Farewell to Z-Man!
Once More on the Question of Natural Right

After being attacked by the Z-Man about a dozen times, I finally responded in a couple of carefully calibrated articles explaining why I think a few of his central contentions are wrong. Like a textbook bully who can dish it out but can’t take it, in his responses (at least the ones he hasn’t hidden behind a paywall) the Z-Man has lashed out wildly. He chose to start a fight and now is outraged that his target is defending himself. 

In what I can only assume is Freudian projection, Z-Man calls my arguments “ad hominem.” He appears not to know that that Latin phrase means “to the person,” attacking the individual rather than addressing his argument. But in fact I did not attack his person; to the contrary, I praised what I liked about his blog. And I did address his argument, at length—which length is of course, inevitably in internet discourse, itself denounced as disqualifying. To repeat a point I made last time, in internet warfare, any-weapon-at-hand replaces logic and good faith. If you don’t respond to an attack, you are a coward who has no argument. If you do respond, but briefly, you are tacitly admitting to having been outgunned. If you respond at length, you are mocked for your “extraneous text” and “deliberate wordiness.” See how that works? 

The Z-Man knows full well that at least 80 percent of my last article was directed not to him but to Paul Gottfried, a scholar I deeply respect. Gottfried and I have found this dialogue useful and even have managed to find much common ground, as was my intention. Among the many points I raised which Z-Man ignores is that Gottfried and I, despite some remaining disagreements around the margins, appear to be quite close (at any rate, closer than I once thought) in our understanding of the definition and importance of natural right. 

Z-Man stacks the insults high, but I won’t bother with those. I will instead address his main arguments.

The first and foundational one seems to be this: since you can’t see, feel, or touch natural right, it does not exist. That’s really it—the chief substance of this (to coin a phrase) “foam-flecked rant.” 

We cannot see, feel, or touch God. Does that mean or prove He does not exist? We can’t see or grasp a “point” or “line” in space. Yet these core concepts of Euclidean geometry have undergirded human understanding of the physical world and technological progress for more than 2,000 years. Do they not exist? We can’t see, feel, or touch human emotions such as love or hate. Even Z-Man’s hatred of me is entirely incorporeal (unless it has taken over the cells of his body). But it nonetheless appears to have a definite existence. 

After accusing me of occluding my argument with rhetorical “squid ink,” the Z-Man attempts to bolster this rather pedestrian argument with jargon such as “non-contextual reality.” For the record: Yes, the boulder is still there when you close your eyes or turn your back. If you doubt this, I refer you to Dr. Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley (I recommend steel-toed boots for the experiment). 

At any rate, it would amuse those philosophers (basically, all of them from Socrates to Hegel) who have made the case not only for natural right but for all kinds of incorporeal beings to hear this simplistic dismissal reiterated as some settled truth. I explained at some length in my last two articles the differing standards of proof or precision that philosophy argues are appropriate for different inquiries, and so won’t rehash all that here (but see Nicomachean Ethics I 3, 1094b12-1095a13). Basically Z-Man is just restating, without realizing it, Weber’s “fact-value” distinction, which holds that the physical realm is the sole home of “fact” whereas all human judgments are “values” that cannot be true (or even false). He likely does not know that this fundamental error of desiccated late modernity is a direct progenitor of the globalist-leftist oligarchy we both despise. It’s not the first time that an opponent of a particular political order unwittingly adopted the metaphysic of his enemy, thus hamstringing his own ability effectively to fight it. 

Z-Man’s second argument is that all concepts of right depend on their “context.” But there are two ways to make this claim. The first, with which all philosophers up through at least the early moderns would agree, is that while a certain standard of right might be true, that alone does not necessarily make it practicable for all people, in all places, in all times. Plato and Aristotle (and Cicero, and really all the ancient and medieval philosophers) posit a “best regime”—and then immediately qualify that assertion with the caveat that the best regime is not always possible; indeed, it may never (or very rarely) be possible. And what is not possible cannot, of course, be desirable, except in the abstract. 

