Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

They Said It:

The inroads that relativism has made on the American soul are not so easily evident.  One must recently have lived on or close to a college campus to have a vivid intimation of what has happened.  It is there that we see how a number of energetic social innovators, plugging their grand designs, succeeded over the years in capturing the liberal intellectual imagination.  And since ideas rule the world, the ideologues, having won over the intellectual class, simply walked in and started to run things.

Run just about everything.  There never was an age of conformity quite like this one, or a camaraderie quite like the Liberals’.  Drop a little itching powder in Jimmy Wechsler’s bath and before he has scratched himself for the third time, Arthur Schlesinger will have denounced you in a dozen books and speeches, Archibald MacLeish will have written ten heroic cantos about our age of terror, Harper’s will have published them, and everyone in sight will have been nominated for a Freedom Award.  Conservatives in this country — at least those who have not made their peace with the New Deal, and there is serious question whether there are others — are non-licensed nonconformists; and this is dangerous business in a Liberal world . . .

The largest cultural menace in America is the conformity of the intellectual cliques which, in education as well as the arts, are out to impose upon the nation their modish fads and fallacies, and have nearly succeeded in doing so.  In this cultural issue, we are, without reservations, on the side of excellence (rather than “newness”) and of honest intellectual combat (rather than conformity).

William F. Buckley, “Our Mission Statement,” National Review, November 19, 1955.



On the off chance you haven’t been paying attention, the folks in the Democratic Party and in the media are genuinely unhappy about a phenomenon they’ve chosen to call “fake news.”  Everyone from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, from Dan Rather to Brian Williams thinks that fake news constitutes an existential threat to the nation.  Not only did it help to make Donald Trump president-elect, it has divided the nation like never before and even caused some people –stupid, fake-news consuming people – to become a threat to themselves and to their fellow countrymen.  It seems the great and powerful United States of America won’t be brought low by a foreign nation state or non-state terrorist actor; it won’t even be brought low by its own corrupt government and business collusion.  It will, rather, be destroyed by fake news.

Now, we’ll be honest with you.  When we first heard about the plague of fake news and how it caused Trump to win the election, we were conspicuously unsurprised.  After all, we’ve lamented the rise of fake news for years, noting all the while how it confuses and indoctrinates those among us who are poorly educated and easily led.  Moreover, we knew that all of this would someday precipitate a political reaction whereby the electorate cast its ballots in response to the “fake news.”

Honestly, we thought, who didn’t know that the phony, condescending smugness of the Left’s most trusted newsman, the erstwhile comedian Jon Stewart, along with his hordes of imitators and acolytes, would eventually alienate so many normal Americans as to cause a backlash?  This preposterous twit sat in his chair, night after night for years, preaching his brand of “comedic” liberal condescension to his college-age millennial audience and to their self-righteous Gen-X and Boomer forebears, eventually becoming the Left’s “most-trusted” “news” source.  Meanwhile, regular Americans, and especially the conservatives whom Stewart and his ilk mocked constantly and edited deceptively, grew tired of the whole shtick.  We could see then the man and his “news” were having a terribly nasty impact on their audience and that all of this would, in time, affect the political culture more broadly.  Or, as we noted nearly a year-and-a-half ago:

The entertainment colossus has all but taken over the business of politics.  That which once was the province of stuffy intellectuals, egg-head economists, foreign policy gurus, and social scientists, has become a huge dollar business, akin to professional sports and television award shows.

Naturally, the Left was quicker to understand that the public was bored by complex economic and social theories; that emotions were a sine qua non, and these could come in the form of laughter, anger, images, and the creation of myths.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last ten years or so, you probably know that many Millennials – and other assorted leftists – rather proudly proclaim that they learn everything they need to know about politics and culture from a fake news show on a cable comedy network hosted by an aging comic.  As hard as it might be to believe, Jon Stewart, the now-former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” has been one of the most important political and cultural commentators in the country for more than a decade and over the course of the Obama administration especially . . .

