton, relying on the urgency of the self for its scaffolding. My own ethical scaffolds are based on truths over thousands of years old. They have never had to cater to the spirit of the age, for they are grounded in the very strata of creation. They are oriented toward human flourishing, and I will cling to them at all costs so that the next generation might be preserved to see their communities endure in moral prosperity, as their Creator has always intended.
Andrew T. Walker is associate professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center.
The post The Equality Act is Farewell to a Christian Metaphysic appeared first on The American Conservative.
Defenders of activist U.S. “leadership” in the world have increasingly resorted to fatalistic arguments to justify an American strategy of primacy that most Americans don’t support. According to advocates of U.S. hegemony, Americans simply have no choice, and they have to accept that this will be the U.S. role in perpetuity.
“The U.S. is the only superpower with a global reach,” former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said earlier this month. “And some of them may not like it, but it is the destiny of the U.S. to bear the burden of being the world’s policeman.” Writing in Foreign Affairs, Robert Kagan has much the same message for Americans. You are doomed to police the world forever because there is no viable alternative. Kagan writes:
The time has come to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility, that they have to think beyond the protection of the homeland. They need to understand that the purpose of NATO and other alliances is to defend not against direct threats to U.S. interests but against a breakdown of the order that best serves those interests. They need to be told honestly that the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but
preferable to the alternative.
This is a familiar theme for both Kagan and Rasmussen. Rasmussen was saying exactly the same thing five years ago when he insisted that the U.S. must be the world’s policeman. Kagan has been banging the same drum about the need for U.S. hegemony for more than two decades.
Twenty-five years ago, Kagan and Bill Kristol declared, “American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order.” We now know that to be untrue. Hegemony is not a defense against such a breakdown. It has been a contributing factor. It is no longer 1996 at the height of the so-called “unipolar moment,” but Kagan’s prescription has not changed at all.
The hegemonists’ arguments have only become weaker over time, as we have seen just how destabilizing and destructive their preferred policies are. It is difficult to take advocates of order-maintenance seriously when they have been on the side of trampling on that order almost every chance they get. The chief proponents of “maintaining a world order” have consistently supported taking actions that undermine international peace and security. It is not an accident that most of the loudest hegemonists have been supporters of every misbegotten war of the last 20 years, including and especially the invasion of Iraq.
These wars have not been incidental to the project of pursuing and maintaining hegemony. They are the predictable results of this strategy. Support for aggressive and illegal wars is woven into their program of “policing” the world, because they take for granted that the U.S. is free to wreak havoc on other countries in the name of upholding the “order.” The rules of the order don’t apply to its enforcer, and they wouldn’t want them to. As we know from bitter experience, that is not how international order and peace will be preserved. On the contrary, it represents one of the greatest threats to both.
Kagan’s view of U.S. wars during this period deserves closer consideration, because it reflects his warped view of the costs of U.S.-led “ordering.” He blithely refers to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as “relatively low-cost,” which would come as news to the hundreds of thousands of people killed and injured and the millions displaced by the fighting. Even if Kagan is referring only to American losses, the arrogance and indifference are nonetheless staggering. Wars that never should have been fought are always too costly, and wars that should have ended decades ago inevitably cost more than they had to. These are wars of choice, and we can choose a strategy that makes them less likely.
These wars drag on interminably, and, more to the point, they are unsuccessful. But for Kagan this is just the cost of doing business, or “the messy and unending business of preserving a general peace and acting to forestall threats,” as he puts it. How invading Iraq or occupying Afghanistan for a generation preserves peace elsewhere is a mystery that Kagan chooses not to explain. The idea that unending wars are being fought for the preservation of peace doesn’t just sound Orwellian. It is practically quoting Oceania’s Ministry of Truth.
Kagan slips in the line about “acting to forestall threats” at the end to smuggle in support for preventive warfare when no one is looking, since “forestalling” threats implies taking aggressive and therefore illegal military action against other countries. Kagan’s vision for American world ordering isn’t just that of deterring attacks by other powers, but of eliminating regimes before they have done anything that would warrant military action. Kagan’s world policeman punishes “crimes” before they are committed. The dangers and potential abuses inherent in such an arrangement are obvious to anyone that gives it a second thought, but Kagan never does that.
The U.S. is not destined to bear such a disproportionate share of the burden for international security, nor is it trapped. The U.S. assumed the burden in the wake of WWII when all other major powers were devastated and bankrupt, but the world today is nothing like that. There are at least a dozen other allied and partner countries that could and should take greater responsibility for security in their regions of the world, but they won’t pick up the slack as long as they assume that the U.S. will do it for them. The U.S. would do far more for international order if it restrained itself and assumed a more modest set of responsibilities. That would allow the country to shed some of its outdated obligations, devote more resources at home to make the U.S. more competitive, and husband our strength rather than frittering it away in constant warfare.
U.S. hegemony was an artifact of a very peculiar period in world history that will never come again, and as we move out of that period we need to adapt our foreign policy strategy accordingly. Kagan and Rasmussen are products of that period and cling desperately to it because it is what they know. They are trying to preserve a U.S. role in the world that no longer makes any sense for the world as it is.
Kagan poses an odd challenge to critics of hegemony: “It is precisely because the country is still capable of pursuing a world-order strategy that critics need to explain why it should not.” The simplest answer is that having the ability to do something doesn’t mean that doing it is wise or just or necessary. The U.S. has pursued what he calls a “world-order strategy” for at least the last 30 years, and it has contributed greatly to massive suffering and disorder in multiple countries. Even if the U.S. can pursue such a strategy for a while, it does so at the expense of its own domestic needs and the welfare of our citizens.
U.S. foreign policy exists to serve the interests and needs of the American people first and foremost. When it becomes as divorced from those interests and needs as the “world-order strategy,” it is time for a change. America does not have to act like some cursed Flying Dutchman, doomed to patrol the world for all time. We can choose how we want to engage with the rest of the world, and we do not have to be locked into an antiquated pursuit of dominance.
Americans have a viable alternative to endless war and policing the world, and it begins with recognizing that having great power does not require constantly meddling overseas. If the U.S. adopts a strategy of restraint, it will engage with the world constructively while conserving its strength, and it will no longer be involved in fomenting and worsening conflicts on the other side of the world. Americans write our own foreign policy destiny, and it is time that we imagined something better for ourselves.
The beheading of Samuel Paty in October of last year has had a long-lasting effect on French politics. Paty, a civics teacher, was stabbed in cold blood by an Islamist terrorist as a reprisal against his having shown the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in class.
In the past, when there were terrorist attacks in France, French politicians would call for unity, promise to defend freedom of expression, and then quickly move on to their latest social welfare proposal threatening to drain the country’s coffers. This time would be different. French President Emmanuel Macron had been recovering from very low approval numbers in 2019 (as low as 20 percent), and was now hovering around 40 percent due to his COVID-19 management. Strange as that may seem, despite very harsh coronavirus restrictions, the president had impressed the populous with his crisis response and efforts at securing considerable aid in the European Union’s stimulus package. So as to make sure those recent gains weren’t erased in favor of his right-wing rival Marine Le Pen, Macron increased security measures following the Paty killing.
The French government introduced a security law that left civil liberties advocates in shock. The bill strengthens the powers of local police and bans filming law enforcement, punishing it with a fine of up to €45,000 ($54,000). This sparked major protests in all French cities, many of which turned violent. The government promised to rework the provision, but opponents say the changes were merely technical and innocent people will still get hurt. With the bill currently in the French Senate, civil liberties activists have little hope that their concerns will be heard.
With all their grandstanding against the nationalism of Donald Trump, one would think the French would be more mindful of the concerns of the left, which has traditionally gotten it right on law enforcement and other security and surveillance powers. However, Macron wants to have his cake and eat it too. By giving up on his initially ambitious economic reforms as economy minister and by scrapping the local residence tax, he’s attempted to corner the left, all while appealing to the right with his support for the police and his anti-Islamist rhetoric.
In a recent TV debate on France’s public broadcaster France2, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused Marine Le Pen of being too soft on Islam. “You’ll need to take some vitamins, I don’t find you tough enough on these issues,” Macron’s minister said. He continued: “If I understand this correctly, you are not even ready to legislate on religion, and seem to believe that Islam is not a problem. This will disappoint many of your voters. …Madame Le Pen says it’s not a problem of religion, it’s a problem of ideology.” The National Rally (formerly the National Front) leader appeared stunned: “I am not going to attack Islam,” she said, “it’s a religion like any other. I am fundamentally attached to our French values, so I will completely defend their right to organize and to practice their religion. That’s my opinion.”
Following the broadcast, both the prime minister’s office and the Elysée Palace were forced to backpedal the minister’s statements, but it’s become very clear that Macron is not confident about his chances of reelection next year. That is, unless he convinces France’s nationalist voters that they don’t need to worry about his management of security issues. Darmanin in particular has become a hardliner on the question of religion, creating ambiguity about what exactly France’s relationship with secularism is.
The interpretation of “laïcité” (secularism) has been a pervasive problem in France. In an effort to fight extremism, the right wing has for many years used it as a premise to demand the absence of religion, as opposed to the separation of church and state. Mayors in the south of France have long attempted to ban the so-called “burkini” (a female swimsuit that covers the whole body, in accordance with the desire to not be revealing). In primary and secondary schools, the use of the headscarf is against the law. Emmanuel Macron is now joining this tradition.
Rather than standing on “Republican” values such as freedom of conscience and of individual liberty, he’s reverting to petty lawmaking to solve the very real issue of Islamic extremism. You cannot on one hand proclaim yourself to be a beacon of free expression, yet prevent your own citizens from filming in a public setting.
Stuck between a flip-flopping president and a challenger who simultaneously claims to respect religious expression while proposing a ban on all ostensible signs of religion, France is setting itself up for yet another acrimonious presidential election. The entertainment value for those outside of the country will be high, but for the French themselves, it will be just another lost year.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.
The post France’s Fight Against Islamism Becomes Another Cynical Crackdown appeared first on The American Conservative.
Secrecy is the ultimate entitlement program for the Deep State. The federal government is creating trillions of pages of new secrets every year. The more documents bureaucrats classify, the more lies politicians and government officials can tell. In Washington, deniability is prized far more than truth.
At the end of the Trump era, the Deep State is triumphant at home and abroad. Trump’s epic clashes with federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies helped cripple his administration, and they illustrate the continued danger of Deep State secrecy. If all of the FBI’s shenanigans on Russiagate came to light, it would be far more difficult for the FBI to manipulate American politics and presidents in the future. If CIA records on Syrian rebels were exposed, the Biden administration would have far more difficulty dragging America back into the Syrian civil war. But both seem unlikely. Recent court rulings make clear how badly Trump failed to drain the swamp.
On January 12, 2017, FBI chief James Comey attested to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court that the Steele dossier used to hound the Trump campaign had been “verified.” But on the same day, Comey emailed then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper: “We are not able to sufficiently corroborate the reporting.” That email was revealed last week thanks to a multi-year fight for disclosure by the Southeastern Legal Foundation.
The first three years of Trump’s presidency were haunted by constant accusations that he colluded with Russians to win the 2016 election. The FBI launched its investigation based on ludicrous allegations from a dossier financed by the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. In late 2019, an Inspector General report confirmed that the FBI made “fundamental errors” and persistently deceived the FISA Court to authorize surveilling the Trump campaign.
If the FBI’s deceit and political biases had been exposed in real time, there would have been far less national outrage when President Trump fired Comey. Instead, that firing was quickly followed by the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to investigate the Russian charges. In April 2019, Mueller admitted there was no evidence of collusion. Conniving by FBI officials and the veil of secrecy that hid their abuses roiled national politics for years. Not one FBI official has spent a single day in jail for the abuses. The Bureau’s charade simply confirms the nearly boundless prerogatives of the nation’s most powerful law enforcement agency.
Absurd secrecy rationales also made mincemeat of Trump’s foreign policy. One of Trump’s biggest failures abroad was his failure to end U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. Beginning in 2013, the Obama administration began covertly providing money and weapons to Syrian groups fighting the government of Bashar Assad. The program was a catastrophe from the start: CIA-backed Syrian rebels ended up fighting Pentagon-backed rebels. Much of the U.S. aid ended up in the hands of terrorist groups, some of whom were allied with Al Qaeda. Providing material support to terrorist organizations is a federal crime, except apparently when the weapons are sent by U.S. government agencies.
Appeals court decisions on Syria FOIA requests epitomize how the “rule of law” now amounts to little more than political appointees reciting empty phrases to rubberstamp federal coverups. Too many federal judges behave on par with the bureaucratic dregs who supervise traffic courts which uphold every speeding ticket that police ever issue.
When Trump tried to end the Syria weapons program, a Washington Post article portrayed his reversal in apocalyptic terms. Trump responded with an angry tweet: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad.” That disclosure spurred a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the New York Times for CIA records on payments to Syrian rebel groups. The CIA denied the request and the case ended up in court.
CIA officer Antoinette Shiner warned the court that forcing the CIA to admit that it possessed any records of aiding Syrian rebels would “confirm the existence and the focus of sensitive Agency activity that is by definition kept hidden to protect U.S. government policy objectives.” Of course, “kept hidden” doesn’t apply to CIA “not for attribution” bragging to reporters. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius proudly cited an estimate from a “knowledgeable official” that “CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.”
Federal judges, unlike Syrian civilians slaughtered by U.S.-funded terrorist groups, had the luxury of pretending the program doesn’t exist. In a decision last July, the federal appeals court of the Second Circuit stressed that affidavits from CIA officials are “accorded a presumption of good faith” and stressed “the appropriate deference owed” to the CIA. The judges omitted quoting former CIA chief Mike Pompeo’s description of his agency’s modus operandi: “We lied, we cheated, we stole. It’s like we had entire training courses.”
Since Trump’s tweet did not specifically state that the program he was seeking to terminate actually existed, the judges entitled the CIA to pretend it was still top secret. The judges concluded with another kowtow, stressing that they were “mindful of the requisite deference courts traditionally owe to the executive in the area of classification.” Judge Robert Katzmann dissented, declaring that the court’s decision put its “imprimatur to a fiction of deniability that no reasonable person would regard as plausible.”
On February 9, another federal appeals court shot down a FOIA request from BuzzFeed journalist Jason Leopold who had sought the same records based on Trump’s tweet. Leopold succeeded at the district court level. Federal Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled in favor of disclosure last November, declaring that “it seems wildly unlikely that, in the eight and a half years since the Syrian civil war began, the Central Intelligence Agency has done no intelligence-gathering that produced a single record even pertaining to payments [to] Syrian rebels.”
But the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia rushed to the rescue of the CIA’s prerogative to deceive the world, or at least American citizens. The court unanimously overturned the earlier ruling, declaring, “Did President Trump’s tweet officially acknowledge the existence of a program? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. And therein lies a problem.” The judges proffered no evidence that Trump had tweeted about a program that didn’t exist. The judges reached into an “Alice in Wonderland” bag of legal tricks and plucked out this pretext: “Even if the President’s tweet revealed some program, it did not reveal the existence of Agency records about that alleged program.” Since Trump failed to specify the exact room number where the records were located at CIA headquarters, the judges entitled the CIA to pretend the records don’t exist.
In his final months in office, Trump repeatedly promised massive declassification which never came. Was the president stymied by individuals he had unwisely appointed such as CIA chief Gina Haspel and FBI chief Christopher Wray? Or was this simply another series of empty Twitter eruptions which Trump failed to follow up? Instead, his legacy is another grim reminder of how government secrecy can determine political history. There is no reason to expect any sunshine on federal atrocities from the Biden administration. Biden’s Justice Department is continuing the Trump administration’s effort to extradite Julian Assange, whom Biden denounced in 2010 as a “high-tech terrorist.” Will the Biden administration ruthlessly prosecute federal whistleblowers like the Obama administration did?
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, declared in 1798 that “the right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon…has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.” Unfortunately, Americans have lost that right. America is becoming an impunity regime, in which government officials pay no price for their abuses. This is not a partisan issue: Republicans and Democrats have partnered for decades to keep Americans in the dark. Vast secrecy means that the political system, regardless of its external forms, is based on blind trust in officialdom. Pervasive secrecy defines down self-government: people merely select their Supreme Deceivers.
When Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America, the conservative movement was, at best, unprepared to lend support to his agenda and, at worst, eager to undermine it. As a result, the failure of his administration to implement policy was largely one of personnel. With some notable exceptions, the White House as well as the executive branch departments and agencies were filled with and crippled by saboteurs, grifters, and clueless incompetents who wouldn’t know statecraft if it slapped them across the face.
Make no mistake, even before Trump took office—indeed, essentially as soon as he started making headway in the primary—the permanent power structure in American politics went into overdrive to ensure that its own agenda would endure. That establishment agenda had already unmistakably failed America. Indeed, it was that failure that would swiftly carry an outsider into the White House. Persisting nevertheless, this program ignominiously prioritizes porous borders, endless war, pandering to corporations, attacks on religion, assaults on freedom of expression, and the hollowing out of our economy. This has resulted in family breakdown and cultural degradation.
The permanent power structure almost succeeded in maintaining the status quo. Yes, President Trump was unable to hold on to office. But the record-shattering number of votes he received, and his enduring popularity in the Republican Party, shows something has fundamentally changed not just on the right, but also on the other side of the aisle as well. For according to exit polls, millions who self-identify as Democrats also cast their ballots for Trump. The people are ready for something different.
But apparent as that all is, it belies a simple truth about the last four years. It was the responsibility of supposedly conservative elites—those individuals in think tanks, media, academia, and private industry who possess real power on the American right—to help bring to fruition the agenda that Trump ran and won on in 2016. Our movement, unfortunately, wasn’t ready.
Both in word and deed, our ruling class regularly commits violence against the treasured building blocks of civilization, all while enriching itself and augmenting its own power. While the American left is apparently eager to be led by a ruinous cadre of aloof management consultants, race-hustlers, and literal anarchists, the right is overseen by tired nostalgics, corporate shills, and bow-tie clad “intellectuals” who fiddle while our cities burn. This “conservative” elite class is clamoring to restore its agenda, which proved time and time again to be an electoral disaster and a civilizational dead-end.
If we don’t form our own elite, one that is patriotic and acts as a champion for the great middle of our nation, the old regime will continue to win, and America will continue to lose. Across time, every society has had an elite—the select group of people whose actions, words, and decisions decisively impact the common good. Yet over the last half-century in America, every institution of elite formation, from higher education to electoral politics to corporate culture, has either been corrupted or atrophied to the point of ossifying, with dire consequences for all of us.
Over the last few years, there has been a wave of intellectual dynamism on the American right as many new voices sought to grapple with the societal import of Trump’s election and presidency. We benefited extraordinarily from their work. It nourished our worldview, it invigorated our spirit, and, critically, it opened our eyes to what must come next. Our nation and the conservative movement need an agenda informed by priorities that strengthen families, protect America’s national sovereignty, and ensure prosperity for all. Building coalitions, overtaking institutions, and completing the realignment of the conservative movement is the challenge ahead to ensure that happens.
But having the right priorities isn’t enough for this task. Someone can believe all of the right things about immigration, foreign policy, economics, and culture. But if they don’t also have the strategic wisdom and personal character required to lead, they will be swiftly defeated. Virtuous, tactical statesmen, and not only policies, are required for us to succeed.
That is why we launched American Moment. Our mission is to identify, educate, and credential young Americans who will implement public policy that supports strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all.
We aren’t a mass organization of young people looking to suddenly change the culture, nor do we claim to be philosophers with grand visions for the arc of human history. Rather, we’re focused on constructing an infrastructure for personnel. We’re building the cadre of staffers, operators, and leaders who will do the nuts-and-bolts work behind the scenes. It will be equipped to ensure that things actually get done, that words are met with substantive action, and that the future of American statecraft will prioritize our national interest.
Fortunately, the raw talent needed to meet that challenge is out there in the country. American Moment will spearhead the endeavor to find and connect the young people who will make up a new elite—one that loves its fellow countrymen and seeks their flourishing. We are honored and thrilled to lead this historic cause, and we sincerely hope you will consider joining us.
Saurabh Sharma, Nick Solheim, and Jake Mercier are the Co-Founders of American Moment, an organization dedicated to identifying, educating, and credentialing young Americans who will implement public policy that supports strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all.
Why would the ambassador of a country with just 1.5 million citizens feel able to shout at a member of the U.S. Congress? “Because for decades, we have pursued a foreign policy that put their interests ahead of our own,” wrote Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, in a tweet. “We created this monster.”
Rep. Ro Khanna’s efforts to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen so infuriated United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba that he went to the California Democrat’s office and screamed at the congressman during a meeting, said Khanna.
“I’ve never had an ambassador of another country come to my office and literally yell at me, but that’s what I had with the ambassador to UAE,” Khanna said during an interview for the Intercept’s podcast “Deconstructed.”
A lead sponsor of a resolution to end U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen being waged by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Khanna was shocked by the ambassador’s shouting.
“I was just taken away,” Khanna said. “It led me to think that there’s a real arrogance, a real sense of entitlement, a sense that he thought himself so powerful that he could act that way. And I’ve never really seen that before…I just thought this was an indication of how entrenched these interests were.”
While the Congressman, sworn in January 2017, is relatively new to Washington, Otaiba is well known in the rarefied circles of the Washington establishment. Three years ago, Huffington Post published a piece about him that teased: “Yousef Al Otaiba is the most charming man in Washington: He’s slick, he’s savvy and he throws one hell of a party. And if he has his way, our Middle East policy is going to get a lot more aggressive.”
Since 2015, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been at war with the Houthi forces in Yemen. The war has killed 100,000 people in Yemen, including more than 12,000 civilians, as well an estimated 85,000 dead due to famine as the result of the war, according to ACLED. Six years of war in Yemen has also left 2.3 million children under 5 years old facing acute malnutrition in 2021, with 400,000 of those children at risk of dying without urgent treatment, according to the United Nations World Food Program.
Otaiba is a key figure in the UAE’s Washington influence game. He was often seen wining and dining members of the Obama administration and Congress; the Four Seasons in Georgetown was his favorite power-breakfast spot, reported the Huffington Post.
“He doesn’t work the tables. People come to him,” says one regular. He makes the perfect Washington dinner guest: A Muslim who’ll raise a glass and offer inside insights on the volatile politics of the region. “He is incredibly savvy,” says a former White House aide. “He throws great social events. He understands how Washington works, how the Hill works, which a lot of these countries don’t. He knows the dynamics and how to pit different entities against each other when he needs to.” Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says, “I’ve spent probably more time with Yousef than I have anybody.”
…“He’s influential with certain parts of the Hill, making them doubt what this [Obama] administration is doing with regard to Iran. And it feels less partisan because it’s not Israel but an Arab country,” says the second senior U.S. official. The first U.S. senior official added that Otaiba and Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer are very close. “They agree on just about everything,” he says. (Excluding the Palestinians, he clarified.)
The UAE took several key positions that put them at odds with the Obama administration: The Gulf state bitterly protested Obama’s Iran nuclear deal; helped fund the toppling of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi; and in August 2014, together with Egypt, launched secret bombing raids in Libya to aid anti-Islamist forces. The UAE also temporarily backed out of helping the U.S. in Syria.
After Obama left office, Otaiba cozied up to Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East peace deal architect Jared Kushner. Kushner often left the State Department in the dark as he worked diplomatic back channels, which suited Otaiba just fine. Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was caught off guard when Saudi Arabia and UAE announced their blockade of Yemen, according to reports. Tillerson later pushed the two nations to scrap a planned invasion of Qatar, directly after which Tillerson was fired. Leaders of Saudi Arabia and the UAE later claimed they had worked their back channels and close relationship with Kushner to have Tillerson fired-by-tweet.
These decisions all show Otaiba, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s growing regional power and influence during the Obama and Trump years. At one time, it would have been unthinkable for a diplomat from a small country to scream at a congressman from a nuclear powerhouse like the United States.
“But the UAE now considers itself to be part of the management team when it comes to overseeing the U.S.-led Western global project,” reports the Intercept. “Otaiba’s posture toward Khanna reflects the evolving nature of the world’s governing elite.”
Khanna had earned Otaiba’s wrath by sponsoring efforts in the House that would end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The legislation matched a war powers resolution Sen. Bernie Sanders had introduced in the Senate in 2017. In 2019, the resolution passed both chambers, but Trump vetoed it.
A representative of the UAE in Washington, D.C., denies the ambassador raised his voice at Khanna, but the ensuing controversy has led to an interesting development. Last week, Otaiba invited Khanna, outspoken opponent of the war in Yemen, to join the diplomat on his official podcast.
“Over thirteen years in Washington, and even longer in public service, I have raised many issues with many people—but I have never once raised my voice,” Otaiba wrote to Khanna. “Making my point directly and calmly is more my style. And that’s how I remember all of our meetings. Let’s prove the point that two passionate advocates can have another direct and calm discussion about serious issues.”
In an official letter, Khanna responded by saying that he could not appear on Otaiba’s podcast unless the diplomat used his influence to secure the release of Adel Al-Hasani, a well-known Yemeni journalist imprisoned for over five months by forces aligned with the UAE. Al Hasani’s attorney said he has been tortured in prison and is in declining health.
“Right now, it would not be appropriate for me to appear on your podcast while a well-known journalist is detained with the support of your government,” Khanna wrote in the letter. “Al-Hasani’s release [would] highlight the pivotal role the UAE can play in building bridges between disparate groups in the Middle East and the US, and how both of our nations can help bring an end to the war in Yemen.”