This is very similar to the American founders’ frank (if regretful) admission that the system they designed for the United States could not work in most of the world at that time (and might never work in some places). That was, in their view, less a reflection on the goodness of their handiwork or the truth of its presuppositions than on the (present, or perhaps permanent) capabilities of other peoples. Today, those who profess to admire the founders ignore these reservations as embarrassing, while those who frankly hate the founders denounce them as “racist.” Z-Man explicitly takes neither position but implicitly dismisses the founders as fools because they believed in natural right. (I have no doubt he would deny this is his position, but that would either be disingenuous or else yet another sign that he doesn’t understand the implications of his own argument.) 

The second way to assert the decisiveness of “context” is to say that context itself creates reality. This appears to be the Z-Man’s position. I say “appears” because he seems to want things both ways: natural right is (as the internet bros say) “fake and ghey,” but there is some standard of justice in the world that supports what he likes and condemns what he hates. So, in addition to unwittingly following Weber, Z-Man also unwittingly follows Foucault, for whom “power” determines “truth.” Here again we come to a core metaphysic—perhaps the core metaphysic—of the present regime that we both despise, but whose metaphysic I reject while the Z-Man accepts it tout court

The Z-Man’s third argument guts his entire post. He says that the proof that “natural rights”—I might here note that Z-Man continually elides natural right, natural law, and natural rights, and never demonstrates any understanding of the differences between them or why they’re important. Anyway, he says that the proof that natural right is fake is that all regimes based thereon have failed. 

Leave aside the fact that, according to every philosopher until Hegel, plus many who came after, not to mention the historical record, all regimes and even all civilizations must and do fail. This is part and parcel of human nature (a concept whose existence the Z-Man both denies and affirms, leaving his final position unclear). Even Plato’s perfect “city in speech,” the best of all best regimes, fails (in speech, appropriately, in Book VIII of the Republic). There is no permanent solution to the political problem. 

Z-Man then claims that ancient Athens was “a society [based] on natural rights.” This is so ridiculous it should be disqualifying. Athens was an ancient city like any other, with no conception of natural right (much less of “rights,” which as I have shown repeatedly, did not emerge until the early modern world). Athens took its bearings from its laws, which were derived from its gods (Athena above all). In ancient Athens, natural right was entirely the province of a few philosophers whose teaching was, to say the least, controversial. Athens was so far from “a society based on natural rights” [sic] that it executed Socrates for talking about natural right! 

A mistake this elementary would mortify an ordinary person capable of feeling embarrassment. It literally shows that the Z-Man has no idea what he’s talking about as he carves his diktats in stone and thunders them from the mountaintop. But unlike Moses, who only relayed what God revealed to him, the Z-Man is his own highest authority. He blasts through the distinction between arrogance and confidence and ends up somewhere way past hubris. I am a teacher by profession. Teachers have (or ought to have) many responsibilities, not least of which is endeavoring not to convey outright falsehoods to their students. In this respect, as in many others, the Z-Man is failing his readers. 

Z-Man next asserts that “fitness” determines the viability of a political system and its underlying claims to truth and justice. The founders’ natural rights regime failed, and this proves that it was not “fit.”

First, note the bait-and-switch. The Z-Man’s initial claim—the one that launched this little contretemps—was that “natural rights do not exist.” Now they are said to have been proven unfit. But how can something that doesn’t exist be proved unfit? We may say that Santa Claus does not exist, but we can’t at the same time say that he has been proved a bad deliverer of presents, and as such been replaced by mom and dad, and remain consistent. To be supplanted by something presupposes a prior existence. By the same token, to be proven unfit presupposes a standard of fitness which a real thing, not a nonexistent “figment of the imagination,” failed to meet.

At any rate, the fitness argument gives the game entirely away. As I pointed out in both prior pieces, the tradition-based regimes of the Old World also failed. At the very least, they were replaced, which in Darwinian or evolutionary terms is the definition of failure. Mustn’t this then prove they were not “fit?” And not just those particular regimes: mustn’t this also prove that tradition itself, tradition as such, failed and is therefore unfit? All the aristocracies also failed. All the monarchies either failed or were transformed into shadows of their former selves: pomp and circumstance masking globalist oligarchy. Witness Charles III giddily announcing that he will put “refugees, multiculturalism, and the NHS at the heart” of his “diverse coronation.” What is that if not failure, especially according to the Z-Man’s standards (which, on this point, I share)? 

