Code 21 Conference: Sam Harris Interview

Sam Harris was invited to speak at the 2021 Code Conference and you can watch the full lecture here. I reproduce some of it below. Harris said a lot of what I’ve been saying for a while now: that while the far right and far left are both dangerous, in many ways the left poses the greater threat in terms of cultural influence. Wokeism is becoming mainstreamed in a way that the sins of the far right are not, and the wokes are our future leaders, law makers, and justices.

“There’s derangement on both sides [of the right-left divide], but an asymmetry that’s very real. The far right is still the fringe, even with Trump. In terms of cultural influence, the Nazis don’t have real cultural influence; the white supremacists don’t have real cultural influence. The people on the far left, who are bending our conversation — who if you just did a keyword search for place in what they say, everything they say sounds like a Ku Klux Klan pamphlet. They have immense cultural influence. Every school in the country — certainly every private school, and many public schools — everything is being filtered through this woke outrage machine. It’s not that there’s no truth in it, it’s not that there’s nothing to worry about with respect to racism… But now we have new forms of segregation; we have areas of schools where whites shouldn’t enter… or you’re guilty of multicultural desecration. The proper goal of a society is to get to a point where we care less about the superficial differences between people (like race), not more. People who are living in a post-racial society — people who never cared about the color of anyone’s skin, or for that matter anyone’s sexual preference or gender identity — these people were living ethical lives, having broken out of what was truly a toxic past with respect to those forms of bigotry. But they’re now being told by the woke corner that it’s too soon (and that it will always be too soon) to say that you’re post-racial or truly blind with respect to these differences among people. Chelsea Handler just said it from this chair: ‘You as a white person have no standing, to say anything about race’. That’s madness; absolute madness. And the goal has to be where we arrive at a time where we simply don’t care about these things, anymore than we care about the color of someone’s hair…

We see people getting cancelled for using a term, even just to talk about the term. Not as a slur, but in an intellectual context, for example in English class to talk about Huck Finn. Or using it in a context where the only purpose of using it is to say, ‘This is how this word has to be avoided.’ These words are being treated as being magically destructive. Literally, like the term Voldemort. It’s a word that automatically demands punishment, even though everyone knows that you are not a racist. There are examples of people who have had their careers destroyed where everyone who was calling for their cancellation knew that they were being used as a scapegoat, to show allegiance to this doctrine. It’s a very childish relationship to language, among the many other sins intellectually that we might cite here. It’s a relationship to language that’s just not adult. We have to find the adults in the room, somehow, and get them to guide the conversation. And the problem is that our institutions have been so captured that they’re just not showing a willingness to do that.”

From the Q&A:

[Questioner #1] “I’m one of those women who was born without a uterus. So I’m curious. Help me understand why it is that in order to deal with these massive issues — climate change, the virus, etc. — why do we simultaneously have to dehumanize and de-legitimize transgender and non-binary folks who are speaking their truth about their identity. I don’t understand why those two things are in conflict.”

[Sam] “I would disagree with the premise of the question. I don’t think there’s anything dehumanizing about using terms like ‘woman’ and ‘man’ to make a specific point. They’re not intrinsically dehumanizing. It’s certainly not denying the reality of transgenderism or the ethical commitment to the total political equality of those people. Wokeism is policing the language in a highly unrealistic way and making scapegoats of people who are actually on your side — people who actually want total political equality for people regardless of gender identity. And I’m not saying that language never evolves. We do learn to use new terms –”

[Questioner #1] “But it has real-world consequences. In many states trans-youth are not getting access to health care, they’re not being able to use the restroom, because of the actions and the words. These laws are coming out of the actions and words of the people you’re defending.”

[Sam] “Some of it is coming from a backlash, and we’ve got two extremes amplifying hysteria on both sides. And there’s this violent pendulum swing, even in the course of any given day, between the two. And what we need is a reasonable middle that is committed to political equality and has compassion as its moral ballast. Perversely, as you go farther to the left, you get really stark examples of moral confusion. There are people who would castigate me for what I just said to you, but are actually kind of agnostic about the treatment of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Like, ‘Who am I to say that putting women in cloth bags is bad? That’s another culture, they’ve just decided that on their own. It would be my own colonialism and bigotry to judge that.’ No, you can’t have it both ways. There’s a lot of moral confusion proximate to your side of this debate, and that has to be sorted out. What I’m really arguing for is that the moral emergency parameter that we’ve put over it has to be relaxed. What we have now is a trigger warning standing in front of our entire civilization, from the point of view of the left. And I’ll grant you that you’re getting a reaction from the right that is of valid concern — it’s hostile, and it’s overreaching, and it’s amplified by real authoritarianism, and in some cases theocracy.”

[Questioner #1] “But that starts with you saying that I’m not a woman.”

[Sam] “No. You’re situation only makes sense by first acknowledging the reality of biology. The only way to discover that you are trans is to discover that you don’t feel compatible with the biology that was on your birth certificate. But now we have people who are literally saying that you shouldn’t put ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ on a birth certificate, because it’s so toxic for society to have made that decision. But again, what I’m arguing for is a conversation in which the temperature is turned down. Unless you’re someone like J.K. Rowling, your career can be destroyed for saying the things that I’ve just said about the term ‘woman’.”

[Questioner #2] “You talked about the left having a lot of cultural power and influence. But how does that connect when you compare it with the right, when they have more power in terms of the way the government operates?”

[Sam] “Well, I don’t think the right has the power in the U.S. at the moment. Look who’s president; look at Congress. It arguably did have the power under Trump, but the truth is that Trumpism is its own phenomenon. When you look at the level of policy commitment, it’s not even far right in most respect. Trump himself is a moral lunatic, don’t get me wrong. He and his personality cult pose an existential threat to our democracy. I think he’s the most dangerous cult leader on earth at the moment. But he’s not synonymous with the far right, and white supremacy, and all of that, even though he’s probably himself a racist of some sort, and he gratified the far right; but it’s not the same phenomenon. If you’re going to talk about the real far right, it simply has not captured our culture and doesn’t have the levers of power. But I’ll grant you it’s potentially scary and capable of violence, and it’s something we should be paying attention to.”

How Experts Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left

The Atlantic reports on a new study that measures anti-democratic attitudes on the left, which academics have been slow to identify. Here are the article’s highlights:

1. New approach. The new study is by Thomas Costello and five colleagues, and it finds common traits between left-wing and right-wing authoritarians, including a “preference for social uniformity, prejudice towards different others, willingness to wield group authority to coerce behavior, cognitive rigidity, aggression and punitiveness towards perceived enemies, outsized concern for hierarchy, and moral absolutism.”

2. Academic blinders. A major reason why left-wing authoritarianism has barely shown up in social-psychology research is that most academic experts in the field are based at institutions where prevailing attitudes are far to the left of society as a whole. Scholars who personally support the left’s social vision may simply be slow to identify authoritarianism among people with similar goals.

3. Obsolete models. Another problem is that the traditional (Altemeyer) scale for measuring authoritarian, while intended to smoke out all kinds of authoritarianism, in effect tends to only identify the right-wing variety. Altemeyer erroneously assumed that left-wing authoritarianism would be identical to the right-wing variety, and that’s why his scale barely identified any subjects. He had either misgauged the threshold or was measuring the wrong attitudes.

4. Left-wing litmus. Costello and his colleagues started afresh, developing what eventually became a list of 39 statements capturing sentiments such as:

(a) “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary.” (Critical Race Theory and other Postmodern agendas)

(b) “I should have the right not to be exposed to offensive views.” (as 58% of college undergrads polled in 2017 maintained)

(c) “If I could remake society, I would put people who currently have the most privilege at the bottom.”

(d) “Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech” (thus advocating top-down censorship)

(e) “I cannot imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative.”

etc.

5. The results. The authoritarian mentality — whether on the left or right — exerts “powerful pressures to maintain discipline among members, advocate aggressive and censorious means of stifling opposition, and believe in top-down absolutist leadership.”

The Costello team’s preliminary work shows the ratio of right-wing to left-wing authoritarians is about the same if you average it across the globe, but in the U.S., currently, the right-wing authoritarians outnumber left-wing ones by roughly 3:1.

Hopefully Costello’s study will help redress the imbalance of authoritarian studies in academia.

 

“Scientific” American? (Why JEDI isn’t a good acronym for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion)

I can’t believe this piece was published in Scientific American: Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Here’s a taste:

“The Jedi are inappropriate symbols for justice work. They are a religious order of intergalactic police-monks, prone to (white) saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution (violent duels with phallic lightsabers, gaslighting by means of “Jedi mind tricks,” etc.). The Jedi are also an exclusionary cult, membership to which is partly predicated on the possession of heightened psychic and physical abilities… Force-wielding talents are narratively explained in Star Wars not merely in spiritual terms but also in ableist and eugenic ones: these supernatural powers are naturalized as biological, hereditary attributes. The heroic Jedi are thus emblems for a host of dangerously reactionary values and assumptions.”

Shame on those gaslighting Jedi! And no, this isn’t satire. It’s a serious opinion piece. Silly and sad, but even if it were an intelligent opinion, what the hell is it doing in a science magazine?

Here’s more, and now the satire — if it were only that — goes completely over the top:

“The space opera franchise has been critiqued for trafficking in injustices such as sexism, racism and ableism. Think, for example, of the so-called ‘Slave Leia’ costume, infamous for stripping down and chaining up the movie series’ first leading woman as part of an Orientalist subplot. Star Wars arguably conflates ‘alienness’ with ‘nonwhiteness,’ often seeming to rely on racist stereotypes when depicting nonhuman species. The series regularly defaults onto ableist tropes, memorably in its portrayal of Darth Vader, which links the villain’s physical disability with machinic inhumanity and moral deviance, presenting his technology-assisted breathing as a sinister auditory marker of danger and doom.”

Leia’s trashy slave costume (and captivity under Jabba) was actually one of the better parts of Return of the Jedi, and as for old Darth, only the wokes could turn his trademark breathing and respiratory issues into something dirty. It’s a common observation today (among the sane and sensible) that left-wingers are the new puritans, and like the right-wing fundies of the ’80s seem to thrive on manufacturing offense. But they never cease to amaze me to what extremes they can take this idiocy.

And then this:

“The abbreviation JEDI can distract from justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. When you think about the word JEDI, what comes to mind? Chances are good that for many, the immediate answer isn’t the concept ‘justice’ (or its comrades ‘equity,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’). Instead this acronym likely conjures a pageant of spaceships, lightsabers and blaster-wielding stormtroopers. Even if we set aside the four cautions above, the acronym JEDI still evokes imagery that diverts attention away from the meanings of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Such distraction exacerbates existing problems and challenges endemic to institutional justice work. For instance, it is already the case that in institutional contexts, terms like ‘justice,’ ‘equity,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are routinely underdefined or conflated, robbed of their specificities and differences. These terms and related abbreviations like DEI can thus come to be treated as institutional buzzwords that are more slogan than substance, signaling commitments that institutions fail to meaningfully honor. We must be more attentive to the meanings and particularities of our words, not less. JEDI does not help us with this. Now is not the time to confuse social justice with science fiction.”

Well, that probably cuts both ways. I’m sure that many Star Wars fans would rejoice to see the JEDI Collaborative rebrand itself with a new acronym. Undoubtedly they’ve no more wish to have Luke and Obi-Wan (mis)associated with the JEDI Collaborative anymore than this author wants the JEDI Collaborative (mis)associated with Jedi knights.