As one of his first acts on foreign policy, President Joe Biden ended U.S. support for Saudi-led offensive operations. Khanna said he is not yet ready to reintroduce his war powers resolution, because he wants to give the Biden administration and regional forces time to end the conflict.
“What activists must now advocate for is for President Biden to say these words: ‘All bombing and war funding to Yemen must stop’,” said Khanna. “We have a moral duty to act to end the war, not just wash our hands of it. We can always tell the Saudis we will stop providing tires for their airplanes if they continue to bomb.”
The peculiar arc of this story, from the shouting, to the war powers resolution, to the podcast invite, all show something we don’t see very often in Washington anymore: the power that individual members of Congress can wield, should they choose to use it.
M. Joseph Sobran, Jr., was a raging lib. Nobody wants to hear this, but it’s true. The controversial columnist—who would have been 75 today—would have made John Locke blush like a schoolgirl.
More on that later. Before any satisfactory account can be made of what Joe Sobran was (and why it matters), what he was judged to be must be addressed. Sobran was fired from National Review after a protracted dispute about alleged anti-Semitism, and now tends to be mentioned only in sanctimonious whispers, as a hard-right crank and certified loon.
His focus—some called it an obsession—on Israel’s supposed inadequacy as an ally of the United States led to charges, first by Norman Podhoretz before being picked up by William F. Buckley (Sobran’s boss and sometime mentor), that Sobran was an anti-Semite. Buckley, to his credit, agonized over the allegations. Perhaps less to his credit, he published his agonizing for the world to see, first as a single-essay issue of National Review, and then, with copious responses (including Sobran’s own) in book form as In Search of Anti-Semitism.
Sobran’s early responses in his defense noted that Buckley never actually accused him of being an anti-Semite. “All he really did—to Pat [Buchanan], Will Buckley [Sr.], and me—was to juxtapose us with the word ‘anti-Semitism,’ which is in itself enough to create a foul impression, no matter what the logical and syntactical ligaments may be.” These first rebuttals display Sobran in his prime, and NR‘s John O’Sullivan even called Sobran’s contribution to the book “a fine example of the polemicist’s art.”
But as time went on, Sobran—perhaps from the pang of what he felt was betrayal, perhaps from bitterness at the loss of his career—began to spiral downward. His savage wit devolved at times into gratuitous cruelty, with some later newsletters and columns calling into question the insistence of his NR colleagues that the Joe Sobran they knew was not capable of hatred. His infamous 2002 appearance before the Institute for Historical Review, which peddles in Holocaust denial, cannot be excused. If there is any explanation to be found for Sobran’s reprehensible actions in later life, it may be in O’Sullivan’s own concern expressed in the foreword to In Search of Anti-Semitism:
It cannot be in anyone’s interest to drive people into anti-Semitism by accusing them of it peremptorily. If the venial sins of the Right are first equated with more serious left-wing offenses and then punished with still greater severity, they are likely to become mortal: mortal sins, mortal wounds, perhaps both. If so, the result will be needless bitterness, broken friendships, a harsher tone in conservative debate, and the waste of some remarkable talents.
It was the spiral of these later years, as much as the Podhoretz-Buckley condemnation, that stained the man’s memory for so many who might otherwise find great value in his work. Joe Sobran thus cannot be absolved for the pall that has fallen over his legacy. But anybody who studies the full saga carefully and with a fair mind will conclude that the pall should not have fallen so heavily.
It is, therefore, welcome that reevaluations of Sobran’s legacy have abounded in the decade since his death. But their substance has been almost uniformly restricted to a plea that the man not be judged by his darkest hour. This singular focus has, of course, left much unsaid about his finer ones.
His was a rare talent, fueled by a remarkable mind. A friend of Sobran’s once revealed his process to me: Forty minutes before his deadline, Joe would stroll into the NR office with a stack of assorted newspapers, plant himself at his desk, light up a cheap Italian cigar, and spend half his time paging through the papers until inspiration hit. Then he would crank out a column, pristine, in twenty minutes.
In caliber of writing, he was surpassed among conservatives only by the masterful D. Keith Mano (his NR colleague), and in clarity of thought he was entirely unmatched. As Matthew Scully put it in an NR obituary, “[Sobran’s] was a style that looked easy, except no one else could duplicate it, making points that seemed obvious, except no one else had thought of them. The quality of Joe’s thinking was so evident that you could forget to compliment the quality of the writing.”
But what “Joe’s thinking” actually was may surprise those who have only heard him mentioned in passing as a crank. His admirers typically call him a paleoconservative, and that’s one way of looking at it. But the defining feature of Sobran’s work is an intense commitment to a particular understanding of freedom. That he was a conservative is indisputable, given his eloquence on the importance of tradition or his vicious invectives against the evils of abortion. This was no reflexive apostle of license, as many are who bear the “libertarian” label today. Yet that, too, was a label Sobran bore proudly.
The best encapsulation of Sobranism may be found in Pensees: Notes for the Reactionary of Tomorrow, a long essay (just short of 32,000 words) published in NR in 1985. Sobran’s remarkable body of work, exemplified in Pensees, should remind the reactionary of today he can love liberty, hate government, and still remain in the right; that there is, in fact, a militant philosophy of freedom that cannot be reduced to crack, porn, sodomy, and guns; that maybe, just maybe, there is a possible libertarianism not consumed by degeneracy.
His thesis is deceptively simple, rooted in two principles: humility and gratitude. A conservative is a person who sees that the world is good, rejoices in that goodness, and recognizes that he would not do very well to remake it from scratch. Just as this worldview, planted as it is firmly on the ground, discourages utopian endeavors, so too it mandates the preservation of what good we have built through conservative action:
The world is inexpressibly complex. Every individual is a mystery to every other, so much so that communication is difficult and fleeting. Moreover, the past is a mystery too: very little of it can be permanently possessed. We have various devices—words, rituals, records, commemorations, laws—to supply continuity as forgetfulness and death keep dissolving our ties with what has existed before.
There is no question of “resisting change.” The only question is what can and should be salvaged from “devouring time.” Conservation is a labor, not indolence, and it takes discrimination to identify and save a few strands of tradition in the incessant flow of mutability.
The same humility that inspires this traditional conservatism must be applied, as Sobran sees it, to every act of government. Drawing on Aristotle, he points to the plain ideal of “few laws, seldom changed.” At times, Sobran’s reverence for habitual rhythm, for the preexisting order of things, approaches something like natural law philosophy. At others, his pragmatic approach to cultural sensibilities, to the limits and prerogatives of government, presages Michael Warren Davis’s sensibilism. On the whole, Sobran’s vision suggests the “politics of limits” that TAC’s executive director has emphatically endorsed.
Of course, at the time Sobran was writing—two, three, and four decades ago—the institution most in need of a reminder of its limits was the state. (This is not to say that the state no longer needs such a reminder; only that it now has a great many rivals.) On the one hand this was a practical matter: “Maintenance,” Sobran wrote, “is a demanding activity, and the state that maintains a traditional order against all the forces of decay is not ‘doing nothing.’ It is doing plenty. It is doing nearly all we can or should ask.” But it was also a matter of principle. Freedom is worth preserving, and a government that denies its citizens’ freedom—or a government action that impedes it—does not deserve conservatives’ support.
This is where Sobran’s principal value lies for us today. As, post-Trump, conservatives attempt to mold a new agenda, and to give it philosophical support, the manifest failures of fusionism (and of neoconservatism) tempt many to abandon the idea of a freedom-loving liberal conservatism altogether. But Sobranism situates liberty in its proper place: a high place, far preferable both to no place and to the highest place. Freedom is a substantive thing—not merely the negative freedom of Hayek (whom Sobran cites frequently, and approvingly), but a positive set of conditions which must be met for a person to live a meaningfully free life. Man cannot be free in chaos.
If anyone can resurrect the dead idea of fusionism in 2021, it may be Joe Sobran’s ghost—an eminently unlikely champion. Though thinkers on the right today tend to remember liberal-traditional fusion as a relic of the National Review era, Sobran’s brand reminds us that freedom is a good thing—if only an intermediate good—and it should not be a) abandoned in the pursuit of other ends, or b) mistaken for an ultimate end unto itself. Sobranite fusionism is not an attempt to reconcile wild liberty with restrictive order, but a humble recognition that real liberty quite simply does not exist without order underlying it, and that order is a natural—perhaps supernatural—thing, beyond human powers to create and barely within human powers to affect. The only good government is the one that recognizes that, and upon that recognition labors diligently both to preserve “a traditional order against all the forces of decay” and to foster the righteous freedom that such order makes possible.
Like other lovers of freedom, from Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn to Hans-Herman Hoppe and beyond, Sobran flirted with the crown. “At least we know that a hereditary monarch didn’t seek the job and didn’t need a sociopath’s skills to get it. If power must be given to someone, maybe it’s wisest to impose it on someone who has no choice about it.” But in the end—after making the acquaintance of Hoppe and his mentor, Murray Rothbard—Sobran settled on a philosophical anarchism.
He can hardly be blamed for this. If the two tasks of government are maintaining traditional order and preserving the freedom of citizens, the state had manifestly failed on both counts in Sobran’s lifetime, and can hardly have expected to keep hold of his faith. (The situation has certainly not improved.) That Sobran at last abandoned the state is not, in fact, entirely surprising, given that the chief goods of life—the proper ends of politics—as he saw them, were effectively outside its purview. The scene that opens Pensees is indispensable:
At certain moments I find myself enjoying life in a certain way. I may be alone, or with friends, or with my family, or even among strangers. Beautiful weather always helps; the more trees, the better. Early morning or evening is the best time. Maybe someone says something funny. And while everyone laughs, there is a sort of feeling that surges up under the laughter, like a wave rocking a rowboat, that tells you that this is the way life should be.
Moments like that don’t come every day, aren’t predictable, and can’t very well be charted. But the main response they inspire is something like gratitude: after all, one can’t exactly deserve them. One can only be prepared for them. But they do come.
This may seem a thousand miles from politics, and such moments rarely have anything to do with politics. But that is just the point.
This is, for Sobran, the beginning and end of the political: to foster and protect the good life. Anything that cannot do that is utterly useless, and anybody who refuses to is pretty much the same. Sobranite politics are about escaping politics altogether, about preserving the kind of world in which people are properly free—not merely free from direct impositions, but free to live well. Whatever you call that—libertarianism, fusionism, anarchism, crackpottery—is all I want to call myself, and all a decent conservative movement should ever aim to be.
Urging his countrymen to support the then-forthcoming U.S. invasion of Iraq, Robert Kagan insisted in 2002 that “No step would contribute more toward shaping a world order in which our people and our liberal civilization can survive and flourish.” Please note: not could possibly or might, but would. Kagan was certain.
In March 2003, George W. Bush took that step. Opinions may differ, but as far as I can tell, neither our people nor our liberal civilization have flourished in the nearly two decades since. Now, however, Kagan is back. And he’s not giving an inch.
The latest issue of Foreign Affairs features a new rendering of what we have come to expect from Kagan. The title, “A Superpower, Like It or Not,” is less important than the straightforwardly didactic subtitle: “Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role.” Not should or ought to, mind you, but must. “The only hope for preserving liberalism at home and abroad,” he insists, “is the maintenance of a world order conducive to liberalism, and the only power capable of upholding such an order is the United States.” There is no alternative. Of that, Kagan remains certain.
The piece consists primarily of a tendentious reading of history since the turn of the 20th century, designed to show that the American people are always on the verge of abandoning “their proper place and role in the world” and thereby allowing the forces of darkness to run wild.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Kagan’s narrative relates to the Iraq war that he once promoted as essential to preserving liberal civilization. As it turns out, according to Kagan, the war in Iraq and its counterpart in Afghanistan rank as minor episodes of minimal relevance to his overall thesis. Indeed, he chides those who refer to “the relatively low-cost military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq as ‘forever wars’.” In both instances, he writes, “Americans had one foot out the door the moment they entered, which hampered their ability to gain control of difficult situations.”
Kagan offers no figures on dollars expended, ordnance dropped, or casualties inflicted or absorbed to illustrate what he means by “relatively low cost.” Nor does he explain how having one foot out the door meshes with the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq rank as the two longest wars in U.S. history. Instead, he cites popular unhappiness with these two wars as “just the latest example of [the American people’s] intolerance for the messy and unending business of preserving a general peace and acting to forestall threats.”
In other words, the problem was not the Bush administration’s rashness in framing its response to 9/11 as an open-ended global war. Nor was it the non-existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction cited to justify the Iraq war, the incompetence of senior U.S. military leaders who flubbed the occupation of countries the United States invaded, or subsequent horrors such as Abu Ghraib that made a mockery of Bush’s Freedom Agenda. Rather, the problem was that the American people lacked Robert Kagan’s commitment to preserving peace and forestalling threats.
For Kagan, the key to preserving and forestalling is to amass and employ military power. So he laments the fact that U.S. military spending as a percentage of GDP is less today than it was during the Cold War. That the United States also stations fewer troops abroad than it did during the “long twilight struggle” is another source of concern. Why these comparisons are relevant to the present moment he does not say. Nor does he note that at present the United States easily leads the planet in military expenditures and in the number of foreign bases it maintains. His bottom line is that the Pentagon needs more money and more warriors.
“The time has come,” he concludes, “to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility.” Americans “need to be told honestly that the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but preferable to the alternative.” Kagan laments the fact that “A failure to be square with the American people has led the country to its current predicament.”
Let me suggest a different interpretation: It is time to be square with the American people about the consequences that stem from the reckless use of military power and the abuse of U.S. troops. Our actual predicament derives from the less than honest claim that history obliges the United States to pursue a policy of militarized hegemony until the end of time. Alternatives do exist.
The wonder is that the editors of Foreign Affairs have not yet caught on.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
This is America, baby, the land of overindulgence and overcorrection. Only here could we have become such a nation of drunks as to actually try to ban alcohol. We popularized tobacco, then we popularized tobacco control. We’re the home of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, the Krispy Kreme doughnut burger, the frosted confetti cupcake Pop Tart for breakfast, and also the membership health club, the fad diet, Michael Bloomberg’s Big Gulp ban, Jenny Craig’s personalized weight loss program.
And these are just the vices we’re still familiar with. One of Charles Dickens’s complaints upon visiting Washington, D.C., was that he couldn’t go anywhere without seeing someone spit dip into the street. (Is that how we make America great again? I’m just thinking out loud here…)
G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Americans are the people who describe their use of alcohol and tobacco as vices.” But in America’s (sort of) defense, anything done to excess can become a vice; eat lentils at every meal and they can start to feel like a compulsion, too. The frequency of the thing greatly affects its value, which is worth considering as we enter another Lenten season. Lent is a Christian tradition, a time on the liturgical calendar for abstinence and reflection. Yet, while I’m no kind of integralist, I’ve always thought it should be an American observance as well. It sounds trite to say, but Lent has secular worth. Here in the home of mass consumerism, we could all use a month every year to set down our Bluetooth-compatible Spongebob Snuggies and our Starbucks/Megan Thee Stallion collaboration frappuccino K-Cups and make sure those things are existing for us rather than the other way around.
One frequently heard criticism of Lent is that the sacrifices we make today are too mundane. Christ fasted in the desert for 40 days, some Eastern Christians still go full vegan, and we’re giving up…AirPods? Because we live amid such abundance, any penitence can end up seeming woefully small. Yet this strikes me as the wrong way to look at it. If you listen to your AirPods too much, if your AirPods are disconnecting you from the world, then giving up your AirPods may very well do some good, even if it’s all relative. The point of these abstinences isn’t just to inflict raw suffering (though there’s room for raw suffering); it’s to place our pleasures in their proper context. It’s to remind us that everything has boundaries, that there are some places where AirPods should not tread.
For me, this Lent, it’s to be the unthinkable. I’ve said more than once that I’m going to give up alcohol, only to always end up reneging. “Booze makes me more social!” I declare. “And shouldn’t I be abstaining from something with less communal value (like, say, AirPods)?” But this year is different. COVID-19 has made it far more difficult to go out to restaurant and bars. And while there’s value in a drink or two at home alone—alcohol can enliven one’s inner voice just as much as the voices of others—this eventually starts to sound like an excuse. The bottle’s proper place is at the center of the little patio table surrounded by friends with flushed cheeks and stories to tell, not the cup holder on the living room couch. So away with it for now. (How I’m supposed to cover this news cycle without a glass in hand I have yet to figure out.)
It is at these solitary times that we are most vulnerable to our vices. It’s no coincidence that the devil showed up when Jesus was by himself in the desert. Likewise, we are at most risk when others aren’t on hand to remind us that we should probably stop after that twentieth hot wing. Friends and family can pressure us to give in to our temptations, too, but ultimately it’s community that keeps us upright, that counters that inner diabolical voice. Right now, amid our medically enforced atomization, community can be difficult to find. All the more reason, then, to take it upon ourselves. Bridgerton will still be there in 40 days, and thankfully it will be just as racially diverse as it was before.
There’s nothing wrong with having a guilty pleasure or five, if only because life can need a little brightening up. Yet while it can feel jaunty to read those Oscar Wilde quotes in praise of excess on the pub wall, moderation really is the only way to make it work. Lent gives us an opportunity to reclaim those limits. By forcing us to go cold turkey, Lent lets us negotiate a balance on the other side. And that only makes our pleasures more enjoyable. Here’s to that cold, joyful Easter beer to come.
As the new administration plays dress up to re-drag us through the muck of failed Obama-era politics, one leftover bit of foreign policy does deserve a second chance: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. Steps toward peace were a good idea in 2015 and an even better idea in 2021.
The United States and Iran again have an opportunity to end decades of hostility. The nuclear deal, however imperfect, would bind the two nations, along with NATO and other actors, to years of engagement, opening the door to fuller relationships. As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote, the accord “is not a ceiling, but a solid foundation.” For roughly the last six decades the U.S.-Iranian relationship has been antagonistic, unproductive, and often violent. Untangling that requires small steps forward; the accord could be one of them.
As Biden takes control, then, Iran remains isolated globally. At the same time, Iran is in many ways an even stronger regional power than it was a few years ago, and the U.S. thus weaker. The U.S. eliminated Iran’s border enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and handed Tehran the Iraqi oil reserves and pipeline pathway to the sea. U.S. friction with China assures they will not participate in sanctions on Iran and will remain a steady petroleum customer. While the U.S.-Iran proxy war is over in Iraq, it continues in Yemen and Syria, and maybe elsewhere in Africa; holding the U.S. to a status-quo draw counts as a win for Iran.
It’s an ugly history. Things began to fall apart in 1953 when the CIA helped oust Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, who made the mistake of trying to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. The White House installed a puppet leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and lapped up the oil like a hobo scoring a bottle of the good stuff. Through the 1970s, the U.S. also supplied nuclear fuel and technology to build on Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which had kicked off Iran’s nuclear program in 1957.
Fast forward to 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in the Islamic Revolution. Iranians took over the American Embassy in Tehran, holding hostages for 444 days. The antagonism continued in the 1980s as the U.S. went on to assist Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. In 1988, an American cruiser in the Persian Gulf shot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board.
In 2003, when Iran reached out to Washington following American military successes in Afghanistan, George W. Bush declared the country part of his “Axis of Evil.” Iran responded to this by taking control of the Shiite insurgency in Iraq. At one point U.S. forces raided an Iranian diplomatic office in the country. The U.S. and Israel gutted Iran’s nuclear program with malware. The Trump administration killed Iranian general and national hero Qasem Soleimani. The Iranians responded with a missile attack on an American base in Iraq.
Of course, the U.S. walked away from the 2015 JCPOA. Washington imposed economic sanctions on Iran and its oil, driving it into a deeper relationship with China. The U.S. grew even closer to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and fashioned peace accords with various Iranian rivals, former friends, and Gulf neighbors. And in the end Iran basically won the U.S.-Iraq war and today runs Iraq as a client state.
The same folks are still in power in Tehran and are not going away. Iran is probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. While still governed in large part by its clerics, the country has nonetheless experienced a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions. Most significantly, unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not fear an Islamic revolution. They already had one.
Deal or no deal, Iran remains a nuclear threshold state, a very powerful position nearly akin to (and in some ways better than) actually having the bomb. A threshold state holds most or all of the technology and materials needed to make a weapon, but chooses not to take the final steps. Dozens of nations exist in some version of that state, from South Korea to Saudi Arabia. Just exactly how close a country is to a working weapon is called “breakout time.”
If Iran were to get too close, a devastating attack by Israel, and probably the United States, would be inevitable. The Israelis destroyed Saddam’s program, as they did Syria’s. The cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges was a clear warning to back away, and, like the drone killing of Soleimani, a clear message to Tehran that the West has powerful tools. Call it a terrible game of chicken—Iran recently increased the purity of its uranium enrichment and threatens additional steps—but it is one in which the players involved know who has to blink first.
Iran knows that while it cannot get too strong it also cannot become too weak. After watching Libya be destroyed and Qaddafi killed after he voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions, never mind Iraq and non-nuclear Saddam, the lessons are all too clear. So think of the 2015 JCPOA as turning the dial down, but not much. There was no mechanism in the agreement to denuclearize and neither side intended it to do so. If a new accord is signed with the same text Iran will slowly move away from its current breakout time. Iran doesn’t have nukes now; Iran would not have nukes if there had been no deal, and Iran won’t have nukes with a deal. The agreement will eliminate weapons of mass destruction that may never exist.
So why bother making a deal? Because it’s how diplomacy works. There are bilateral and regional issues far beyond Iranian breakout time that need attention, and a new accord would be the start of the start. The goal is not a one-step quick-fix. The goal is to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to a specific problem. Then on to the next one. And for those who don’t yet see the gorilla in the room, almost all of the above applies to North Korea, too, except that the Kims managed to actually go nuclear while the U.S. was distracted by its global war on terrorism. They’re watching. Biden won’t make progress with North Korea without the Iranian example to point to.
The passage of the last few years of relative peace, despite incidents, suggests a growing maturity in Tehran. As did the practical cooperation between the U.S. and Iran that defeated ISIS. Of course there will be saber rattling and grumbling about what is non-negotiable in a new accord. That’s how deals have begun in the Gulf for a long time.
When I was in Iran a few years ago, a takeaway from everyone I met was that Iranians fail to understand the role of domestic politics in U.S. foreign policy. There was only faint awareness of the influence of the evangelical voting bloc on Israel policy, and so little sense then of the powerful role U.S. domestic politics played in moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. Instead, Washington’s actions are imagined as nefarious evidence of anything and everything. Iran is a nation under attack. Zionist banks control the media. There is a dictatorship of the United Nations, Hollywood, and the International Monetary Fund. Then by the third cup of tea you get to the crazy stuff.
But the Iranian reaction has softened, to the point where they may be—maybe—ready to work within the complicated intersection of U.S. domestic policy, U.S. foreign policy, and their own needs for a new status quo in the Gulf that would allow some lifting of sanctions.
The Iranians, for example, did not overreact to the Jerusalem move. They did not press against the tender edges of the deal, when it was in place or not. They did not rise to the constant war bait the Trump administration dangled. They waited for Trump to leave office. They seemingly understood America’s motives are more complex than once thought, and they showed they are taking steps toward working inside the current geopolitical system by not seeking to muck things up.
People from the foreign ministry and former diplomats I met in Iran reflected on a deep frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why more than 40 years after the Islamic Revolution the United States still questions the stability of Iran’s complex democratic theocracy. They wonder why the Voice of America still tries to stir up revolution.
Meanwhile, since I traveled, many of the people I met in Iran are now under USG sanction, first by Trump and continued by Biden. Staying in touch arouses the FBI’s suspicion and invites requests to “talk.” The silence from Washington, one older Iranian diplomat said, was like a phantom itch that people who have lost limbs sometimes experience, left from some past, stuck in the present, an itch there is no way to scratch. “The Americans seem to have quit trying,” he said.
It is time to try again. Reviving the nuclear deal is a place to start.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.
One of the costs of a censorious society is clarity of writing, and consequently of thought. If one must write, evasive thinking is an easier way to dodge cancellation than purely evasive writing. “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” That’s Francis Bacon, and probably the best thing he wrote (unless it’s The Tempest after all). The act of writing is exacting, and it improves with the care and precision of the effort. But this means—as illustrated by the hubbub around the New York Times’s treatment of Scott Alexander, the pseudonymous blogger behind Slate Star Codex—that the opposite is somehow true, too, and oblique writing, carefully and precisely done, can clarify thinking and maybe even uncover truth.
This hubbub comes from the fact that NYT insisted it could not write about Slate Star Codex and its Big Tech-orbiting, futurist readers without Scott Alexander’s real last name. He deleted the blog in response to their inquiry. It’s back and now he’s on Substack. I can’t give much more context than that without sounding very nearly insane; you either know the scene—with its Grey Tribe self-described Rationalists striking out for an empire of letters away from all this Blue Tribe on Red Tribe violence—or you don’t. Are you or have you ever been a member of the libertarian, atheist, computers-are-my-theory-of-mind party? Slate Star Codex was an invitation, or was the other kind of party, but for online nerds. I don’t have space to be nuanced or fair.