More to the point, if fitness both sets and is the standard, then the present regime must be superior to what it replaced, no? After all, it “beat” all its predecessors—tradition, aristocracy, monarchy, theocracy, natural right, natural law, natural rights, all of them. It entered the arena, wiped the floor with them, and now it rules. Survival of the fittest! On the Z-Man’s own terms, the present regime must be not merely superior to tradition (or whatever past regime he prefers) but the best regime yet seen. So why is he whining about its victory when victory is the only standard that matters? By his own argument, he should shut up and submit. 

I guess he would say: the coming Z-Regime that will replace the present order will, ipso facto, be more “fit.” Maybe, but that still begs the questions of the basis of that regime, and the reason for the badness of the present. Also, since no regime lasts forever (even Hitler, not known for his modesty, only promised a thousand-year Reich), then the Z-Regime will also inevitably be replaced by something fitter and which the Z-Man is all but certain to dislike, or at least to like less. If he were attempting to be consistent, he might say that politics is simply meaningless, scorpions fighting in a bottle—but in that case who cares? Or else he could say that all politics is will-to-power and he wants his own will to rule. Instead, he gropes for some way to declare the present regime illegitimate and bad even as tries to take a wrecking ball to all standards of good and bad.

Whatever his answer on this score, given the inherent flux of all human things, to accept the Z-Man’s argument that fitness determines all requires eternally resigning ourselves to whatever the present throws at us. Novelty is the sole standard of goodness: whatever exists now necessarily bests what has come before and necessarily will be bested by what comes next. Why else did the prior thing get supplanted? 

To believe this, one must believe that decline in the sense of transition from better to worse is impossible. For how can the worse supplant the better? If it won, by definition it’s better—more “fit.” This is progressivism on steroids. It also raises the question: why work toward anything? Statesmen such as the American founders who sought to build a better regime didn’t take progress for granted nor were they the least bit deterministic. And they had clear goals for what they wanted, based on a clear understanding of nature and politics. Z-Man presumably wants to overthrow the present regime and replace it with something, but why? And based on what?

That’s not even the worst of it. Even “fitness” requires some standard: “fit” according to what? The Z-Man has an answer and it’s . . . nature. Yes! The reason Z-Man knows that natural rights are fake is that “nature has not been kind to natural rights.” After railing in post after post about the impossibility, stupidity, and illogic of natural right, he falls back on nature as the standard of justice, of good and bad. Which is, needless to say, the very definition of natural right. All this is in an attempted refutation of my claim that opponents of natural right who still want to assert a standard for right and wrong (which is to say, nearly all of them) must implicitly or unconsciously return to nature. 

Z-Man does me one better: he affirms nature in the process of denying it. I admit I have never seen this rhetorical maneuver before. If Z-Man weren’t so blindly hostile to Leo Strauss (whose name, I note, ends with a double-s), I might wonder if this glaring self-contradiction weren’t a clever attempt at esoteric misdirection. But I think we can safely rule that out.

But the very worst is this extraordinary sentence: “What drives the whole of the universe is fitness and fitness beats truth.” There is much that could be said about Z-Man’s fortune-cookie philosophizing, but I will limit myself to what I think are the two most important points. The first is that the claim that “fitness beats truth” is not a denial that truth is true but is, to the contrary, an affirmation. Which leads to the second: if truth is true, how can fitness “beat” it? More fundamentally, if “fitness beats truth” then mustn’t fitness be . . . true? Which is only to say that truth is true. This tautology-as-faux-profundity only brings us back to the basic question: “fit” and “true” according to what? Which points to nature, and hence to natural right. Social Darwinism, no less than many other attempts to dodge or deny the main issue, simply presuppose or lead back to it. 

In sum, the Z-Man is all over the place. Where he is not contradictory, he is incoherent. He affirms and denies in the same sentence, then denies that he has affirmed and denies that he has denied. He declaims in ways intended to be final about ideas he doesn’t understand, concepts he hasn’t thought through, disciplines he hasn’t studied, and books he hasn’t read—all with an amazing arrogance, pomposity, dead certainty, and complete lack of humility or even circumspection. 