And finally, this challenge at the end:

“If you are, like some of the authors of this piece, a longtime fan of Star Wars (or Disney) and have found yourself defensively bristling while reading the paragraphs above, take a moment to consider that response. We suggest that such a reaction reveals how easily Star Wars and JEDI can introduce distractions and confuse conversations. How ready are we to prioritize the cultural dreamscape of the Jedi over the real-world project of social justice? Investing in the term JEDI positions us to apologize for, or explain away, the stereotypes and politics associated with Star Wars and Disney. How eager are we to fight Star Wars‘ battles, when that time and energy could be better spent fighting for social justice?”

I’ve never been a Star Wars fan (the only two films in the franchise I genuinely admire are Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One), but I wouldn’t get defensive even if I were. Opinions like the ones expressed in this article are simply impossible to take seriously. If there’s anyone confusing social justice (and poorly understood at that) with science fiction, it’s the authors of this article, who are making such a bloody issue out of it.

If you had shown me this article without telling me its source, I would have insisted it was satire. It’s just too over the top, even by woke standards. But then what am I saying, over the top is precisely the nature of the beast. It’s the way of the 21st century, and that beast has now come to science outlets.

UPDATE: Some are (understandably) claiming that this article is a Sokal-like hoax. I repeat: it is not a hoax, not satire. The five contributing authors — four of whom are from the University of Michigan — have impeccable flaming woke credentials. See Carson Byrd‘s profile, for example.

Reading Radar Update

Loren’s Recommendations

It’s my month to be featured on the Nashua Public Library’s Reading Radar (our staff pick display). I have some new recommendations, and I reproduce all my picks here on this blog, since I’ve reviewed many of them in the past, and supply the links at the end of the blurbs. Fiction and non-fiction alike are included in the following recommendations. (Click on the right image for my feature page on the library website.)

1. The Twelve Children of Paris, by Tim Willocks, 2013. A crusader enters Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) and goes on a slaughter-mission, tearing up the city to find his lost wife. His salvation, if he deserves any, comes from a group of abused children he rescues along the way. Full review here.

2. The Accursed Kings, by Maurice Druon, 6 volume series, 1955-1960. George Martin calls this series the “original Game of Thrones”, and I can see why. It’s historical fiction (not fantasy) set in France (1314-1336), showing the downfall of the Capetian dynasty amidst self-serving ambitions. Endless family quarrels, clashes between church and throne, civil war, adultery, backbiting, regicide, baby-switching, baby-killing, you name it.

3. Cynical Theories, by Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. A book I wish everyone would read. The authors explore the tension between classical liberalism and woke postmodernism, and the differences between their approaches to social justice. They conclude that classical liberalism stands the test of time against the emptiness of woke theories. Full review here.

4. Veritas, by Ariel Sabar, 2020. A real-life conspiracy thriller, the true story of a pornographer who conned Harvard University into believing that a “gospel of Jesus’s wife” was genuine. This brilliant piece of investigative journalism was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. Full review here.

5. The History of Jihad, by Robert Spencer, 2018. Featured front and center: the first book of its kind, that covers all theaters of the Islamic holy wars, starting with Muhammad and then proceeding through every century, showing how jihad has always been an essential ingredient of Islam. It even covers the jihads in India (usually hard information to come by). While there are many peaceful and moderate Muslims, there has never been a form of moderate Islam; it’s not a religion of peace, which is why disproportionate numbers of Muslims have been jihadists in every day and age. Full review here.

6. Recarving Rushmore, by Ivan Eland, 2014. If you want a book that ranks the U.S. presidents who were good for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty (like Tyler and Harding), then read this book. If you want to stick with presidents who have been mythologized (like Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan), or who were charismatics, then get any of the mainstream rankings that fill the shelves of libraries and bookstores. Full review here.

7. Free Speech on Campus, by Erwin Chemerinsky & Howard Gillman, 2017. “We should prepare students for the road, not the road for the students.” Sounds elementary, but college campuses are among the last places today you can be guaranteed a free exchanges of ideas. The majority position of students (58% of them, in 2017) is that they should not be exposed to ideas that offend them — and these students are the future of our legislators and supreme court justices. If every college student read this book, it might go a long way to making strong thinkers again. Full review here.

8. Koko, by Peter Straub, 1988. A novel about four Vietnam vets who believe that a member of their platoon is killing people across southeast Asia. Then they think it’s a different member. Then more surprises unfold. An absolutely brilliant story, and you can taste the sweat and tears that went into it. Full review (retrospective) here.

9. Boundaries of Eden, by Glenn Arbery, 2020. Last but not least, and in fact I’ll call it my #1 pick. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and examines the tormented mind of a serial killer. It’s that rare novel that does a bit of everything, very literary, and I didn’t want it to end.

 

The Three “Political Compass” Tests

I’ve done these compass tests before, but here’s how I test on each of the three versions: the Political Compass, the Political Coordinates, and the Sapply Values version. I test similarly on all of them: moderate libertarian slightly to the right of center. Note however that the Sapply Test has the usual left-right and libertarian-authoritarian scales, but also an additional scale for conservatism-progressivism, which is helpful because it separates social views (on the right bar) from governmental power views (the vertical axis).

So according to Sapply, I’m a “liberal” on two scales — libertarian as regards governmental power (vertical axis), and progressive as regards human rights and social views (the right-hand bar). I lean “conservative” on the horizontal scale — right as regards fiscal/economic issues (horizontal axis). And yes, that seems about correct for me.

I paste below my answers to each of the three tests.

 

The Political Compass (I’m purple)

Page 1: How you see the country and the world

1. If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations. Strongly disagree — and this is an absurdly phrased question. Transnational corporations have been strongly helpful to humanity, and in many cases more helpful than top-down government schemes.

2. I’d always support my country, whether it was right or wrong. Strongly disagree.

3. No one chooses their country of birth, so it’s foolish to be proud of it. Agree.

4. Our race has many superior qualities, compared with other races. Strongly disagree. Science shows that race is an illusion.

5. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Disagree.

6. Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified. Agree — not often, but sometimes. International law is dictated by countries with conflicting priorities. It may well be in the interest of a nation to engage in a defensive war, regardless of what other nations say about it.

7. There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment. Disagree.

Page 2: Economy

1. People are ultimately divided more by class than by nationality. Strongly disagree. World War I and other examples prove this is to be nonsense.

2. Controlling inflation is more important than controlling unemployment. Strongly agree. Controlling the root causes of unemployment, like inflation, is what makes an economy healthy. Creating jobs is a band-aid solution that doesn’t address the illness.

3. Because corporations cannot be trusted to voluntarily protect the environment, they require regulation. Strongly agree. Businesses need some regulation, such as when it comes to the environment.

4. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is a fundamentally good idea. Strongly disagree.

5. The freer the market, the freer the people. Strongly agree.

6. It’s a sad reflection on our society that something as basic as drinking water is now a bottled, branded consumer product. Agree.

7. Land shouldn’t be a commodity to be bought and sold. Strongly disagree.

8. It is regrettable that many personal fortunes are made by people who simply manipulate money and contribute nothing to their society. Disagree, and this is a crazy question, for assuming that investors and such are contributing nothing to society.

9. Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade. Disagree. Tariffs are always a bad idea.

10. The only social responsibility of a company should be to deliver a profit to its shareholders. Agree.

11. The rich are too highly taxed. Disagree.

12. Those with the ability to pay should have access to higher standards of medical care. Disagree.

12. Governments should penalize businesses that mislead the public. Agree.

13. A genuine free market requires restrictions on the ability of predator multinationals to create monopolies. Disagree. Monopolies are almost impossible to establish (unless the government sponsors them).

Page 3: Social Values

1. Abortion, when the woman’s life is not threatened, should always be illegal. Strongly disagree.

2. All authority should be questioned. Agree.

3. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Strongly disagree.

4. Taxpayers should not be expected to prop up any theatres or museums that cannot survive on a commercial basis. Strongly disagree.

5. Schools should not make classroom attendance compulsory. Agree. I’m not wild about homeschooling, but it should be an option.

6. All people have their rights, but it is better for all of us that different sorts of people should keep to their own kind. Strongly disagree.

7. Good parents sometimes have to spank their children. Disagree.

8. It’s natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents. Strongly agree.

9. Possessing marijuana for personal use should not be a criminal offence. Strongly agree.

10. The prime function of schooling should be to equip the future generation to find jobs. Agree.

11. People with serious inheritable disabilities should not be allowed to reproduce. Strongly disagree.

12. The most important thing for children to learn is to accept discipline. Disagree.

13. There are no savage and civilised peoples (cultures); there are only different cultures. Strongly disagree, and a poorly phrased question to make one feel bad about answering honestly. The statement should read, “There are no savage and civilized cultures [not peoples]; there are only different cultures.” Which is disagreeable in the extreme. There are certainly cultures which are more savage than others, and to say they’re just “different” perverts the message of multicuturalism.

14. Those who are able to work, and refuse the opportunity, should not expect society’s support. Strongly agree.

15. When you are troubled, it’s better not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things. Agree.

16. First-generation immigrants can never be fully integrated within their new country. Disagree. With few exceptions (like Muslims in certain areas), integration is a realistic goal.

17. What’s good for the most successful corporations is always, ultimately, good for all of us. Disagree.

18. No broadcasting institution, however independent its content, should receive public funding. Disagree.

Page 4: How you see wider society

1. Our civil liberties are being excessively curbed in the name of counter-terrorism. Agree.

2. A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system. Strongly disagree.

3. Although the electronic age makes official surveillance easier, only wrongdoers need to be worried. Strongly disagree.

4. The death penalty should be an option for the most serious crimes. Agree.

5. In a civilised society, one must always have people above to be obeyed and people below to be commanded. Strongly disagree.

6. Abstract art that doesn’t represent anything shouldn’t be considered art at all. Strongly disagree.

7. In criminal justice, punishment should be more important than rehabilitation. Sort of agree. It’s true that rehabilitation is generally a farce, but criminal justice should be less about punishment and more about safety. Keeping society safe from criminals is what is most important of all in criminal justice.

8. It is a waste of time to try to rehabilitate some criminals. Strongly agree.

9. The businessperson and the manufacturer are more important than the writer and the artist. Strongly disagree.

10. Mothers may have careers, but their first duty is to be homemakers. Strongly disagree.

11. Multinational companies are unethically exploiting the plant genetic resources of developing countries. Disagree.

12. Making peace with the establishment is an important aspect of maturity. Disagree.

Page 5: Religion

1. Astrology accurately explains many things. Strongly disagree.

2. You cannot be moral without being religious. Strongly disagree.

3. Charity is better than social security as a means of helping the genuinely disadvantaged. Sort of agree, though I support both.

4. Some people are naturally unlucky. Agree.

5. It is important that my child’s school instills religious values. Strongly disagree.

Page 6: Sex

1. Sex outside marriage is usually immoral. Strongly disagree.

2. A same sex couple in a stable, loving relationship should not be excluded from the possibility of child adoption. Strongly agree.

3. Pornography, depicting consenting adults, should be legal for the adult population. Strongly agree.

4. What goes on in a private bedroom between consenting adults is no business of the state. Strongly agree.

5. No one can feel naturally homosexual. Strongly disagree.

6. These days openness about sex has gone too far. Disagree.

 

The Political Coordinates Test (I’m yellow)

1. Taxpayer money should not be spent on arts or sports. Strongly disagree.

2. Some countries and civilizations are natural enemies. Agree.

3. Overall, the minimum wage does more harm than good. Agree.

4. Import tariffs on foreign products are a good way to protect jobs in my country. Strongly disagree.

5. Western civilization has benefited more from Christianity than from the ideas of Ancient Greece. Disagree.

6. Immigration to my country should be minimized and strictly controlled. Strongly disagree.

7. Prostitution should be legal. Strongly agree.

8. A strong military is a better foreign policy tool than a strong diplomacy. Strongly disagree.

9. Free trade is better for third-world countries than developmental aid. Strongly agree.

10. There is at heart a conflict between the interest of business and the interest of society. Neutral. (Equally true or false, depending on circumstances.)