But Scott Alexander did, and that is why the arbiter of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” couldn’t leave him or his interlocutors alone. He wrote fat posts about the seams in the fabric of society and of our brains. They were exhaustive and technical, and this was, along with his pseudonym, obviously a defense mechanism. The New York Times is, along with Disney, the Disney of our highly developed, artificial social substance. There is—one hopes, trusts, and prays—a true or real beyond and beneath everything you see. But for being told what you’re seeing and how to talk about it, there’s the NYT. Slate Star Codex, with its very rich, very smart, often both, fans, was seen as competition. For a while, though, it had successfully hidden in plain sight.
This playing the long and niche game has mostly worked out and might still work out for a lot of people questioning the pieties of the present (I should hope so). But it comes with a cost, as I’ve said. Most normal, well-socialized people aren’t going to read a bunch of big blogposts—on any topic, let alone artificial intelligence or scissor statements or gender or drugs from someone with a pseudonym. They’ll barely read the NYT. There’s nothing popular about writing like Slate Star Codex, at all. But in less or differently censorious times, even recently, there have been clear communicators of difficult and important questions, such as C.S. Lewis. He wrote for general readers. His work is short and pithy, helpful but not condescending. The middlebrow has had moments of mass appeal, but no longer; you should probably blame education.
It’s not all bad. There’s a positive to obscurantism, too. If you are the sort of person for whom a very complicated piece of syntax is being strung together—the intended audience, or almost—then deciphering the thing is itself an exercise in thinking; you are being taught, not just informed. I start with X; I derive Y. I tell you that. What formula did I use? Figure it out. What follows? Yes. We’re building something in the clouds, and though that’s clear enough to the watchmen, their efforts to stop it only force everyone to fly that much higher. Or maybe it’s to dig lower, underneath things, an opening up, a clearing away, looking for emergence.
Now, one might hope to bring these both together, to find a way to write or speak in a manner that teaches even the masses, but can be delved into, and deeply, by the disciplined. This would mean developing a mastery of language such that the ascent would never need one to abandon what has already been understood, that it would be only further up and further in. One would need a very great thinker to do this, who understands things from their origin and can bring them to their end. One might conclude that only a God can save us now. Jesus taught in parables and welcomed even the little ones.
In the meantime, this Slate Star Codex episode raises a question. Just how smart, or how actually elite, do we think the New York Times team is? What about the rest of the media establishment? While for the day-to-day of living under social rules and respecting certain pieties, it doesn’t matter if inquisitors are true believers or if they’re cynics, it does suggest something about how long the thing can last. Lies are corrosive. Despite Francis Bacon, nature still tends to win.
From a longer view, as eminent moderns the space between Slate Star Codex and NYT is much smaller and emptier than either would ever admit aloud (though now Scott Alexander is sure to be signaling it often on his Substack). If the Old Gray Lady knows that, and just doesn’t want Grey Tribe company at the top, then the N.Y. and D.C. divide with S.F. and Miami is a civil war, which has its own sort of vitality. But if the media elite really have fallen into the narcissism of small differences, are writing inexactly, confusing turf for the regime, then it’s all artless decadence on decadence.
Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World, by Charles Kupchan, (Oxford University Press: October 2020), 464 pages.
Many commentators have remarkably short historical memories. When they think about what should be American grand strategy, they look no further back than 1947 and the early days of the Cold War. The handful of exceptions glance fleetingly to the immediate post-World War I period, recounted as a cautionary tale about the perilous consequences of any decrease in American strategic engagement with the rest of the world.
If an engaged American grand strategy kept the Cold War cold, so the conventional wisdom maintains, why shouldn’t deep engagement remain the default grand strategy for the United States in the post-Cold War era? As Stephen Brooks, John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth, leading scholarly proponents of deep engagement and liberal internationalism, put it in a co-authored article, “Retrenchment would in essence entail a massive experiment: How would the world work without an engaged, liberal leading power?” Like many other proponents of a more engaged grand strategy, they don’t want to run the experiment.
Former Clinton administration National Security Council staffer, Georgetown University professor, and Council on Foreign Relations think-tanker Charles Kupchan offers a salutary corrective to this strategic inertia. In his new book Isolationism, Kupchan argues that deep engagement is no longer sustainable either in terms of U.S. capabilities or American public support. Moreover, by extending his historical perspective all the way back to the American founding, he provides ample evidence that it is not the only viable alternative out there.
Indeed, for most of our country’s history, the default position for U.S. grand strategy has in fact tended toward the more restrained end of the spectrum, at least outside of North America. “America’s sustained enthusiasm for international engagement,” Kupchan documents, “is the exception, not the rule across the nation’s history.” This restraint mostly served the United States well, as “restraint amid ascent advanced the nation’s interests.” Therefore, Kupchan believes that restraint deserves a second look today, as the United States seeks a strategic map to navigate the tempestuous seas of the post-Cold War world.
Kupchan, like the first generation of neoconservatives, is an internationalist who has been mugged by the reality of recent American foreign policy mistakes. In his view, if we do not close the gaps between America’s interests and capabilities, on the one hand, and our aspirations, on the other, we risk more strategic overreaching such as we did in Iraq and Libya. Some retrenchment and a more restrained grand strategy are the only sustainable basis for continuing American internationalism.
Isolationism has many merits. It comprehensively describes the arc of American diplomatic history from George Washington’s “Farewell Address” to Donald Trump’s redux of “America First.” It is also eminently fair-minded, not only to the liberal internationalists and deep engagers whom Kupchan thinks have set America up for our post-Cold War fall but especially to the alternative grand strategic tradition that Kupchan fears has gotten a bad rap since World War II. “Isolationist,” like “racist,” “sexist,” and “anti-Semite,” is a label that no one wants to be stuck with. That’s why partisans of the status quo brandish it as a rhetorical cudgel against any departure from the activist consensus.
I have two reservations about Kupchan’s well-intentioned effort to rehabilitate isolationism. First, I worry that in using “isolationism” as a synonym for a less engaged foreign policy more generally, Kupchan obscures more than he clarifies. Isolationism, in my view, anchors the far end of the grand strategic continuum as the most disengaged approach to the world. Isolationists want not only less military engagement but also complete political autonomy, economic autarchy, and impermeable borders to restrict immigration. Hardly anyone in the foreign policy debate holds this position any more.
There are, however, other options on the less engaged end of the spectrum of U.S. grand strategy. Restrainers, for example, eschew deep military engagement, believing that technology (especially nuclear weapons) now generally favors defense and that most of our allies can be counted on to defend themselves when push comes to shove. Unlike isolationists, most endorse active diplomacy and free trade and are far less eager to wall off the border to immigrants.
Offshore balancers also want to minimize military commitments abroad but maintain that in some cases the United States needs to be prepared to come back ashore quickly to provide active support to allies facing threats in critical areas of the world. Like restrainers, they generally believe in continuing political and economic engagement around the world.
In the middle of the spectrum, selective engagers assert that the United States needs to maintain a military presence in critical areas of the world, not only to defend them from attack but also to keep them from fighting among themselves. Most otherwise support other forms of international engagement.
Moving toward the activist end, deep engagers not only advocate a permanent U.S. military presence around the world but also see continuing American hegemony as essential to providing such global “public goods” as security, prosperity, and freedom. Liberal internationalists share many common assumptions with deep engagers but hold that American participation in international institutions is as important as U.S. hegemony. Conservative internationalists believe that American primacy combined with the unilateral exercise of American power represents the best way to advance U.S. national interests. Turning the spectrum into a circle, some Jacksonians are willing to use military force abroad, but, in terms of diplomacy and trade, advocate raising the drawbridge.
Read through this framework, Kupchan’s history actually tells a more nuanced story about engagement and U.S. grand strategy. His overarching point, that the period from 1776 through 1898 was characterized by a less engaged approach to U.S. grand strategy, generally holds. But it was not an uninterrupted period of isolationism narrowly defined.
Indeed, the ur-text for this formative period in American foreign policy was George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” in which America’s first president advocated avoiding entangling alliances, but he and his successors were eager to maintain diplomatic and especially economic relations with the rest of the world from the get-go. While U.S. immigration policy was sometimes restrictive, the fact remains that America grew to great-power status as a nation of immigrants, regularly renewed by waves from abroad. To use the same term to describe American foreign policy in the 19th century and the 1930s is inapt.
Second, his argument that it was realism at the end of the 19th century that constituted the first departure from restraint also muddies the conceptual waters. To be sure, the architects of a more activist grand strategy such as navalist Alfred Thayer Mahan and presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt believed that the United States should seek as much power as possible and use it whenever it could. This makes them machtpolitikers, proponents of power politics, but not necessarily realpolitikers.
The latter understand that preponderant power sparks a reaction against it, and so the most that even great powers like the United States can reliably achieve is a balance of power. There is a long intellectual tradition of restraint based on balance of power, which for example led George Kennan to try to limit America’s waging of the Cold War to a few critical areas and Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz to object when containment came to include intervening in a civil war in South Vietnam. Today, card-carrying realists such as MIT’s Barry Posen have literally written the book on Restraint and Chicago’s John Mearsheimer and Harvard’s Stephen Walt have become prominent advocates of offshore balancing.
The realist embrace of restraint is, of course, conditional. During the Cold War, most realists endorsed a somewhat more active (but still limited) grand strategy of selective engagement. It was with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the American unipolar moment that the realist center of gravity shifted to a point somewhere between offshore balancing and full-out restraint.
Perhaps the most important reason to separate isolationism from other less militarily engaged strategic postures is to ensure that the passing of the Trump administration’s “America First” policy does not sound the death knell for the broader restraint agenda. There are grounds for cautious optimism. Even before 2016, restraint had started to make some in-roads among Democrats. Its logic convinced President Obama to avoid what was likely to be a costly and unproductive intervention into Syria. Then-vice president Joe Biden also reportedly opposed the fruitless surge of additional forces into Afghanistan to prolong that endless war. As Kupchan recognizes, the institutional foundation for a bipartisan restraint coalition has already been laid by George Soros and Charles Koch with their joint venture, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In that same spirit, we should welcome Charlie Kupchan to Team Restraint with open arms.
Michael C. Desch is Packey J. Dee Professor of International Relations and Brian and Jeannelle Brady Family Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center.
A decade ago, the Egyptian people rose up against the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship. The so-called Arab Spring seemed to offer a bright future. Egypt went on to hold its first free election, elevating Mohammed Morsi to the presidency.
Alas, Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, overplayed his hand. Lacking control of the military, police, and bureaucracy, he failed to conciliate liberals, secularists, and religious minorities. In July 2013, barely two years after the Egyptian people freed themselves from one tyranny, they found themselves crushed by another, a military regime run by army commander General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and financed by Saudi Arabia.
Sisi staged a coup and arrested Morsi, who subsequently died in prison, along with a gaggle of top government, party, and media officials. A month later, Sisi’s forces broke up a protest in Cairo’s Rab’a Square, killing more people than the Chinese government infamously mowed down in Tiananmen Square. Reported Human Rights Watch: “Using armored personnel carriers (APCs), bulldozers, ground forces, and snipers, police and army personnel attacked the makeshift protest encampment, where demonstrators, including women and children, had been camped out for over 45 days, and opened fire on the protesters, killing at least 817 and likely more than 1,000.” Egyptian security personnel also targeted Western journalists, apparently hoping to eliminate witnesses to the massacre.
Sisi has created an increasingly tyrannical regime. Wrote Amr Darrag, chairman of the Egyptian Institute for Studies:
Ten years on from the beginning of the Arab Spring, the general-turned-president al-Sisi, endorsed by the free world, has made Egypt almost unlivable. There are more than 60,000 political prisoners. Mass trials and death sentences—including for children—are increasingly common. There is torture, enforced disappearances extrajudicial killings. There is no free expression, no political space. Women are frequently targeted. Should we ‘accept’ this reality? After all of this, for many, Mubarak’s Egypt now seems like heaven.
Sisi steadily criminalized any opposition to him or those around him. Financial Times columnist David Gardner observed that the Egyptian dictator “has eliminated all dissent. There is no room in his Egypt for independent opinion or autonomous organizations.” Sisi has promiscuously arrested those who demonstrated against, criticized, or opposed him, or are related those who did so. So assiduous were his minions that his government was forced to construct new prisons to incarcerate everyone rounded up. His brutality has far exceeded that of Mubarak.
Egypt currently requires very little evidence to detain and convict its citizens. For Cairo, vague proximity to events or people is usually enough. The group Freedom House observed: “A series of mass trials in recent years have resulted in harsh sentences, including life imprisonment or the death penalty, based on negligible evidence and most likely related to political motivations.” Indeed, Sisi’s courts are noteworthy for having imposed mass death sentences in mass trials with no showing of individual guilt. In this way, President Donald Trump’s “favorite dictator” has broken new ground.
Yet Sisi still craves the pretense of legitimacy. In 2014, he arranged for a 97 percent election victory, matching the sort of margin claimed by past despots. Four years later, he repeated with 97 percent, after forcing out of the race all but one candidate, who essentially endorsed him. The lucky putative opponents were merely disqualified; the unlucky ones were arrested. Such is the state of Egyptian “democracy.”
Reported the human rights group Freedom House:
The persecution of al-Sisi’s potential challengers in the 2018 presidential election illustrated the regime’s determination to eliminate any opportunity for a peaceful change in leadership. By tightly controlling the electoral process, intimidating presidential candidates into withdrawing, and offering credible opposition parties no significant space to function effectively, the government makes it nearly impossible for the opposition to gain power through elections.
Last year, Freedom House rated Egypt “not free.” Its score from Freedom House, which has been steadily declining, was 21 out of 100. The organization’s judgment is devastating: “President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who first took power in a 2013 coup, has governed Egypt in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Meaningful political opposition is virtually nonexistent, as expressions of dissent can draw criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Civil liberties, including press freedom and freedom of assembly, are tightly restricted. Security forces engage in human rights abuses with impunity, and physical security is further undermined by terrorist violence centered in the Sinai Peninsula.”
This judgment is backed by assessments from other organizations. For instance, according to the State Department: “Domestic and international organizations expressed concern that government limitations on association, assembly, and expression severely constrained broad participation in the political process.” Specific crimes were many:
unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents and terrorist groups; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of unenforced criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive laws governing civil society organizations; restrictions on political participation; violence involving religious minorities; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; use of the law to arbitrarily arrest and prosecute LGBTI persons; and forced or compulsory child labor.
Despite Sisi’s policy of coopting Coptic Christians to back his dictatorship, religious liberty remains under constant attack. Explained State, U.S. government officials have “raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.”
Equally harsh was the judgment of Human Rights Watch. It reported that Sisi’s constitutional amendments “consolidate authoritarian rule, undermine the judiciary’s dwindling independence, and expand the military’s power to intervene in political life. Security forces led by the military continue to brutalize civilians in North Sinai in its conflict with Sinai Province, an armed group affiliated with the extremist group Islamic State (ISIS). The army and pro-government militias carried out serious abuses, including demolishing homes and arbitrarily arresting, torturing, and extrajudicially executing residents.”
In addition, “Under the guise of fighting terrorism, Egyptian authorities showed utter disregard for the rule of law. Since April 2016, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has maintained a nation-wide state of emergency that gives security forces unchecked powers. Security forces used torture and enforced disappearances systematically against dissidents from all backgrounds. Egypt’s use of mass trials and the death penalty has mounted since 2013, including death sentences against children and death sentences issued in military trials.”
This is an appalling record, financed by American taxpayers. President Barack Obama felt some guilt about working with the bloody, repressive Sisi regime. Not Donald Trump, who ostentatiously gloried in the criminality of U.S. allies. However, the Biden administration is unlikely to give Sisi a similar pass, despite Cairo’s fading claim to be a critical strategic ally. Last year, candidate Joe Biden vowed “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’”
The new president should start by cutting off American aid, especially for weapons. This won’t change Sisi’s behavior—regime survival is his paramount goal, and the Saudis could step in with additional financial contributions to Cairo—but it would stop making Americans complicit with his crimes. It would also signal that Washington’s displeasure is more than rhetorical.
That matters because a population subject to steadily escalating repression will otherwise naturally identify the dictatorship with America. Mubarak was known to be a U.S. “friend.” Better that the population see Washington as critical of Sisi, especially since al-Qaeda operatives and other Islamist extremists were radicalized in Mubarak’s jails. A similar process likely is at work today. H.A. Hellyer of the Atlantic Council worries that “by closing the space for expressing dissent openly, the possibility is that something far more chaotic than 2011 becomes more likely.” Similar was the concern of Philip Crowley, formerly at the State Department: “the seeds of the revolution are budding in Egypt.”
There is little downside to ending U.S. aid for the regime. There is no reason to expect even the best-intended grants to be used well. Gardner complained that “Mubarak surrounded himself with some first-rate advisers, especially in foreign policy. Al-Sisi seems to prefer yes-men, and is said by former colleagues to listen mainly to military intelligence and a security cell attached to a cabinet he largely ignores.”
Washington has gotten little in return for its assistance. Anyway, the Egyptian armed forces would have to continue coming to America for spare parts for their U.S.-supplied weapons, if nothing else. As for preserving peace with Israel, Cairo’s praetorians won’t go to war if Washington stops bribing them. Egypt’s generals are not warriors. They are a wealthy, influential, political caste busy looting the economy through a multitude of privileged business enterprises. The last thing they want is conflict.
That is one reason the armed forces oppose civilian political control. In fact, during the Arab Spring, the generals turned against Mubarak because he appeared ready to turn a military dictatorship—from which he, like his predecessors, sprang—into a family-dominated one-party state, headed by his son, Gamal. Worse for Egypt’s military elite, Mubarak fils had ideas of economic reform that would have threatened the military’s business interests. Explained Gardner: “Under Mubarak, many private companies found it expedient to have an army officer on the board. But under al-Sisi, Egypt’s economy is coming to resemble a military business empire encompassing everything from poultry and fish farms to holiday resorts and gyms, as well as chemicals, cement and construction.”
Modern Egypt inherited a great civilization. All that remains now is a selfish, corrupt, hateful dictatorship. Ultimately, only Egyptians can free themselves. However, Washington should stop funding their oppressors.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
The post Washington Helped ‘Liberate’ Egypt. Today It’s an Authoritarian Dystopia appeared first on The American Conservative.
Inter-city rail systems in the U.S. offer quite a polarity. Inter-city passenger rail is overwhelmingly operated by Amtrak, a quasi-public corporation founded in 1971 to replace struggling passenger services. It has long been a point of frustration for rail advocates, due to its high prices, sparse frequency, and slow operating speeds. Its offerings are dusty compared to the sleek bullet trains of Europe and Asia.
America’s inter-city freight rail system is a different story. In the last four decades, the nation’s seven Class I railroads—those with the highest annual revenue—have lowered their rates, increased rail mode share, and caused usage to skyrocket, making the U.S. freight system indisputably the world’s best. This rise is a deregulation story that could inform policy for other transport sectors.
In the late 1970s, notes Marc Scribner, senior transportation policy analyst for the Reason Foundation, the freight rail industry was speeding towards collapse. Its physical assets were in disrepair, and most lines were declining, with railroad market share measured in revenue ton-miles dipping by 33 percent between 1950 and 1979. The Interstate Commerce Commission, however, made reforming the industry hard. The bureaucracy required stiff regulatory reviews of any operator that wanted to close under-performing lines. And it imposed economically forbidding price controls, as noted by a 2015 Congressional Report: “Any proposed change in price required ICC approval. Even as costs and inflation rose, the ICC was reluctant to allow rates to be raised on shippers.”
Compounding the problem was the increasing transport of freight along roadways, which for the most part operated untolled. These further harmed freight rail’s profitability and market share, leading to the 1970 bankruptcy of the Penn Central rail conglomerate—the largest corporate insolvency in American history until Enron.
“It’s a sad story of what regulators nearly did to this industry,” Scribner said by Zoom.
At first, Washington took an even stronger interventionist role. Just as their response to the declining passenger rail industry was to form Amtrak, in 1976 they formed a freight carrier, Conrail, that merged several bankrupt private carriers.
But even federal lawmakers soon saw that intervention was the true cause of decline, and adopted a deregulatory mindset that was also gaining momentum for trucks and airlines. In 1980, Democratic Congressman Harley Staggers of West Virginia proposed the Staggers Rail Act, which passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Carter. The law removed ICC authority to control rates on lines where competition was deemed sufficient. Rail shippers and carriers were allowed to negotiate directly with each other, making contracts and services more responsive to market needs.
The result, says Scribner, is a more consolidated industry—but one that’s much more competitive, affordable, and comprehensive. The Federal Railroad Administration found that since 1980, railroads have invested over $6 billion into their infrastructure, a far cry from the pre-Staggers status quo. Accidents have also dropped by 65 percent between 1981 and 2009. Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institution noted in 2005 that efficiencies produced under Staggers led to increases in shipment density. Inflation-adjusted prices for use have declined 0.5 percent annually since the law, compared to a 3 percent annual increase in the five years before. And by 2017, U.S. railroads were carrying 81 percent more ton-miles of freight than in 1981, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. Our national share of freight movement by rail is the highest in the world, more than doubling second-place Germany.
“Economic regulation of any industry for a long period of time causes that industry to develop…a provincial mindset that shapes its relations with labor and the government. Inefficient operating practices and a slow rate of technological progress become deeply ingrained in the industry,” Winston wrote. “Deregulation has,” by contrast, “turned out to be a great boon for shippers as rail carriers have passed on some of their cost savings to them in lower rates and significantly improved service times and reliability.”
Deregulation has not been without its critics. Scribner notes that chemical material shippers, which are captive customers in that they mostly rely on rail, have long objected to the rates they pay. More recently, railroad unions have warily viewed efforts to automate and reduce crew sizes. Scribner argues that this tension between satisfying labor and increasing mode share will be a “stark choice” for the industry in coming years, given that trucking industry competitors are quickly automating.
Precision-scheduled railroading (PSR), a practice that involves using more stable schedules rather than scheduling train movements around shipper preferences, has been criticized as a short-sighted, privatization-minded cost-cut that causes safety problems.
“Short-term investors and hedge fund managers have forced PSR on large segments of the freight rail industry,” charges the AFL-CIO, “satisfying what Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio described as the ‘Wall Street Jackals’ who now dominate this sector.”
Another challenge is that the freight transport market isn’t on a level playing field with trucks. That latter mode uses roads, which for over a century have enjoyed subsidies and eminent domain carveouts in America. Even today, interstate highways generally cannot be tolled, and gas taxes are not high enough to cover road maintenance costs, meaning they’re subsidized through general taxation.
But the deregulation that occurred 40 years ago via the Staggers Act has still been a massive boon—possibly the lifesaver—for America’s freight rail industry. Policymakers should heed its lessons when setting policy for other transport modes. Fifty years after Amtrak was formed, it continues to require taxpayer subsidy. The same happens with intra-city bus and rail transit, with its politically-mandated “coverage” goals, price caps, resistance to automation, and rules that keep private competitors out. If market forces could flip a dying freight rail industry into the world’s best system, think what it could do to these other industries.
Scott Beyer owns Market Urbanism Report, and is a columnist for the Independent Institute, Governing, and HousingOnline.com. Ethan Finlan is Market Urbanism Report’s content staffer.
This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.
The post How America Fostered The World’s Best Freight Rail System appeared first on The American Conservative.
In the last days of January, after freshly sworn-in President Joe Biden promptly took his executive axe to the Keystone XL pipeline, an explainer began to circulate on Facebook. Over a nondescript image of a pipeline segment cresting a vaguely Midwestern-looking hill, the post claimed:
The Keystone pipeline. Cancelled by Biden on first day. Warren Buffet [sic] owns the railroad that is now transporting all that oil. Warren Buffet donated 58 million to Biden campaign. Warren Buffet would lose billions in transport fees if the pipeline is completed. See how politics works? It is not an environmental issue, it is a money issue…
It paints a nice picture. The pieces all fall into place, and they line up pretty well with our prior knowledge of the players involved. They don’t call him Quid Pro Joe for nothing, right? And it would hardly be the first time Berkshire Hathaway used political influence to kill a pipeline project, as Arthur Bloom’s work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline here at TAC shows. Thankfully, the arbiters of truth and democracy come quickly to dispel our illusions. Fact checks from Politifact, Reuters, and the Associated Press all rate the post false, pointing to a few key pieces of evidence.
The first is fairly important: Warren Buffett didn’t donate $58 million to Joe Biden’s campaign. That’s not really a surprise; $58 million is a hefty chunk of change, even as a hypothetical percentage of Biden’s $1.69 billion campaign haul—the largest in American history. Buffett is well known for cutting tiny checks, even to the candidates he really loves. Hillary Clinton, who’s essentially what you would get if you plugged Warren Buffett’s fantasies into the computer from Weird Science, pulled a measly $25,000 from the Oracle of Omaha. Joe Biden, whose off days can make even Hillary seem charismatic, could hardly have expected to multiply that number by a factor of 2,320.
In fact, Buffett didn’t even make a small donation to Biden’s 2020 campaign, nor endorse the candidate publicly, according to his assistant Debbie Bosanek, as quoted in the fact checks. This despite Buffett’s reported private affinity for the new president, and Biden’s previous number-two role in Buffett’s beloved Obama administration. Some have suggested that the mega-investor’s uncharacteristic silence this cycle—he went so far as to speak onstage at a Clinton rally last time around—was due to a fear of alienating pro-Trump consumers in an already rocky, mid-pandemic moment for Berkshire Hathaway. Whether or not that explains it, it’s safe to say that Buffett’s campaign-season stinginess is not indicative of any disfavor with President Biden.