One of my teachers once famously referred to another scholar as a “puffer fish” who swells “up to great dimensions to try to frighten off his opponents. But the closer one looks the less formidable is the defense.” In his most recent post alone, the Z-Man claims to speak authoritatively on metaphysics, ontology, political philosophy, history, quantum mechanics, and neurology, among much else. Clearly, the Z-Man is either the world’s smartest, most learned man—a polymath for the ages who should donate his brain to science—or else someone who got way out over his skis and doesn’t know the way back. The evidence suggests the latter: that the Z-Man not only doesn’t know what he does not know; he doesn’t know that he does not know.

As to the rest, it’s not my fault that the Z-Man denied the existence of lust in his initial declaration and now realizes it was a silly thing to say and so wishes to deny he said it and blame me for making it up. But it’s right there in plain words. Admittedly, it can be hard to know what he really means because, at least when discussing big ideas, he rarely expresses himself clearly. I refrained, out of politeness, from mentioning this before, but since the Z-Man has thrown even the pretense of decency to the winds, I may as well say it now: his writing is sloppy. Misspelled and dropped words abound. Fragments sprout like weeds. In quoting him, I have had to use [sic] repeatedly. Many sentences are garbled and many others go nowhere. The organization is scattered, when it exists at all. I don’t know if this is because writing is not his thing (which would be understandable; it isn’t most people’s thing) or because he writes in a white-hot rage and doesn’t double-check his work. (His style, at least in responding to me—not in those posts in which he discusses things he actually knows about—strikes me as the written equivalent of that meme where an NPC screams at the wind as his face melts like that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark.) If the latter, that’s another downside to the toxic combination of internet bravado and anonymity. 

But the basic question remains: does lust exist or doesn’t it? Because if it does, it must be one of those unseen, incorporeal things that the Z-Man insists cannot exist outside of “non-contextual reality.” And it must be connected to that “human nature” which the Z-Man disparages, seemingly only because I assert it. We’ve all encountered that unthinking wrath which can impel otherwise sensible people to deny the sky is blue simply because their enemy (real or perceived) asserts it. It’s not a good look, but it does more damage to the wrathful than to his target. 

I appreciated this assessment from another blogger, Orion’s Cold Fire, who grasped exactly what I’ve been trying to do. I quote him in part: 

I can see the point of view of both these sides. But I will say I have more sympathy for Anton because he has extended himself to try to communicate across the divide in a friendly manner. The Z-Man was far from friendly. In fact, he was pointedly hostile and rude. And maybe that’s the requirement of the position he has staked out. He has readers who exceed him in their anger toward any moderate figure or group in America. Maybe politeness toward someone like Anton is a disqualifying act. But maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe he truly feels that Anton is part of the enemy he faces. And that is every man’s prerogative; to select his own friends and enemies.

I didn’t want or seek the Z-Man’s enmity. But sometimes your enemies choose you. A friend who is sympathetic to the Z-Man gently chided me for going into so much depth and detail on subjects in which the Z-Man is not well-versed. I get where he was coming from, but I replied that 1) I didn’t start it, and 2) questions of human nature and natural right are of central importance to our present predicament and need to be hashed out. There is no obligation to let error stand unrefuted. 

At any rate, I wrote these pieces less for the Z-Man than for others who I fear are being led into a dead end. I get that they hate late modernity; I do too. I get why; I hate it for all the same reasons. 

But it’s a mistake to allow that hatred to metastasize, or worse, to insist that the only available response is to negate (y)our whole past. Make no mistake, this is what Z-Man is demanding that you do in order to pass muster, in his estimation, as part of the “New Right.” You must reject the entire Western tradition, all of its philosophy and greatest minds, its history, and your distinctive Western and American identity. Or, you are allowed to keep the latter, but only on his terms—with the philosophic heart ripped out and the limbs amputated. 

Remember: according to the Z-Man, you have no rights. So no bitching about censorship or gun-grabbing. Power is all that matters, and the regime going after your guns and throttling your social media has the power—full stop. Also, human nature—whether it exists or not; see above—provides no guidance whatsoever for what is right and wrong, noble or base, how you should live, how you should treat others, or how they should treat you. According to the Z-Man, “fitness” is the only measure of worth, therefore the present regime, which has defeated all its antecedents, is the fittest, and therefore it properly rules you. To deny that is to rail against the natural order. 