This is really how many on the Left think about Jon Stewart.  He is their Walter Cronkite, Lenny Bruce, Edmund Burke, and Oprah all rolled into one.  He told them what was important.  He told them what to believe and what not to believe.  He made them feel better about themselves.  He gave them a worldview (such as it is).  And he did it all while making them laugh.  The only problem for the rest of us is that he did all of this by being . . . well . . . the business end of the alimentary canal.  He worked all of these miracles, fostered all of this engagement, and created this entire political ethos all by making fun of people who thought differently about things than he did.  Sure, he occasionally lampooned his fellow lefties for their own foolishness, but the bulk of his commentary (if that’s what you call it) and all of his rage was reserved for anyone who dared to question the wholesale validity of the liberal dream world.

Stewart begat the loathsome Stephen Colbert, who created a television persona specifically designed to mock conservatives.  Stewart also begat the angry and bitter Jon Oliver.  He begat the nasty and repulsively sanctimonious Samantha Bee.  And the liberals loved them all – still love them all.  These are the distributors of the Left’s very notion of reality.  As the emotionally unstable actress and Hillary Clinton activist Lena Dunham declared on the occasion of Stewart’s retirement from the fake-news biz:  Stewart’s “Daily Show” was “where I got my news.  Watching Jon — an avowed defender of women’s rights, civil rights, all the democratic ideals I hold dear, really. . . in a time when picking up the newspaper was just not gonna happen.”

We noted near the end of our piece on Stewart that Donald Trump’s rise was, at least in part, attributable to the fact that he provided an antidote of sorts to the Left’s snark-driven, fake-news dream world.  Trump, like Stewart and Obama before him, is a master of the quick-witted, ruthless riposte, which is to say that he was the natural result of the Left’s affection for and uncritical assent to smug fake news.  He was indeed the backlash.  His election was the result of fake news – and we sensed that that would be the case more than a year ago.

Pretty smart, eh?

Imagine our surprise, then, when we learned a little bit more about the current hand-wringing over “fake news.”  As it turns out, the pandemic of fake news in question has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Jon Stewart and his ideological kin.  For the better part of a decade, Stewart was the “most trusted” “news” source on the Left and Barack Obama’s go-to guy when times were tough and messages to the masses needed delivering.  And nobody among the powers that be cared one whit.  But now that both Stewart and Obama are consigned to the dustbin of history, now that Donald Trump is about to take the oath office and attempt to undo some of the damage Obama did, now “fake news” matters.  Fancy that.

Apparently, the type of fake news that has everyone’s panties in a bunch is fake news of a “conservative” bent.  While campaigning for Hillary Clinton in Michigan this past fall, President Obama planted the seed with political observers and journalists, declaring that “people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it . . . And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”  Then, in the aftermath of the election – an election which turned out differently than most media and political types expected – the whole idea of fake news became something of a fixation for those trying to explain why they were wrong and why their preferred outcome was rejected by the voters.  It couldn’t have happened by accident, they theorized.  Something coordinated and sinister must have been responsible.  Something dark and destructive must have made things turn out “wrong.”  As the defeated and desultory Hillary Clinton declared just last week:

The epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year — it’s now clear the so-called fake news can have real-world consequences . . .

This isn’t about politics or partisanship . . . Lives are at risk — lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities . . .

It’s a danger that must be addressed and addressed quickly.

Here’s the thing.  We will readily concede that people are, more and more, turning to “alternative” news venues for their information.  Moreover, we will concede that some of these alternative news sources are occasionally somewhat less than entirely accurate or trustworthy.  Americans no longer sit down with their morning coffee and read the paper and then sit down at 6:30 to watch the network anchors update the morning stories.  Those days are long gone.  But they’re long gone for a reason.  And that reason explains a great deal about our political and social culture today and especially about the political and media elites’ ongoing confusion and frustration in the wake of last month’s election.

In order to explain what we mean here and how all of this happened, we’re going to take a brief step back, away from the fake new phenomenon, and discuss a different, albeit related topic that has bothered and baffled many on the Left for decades.  We will bring it back around to the topic of “fake news” in due time, but we ask your patience in the meantime.

For years, liberals have lamented the influence and the effectiveness of the Right-leaning think tanks:  the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Manhattan Institute, the Claremont Institute, and countless others.  The Left has its own similar operations, but they are nowhere nearly as impressive and influential as those on the right, particularly among legislators.  And this has long driven many on the Left batty.