Nonetheless, the stinginess is real, and strikes a pretty damning blow to the viral claim. And the specific assertion was hardly credible to start with. If you wanted to pay off a politician in exchange for killing a project you don’t like, wouldn’t you be a little less obvious about it? But the atmosphere of dirty power at the top of our political-economic system is getting harder to deny with each passing day. We live under a kind of loose, elusive oligarchy—a nebulous network of interdependent power-brokers in government and business—that can rarely be tied down to hard money. You scratch Warren Buffett’s back because he’s Warren Buffett, not because he bought you six and a half minutes of television ad time.
Even if we allow a bit of flexibility on the hard claims, though, the fact-checkers take issue with the general principle. Warren Buffett has publicly voiced his support for the Keystone XL project on multiple occasions dating back to 2013. Former Omaha World-Herald staff writer Steve Jordon, who wrote a weekly column on Buffett from 2008 to 2018 (not much happens in Omaha) observed in 2014 that “[Buffet’s] pro-pipeline stance has confounded opponents who think it’s out of line with his support of former President Barack Obama, who blocked the project while in office, and his philanthropic support of humanitarian works.”
But the particular support for Keystone XL should confound observers; the daylight between Warren Buffett and Barack Obama is typically invisible to the naked eye. A marked disagreement on such a high-profile issue should warrant a second look. Scattered, throwaway comments of noncommittal support in CNBC etc. interviews through the years have been taken without question as proof positive of Buffett’s sincere commitment to the pipeline project. Little consideration has apparently been given to the fact that Warren Buffett is a very smart man, and may give some thought to the things he says on national TV.
In fact, Buffett has established a bit of a pattern in these affairs. In 2011, President Barack Obama proposed the Buffett Rule (named for super-fan and super-donor Warren), a 30 percent minimum tax rate for Americans with annual income over one million dollars. Buffett himself had called for a higher tax rate on the super-rich in a 2011 op-ed for the New York Times. The Obama White House was happy to play along, and a Democratic Senate followed suit with the Paying a Fair Share Act of 2012. A legislative filibuster rendered the bill dead on arrival. Of course, Buffett can hardly have been worried that he’d ever get the tax hike he asked for; but even if it had come, as Arthur Laffer pointed out at the time, the “effective tax rate on his true income would hardly budge” given that “Buffett shields almost the entirety of his true income from federal income taxation, and he makes clear his belief that he can do more good with his wealth than Uncle Sam.” It’s easy to beg for higher taxes when you know you won’t have to pay up, and it’s great PR to boot. The same can be said of an oil pipeline that would chip away at your bottom line.
But that brings us to the final objection. Would the Keystone XL pipeline really chip away at Berkshire Hathaway’s bottom line to begin with? The fact-checkers, again, say no. To defend the claim, they cite a number out of context: Only about 3 percent of Canada’s exported crude oil is transported by rail (4 percent goes by truck, and a whopping 93 percent by pipeline). From this small number, combined with Buffett’s public dismissiveness of Keystone XL as a competitor to his railroad, the conclusion is drawn that Berkshire Hathaway—a multinational holding company that ranks within the top-10 largest corporations worldwide by virtually any standard—has no real skin in the game here.
It’s a deceptively small number for a lucrative enterprise that no sensible investor would ever want to lose. After all, 3 percent of the petroleum exporting capacity of the fourth-largest crude oil producer on the planet isn’t exactly a mom-and-pop operation. That number works out to well over 41 million barrels of crude in 2019 (the last year for which the Canadian government has released data) alone. Taking into account the $10-15 per barrel cost of transporting by rail, Berkshire Hathaway’s oil-transport endeavor is somewhere around a half-billion dollar industry. Percentages are tricky. Warren Buffett’s $85-billion net worth is a mere one fortieth (give or take) of 1 percent of all the wealth in the world. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take his place, given the chance.
Even admitting this high valuation at the present moment, however, many will claim that transport by rail is, if not already a thing of the past, at least on its way out the door. Pipelines are the future. With the Keystone XL project—an expansion of an existing pipeline system—decisively nixed by the president, oil will just travel through the pipelines we already have. But this ignores an important, obvious question: Why was the Keystone XL project initiated in the first place? It wasn’t just for fun.
The Keystone XL pipeline project came into being because existing pipelines could not handle surging oil exports. Insufficient transport capacity led to an exporting bottleneck, which in turn led to more crude being delivered from the U.S. to Canada on freight trains, which are both more expensive and significantly more dangerous—prone to accidents harming both humans and the environment—than their pipeline alternative. In 2008, 9,344 train cars full of crude oil arrived in the United States; by 2014 that number had risen to 540,383. (A single car holds, on average, about 650 barrels.) Volume has fluctuated significantly since that 2014 peak, but it is safe to say that this is hardly a dying industry. The facts are clear, if inconvenient: In the absence of expanded pipeline infrastructure, oil does travel by rail. To say otherwise requires the memory-holing of years of contentious, public debate over the relative risks of one versus the other. A single, typical headline from the Washington Post in October of 2018: “As Canadian pipeline plans falter, more oil is moving by rail—prompting familiar fears.”
So, the claim that oil transportation by rail is virtually irrelevant holds very little water. Still, what is Berkshire Hathaway’s real involvement here? Even if, contra the fact-checkers, the freight train business is booming, does Warren Buffett care? John Mitchell, whose incompetence (coupled with Ben Bradlee’s malice) toppled the greatest president this nation has ever seen, at least had the right idea here: watch what they do, not what they say. Yes, Warren Buffett has said—especially while Barack Obama, who was never going to allow the project to go forward, occupied the Oval Office—that Keystone XL might be a nice idea. But the famously cautious investor’s oil-transportation business has been carried out with very little apparent doubt. That is, corporate decision-makers seem reasonably confident that they can count on at least 40 million barrels riding their rails each year, and possibly much more.
In late 2009 (incidentally, the year Obama took office) Berkshire Hathaway took full ownership of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company in a $44-billion deal. The acquisition itself can’t have had anything to do with Keystone—oil is an even smaller part of the rail business than vice versa—but at the same time it can hardly be unimportant to the current discussion that Berkshire Hathaway owns the single largest freight railroad network on the continent. In another point for the Facebook memers and against the professional fact-checkers, excess oil that would have run through Keystone XL really is going to cross our northern border via Buffett-owned railroad lines.
More interesting than the railroads themselves, however, are the cars in which the oil will be carried. Since 2013—two years before President Obama moved to block the Keystone project, when the pipeline controversy was just boiling up—Berkshire Hathaway has been 100-percent owner of the Marmon Group, itself a holding company whose primary business is railroad tank cars. Two of its most important subsidiaries are the Union Tank Car Company (UTLX) in the U.S. and its Canadian affiliate Procor. Each is the largest tank-car company in its country. This would, of course, be an unwise investment if freight rail were about to be made obsolete by pipeline expansion.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. In 2015 (the year Obama finally took action against Keystone XL) the Union Tank Car Company acquired 25,000 new cars, a 20-percent increase in its total holdings. In that same year, the Federal Railroad Administration imposed new, stricter regulations on tank cars used to transport hazardous materials like crude. The expensive process of retrofitting, or the even more expensive process of new construction, would be required of any company that wished to remain in the supposedly fading business. UTLX wasted no time, becoming the very first company to produce new, FRA-compliant DOT-117 tank cars, heavily protected against fire, spills, and other unpleasant accidents.
Even with these new regulations, however, accidents were not entirely eliminated. In June of 2018, 14 retrofitted tank cars derailed while carrying crude oil from Canada on a BNSF line, spilling 230,000 gallons into a state waterway. Berkshire Hathaway had an easy solution: simply ban the use of retrofitted cars—many of which, including those that derailed, were owned by ConocoPhillips—and permit only new-construction DOT-117s on its rails. A happy coincidence for fellow Berkshire Hathaway asset UTLX. The aforementioned pipeline bottleneck had surged tank-car leasing rates by more than 150 percent.
The facts add up to two undeniable conclusions, both of which fly in the face of so-called fact-checks. First, Keystone’s cancellation is going to force more crude oil to travel southward by rail. Canada’s production volume, and our reliance on Canadian imports, are only increasing. Given pipelines’ finite capacity, increases in volume without pipeline expansions inevitably force reliance on rail. And second, this shift will substantially benefit Berkshire Hathaway, which owns both the railroads that will carry the oil and the cars it will be carried in.
Just as in Virginia, when powerful people tied to the company killed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Berkshire Hathaway is the winner in this game. The losers, again as in Virginia, are the workers involved: The killing of the Keystone XL project annihilates roughly 11,000 jobs. Again, the scale is minuscule if you go by percentages—a mere .007 percent of U.S. jobs cost by Biden’s decision; not nearly enough to meaningfully affect the economy’s performance statistics for his first year in office. But at the human level, it’s devastating.
Struggling communities in the Midwest eagerly looked to the Keystone project as an opportunity for economic revival. That revival isn’t coming; nor are the jobs or the cash the pipeline promised to deliver. We are told—with force enough to invite a little doubt—that nobody benefits from their suffering. But if a young South Dakotan is sitting at home right now unemployed, he might take a little stroll down to the train tracks—BNSF-owned, of course. If he waits long enough, a freighter is bound to roll by heading south. Like everything else, it won’t bother to stop in his little town, but if it passes through just slow enough he might be able to make out that ubiquitous yellow “UTLX” stenciled on the sides of the black—all new, leak-proof, fire-resistant—tank cars carrying oil from the north.
There’s an old clip of Gore Vidal from (when else?) 1968 in which our most literate of trolls gazes cooly at his interviewer and proceeds to recommend all manner of horrible things. He begins with concerns about overpopulation, warning that the human race is having too many children and that a global famine is only a few years away. From there, it’s on to compulsory birth control, sterilization, the state limiting the number of children families can have—the whole Malthusian wish list done in elegant drawl.
I like Vidal, as it happens, but this rambling is proof of two things. First, despite how loony our politics might seem today, the Overton window used to be a whole lot wider. And second, even as the litter was being picked up, even as the fires on the Cuyahoga River were being doused, there was a quarter of the left in general, and the environmental movement in particular, that viewed humanity as a cancer on the planet. Vidal was only parroting Paul Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb, released that same year, advocated strict limits on human reproduction. And Ehrlich was only echoing a broader Malthusian sentiment that had first taken hold in America back in the 1950s.
If you want to know why conservatives became so vehemently opposed to the environmentalist movement, this is it right here. They came to see it as not pro-ecology but anti-human. Today, the so-called Malthusian Moment has passed. You can still read the occasional swivel-eyed essay demanding that we not have kids to save the planet, but such arguments are relatively rare and tend to get swatted down even by progressives. Accordingly, the right is now taking a fresh look at its own approach to the environment. A new generation of conservatives is rising that might support fracking and resist climate change eschatology, but that also seeks to preserve our national parks and endangered species from the excesses of industry. Conservation has become a new watchword on the right. Malthus might still be out but TR is back in.
All of which raises a question: what will the politics of the planet look like in the years to come?
Part of the answer, I think, depends on how hard Joe Biden is willing to push his climate agenda. And judging from the first month of his presidency, he’s willing to push pretty hard. One of Biden’s first moves upon taking office was to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline, which was supposed to carry oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s estimated that this will kill 11,000 seasonal jobs, which is why even the head of the AFL-CIO union, one of Biden’s biggest backers, was uneasy about it.
Biden also plans to sign on with the Paris climate accord, which requires nations to cut their emissions. He has temporarily suspended all oil and gas drilling on federal lands (such extraction accounts for about a quarter of our crude oil output). He has committed the EPA to reinstating dozens of environmental regulations that were rolled back under Donald Trump. He has pledged to make America carbon neutral by 2050.
What of the jobs that such a green blitz will inevitably kill? The answer for Biden is the same as ever: replace them with new, safe, well-paid, unionized, presumably gender-fluid “green” jobs. Whether or not the good people in coal and oil country want to have their livelihoods socially engineered in this way is another story entirely. And that matters. Like many journalists, I did the whole ridiculous white-working class safari routine back in 2016, embarking into the wilds of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia to figure out what this whole MAGA thing was really about. What I found were people anxious not about secularism or libertarianism but about the future of their jobs. They blamed the federal environmental bureaucracy for crushing the coal sector and worried that the fracking industry, in which many of them now worked, would be next. One guy told me his vote for Trump could be summed up in three letters: EPA.
Now Biden is promising more of the same. That this could backfire, that those affected have the right to vote and could even help drive a political realignment, never seems to have occurred to anyone on the left. Such economic disruption isn’t on the scale of what was advocated by those mid-century Malthusians, but it has done real damage and is a major and often neglected factor behind the Trump phenomenon. It also poses challenges for the environmental politics of the future. Can the left balance its blues with its greens? Or will it continue to forfeit Allegheny hardhats in favor of climate activists with “Save the Planet” bumper stickers on their Gulfstream jets? Can the new and ostensibly pro-worker right hold onto these voters? Even post-Trump? And how will conservatives balance the demands of employment, stability, and anti-Biden partisanship with their growing interest in conservation?
These are all questions in need of answers. In the meantime, we can at least be thankful for this much: No one is suggesting putting sterilants in the water.
The post From Malthus to Trump? Our Changing Environmental Politics appeared first on The American Conservative.
“Shit shit shit … Can you not tweet the toolkit … Our names are on it.” That was the message that Delhi police say 21-year-old Bangalore-based activist Disha Ravi texted to Greta Thunberg on February 2, begging her to take down a tweet she had posted with a link to a Google Docs file. Thunberg quickly took down the tweet and later posted a link to an “updated” document with incriminating details removed.
If there is a secret document that Greta Thunberg doesn’t want people to read, then naturally one is curious about its contents. The so-called “toolkit” may strike American readers as mundane, but that’s only because we have grown accustomed to the astroturf methods of international NGOs. The Indians are taking it very seriously as an intrusion on their sovereignty.
The “toolkit” describes methods for capitalizing on the farmers’ protests that have wracked New Delhi since November, after Narendra Modi’s government passed a package of laws liberalizing agriculture markets. The farm reforms themselves are unobjectionable, a long overdue counterpart to the 1991 reforms that ended the “Permit Raj” in other sectors. But some farmers in Punjab and Haryana fear that deregulation will reduce prices for their crops. Tens of thousands of them have camped out near the capital.
The linked document included sample tweets, suggestions for in-person rallies, and a timeline for an escalating protest campaign climaxing on January 26. Unfortunately, the January 26 protest in New Delhi proved a little too climactic. Roads were swarmed, cell towers were destroyed, and one farmer was killed when, ramming a police barricade, he capsized his tractor. Farmers rushed police lines on horseback with swords, according to the Wall Street Journal. Hundreds of policemen were injured and many hospitalized. The Red Fort, a Delhi landmark, was stormed and the Sikh flag raised on its flagpole, raising worries about connections between protesters and Sikh separatism.
Statements of support for the farmers came from the usual suspects, like Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, as well as some unexpected ones. Rihanna tweeted “Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest” with a link to a CNN article. Trevor Noah did a flattering segment on The Daily Show. Meena Harris, the niece of the vice president, has been highly active on Twitter in support of the farmers, drawing parallels between the Modi government’s response and the U.S. Capitol incursion and decrying “militant nationalism” and “FASCIST DICTATORS.”
This all looked a bit too choreographed to the Modi government, but they didn’t have a smoking gun until Greta Thunberg tweeted her toolkit. One government spokesman went on TV saying, “This is the box of conspiracy,” as he held up a printout of the toolkit. “These are very concerted efforts, it is not that someone is impromptu making some comments,” said another spokesman. “Especially someone like Rihanna would never know, I don’t think she can even point out on the global map where India is.”
This is the angle that has most outraged the Indian public: the interference of foreign groups. “India’s sovereignty cannot be compromised,” tweeted cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. “External forces can be spectators but not participants. Indians know India and should decide for India.” Digital records showed that the same activists who collaborated on the toolkit, including Disha Ravi, also participated in a Zoom meeting with representatives of Extinction Rebellion and the Canada-based Poetic Justice Foundation, which, according to its website, “challenges structures of oppression and discrimination through intersectional grassroots advocacy.”
For some Western critics, it isn’t even about the protests at all. It’s about undermining Modi. Journalist Pieter Friedrich, listed in the toolkit as a resource person, is the author of Saffron Fascists: India’s Hindu Nationalist Rulers and a perennial critic of the BJP. Time magazine on February 15 published a breathless article connecting Modi with Donald Trump—“Hindu supremacism found a natural ally in white supremacism”—and suggesting both leaders pose a threat to democratic institutions.
Support within India for Modi remains high. One poll showed 80 percent of Indians support his handling of the protests. A November election in the rural state of Bihar saw the BJP increase its majority, suggesting that many farmers continue to support the ruling party. Indignation is mostly coming from outside the country.
The Time article is right about one thing: Donald Trump’s departure has given some people in the international NGO-sphere the idea that it’s open season on regimes they dislike, including Modi’s. From Vladimir Putin to the considerably less dictatorial Viktor Orbán, foreign leaders who dissent from the Davos line can expect the next four years to be rougher than the previous four, now that the White House is friendlier to would-be liberal meddlers.
Some have detected postcolonial hypersensitivity in India’s reaction, or overreaction, to the Thunberg tweet, which has extended to having Disha Ravi arrested for her involvement with the Google Doc. “What is the toolkit about?” one green activist asked. “It is nothing but a template, just like a booklet, that is being used to disseminate more information on the farmer protests.”
It’s true that India is exceptionally suspicious of any hint of imperialism, especially the creeping kind. India didn’t lose its sovereignty to the East India Company all at once but piece by piece. The British showed up in India to trade, and within a short time, without either side quite planning it, they were running the country.
Considering how sophisticated the methods of international NGOs have become, maybe the rest of us should be more like the Indians. So-called “intersectional grassroots advocacy” is often just a cover for highly organized media manipulation. When activism becomes so routinized that it becomes a “toolkit” that powerful left-wing groups can pop open at any time and use to undermine legitimately elected leaders anywhere around the world, then that activism has ceased to be, in any meaningful sense, democratic. Those who see it as a threat to popular sovereignty are right.
I’ve wondered, on and off over the years, to what extent the massive phenomenon of political talk radio is related to America’s driving culture and general dependence on automobiles. Many of us spend hours alone in a car each day, with nothing but the radio. Lots of folks who drive for a living—truckers, for example—tend to lean right, in the Reagan Democrat sense. I’ve always suspected that the geographic polarization of the country had something to do with this, that there was a sort of feedback loop between living in a more remote or less-regarded part of the country, spending lots of time alone, and listening to radio programs which often reinforced both a sense of grievance and a sense of self-reliance. Surely the polarization around urban issues—for example, the SUV as a culture war symbol, and the idea that car dependency and free highways were the results of free enterprise rather than policy and government spending—has something to do with the interplay of politics and the car.
I wrote in this space, almost exactly two years ago, the following:
“Consider that talk radio, with all of the ugly and polarized politics it has helped to spawn, is in many ways an epiphenomenon of American driving culture. But that culture itself is, to some extent, an outgrowth of our vast size and pioneer spirit, which are irreducible and intertwined American characteristics. Is a large country like ours doomed, by some law of psychogeography, to produce Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin?”
That isn’t a knock at Limbaugh the man, RIP. It’s more a conversation starter. I’m curious to what extent others have thought about this question, and can back up, or push back, against my supposition.
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Communism came to Hungary as the Iron Curtain lowered across Central and Eastern Europe. The communists lost the post-war elections but gained power with what they called “salami tactics”: dividing and conquering their democratic opponents. Upon his ascent, Mátyás Rákosi, an unpleasant little man who resembled Uncle Fester from the Addams Family, began a series of brutal crackdowns with the help of his sadists in the secret police, the State Protection Authority.
One victim was Edith Bone. Born in Hungary, but possessing British citizenship, Bone had turned to communism out of revulsion at the “bottomless misery of the poor”. A polyglot, she roamed about Europe supporting Marxism. Still, while being loyal to the Soviet Union, she was also curious and obstinate. “First of all, I like to tell the truth,” she wrote afterwards, in her book Seven Years Solitary, “Secondly, I like to give my opinions—both tastes which were not encouraged in the Party.” It is not to her credit that she remained a communist, but she was far too much of a character to be a mindlessly dedicated one.
While in Hungary in the late ‘40s, Bone fell under state suspicion. Someone with her foreign links and her bad attitude was a natural target for the secret police. She was arrested and accused of espionage. A friend who had allowed her to stay with him was shipped off to the camps for harbouring a spy.
The communist police liked to torture people. They knew that torture is not just about what is done but what is not done. As Bone wrote in her book:
They…left it to [their prisoners’] own bodies to torture them. If you are deprived of proper, wholesome and sufficient food, of light, of warmth, of sleep then after a certain time your whole body revolts. From the torturer’s angle, this is a very convenient method, saving much trouble and exertion.
There were other methods, though, by which torture could be enacted without the torturers having to strain themselves. Food was contaminated, with “obscene and unpleasant” effects. Handcuffs were imposed and then progressively tightened around her wrists. Bone was moved to a better cell, with better meals, and a more comfortable bed, and then encouraged to give up her “secrets” or be moved right back again. In Seven Years Solitary, Bone freely admits that other prisoners faced worse violence and were often tortured to death. Her British passport helped to keep her alive. Still, it was extraordinarily cruel treatment of a human being—indeed, not just a human being but an arthritic, 60-year-old woman.
Her captors must not have appreciated the kind of arthritic 60-year-old they were imprisoning. If she had been troublesome before, she now became a pillar of single-minded stubbornness. She was intent on maintaining her pride and sanity. The torture, she knew, was intended to break a victim down in order to elicit a confession. She was not going to give the communists the satisfaction.
Throughout Seven Years Solitary, her argumentative, mischievous nature shines. “I am not a dog,” she snaps at a soldier who leaves her plate of food on the floor. At one point, one of her interrogators told her she would not leave captivity until she admitted to being a spy. “In that case I shall probably die here.” But Bone also had a sense that she was representing something beyond herself. She “regarded the matter as a challenge, not only to myself but to that higher civilization of which I considered myself as a product.” So, she recited poetry in her head, and mentally created poems of her own. She embarked on tours, in her imagination, of cities she had visited. She used her knot-tying skills to prise a nail from her prison door with a cord, and managed to create a pinhole through which she could peer out into the hall beyond her cell to catch priceless glimpses of her fellow prisoners.
Bone’s conditions eventually eased. She claims that she decisively rejected communism after being appalled by the blatant absurdities and lies she found in Soviet newspapers and medical literature in the prison library. Having been led to communism by the inhumanity she saw around herself, moreover, she could not embrace the inhumanity it had replaced it with. “Indeed it was a worse tyranny than the pre-revolutionary autocracy had ever been,” she wrote, “Because the gendarmes of the Tsar had concerned themselves mainly with political activities, whereas Soviet tyranny penetrated into the private personal life and even into the minds of people.”
Yet it was the lies more than the cruelty that seem to have offended Bone. “The constant barrage of lies presented as the one sterling truth…meant that all standards were falsified, twisted out of shape.” This was true in an epistemological sense and also in an aesthetic one. “As a result of seeing mediocre writers praised to the skies if they were on the Party line…young people ceased to be able to distinguish good and bad writing.”
Against this tyranny of mistruth and mediocrity, Bone set her admirable mind. Can we know that every claim in her book is true? I suppose not. But we know she disappeared into the Hungarian prison system for years and emerged strong and sane enough to denounce communism for the cameras and write her inspiring book. None of us face the cruelty that Bone resisted. But her example should inspire us to uphold the power and dignity of thought, and wit, and independent-mindedness against dishonesty, and against mediocre standards, and against the temptation to drown our minds in comfortable pleasures. To do otherwise is not just to deprive ourselves of intellectual fulfilment but to betray our own potential, and to betray the gift we have been offered by civilization. If Edith Bone could be true to herself, we have no excuse.
Ben Sixsmith is a British writer living in Poland who has written for Quillette, the Spectator USA, the Catholic Herald, Public Discourse, and Unherd.
In Season 6 of Sex and the City, the emotionally hapless, thirty-something relationship columnist Carrie Bradshaw falls for a much older and distinguished avant-garde artist played by the classical dance maestro Mikhail Baryshnikov. “The Russian,” his codename among Bradshaw’s besties, hosts her decidedly less sophisticated clique at a dinner party in his lower Manhattan loft. After a lame repartée of sex jokes, one of the invitees notices a grand piano, no doubt accustomed to Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov. “Know any Billy Joel?” asks the guest. The Russian shrugs. “Uptown Girl? Piano Man?” the others ask incredulously. “I am not familiar,” he replies with a deadpan look that crystalizes a subtle rebuke of the vapidity of American culture.
Of course, not everything American is lowbrow, and Billy Joel wrote some brilliant songs, but our cultural and artistic class has fallen far short in exercising its responsibility to challenge our political and social discourse in a meaningful way. Instead, a left-wing echelon of self-hating limousine liberals dominates the space with a boring and predictable sanctimony. Is there anyone who acts as “The Russian” at the metaphorical dinner party on the right, who aspires to something higher and more substantial? A handful of celebrities eschew the left-wing consensus, but not many. Clint Eastwood has waded in, but never too deep. Others like Jim Caviezel speak out on the basis of religious faith, but without promoting a comprehensive view of where we ought to go as a nation. Beyond that, we have bigmouths like James Woods or Ted Nugent. Now, in the absence of an American artist of standing to speak to where Western society is headed, an actual Russian has stepped in to fill the gap.