11. Homosexual couples should have all the same rights as heterosexual ones, including the right to adopt. Strongly agree.

12. It is legitimate for nations to privilege their own religion over others. Disagree.

13. Marijuana should be legal. Strongly agree.

14. A country should never go to war without the support of the international community. Disagree.

15. People who turn down a job should not be eligible for unemployment benefits from the government. Agree.

16. The government should set a cap on the wages of bankers and CEOs. Disagree.

17. Medically assisted suicide should be legal. Strongly agree.

18. Speculation on the stock exchange is less desirable than other kinds of economic activity. Neutral.

19. Surveillance and counter-terrorism programs have gone too far. Agree.

20. It almost never ends well when the government gets involved in business. Agree.

21. Capital punishment should be an option in some cases. Agree.

22. There are too many wasteful government programs. Neutral. (Many good ones, many bad ones.)

23. Rehabilitating criminals is more important than punishing them. Disagree.

24. Monarchy and aristocratic titles should be abolished. Strongly agree.

25. The government should provide healthcare to its citizens free of charge. Agree. (Though it’s a complex issue. I believe it should provide free health insurance for catastrophic health coverage and then have people pay for other healthcare.)

26. Overall, security leaks like those perpetrated by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks do more harm than good. Strongly disagree.

27. Overall, labor unions do more harm than good. Disagree.

28. The market is generally better at allocating resources than the government. Neutral. (Depending on the issue, both the market and the government have their place and strengths in allocating resources.)

29. The government should redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Disagree.

30. If people want to drive without a seat belt, that should be their decision. Agree.

31. Government spending with the aim of creating jobs is generally a good idea. Disagree. (Fighting inflation and other root-cause solutions are better.)

32. If an immigrant wants to fly the flag of his home country on my country’s soil, that’s okay with me. Agree. (By “okay with me”, I mean that I’m okay with it legally. It’s what the First Amendment guarantees.)

33. Equality is more important than economic growth. Strongly agree.

34. Some peoples and religions are generally more trouble than others. Neutral. (Disagree about peoples, but strongly agree about religions; some religions oppose the values of a free and humane society more than others.)

35. My country should give more foreign and developmental aid to third-world countries. Disagree.

36. We need to increase taxes on industry out of concern for the climate. Agree.

 

The Sapply Test (I’m yellow in the graph, and green on the sidebar)

1. Freedom of business is the best practical way a society can prosper. Agree.

2. Charity is a better way of helping those in need than social welfare. Neutral. (They’re both helpful and have their place.)

3. Wages are always fair, as employers know best what a worker’s labour is worth. Disagree.

4. It is “human nature” to be greedy. Strongly agree.

5. “Exploitation” is an outdated term, as the struggles of 1800s capitalism doesn’t exist anymore. Disagree.

6. Communism is an ideal that can never work in practice. Strongly agree.

7. Taxation of the wealthy is a bad idea, society would be better off without it. Disagree.

8. The harder you work, the more you progress up the social ladder. Disagree.

9. Organisations and corporations cannot be trusted and need regulating by the government. Agree. To an extent anyway. I favor government regulation of business to protect the environment, human health, and worker safety, but NOT for trying to mandate economic equality (other than perhaps taxing the rich more), as that runs contrary to the whole point of the capitalist system.

10. A government that provides for everyone is an inherently good idea. Disagree.

11. The current welfare system should be expanded to further combat inequality. Strongly disagree.

12. Land should not be a commodity to be bought and sold. Strongly disagree.

13. All industry and the bank should be nationalised. Strongly disagree.

14. Class is the primary division of society. Strongly disagree.

15. Economic inequality is too high in the world. Strongly agree.

16. Sometimes it is right that the government may spy on its citizens to combat extremists and terrorists. Strongly disagree.

17. Authority figures, if morally correct, are a good thing for society. Strongly disagree.

18. Strength is necessary for any government to succeed. Neutral.

19. Only the government can fairly and effectively regulate organisations. Agree.

20. Society requires structure and bureaucracy in order to function. Agree.

21. Mandatory IDs should be used to ensure public safety. Strongly disagree.

22. In times of crisis, safety becomes more important than civil liberties. Disagree. I don’t strongly disagree, because there are cases where safety trumps liberty (like mask-wearing during Covid). But too often throughout history, “situations of crisis”, especially during wartime, have been used as a poor excuse to infringe on free speech and other liberties.

23. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Strongly disagree.

24. The government should be less involved in the day to day life of its citizens. Agree.

25. Without democracy, a society is nothing. Strongly agree.

26. Jury nullification should be legal. Agree.

27. The smaller the government, the freer the people. Agree.

28. The government should, at most, provide emergency services and law enforcement. Disagree.

29. The police was not made to protect the people, but to uphold the status-quo by force. Strongly disagree.

30. State schools are a bad idea because our state shouldn’t be influencing our children. Disagree.

31. Two consenting individuals should be able to do whatever they want with each other, even if it makes me uncomfortable. Strongly agree.

32. An individual’s body is their own property, and they should be able to do anything they desire to it. Strongly agree.

33. A person should be able to worship whomever or whatever they want. Agree.

34. Nudism is perfectly natural. Agree.

35. Animals deserve certain universal rights. Agree.

36. Gender is a social construct, not a natural state of affairs. Disagree.

37. Laws based on cultural values, rather than ethical ones, aren’t justice. Strongly agree.

38. Autonomy of body extends even to minors, the mentally ill, and serious criminals. Agree.

39. Homosexuality is against my values. Strongly disagree.

40. Transgender individuals should not be able to adopt children. Strongly disagree.

41. Drugs are harmful and should be banned. Strongly disagree.

42. The death penalty should exist for certain crimes. Agree.

43. Victimless crimes should still be punished. Disagree. The goal of a civilized society should be to do away with punitive punishments for victimless crimes.

44. One cannot be moral without religion. Strongly disagree.

45. Parents should hold absolute power over their children, as they are older and more experienced. Disagree.

46. Multiculturalism is bad. Disagree, though this depends on one’s understanding of multiculturalism. “Multiculturalism” according to the woke left is most certainly bad, but generally speaking, a pluralistic society with a plurality of ideas is to be celebrated.

Critical Race Theory Debate on Real Time

On Real Time last weekend, Bill Maher invited Ben Shapiro and Malcolm Nance to debate Critical Race Theory. Frankly I think Nance made an ass of himself. Shapiro was engaging the issue, and Nance did little more than evade the points being raised and insult Shapiro.

The discussion began with Maher asking each of the two guests to define Critical Race Theory. This is how Shapiro defined it:

“Critical Race Theory essentially argues that racism is baked into all the systems in American society, and that any sort of neutral system is in fact a guise for racial power. And so the argument is made by Derrick Bell, for example, that Brown v. Board of Education was actually a way for the white community to leverage its own power; it wasn’t an attempt to end segregation in public schools. Even things that are purportedly good in terms of race, so long as they uphold these broader systems — like capitalism, or the meritocracy — these good things are actually just guises for power. What that boils down to in practical terms is that all disparity equals discrimination. If you can see any stat where black people are under-performing white people, that means the system is set up for the benefit of white people, and that white people have a duty to tear down these systems in order to alleviate the racism that’s implicit in those systems. When it comes to schools, what this tends to come down to is that kids who are white experience privilege because the system was built for white people, and we have to change the standards.”

It’s a good summary, and even Nance (who obviously doesn’t like Shapiro) agreed. When asked by Maher to give his own definition of CRT, Nance said: “Oh, I agree with everything that he [Shapiro] just said.” Having then agreed on a definition, Nance endorses Critical Race Theory where Shapiro rejects it. I’m not a fan of Ben Shapiro, but I mostly agree with that he says here.

Basically, according to Critical Race Theory, racism is defined as “prejudice + power”. Prejudice alone isn’t racism; only people in power are racist. So when you watch the All in the Family classics, for example, and see Archie Bunker and George Jefferson being equally nasty and bigoted to each other, only Archie is the actual racist, according to CRT theorists (Bell, Crenshaw, Delgado, etc.). George doesn’t qualify as a racist — his sneers about “honkey houses” and such not withstanding — because he’s a black minority. It all boils down to power and power structures and power discourses, even when you can’t pinpoint who in particular is wielding all of this pernicious power.

A Grand Social Conspiracy

Some critics have claimed that postmodern theories like CRT amount to a grand social conspiracy, or, as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have put it, a “conspiracy theory without conspirators”. A theory, that is, in which power is not exercised straightforwardly and visibly from above, but permeates all levels of society and is enforced by everyone, through routine interactions, expectations, social conditioning, and culturally constructed discourses that express a particular (power-based) understanding of the world. Communicating with people who espouse Critical Race Theory can thus be extremely difficult, because they’re so obsessed with knowledge, power, language, and cultural relativism, that they see these dynamics at work (quite literally) everywhere – power displays in every interaction, offense in practically every other sentence, even when these aren’t obvious or even real.

The conspirators are ultimately white people in general, whether they are either inherently racist, de facto racist, or unwittingly racist (even when having good intentions), because they are part of an all-pervasive racist machine that’s simply inescapable until the system is demolished. “One could easily be forgiven – if critical race theory didn’t consider it racist to forgive this – for thinking that Critical Race Theory sounds rather racist itself, in ascribing profound failures of morals and character to white people.” (Pluckrose/Lindsay, p 121)

And unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, CRT opposes the liberal order. Meaning, it opposes (yes) equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law. All of this is deemed an unacceptable framework for addressing America’s racial problems, since all the elements of this framework were constructed by whites with agendas of power. Science itself is opposed insofar as it serves the interests of the powerful people who established that science (white western men) while setting up barriers against the participation of others.

To be Colorblind or not

Then there’s this. According to Critical Race Theory, to be colorblind is in fact to be racist, because it amounts to an attempt to ignore the all-pervasive racism that fuels white privilege. But that’s nonsense. To be colorblind is to treat everyone with equivalent human dignity regardless of their ethnicity or skin color — to be effectively “blind” to ethnicity and skin color in that sense. It does not mean to be blind to the problems minorities have faced, and continue to face.

Not only are the Critical Race Theorists wrong in claiming that colorblindness is racist, they are endorsing, from a practical point of view, atrocious psychology. Telling people who aren’t racist that they are, or implying that they are — and that even their good intentions are proof of latent racism — is a sure way to alienate everyone and not be taken seriously. As Pluckrose and Lindsay put it:

“Worst of all is to set up double-blinds, by telling people that if they notice race it is because they are racist, but if they don’t notice race it is because their privilege affords them the luxury of not noticing race. By focusing so intently on race and objecting to color-blindness – the refusal to attach social significance to race – critical race theory threatens to undo the social taboo against evaluating people by their race.” (Cynical Theories, p 134)

Yet another reason why CRT theorists are frustrating to communicate with. Heads they win, tails you lose.

Ironies, Hypocrisies

Most ironic is that race is far more of a social construct than sex and gender, and yet the CRT-minded wokes will blast a white guy who identifies as black, while celebrating him if he identifies as a woman. Biological sex has real, obvious, physical consequences – menstruation, pregnancy, birth, genitals, muscle mass, hormonal levels, etc. A man will never get pregnant no matter how strongly he identifies as a woman. A lesbian or gay couple will never have biological children who share both their genes (though it’s possible for one or the other of the pair to produce a biological child thanks to sperm/egg donors and invitro fertilization).

