Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
They Said It:
A main purpose of my present argument is to show that genuine leaders, good or bad, there will always be, and that democracy becomes a menace to civilization when it seeks to evade this truth. The notion in particular that a substitute for leadership may be found in numerical majorities that are supposed to reflect the “general will” is only a pernicious conceit. In the long run democracy will be judged, no less than other forms of government, by the quality of its leaders, a quality that will depend in turn on the quality of their vision. Where there is no vision, we are told, the people perish; but where there is sham vision, they perish even faster. The worst difficulties of the present time arise, I am sometimes tempted to think, even less from lack of vision than from sham vision. Otherwise stated, what is disquieting about the time is not so much its open and avowed materialism as what it takes to be its spirituality.
Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership, 1924.
I was much further out than you thought, And not waving but drowning.
Stevie Smith, “Not Waving But Drowning,” 1957.
SWIM OR DROWN.
It’s rare that we open one of these essays with a book review, but we happened to see an interesting one in the Wall Street Journal the other day. The review, written by Michael Shermer, who is the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a monthly columnist for Scientific American, is of a book called Lift by Daniel Kunitz. Shermer writes the following:
In “Lift,” Mr. Kunitz, a writer for Vanity Fair and Harper’s Magazine, artfully narrates the history of physical conditioning and our ever-shifting understanding of what it means to be fit. He takes us through the 19th century’s incipient attempts to apply science to health and wellness, and into the early 20th century when weightlifting and gymnastics became popular (there were 300 weightlifting clubs in Germany in 1900 and 11,000 by the 1920s). Then came the post-World War II “training for the mirror” movement, led by the first fitness celebrities (Vic Tanny, Jack LaLanne, Joe Weider, and, most notably, Arnold Schwarzenegger at Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach) followed by the fitness craze of the 1970s and 1980s (think Jane Fonda). Finally, we arrive at what Mr. Kunitz calls the New Frontier Fitness, which incorporates “nutrition, community, neuromuscular integration, brain health, meditation, visualization, ethics, and emotional well-being.”
Today the competition is not against others but with oneself, with an aim toward betterment in how we perform in the world, not in the gym. . .
So, what does it mean to be fit? Mr. Kunitz’s short list, based on CrossFit guru Greg Glassman’s highly influential essay “What Is Fitness?” (available for free online) includes weightlifting (dead lift, snatch and clean-and-jerk), gymnastics (pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits and holds), and cardiovascular (bike, run, swim, row hard and fast). You should be aiming for stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy and cardiovascular endurance. Oh, and you should eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds and some fruit. Stay away from starch and avoid sugar altogether. The goal is not to look good naked (although that doesn’t hurt), but to be able to hoist a bag of dog food on your shoulder, to carry your child for hours, to move furniture around your home or to run from a burning building. “You’ll never see a person do a bicep curl or lateral raise outside a gym,” Mr. Kunitz notes, “but you will see them jump, run, and heave loads from the ground over their heads.”
We find all of this interesting for a couple of reasons. First, this “trend” that Kunitz sees, toward fitness being measured in real-world applicability, is still considered somewhat subversive in the fitness community, the mainstream media, and especially among our government overlords. The idea is mostly associated with fitness “heretics” like Mark Rippetoe, a long-time, old-school strength trainer and, more recently, something of a conservative icon who thoroughly detests and repudiates the physical de-masuclinization of contemporary Western man (see here or here, for example). Rippetoe has long argued that the point of exercise is to gain strength, and that the point of gaining strength is to be stronger – in the real world – since, in brief, “strength is intimately associated with your health and longevity, and ultimately your physical independence.”
Now, we have no idea what Mark Rippetoe thinks about free trade, Social Security reform, or state health insurance exchanges. Nor do we care. We just happen to find it fascinating that someone who advocates strength, physical independence, and self-reliance would be universally considered a seditionist or, worse still, a conservative. What, exactly, does that say about contemporary culture?
