Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
They Said It:
My own opinion is a very simple one. The right of others to free expression is part of my own. If someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Moreover, I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read. That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident.
Of all the things I have ever written, the one that has gotten me the most unwelcome attention from people I respect is a series of essays defending the right of Holocaust deniers and other Nazi sympathizers to publish their views. I did this because I think a right is a right and also because if this right is denied to one faction, it will not stop there. (Laws originally passed in Europe to criminalize Holocaust denial are already being extended to suppress criticism of Islam, as a case in point.)
But I could also argue it pragmatically. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a book that is banned in some countries and very hard to get in others. But the rare translated edition I possess was published by a group of German exiles at the New School in New York in 1938. It is complete and unexpurgated, with many pages of footnotes and cross-references. The Fuhrer’s enemies considered it of urgent importance that everybody study the book and understand the threat it contained. Alas, not enough people read it in time.
Christopher Hitchens, “Freedom of Speech,” Readers Digest, April, 2011.
Shut up! I’m Talking!
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, various polities throughout the country began passing and implementing legislation designed to reduce violence against various state-designated protected classes of people. California was the first to enact a statewide “hate crimes” law, with Oregon and Washington following close behind. Today, all but a handful of states have multiple hate crimes laws on the books, as does the federal government. These laws punish offenders for acts targeting people specifically because of their race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, or a host of other characteristics.
Understandably, the arguments over hate crimes laws are heated and complicated. Those opposed to the statutes argue that they police “thought,” punishing people for thinking non-state-sanctioned ideas while they commit their crimes. Proponents, in turn, insist that thoughts have long been grist for the legal mill. We, as a society, punish those who think about their crimes before-hand more severely than those who don’t, they note. Hence, the distinction between first-degree murder and manslaughter. Moreover, hate crimes laws don’t determine criminal culpability based on thoughts and ideas; they merely “enhance” punishment in cases of proven criminal acts.
For our part, we’ve never been fans of hate crime legislation. A crime is a crime is a crime, we think, and the distinctions between premeditation and impulsive actions do not in any way parallel those between acts committed against protected groups and those committed against non-protected groups. However, the Supreme Court has determined that hate crimes laws are constitutionally justifiable. So our concerns about the laws are of no import anyway.
Our interest then is centered not on such laws’ constitutionality, but on the evidence that their existence provides of the enormous power of the Left in American today, particularly given the Left’s belief that language is the means by which power is determined. Whatever else hate crimes laws might do, their primary function was and is to codify the otherwise unwritten rules of officially sanctioned coerced empathy. Or, to put it more plainly, hate crimes laws were designed to change the power dynamic by making official the previously unofficial rules of “political correctness.”
In and of itself, this is a truly remarkable feat, worthy of the severest totalitarian regimes, especially when one considers that “free speech,” and by extension, “free thought,” lie at the very heart of American democracy. But, as we said, it these laws are a fait accompli. And so be it. What worries us is that this official coercion, this “political correctness” political correctness has recently entered what appears to be an entirely new and more virulent stage. And if the Left succeeds in implementing and maintaining this more virulent strain in the public discourse, then the United States as we know it will be little more than a historical relic.
Let us explain.
Last fall, Greg Lukianoff, the founder of FIRE (i.e. the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), and Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley professor of ethical leadership at the NYU-Stern School of Business, penned a piece for The Atlantic on the subject of political correctness and the censorship of ideas on college campuses. Their essay – “The Coddling of the American Mind” – is widely considered one of the most important and astute analyses of the current descent into madness that plagues American higher education. They put it this way:
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law — or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia — and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.
Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. . . .
This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion. During the 2014–15 school year, for instance, the deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions. The list of offensive statements included: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.” . . .
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.
This is, we think, a strong argument and one that has been echoed throughout the commentariat. Free speech, free exchange of ideas, freedom in general is being sacrificed because of the “feelings” of students. Students can’t be made to feel uncomfortable, and therefore they must be “coddled” as Lukianoff and Haidt put it. Fragile, dainty Millennials must be treated for the delicate flowers they are.
The problem we have with this argument is that it is somewhat naïve, which is to say that its underlying presumptions are dangerously wrong. The events Lukianoff and Haidt are not about the students, or at least they are not primarily about the students. They are about the ideas that these students have been conditioned to dislike. They are about the Left – which is omnipresent in academia – using the students to shut down debate. These events represent a triumph of political will over the exchange of ideas. They are, in short, evidence that the Left’s long march through the institutions has been superbly triumphant, at least in the realm of higher education. The fake “hurt” and the manufactured psychological “violence,” serve the purpose of justifying the censure of ideas the academy dislikes, but they are more or less a ruse. They are the means by which the Left attains its ends, namely the delegitimization of ideas, mostly conservative ideas.