Most recently, a couple of Left-leaning writers lamented the influence of these conservative think tanks with respect to educating conservatism’s next generation of leaders in the great philosophical traditions of the West and of the American experiment.  We on the Left don’t do that, they complained, and it’s killing us intellectually, culturally, and politically.  We don’t have these great think tanks that teach and preach these great canons of inherited wisdom, and we’re therefore failing.  In a column for The Week, the writer and editor Damon Linker bemoaned the fact that “conservatives [have] out-intellectualized progressives.”  To wit:

The vital center is imploding throughout the Western world.  Liberal norms and institutions face a greater challenge than at any time since the end of the Second World War.  And so defenders of the liberal order seek, often desperately, to remind themselves of what principles they stand for and the premises that underlie their deepest political and moral convictions.

That’s what I take Molly Worthen to be doing in her recent, admirable essay in The New York Times.  Worthen writes as a liberal who admires the way the American right has built an infrastructure of programs and institutes where young conservatives receive instruction in the history of political philosophy from Aristotle and Xenophon on down to James Madison, Adam Smith, and beyond.

Worthen thinks liberals should do something similar:

Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon . . . [Great Books] are powerful tools for preparing the next generation of activists to succeed in the bewildering ideological landscape of the country that just elected Mr. Trump.

In her op-ed, Ms. Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, cites the impressive classes/courses provided by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Cato, the John Jay Institute, AEI, and Claremont.  And as she well knows, she is only scratching the surface.  These sorts of courses on conservatism, the great books, and the intellectual foundations of Western Civilization are ubiquitous among right-leaning think tanks.  Like Linker, she hates that these institutes and their courses are relegated to the Right and wants desperately for someone, somewhere to do the same for the Left.

Ms. Worthen and Mr. Linker have a problem, though.  The fact of the matter is that the Left is not a hospitable place either for these institutes or their “great books” courses.  In his piece, Linker hints at part of the explanation, but misses the point, which serves simply to illustrate the real issues here.  Linker writes that:

Most so-called liberals today aren’t liberals at all.  They’re progressives — and progressivism is an ideology that has little if any interest in learning from the greatest books, ideas, and thinkers of the past.  And that’s because, as the name implies, progressivism is a theory of historical progress.  It doesn’t see itself as an ideological project with premises and goals that had to be established against alternative views.  Rather, at any given moment it identifies itself with empiricism, pragmatism, and the supposedly neutral, incontestable examination of facts and data, which it marshals for the sake of building a future that is always self-evidently superior (in a moral sense) to everything that came before.

What Linker means, but is too nice/ignorant/deceptive to say is that progressives have no use for history because they believe that history and ALL of its inhabitants are hopelessly morally flawed, especially compared to themselves.  And that, in turn, means that the progressives see the great ideas of history as hopelessly flawed as well.  The Left sees George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as irredeemable racists.  It sees John Locke and his philosophy as menacing, given that Locke once held stock in a slave-trading company.  It sees Aquinas and Augustine as religious cranks.  It sees Burke and Adam Smith as irrelevant British “deplorables.”  It sees the Constitution as an historical relic, a useless piece of paper to be used and abused only in the pursuit of the aggregation of political power.

Yes, Linker is right that progressives see themselves and their project as “always self-evidently superior,” but he has the causality for this condition backward.  Progressives don’t eschew the past because they believe themselves to be technicocratically and morally advanced.  Rather, they see themselves as technocratically and morally superior because they have eschewed the past.  The Left’s identification with “empiricism, pragmatism, and . . . neutral, incontestable examination of facts and data,” is a fantasy built on the ignorance that historical illiteracy facilitates.  All of which is to say that any examination of history and the great ideas that permeate Western Civilization would, almost by definition, destroy the foundations of progressivism altogether.

A second reason that progressives are averse to studying history and its intellectual forbears is the fact that those forebears are embarrassing by almost any standard.  We used tell people that the Left didn’t have any intellectual history, that it didn’t have a Burke or a Smith or a Locke, that the whole business could, more or less, be summed up as “Rousseau plus Marx.”  Over the years, of course, we’ve softened that stance and have even written a rather long and detailed (and still unpublished) history of Left and its intellectual ideas, from Rousseau forward.  The catch is that most of these ideas are loathsome and spring from the minds of even more loathsome men – and women.