The internationally award-winning stage and screen director Konstantin Bogomolov has declaimed on civilizational decline with a scathing manifesto published recently in the Moscow daily Novaya Gazeta. He has ignited a firestorm of debate by laying blame for the erosion of freedom of expression in the West at the feet of what he calls a “New Ethical Reich.” This regime resembles the most odious of the 20th century in its worst tendencies. Readers of TAC will no doubt cheer his courage in excoriating the, ironically, totalitarian liberals who seek to turn us all into thought police.
Bogomolov laments the West’s failure to “[restrain] the dark side of human nature with religion, philosophy, the arts, and education and [allow] the darkness to escape through those same release valves, like steam from an overheated boiler.” He unleashes on the futile attempt to legislate away evil thoughts. “Europe never realized that the beastly side is just as organic and inherent to man as the angelic side. Powerless to get over Nazism intellectually and spiritually, Europe elected instead to sterilize man of complexity—sterilize his dark nature and immure his demons forever.”
He elaborates further on the danger of policing thought and conditioning acceptable opinions:
You can no longer freely say: ‘I don’t love…,’ ‘I don’t like…,’ or ‘I fear…’ You have to correlate your emotion with public opinion and public values. And social values have become a new wailing wall where every unhappy, aggrieved, or simply dishonest individual can not only bring a note but also demand that the new god—Progressive Society itself—add his resentment, drama, fear, or pathology to the new UNESCO code of ethics, give it a social status, allocate a budget, and create a special quota for it in all spheres of public life. And anyone who dares to claim that the grievance is nothing to write home about, the disease is curable, and the personal drama is the individual’s own business will face the music of the all-powerful repressive machine—the very same public opinion.
Even a casual observer of our politics and social trends in recent years will have noticed the growth of this oxymoronic trend of totalitarian liberalism, or what Bogomolov calls “Untraditional Totalitarianism.” In addition to railing against prescribed opinions, he admonishes the John Lennon “Imagine” view of the world, in which the only way to achieve a “brotherhood of man” is to destroy anything that makes each individual unique: e.g. no countries, no religion. Bogomolov takes the argument one step further though, saying that the homogenization of ideology and of values makes no one safe. A world without dissent means disaster for us all, hence his dubbing this global regime the New Ethical Reich.
Elimination of national frontiers under globalization is the new totalitarian empire in the making. In the old days, dissenters had the freedom to abandon their country and make another country their home. National frontiers secured the exercise of individual freedom. The diversity of ethical systems and sets of values gave the individual the latitude to find a system where he feels that he belongs or a system that would simply let him live and seek fulfillment. The new ethical empire craves expansion and the homogenization of societies. A new global village is emerging where no dissenter will be able to hide from the enforcers of ethical purity.
Bogomolov registers dismay as a Russian, looking back on his own country’s history and noticing how a left-wing ethical agenda could lead to the awful conditions born in 1917. In reference to a girl calling the police to report her parents’ participation in the Capitol events of last month, Bogomolov says that “Russia has been through all that.” This sympathy for the insurrection weakens his argument. He misses the irony of the right-wing manifesting the same tendencies he condemns. Antiwar conservatives recoiled in horror as “Fox Pravda” became little more than a propaganda outlet of the Bush Administration subsequent to September 11, 2001, beating the drums to invade Iraq in one of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions this country has even undertaken. It is not only the Hollywood elites that can lead us to totalitarianism.
But Russia is fortunate to have a cultural icon who can articulate a worldview, who encourages his countrymen to think for themselves critically as they resist the thought police, and who ponders his nation’s European future at a time when self-hatred seems to rule the day and all the very best legacies of Europe risk falling prey to a “cancel culture.” Refreshingly, his thoughts go beyond the relative merits or disgraces of Vladimir Putin as head of state; they cut right to the heart of what kind of nation Russians might want to be as a people and what kind of Europe they aspire to be a part of.
America needs the same kind of courage from our cultural class, the courage to be able to see beyond the divisive partisan atmosphere and to give people something more to believe in than political demagoguery. Instead, we get platitudes at political rallies. Bogomolov is way out of their league, and like “The Russian,” would surely be a bored and disappointed host were he to throw a dinner party for his American counterparts.
George Ajjan is an international political consultant.
He had a voice made for history.
Rush Hudson Limbaugh III died Wednesday, after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 70. A Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, his death was immediately mourned by former President Donald Trump on Fox News, the first time the former commander-in-chief has granted an interview since leaving Washington last month. He died in Palm Beach, mere miles from the former president’s compound at Mar-A-Lago.
Limbaugh was the conservative godfather of a generation, a provocative pioneer of talk radio, and a power broker for elite-aspiring Republicans for decades. “You know I didn’t know Rush at all,” Trump told Fox. “And then, when we came down the escalator, he liked my rather controversial speech,” Trump said, referring to his June 2015 campaign kick-off that started his ascent to the White House.
Limbaugh was born in Missouri, at Cape Girardeau on the Mississippi River, about two hours northwest of Memphis and two hours southeast of St. Louis. In 2012, he was ushered into the Missouri Hall of Fame (with his bust granted 24-hour security). If fellow Missourian Mark Twain weaponized the novel for political impact, fans and haters alike acknowledge Limbaugh made hay of the radio.
Like many in his field, Limbaugh was essentially a lifer and got his start at a young age, dropping out of university and working as a peripatetic journeyman—in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Sacramento, and then New York—before striking it big. A restless and dyspeptic personality, he was fired repeatedly. He briefly got out of radio entirely, working in sports sales. But “Bachelor Jeff,” as he called himself on-air in those days, would soon become the biggest thing in Republican politics.
After turning 40, Limbaugh’s rise coalesced with Newt Gingrich’s as Republicans swept to power in Congress, taking the House for the first time in a half-century. As the new Congress was sworn in, Time magazine, still in its heyday, plastered him on the cover, in all his cigar-smoking bravado. The headline read: “Is Rush Limbaugh Good for America?”
In the years ahead, Limbaugh would become a cipher through which to gauge the success of the post-Reagan conservative movement. Adherents would laud Limbaugh’s first-rate product, monster ratings, and the contributions he made to GOP captures in Washington. But to critics, Limbaugh-style politics was part of the problem: Quietly, some would whisper about a professed Christian conservative with a nasty drug habit (and three nastier divorces), the man’s penchant for flash over policy, and his tendency to pick on individuals from pop culture, such as NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb or liberal law student Sandra Fluke, rather than really pick on Republican officials in power.
From Gingrich’s triumph and the Contract with America, to George W. Bush and the Iraq war, and finally to the ascendancy of Trump (though he initially demurred, and the former president perhaps forgets the talk-radio legend once favored Ted Cruz), Limbaugh was a loyalist to the Republican cause for 30 years, backing nearly every evolution of the party. The radio personality was a team player through every contortion of mainline conservative politics for a quarter-century, seeing little contradiction between the small-government ethos of the Nineties, the expansive War on Terror of the Aughts, the return to the small-government style in the Tens, and the sudden, populist-nationalist emergence of Trump in the current moment.
Limbaugh’s tremendous success—paired, perhaps, with hypocrisy—bedeviled the left. Allegiance to his legacy is likely to become a litmus test in the Republican Party in the coming months, and conservatives were swift to defend the deceased on Wednesday. “Wish people could honor a person who changed media forever without being cruel. You didn’t like him? Fine. Keep it to yourself for a few days,” said J.D. Vance, who may be weighing a Senate run in Ohio. “Rest in peace.”
The post With Rush Limbaugh, the Death of a Republican Kingmaker appeared first on The American Conservative.
No child of the ’90s was able to escape Britney Spears. She was ubiquitous, impossible to avoid even if you didn’t much care for that oh baybah baybah style of mass-manufactured tonal candy, even if you thought the entire pop explosion of that decade was a bit fake (it was). Spears seemed to be everywhere and everything at once: singer, dancer, celebrity, TV guest, beauty standard, sex symbol, teenage crush, brand name, cover model, and (in one very inadvisable instance) movie star.
Today, Spears is back in the news, sending ’90s kids everywhere into fits of nostalgia (we ’90s kids spend most of our time in fits of nostalgia). The former pop star is the subject of a new documentary called “Framing Britney Spears.” The film is ostensibly about her ongoing court battle with her father, though it also takes us back to a very different time in her life: her late-2000s self-immolation, when she shaved her head and kept going out in public without underwear on. The movie dredges all this up not to re-humiliate her, but to cast a critical light on those who bullied and exploited her. That these were often the same celebrity courtiers who had exalted her only a decade before can make her seem almost like a vestal sacrifice, dressed in white and celebrated only to be torn down and destroyed.
The sheer callousness chronicled in the documentary is staggering, enough to make a hero out of anyone who showed Spears even a glimmer of compassion. Former late-night TV host Craig Ferguson has been praised simply because he swore off making fun of her during a monologue. Another surprisingly sensitive treatment came from the usually ruthless South Park, which in 2008 depicted Spears as the victim of a ritual a la Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” in which once a year a pop star is bullied to death as a harvest sacrifice. The most memorable scene from that episode found a half-headless Spears (long story) in a field with camera-snapping paparazzi closing in, screaming until she eventually lay down and succumbed.
The theme of all this is shame. Spears’s treatment was more than just a good-natured ribbing; it was something deeper and darker, a gratuitous public shaming, meted out because she had the nerve to misbehave after having been denied anything that could charitably be called a childhood. Watching the documentary today, it’s striking how far we haven’t come. We still do this, all the time. As a society, we’ve agreed to at least some rules about most of our human impulses, from hunger to leisure to sex. Yet when it comes to shame, we don’t seem to have any kind of framework in place. For public humiliations, it’s a free market.
Shame as a tendency is deeply engraved into our nature. The idea of a scapegoat, an actual goat that’s (ironically) spared slaughter and released into the wild as atonement for sins, is mentioned in the Book of Leviticus and believed to trace back to the 24th century B.C. Jump ahead to ancient Athens and you find shame as a political mechanism, with citizens once a year allowed to ostracize people from the city. There’s a wonderful story, likely apocryphal, in which an Athenian known for his good deeds as Aristides the Just confronts a peasant who’s about to vote for him to be ostracized. Aristides asks why. “Oh nothing,” says the peasant, “I don’t even know him. I’m just sick and tired of hearing everybody refer to him as ‘The Just.'”
Therein lies another reality about shame, especially among we rebellious Westerners: It isn’t just a way to victimize the weak, but also to take the piss out of the powerful. It’s a kind of populist weapon, a way of tearing down those whom we judge to have gotten too big for their own good. There’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing a pompous leader stripped down to rags and paraded through the streets. All the more so if he’s guilty of hypocrisy, having fallen short of the same ethical code he was supposed to exemplify. Shame is thus a fundamentally moralistic thing, a way of signaling one’s superiority over another. The Salem witch hunters were men of God fighting the devil; Britney’s tsk-tskers were good bourgeois sorts who might have let their kids watch TRL but who would never shack up with some proto-MAGA hick like Kevin Federline.
Fast-forward to 2021 and we like to think we’ve moved beyond shame. We even sometimes use the word “shameless” as a wry compliment, evidence of our pluralistic willingness to tolerate deviant behavior. Yet out of that void of manners has come a morality all its own, centered on that very same idea of tolerance, with fundamentalists on hand to shame anyone who strays outside its bounds. This new shaming is focused less on conduct than on opinions. It’s carried out not in the town square or the gossip periodicals, but on Twitter, where mobs are ever on patrol for those in need of a good ostracizing. It imagines itself in the tradition of the Athenian peasant, slagging off the powerful in the name of the little guy. Yet it deceives itself: It is the powerful; even big business trembles before its judgments.
The latest target of such shaming is Gina Carano, the former MMA fighter and co-star of the show The Mandalorian. Carano didn’t shave her head—that would have been fine—but she did do something even more outré, namely questioning the effectiveness of masks and positing the existence of voter fraud, among other high crimes and misdemeanors. Because this goes against what all upright people are now supposed to think, Carano was subjected to a vitriolic social media shaming. She was called not just wrong but a bad actress, a moron, a racist, a transphobe; #CancelGinaCarano began trending on Twitter. Disney, a deeply evil and stupid corporation greedily running into the ground everything it touches from the Magic Kingdom to Star Wars, which also happens to distribute The Mandalorian, promptly caved. Carano was sacked.
Spears and Carano were shamed for different reasons, one for her personal behavior gone public, the other for her politics. But beneath the two incidents lies a common denominator, that need to assert moral superiority over another. This isn’t to bemoan Carano’s supposed victimhood—she’s going to be fine. It also isn’t to claim that only woke leftists shame—the right does it, too (though not as often, and its relative lack of cultural power makes it less effective). It’s simply to point out that what we once did to Britney we’ve in essence done again, slow-walking Carano down the street while the townsfolk jeer and throw cabbage.
The good news about shame is that its haze of unreason can dissipate rather quickly. It took only four years after the Salem witch trials for a dozen of its former jurors to sign a declaration of regret. It took only 13 years after the Spears ordeal for American pop culture to take a hard look at itself. Will Carano one day merit a similar revision? After the passions of the present culture war have cooled? The line on Spears is that society attacked her because she was a strong and successful woman; that certainly applies to MMA fighter Carano. Yet even if we do revisit Carano’s treatment, it may be that by then we’ve only moved on to shaming someone else. Once we shamed Spears out of sexism; now we shame anyone whom we arbitrarily deem to be a sexist. The criteria shift, but the bloodthirst remains the same.
That’s the thing about shame: It’s easy. The reason “The Lottery”—the short story on which that South Park episode is based—is so chilling is the same reason that all of Shirley Jackson’s fiction is chilling: the intermingling of the horrible with the mundane. The titular lottery, the selection of a human sacrifice, is done annually and is thus routine; one old-timer proudly announces that this is his seventy-seventh time. The townspeople chatter with each other while those who lead the ceremony fumble through various rules. Even after the victim is selected, ending her life only means lobbing a few stones. Likewise, there is a yawning disconnect between how simple it is to send a hateful tweet—or snap a photo or vote for an ostracism—and the profound disruption it can cause the victim in real life.
In the end, it’s all a bit pathetic, really. We shame not just because we’re human but because it’s one of the laziest forms of catharsis we have.
I’ve covered all but two of the Arnold Classics over the past decade, and in each successive year, one fitness equipment brand name has loomed ever larger: Rogue Fitness. I was there in 2017 when Rogue rolled out one of the craziest contraptions in recent history, the “Wheel of Pain,” a faux-medieval torture device the king-sized competitors in the annual strongman competition were required to push in a circle. The device was massive, a brutalist-inspired fitness equipment tour de force, an item so expensive, so awesome-looking and impractical, that no gym could contain it. Rogue, this monstrosity seemingly announced, wasn’t here to take part; they were here to take over.
And they have indeed. The fitness equipment industry saw impressive growth in 2020 due to pandemic-necessitated home gyms. Need to buy a ready-made CrossFit “box” that won’t be tied up by supply chain issues with Chinese factories? Rogue manufactures and sells those box setups and is back to shipping them in three to five days. Need a “Westside Barbell” licensed bench press, made in conjunction with one of the country’s best powerlifting gyms? Rogue makes and sells those in Columbus, Ohio, too.
Rogue’s real power play was in converting profits from physical assets into IP assets: They trademarked the term “Strongman” as it applied to their barbells, sleds, grip training tools, sandbags, and other equipment.
In other words, the company trademarked a term—strongman—that had been sitting there in the public domain for years, a term attached to hundreds of products made by dozens of companies, including some homemade and handmade specialty sets, all competing to be at the top of Google searches for terms like “strongman stone” and “strongman log.”
Let me disclose right away: Rogue makes good products. Most of my basement gym consists of Rogue equipment, from the Thompson Fat Pad bench to the trap bar to the squat rack. But the real strongman community, having watched as Rogue used its clout to squeeze out other producers of CrossFit and powerlifting equipment, have been sounding alarm bells.
Kalle Beck, who runs the popular “Starting Strongman” group on Facebook, reached out to Rogue CEO Bill Henniger. While conceding that Henninger could conceivably buy the entire sport of strongman as easily as he bought this heretofore-unclaimed trademark, Beck demanded to know what his intentions were. “I see the concern and don’t want it to be one,” Henniger wrote back. “Any threat [of using the trademark that way] was killed so that the community doesn’t have to worry about it.”
Calum Liptrot, co-founder of Rogue’s much smaller competitor Cerberus Fitness, isn’t persuaded by Henniger’s reassurance. “Rogue has already maxed out the value of a saturated market for CrossFit and powerlifting products,” he says. “And now, it could be argued that they’re trying to buy the entire sport of strongman, up to its showcase ‘World’s Strongest Man’ television event. Their trademark is limited to equipment, but there’s nothing to stop them from going ahead and taking the next steps, literally taking over the entire field. Imagine the NFL owned exclusively by Nike.”
In other words, while we fitness enthusiasts were oohing and aahing over the “Wheel of Pain,” a Microsoft-sized monopoly was growing behind the scenes.
Rogue is reinvesting the proceeds of its fitness takeover by making beautifully shot Netflix documentaries about stone lifting and strongmen, sponsoring athletes like Game of Thrones star Hafthór Björnsson, and—perhaps more significantly for competing equipment companies—gobbling up design patents that allow them to go to court to stop the manufacture of heretofore run-of-the-mill products now deemed too similar to their own.
“This is a very big deal for consumers,” says economist and business analyst Ben Labe. “There’s a tremendous amount of consolidation in the fitness world, from Instagram influencers to equipment companies to supplement manufacturers. Fitness is more visible because of these stakeholders, who are relying on ‘extremely online’ marketing strategies to get their brand names out there, but the result is that nearly all the profits are flowing up to the 1 percent of brands in that market. And as these brands accumulate more money, they can do the economically rational thing by spending money to stifle choice and competition, which is what buying all these patents and all this IP is really about.”
“Meanwhile, what does the mainstream media do?” Labe continues. “Magazines like Popular Science write articles about the supposedly amazing science behind Rogue’s fairly standard deadlift bar, and nobody questions their shady business practices.”
In 2008, jump-rope champion Molly Metz got a firsthand taste of this cutthroat marketplace. She had patented her speed rope and became alarmed when she saw Rogue starting to advertise a seemingly equivalent speed rope via its social media and YouTube accounts. When confronted, Henniger said, “We are not in the business of violating patents and if there is a patent issue we will certainly address it.”
Metz, hardly a deep pocket like Rogue, responded by suing the company. That litigation remains ongoing. While it continues, Rogue has been aggressively attempting to enforce its own patents. “Rogue sent our U.S. distributor a cease-and-desist letter when we attempted to distribute our Throwing Sandbags,” says Liptrot. “They had obtained a ‘utility’ patent for a cylindrical sandbag from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and our bags were also cylindrical, so that was that. Their patent likely wouldn’t have been granted in Europe, where we’re based, but a threatening letter from a lawyer was enough to shut down the sale of these items in the U.S. before we even launched them.”
“This is business 101. It’s a lot cheaper to lock down a relatively small market than to keep innovating products to try to expand it,” explains Labe. “I’m not saying Rogue isn’t making a quality product, because I’m not qualified to judge that. But I do think it’s smart, if not particularly ethical, to try to buy up the entire field. If you look at their first big expansion, they cut deals with all these CrossFit athletes. That sport was really growing in the early 2010s. Then they seemed to partner up with the handful of players in powerlifting. Now there’s the field of strongman competitors. They’ve got a chance to really consolidate their gains in the field.”
Chris Duffin, a mechanical engineer who also happens to be a world record holder in various iterations of the squat and deadlift, says that Rogue’s preeminence pushed him and his Oregon-based company Kabuki Strength towards greater innovation and flexibility. Kabuki, like Rogue, saw increased business during the pandemic as sales of home gym equipment skyrocketed, more than offsetting purchases previously made by locked-down or closing public gyms. “Putting aside whether other manufacturers are making quality products—many are, especially if they’re handling the manufacturing domestically—there has not been much honest-to-goodness progression in the way barbells in particular are made, and that’s our mission,” Duffin tells me.
For Duffin, who came out of the engineering management world, the process has been a simple one, given his understanding of both design and IP: He invents new barbell variations, then patents and trademarks them. “The way to compete is by creating products that accomplish things the barbell, which has been fundamentally the same since the early 1900s, does not do,” he says. “That led to our creation of a new safety squat bar, our ‘transformer bar,’ with settings that could switch the lifter into either the front or the back squat positions, as opposed to the conventional safety squat bar, which forces everyone to perform a front squat. And our ‘Duffalo bar,’ the other core product we slowly built our company around, is properly cambered so that it sinks into the back of someone who has been performing the back squat on a conventional barbell and experiencing shoulder pain, as I had been.”
From these two products, as well as the first adjustable trap bar for deadlifting that allows lifters to employ different grips, Duffin built Kabuki from a company with $2 million in sales in 2017 to $20 million in 2020. The company is still a far cry from Rogue’s 600 employees and $160 million in annual revenue, but, more importantly to Duffin, they’re an active player in the game. “Rogue has its core competency, manufacturing conventional equipment, and we have ours, which is carefully launching useful new products,” he says. “Find your mission, find the community you serve, and expand in that space. Rogue has made smart decisions within their very large lane.”
Liptrot concedes that Rogue has made some shrewd business moves, but he worries about its long-term effects on the sport. “I quit a good-paying IT job to help launch Cerberus,” he says. “My goal wasn’t to get rich. It was to provide gear that supports this community. Cerberus has helped sponsor athletes and donated equipment to strongman competitions, but I never foresaw a world of these enormous prizes for strongman victories. Strongman was a hobby; it wasn’t something where you eked out narrow wins over and over again in this kind of mercenary, professionalized way each year because it was your full-time job.”
“Now, though, to even get your lifting gear approved by a major powerlifting body, you’ve got to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars. Multi-millionaire Mark Bell, whose Sling Shot brand dominates the powerlifting apparel space, can just step in and buy rules changes that allow folks to use his gears. Rogue is even richer and can simply buy entire sports if they’d like.”
Longtime strongman competitor Vanessa Adams believes that Cerberus, at least in her opinion, sells the right stuff. “They make better equipment than Rogue at a better price point, and Rogue went after them when their sandbags were used to great effect in a competition,” she tells me. “It’s not a ‘Strongman’ sandbag unless Rogue sells it, even though people like me have been calling various types of equipment used in strongman competitions ‘strongman’ for our entire lives. These aren’t newly engineered products like that Kabuki ‘Duffalo’ bar. They’re just variations on things that anyone should have a reasonable claim to be able to make.”
Labe takes a long view of these market shifts. “Whenever some kind of fad goes mainstream, the initial flurry of excitement is followed by people commodifying the heck out of whatever products are created. What may have begun as an underground thing—some activity undertaken only by a few oddballs and outsiders—is suddenly mass-produced, effectively marketed and put in the hands of the many,” she says. “A couple key players carve up the market, and the rest of us wonder about what might have been.”
To Chris Duffin, who grew up homeless in the Oregon woods at the mercy of pot-growing hippie parents who moved frequently to stay one step ahead of the law, the threat is less concerning. “I’ve worked with Rogue on distribution and can continue working with them,” he says. “If you’re the only company that can manufacture your specific products and have taken all the right steps to protect that manufacturing process, you’re in a privileged place. If you’re upset that you can’t make or sell a generic sandbag, devise a better one and then take steps to protect its production process and market it accordingly. This was never an innovative field, and there’s lots of room for more innovation.”
And so, to keep the economic “Wheel of Pain” turning in spite of Rogue’s seemingly immovable market-leading inertia, it must be propelled by fitness entrepreneurs who possess the innovative equipment designs and marketplace discipline to ensure it remains in motion.
Oliver Bateman is co-host of the ‘What’s Left?’ podcast.
This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.
If the nation’s nurses had the same devotion to duty displayed by unionized teachers, the COVID death toll might be twice what it is. The virus crisis has exposed our teachers’ unions for what they are. The United States is far behind almost every other advanced country in returning its children to in-person learning. This presents a political opportunity for serious education reform that is not to be missed.
The public can now be made to understand the consequences of our destructive education regime. Some 90 percent of college graduates are excluded from the teaching force by absurd education course requirements. There is no discretion at the building level to hire and fire, or to open schools. A single salary schedule creates artificial shortages of teachers in math, science, and special education. And since the use of computers and distance learning was discouraged by state rules and union contracts, schools were left unprepared for the virus crisis.
The public-school establishment and the Biden administration are begging for federal financial relief for computers, ventilation systems, and the like. The urgency of these demands is exaggerated, but any money provided should be doled out over a period of years. Since new money will be involved, the Supreme Court’s Sebelius decision imposes no barriers to attaching new conditions to this new aid. Therefore, four conditions are appropriate:
The total effect of these reforms is to break the educationist monopoly in our public schools, frequently composed of the weakest graduates of our weakest colleges. The experience of Great Britain, all the Australian states, and New Zealand in the 1980s suggest that the more drastic reforms outlined above are feasible. Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan made fitful and foredoomed efforts at certification and single-salary reform by offering states discretionary grants, but those efforts were abandoned as soon as he was gone. If, as is likely, the Biden administration resists these reforms, it is at least time to start making them a public and widely discussed issue.
Vouchers and charter schools involve only tinkering around the edges. What is needed is a regime that makes every school a charter school, and gives every school the administrative advantages of private schools. The credibility of Randi Weingarten—the president of the American Federation of Teachers—and her cohorts has never been lower. The time to strike is now.