A few weeks ago, Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and an all-purpose political commentator, interviewed Lawrence Summers, the former Secretary of the Treasury, the former Director of the National Economic Council, and the former President of Harvard, about the “climate” of groupthink on campuses. In the interview, Lindsey said something interesting, although he likely didn’t realize it. “The idea that somehow microaggressions in the form of a racist statement contained in a novel should be treated in parallel with violence or actual sexual assault seems to me to be crazy,” he said, “I worry very much that if our leading academic institutions become places that prize comfort over truth — that prize the pursuit of mutual understanding over the pursuit of better and more accurate understanding — then a great deal will be lost.”
Lindsey is right, of course. A great deal will be lost. But then, that’s the point. Students have been and are being conditioned to see everything not just as a slight or an insult, but as an act of aggression, an act of real and substantive violence against their persons. And they’re being taught this specifically in an effort to undermine “truth.” Lindsey might think this is crazy, but then, he is a pretty traditional liberal economist. He’s not a postmodernist who believes – and preaches – that language is the means of oppression and that words, therefore, have the power to cause real, tangible injury. He doesn’t understand that “truth” has been under assault for the better part of a decade and that the students at college campuses are the proverbial foot soldiers in this assault.
Last week, you may or may not recall, we cited one of the most fascinating books published in the last couple of decades, that being James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense. Wilson is generally known as a dedicated social scientist whose work is intended to have real-world applications for real-word problems. Wilson is undoubtedly best known for his role in the development of the “Broken Windows” theory of urban management. Still, Wilson’s overriding theme has been “character” and the means by which it is best developed. The Moral Sense is different than much of his oeuvre, in that it is a philosophical book, a deep and reflective examination of the metaphysical. It is nevertheless in keeping with his general theme, the development of character.
In The Moral Sense, Wilson argues that we all – which is to say the entire human race – have innate and remarkably similar moral instincts. Or as Wilson put, “The argument of this book is that people have a natural moral sense, a sense that is formed out of the interaction of their innate dispositions with their earliest familial experiences.” These “innate dispositions,” however, are not enough to make a man moral. They are only the building blocks by which morality, moral behavior, or good character are formed. He continued:
To say that people have a moral sense is not the same thing as saying that they are innately good. A moral sense must compete with other senses that are natural to humans — the desire to survive, acquire possessions, indulge in sex, or accumulate power — in short, with self-interest narrowly defined. How that struggle is resolved will depend on our character, our circumstances, and the cultural and political tendencies of the day. But saying that a moral sense exists is the same thing as saying that humans, by their nature, are potentially good.
How, exactly, does one get from innate dispositions or the natural moral sense to morality or to character? By practicing it, of course. Conditioning and repetition are the keys. Aristotle noted that “We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.” For his part, Wilson put it this way:
We become virtuous — and thus truly happy — by the practice of virtue. We acquire virtues, (Aristotle) wrote, just as we acquire crafts . . . A good character arises from the repetition of many small acts, and begins early in youth. That habituation operates on a human nature innately prepared to respond to training . . . We may be inclined to dismiss Aristotle’s view as too simple; after all, what did he know, several centuries before Christ, of the temptations of modern life — tobacco, addictive drugs, lush gambling casinos, violent and sexually explicit motion pictures, and the anomie and opportunity of the big city? In fact Aristotle was keenly aware that we are powerfully tempted to do that which is not in our long-term interests and that we give way to those temptations even knowing their likely bad consequences.
One of our all-time favorite articles by Wilson was a tribute he wrote to Bill Watterson, upon the latter’s retirement. Watterson, for those of you who may not know, is the creator of “Calvin and Hobbes,” perhaps the greatest daily comic strip ever written. In 1995, Watterson retired the strip, and Wilson, of all people, paid him tribute in the Weekly Standard. You see, six-year-old Calvin and his stuffed-tiger Hobbes represented the essential, unformed moral potential and the conditioning necessary to turn that moral potential into good character, respectively. Without Hobbes, Calvin was incredibly self-absorbed and insensitive. But Hobbes provided the leavening, the conscience that guided the moral potential in the proper direction. Wilson explained:
Whether they know it or not, most people are intuitive Aristotelians. They know that character is important, that it is formed by the routine activities of family and village life, and that having a good character is in the long run the only route to such happiness as people can achieve through their own efforts. . . .