And that brings us to the second reason that we found Michael Shermer’s book review interesting, and, by extension, Daniel Kunitz’s book. Between Rippetoe and Kunitz, and even Greg Glassman, the CrossFit “guru” Kunitz cites, there seems to be an acknowledgement that whatever our official health bureaucracy tells us, it is far more important to be healthy because we have to take care ourselves and may have to perform this task more seriously in the future. You can’t count on government nutritionists to keep you eating properly. You can’t count on government exercise scientists to keep you strong. And you can’t count on government alone to protect you. In this day and age – in which a guy with a CDL can become an instant terrorist; in which police are being hunted; in which violent crime is, as a result, likely to increase dramatically; and in which our governmental elites are damaging longstanding social bonds to further their political agendas – one has to be able to take care of oneself. Not to go all Hobbesian on you, but the world is a poor, nasty, and brutish place. And it’s likely to become more so in the near future, for a variety of reasons.
Perhaps the most obvious of these reasons is one that we won’t bore you with today, largely because we have bored you with it so many times before. It is our old “war for resources” theme. The simple fact of the matter is that government cannot continue to grow at the rate it has grown over the last century. There simply are not enough resources to do everything. In fact, there are not enough resources even to meet current obligations. Eventually, government services – police, fire, etc. – will have to take a hit. This hit will be particularly acute in localities with large unfunded pension liabilities. All of this is a twenty-first century reality, and it does no one any good to pretend otherwise.
A second reason to expect the world – both in broad and specific terms – to get uglier in the future is the current and softening state of the bonds that hold civilization together. Violence isn’t exactly a literal virus, but it is contagious, and it feeds upon itself. Over the last several months, we have seen Islamist terror attacks using guns, knives, trucks, and now axes. We have seen an ostensibly peace-and-justice-based movement devolve into the wanton slaughter of law enforcement officers. We have seen a peaceful – if profoundly provocative – democratic political campaign hounded by protesters seemingly looking for any excuse to become violent; and in most cases, no excuse has been necessary. Simple and ultimately anodyne differences of opinion have become justifiable grounds for some to commit aggressive acts against their fellow countrymen. The center, as Yeats would say, cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Just this past weekend, a nationally known and nationally recognized leader of the Black Lives Matter movement unashamedly declared that he – and presumably many in his movement – will not abide by the results of this November’s democratic presidential election, unless the result matches his preferences. “If Donald Trump becomes President,” tweeted Shaun King, “you are fooling yourself if you think we’re far from having a coup our own selves.” Now we are fairly sure that Mr. King wouldn’t know a “coup” from a popular rebellion, any more than he knows his ass from a hole in the ground. Nevertheless, he made his point loud and clear: Do as we say, or else . . .
King is hardly alone in demonizing and tacitly encouraging violence against those who would support Donald Trump, overtly or otherwise. A man called Charles Pierce, writing at the allegedly respectable Esquire magazine, insisted last week that his tantrum must be appeased and to do otherwise is akin to committing treason. He put it this way, sadly:
Anyone who supports Donald Trump is a traitor to the American idea . . . .
Damn them all now.
Damn the delegates who will vote for this man. Damn the professional politicians who will fall in line behind him or, worse, will sit back and hope this all blows over so the Republican Party once again will be able to relegate the poison this man has unleashed to the backwaters of the modern conservative intellectual mainstream, which is where it has been useful for over four decades. Damn the four hopeless sycophants who want to share a stage with him for four months. Damn all the people who will come here and speak on his behalf. Damn all the thoughtful folk who plumb his natural appeal for anything deeper than pure hatred.
Damn all the people who will vote for him, and damn any progressives who sit this one out because Hillary Rodham Clinton is wrong on this issue or that one. Damn all the people who are suggesting they do that. And damn all members of the media who treat this dangerous fluke of a campaign as being in any way business as usual. Any support for He, Trump is, at this point, an act of moral cowardice. Anyone who supports him, or runs with him, or enables his victory, or even speaks well of him, is a traitor to the American idea.
