Fire, Air, and the New Right

Most morally serious people on the Right are preoccupied with the same question: How do we defeat the monster of woke ideology? Each month, the Left seems to get crazier, yet its stranglehold on American society only gets stronger.

The obvious way to fight any danger is to embrace its opposite. To put out a fire, you douse it with water. But in the case of major conflagrations—as any forest ranger will tell you—the more effective, if counterintuitive, solution may be to start another fire

The “art of fire,” like any kind of technical knowledge, is amoral. Firefighters are often the best arsonists, just as physicians sometimes make the best poisoners. But for the same reason, it is professional idea-mongers—intellectuals and academics—who may be the most effective at defeating harmful theories. This is an essential lesson to keep in mind in our battle against left-wing dogmatic insanity.

Fighting fire with fire is tricky and dangerous. Most of the time, water really is the best option. If we carry this metaphor over into the realm of ideas, we can understand the entirely reasonable reaction of many decent people to the devastation inflicted by deranged theorists: Marxism, moral relativism, National Socialism, radical Islamism, “antiracism” . . . the list goes on. In each case, some abstract philosophical or theoretical doctrine—which might have looked good on paper—gets taken up by fanatics who cause terrible misery trying to implement their pie-in-the-sky paradigm. 

This often leads to a deep wariness of all theoretical ideas, a position one finds among many New Right figures on Twitter and elsewhere. Better to steer clear of philosophical constructs altogether, they say, and stick with the tried and true. Experience, tradition, and the common sense of the ordinary man in the street are the most reliable guides for decent politics. Often, that is entirely sensible.

But sometimes, applying this method is mistaken. Rejecting philosophy entirely can be an unhelpful overreaction when bad ideas are burning up the forest. 

I’m abusing this fire metaphor because it points to an important argument made by James Madison, which is directly relevant here. 

In a famous passage in Federalist 10, Madison warns against such overreaction. Yes, there is a danger of people abusing their freedom to undermine the common good—a problem he called “faction.” But Madison notes that in a free society, it is only natural that people will embrace various opinions, interests, and policies, not all of which are completely upright. So the question is, “How do we deal with this?” Madison answers:

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire . . . . But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

Since it makes no sense to combat the fire of faction by extinguishing the air of liberty, Madison says the “causes of faction cannot be removed.” Therefore, “relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”

I would suggest the same lesson be applied to the problem of pernicious intellectual dogmas in our contemporary politics. Getting rid of the cause would mean rejecting our capacity for rational thought. So just because leftists misuse the power of reason, people on the Right are not thereby justified in abandoning critical thinking. The battle against bad ideas can only be won by offering better ideas

Madison himself seems to suggest this in Federalist 37, where he discusses the line between federal authority and the powers of the states. This simple-sounding distinction, he explains, turns out to be quite difficult. (In fact, he struggled with this question his whole life.) The father of the Constitution then goes off into an interesting tangent about “the faculties of the mind,” which “have never yet been distinguished and defined, with satisfactory precision.” “Sense, perception, judgment, desire, volition, memory, imagination, are found to be separated by such delicate shades and minute gradations that their boundaries have eluded the most subtle investigations, and remain a pregnant source of ingenious disquisition and controversy.”

On the one hand, this means we must moderate our “hopes from the efforts of human sagacity.” And yet, such intellectual modesty does not make the difficult questions go away—which seems to me to be the urgent point to remember today. 

We need to refute, not ignore, the pernicious doctrines of the Left. That means defending this truth: that we inhabit an intelligible universe governed by an objective moral order; and that the dogmas of the Left are wrong, above all, because they reject the laws of nature and nature’s God.

To recover our republican freedom from the woke maniacs, we should recall that the whole American experiment in liberty is premised on the founders’ belief in “sufficient virtue among men for self-government” including our capacity for “reflection and choice.”

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About Glenn Ellmers

Glenn Ellmers' new book, The Narrow Passage: Plato, Foucault, and the Possibility of Political Philosophy, will be published by Encounter this summer. He is the author of The Soul of Politics: Harry V. Jaffa and the Fight for America and the Salvatori Research Fellow of the American Founding at the Claremont Institute. He is also a fellow of the Center for American Greatnsss.

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