Race, on the other hand, is far less easily delineated. Most biologists these days don’t even talk of races, but rather of populations, which can be identified through genetic markers as having had slightly different evolutionary heritage. The concept of race – from a biological point of view – is almost useless in practice. It also appears to be a relatively recent obsession. In the Bible, the Mediterranean region had whites, blacks, and browns, and yet skin color is almost never mentioned in it; it just doesn’t seem to have been significant. Racism, as we understand the term, seems to have emerged during the 16th century, during which time prejudice on grounds of religious difference gave way to beliefs about the superiority of some races over others.

The fact is that no matter what our “race”, we can all seamlessly interbreed with each other, resulting in offspring who are not so clearly categorized into one particular race. You could very honestly say, in fact, that race is a spectrum (of various physical characteristics), unlike sex. But while the Critical Race Theorist agrees – or pays lip service to – the idea that race is a social construct, you’d best take care how you construct that for yourself, lest you fall under the woke ire.

CRT vs. Classical Liberalism

To be clear, racism remains a serious problem in society and needs to be addressed. But Critical Race Theory doesn’t provide sound tools for addressing them, and critical race theorists shouldn’t be surprised when they are derided and caricatured by those on the populist right, or when they are not taken seriously by classical liberals, who are much better equipped for the task. The swiftest progress made against racism (and sexism for that matter) occurred in the 60s and 70s, before postmodernism became influential, and long before the emergence of the applied postmodernism of the wokes. Racism is best dealt with by being honest about race experiences, while still working towards a common vision: that the principle of not discriminating by race – whether one is a minority or in a position of power – should be universally upheld.

In other words, to cite Pluckrose and Lindsay (pp 266-67), we should:

Affirm that racism remains a problem in society and needs to be addressed.

Deny that Critical Race Theory provides a useful tool to do so. Racial issues are best solved through the most rigorous analyses possible.

Contend that racism is best defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior against individuals or groups on the grounds of race and can be successfully addressed as such.

Deny that racism is hard-baked into society via discourses, that it is unavoidable and present in every interaction to be discovered, and that this is part of a ubiquitous systematic problem that is everywhere, always, and all-pervasive.

Contend that each individual can choose not to hold racist views and should be expected to do so, and acknowledge that racism is declining over time and becoming rarer [thanks mostly to liberal Enlightenment values that wokes and CRT theorists decry].

 

Kudos to Bill Maher for hosting the debate.

 

Patriotism = Teaching Our History Honestly

Time Magazine has run an article called “Loving Your Country Means Teaching It Honestly”, and I couldn’t agree more. One reason I did a thorough ranking of the U.S. Presidents was to show the deficiencies of blind patriotism on the one hand, and leftist mudslinging on the other, and to show why many of the presidents commonly thought of as excellent or good were in fact only average or bad, and vice versa. Today, for Independence Day, I spotlight ten presidents who have been immortalized in our collective memory — whether on dollar bills, coins, Mount Rushmore, or memorials — and show how these leaders were average at best, disasters at worst.

Thomas Jefferson. 3rd president, 1801-1809, Democrat-Republican.

He’s on Mount Rushmore, the $2 dollar bill, and the nickel. He admittedly deserves these honors when judged by what he did prior to his presidency and during his first term. But he doesn’t deserve them when judged by his second term.

Why we should kneel before him

  • Wrote the Declaration of Independence (prior to his presidency).
  • Turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated massively from the promises of the founding fathers, not least in the suppression of free speech.
  • Smashed the Barbary Pirates who were attacking innocents in the name of Islam — America’s first defensive war against jihad terror.
  • Expanded American territory by purchasing the Louisiana region from France.

Why we might piss on his grave

  • Zealously enforced the Embargo Act of 1807 — an act of commercial warfare meant to punish Britain and France, but which only punished the United States. The American people starved thanks to Jefferson. Farmers couldn’t export their crops and workers lost their jobs. Under few presidents has the American population actually starved directly because of presidential incompetence.
  • Violated civil liberties, using oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. Jefferson is widely known today for being a proponent of limited government, but in his second term he wielded executive power with abusive glee.

James Madison. 4th president, 1809-1817, Democrat-Republican.

He’s on the $5000 dollar bill. (I’ll bet you all have one of those.) Like Jefferson, Madison was great as a founding father, but left a bit to be desired as president.

Why he was a giant

  • Wrote the blueprint for the U.S. Constitution (prior to his presidency).
  • Preserved people’s liberties through the War of 1812, unlike almost every other president who presided during a major war (John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

Why he was small and ineffectual

  • Took the new and weak American nation into war with Britain — the War of 1812, which was unnecessary and avoidable.
  • Because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in its 240-year history (aside from 9/11). Washington DC was burned, and when the war was over, little had been solved. The Star Spangled Banner (composed toward the end of the war) may sound inspiring, but there was nothing inspiring about the war’s cause or Madison’s leadership during the crisis.

Andrew Jackson. 7th president, 1829-1837, Democrat.

He’s on the $20 dollar bill. He needs to be effaced, and the native hero Osceola imprinted in his place. Jackson was truly a piece of shit. Even when he did the occasional right thing (like vetoing the Second National Bank), he did it for the wrong reasons — to settle personal scores with political rivals whom he wanted to kill.

What made him good for the nation’s welfare

  • Vetoed the Second National Bank. For decades afterwards the American people were better off without this corrupt national banking system which destroyed state banks at a stroke by calling in their loans, and gave wealthy owners a large return with little risk.
  • Balanced the federal budget to a zero national debt. Jackson was the only president in history who did this.

What made him a flaming asshole

  • Began the spoils system, resulting in rank amateurism and unearned privileges in civil service, which wouldn’t be fixed until 54 years later, with Chester Arthur’s Pendleton Act (in 1883).
  • Rammed through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal, and infringing on free speech. All presidents before Jackson accepted slavery (more or less) as an institution of the times, but Jackson was the first active pro-slavery president.
  • Signed the Indian Removal Act, leading to the Trail of Tears. Jackson was responsible for more pain and suffering on the part of the Natives than any other president. He gave the middle finger to the Supreme Court, the highest authority in the land, in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties.
  • Started a reckless fiscal war with Nicolas Biddle (the last president of the Second National Bank), which led to the Depression of 1837.

Abraham Lincoln. 16th president, 1861-1865, Republican.

He’s on Mount Rushmore, the $5 dollar bill, and the penny. He’s also enshrined as a demigod, and almost always rated the #1 president on presidential ranking lists. But there is far less to this son of a bitch than meets the eye. Kids are never taught about the real “Honest Abe” in school. Thanks to the Civil War and subsequent military Reconstruction of the South (under Grant, see below), there was the prolonged backlash of the KKK and Jim Crow laws, both of which ensured that blacks would be subject to a discrimination almost as bad as in slave times. It would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act (of 1964) came in remedy.

His great legacy

  • Liberated the slaves. Even though he did this in the worst way possible — in a needless war that got hundreds of thousands of people killed, including blacks — he did put an end to the abominable practice that is anathema to a free society.

His mountain of shit that most Americans are blind to

  • Maneuvered the South into starting the Civil War and making them fire the first shot. The Civil War was absolutely unnecessary to free the slaves. Lincoln could have (1) let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists urged, or (2) offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves, which other countries (like Britain and Mexico) had done. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections would have eventually peacefully eliminated slavery in the South, helped out by a slave haven in the free North. Under the second option (which I’d have preferred), Lincoln would have ended slavery as other countries had ended it (Britain in the 1833-38 period, and even “backwater” Mexico in 1829). The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were Blacks.
  • Treated the Native Americans horribly, even by 19th-century standards, seizing one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. On top of that, Lincoln authorized the largest mass execution in United States history, which totaled 38 Indians.
  • Arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the Civil War, and threw them into prison; closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and also disappeared citizens without arrest warrants, detaining them without allowing them to challenge their detention — a violation of habeas corpus. The only other president who trampled on habeas corpus was George W. Bush.
  • Brought the pernicious “American System” (invented by Federalist Alexander Hamilton and promoted by Whig Henry Clay) into full-blown fruition, mostly in order to finance his needless Civil War. The program involved government subsidies financed by high tariffs, and a runaway money supply of printed greenbacks that weren’t redeemable by gold or silver; the result was massive inflation.

Ulysses Grant. 18th president, 1869-1877, Republican.

He’s on the $50 dollar bill. While his heart was in the right place, the road to Hell is often paved with good intentions.

Why we should sing his praises

  • Intervened in the Black Friday Gold Panic of 1869, when two investors tried to corner the market. Thanks to Grant’s intervention, a national recession was averted.
  • Reversed Lincoln’s easy-money policy (see above). Thanks to Grant (and his successor Rutherford Hayes), America prospered for decades with a hard money policy.

Why we should curse him to Hell

  • Tried to pass laws and enforce them at gunpoint in the South. Grant made things worse for the blacks he was trying to defend. Because of his harsh Reconstruction efforts, the KKK became a terrorist group and Jim Crow laws were foreordained.
  • Was unable to uphold the progressive bills he signed for blacks in any meaningful way. On top of that, Grant was hypocritical; he tried having the southern blacks deported off the American continent to the Dominican Republic.
  • Was responsible for some of the worst Indian massacres and injustices in history. He vocally opposed genocide, but it was mostly for show, and he had no problems with ethnic cleansing on a large scale as its “peaceful” alternative.

Grover Cleveland. 22nd & 24th president, 1885-1889 & 1893-1897, Democrat.

He’s on the $1000 dollar bill. He was president during the progressive era in the 1890s, but he black-heartedly opposed that agenda.

What made him a benevolent leader

  • Kept the nation at peace with excellent foreign policy, and refused to annex Hawaii. (The native Hawaiians didn’t want to be a part of the United States, and the treaty signed by Cleveland’s predecessor Benjamin Harrison had been foully obtained.)
  • Brought back the gold standard and hard money policies.

What made him a pile of manure

  • Vetoed 584 bills, making himself a one-man tyrant over an entire legislative body. No other president in history (save FDR) came close to wielding veto power like that.
  • Refused to help Civil War veterans, refused basically to help anyone at all, and refused to lift a goddamn finger to aid Americans suffering from natural disaster.
  • Shat on all the underdogs — blacks (he supported segregation as Constitutional, and refused to enforce the voting rights of African Americans), Chinese immigrants (he lobbied Congress to pass the Scott Act of 1888, which barred Chinese from reentering the U.S. if they left), women (he believed women had no place in politics and condemned the suffrage movement), and union workers (sent troops to break up the Pullman Strike of 1894, which was both shameful and illegal, as the governor of Illinois didn’t request any military aid). While Cleveland did give the Indians full citizenship, that actually ended up harming the Indian cause far more than helping it, since the Natives had to accept farming roles alien to them.

William McKinley. 25th president, 1897-1901, Republican.

This mammoth example of misguided intentions is on the $500 dollar bill. Because of him, America became a trans-world empire, and his decisions to “rescue” other nations resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

How he made America better

  • Brought immense prosperity by going on the gold standard.

How he made America toxic

  • Set the nation on a path to becoming the world’s policeman. His Spanish-American War (over Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam) was one of the worst wars ever fought, resulting in needless death and torture. And if the U.S. was in the Philippines to ensure that its people enjoyed peace and order, why not extend that logic to making the U.S. responsible for the peace and well-being of every nation on the planet? That’s indeed the logic that would come to dominate in the 20th and 21st centuries.
  • Sent troops to China for the Boxer Rebellion without Congressional approval, setting yet another bad precedent that would be followed by war-mongering presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries.
  • Annexed Hawaii on the pretext that Hawaiians could not govern themselves, against the wishes of the Hawaiians and Queen Liliuokalani. At first Congress rejected McKinley’s annexation treaty (for violating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence), but they hypocritically ended up approving it for strategic reasons, once the Spanish American War began.

Theodore Roosevelt. 26th president, 1901-1909, Republican.