Damn, to name one, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny-starver from the state of Wisconsin, now exposed as the feckless political weakling he’s always been . . . .
Welcome to the 2016 Republican convention: a four-day celebration of the ritual suicide of American democracy.
Pardon us, but . . . yikes! We’re not sure where anyone would even begin taking this pile of hysterical gibberish apart. We suppose it’s mostly just the natural reaction of someone who is used to getting his way and is horrified at the prospect that the majority of voters might not do as he demands. Still, by so blatantly and unabashedly demonizing and delegitimizing vast swaths of the American public, he virtually invites their societal defenestration – by any means necessary!
Complicating all of this – and making it infinitely worse – is the fact that the current spate of violence is not exactly spontaneous. The protesters on the streets of Dallas, and hounding the Republicans at their convention this week in Cleveland are not of the grassroots variety. They are funded and supported by the likes of George Soros. And they have likewise been encouraged, tacitly, at the very least, by the political machine that seeks to benefit from their anger. There has been a great deal of commentary, mostly of a whining nature, about the “anger” of the Trump voters this year. While true, there is just as much anger on the other side of this campaign, only no one respectable sees fit to call it by that name. Instead, they fan the flames in the name of “justice.”
Up until last summer, most people probably only knew Scott Adams as the creator and writer of the “Dilbert” comic strip. He is that, of course, but he is far more as well. He is also a very astute social commentator who writes a highly popular and informative blog, in addition to writing books and essays. Adams’ blog became something of a sensation about a year ago, when he confidently predicted that Donald Trump would easily win the Republican presidential nomination. According to Adams, who is a trained “persuader” and hypnotist, Trump himself is a master persuader and has intentionally pushed all the right buttons and pulled all the right strings in this campaign. What others saw as luck or fortune, Adams saw as skill and cunning. That’s not to say that he’s a Trump fan. He’s not. But he seems to understand the man and his skills probably better than anyone else does.
This winter, Adams predicted that Trump could (and probably would) win the presidency in a landslide. In June, Adams “endorsed” Hillary Clinton “for my own personal safety,” which he explained as follows:
Lately Hillary Clinton has moved into the persuasion game – and away from boring facts and policies – with great success. . . .
This past week we saw Clinton pair the idea of President Trump with nuclear disaster, racism, Hitler, the Holocaust, and whatever else makes you tremble in fear.
That is good persuasion if you can pull it off because fear is a strong motivator. . . .
The only downside I can see to the new approach is that it is likely to trigger a race war in the United States. And I would be a top-ten assassination target in that scenario because once you define Trump as Hitler, you also give citizens moral permission to kill him. And obviously it would be okay to kill anyone who actively supports a genocidal dictator, including anyone who wrote about his persuasion skills in positive terms. (I’m called an ”apologist” on Twitter, or sometimes just Joseph Goebbels).
If Clinton successfully pairs Trump with Hitler in your mind – as she is doing – and loses anyway, about a quarter of the country will think it is morally justified to assassinate their own leader. I too would feel that way if an actual Hitler came to power in this country. I would join the resistance and try to take out the Hitler-like leader. You should do the same. No one wants an actual President Hitler.
So I’ve decided to endorse Hillary Clinton for President . . . .
He’s right, of course. But then, you knew that. And we knew that. Heck, everyone knows that. But no one will say it. No one, that is, except Adams, who revisited the subject of persuasion and violence last week:
Some of you watched with amusement as I endorsed Hillary Clinton for my personal safety. What you might not know is that I was completely serious. I was getting a lot of direct and indirect death threats for writing about Trump’s powers of persuasion, and I made all of that go away by endorsing Clinton. People don’t care why I am on their side. They only care that I am.
You might have found it funny that I endorsed Clinton for my personal safety. But it was only funny by coincidence. I did it for personal safety, and apparently it is working. Where I live, in California, it is not safe to be seen as supportive of anything Trump says or does. So I fixed that.