George Liebmann is president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, and the author of numerous works on law and public policy, most recently Vox Clamantis In Deserto: An Iconoclast Looks At Four Failed Administrations (2021).
No one has been quite as titularly ubiquitous in the Anglophone world as the Sweet Swan of Avon. There’s Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian fantasy Brave New World (title taken from The Tempest); there’s Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 black comedy To Be or Not to Be (title taken from Hamlet); from 1991, there’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Hamlet again); there’s the 1998 film What Dreams May Come (Hamlet yet again). And, setting titles aside, while we’re on the subject of Hamlet’s shadow one might mention the prominent role played by Ophelia in Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” as she perhaps does again a decade later in The Band’s eponymous song. (It’s debatable.)
But, like the old saw about the sound of the tree falling in the forest, what happens if you make a reference and no one gets it? The centuries-long system of cultural interchange, the erudite economy of the res publica litterarum in which the Bard is the common coin of barter, becomes dead, defunct, kaput. Don a suit of sables; the rest is silence.
Scratch that. There will still be words, words, words—but with less and less matter. Unworthy takes, one might say.
Laboring much to forget our learning, we are now in just such a period of severe cultural amnesia. Though the prognosis for a culture that has been so sick of late appears to have a better-than-even chance of being terminal, from time to time we can console ourselves with gallows humor. After all, if nothing else is permanent, the gallows is; its frame outlives a thousand tenants.
Not many days ago, in the course of the dreary quotidian proceedings of our dreary Office of the Revels (I mean Twitter, of course), there occurred an incident of dreary tragical-comical burlesque, illustrative of our sorry state. I refer to the dust-up over Ted Cruz’s allusion to Macbeth during Congress’s impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. According to Sen. Cruz, the trial was “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Unworthy takes ensued.
First, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell pounced. Believing she was like an eagle in a dove-cote set to flutter Cruz’s Republicans, she tweeted: “@SenTedCruz says #ImpeachmentTrial is like Shakespeare full of sound and fury signifying nothing. No, that’s Faulkner.” But it appears that she had got her Williams confused. To her credit, she promptly acknowledged her mistake.
But alone she did not do it. Jennifer Rubin’s intrepid heart was made too great for what contains it, and so she triumphantly bit her thumb and added: “and it says volumes about his lack of soul. That’s Any Thinking Person.” I confess that I haven’t any idea what the quotation says about Sen. Cruz’s soul, nor what the last part of Rubin’s tweet means at all, nor why it is expressed with Trumpian capitalization. I cannot ravel all this matter out. It doesn’t scan. But let be.
For a brief moment, everyone thought they were having a laugh. The joke, however, was on them—and on all of us.
And what’s the joke? The cultural IQ of the United States, and our entire collapsing educational edifice. E.D. Hirsch noted the problem when he first published The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy over three decades ago. Mitchell and Rubin both attended institutions of the most elite kind: Penn and Berkeley, respectively. (The former also educated Donald Trump.) But that was then, and things have gotten worse. At present, many people with college degrees are as little likely to know who Faulkner is as Shakespeare.
A survey of the landscape should cause our whole republic to be contracted in one brow of woe. Our ignorance contains legions, and its causes are many, from the technocratic (education is merely vocational training, designed to help the customer get a job and enter the “workforce”) to the ideological (progressive crusaders who want to dismantle all of Western Civilization, including the phrase “Western Civilization,” as a “white supremacist” scam; witness the farcical debacle over the Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1619 Project). When it’s not doing those things (or, better, while it is doing those things), its main purpose at the most competitive institutions is to provide credentialing and status-maintenance for D.C. circuit riders. The dismal state of American education combines with a general existential triviality among the commentariat to yield prominent pundits with a cultural frame of reference that extends no further than Harry Potter and The Handmaid’s Tale.
What is to be done? The 1776 Commission recently came in for much censure from the class of the Professionally Concerned, but its motives were comprehensible enough. Something is clearly rotten in the state of U.S. education, and the rot extends far beyond American civics. Perhaps the best reason to criticize 1776 is that it doesn’t go back far enough. We may need a 1564 Commission as well.
It is far past time for the American people to cease treating higher education as summer re-education camp for those who can’t, or won’t, learn a useful trade. It is unjust to students, and it is dangerous to society. For all the rocks the educational establishment hurls at alternative options like charters, those are the sectors to which we may look for some relief from our stultifying ignorant conformity. All signs indicate that the system will collapse under its own weight in the next few decades in any case; but there must be something to put in its place when it does. That is, in fact, why the rocks are hurled: the alternatives will attract, and the establishment will be out of work.
Jennifer Rubin’s Twitter handle says “America is Back.” That may be true (I have my doubts), but one thing is certain: American cultural literacy isn’t. For those who would like to see its return, now is the time to plan—and to work—for what comes next. What’s past is prologue, and all that. We’ve slept well. It’s time to awake.
Otherwise, it’s just tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeping along to a dusty cultural death. But take heart: the whole thing will be live-tweeted.
E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.
The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia, by Madawi Al-Rasheed, (Oxford University Press: January 2021), 312 pages.
The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has engaged in several years of intensifying domestic repression and destructive recklessness abroad. In order to bolster his international standing and consolidate his power, he has also presented himself as a champion of social and economic reform.
Thanks in part to credulous Western admirers, the crown prince was for a time able to crack down brutally on domestic critics and potential rivals without alienating foreign businesses and governments. But his increasingly repressive de facto rule has spurred many Saudi citizens to flee into exile, where the growing diaspora speaks out against him and the abuses of the Saudi government. Thus, the crown prince’s repressive tactics have ultimately come back to bite him with his international supporters, and now Saudi Arabia finds itself more vulnerable to outside pressure and criticism than it has been for many years.
Madawi Al-Rasheed’s The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia is an excellent new account of these recent developments. Al-Rasheed recounts the experience of many members of this diaspora and places their opposition to the Saudi regime in the context of the history of the ruling family and the country. The book is an important witness to the crown prince’s thuggish abuses, and it provides a window into Saudi society and the diverse group of Saudi exiles that has spread out around the world to escape this government. Her account is also a scathing indictment of the Saudi regime under its current leadership, and she doesn’t hold back from offering withering criticism of the crown prince’s demagogic new nationalism and his use of sectarianism to promote the war on Yemen.
As more Saudis go into exile, the Saudi regime has become more intent on tracking, harassing, and attacking its own citizens abroad. The most famous example of this was the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. Because of Khashoggi’s longstanding ties with the royal family and his past role as a defender of Saudi government policies, his murder was intended to signal to exiles that the regime would come after anyone, no matter how well-known that person might be. If the goal was to reduce outside criticism of the regime, however, we have to conclude that this plan blew up in the crown prince’s face just like everything else he has done. It was the murder of Khashoggi that forced most of the crown prince’s cheerleaders to silence themselves, and the outrage over that killing drove many fence-sitting politicians in Congress into the camp opposing the Saudi-led war on Yemen. The backlash to the murder has spurred further mobilization of activists. We can see that in the continued work of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the organization that Khashoggi established.
Like many other hybrid and authoritarian regimes around the world, the Saudi regime has been tightening its grip on political dissent and activism in the last decade. The regime has also promoted a new Saudi nationalism to mask the country’s religious and tribal divisions and to remake the country’s identity as it sees fit. Promoting nationalist sentiment has proved useful as a pretext for cracking down on dissent, and it is also used to bolster the crown prince’s domestic standing. In the context of Mohammed bin Salman’s destructive foreign policy, it has functioned as a means of rallying popular support behind attacking Yemen.
Al-Rasheed discusses the new Saudi nationalism at great length. She questions whether it can even really be called nationalism, because it is driven by the crown prince’s need to shore up his position:
The trend that many media reporters and analysts are referring to as a new Saudi nationalism may not be nationalism after all. What we are witnessing in Saudi Arabia is the systematic and aggressive efforts of a prince who was elevated to the highest position in the state, with no history of experience in government and at the expense of other more senior princes, to consolidate his power. A true nationalist movement would require more than rhetoric, thuggery, murder and readily available treason charges against critics.
Al-Rasheed draws a picture of a fairly brittle nationalist veneer, which the crown prince is using to conceal the internal problems of the country. She notes that the crown prince’s nationalist project is so anchored in the Najd region that it may lead to more instability, by provoking the creation of “counter-regional nationalisms” from other parts of the country. It is an open question whether the new nationalism will have staying power over the longer term, or if it will succumb to challenges from older claims of religious and tribal identity.
As Al-Rasheed shows, the Saudi regime also uses explicit sectarian appeals to justify the war in Yemen. She observes that the government still uses Wahhabism when it finds it convenient:
Today, the Wahhabi tradition exists in a contentious relationship with power. It is neither abandoned completely nor wholeheartedly endorsed. It is still invoked in specific contexts, for example the 2015 war on Yemen, in which Saudi-Wahhabi rhetoric resurfaced as a tool to demonize Zaydi Yemenis, or to mobilize Saudis against Shia activism and their alleged Iranian backers.
While Mohammed bin Salman played the moderate for Tom Friedman and feigned ignorance about what Wahhabism is in interviews with Western media, his government deliberately employs Wahhabist rhetoric as part of its wartime propaganda. With very few exceptions, the Saudi government’s use of sectarianism in selling the war has gone largely unnoticed in the West, just as the Saudi coalition’s war crimes in Yemen went unnoticed for such a long time. That is, until they became impossible to ignore.
Many in Western media, governments, and businesses uncritically embraced Mohammed bin Salman for years and helped to whitewash and cover up his power grabs and abuses of power. The crown prince’s apologists not only accepted that he was the visionary reformer that he claimed to be, but they refused to pay attention to the significant and growing body of evidence that contradicted this. When he locked up hundreds of princes and businessmen in the Ritz Carlton in 2017 in a shady shakedown, they were quick to vouch for the so-called “anti-corruption” campaign. While Saudi coalition jets slaughtered Yemeni civilians, they changed the subject to a potential IPO for Aramco.
The credulity and indulgence of Western audiences were important assets for the crown prince as he set out to consolidate power, and he was able to rely on prominent pundits and politicians to make excuses for him to the rest of the world. It didn’t matter how many scholars and critics his government locked up or how many religious minorities it executed on trumped-up charges as long as there was the promise of a “new” Saudi Arabia on the horizon. The fact that the Saudi government’s behavior at home and in the region was becoming objectively worse didn’t concern his Western fans, who had already bought into the model of the autocratic reformer. As Al-Rasheed puts it:
The so-called reforms of Muhammad bin Salman were accompanied by one of the worst and most brutal waves of domestic repression and by an erratic regional policy. His apologists in the West were driven by profit, the prospect of free access to the country and the prince, or by real financial rewards.
The embarrassing celebrations of the crown prince in the U.S. in particular should be a cautionary tale for the future. When there is a broad consensus among pundits and politicians that a foreign leader is a great “reformer” who will liberalize his country, we should be very wary of joining in the applause. Instead, we should look closely at the record of what that leader actually does. It is almost always the case that the feted would-be “reformer” is telling Western investors and analysts what they want to hear in exchange for glowing reviews of the new leadership. American observers seem particularly susceptible to falling for this trick, and that may help explain why our government so often throws its support behind the wrong people.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship is not the main topic of Al-Rasheed’s book, but our reassessment of the relationship should be informed by her analysis. If Mohammed bin Salman is likely to be king of Saudi Arabia for many decades to come, the U.S. needs to limit its exposure to his repressive and reckless behavior by reducing support for the Saudi government. The U.S. should be distancing itself as much as possible from this brittle regime before it embroils us in any more conflicts or implicates us in any more crimes.
Tomorrow the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, by Stephen Wertheim, (Belknap Press: October 2020), 272 pages.
Probably the most profound geopolitical development of the Twentieth Century was the rise of America as the world’s preeminent power during and after World War II. We’re still living in what Henry Luce called the American Century some eighty years after the publisher proclaimed its inception. Historians have put forth various interpretations for how and why this happened: that America was always an irrepressible nation whose expansionist impulses presaged its hegemonic ambitions; that with all of its resources and power, the country had no choice but to embrace the challenge of global stability.
Now Stephen Wertheim, of the Quincy Institute and Columbia University, propounds a provocative new thesis: that the hegemonic temptation was the product of a coterie of strategic planners from the American foreign policy elite who crafted the notion and sold it to the country by distorting America’s distinct and “foundational” philosophy of internationalism.
There’s some excellent history here as Wertheim traces the perceptions and recommendations of prominent thinkers struggling to keep up with a world in flux. No sooner would they craft a grand strategy for the future they foresaw than the perceived future would be washed away by powerful new developments. Ultimately they concluded that their options narrowed to a single vision: world primacy. “Six years after global supremacy was all but inconceivable,” writes Wertheim, “it was now indisputable.”
Wertheim goes awry a bit, though, in tracing the broad sweep of U.S. international relations from George Washington to Franklin Roosevelt. His interpretation elides significant elements of that rich story while interpreting others in questionable ways.
In Werthheim’s view, America was born as an internationalist nation, “promising and incarnating a world governed by reason and rules, not force and whim.” George Washington’s famous farewell call for America to avoid “entangling alliances” was actually a broader admonition against engaging in any form of power politics in the world. That concept, “premised on the ability of peaceful interaction to replace clashing politics,” became a central element of the American ethos.
Ultimately it found expression in the Wilsonian enthusiasm that emerged most powerfully during World War I, when intellectuals and politicians (led by Wilson himself) formulated the concept of eliminating war through disarmament, marshalled of antiwar public opinion, and created global organizations such as Wilson’s cherished League of Nations. Peaceful discourse and adjudication of transnational disputes would replace nationalist impulses and balance-of-power maneuvering, and the world would bathe in comity and peace.
As Wertheim tells it, this was America’s fundamental foreign policy outlook throughout its first century and a half, right up to Wilson’s decision to take America into World War I alongside the Allies.
But wasn’t that decision a violation of Washington’s farewell warning? No, writes Wertheim, because Wilson’s League was designed to “transform the balance of power into a ‘community of power’ in which ‘all unite to act in the same sense and with the same purpose.”’ Wertheim explains that, under the Wilson plan, the United States would “Americanize Europe” by creating a universal alliance with American participation. This would be a “disentangling alliance” that would “forever end the capacity of European alliances to ensnare the United States.”
The key here is that the increasingly powerful U.S. would not seek “to counterbalance or dominate any rival but instead to render counterbalancing and domination obsolete.” America would be the progenitor of endless peace.
Of course America declined to join Wilson’s League and rejected his broader vision, whether entangling or disentangling. The country entered what most historians have considered an “isolationist” phase (a term that Wertheim abhors, as we will see).
Then came World War II in Europe, which set American planners to the task of developing a grand strategy for what seemed like a new global order. When Hitler conquered France and unleashed his bold effort to destroy Britain’s defensive air power so he could invade, the planners promptly grappled with the American response to a Europe fully dominated by Nazi Germany. Perhaps America could confine its sphere of influence and central trading zone to the Western Hemisphere, including Greenland and Canada and encompassing all or most of South America. It didn’t take long to see, however, that such a zone would hardly sustain the U.S. economy.
Even adding a vast section of Asia, perhaps including a powerful and aggressive Japan (a daunting diplomatic challenge), wouldn’t solve the economic problem while also posing new geopolitical difficulties. The planners seemed stymied.
After Hitler failed to gain dominance over British skies, thus ending any immediate prospect of an invasion and seemingly preserving the British Empire, a new concept emerged: combine the Western Hemisphere with the Pacific basin and the British Empire into a vast area encompassing nearly all of the non-German world. As Wertheim puts it, “Finally, after months of study, the planners had discovered that if German domination of Europe endured, the United States had to dominate almost everywhere else.” This “everywhere else” became known as the Grand Area, and it was based on the imperative that Germany must be confined to continental Europe and that only American leadership could ensure the success of that enterprise.
This dealt a fearsome blow to what Wertheim considered America’s foundational internationalism, the Wilsonian concept of peaceful dispute adjudication. He writes: “Out of the death of internationalism as contemporaries had known it, and the faltering of British hegemony, U.S. global supremacy was born.” But it still had to be sold to the American people, and that led to two new developments. First, partisans of hegemony demonized opposition thinkers as “isolationists,” a new term of opprobrium designed to put naysayers on their heels. “By developing the pejorative concept of isolationism,” writes Werthheim, “and applying it to all advocates of limits on military intervention, American officials and intellectuals found a way to make global supremacy sound unimpeachable.”
They also conceived the idea of a United Nations to gather other states into the fold and thus “convince the American public that U.S. leadership would be inclusive, rule bound, and worthy of support.” In other words, it was a ruse to help the elites supplant the old notion of placid internationalism with armed supremacy.
Thus do we see, in Wertheim’s telling, how a small group of wayward intellectuals, back in the chaos years of World War II, hijacked the country’s intrinsic internationalist philosophy and reshaped it into something else entirely, inconsistent with traditional Americanism, namely a credo of power politics and global supremacy.
No doubt many opponents of the foreign policy aggressiveness of today’s Republican neocons and Democratic humanitarian interventionists will embrace Wertheim as a sturdy ally in their cause. But they should note that he builds his thesis upon a foundation of dubious history.
George Washington was not a forerunner to Woodrow Wilson, and warning against entangling alliances circa 1797 can’t be logically equated to advocating world government in 1919. Neither can one draw an accurate picture of American foreign policy thinking without noting the force of American nationalism, which played a major role (though of course not the only role) in the formulation of U.S. international relations throughout American history. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago calls it “the most powerful ideology in the modern world.” Wertheim hardly mentions it.
He argues that we shouldn’t consider America’s expansionist zeal under James Polk in the 1840s as representing power politics because, after all, the United States was simply consolidating its position on its own continent while eschewing the acquisition of Cuba or all of Mexico (as opposed to gobbling up merely half of Mexico in an aggressive war). But when in history did a major power, after consolidating its position in its own neighborhood, stop there? Did Rome? Did the Ottomans? Did the British? Neither did America.
Similarly, Wertheim disputes any link to power politics on the part of the United States at the turn of the last century by noting that America “continued to stay politically and militarily apart from the European alliance system while intensifying efforts to transform power politics globally.”
The latter part here is false. America built up its navy just in time to destroy Spain’s Pacific and Atlantic fleets, kick that waning empire out of the Caribbean, free Cuba from Spanish dominion, and take the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. If that wasn’t power politics, the term has no meaning. For that matter, why did the United States annex the globally strategic islands of Hawaii, from which America could project power far into Asia? And why did it build the Panama Canal, which allowed it to concentrate more naval firepower more quickly in more places?
No, America wasn’t born as a benign instrumentality of peace destined to calm the waters of international conflict through means never before seen in any successful guise in the annals of human history. America was born like every other nation, into a world of conflict and danger, buffeted by swirls of power, ambition, and potentially hostile forces. The country proved remarkably adept, like its mother nation, in the arts of self-reliance, self-defense, popular government—and expansionism.
It was therefore natural that when the world turned upside down and power interrelationships got tossed into the air like confetti, those U.S. planners would perceive American power as the greatest hope for stability in the world as well as the greatest hope for U.S. security. For the first 45 years of the new era, the Cold War, America played its role largely with aplomb. Then it went awry when the world changed and the country’s elites could neither see the transformation nor adjust to it.
Wertheim is correct in positing that America’s current foreign policy follies are a product of its leaders’ insistence on clinging to the same ideas that emerged from the minds of those strategic planners back in the 1940s. But in his effort to tell the story of how we got here, he gets it only partially right.
Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and CEO of Congressional Quarterly, is the author of biographies of James Polk and William McKinley.
I can forgive Bruce for recycling footage and clothes from his Western Stars movie in that Super Bowl commercial (pulled by Jeep in the wake of a DUI). I’ll give him a pass for the faux accent which no one in New Jersey, or maybe anywhere on earth, actually sounds like. And no worries about whether Bruce sold out or not. Of course he did. He has always made clear (see his autobiography and Broadway show) that he is mostly an actor playing a character called “Bruce Springsteen.”
What I can’t overlook is that Bruce is just wrong. The answer does not lie in Americans reaching the middle, as Bruce sternly instructs in his infomercial, but respecting the end points on either side as valid positions.
Despite all the guff shoveled around the media about Bruce avoiding politics for so long, that has never been the case. Very early in his career Springsteen appeared at the No Nukes concerts—not the “let’s have some nuclear power plants but not too many” concert. His opposition to the Vietnam War grew into opposing America’s jingoistic wars broadly. His stance on economic inequality is the cornerstone of his songbook—think Nebraska and Ghosts of Tom Joad. He supported BLM before it had its own initials; remember American Skin (41 Shots) from 2001?
Bruce has also always been plenty partisan in his politics. He scolded the Reagan administration throughout the entire Born in the USA album. He actively campaigned for four Democratic presidential candidates. He even not-really-joking joked about moving to Australia if Trump was re-elected.
The Boss has never been about seeking the middle, as he says is our goal in the Jeep commercial. He has always picked a side, proudly and clearly. And that is more than okay; it is what America should be about.
The Founders made clearer than a Clarence Clemons sax solo the fact that vigorous debate was critical to their vision of a democracy. They baked that into the Constitution via the First Amendment, ensuring free speech and the right to assemble. And there’s no middle ground there: It says “Congress shall make no law…” and with narrow exceptions the Supreme Court has kept it that way for a couple of hundred years.
The Founders compromised when that seemed the best they could do. But the thrust was never toward a goal of 50-50, some simplistic Springsteenian middle ground rather than the balanced Jeffersonian one. The founding documents gave equal powers to very unequal states. The whole sloppy mess of democracy is full of two-thirds of this and majority that. The largest founding compromise eventually resulted in the Civil War.
When we try to meet in the middle we usually end up with most people unhappy. In Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court tried to hit some theoretical middle in granting nearly unfettered access to abortion in the first trimester, while giving states more room to restrict it in the second and third. The result has been that, from the instant the opinion was issued, one side has demanded even freer access to abortion while the other has resisted at every step. Roe is considered settled law but it is not a settled issue.
Contrast that with the decision by the Supreme Court to allow same-sex marriage. The Court didn’t try to hit some sort of middle. One side of that debate just plain lost, and the country moved on to arguing about baking cakes for the receptions.
Today, in the majority of our red v. blue fights, neither side understands the process. The goal is no longer to debate and resolve and then to move on. Now there is little respect for the other side and no empathy, just contempt and disgust. Their opinion is not only wrong, it is insane, dangerous, a literal threat to our survival as a nation. How many times did we hear about the end of the rule of law, the end of democracy, that the Reichstag was burning during the Trump years?
The goal today is not to beat the other idea on the playing field. It is to cancel the speaker, deplatform him, hunt him down, demonize him, make it so he can’t find a job, burn his books, smite him with Terms of Service, to eliminate his ideas if not the speaker himself. Or maybe the goal is to impeach him as a private citizen, to try to strip away his right to run for future office, perhaps even to force him out of his own house in Mar-a-Lago. The middle ground is a killing field.
We end up believing that accepting the results of an election is optional if our candidate loses. We take “credible accusation” as a new standard, but only of course when it produces our desired results. Doxxing someone online or assaulting him in a restaurant is justified if he commits thoughtcrime. It has gotten to the point where even journalists have joined the scolds and censors to crusade against the First Amendment today in order to silence an opposing view without a thought about what will happen tomorrow to their own ideas when the wind shifts.
So Bruce, would you take another crack at this commercial? You can keep the same B-roll images, even that kinda silly cowboy cosplay outfit (would a 20-year-old you have worn that into a seaside Jersey bar?) but let’s rewrite the script:
We demand diversity now in everything but thought and don’t see the irony. We’re in danger of losing what we strived and fought for: respect for different opinions. Don’t work toward the middle. Who has risked everything for a half-baked compromise? Anyone ever washed a rental car? No, you think hard, and you stake out a position, knowing the other guy is doing the same. Then you talk it out, you argue, you stomp your feet, write editorials, and organize protests. You don’t repress speech you disagree with, you listen to it, then counter its ideas with better ones.
Then you turn it over to the wise tools the Founders granted us. They differ from issue to issue. So an election, or a Senate vote, or a court decision. And then you accept that outcome and you respect those whose ideas didn’t make it. That’s our common ground.
It’s not about trying to all think the same way; it is about grasping for a higher rung because we don’t. We all live in one country and in the end we all want a life where we can care for family, do honest work, and join in this prayer for our freedom. The messy, awkward, slow way forward is well-marked for us.
Also, please buy this car. Patty’s getting on me to put in a new pool at the house before spring.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.
The post The Only Middle Worth Finding Means Picking a Side appeared first on The American Conservative.
As political scientists, pundits, and historians try to make sense of the November 2020 election, a marriage divide in the electorate has emerged. Married Americans were appreciably more likely to vote for Trump than those who were either unmarried and cohabiting or single. As reported last week in TAC, Peyton Roth and W. Bradford Wilcox recently found that marriage was one of the strongest predictors of Republican voting in 2020. But such a discovery does not mean that married Americans are solely extreme Trump supporters, are ideologically monolithic, or have negative Trumpian views about the nation’s future whatsoever.
Specifically, Roth and Wilcox found that “states with a higher share of married adults cast a greater share of their vote for President Trump in 2020 compared to states with a lower share of married adults.” This trend is confirmed in new national data from over 1,400 Americans surveyed in the Los Angeles Times/Reality Check Insights poll (LAT/RCI), which also uncovered a divide in Trump support based on marital status. A support rate not matched by other groups, 45 percent of married Americans voted for Donald Trump. For those who are unmarried and living with a partner, only 20 percent voted for Trump, and just 18 percent of single Americans voted for Trump. Without question, there was a strong relationship between marriage and voting in 2020.