He’s on Mount Rushmore but absolutely shouldn’t be. If McKinley set the precedent for America becoming the world policeman, Teddy Roosevelt set an even worse precedent — that it was okay for the president to ignore the Constitution he swore to uphold.

Good Teddy

  • Urged the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was long overdue for the cause of sanitation and proper food labeling.
  • Set aside 230 million acres of land into public trust, for national monuments, parks, forests, bird refugees, and game preserves. Teddy was a good environmental conservationist.

Bad Teddy

  • Perverted the Monroe Doctrine and constantly meddled in other countries for lousy reasons.
  • Declared a group of black soldiers guilty until proven innocent. Teddy believed that blacks were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”.
  • Repeatedly flouted the Constitution, stating boldly that he could do anything he wanted “for the greater good”. While many presidents have flouted the Constitution, they usually try to obscure it or justify it somehow. Teddy was openly honest, stating that he could do what he wanted “for the greater good”. (Donald Trump is the first president since Teddy to be so drunk on his own self-regard; he too stated that he could “do whatever he wanted” as president — and that the Constitution itself gave him that license!)

Woodrow Wilson. 28th president, 1913-1921, Democrat.

This colossal zero is on the colossal one-hundred-thousand-dollar bill, and perhaps that’s fitting. Wilson symbolizes the massive amounts of dollars printed by the Federal Reserve. But he was an absolute zero — the absolute worst president in history — and it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see an executive disaster on this level again.

The good he did

  • Virtually nothing at all. He lowered tariffs; that’s about it. Some would say that he pushed for the Nineteenth Amendment, but that’s being too charitable. Wilson reluctantly advocated for women’s voting rights out of concern for his image, only after punishing such women.

The harm he did

  • Everything. He ruined the 20th century and beyond, and we’re still feeling the fallout today. If Wilson had kept America out of World War I (which he obviously should have), then the war would have ended sooner and for the better of all involved. History would have unfolded much differently. Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin were all monsters born of Woodrow Wilson’s policies.
  • Intervened elsewhere, just as aggressively and needlessly. Wilson was the most catastrophically interventionist president in U.S. history. He invaded Mexico, because — incredibly — a Mexican general refused to give a U.S. naval officer a twenty-one gun salute; he invaded Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and then Mexico again, repeatedly. These invasions were justified on the propaganda of “spreading democracy”, but really served neo-colonial interests like oil (in Mexico), collecting bank revenue (in Haiti and Cuba), and other greedy drives.
  • Mismanaged the Spanish Flu. He downplayed the impact of this deadly virus and refused to implement extensive health measures that medical professionals were recommending to help slow its spread. Between October 1918 and April 2020, 675,000 Americans were killed by the Spanish Flu.
  • Created the Federal Reserve, which shafts the working class with perpetual inflation and cheap credit, excessively expands the money supply, devalues the nation’s currency, is responsible for routine bailouts, and is unable to generate long-lasting economic recovery.
  • Crusaded for racist causes. Even by early 20th century standards, Wilson was a virulent white supremacist. He pushed for legislation to restrict the civil liberties of blacks. He put whites in jobs that his Republican predecessors had given to blacks, and he encouraged some of his cabinet members to re-institute racial segregation in federal agencies. Racial violence escalated during his administration, along with lynchings, anti-black race riots, and of course the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan.
  • Made his presidency the worst time in American history for civil liberties. The Espionage Act of 1917 made protests against the draft illegal, as well as criticism of American allies. The Sedition Act of 1918 made any speech, spoken or in print, illegal if it was critical of the war effort or any aims of the government. Wilson used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic. He fined and imprisoned thousands of citizens for criticizing the war. He even outdid John Adams and Abraham Lincoln in this regard.
  • In sum, by pushing the precedent set by McKinley to its extremes, Woodrow Wilson became president of the world more than of the United States. His catastrophic effect on both cannot be exaggerated.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 32nd president, 1933-1945, Democrat.

He’s only on the dime, but like Abraham Lincoln he has been enshrined in myth as a near demigod. School teachers tell kids that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, Roosevelt lied and sneaked America into war, for less than noble reasons, antagonized a foreign power which got American citizens killed, exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president.

FDR at his best

  • Won the war. From our hindsight perspective, World War II needed to be fought and won. But this wasn’t obvious at time. Up to the end of 1941 (Hitler didn’t start his mass execution of the Jews until well into 1942), if you had been forced to side with either Germany or the Soviet Union on purely moral grounds, you should probably have sided with Germany. Stalin had murdered millions in the ’30s, and FDR knew of that when he decided to become Stalin’s bosom-buddy (and outrageously whitewashed his image as “Uncle Joe”). America ended up on the right side of the war quite by accident. All FDR cared about was Germany’s expansive ambitions. The important outcome was that he won the war, being on the right side, and prosecuted it very efficiently. He left it in the hands of competent generals (unlike Lincoln during the Civil War) and didn’t micromanage them.

FDR at his worst

  • Provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, getting both military personnel and civilians killed, thereby lying and sneaking America into a war that most Americans didn’t want to be involved in.
  • Created the New Deal. Aside from a few provisions, most of the New Deal was bad for the economy and prolonged the recession.
  • Avoided African American injustices like the plague, sent Jews back to Europe as if they were the plague, and contained Japanese Americans in camps as if they had the plague.
  • Used agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested the war.
  • Assaulted the Supreme Court by filling it with friendlies, and tried to add six justices to the court.

Ever since FDR especially, presidents have been evaluated by their charisma more than their actual policies. JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were all charismatics, and so was Donald Trump for that matter (albeit a very boorish and crude charismatic). But charisma does not a good president make. We haven’t had a bona fide good president since Jimmy Carter, and before him Dwight Eisenhower.

We clearly need better role models than the ten presidents I’ve presented here who have been immortalized. Jefferson and Madison were okay overall, but the other eight were pretty abysmal. The only immortalized president who fully deserves his honors is (of course) George Washington. There are other excellent presidents, to be sure, but kids don’t learn much about them in school — John Tyler, Rutherford Hayes, and Warren Harding, for example — or if they do hear about them, it’s through a very jaded lens.

Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights

“This is a trigger warning for the entire book. Reading it, you should be triggered.” (from the cover page of Prey)

I wasn’t triggered by Prey, but many readers have evidently been, not least Jill Filipovic who wrote a grossly inaccurate hit piece for the New York Times. Read Tunku Varadarajan from the Wall Street Journal for a worthy review of Prey. What follows is my review.

Prey is in fact Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s best book to date. Vilified for speaking truth, and castigated for her common sense, she now turns her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis.

“The rape game [taharrush gamea] crossed the Mediterranean in December 2015. During New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne, more than a thousand young men formed rings around individual women, sexually assaulting them. And when the victims identified the perpetrators as looking foreign, North African, and Arab, they were pilloried as racists on social media.” (p 161)

The “rape game”, or taharrush gamea, is sexual harassment/assault in crowds, and the inevitable expression of many elements — religiously sanctioned misogyny, values of honor and shame, lack of sex education, and repressed urges. Far from being the reprehensible crime it is in the west, in many Muslim-majority countries the rape game happens openly. Immigrant Muslim men do not — contrary to the claims of some — use sexual violence to lash out at host societies because they feel disenfranchised. These men simply behave as they always have. If Egyptian men play the rape game on the streets of Cairo and then come to Germany and do the same thing, it’s not because they feel inferior or oppressed. It’s because of entrenched factors — religiously sanctioned misogyny, honor-shame values, lack of sex education, and repressed urges — and because they think they can get away with it, as they always have.

Until recently, sexual violence in public places — especially when orchestrated by gangs — had come to be seen as an aberration in most of Europe. Rape and sexual assault rates had been falling for decades, and it was widely known that most sexual violence occurred within established relationships. Europe was simply unprepared for what ignited on New Year’s Eve, 2015, and before long, women avoided going outdoors as much as possible.

It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are incredibly lower in some parts of the world than others — especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy — and I was particularly struck by the her analogy with the #MeToo movement, and the usual leftist/woke hypocrisy:

“As I was researching for this book, the #MeToo movement shone a light on sexual abuse and exploitation in the upper echelons of North America. I found myself wondering why an equally bright light was not being shone on the often more serious crimes against women in lower-income neighborhoods in Europe.” (p 9)

“I am not claiming that sexual harassment is a vice unique to immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. On the contrary, part of my reason for writing this book was to make sense of the changing attitudes of women toward sexual harassment, which have come to be associated around the world with the #MeToo movement. For me, it is a puzzle that in the United States and other Western countries, countless pages and copious airtime have been devoted to the misdeeds of a few hundred prominent figures in the entertainment industry, politics, education, and finance, but much less has been written about the far more numerous acts of rape, assault, and harassment perpetrated by recent migrants to Europe.” (p 61)

And one could of course expand this critique to swipe huger hypocrisies and misplaced priorities. Westerns, for example, will crusade over being misgendered or called by their non-preferred pronouns, but fall utterly silent about honor-killings and female genital mutilation in the Islamic world.

The Playbook of Denial

Another important point: Hirsi Ali was an asylum seeker and an immigrant (first to the Netherlands and then to the U.S.), and the last thing she wants are obstacles put up to those who want to escape religious oppression and have better lives in the west. She wrote Prey “not to help the proponents of closed borders but to persuade liberal Europeans that denial is a self-defeating strategy” (p 10). I’ll get to her proposed alternative to right-wing “closed border” solutions at the end of the review. For now let’s focus on denial — since leftists and wokes have made such a bloody art of it — of which Hirsi Ali identifies eight different types (see chapter 9):

1. The Brush-off. Police and politicians simply don’t take reports of migrant sexual assault seriously, because they fear the political ramifications.

2. Misdirection. People conjure up a smoke screen by universalizing the problem of sexual violence. They claim that it’s not immigrants who disproportionately rape women, but rather that “all men are rapists” and “every third woman experiences physical, sexual, psychological, and economic violence”. While it’s obviously true that sexual violence is a universal problem, it is also true (just as obviously, to those living in reality) that such violence from migrant Muslims has been a disproportionate problem across Europe, especially in Germany and Sweden.

3. The Semantic Muddle. Suspects in police reports and media coverage are described as “southerners”, “men with dark skin”, or people with “poor German” language skills, deliberately obscuring their migration status. In some parts of Europe, the semantic muddle is officially imposed by media regulators. To suggest that an immigrants’ religion and culture may have anything to do with their attitudes to women can jeopardize a journalist’s career in Europe.

4. Bogus Research and Commentary. Manufacturing statistics and surveys debunk reality on the ground. Attitudinal studies in particular are designed in such a way to reflect the preferred conclusions of researchers. Such studies will conclude falsely that attitudes to immigrants in various European countries are highly stable and becoming more favorable, when that is not necessarily true.

5. Dismissal of Honest Academics as Bigots. Academics often reject evidence supplied by their honest colleagues that goes against woke agendas. False charges of racism are leveled against those who portray Muslim societies as far more patriarchal and oppressive than Western ones, and against those who explain the links between Islamic beliefs and the idea of women as commodities.

6. Appeals to Compassion and Platitudes. Virtue-signaling at the expense of reason or caution is also a common denial tactic. When politicians implore citizens to fulfill their moral duty to rescue migrant workers, they imply that any critics of immigration policies are automatically immoral, inhumane, and racist.

7. Bad Advice and Bogus Solutions. Police and politicians have engaged in victim-blaming. After the mass sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve 2015, for example, the mayor of Cologne suggested that women were afraid of being assaulted should keep themselves “at arm’s length” from strangers. Police have suggested that women wear comfortable shoes that are made for running so that they can flee fast if they need to. Instead of implementing measures to ensure women’s safety, they place the onus on women to protect themselves from predatory men.