The irony of the names of the main characters suggests that they cannot have been chosen by accident. The mischievous, self-indulgent boy is named after the stern Protestant theologian of Geneva, John Calvin; the fun-loving but sensible tiger is named after the relentlessly utilitarian British philosopher Thomas Hobbes. But it is the boy, Calvin, who exemplifies in most of his life the consequences of embracing the pure hedonistic calculus: He is an engine of self-interest without the interior governor supplied by a long time horizon. . . .
Being a calculating, rationalizing Economic Boy, Calvin naturally takes the dimmest view of how the world is organized. It is filled with people just like Calvin, all out for themselves. He observes to Hobbes that we don’t trust the government, the media, the legal system, or each other. And then cheerfully adds, “It’s like a six-year-old’s dream come true.”
Indeed. If the world is filled only with duplicates of Calvin, then it corresponds exactly to the moral sense of a six-year-old who is having a temper tantrum. . . .
There is one part of his life that is beyond mere self-interest or quick calculation: Hobbes. Though the tiger greets Calvin with ferocious leaps that nearly bury the boy in the lawn, though Calvin and Hobbes fight over the silliest disagreements, Hobbes has a nature that compels Calvin’s affection. The presocial Calvin learns something from the nonhuman Hobbes because Hobbes is warm, furry, loyal, understanding. The tiger is everything six-year-olds are not. Calvin’s essential humanity is aroused by being with his tiger.
In his conclusion, Wilson writes that “inspection reveals in each of us a six-year-old struggling to assert itself.” Only moral conditioning and repetition, only the leavening of our own Watterson-Hobbesian inner voice, keeps that six-year-old from dominating us and thus dominating our lives and our society.
But what happens if the six-year old isn’t leavened? What happens if, instead of being conditioned to be grateful, generous, kind, compassionate, and honest, the world’s six-year-olds are instead conditioned to believe that their grievances are all that matter, that power is not just the ultimate value, but the only value? What happens if, instead of being taught the traditional moral values of the Hellenic-Judeo-Christian tradition – truth, justice, courage, and temperance – the nation’s six-year-olds are taught the values of compliance, pseudo-nonjudgmentalism, subjective morality, and the will to power? What happens, in short, if there is no Hobbes for Calvin?
In that case – which is to say in our case – the “youth” of the nation would be vapid, self-absorbed, and incredibly self-indulgent. They would come to believe that their thoughts, their needs, their feelings are the only things that matter. Moreover, they would come to believe that the traditional political values of the Anglo-American West – free speech, free expression, free practice of faith, and equality under the law – are irrelevant, or worse, clearly damaging. Worse yet, given the society-wide conditioning provided by hate crimes laws, these people – these six-year-olds in nearly adult bodies – would come to see specific thoughts as radical threats to their well-being, to their safety, to their society. And they would therefore do anything they could, to stop the expression of such thoughts, to ensure that those ideas and notions were not allowed to inhibit their own self-indulgence. They would, in short, sacrifice the ideas of free speech and free expression in pursuit of their own, immature and essentially delusional values, such as they are.
Now, it would be bad enough if this condition were to pertain to the higher education system in this country alone. It would be tragic for students to be denied access to the great historical works in countless fields because of the potential “microaggressions” hidden therein. It would be devastating for students to be taught that their feelings are somehow superior to others’ fundamental human rights, for them to come to believe that they have an essential right not to have their feelings hurt that trumps all other rights. It would sheer lunacy to waste taxpayer dollars – in the form of state college and university funding AND in the form of federal loan programs used to pay tuition – on an education that not only does not prepare the students for the real world, but also teaches them nothing of history, culture, or the qualities of good citizenship, much less the ability to think for themselves. It would thoroughly destroy the notion of free exchange of ideas if these students were allowed to shut down campus presentations by learned men and women simply because their interpretation of these learned souls’ content fills them with dread, fear, and anxiety. Such a state would – and will – destroy the nature and quality of higher education in this country.
But it gets worse.
It is important to remember here that the post-modern/Leftist project is not merely an academic exercise. It is not, therefore, intended to remain exclusively on campus. Rather, it is a real-world project with real-world applications (which ironically enough denies the existence of a real world). It is intended to achieve, maintain, and utilize power. It is meant to provide the means by which traditional values are overturned, consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history, replaced by the values of the post-modern, intellectual milieu. It is expected, in other words, to deny power to those deemed insufficiently deferential to the needs, desires, and judgments of the collective. All of which is to say that this long march was designed to achieve political supremacy and to use it as the collective sees fit.