If, for example, the Left insists that Washington, Madison, Jefferson and the like are inveterate racists with nothing to contribute to contemporary society because they held slaves, as was the custom at the time, then how can it possibly explain away the likes of Woodrow Wilson and especially Margaret Sanger and their beliefs that blacks and other minorities were inferior species who should be sterilized and subjected to involuntary abortion?  How does it justify the fact that its “hero of the working class,” Karl Marx, never knew a working class person, except for the maid he impregnated and then forced to put their child into foster care?  How does rationalize the fact that it’s most potent and perhaps most coherent philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, suffered from syphilitic dementia and who knows what else, eventually dying in a sanitarium?

The fact of the matter is that neither fascism nor National Socialism sprang, fully-formed and fully-armored from the head of Zeus.  They, like Communism and progressivism, were products of the Left’s intellectual tradition.  They were equal heirs to the Left’s history.

All of that said, perhaps the biggest and most important reason why the Left doesn’t create these institutions and these courses is because they already have them.  Those on the Left have always misunderstood and thus mischaracterized the Right-leaning think tanks.  Conservatives and libertarians didn’t start these think tanks and then start offering these courses in great books because they thought it would be a neat way to affect public policy and groom the next generation of scholars and leaders.  They started them because they had to, because they were shut out of the traditional institutions at which intellectual traditions are furthered and passed down to the next generation, which is to say the universities.  The Right didn’t decide to create think tanks because it was bored.  It did so because that was the only way it could have the genuine intellectual freedom to pursue the study and adaptation of the great ideas of history.

In her op-ed, Molly Worthen notes that it’s been more than sixty years since “William F. Buckley scorned the “ne plus ultra relativism, idiot nihilism” and “hoax of academic freedom” at Yale.”  But like Linker, she is unable to connect the dots and explain why that matters.  Buckley knew that the universities were no longer what they pretended to be, and that was six decades ago.  Just imagine how much worse they are now.  We can tell you that not a day goes by that we don’t see another ridiculous story about the ridiculous antics of a university professor or administrator or their students, stifling free expression, stifling intellectual inquiry, and doing their damnedest to hide the history of Western civilization from the rest of the world.  Consider that just yesterday, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported the following:

Penn English professor and Department Chair Jed Esty was surprised to find a large portrait of William Shakespeare waiting in his office.

A group of students removed the iconic portrait from the walls of Fisher- Bennett Hall and delivered it to Esty’s office after an English Department town hall meeting discussing the election, which took place on Thursday December 1.  They replaced it with a photo of Audre Lorde, a black female writer.

The portrait has resided over the main staircase of Fisher-Bennett — home to Penn’s English Department — for years.  The English Department voted to relocate and replace the portrait a few years ago in order to represent a more diverse range of writers . . .

A century ago, the Left rightly identified the education system – and the universities in particular – as the one of the principal institutions of culture transmission.  And so acting on Antonio Gramsci’s advice, the Leftists undertook the long march through that institution, eventually making it their own.  They turned it into an institution dedicated to the transmission of their own culture, their own philosophy, their own moral code.  And in the process, they destroyed it, left it withered and useless.

One can argue that the Right’s response to the Left’s appropriation of higher education is informative and vital, if somewhat inadequate.  After all, you can’t go to John Jay or Cato and walk away with an actual degree.  And certainly there is some truth to this.  But it’s also beside the point.  After the Left took over and destroyed the only existing system for the transmission of the cumulative knowledge and wisdom of civilization, the Right had to do something, anything.  And what it did has been remarkably successful on its own terms, even, as we see, inducing jealousy and imitation on the Left.

What, pray tell, does any of this have to do with fake news?  Well, as it turns out, the educational establishment was not the only institution that the Left identified as a vital transmitter of culture, which means that it was also not the only institution that the Left captured and then destroyed.  These so-called “progressives” did the same with the mainstream media as well.

Back in the good old days, when folks read their morning paper and then sat down in the evening with Uncle Walter, the media takeover was subtle, discreet.  No one knew, for example, that the most trusted man in the country was an anti-Vietnam-War activist, busy selling the American effort down the river by turning a major North Vietnamese failure (the Tet Offensive) into a decisive loss for the United States and the turning point in the war.