Again, I’m completely serious about the safety issue. Writing about Trump ended my speaking career, and has already reduced my income by about 40%, as far as I can tell. But I’m in less physical danger than I was.
If you didn’t believe me that I endorsed Clinton for my safety, perhaps the recent shooting of police officers changed your mind. That’s the sort of tragedy you expect to happen when Team Clinton frames the national debate as a race war. . . .
The backdrop to all of this racial tension is that Trump was winning the persuasion war by making citizens afraid of external threats from illegal immigrants and terrorists. That was a strong formula because people respond to fear.
But Clinton’s team – including social media and the liberal-leaning mainstream media – responded by defining Trump as a literal Hitler. A Hitler-like leader in your own country is even scarier than external threats. Persuasion-wise, it is a winning formula for Team Clinton, even though the case is built on confirmation bias, not fact. (Trump has never mentioned race in a negative way.)
So now we have a situation in which Team Clinton has scared citizens into thinking the threat to their lives is mostly domestic, coming from Trump, Trump supporters, and anyone who looks like them. People who are scared will act. And we see those actions now in terms of violence against police, violence against Trump supporters, and death threats to bloggers such as me. And we already have one attempted Trump assassination.
To be perfectly honest with you, we never thought that Adams’ endorsement was funny. Nostalgic, perhaps; reminiscent of a bygone era, soon to be repeated. But never funny. Having lost our jobs at a big-time brokerage house for undefined reasons, while the firm’s CEO hobnobbed with Bill and Hill, we always take these sorts of things seriously. We’re small potatoes these days, of course, too small for anyone to care about. But Scott Adams isn’t. And neither is Donald Trump. And nor are his supporters, the people who could, conceivably, put him, and not Hillary, in the White House. Don’t think for a second that people like Shaun King and Charles Pierce are alone. They are not alone, and they are all doing the bidding of a woman who is so intent on winning the White House that she will attempt to “persuade” people of whatever it takes to do so.
More to the point, we suppose, we know that Adams is right in the general historical sense about the perils that a society faces when its leaders harness the power of persuasion to demonize and dehumanize their political opponents. Countless authors, historians, and political philosophers – all far smarter than the two of us, and likely than Scott Adams as well – have noted that the mob, once “persuaded” is exceptionally difficult to control, even by the best and the brightest of political operators. Both Russell Kirk and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom Kirk cited, understood that playing to the mob, would result in “the ruin and the spoil of the old institutions of the land,” which is to say the obliteration of the heart of representative democracy. Encouraging the masses through reckless demonization of one’s political enemies unleashes the force of the mob, which is then nigh on impossible to disband. Bentham and the Reformers, Kirk noted, fostered a “bitter collectivism, as devoid as the Utilitarian system.” Or as Coleridge more famously put it, citing the pre-revolutionary machinations of Jacques Necker, the finance minister of Ancien France:
Necker, you remember, asked the people to come and help him against the aristocracy. The people came fast enough at his bidding; but, somehow or other, they would not go away when they had done their work. I hope Lord Grey will not see himself or his friends in the woeful case of the conjuror, who, with infinite zeal and pains, called up the devils to do something for him. They came at the word, thronging about him, grinning, and howling, and dancing, and whisking their long tails in diabolic glee; but when they asked him what he wanted of them the poor wretch, frightened out of his wits, could only stammer forth, — “I pray you, my friends, be gone down again!” At which the devils, with one voice, replied –
“Yes! Yes! We’ll go down! We’ll go down! But we’ll take you with us to swim or to drown!”