And this brings us, at long last, to last weekend’s events – or non-events, if you prefer – in Chicago. On the off chance you haven’t heard, last Friday, Donald Trump had planned a rally in Chicago. Instead of a rally, though, a riot nearly broke out when the scheduled events were cancelled by Trump and his campaign due to “security concerns.” You see, a large group of overgrown six-year-olds showed up at the rally determined to disrupt it by any means necessary, to borrow a phrase. These six-year-olds don’t like Donald Trump much. And they don’t like him because they believe that his ideas, his thoughts, his words can hurt them. They believe that his ideas are, in and of themselves, criminal. And so in typical six-year-old fashion, they stomped their feet, screamed at the top of their lungs, and then held their breath until they got what they wanted, which was for Trump and his supporters to forego their right to peaceably assemble and to discuss those purportedly criminal ideas.
Naturally, there was some pushing, some shoving, some hitting, and some grappling. Because what would a protest against imaginary violence be if it didn’t descend into real violence? The next day, at another rally, Trump was charged onstage by another six-year-old, who was wrestled to the ground by the candidate’s Secret Service detail. Trump continued his rally this time, apparently not sufficiently cowed by his attacker to give in to him. Good for Trump.
If you’ve paid even the slightest bit of attention to our musings on the presidential campaign over the last several months, you know that have not been enormous fans of Donald Trump. At the same time, though, we are tickled pink at the revolution he is leading and we are fascinated and gratified at the working-class’s conservative-ish-populist rebellion against Washington and all that it represents. After all, while Trump may be shallow and vulgar and whatever else his enemies he claim, but he’s a piker compared to the professionals in Washington (and Chappaqua, as it were).
All of that said, it doesn’t matter one whit to us what Trump believes, what he argues, or how thuggishly he makes his points. The man still has the right to speak, to conduct rallies, to inform and energize his supporters. Indeed, in our political system, those rights are nearly absolute. And his sometimes boorish behavior and encouragement to his supporters to “punch” back at protesters is unrelated to these rights and do not diminish them at all.
Now, we have no idea what the protesters in Chicago meant to accomplish – short of indulging their six-year-old tempers. But we do know that they were manifestly and undeniably supporters of another candidate, a man whose entire campaign is premised on his promise to indulge all these six-year-olds’ other infantile cravings. We know as well that they were funded and supported by a man who has spent the last couple of decades spending billions of dollars attempting to undermine the core values of the West, from his native Hungary to his adopted home in the United States. Lastly, we know that last Friday’s events will not be the last of it.
Over the course of the campaign, the six-year-olds with 1968-envy will continue to show up at rallies and assemblies, hoping to start a fight, to silence those with whom they disagree, and, better yet, to be roughly treated by the police or by their opponents’ supporters. They will try – by any means necessary – to stop the free discourse of ideas and thus to limit viable opposition to their own wants and desires.
And we note here that these collective tantrums are only marginally about Donald Trump. Most of the protesters don’t have the foggiest idea what Trump believes or what he intends to do as president. They know only that he’s not one of them and must therefore be silenced. This same logic will, of course, apply to anyone who carries the flag of the alleged “conservative” party. It does not matter if it’s Trump or Cruz, Rubio or Kasich. Whoever speaks for conservatism and for traditional and constitutional values will be pilloried, attacked, and silenced. As if to prove this point, as we were typing these lines last evening, we saw the following story:
Protesters went up on stage right next to Sen. Ted Cruz at a Second Amendment rally in New Hampshire moments ago. The men were apparently objecting to Cruz’s positions on gun rights, Happening Now reported. Reporters at the rally quickly pointed out on social media how easily the men were able to get to the senator.
One of the protesters stood next to Cruz and yelled out to the crowd, “Why are you so confused?” Another protester reportedly told the audience they were “weird and sad” for supporting the Second Amendment.
These are children – if not in age, then certainly in moral development. They have not been properly conditioned to demonstrate good character. They have not developed the habits of decency and probity. They never had a stuffed tiger. And they believe that some men and women – but only some – must be identified, silenced, and punished for holding contrary ideas.
The next eight months in this country will be fascinating to say the very least. The six-year-olds will spend most of that time attempting to shut down and intimidate those whose values they do not share. Conversely, after enough of this, the already angry and desperate working-class supporters of nominal conservatism may well fight back. Already, we expect that the Chicago controversy will work to Trump’s advantage at the polls. Heaven only knows how much of a boost it will give him if the entire summer and fall collapse into chaos reminiscent of 1968. As several wags have noted, Trump is not the candidate of liberty and individual rights. He is the candidate of order. And if disorder erupts all around him, his message will appear all the more powerful. After all, our moral sense tells us that all men are equal, and we tend to react forcefully when reminded that some consider themselves more equal than others.
We don’t like to think what might happen if the six-year-olds win the political battle. But we refuse to even consider the consequences if their beliefs are further consecrated into law.
Copyright 2016. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, 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.