Within a couple of decades, though, the occupation of the institution was obvious.  When Cronkite’s successor at CBS News got into a shouting match with the sitting Vice President, no one could any longer deny that something had changed.  The media had become a fully functional arm of the Democratic Party.  Sixteen years later, of course, that same “journalist,” – Dan Rather – hammered the proverbial nail in the mainstream media’s coffin, fabricating a story about the sitting President (the aforementioned Vice President’s son) and using forged documents to sell it.  Talk about “fake news”. . . .

Not surprisingly, the Right’s reaction to the Left’s takeover of the institutions of culture transmission was much the same with the media as it was with higher ed.  Shut out of a politicized and compromised establishment, conservatives started their own institutions.  Talk radio and the ever-valuable Rush Limbaugh were the first to challenge the liberal establishment.   When Limbaugh started, he was (with all due respect to Isaiah and the Johns, Evangelist and Baptist) a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.  But he was a necessary voice.  And he became a remarkably successful voice.  So others followed.

The success of the conservative assault on radio soon encouraged a conservative incursion into television (with Rush leading the way again) and then into the cybershpere.  Before long, Fox News and Matt Drudge, among countless others, stood alongside Rush, offering a conservative alternative to the politicized, partisan, and prejudiced mainstream media.

And just as with education, the success of this conservative revolution prompted liberals to try their own hand at it.  Limbaugh is incredibly successful, they reasoned, and he’s a buffoon.  Surely we can do better and be more effective and informative.  But of course, they couldn’t.  Air America was never a threat to Rush.  Nor, for that matter, has MSNBC ever been a threat to Fox, nor Huffington Post and the DailyBeast to Drudge.  The Left never quite got it – still doesn’t get it.  The Right didn’t construct these institutions out of boredom or desire for profit, but out of necessity.  And they haven’t been successful because they are filled with lies or because people are stupid and will believe anything, but because people are starved for an alternative, at the very least a differently biased news product.

Again, one can argue that the Right’s response to the Left’s appropriation of the news media has been informative and vital, but has also been inadequate.  And maybe that’s true.  But – yet again – so what?  What was the Right to do?  The Left infiltrated, occupied, and then destroyed the news media.  The Right had no choice but create its own.

Now the Left wants to complain about “fake news?”  Are they serious?  The mainstream media has served up partisan pabulum and propaganda as “hard” news for decades.  Their laments about fakery, exaggeration, and dishonesty now rightly fall on deaf ears.  If the progressives hadn’t so thoroughly and remorselessly debauched the existing institutions for the transmission of culture and heritage, then the conservatives would not have responded as they did.  But that’s what happened.  And now, the Left has to live with the consequences.

Sadly, we could go on and on and on, detailing the Left’s takeover and subsequent destruction of the various institutions of American civil society.  We will address Donald Trump’s alleged Russian ties at a later date, but in the meantime, is anyone surprised that Barack Obama would belatedly order an investigation into Russian participation in our election?  Is anyone surprised that the CIA, in response, “assessed” that the Russians did indeed try to influence the outcome of the election on Trump’s behalf?  More to the point, is anyone surprised that most Americans – especially most conservative Americans – think that the CIA is full of . . . well…it?  When you spend decades upon decades politicizing an institution, the eventual consequence is that people will lose faith in it.

Is Donald Trump over-playing his hand by declaring that the CIA completely fabricated the Russian angle?  Of course he is.  But that’s not to say that the majority of the people don’t agree with him.  They know that the Obama administration has relentlessly politicized the nation’s intelligence apparatuses, and they know they are unlikely to get the full and honest story anytime soon.

And that’s the common theme.  The American people cannot get the full and honest story from our current institutions – about Western Civilization, about the news of the day, about foreign meddling in our elections, about Gaia knows what else.  In many cases, conservatives have responded to this state of affairs by creating new institutions, which the Left resents.  You want to stop the scourge of fake news?  Then start at the source.  Start with the Times and the Post, CNN and NBC.  Take back the institutions, in short.  Our nation is hopelessly divided and likely to become more so in the near future.  The great dividing line, however is not smart vs. dumb, informed vs. ignorant, or good vs. evil.  It’s much more complicated than that.  It’s a matter of two sets of institutions designed to do same thing, one overtly partisan but pretending otherwise, and the other at least open about its intentions and motivations.

Copyright 2016. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.