More ominously, of course, Hannah Arendt wrote about the dangers of “the mob,” not necessarily in its potential to overwhelm its agitators, but in its ability to debase democracy and thereby to serve as the tool by which the elites subvert representative governance. When the mob is intentionally agitated, it reacts. And since the mob is not representative of the people, but is, rather, an exaggerated version of the people and of each class’s worst characteristics, it reacts in a destructive way, removed from all moral deliberation. Or as Arendt put it:
The rise of the mob out of the capitalist organization was observed early, and its growth carefully and anxiously noted by all great historians of the nineteenth century . . . But what the historians, sadly pre- occupied with the phenomenon in itself, failed to grasp was that the mob could not be identified with the growing industrial working class, and certainly not with the people as a whole, but that it was composed actually of the refuse of all classes. This composition made it seem that the mob and its representatives had abolished class differences, that those, standing outside the class-divided nation were the people itself (the Volksgemeinschaft, as the Nazis would call it) rather than its distortion and caricature. The historical pessimists understood the essential irresponsibility of this new social stratum, and they also correctly foresaw the possibility of converting democracy into a despotism whose tyrants would rise from the mob and lean on it for support. What they failed to understand was that the mob is not only the refuse but also the by-product of bourgeois society, directly produced by it and therefore never quite separable from it. They failed for this reason to notice high society’s constantly growing admiration for the underworld, which runs like a red thread through the nineteenth century, its continuous step-by-step retreat on all questions of morality, and its growing taste for the anarchical cynicism of its offspring.
Now, to be perfectly clear – just as we were two weeks ago, when we cited Arendt – we are in no way comparing Hillary to Hitler or her prospective administration to the Third Reich. Any such comparisons would be ridiculous and overwrought. And certainly, given the material we cited above, we are not calling Hillary a literal Hitler, as she and her supporters have actually done to Trump.
Our point, rather, is simply to note that things have a way of going south rather quickly when you engage and enrage the mob. All of the smart people in journalism and politics are running around these days prattling on about how Donald Trump is a demagogue who is whipping up mob frenzy, trying to get himself elected on a platform of hate. And while we may not agree with the man on some matters of policy or political comportment, we think that this depiction of him as a racist and a totalitarian is a case of psychological projection more than anything else. As Scott Adams puts it, thus far at least “Trump hasn’t tried to turn American citizens against each other.” Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has – and successfully so.
And that brings us, at long last, full circle, back to the opening of this piece in which we noted the leisure activities of Americans and their pertinence, or lack thereof, to the real world. As a general rule, we tend to agree with Mark Rippetoe. Indeed, one of us is a longtime Rippetoe devotee. At the same time, one of us is also a gun aficionado; a collector of guns and someone who shoots as a hobby. The other one of us is a big, dumb aspiring martial artist, who has spent the last five years training in a close-quarters, hand-to-hand fighting system. All of which is to say that we use our leisure time to prepare ourselves for a real world that might not be as calm and secure as the real world is today. And that’s probably a wise decision on our part.
The fact of the matter is that the real world, as we said, is likely to get pretty nasty and brutish over the course of the next presidency. Already, the Middle East has been totally lost. The southern flank of NATO is about to go full-blown anti-American Islamist. Both the socialist and hybrid “new “economies of South America are collapsing at an astonishing pace. Asia is a disaster, with China suffering economic setback after economic setback, all the while preparing for war. Russia is, well, Russia. Europe is, as we have predicted every year for the last ten years, on the verge of full-blown economic and social disaster. And it’s all about to get much, much worse.
The near-daily record highs in the market indices would suggest that the rest of the world seems to think that the good ol’ U.S. of A, remains the one safe harbor in this chaotic world. And perhaps, by comparison, it is, at least economically. Socially and politically, however, the rage and the fury of the mob is beginning to bubble up from below the surface. “Protesters” are killing cops and attacking voters. Anger is the dominant theme on both sides of the political aisle. Large cities are becoming more violent and more crime-ridden, even as they careen toward fiscal insolvency. Law enforcement is targeted by politicians and, in return, the people suffer and will suffer more in the immediate future. And this too will probably only get worse, as the devils pause or even refuse to go back down.
Get stronger, in short. You may need it.