However, the LAT/RCI poll provides more detail as to how marriage appears to impact political outlook. For instance, Americans were asked, regardless of how they voted, if they believed that the new Biden administration will govern for all Americans. While just over half (53 percent) of those who are married think that President Biden will govern for all, the figure jumps to 73 percent for single Americans and 63 percent for unmarried, cohabiting partners. Marriage has clearly influenced views about polarization and partisanship.
When ideology is considered, the new data demonstrate that married Americans are not a monolithic conservative bloc. About a third (32 percent) of married Americans identify as conservative, while almost a quarter (23 percent) identify as liberal, with the plurality (45 percent) moderate or leaners. This is a slight lean to the right, but hardly a lopsided distribution of Americans. Single Americans lean to the left, but this is also not extreme. Only 16 percent of singles are conservative and 32 percent are liberal, but the majority (52 percent) are in the middle. Those who are unmarried but living with a partner look similar to singles, with close to two-fifths on the left (38 percent) and a tenth identifying as conservative (10 percent). But the bulk are again in the middle (52 percent). None of these groups is ideologically homogeneous, or dominated by one side or the other.
Marriage affects other views about American society in very positive ways. Consider “the American Dream”: 87 percent of married Americans believe that they are either living (46 percent) or are on the way to achieving the American Dream (41 percent). These numbers are appreciably higher than their unmarried counterparts. Just 24 percent of singles say they are living the American Dream, and only 19 percent of unmarried, partnered Americans think that they are living the American Dream. Even including respondents who describe themselves as on the way to achieving the American Dream, the numbers are still notably lower for unmarried Americans. Additionally and unsurprisingly, 81 percent of married Americans believe that having a good family life is an essential component of the American Dream compared to 67 percent of single Americans.
One surprising finding in the data is that married Americans are far less concerned with the politics of their neighbors, which seems to cut against the idea that Americans sort into like-minded communities. When asked if it was essential to the community they would most like to live in whether most members shared their political views, just 8 percent of married Americans answered in the affirmative. In contrast, 17 percent of single Americans stated it was essential to be around others who share their views. The figure is essentially the same for unmarried cohabiting couples as well. There are real differences in tolerance of others cut along marriage lines, and marriage appears to have a potent connection to openness toward others.
Finally, while the marriage difference was strong in terms of Trump support, the effect on attitudes toward compromise with others was minor. When respondents were asked if compromise is possible in politics, two-thirds of married Americans (65 percent) said they believe it is, compared to 72 percent of single Americans and 71 percent of the unmarried, living with a partner. These are not huge differences and suggest that while vote choices were different, pragmatism is extremely important to married couples. After all, they should already understand the importance of give and take.
In short, marriage is generally a higher priority for people with a more conservative worldview. Married Americans were appreciably more likely to vote for Donald Trump in 2020 compared to single Americans, but married Americans are not a single bloc of conservatives. Before they attack the institution of marriage or vilify married couples for being supporters of the GOP, progressives should note that the married are open to compromise and are generally very optimistic about the country’s future. If the Biden administration and liberals in power want to truly unify the nation, they must understand the views of married Americans and work with them to implement family-friendly policy.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“I, for one, welcome our new Tanashin overlords.”
That isn’t a line from an ’80s Japan-panic flick. It’s a (slightly adapted) post at Tapeheads, an online forum for cassette tape enthusiasts.
Tanashin is a Japanese audio hardware company. Since the mid-80s, it has produced mechanisms—the assembly which transports, plays, and records the tape—for budget boomboxes, portable cassette recorders, and other low-cost devices. In those days, home hi-fi decks boasted much higher-quality playback and recording, with technology that, at its pinnacle, could rival the sound quality of the CD. Tanashin’s equipment never did, and was not intended to. The Tanashin mechanism was produced until 2009, and it has become infamous among the small but dedicated cassette-audiophile community for its ubiquity and relatively low performance specs.
In our globalized economy, the most interesting period in the life of a product may not be when it’s invented, or when it enjoys mainstream popularity, but rather when it’s dead—or clinging to life.
I confirmed with Tanashin, as did a writer in 2019 for the retro-technology fan magazine Kilobyte, that the company has indeed discontinued cassette mechanisms. Their final cassette-related product appears to have been players for automobiles. Incidentally, the last automobile to offer a cassette option was the 2010 Lexus SC 430. Almost certainly, it sported the final genuine Tanashin assembly. The company also noted in Kilobyte that it has never licensed its designs to other manufacturers.
But today, a decade after its Lexus swan song, the “Tanashin mechanism” lives on in the form of Chinese-made clones—unauthorized, but not illegal, given the expiration of patents—which are believed to be the last cassette tape mechanisms produced anywhere on the planet. Virtually any cassette-playing machine being made today (and there are still a fair number of them) uses one of these, from a Walkman clone you can buy in Target to a professional stereo deck that retails for $500. Those who still love the cassette format are not pleased with this state of affairs.
How did cheap clones of the Tanashin mechanism outlive a once-mighty home audio industry, and come to be the final available option for anybody attempting to manufacture a simple cassette tape player today? As strange a tale as it seems, there’s a clear logic to it.
As the cassette format began its decline in the early 1990s, the highest-quality and most expensive products disappeared first. Japanese audio icon Nakamichi, widely credited with producing the best-sounding home cassette decks ever made, exited the market around this time, and, flailing in the digital era, was bought out in 1998 by a Chinese holding company. More mainstream companies like Sony, Technics (a Panasonic imprint), and Pioneer slowly cheapened and shrunk their cassette-based offerings, until, by the late 1990s or early 2000s, they were selling off their last ones. (I recall, in a 2005 visit to Best Buy, seeing a very cheap $30 VCR, stacked up perfunctorily amid the DVD players. Cassette decks died in much the same way.)
One Tapeheads contributor notes that while vinyl and turntables remained diminished but alive over the decades—meaning that lots of factory equipment and accumulated know-how remained—cassettes fell off a cliff. Vital intellectual property around the technicalities of cassette-deck manufacturing was discarded or forgotten. Companies folded or decisively moved on. The industrial ecosystem in which exemplary equipment could be made evaporated. And it’s virtually impossible to bring that back, especially with only a small hobbyist market remaining today.
Tanashin, on the other hand, continued to produce low-cost mechanisms for basic devices, even as the broader industry collapsed around them. And they held out long enough for the Chinese clones of their product to see the cassette tape revival, such as it is.
There are several lessons here. The most politically salient is that in manufacturing, as in cooking, it is possible to “lose the recipe.” And with an accelerating pace of technological progress, it is possible to lose it in an alarmingly short span of time. This is perhaps the strongest argument for some form of industrial policy or trade protection: the recognition that the national value of manufacturing often lies not so much in the end product itself, but in the accumulated knowledge that goes into it, and the possibility of old processes and knowledge sparking new innovation. Of course, innovation is itself what killed the high-end cassette player. But many otherwise viable industries have struggled under the free-trade regime.
It’s easy to view today’s cassette players, cut off from most of the history of cassette-related manufacturing, as nothing more than low-end stragglers. Nearly every dying technology sees a burst of last-gasp innovation alongside a final liquidation of cheap models. But what’s going on here is a little wonkier and maybe indicative of something emergent.
The modern global manufacturing process, anchored in China’s Guangdong province, takes hold of dead technologies and reanimates them in a cheap but serviceable manner. It is thus possible to continue producing the same thing, or the same type of thing, long after mainstream manufacturers have vacated a shrinking market. Most of the cassette players being made today are not produced by an actual company, but rather ordered to spec, assembled mostly out of off-the-shelf parts, and slapped with a brand name (look up “Reka” or “Riptunes”). There’s something democratic about it: low-cost manufacturing on demand. There’s also something almost spooky about this. And, of course, related to the question of trade protection, southern China’s mighty yet nimble industrial ecosystem looks more than a little like the one we used to have. It’s enough to make one wistful.
The ecosystems that produce and sustain modern consumer products feel irreducibly complex. The nitty-gritty of modern manufacturing brings to mind the libertarian scripture “I, Pencil,” a broadside against central planning. As an essay, “I, Pencil” is prescriptive, suggesting that only a free market guided by the “invisible hand” can produce even something as seemingly simple as a pencil. But it is also descriptive. There is indeed something, again, spooky about the complexity of the global economy, of long supply chains, of curious, obsolete, low-cost consumer goods assembled from dozens of parts from dozens of countries. This should inspire a certain humility in economic policymakers. But it might also inspire nostalgia for bygone simplicity. This is all a world away from the simple “production” of the farmer, mason, or woodworker.
Of course, you can’t talk about players without talking about tapes. They’re still made as well, though in much-diminished quantity and quality. Most familiar tapes, such as Maxells or TDKs, are thought to be new shells and cases filled with new-old-stock tape from the old days. But a couple of upstart manufacturers have jumped back into the market.
One, the U.S.-based National Audio Company, recently purchased a “62-foot tape-coating line weighing 20 tons.” A final bit of complexity and spookiness: That tape-coating line began life decades ago making audio cassettes, was then workshopped into making credit card stripes, and then, as credit cards began to shed their stripes, was purchased by NAC and restored to its original tape-making function. The tapes resulting from this labor of love, however, are not considered particularly good.
As with the playback equipment, many tape recipes have been lost. A piece of inexpensive consumer-grade technology, so recently manufactured cheaply and at scale, is proving difficult to reinvent. This may all amount to an interesting story about a nostalgia-inducing product. But it also illustrates the workings of the economy the world has built—or, perhaps more accurately, that nobody in particular has built. No man can make a pencil. And, it turns out, no man can make a cassette player either.
Newly installed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin addressed veteran participation in the Capitol riots of January 6 in remarks late last week. Citing a report of an Air Force veteran in possession of zip-ties with which to allegedly restrain or capture members of Congress, as well as other mentions of veteran involvement in the riots, Austin ordered something active and former military members have become all too familiar with: a “stand down.”
Over the next 60 days the military will address “extremism” in the ranks. Austin had also touched on the issue during his confirmation hearings, saying he would “rid our ranks of racists and extremists” and create a “working environment free of hate, discrimination, and harassment.” Calling the problem “not insignificant,” the then nominee failed to quantify any further or give specifics on just how he would address the problem.
The problem with this approach, mandating a stand down with vague specifics, is that it has become the knee-jerk reaction model for any problem or incident in the ranks, with only varying degrees of success. While some required programs and safety training have saved lives, the stand down has become a “one size fits all” tool that highlights a dangerous trend now common in the military: accepting mission failure as long as the required boxes are checked. The frequency of these training events squanders incredible amounts of time, the military’s most valuable resource.
A stand down is, generally speaking, a tactical pause in current training operations or exercises in response to an accident or a spike in misconduct, either on or off base. The format of the stand down is fairly straightforward. Members of the unit or outside civilian experts present material on the particular issue in a classroom-type setting. The day-to-day military operations of the unit cease and all focus is re-directed toward the stand down. Rather than fly their aircraft or go to the rifle range, service members jam into on-base theaters or auditoriums for the day.
Secretary Austin’s stand down hasn’t been the only effort to address the alleged “extremism problem.” The Marine Corps issued a MARADMIN on January 12 to “restate the law and regulations governing prohibited protest activities.” The Inspector General’s office wasn’t far behind, releasing its own memorandum on January 14 that sought to evaluate the DoD’s efforts to identify and address “ideological extremism within the U.S. Armed Forces.”
Stand-down orders can be prompted by any number of things. Last October, following two naval aviation mishaps, one of which resulted in fatalities, the Navy ordered a one-day stand down to “improve operational risk management and risk mitigation.” Sometimes these pauses are planned months in advance to coincide with summer outdoor activities or travel during the holiday season. Prior to Memorial Day each year the “101 Days of Summer” briefs are held covering topics like heat related injuries, boating safety, swimming safety, firework and grill precautions, and sunburn.
These planned and unplanned stand downs are in addition to yearly training requirements that have accumulated over the last few decades. A non-exhaustive list includes the Sexual Assault Prevention Program, cyber awareness training, suicide prevention, risk management, Anti-Terrorism training, and the violence prevention program. The amount of time invested in these monotonous programs year in and year out finally garnered the attention of the brass when then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis ordered a review of mandatory training in 2017 in response to complaints from the troops. Unfortunately, nothing changed.
The rationale for this training is understandable: to increase safety and effectiveness of the force, both on and off duty. Take motorcycle accidents for example. In 2008, motorcycle accidents were killing more Marines than enemy fire in Iraq. Young veterans, fresh from surviving combat in the Middle East, were coming home feeling invincible. Paired with a lack of training and an aggressive attitude, the results were all too predictable. The service then instituted mandatory basic and advanced rider courses as well as safety gear for any Marine to be legally allowed to ride. The accident rate dropped dramatically. This was a success story. One great thing the aviation community does is have “lessons learned” training sessions, reviewing in detail the causal factors in mishaps and close calls to better educate aircrew.
However, after many years this response method has degenerated into a blunt tool that serves no purpose other than good, old-fashioned “CYA.” Take for instance the above-mentioned Violence Prevention Program. This training was instituted in response to the mass shooting at Fort Hood in 2009. Thing is, that shooting was a terrorist attack, not someone “going postal.” (The shooter, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan shouted “Allahu akbar” as he opened fire). Somehow this led to an hour-long, yearly training computer module that defined the extreme risk category for violence as those who “exhibit a fascination with weapons or destructive power that is out of the ordinary.” Hopefully those who volunteered to fire machine guns and Hellfire missiles exhibit this tendency. After all, the military is supposed to be about applying violence.
This type of training doesn’t stop bad apples from doing bad things. In 2013 there was a murder-suicide at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. Several generals who were part of the investigation disagreed about culpability and whether any more measures could have been taken to prevent the tragedy. Nevertheless, the commanding officer of the base, Col. Kris Stillings, a highly respected leader, was relieved of his post. In a written statement Stillings was blunt, and completely correct. “For once, why don’t we call it what it is,” he wrote. “A young Marine murdered two people and killed himself. He is responsible.”
Sometimes this training, like the stand down ordered by Secretary Austin, comes from Congress or DoD leadership. In 2017, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) publicly flogged then-Marine Commandant General Robert Neller over a nude photo sharing scandal. Within a few days, military lawyers were giving briefs about what punishments Uncle Sam could throw at you for engaging in such behavior, Marines had to sign a form acknowledging their understanding, and the beaten commandant went on a speaking tour with all units across the Corps.
Veterans will attest that the most important feature of this training and the stand down is the roster. Some Marines would even joke that once you signed the roster you could duck out of the training and no one would care. Logging and recording these exercises has become the most important step in the process. This documentation then becomes the de facto legal evidence to exonerate command when transgressions occur. The executive officer of this writer’s last unit once joked that when a Marine is injured in a motorcycle accident the first thing higher command asks is not “Is he okay?”, but instead, “Was he current on his required motorcycle training and certifications?” Comedy aside, his point wasn’t exactly sarcastic; it was honest.
Part of the reason the military fell so in love with these methods is its mission-driven ethos. It sounds so great on paper to quantify progress and maintain a repeatable training schedule. But as noted above, if the process has devolved into just pencil-whipping rosters while basic military readiness lags or trends fail to improve, does it really matter if all the boxes are checked? This has become a serious issue across all the branches: acceptance of failure despite “mission success” on paper.
Since Secretary Austin left goals and execution up to his subordinates, this latest stand down will almost certainly follow the same script as every other one. Overpaid civilian contractors and experts will present fancy Powerpoint slides supplied by the ADL’s hate symbol encyclopedia. The troops will mindlessly click through some computer-based training as quickly as possible. Unit leadership will create 100 percent accountability participation rosters that will be promptly forwarded to higher command. And Austin will receive them and nod approvingly while maybe giving a press conference on the issue. The corporate media will gush with praise for these efforts to end white supremacy, etc., all the while ignoring American missiles and bombs that continue to incinerate non-white people all across the world.
Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.
Americans have been shocked by how teachers unions have blocked school re-openings in many states despite the disastrous learning lag during this pandemic. In Montgomery County, Maryland, unreliable “distance learning” produced a more than 500 percent increase in the number of black and Hispanic students failing classes. McKinsey consultants estimate that, if the shutdown continues to the end of this school year, “students of color could be six to 12 months behind [due to lost learning], compared with four to eight months for white students.” But teachers unions are claiming that, unlike the vast majority of other American workers, their members are entitled to risk-free environments.
Unions have vilified any politician or parent who has sought to re-open schools. The Chicago Teachers Union proclaimed: “The push to reopen schools is based in sexism, racism, and misogyny.” Joe Biden owes his election victory in part to the teachers unions, and last week, the White House rejected the recommendation to re-open schools from Biden’s appointee as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky. And on Friday, the CDC issued new guidance for school safety during the pandemic. As National Public Radio observed, “Rather than a political push to reopen schools, the update is a measured, data-driven effort to expand on old recommendations.” One of the clearest lessons of this pandemic is that politicians will always be able to find data to justify whatever restrictions or delays they favor. With or without the CDC recommendations, “honesty in shutdowns” remains as unlikely as #ZeroCovid. Reason magazine’s Matt Welch predicts that “CDC’s new ‘reopening’ guidance will keep schools closed in the Fall.” During the presidential campaign, Biden pledged to re-open schools within 100 days of taking office. But now Biden is betraying that promise. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week that the Biden goal of reopening the schools within 100 days will be satisfied if 50 percent of schools are open “at least one day a week.”
The behavior of teachers unions during this pandemic confirms the nickname that Forbes magazine gave the NEA in the 1990s: “The National Extortion Association.” This latest betrayal of American students is no surprise, considering the unions’ long history of sabotaging learning. Since the 1970s, the National Education Association has been the leading advocate of “no-fault” teaching: whatever happens, don’t blame the teacher. Unions have launched strikes to prevent “parental interference” in public education. The Chicago Tribune concluded in 1988 that the Chicago Teachers Association has “as much control over operations of the public schools as the Chicago Board of Education” and “more control than is available to principals, parents, taxpayers, and voters.” The Tribune noted that “even curriculum matters, such as the program for teaching children to read, are written into the [union] contract, requiring the board to bring any proposed changes to the bargaining table.”
Teachers unions have worked to destroy local control of education, subvert standards, prevent teacher accountability, and deny parents a significant voice in their children’s education. In the late 1970s, the NEA denounced back-to-basics as “irrelevant and reactionary.” An NEA publication asserted that such reforms were orchestrated by the “neo-conservative New Right, a mixture of taxpayer groups, fundamentalists, and a few unreconstructed racists.” The same publication denounced minimum competency testing for students because it supposedly “sacrificed children who are black and poor on the altar of accountability.” As Richard Mitchell noted in his 1981 classic, The Graves of Academe, the NEA has helped debase American public schools because its members “wanted to be not teachers but preachers, and prophets too, charging themselves with the cure of the soul of democracy and the raising up in the faith of true believers.” For decades, the NEA pushed to have “social studies” replace history, government, and other classes. The result: American students are appallingly ignorant of the Constitution, American history, and American culture.
Teachers unions increasingly look like conspiracies to protect incompetent teachers and impoverish local taxpayers. Teachers unions are especially powerful in inner cities, where teacher pay is often highest and teacher performance is usually the worst. As far back as 1974, Mario Fantini noted in his book What’s Best for Children, “For many black and Puerto Rican parents, the teachers unions now represent the ‘enemy.’” A 1992 Detroit Free Press investigation entitled “Shielding Bad Teachers” found that it takes a Michigan school district seven years and costs an average of $100,000 to fire a single incompetent public school teacher. Seven years is over half of the schooling time of the average pupil. The Free Press concluded, “No protections are built in for the state’s 1.5 million public school students, who can suffer physical, sexual or educational abuse.” Thanks in large part to NEA priorities, by 1980 the average time spent studying traditional subjects in high school was less than three hours a day. A vast increase in government spending for schools has failed to undo the damage to students’ reading ability.
The clout of the teachers unions has become far more perilous during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have perennially behaved as if they were entitled to waste kids’ time, and now teacher unions feel entitled to practically waste a year of children’s lives. When lockdowns were first being imposed in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proclaimed a standard that guided many policymakers: “If everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.” Teachers unions have rallied around a similar motto: “If one teacher dies, isn’t that too many?” But like most union-backed policies, this ignores the collateral damage on American children. A Journal of the American Medical Association analysis concluded that shutting down the schools would reduce the current crop of students’ collective years of life by more than five million, based on “lower income, reduced educational attainment, and worse health outcomes.”
Private schools have safely re-opened in many cities and states where government schools remain padlocked. As Wall Street Journal editorial writer Bill McGurn wrote recently, “Catholic schools prove you can keep classrooms open while keeping Covid-19 at bay, which gave teachers unions another reason to resent them. The good news is that Covid-19 has heightened awareness that too many kids are held in education limbo by public-school systems that cannot put their students first because they are hostage to the unions.” Tom Carroll, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, observed, “The science is clear that there is no substitute for in-person learning, especially for poor and minority children most at danger of falling behind.”
School systems are finally responding to outraged parents, but with sham school re-openings. After Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan ordered all of the state’s school systems to start in-person classes by March 1, the Montgomery County school system pretended to comply. Similar to the response in school systems in the Virginia suburbs, Montgomery will hire “classroom monitors” to oversee students sitting in desks while teachers remain absent from the classroom. A Maryland parents’ organization bitterly complained: “Staring at a Chromebook while your teacher teaches on a screen is not in-person instruction, and it is frankly unacceptable. It is clear [the school system] does not want to embrace a true return to schools.” One Montgomery County mother of two students groused that the new system “sounds like glorified babysitting.”
Chicago is suffering similar shenanigans. The city sought to placate teacher unions by spending “$100 million on personal protective equipment, disinfectants, ventilation improvements, and portable air purifiers.” But then the teachers union announced that they could not return to work until all school employees were vaccinated. Mayor Lori Lightfoot groused that the teachers union leadership “left us with a big bag of nothing.”
President Biden endlessly appeals for “unity” while he sacrifices the interests of millions of children to his political supporters. CNN anchor Jake Tapper commented last week on Twitter, “I’ve yet to see any evidence the Biden administration disagrees with teachers unions. Even when THEIR OWN health officials are saying something different.” Biden’s tacit support of school shutdowns promises that in the coming years his administration will sacrifice children in other ways to placate teachers unions. America will see a new “achievement gap” between privately educated students and those whose brains were offered up on the altar of teacher union power.
One of the clearest lessons of the COVID pandemic is that public employee unions cannot be trusted with children’s minds. Parents and politicians should speedily move to maximize the number of students who can exploit vouchers to escape public schools and to repudiate laws and labor agreements that are helping blight a rising generation. If politicians continue kowtowing to unions, parents must make their wrath felt or forfeit their children’s future.
Conservatives over the years have created a cottage industry dedicated to monitoring media bias at places like the New York Times. The formula is simple: Find some former liberal journalist who has repented of his ways (or at least a right-wing activist who knows his way around the press); create a blog or TV segment with a catchy name (*TimesWatch*); begin rooting through articles and transcripts for subtle examples of left-wing slant; slap them up on the screen; voila, instant outrage.
It’s a fun beat, one I once worked myself, though I do worry about its future. Because at least with the Times, there is no need for a middleman anymore. America’s paper of record has become patently and painfully ridiculous. No longer a rich if distinctly Manhattan chronicle of news, the Times today looks more like a Soviet satellite state written as farce, with woke purges and thoughtcrime convictions set to calliope music.
The latest example of this comes amid a controversy surrounding seasoned Times science reporter Donald McNeil, Jr. Back in 2019, McNeil represented the Times on a high school trip to Peru, where he was asked by one of the students whether a classmate should have been suspended for using the N-word in a video when she was 12. In answering the question, McNeil himself uttered the slur. He also reportedly challenged other woke shibboleths, such as that cultural appropriation is harmful. Parents promptly complained and Times editor Dean Baquet stepped in to investigate. He found that McNeil’s “remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” McNeil got off with a warning.
That is, until the rent-a-mob that the Times charitably calls “newsroom staff” got wind of what had happened. Out of the howling nether-regions of a Slack group chat came a furious letter signed by more than 150 Times employees that upbraided Baquet for being too lenient with McNeil. The signatories professed to be “deeply disturbed” by the paper’s response and to feel “disrespected” by McNeil. They then coughed up what may be the best description of postmodern American philosophic life that I’ve yet seen: “what matters is how an act makes the victims feel.” So said Socrates to Glaucon. Baquet quickly abandoned his deeply unreasonable position that decades of quality reporting ought to outweigh a single episode of insensitivity. McNeil was forced out. His witch trial is scheduled for next month.
Slurs have apparently become a real challenge for the Gray Lady as of late. Over now to Taylor Lorenz, the Times‘s culture reporter and glittering comet of Manhattan preciousness, who recently accused entrepreneur Marc Andreessen of using what she prudishly referred to as “the r-slur.” There was just one problem: Not only did Andreessen never use that word, the person who did say it, during a conversation on the social media app Clubhouse, was quoting the Reddit users behind the recent GameStop chaos, who referred to themselves as “the R-word revolution.” When this bit of context came to light, Lorenz deleted her tweet. She has yet to apologize to Andreessen, though she did find time to tweet praise for a “vegan burger from @gayburgerco” (the existence of which I personally find far more offensive than the R-word).