8. Fear of Bigotry and Backlash. Probably the most powerful tool in maintaining denial about the religious and cultural aspects of sexual violence is to claim that talking about the facts will fan the flames of racism, empower right-wing populists, and further divide society. This excuse has been used repeatedly by the police, politicians, social workers, and the media. To avoid being perceived as xenophobic, people would rather cover up the problem and leave victims at risk.

The last is especially a problem, because right-wing groups can be very effective in exaggerating or fabricating anti-immigrant stories. Anyone who tries discussing the negative aspects of immigration is almost certain to be accused of legitimizing the alt-right. But we can’t let fears like that intimidate us. Hirsi Ali is right: openly honest books like Prey can provide far more effective arguments against the alt-right than strategies of denial and perverted woke multiculturalist agendas.

Hard Truths

The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from places that don’t grant such rights to women. Women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women, who no longer recognize their neighborhoods or feel safe.

Likewise, German public transit has lost its reputation for safety. Women and girls have been increasingly reluctant in recent years to take the subway lines alone where many young Muslim men are traveling. Sexual assaults from migrant men take place daily in certain subway lines. In a 2014 report (by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights), about half of the 42,000 women surveyed had restricted their movement out of fear of sexual assault. Street harassment is obviously not a new phenomenon, but only recently has it become so dramatically pervasive to make women change their behavior patterns.

What’s astonishing is that Chancellor Angela Merkel made her fateful decision (to welcome refugees fleeing the Syrian war in 2015) almost absent-mindedly. As Hirsi Ali explains, there was no decision. An official thirty-page order to close the German borders had been drafted, but no one had the courage to sign off on  it. It wasn’t a policy change or a strategy; it just slipped through everyone’s fingers and happened. And at first a lot of Germans were (understandably) happy about the unrestricted welcome to immigrants. It signaled a humanitarian approach and made the German people look enlightened.

They changed their tune mighty fast, not only when women felt unsafe to go outside alone, but with the wave of jihadist attacks that followed in 2016: an Afghan asylum seeker stabbing five people on a train near Wurzburg; a Syrian refugee blowing himself up outside a music festival in Ansbach; a twelve-year old Iraqi boy planting a bomb at a Christmas market in Ludwigshafen; a Tunisian asylum seeker (who had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State) who drove a truck into the crowd at a Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, killing twelve and injuring fifty-six others.

The Problem of Islam, and Collectivist Societies

And just as Islam mandates jihad (holy war) against unbelievers, it sanctions the treatment of women as inferior commodities, especially sura 4 of the Qur’an. While wife-beating obviously exists everywhere, only in Islam does it have divine sanction (4:34). Polygamy is sanctioned as well (4:3). The sexual enslavement of infidel women also has divine approval (4:24).

Hirsi Ali describes harrowing accounts of the survivors of sexual assaults. One victim of a gang rape in Rotherham said that her rapists said that she deserved to be raped because she was non-Muslim and dressed immodestly. As she was raped more than a hundred times, her attackers quoted the Qur’an to her (pp 173-174).

Accentuating the problem of Islam is the nature of group-oriented collectivist societies like the Muslim-majority nations which immigrants come from. Hirsi Ali points out that in our western world, “the individual, whether male or female, is recognized as a decision maker responsible for his or her behavior. In the Muslim world, by contrast, it is the group that is responsible. Whether it is the family, clan, or the whole ummah (community), the group makes decisions on behalf of individuals, and the condemnation of an individual is considered vilification of the group.” (pp 174-175)

So if the group doesn’t acknowledge the individual’s action as criminal (as in cases of rape), then the whole community feels victimized by the state. And this is what fuels Muslim communities to deflect individual responsibility for sexual assault by charging others with “Islamophobia” and the fear of a backlash — or, ludicrously, a “Muslim Holocaust”.

All of this dramatically reduces the chances for successful Muslim integration, and this takes us to the chapter on that subject.

Why Integration Hasn’t Happened

Muslims of course have been migrating to Europe since long before the 2010s. And it would seem logical, based on the history of other immigrants: the inherent superiority of secular democratic pluralism would be so attractive that migrant Muslims would eventually welcome it. The question of competing values would take care of itself as the migrants became employed and their children went to school. But that’s not what has happened with most Muslims; the values don’t rub off, and the cause comes down to religious (not ethnic) differences.

According to Hirsi Ali, Muslim immigrants take one of four paths (see pp 180-181):

1. The Adapters. Those who use the freedoms they find in Europe to learn, educate themselves and their children, find gainful employment, to start businesses, to vote, and to take part in society and thrive. Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself was an Adapter, in the Netherlands in 1990.

2. The Menaces. Those — mostly young men — who become a danger to their own homes and outside in public. Some drop out of school, some commit crimes big and small, and many spend time in prison. They’re often into alcohol and drugs, and most are unemployable. They tend to be neither religious nor morally driven. They take full advantage of welfare, and of criminal lawyers when they are charged with stealing, vandalizing, and sexual assault.

3. The Fanatics. Those who come to Europe driven by religiosity. They use the freedoms they find in Europe to spread Islamism and jihadism. They become language proficient in their host country and employed, and seek to work within the system to to destroy it and replace it with sharia law. They will use whatever means necessary to bring about the Islamic vision, using violence, threats, intimidation, blackmail, and peer pressure.

4. The Coasters. Men and women with little or no formal education who accept welfare benefits, live off them, and invite their families from abroad to come and join them. They see no reason to work because the jobs available to them are menial and pay little more than their welfare benefits. They attend mosque but also send their children to local schools. They are not criminal, but when enough of them live in close proximity they create ghettos, in which the Islamic way of life is replicated in the west. It is in these neighborhoods that children of the Coasters can either become Menaces, or find their way to the Fanatics.

Obviously these categories aren’t rigidly separate. A Coaster’s children can become Adapters; some Menaces clean up their acts; Menaces can turn into Fanatics; etc. The point is simple: If European officials and academics are honest with themselves, they would acknowledge that significant numbers of immigrant Muslims fall into one or more of the last three categories: Menace, Fanatic, or Coaster. The Adapters are there, to sure, but they are a minority (p 182).

What Holds Back Muslim Integration?

Italians, Irish, Jews, and Chinese integrated well into America, even though they faced they same obstacles as Muslim immigrants in Europe. They lived in crowded accommodations and ghettos, were unable to speak English well at first, began as unskilled workers, and faced worse bigotry and prejudices than Muslims do (Chinese immigrants were thought of as the “yellow plague”, Jews were exposed to intense anti-Semitism and discrimination, etc.). By the middle of the twentieth century, Italian Americans and Irish Americans were more or less fully integrated into American society, without repudiating their cultural heritage (even acknowledging the problem of mafia crime). Why haven’t Muslims done so after one or two decades?

The common answer is that Muslims come from countries with low education, poor protection of human rights, and societal trauma. But the history of Vietnamese integration refutes that argument. In the ’70s and ’80s many Vietnamese refugees fled war, communism, and poverty, and arrived in the west with a poor education and few language skills. Some relied on welfare but within two decades were thoroughly integrated. Many of them retain their customs, language, and religious beliefs, while embracing western values.

Hirsi Ali says that of all the forces holding back Muslim immigrants from integrating properly, the Islamic religion is the biggest. She’s right: Islam is a political religion that allows for no separation of mosque and state, and envisions a sharia-based society where unbelievers are subjugated (if not slain), and women kept firmly under the boot of oppression. In surveys comparing the attitudes of the children of migrant parents, it is only Muslims who do not develop more egalitarian views of women as they grow up in the west.

Many Islamic organizations advise Western governments on integration policies that encourage the respect of illiberal Islamic beliefs, and the further entrenchment of practices that keep Muslims segregated from the rest of liberal society.  “It is paradoxical that in the name of freedom of religion, governments permit Islamist organizations to hamper the integration of communities and new arrivals. It’s trying to put out the fire with a flame thrower.” (p 190)

Two Alternative Solutions: Populism or Radical Reform

So what’s the solution? In the final two chapters, she considers two responses to the problems of migrant Muslims. The first is the right-wing populist solution, that favors expelling illegal immigrants and restricting future Muslim immigration — which Hirsi Ali considers neither wise nor practical — and the second is to radically reform the European systems of integrating immigrants.

Populism: The lesson of the past decade is clear. If wokes and leftists refuse to listen to citizens’ concerns about Muslim immigrants, or dismiss them as racist, right-wing populists will gain an audience. Populist parties do a great job of articulating voters’ grievances when everyone else fears to. You have to give them that. But their promises to expel immigrants or “stop the boats” is usually not the humane approach, and it’s easier said than done in any case (in Europe anyway; it’s easier to enforce in America). Europe, says Hirsi Ali, must face facts and create the right incentives for immigrants and native populations to succeed together.

Reform: To emphasize again — especially since critics have misrepresented Hirsi Ali on this point, including the New York Times reviewer — she advocates a humane approach: “I have been a beneficiary of the asylum system and of a successful integration program. I have emigrated twice in my life. I would be a monstrous hypocrite if I lent support to the proponents of deportation and immigration restriction. What I want to see is many others like me enjoying the same opportunities that I have enjoyed and contributing to the health of the West’s open societies. But without drastic reforms of Europe’s immigration and integration systems, that is not going to happen.” (p 256)

Indeed, if leaders continue to bury their heads in the sand, then Hirsi Ali is probably right: within a decade or two at the most, there will be a serious rollback of women’s rights in Europe. Public spaces will look very different. Women will no longer walk about confidently, unaccompanied, in the streets or taking the public transit alone.

Specifically, Hirsi Ali proposes six measures of reform:

1. Repeal the Existing Asylum Framework. The global asylum and refugee system is outdated and ill equipped to cope with the challenges posed by mass violence and global immigration today. The distinction between migrant and asylum seeker has become blurred so that’s no longer useful. Rather than focus on where people come from and their motivations for leaving, Hirsi Ali suggests that the main criterion for granting access should be how far they are likely to abide by the laws and adopt the values of their host country. Those who can demonstrate their ability to adapt, and who will most likely enter the labor market (instead of the welfare state), would be those who qualify. Officials should ask migrants what they know about the culture and laws of the society they wish to join, and what the migrant envisions for him or herself in the west. Then, instead of being thrown in a reception center for years (to wait while asylum applications and appeals are assessed), the migrant will be given a reasonable time frame to prove a willingness to adapt to the west — a probation period of say one or two years — and if unsuccessful, the migrant will be ordered to leave or be deported.

2. Address the Push Factors… She suggests that western countries need to invest more resources into examining the problems in countries that cause migrants to flee to begin with. Trade agreements, developmental aid, diplomatic pressure should be used to help stabilize the Muslim world, instead of leaving everything to the United States.

3. … as well as the Pull Factors. The original welfare state was predicated on a notion of reciprocity, but to immigrants it looks more like a universal basic income. There must be meaningful limits on what outsiders can claim. The Austrian government has been demonized for trying to inject reciprocity back into its welfare system. The Austrians should be lauded. The threat of penalties and deportation works; it gets migrants to register for courses and language training.

4. Reinstate the Rule of Law. European national governments need to reform their criminal justice systems. As they stand, they are way too lenient on violent offenders, and they make outrageous exceptions for immigrants on grounds of “cultural sensitivity”.

5. Listen to the Successful Immigrants – not to the Islamists or the wokes. Rather than pander to Islamist spokesmen and white wokes, western governments should reallocate their resources to support the ideas of the successful Adpaters — the immigrants, that is, who have adopted the values of the country that has given them sanctuary, and come out as well-adjusted liberal Europeans. In other words, listen to people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

6. Provide Sex Education to all Children. The only way to crack the shell of those who live an honor-shame framework of sex (in which clit-cutting, honor killings, sexual repression, and treating women as commodities are the norm) is to have mandatory sex education.

The Road to Gilead

It’s fitting that Hirsi Ali ends her book with reflections on The Handmaid’s Tale. I have said myself that the scenario envisioned in the novel/TV series evokes Islam far more than a hypothetical Christianity that takes over the state. Hirsi Ali writes:

“Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 to warn that American Evangelical Christians might one day succeed in establishing a patriarchal regime in the United States — or at least part of it, as ‘Gilead’ is supposed to be New England. Most of her readers appear to have missed the fact that something very like this had already happened in the Muslim world as religious ideologues seized power in the 1970s and ’80s in Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia. Islamic dystopias completely changed the circumstances of women in these countries — particularly better-off women in the large cities, who, in the 1950s and ’60s, had enjoyed at least some of the freedoms of women in the West. Islamists turned back the clock for women by claiming the public space for men with a religious fiat. Women were reduced to the role of mere breeders of sons.”

“I am not predicting that European women will meet exactly the same fate. History is unlikely to move as far back in time in Sweden or Germany as it has done in Iran and Somalia. It would be hyperbolic to suggest that Europe is sliding toward sharia law. Yet the recent wave of sexual violence and harassment in Europe is subtly but undeniably changing the nature of female life in Europe for the worse. Do we want a Europe in which photographs of female life taken before 2015 become objects of fascination, like the pictures in the books that the central character censors in Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments? If we wish to avoid it, we must imagine Old Europe as Gilead. It is already a closer fit than New England.”

I hope it’s not too late, for Europe’s sake.

Social Justice Theories: Original, Applied, and Reified Postmodernism

I read Cynical Theories (2020) on the advice of a friend whose advice seldom fails. It’s a helpful examination of certain theories and their relationship to postmodernism, which was bonkers in the first place but has mutated into the social justice agendas of the hard left.

The authors are Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, who are hardly two peas in a pod. They had a considerable difference in opinion over the last election, with Lindsay deciding in the fall of 2020 to support Trump. I deeply admire Pluckrose, and whatever made Lindsay align himself on the other side of the electorate, that doesn’t undo his sound contributions in this book. In fact, his co-authorship tests the reader. Anyone who dismisses the book in advance because “Lindsay became a Trumpian” is subscribing to identity politics – judging a book not on the basis of its arguments, but who wrote it – which is what Cynical Theories is about.

Postmodernism’s Three Stages

Postmodernism has been hard to define, and the authors outline the core principles and corollaries shared in all three phases of the movement (pp 59-61).

The core principles —

A. The postmodern knowledge principle: Radical skepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to cultural constructivism.

B. The postmodern political principle: A belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.

And their corollaries —

1. The blurring of boundaries. Most evident in postcolonial and queer theories, which are centered on ideas of fluidity, ambiguity, indefinability, and hybridity – all of which blur or even demolish the boundaries between categories. The common concern is over “disruptive binaries”. This theme is less evident in critical race theory (which actually can be very black-and-white).

2. The power of language. The idea that words are powerful and dangerous – and can be just as harmful as physical violence – has become so widespread now to amount a near criminalization of the English language and making people (especially comedians) fear to speak at all. Concerns about verbal violence, safe spaces, microaggressions, trigger warnings, and politically-correct terminology all testify to the endurance of postmodernism in its applied and (especially) reified forms.

3. Cultural relativism. Most evident in postcolonial theory, but also more broadly in the context of social-justice scholarship. Put simply, western nations are the pinnacle of oppressive power, and the sins of cultural arrogance and western imperialism are as great as – if not greater than – customs like honor-killings and clitoridectomies.

4. The loss of the individual and the universal. As opposed to classical liberalism, which focuses on achieving universal human rights and access to opportunities (for all races, genders, and identities), so as to allow each individual to fulfill his or her potential, applied and reified postmodern activism is deeply skeptical of these values, if not openly hostile to them. Applied/reified postmodern scholarship regards classical liberalism as complacent, naive, or indifferent about deeply ingrained prejudices, assumptions, and biases that limit and constrain people with marginalized identities.

The original postmodernists (of the late 60s to the mid 80s) were a bit aimless, using irony and playfulness to reverse hierarchies and disrupt what they saw as unjust knowledge and power structures. The players are well known – Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard – and their treatises were mostly descriptive, of what has been and is (as they believed).

The applied postmodernists (of the 90s and the 00s) and the reified postmodernists (of the 10s to the present) have focused on dismantling hierarchies and making moral claims about language and oppression – thereby becoming an activist force, preaching about the evils of power and privilege. They have used postmodernist ideas for reconstructive purposes, in a prescriptive way – putting an “ought” ahead of what “is”. Applied and reified postmodernism have actively undermined public trust in the academy, and become more like a church, asserting what people ought to think and believe, irrespective of science and evidence which are seen as integral to power structures.

Put another way, the original postmodernists observed and lamented. The applied and reified postmodernists have sought to reorder society – and in the last decade, the reified incarnation has become a mighty effective force, and an authoritarian one.

The Social Justice Gospel of Reified Postmodernism

Social justice warriors frequently take umbrage at requests for evidence, because, as the authors explain, the scientific method is part of the discourse system and knowledge production that was built by powerful people who valued these approaches and designed them (it is said) to exclude alternative means of communicating and producing ‘knowledge’. Science, in other words, has been organized in a way to serve the interests of the powerful people who established it – white western men – while setting up barriers against the participation of others. To remedy this, applied/reified postmodernism has demanded “epistemic justice” and “research justice” in place of reason and evidence. Meaning that we should include the lived experiences, emotions, and cultural and/or religious traditions of minority groups, and consider them “knowledges” to be privileged alongside – or even over – reason and evidence-based knowledge.

If the applied postmodernism of the 90s and 00s remained confined mostly to academic fields and activist circles, the reified postmodernism of the last ten years has been aggressively mainstreamed. Say the authors:

“The reification of the postmodern principles means that the original postmodern radical skepticism that any knowledge can be reliable has been gradually transformed into a complete conviction that knowledge is constructed in the service of power, which is rooted in identity, and that this can be uncovered through close readings of how we use language. Therefore, in Social Justice scholarship, we continually read that patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, ableism, and fatphobia are literally structuring society and infecting everything. They exist in a state of immanence – present always and everywhere, just beneath a nicer-seeming surface that can’t quite contain them.” (p 182)

And so it’s common now to hear that all white people are complicit in racism (if not racist), because of their automatic participation in the system of power and privilege described by critical race theory; that all men are likewise complicit in sexism (if not sexist); that sex is not biological, and it exists on a spectrum; that denial of gender identity is killing people; that the desire to cure disabilities and to remedy obesity is hateful; that criticism of the Islamic religion (describing it as a religion of violence) is hateful; and that language can be literal violence.

If that all sounds insane, or paranoid, or anti-factual, it is, and the authors compare the postmodernist view to a vast social conspiracy theory. A theory in which power is not exercised straightforwardly and visibly from above, but permeates all levels of society and is enforced by everyone, through routine interactions, expectations, social conditioning, and culturally constructed discourses that express a particular understanding of the world. Communicating with the applied/reified postmodernists (i.e. the wokes and social justice warriors) can be extremely difficult in this sense, say the authors, because they are so obsessed with knowledge, power, boundaries, language, and cultural relativism, that they see these dynamics at work everywhere – power displays in every interaction, offense in practically every other sentence, even when these aren’t obvious or even real.

The past decade has brought this all home, as social justice scholarship treats these postmodernist principles as dogma, tolerates little dissent, and “cancels” those who disagree with it. Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book thus comes as a welcoming corrective, and it’s especially useful for pulling together the core principles and corollaries of postmodernism that are sometimes elusive.

From Start to End

The book proceeds as a chronicle of the three stages. In chapter 1 the authors describe the tree trunk of original postmodernism, and its deconstructive project of despair and nihilism. In chapters 2-7 they outline the tree branches of applied postmodernism – postcolonial theory (which is exposed as often factually wrong, morally vacant, and patronizing, not to mention negligent and dangerous), queer theory (which often tries to modify or unmake the concepts of gender and sex in anti-scientific ways, so as to render itself baffling and irrelevant), critical race theory (in which racism is construed to be not merely prejudice, but “prejudice + power”), feminisms and gender studies (in which the classical liberal roots of feminism are seen to be replaced with the postmodern blurring of categories and an obsessive focus on language), and disability & fat studies (which advocate that disabled and obese people have a responsibility to celebrate their disabilities or fathood to subvert social norms, and even to refuse attempts at treatment or cure). In chapters 8-9 they paint the leaves of reified postmodernism, which is now an effective movement that has come to full fruition, taking the applied theories and cramming them down everyone’s throat.

And in that end game, a curious irony emerges – the “contradiction that lies at the heart of reified postmodernism: how can intelligent people profess both radical skepticism and radical relativism – which is the postmodern knowledge principle (1, above) – and at the same time assert the Truth According to Social Justice Theory with absolute certainty?” The authors offer the following explanation:

“The answer seems to be that the skepticism and relativism of the postmodern knowledge principle are now interpreted in a more restrictive fashion: that it is impossible for humans to obtain reliable knowledge by employing evidence and reason, but, it is now claimed, reliable knowledge can be obtained by listening to the ‘lived experiences’ of members of marginalized groups… The difficulty with this sort of Social Justice way of ‘knowing’ is, however, the same as that with all gnostic ‘epistemologies’ that rely upon feelings, intuition, and subjective experience. What should we do when peoples’ subjective experiences conflict? The overarching (classical) liberal principle of conflict resolution – to put forth one’s best arguments and hash the issue out, deferring to the best available evidence whenever possible – is completely eliminated by this approach. Indeed, it’s billed as a conspiracy used to keep marginalized people down.” (pp 209-210)

It’s thus no exaggeration, as the authors conclude, to say that the reified postmodernists – the social justice theorists – have created a new religion, a tradition of faith that is hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of almost any kind.

And it’s no accident that Donald Trump was elected in the midst of this crazed reified PoMo. In the middle of the 2010s, the time was ripe for someone like him. Granted this happened for many reasons (not least the Democrats’ neglect of the middle-class), a big reason was this regressive-left authoritarianism. When social justice warriors portray themselves as the sole champions of the marginalized, advancing their cause – astonishingly – by rejecting classical liberalism as a form of oppression, and then on top of that by doing so in increasingly dogmatic and authoritarian means, it wasn’t surprising to see a Donald Trump emerge. Wokeism called him forth.

The Endurance of Classical Liberalism

Pluckrose and Lindsay’s alternative to social justice theories comes in the final tenth chapter, where they explain why classical liberalism has stood the test of time as the best political option, and how classical liberalism and reified postmodernism are not just in tension, they are almost 100% at odds with each other:

  • Liberalism sees knowledge as something we can learn about objectively, with enough discipline; postmodernism sees knowledge as created by human beings – stories we tell ourselves to validate privilege and power.
  • Liberalism embraces categorizations and clarity of understanding; postmodernism blurs boundaries and erases categories, reveling in manufactured ambiguity.
  • Liberalism values the individual and universal human values; postmodernism rejects both in favor of group identity and identity politics.
  • Liberals champion the underdog, but they center on human dignity across the board; SJWs and wokes focus on victimhood.
  • Liberals encourage disagreement and debate as a means of getting at the truth; postmodernism rejects these as ways of reinforcing dominant discourses that suppress certain perspectives – claiming that we can’t get to “the” truth but only “our” truths rooted in our values – and furthermore insists that most truth is just a language game.
  • Liberals believe in progress; postmodernists are skeptical of progress.
  • Most importantly, classical liberalism accepts criticism, even of itself, and is thus self-correcting; reified postmodernism cannot be criticized. Which means that classical liberalism is inherently constructive because of the evolutionary process it engenders; SJW/woke postmodernism is inherently corrosive because of its cynicism and attachment to methods that torpedo the evolutionary process.