Then there’s the one and only Nikole Hannah-Jones. The Times‘ mastermind behind the 1619 Project was recently contacted by Washington Free Beacon reporter Aaron Sibarium, who politely asked about the drama over McNeil and her own use of the N-word in tweets. Hannah-Jones’s response was to dox Sibarium by tweeting out a picture of his email, which included his phone number. She later deleted the tweet in the dead of night—she has experience with this sort of thing—and a Times spokeswoman told the Free Beacon that the phone number had been posted inadvertently. Except that Hannah-Jones had already acknowledged the doxxing on Twitter after one of her sycophants had commented on it. (Doxxing Free Beacon reporters seems to be de rigueur in the legacy media these days. CNN contributor Asha Rangappa did the same thing to journalist Alex Nester last year.)
Such is the mantra at the new woke Times: compulsory empathy for abstract victim groups, self-satisfied viciousness towards those perceived of running afoul of them. And these are just examples from the past week. Flip back the calendar to 2020 and you find the Times sacking its editorial page editor because he dared to run a controversial op-ed by a Republican senator. You find columnist Bari Weiss quitting after she was harassed by far-left newsroom bullies on Slack and labeled a Nazi and a racist. You find a self-parodying essay by a media columnist repenting for the crime of having once liked Andrew Sullivan. You find an apparent faction within the newsroom that’s less interested in reporting on the world in all its variety than in pummeling anyone who doesn’t measure up to its uniform pencil mark on the wall.
I say all this not because I hate the Times; just the opposite. I still read it every morning, glutton for punishment that I am, grumbling and swearing my way through the front page. For all its silliness and slant, the Times at its best still provides something essential: authentic and wide-ranging journalism in an era when other newspapers are either shutting down or larding up with clickbait and ads. Its world section is the best around. Even its politics section often outscoops the competition without ever turning into a Politico-style innuendo machine. The Times‘s coverage of the Capitol riot and its aftermath has mostly struck a fine balance between seeking out the perspective of the rioters while maintaining the objective horror of that day. And some of its investigative journalism has been simply unforgettable—a detailed report into Iraq’s corrupt government, for example, and a profile of post-Freddie Gray Baltimore.
These are the kinds of pieces that make anyone who’s ever been a journalist ask “how?” As in: How did they penetrate that deep into the Iraqi state? How did they cohere and distill an American city so effectively? That kind of access and ability can seem to those of us on the outside like a dark art, and it’s become all too rare in journalism today, less profitable than quick write-ups of whatever is trending on CrowdTangle. This is why it’s in everyone’s interest that the Times not fall to the woke. Because the internal conflict there isn’t just between the old guard and new left. It’s between curiosity and dogma, heterodoxy and orthodoxy, the exhilarating truth and boring ideology. It’s between “a liberal is someone who can’t take his own side in an argument” and those who don’t even think there should be an argument in the first place.
That first approach might result in bias. Any conservative will tell you as much. But it’s still valuable and a hell of a lot better than the alternative.
Real Philosophy for Real People: Tools for Truthful Living, by Fr. Robert McTeigue, S.J. (Ignatius: 2020), 300 pages.
To reason, said American writer and satirist Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary, is “to weigh probabilities in the scales of desire.” Often I sense the truth of that definition when I read the Washington Post delivered each morning to my front door. One perceives the careful, calculated attempts at logic and consistency by the paper’s established commentators. But step back and evaluate the premises—especially of a broad sample of a writer’s corpus of opinions—and the wider incoherence driven by desire becomes more manifest.
For example, take Monica Hesse, WaPo’s first “gender columnist.” A quick glance through her pieces’ titles—including “Joe Biden should appoint women to half his Cabinet posts. That’s not just fair, it’s smart” and “Trumpist masculinity reaches its high water mark”—offers sufficient insight into the themes that define her literary imagination. Here’s my attempt: Celebrate the feminine (unless it’s someone like Melania Trump or Amy Coney Barrett), criticize the masculine (unless it’s someone like Joe Biden), and level generic opprobrium at conservatives, their values, and their politics.
Yet even with this simple editorial gameplan, the rational incoherence soon rears its ugly head. Hesse promotes any and every policy or cultural trend she assesses will further the cause of female rights and equality…and yet has offered carte blanche support for a transgender movement that is already undermining women’s athletics. She skewers pro-life activist Abby Johnson for sharing the gruesome details of abortion procedures… and then writes eloquently of the sorrows that accompanied her own multiple miscarriages, including the feeling of loss when the ultrasound revealed no heartbeat. Loss of what, exactly? And how, one wonders, does Hesse define the life inside a woman’s womb, a being whose heartbeat can be detected as early as six weeks, when many legal abortions occur?
Of course, this kind of incoherence isn’t unique among WaPo writers, nor unique in comparison to any other U.S. newspaper, nor even necessarily unique to liberals in comparison to conservatives. How about a rowdy crowd of pro-Trump supporters who deride Biden for refusing to stand up for law and order…and then overrun a federal facility, cause thousands of dollars in damage, and threaten Capitol police? Or Mitch McConnell’s flexibility on when nominees for the highest court can be evaluated by the Senate? (Though as a conservative and a fan of Amy Coney Barrrett, I’m not complaining about the result.)
Are Americans all just a bunch of hypocrites? Well… yes. This is a fallen world, after all. But the pervasive incoherence found in many of the most prominent topics of national debate — gender, sex, race—perhaps reflects something besides simply a moral failing. Rather, it evinces an inability to recognize how the arguments underlying our beliefs stem from certain philosophical commitments that are often in tension, if not outright contradiction, with one another.
This problem is one of those tackled by radio host and lecturer Robert McTeigue, S.J. in his book Real Philosophy for Real People: Tools for Truthful Living. He suggests we suffer from two dilemmas. Not only do we find it difficult to talk with our neighbors (who often subscribe to an entirely different conception of truth and the good), but we even find it difficult to articulate our own conception of such things. As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues, it is emotivism—not coherent, rational logic—that pervades our social and political institutions, and modernity and postmodernity have, in effect, left us up an epistemological creek without a paddle. This is compounded by the fact that most Americans lack the “time, energy, ability, or inclination” to sort through the many “competing voices, ideologies, or enthusiasms” found in the diversity of our media sources.
McTeigue offers three fundamental habits that those seeking clarification to our age of disorientation and distemper must acquire. The first is the habit of solertia, or prudence, which enables us to “avoid being unwittingly poisoned, infected, or assassinated by bad ideas and dishonest claims.” The second is memoria, which is the habit of drawing upon the past—both our own and that of our forebears—for warnings, examples, aspirations, and exhortations. Finally, docilitas is the practice of being humble and open-minded, eager in pursuing the truth, and willing to learn.
The book also presents what McTeigue calls “thinking in four directions,” meaning that when evaluating truth claims one must consider the antecedents (if the claim is true, what makes it true?), supports (what supports the claim?), consequences (if this is true, what logically follows?), and objections (what are the opposing viewpoints?). And he describes what he calls an “ethical wedding cake,” in which one’s metaphysics (one’s understanding of the real) informs one’s anthropology (one’s understanding of the nature of the human person), which informs one’s ethics (the “oughts” and “ought nots” of human behavior).
In perhaps the meatiest section of the book, McTeigue explains how different philosophical systems, or worldviews, address eight basic questions. These include: (1) what’s really real; (2) what is the nature of external reality, (3) what is the nature of human persons; (4) what happens after death; (5) how it’s possible to know anything at all; (6) how we know right from wrong; (7) the meaning of history; and (8) what personal core commitments are consistent with the worldview. He then explains how some of the most dominant worldviews of our day—such as theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, and existentialism—answer those fundamental questions. Digesting this intellectual framework enables a prudential observer to swiftly and adeptly analyze the kinds of arguments presented to them every day in the public square.
Unfortunately, all this is complicated by the fact that few people operate consistently and coherently within a single worldview—many glide carelessly between arguments that make sense only in a theistic worldview, and others that correspond only to a materialist one. For example, many of the most controversial issues of contemporary politics rest upon conceptions of justice that only make sense given certain metaphysical truths. Whether one is talking about promoting gender equality or opposing racism, such arguments rely upon certain conceptions of fairness and sameness that apply only if individual persons have an inherent dignity that a naturalistic or nihilistic worldview simply cannot provide. If we have no dignity stemming from a transcendent origin and telos, there is no basis for people having “rights” to anything. We are simply random collections of cells that evolved to become superior to other species. And those of us who are more superior than others of the same species—say by virtue of mental acuity, physical strength, or inherited wealth—have no reason besides some temporary personal gain (note: utilitarianism) to do anything for anyone.
Yet we see human rights proclaimed in the same breath as materialist assertions that race, sex, or gender are the most essential qualities of the human person. Those of us who see the contradictions, inconsistencies, and reductionism may point these out all day, but it’s rare to discover someone willing or even able to listen. In our postmodern world, coherency doesn’t even matter, except when reference to it can be exploited for political gain. We beg, borrow, and steal from the premises of whatever worldview will get us to our desired end-state. This could represent a cynical co-opting or hijacking of those ideas that further own ideological commitments, but it could also mean we are all to various degrees ignorant of the garbled character and content of our own mental processes.
America, we have often been told, is a melting pot (or salad bowl) of every culture and people on the planet. Yet that metaphor applies just as much to our own intellectual climate. I like to think that the former application has been mostly for America’s good, making our nation more dynamic, complex, and self-sustaining. Yet the latter has facilitated the broken socio-political reality we now begrudgingly inhabit. I know the tools Fr. McTeigue presents to help us navigate these rough waters will do those yearning for intellectual coherence much good. Unfortunately for many other Americans, I don’t think they even perceive the problem. Their reasoning, as Ambrose Bierce observed, is too infected with desire.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.
“One must imagine Sisyphus, after centuries of rolling a giant stone, absolutely ripped.” So says essayist, lifting buddy, and friend, Joseph M. Keegin. “Bodily exercise profits a little.” That’s St. Paul, reminding us he knew how to talk to the men of Athens. And, “use it or lose it,” is my Dad, at least for me.
Amidst the piles of half-read books, unfinished essays, and stupid tweets, lifting weights keeps me sane, keeps me quite literally grounded, reminding the space between my ears that it is indeed part of a body. It can do the same for you. COVID gym closures last spring were a blow, but I rolled with it by keeping the moss off a big stone I found in the yard. Now I understand poor Sisyphus. It’s hard, in the age of lockdowns and Netflix, but one must imagine oneself absolutely ripped, too. You have promise for this life, and for the next; live up to it. Fortune’s wheel has turned, if slowly, and I got better equipment (a sandbag for a while), and now at last have found a gym I like.
I’m one of those people with a hat-stretching head, vaguely suggestive of television actors or a cartoon character. What’s all in there I’ve never been sure—stuffing, I expect. My options were always either to get big or look like an enormous toddler. Like many other boys, I tried the Chesterton route in middle school, but dignified girth is something one must age into: first youthful feats of strength, then years of fine food and even finer drink. If you are going to “let yourself go,” there need be an ascendant self from which to decline. Besides, there are girls.
So, there I was, a high school student in the piano room before breakfast with my marathon-running father’s unused dumbbells, the father whom I’d outweighed for three years already, whose atrophied triceps and anterior deltoids had given up immediately that time he joined me in doing a dip on bars at the park. I didn’t play competitive sports, just the annual season of recreational soccer. I spent most of my after-school activities time as an actor, in school plays and community theatre. “High School Musical” had made it acceptable for jocks to be thespians, but I was thinking about the reverse and—grown on Homer and Henty and illustrated guides to world special forces—wondered if the athletic field might not be nobler than the stage. Fortunately a growth spurt helped along those lackadaisical and ill-equipped early years.
College was better. There was better equipment, more knowledgeable friends, but too much beer. After graduating, in my early professional years I kept it up, but mostly out of vanity, so I could manage the rigors of the D.C. cocktail hour regime. It’s a lot of wine and cheese, so almost like the Mediterranean diet, only relentless. There were years of lifting to eat, not eating to lift, years of foolishly thinking curls were for girls when, as Camille Paglia can tell you, it is men with an Apollonian and perfectionist sense for aesthetics, not women: bi(cep)s are for guys.
The D.C. conservative scene is a veritable cornucopia of pear-shaped men. Here are the supposed intellectual elite of the American right—men who know their C.S. Lewis and are, ostensibly, fighting the abolition of men and manliness—without chests to speak of. The chest was Lewis’s metonym for thumos, Plato’s “spiritedness.” Spiritedness guards the intellect as it seeks to transform appetite into philosophic eros, the hunger that draws the great-souled upward to the truth. Thumos, chest, mediates between the head and stomach. A lot of things fell into place with the heavy lift of graduate school. I’m grateful for what my teachers taught me in the classroom, but maybe just as valuable a part of my M.A. was what I learned beforehand in the gym, the discipline of mind and body, the pursuit of excellence, the virtue of self-mastery.
The other great pleasure in the flesh’s submission to the rule of steel—itself a rebellion against Weber’s iron cage—is what people call “broscience.” Or, as we would have said before the post-war technological elite that sent men to the Moon became the decadent priests of scientism, just plain old science. An educated guess, experiment, theory, more experiments, always questioning, always seeking, hungry for knowledge, hungry for gains—it’s the gym-bro way. It conquered the planet, it conquered gravity, it can conquer your fat, lazy [posterior].
The self-shaping shamanism of broscience ranges all along the line from animal to barbarian to civilized man. On the banal, fully mainstream, acculturated end of that spectrum are things like “bulletproof” coffee and creatine supplementation, modes of self-medicating mentioned on Joe Rogan’s podcast long ago. In the middle are practices such as raw-egg slonking a la Rocky Balboa, eggs in dozens, the pursuit of maximum dietary cholesterol and saturated fat for maximum hormone production. (Testosterone is in decline. Your boys can’t swim. And your grandpa’s grip is still stronger than yours, and he’ll be dead soon.) Fully uncivilized, actually illegal, totally feral, are things like microdosing meth—only whispered secret assistants to the better-known assortment of steroids associated with competitive bodybuilding and elite sports. I choose the centaur Chiron’s middle way, half man, half beast, merely an egg slonker.
All this experimental energy comes from the fact that though you can perhaps be a Cartesian dualist in the gym (I doubt), separating spiritual and material realities, you cannot be a gnostic. There is no room for Manichaeism in the gymnasium; matter and spirit must be brought together, one is not good and the other evil. Lifting, like combat sports, is civilized man’s temporary escape from technological society, and his training to be of use to civilization. Straining under a weight is, after warfare, which I know only from stories, the closest a man gets to the sheer embodiedness of a woman’s everyday existence. She has periods, pregnancy, and childbirth to make her animal self inescapable. I, merely a man, worry about soiling myself in a heavy squat.
The great active man of American life and letters was Theodore Roosevelt. Biography and hagiography meet in the remembrance that as a child he was as frail as he would later be robust. His lifelong, successful quest for vitality sprang from an exhortation by his father: “You have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body.” Theodore resolved to make his body. My own father’s “use it or lose it” is not as elegant, but it led me here.
We know a lot more on February 12 than on January 6.
First, it is clear that the assault on the Capitol has become the most damaging event of Donald Trump’s political career. Combined with forfeiting the Senate in the January run-off elections, the lethal storming of the federal legislature by Trump’s most unscrupulous and foolhardy supporters the next day has now overshadowed a surprisingly strong performance for then-President Trump and the GOP last fall, in a year where everything went wrong.
Trump could have conceivably held himself out as the strongest Republican in the country, in cruise control for the 2024 presidential nomination, a budding oligarch with the loyalty of a vast following and a stable of proteges, including several members of his own family. Even his vainglorious attempts to overturn the 2020 election with constant insinuations—nay, declarations—of voter fraud could have been overlooked as the culmination of a years-long Republican whisper campaign on the subject.
But once there were deaths—and images of national humiliation broadcast all over the world—that all changed. To perhaps put it lightly, January 6 raised painful questions for the conservative, nationalist, and populist movements that supported Trump’s ascent as to what manner of man had occupied the Oval Office for four years.
I was in Florida earlier this month. It’s a state with residents like Matt Gaetz, Tucker Carlson, Ron DeSantis, Marco Rubio, and Rick Scott (all 2024 prospects), which is to say it has become something of Republican headquarters in exile. Even among some of Trump’s most stalwart, elite backers, there was speculation that the big man had finally hung it up. Deplatformed, he left office with a near-60 percent disapproval rating.
Trump has been radio silent since departing Washington last month, with exactly zero public addresses or official utterances. His progeny and kin may carry on his legacy, or at least his brand, with former White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump mulling a Senate bid in Florida (where else?) and daughter-in-law and budding Fox News presence Lara Trump weighing one in North Carolina.
Trump did not follow the recommendation of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, whom Trump spared from a potential stint in federal prison in his final days in power, that Trump make a big show of his second impeachment trial. “Trump returns. Trump goes to the Capitol, to the well of the Senate to face his accusers and the jury. And he throws down hard,” Bannon told the website Revolver News earlier this month. It may have seemed ludicrous legal counsel, but such an appearance would have been vintage Trump, reclaiming the limelight. It didn’t happen. Trump has said he will not honor the proceedings with an appearance, and as the week closes in Washington, there have been no signs of the 45th president.
The second thing we know is that for how badly—tragically—Trump miscalculated on Jan. 6, his most trenchant critics whiffed politically. When a double-digit number of Republicans voted to impeach Trump (again) in his final days, there was speculation that this could finally be it. Press reports were littered with rumor and innuendo that Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Senate Republican, was in a rage at Trump and was prepared to do the unthinkable—join with Democrats in voting to convict. If so, McConnell could bring over the heart of the Republican Senate caucus, providing enough votes to convict Trump, and next and more importantly, in a chamber where every member sees himself a future president, bar Trump from running in 2024.
It didn’t even get off the ground.
McConnell’s fellow Kentuckian, Sen. Rand Paul, introduced a motion to declare the impeachment trial unconstitutional—a point debated by the legal elite and unsettled by the Supreme Court—because Trump was not in office. Though it did not carry, forty-five Republican senators voted for it. Rep. Jamie Raskin, of Maryland, one of the House impeachment managers, painstakingly made the case this week that the matter of jurisdiction is thus settled. So, Raskin’s message to Republicans is, even if you voted against the trial’s very constitutionality, you can still vote to convict.
On Friday, Politico‘s morning “Playbook” focused on the unlikely externality that McConnell would still do so. The plugged-in conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt told NBC this week he expects none of the 45 to defect; I am told the same. This means Democrats are likely 13 votes shy. If so, the questions get academic: Will Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah vote to convict Trump (again)? Likely. Will Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana join him? Perhaps, but the political ramifications are constrained to his right flank and a potential primary challenge in the Bayou in 2026; he was just re-elected.
This matters for those, such as Rep. Liz Cheney, who took the gamble to convict and make a power play within the party. If Trump had actually gone down, the daughter of a notorious vice president could have made a conceivable play for Minority Leader—or the speakership, if the Republicans take back power in the House next year. In a world where Trump was truly persona non grata, and no threat to run himself, Cheney could have even have weighed a run for the presidency that eluded her father. Instead, she’s trying to ward off a primary challenge, and failing to elude party censure, in her at-large Wyoming House district. Trumpist stalwarts, such as Rep. Gaetz, have been on the ground trying to pick up an intra-party scalp.
To the critics, reports that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was received with (literal) Republican applause behind closed doors last week, after being kicked off her committees for conspiracy mongering, show a party in a death spiral, in the throes of rank know-nothingism. But I think that misreads the nature of how and why Republicans are dug-in.
Many in the GOP feel the constellation of enemies arrayed against them is unprecedented in American life—corporate America, the military establishment, the academy, social media platforms—and, on that, they’re right. They see the last Oval Office occupant as unfairly undermined with a Russia investigation that produced little in the way of a smoking gun, but ate up the majority of his presidency. They feel they are justified. And they feel they can easily win.
In January, I was in the White House the first time a president of the United States was impeached for a second time. The attitude in the building was basically sanguine, another battle line in the long war, as our current president would say, for the “soul of the nation.”
President Biden’s agenda, if he can be said to properly have one, may well be unpopular. Even if the man himself very much is not. (Very potentially) robbed of the Trumpian scapegoat, Americans will come to face-to-face with the reality of the left flank on which Biden catapulted to power. That is, an administration preoccupied with “equity” over the more traditional “equality.” That is, further COVID-19 lockdowns combined with a lethargic, politicized vaccine rollout. And that is, clear contradictions with Biden’s pledge to be a man of labor.
At a time of near-unanimity for Democratic politics in corporate America, organized labor has apparently taken notice, already slapping down Biden on his environmental program, and drawing the condemnation of Richard Trumka, the president of the storied AFL-CIO. Whether or not you think that gripe is legitimate on a warming planet, Biden failed an early test in keeping his coalition together.
Add into the mix: The logical endpoint of many mainstream Democratic policies is seen to be California, where critics say state failure is commonplace, seen on the streets—or in the schools—of San Francisco, or through the investors fleeing to the more Republican climes of Texas and Florida. Detractors say the hypocrisy in the state’s leadership rivals the house of Bourbon, as shown at the French Laundry in Napa this summer. In what would have sounded lunatic just a year ago, the Golden State’s pedigreed Democratic governor is now fighting off a recall.
After successfully removing him from office, it’s not a mystery why the Democrats don’t mind keeping Trump on the docket.
Before industrialization and zoning first combined them in huge, mass producing concerns and then exiled them to the outskirts of city life, manufacturing often took place in the very shops where the goods were sold. This tradition of artisans making and selling in one place is today maintained the most by jewellers and tailors, with maybe a few cobblers and some woodworking businesses. More recently, brewpubs have joined them.
But a broader return to this tradition could be just the thing for cities suffering from disinvestment and high retail vacancies.
Manufacturing in this country has been a hot-button political issue since before I was born. Every state and most cities have, at one time or another, offered tax breaks, new infrastructure spending, direct subsidies, and a host of support and workforce development programs to convince some conglomerate or multinational to open or relocate a factory. The results have been an abysmal failure: Most companies don’t make decisions about where to build based on tax incentives, and those that do are likely to move on as soon as the incentives run out.
But maybe they were just focusing on the wrong kinds of businesses.
The U.S. government’s definition of “small businesses” varies by industry, but most manufacturing small businesses are those with fewer than 1,250 employees, while the majority of organizations like the American Small Manufacturers Coalition are made up of businesses with at least a few hundred employees—it makes sense, by the time you have the time and the money to join a trade association, that your company has probably reached a certain level.
But manufacturing businesses come in all shapes and sizes, from sole proprietorships to multinationals employing tens of thousands of people around the world. And it’s the smallest ones that are beginning to attract the attention of organizations like the Congress for the New Urbanism and Smart Growth America, as well as the nonprofit Recast City.
While the internet has helped retailers like Amazon grow massively and at the same time left downtowns vacant and malls shuttered, it has also been a boon to very small manufacturers. Internet platforms like Etsy, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo, as well as social media, have created ways for the smallest manufacturers, often individuals working on projects in their free time out of love, to not only sell and market their work, but raise the capital to start full-time businesses. The proliferation of 3D printers has also been aided by the internet, with open-source designs being shared around the world.
As Smart Growth America put it in their report “Made in Place,” “This new face of manufacturing allows many more people to produce and sell their own goods: costs of production are lower, tools are more accessible, space needs are smaller, production runs can be small and on-demand, and sales can start overnight.”
But these businesses face obstacles in the form of zoning codes that restrict them to industrial zones, where spaces are often too large and expensive. Such locations also prevent the business from making in-person retail sales, even where that isn’t outright prohibited by the zoning code. According to the Smart Growth America report, a manufacturer in a storefront space can attract foot-traffic (and sales) simply from the products being made.
In the coming post-COVID economy, cities will likely need to do anything they can to revive their business districts. Passing a zoning ordinance or overlay that will allow small manufacturers to locate in storefronts is potentially risk free and high reward.
Encouraging small manufacturing as part of a city’s economic development strategy could have other important benefits, from creating more local jobs where money stays in the community to helping diversify regional economies and thereby make them more resilient to changing national and global conditions. For example, during the pandemic, several small manufacturing businesses in Massachusetts were able to switch from their normal product runs to making facemasks and shields for healthcare workers and the general public.
Bringing new businesses downtown after the pandemic passes will also help stabilize other downtown sectors, especially restaurants, and may help encourage landlords to rent office space to office-based businesses. All too frequently, retail storefront spaces are taken up by real estate and dental offices that generate little to no foot traffic and keep the windows opaque, helping to deaden the street.
The microbrewery revolution has been enormously successful and offers small manufacturers a path to follow. Many microbrewers started out home brewing for themselves and their friends before expanding into a full brewery. Some of them remain small, producing small batches for which fans wait in line for hours—the Alchemist Brewery in Vermont, or Treehouse in central Massachusetts are examples of that model. Some start brewpubs and some have grown into major national brands, like Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada. The small investment an economic development agency might make to help a microbrewery start, even one that never employs more than 20 people at once, is still arguably doing better than the millions that might be spent to attract an Anheuser-Busch InBev facility.
And perhaps while we’re making our cities better and more resilient places with small manufacturers, they can remind us that the everyday objects in our lives can be beautiful and well-made, instead of cheap and plastic-y—just like we’ve discovered that our beer doesn’t have to be, as the old joke goes, “like making love in a canoe.”
Matthew Robare lives in Boston. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.