I have always been a classical liberal and Pluckrose & Lindsay’s book reinforces my stance. Liberalism holds to the values of individual liberty, democracy, limitations on the powers of government, universal human rights, freedom of speech and expression and debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion – and these values have produced the freest societies over the past five centuries, with the least amounts of oppression. This is because liberalism is “intrinsically goal-oriented, problem-solving, self-correcting, and – despite what postmodernists think – genuinely progressive.” (p 243)

To those who insist that progress is a myth, I can only roll my eyes. Progress has always occurred the fastest (despite setbacks) under liberalism, not least in the 60s and 70s, when racial and gender discrimination became illegal, homosexuality was decriminalized, and women gained access to contraception. This all happened during the time postmodernism was revving up and, incredibly, insisting that it was time to stop believing in progress, science, and reason. Maybe the postmodernists just genuinely didn’t know what progress was. Or perhaps PoMo thinkers never stop to reflect that without the “oppressive tools of the white male patriarchy”, they’d likely be dead or living in primitive squalor without the benefits provided by math and science over the past centuries.

Can anything be salvaged from postmodernism?

Very little. The authors acknowledge kernels of truth to the core principles of postmodernism and the four corollaries, but it amounts to damning the PoMo project with faint praise. There is literally nothing postmodernism can do, that liberalism cannot do better. The authors consider each (see pp 252-258):

A. The postmodern knowledge principle. The principle assumes that knowledge is a socially constructed cultural artifact, which is only true in a banal sense. The principle does tell us to do a better job of listening and considering alternative ideas. Fair enough. But it certainly doesn’t obligate us to “listen and believe” or to “shut up and listen”.

B. The postmodern political principle. The principle assumes that the world is a zero-sum power game and a conspiracy theory without individual conspirators. It can’t accept that progress is incremental and fallible, and practically resents scientists’ lack of omniscience. It is correct, however, that harmful discourses can gain tyrannical power and harm people. And guess what? Reified postmodernism is one such discourse. It’s good that liberalism fights back against it and its social justice theories, as this book does.

  • The blurring of boundaries. Granted it is wise to be skeptical of rigid boundaries. They should be tested always. But categories themselves are not inherently oppressive. If you want to argue that men and women don’t fit neatly into boxes, use science to show that, not your wishes.
  • The power of language. Language can indeed be dangerous, but regulating language, censoring speech, or manufacturing offense in language is even more dangerous. Liberalism advocates a marketplace of ideas; the idea that social justice is served by restricting what is said or banning some ideas or terminologies is unsupported by history or reason.
  • Cultural relativism. There are indeed profound differences across cultures. As a former Peace Corps volunteer I’m aware of that more than many. But it’s just as dangerous and ridiculous to pretend that we cannot make judgments about the practices of a culture other than our own. Despite our variances across culture, we are first and foremost human beings with a universal nature.
  • The loss of the individual and the universal. There is some truth to the idea that individualism and universalism is limited, but there is more truth in the idea that everyone of is is an individual and share a common human nature. Identity politics is simply a lousy way to empowerment. Imagine, say the authors, if Martin Luther King Jr. had asked white Americans to “be a little less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant” (like Robin DiAngelo asks in White Fragility). The fact that King, liberal feminists, and gay pride activists of the 60s and 70s grounded their social-justice protests in appeals to liberal, individual, and universal dreams is what made them successful. Making common cause with others is the enlightened approach to social justice.

Principled Oppositions

The authors conclude with a set of “principled oppositions” which illustrate their approach to social justice (the classical liberal one) compared to the postmodern approach to Social Justice (with a capital S and J). I’ll cite the third one, for sexual identity:

We affirm that discrimination and bigotry against sexual minorities remains a problem in society and requires addressing.

We deny that this problem can be solved by queer theory, which attempts to render all categories relevant to sex, gender, and sexuality meaningless.

We contend that homophobia and transphobia are defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory acts against homosexual and transgendered people on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.

We deny that dismantling categories of sex, gender, or sexuality or that forwarding concepts of an oppressive “heteronormativity” and “cisnormativity” is the best way to make society more welcoming to sexual minorities.

We contend that sexual minorities are also normal and represent a natural occurring variation on sexuality and gender identity and can easily be accepted as such in the same way that other variations (like red hair and left-handedness) are currently recognized as traits found in a minority of humans who are regarded as completely normal human individuals and valued members of society. Homophobia and transphobia are intentional acts, undertaken by individuals who should be expected to do otherwise.

They also do sets like this for racism, sexism, and social justice in general. Affirmations, denials, and contentions that I agree with entirely.

Afterthoughts

Alongside Cynical Theories, I recommend another book that I never got around to reviewing: The Coddling of the American Mind (2019), by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The book describes the alarming decrease in people’s ability to cope with debate, challenges to precious ideas, and hurt feelings. Sometimes it’s hardly the students’ fault, and Cynical Theories helps us see why: the culture of reified postmodernism is so suffocating and omnipresent these days, that it’s simply how students are conditioned: they’ve been indoctrinated to believe that they shouldn’t have to be threatened by challenging or difficult or different ideas – especially not those that go against social justice dogmas.

Watch your language

And on another related note, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the second corollary of postmodernism, regarding the power of language, and how people are so willing to let language unnerve and upset them to debilitating degrees. I speak as a minority on the subject. I’m a member of the LGBTQ community and know first-hand the power of derisive speech. It’s human nature to be bothered by hostile language or hate speech – and tempting for many to want to censor or deplatform it altogether. But we have to be better than that, and refuse to allow language to get the better of us. The reified postmodern idea that language is literally violent is only true if the listener allows it to be true. Decrying politically incorrect speech at every turn grants language way too much power over us. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have empathy as speakers; simply that we need more resilience as listeners.

Malebolge: A Revised Circle 8 for the Modern Age

Part 1 of my Inferno tour consists of eleven cantos covering Circles 1-7. Part 2 will also span eleven cantos, but covering Circle 8 alone. Circle 8 will be over 40% of the entire tour, and it’s worth reflecting over why Dante devoted so much breakdown to the sin of fraud.

Circle 8 is called Malebolge, which means “evil ditches”, and there are ten of them. (Click on the right image for full view.) According to Dorothy Sayers:

“Malebolge is the image of the City in corruption: the progressive disintegration of every social relationship, personal and public. Sexuality, ecclesiastical and civil office, language, ownership, counsel, authority, psychic influence, and material interdependence — all the media of the community’s exchange are perverted and falsified, till nothing remains but the descent into the final abyss where faith and trust are wholly and forever extinguished.” (Inferno, p 185)

That’s about as accurate a description of Circle 8 as any. However, I am revising Ditches 3 and 5. In Dante’s scheme, Ditch 3 punishes the ecclesiastical crime of simony, which is archaic in today’s age. It was part of the feudal structure by which clergy members (like priests and bishops) became the hand-picked pawns of secular lords and emperors. I can’t come up with an example of a modern simoniac. Ditch 5 punishes barratry (the secular equivalent of simony) and also grafters who use their political office to take bribes. Grafters can easily be grouped with the thieves and extortionists on Ditch 7.

In place of simony and grafting/barratry, I’m substituting categories that Dante would have surely added if he had lived in today’s world. He never knew woke-left propaganda, alt-right conspiracy theories, yellow journalism, and fake news like we have it today. My new Ditch 3 punishes snowflakes — woke college professors, public speakers, or commentators who have a large platform. They are fraudulent because they subordinate facts to feelings. My new Ditch 5 punishes cranks — crackpot scholars and conspiracy theorists.

This revision also carries the benefit of freeing up Ditch 10 to be reserved for the falsifiers of something concrete: forgers, counterfeiters, and identity thieves. Dante had constructed Ditch 10 as a “catch-all” punishing ground for any falsifier, including liars in general (“falsifiers of words”), but liars and deceivers are spread out across many Ditches, in some form or another, including, now, on my new Ditches 3 and 5.

So this, tentatively, is what Circle 8 will look like, and the souls I plan to see there.

Circle 8 Souls Punished
Sinners I encounter in this Ditch
Ditch 1
Panderers and Seducers Jeffrey Epstein (P), Gerald Sandusky (S)
Ditch 2
Flatterers Giulio Alberoni, Joseph Goebbels, Mike Pence
Ditch 3
Snowflakes Linda Sarsour, Reza Aslan, Laurie Charles
Ditch 4
False Prophets Charles Taze Russell, Ophira and Tali Edut, Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, David Koresh, Brian David Mitchell
Ditch 5
Cranks and Conspiracy Theorists Oliver Stone, Michael Baigent, Alex Jones, Maajid Nawaz, Steven Brandenburg
Ditch 6
Hypocrites Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Michael Landon, James Buchanan
Ditch 7
Thieves (Robbers, Extortionists, Launderers) Carl Gugasian, Darnell Riley, Francisco Correa Sanchez, Abdulla Yameen
Ditch 8
Counselors of Fraud Bernie Madoff, Martin Shkreli, L. Ron Hubbard, Mariam Al-Sohel
Ditch 9
Sowers of Discord, Inciters of Rebellion Daniel Shays, Donald Trump
Ditch 10
Forgers, Counterfeiters, Identity Thieves Matvei Golovinski, Charles Dawson, Konrad Kujau, Walter Fritz, Morton Smith, Wesley Weber, Frank William Abagnale

And here are the punishments I came up with for Ditches 3 and 5:

Circle 8 Souls Punished
Contrapasso: Punishment Fitting the Sin
Ditch 1
Panderers and Seducers They are whipped by devils while marching. The devils apparently gain sexual pleasure by inflicting pain on those who were either pimps or obtained sexual pleasure by abuse of trust.
Ditch 2
Flatterers They live in the shit they spoke in life — plunged into a lake of excrement.
Ditch 3
Snowflakes They have their lips sown shut, forced to march on a narrow line to a specific drumbeat. As they subordinated truth to their personal feelings, and policed the speech (or even tried to ban speech) of those who spoke truth, so now in death they have their lips sown shut, unable to ever speak again. And because they manufactured offenses, castigating people for trivial causes, they are now flailed with a spiked ball for even slightly stepping out of line or missing a single beat.
Ditch 4
False Prophets They walk with heads twisted backwards, destined to look only behind through eyes blinded by tears.
Ditch 5
Cranks and Conspiracy Theorists They sit against the walls of the ditch with their eyes torn out, continually screaming in fear. As they feared every phantom menace they couldn’t see any real evidence for, so now they can’t see anything at all, and suffer extreme paranoia.
Ditch 6
Hypocrites They walk in gilded cloaks lined with lead. As in life, they shine on the outside but are lifeless on the inside.
Ditch 7
Thieves (Robbers, Extortionists, Grafters) They have their hands tied behind their backs by snakes and suffer a horrible metamorphosis, stealing each others identity, unable to distinguish what’s “mine” and what’s “yours” after all the transitions.
Ditch 8
Counselors of Fraud They used their eloquence to mislead people and rip them off, and so are wrapped in tongues of fire which conceal them, just as in life their speech concealed their fraudulent thoughts.
Ditch 9
Sowers of Discord, Inciters of Rebellion They divided people in life, so now in death they are hacked and divided into a dismembered state, forced to drag their mutilated bodies around the ditch. Their wounds heal as they march the circuit, and then the devil cuts them open again.
Ditch 10
Forgers, Counterfeiters, Identity Thieves Forgers are afflicted with leprosy, counterfeiters with dehydration, and identity thieves are driven insane. Their physical rottenness mirrors the rottenness of their souls that caused them to falsify things.