Instead, you must accept your inferiority—you lost!—as an unfit being. According to the Z-Man, the United States is, and always was, garbage on at least two grounds: first, because it failed, and failure is ignoble (but according to what standard?), second because it was based on an error in the first place (but how can there be error without truth?). Therefore the pride or patriotism you may feel in the America that was taken from you is entirely misplaced. 

All of these questions and concepts are bound up not just with America but also with the Old World, which is where they were first raised and long explored. But you must discard all that too because the Z-Man says so, and also (not coincidentally) because I affirm them. 

I don’t expect to reach the Z-Man’s hardcore followers. I suspect that Orion’s Cold Fire is correct when he writes that the Z-Man “has readers who exceed him in their anger toward any moderate figure or group in America. Maybe politeness toward someone like Anton is a disqualifying act.” Leaving aside the question of just how “moderate” I really am, what I see here is simple purity spiraling: anger at a world that has failed the young, who lash out at anyone they see as connected to that world, and at all its antecedents. 

Anger can be useful when channeled in fruitful directions. You should be angry at the present regime, at what it’s done to you, continues to do, and plans to do. Anger becomes counterproductive when it descends into inchoate, negating rage against everything. To repeat a point I’ve made over and over, which my various haters continue to ignore, the spectacle of (real or quasi-) “white nationalists” raging against the Western tradition is comically yet shallowly depressing, like Oedipus adapted for the screen by Wes Anderson. You can do better. 

Ultimately, it’s less the vapidity (or illogic) of the arguments that repel me than the sneering, gratuitous nastiness. I am well aware that a very large segment of the New (and young) Right sees invective as a virtue, perhaps the highest virtue (as if fulminating on the internet is somehow equivalent to locking shields at Thermopylae), and will call me a “snowflake” or some such for complaining. But this is less a complaint than an observation. I made a good faith attempt at dialogue. It was not merely rebuffed but nuked from orbit. This is what we’ve come to: a New Right that not only rejects the entire Western tradition but that snarls like a feral, rabid dog at anyone who dares to explain, much less defend, it. 

Whether or not they realize or admit it, this portion of the New Right has made common cause with the anti-Western, anti-white, multicultural Left. The only thing they’re going to generate with this kind of behavior is more enemies, more isolation, and more infighting. That must be what they want. Either that, or they’ve lost all semblance of self-control. They’ve become like those Amazon tribes that let loose all their arrows at the first sign of a motorboat—except at least those tribes are protecting their way of life from modern incursion. They’re actually more like those ghetto thugs who throw bricks at fire trucks and ambulances, or Antifa goons who burn downtowns because . . . the present is bad and arson is the only way forward? Or something. I’ve given up trying to understand the rationale of people screaming into the void. I doubt they have one, in any case. 

It’s true, I haven’t had much positive to say here about the Z-Man’s learning, at least not on these subjects, which he chose to dispute. Though I will once again extend to him a courtesy he has never extended to me: as Aristotle observes, there are different kinds of wisdom, and while Z-Man lacks theoretical wisdom, his practical wisdom is on many points quite sound—even, in some cases, original. This is not insignificant and could have good effects in the real world if he stopped picking pointless fights and instead focused on productive cooperation with those who share his goals. 

More importantly, mental faculties are beyond individual control and thus cannot be the ultimate measures of moral worth or human dignity. The fight I join my friends and allies in waging is on behalf of everyone who shares our common heritage and who wants to share a common, positive destiny, no matter their IQ or terminal degree. The regime values credentials above character and we abhor its snobbery. But gratuitous meanness is entirely within individual control; it is a moral failing—of which well-brought up people with properly ordered souls should be ashamed and seek to correct. 

Now I’m done. (Lest I weaken, I hereby implore the editors of this website: in the spirit of Odysseus, lash me to the mast! No matter what Z-Man may come back with: Όχι άλλο!) I can surmise how it will go from here. The Z-Man will roar back, acknowledging none of his errors, instead puffing up and making several new ones, all with the same unshakable bombast. His loyal fans will exult that once again he has destroyed the neocon cuck, sounding not unlike Ben Shapiro gloating about “owning the libs.” The Right will continue to quarrel and fracture, and the regime will keep growing in strength.

Whatever. I’ve spent too much time on this already and have other things to do. I hope it was useful to someone.

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About Michael Anton

Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump Administration. He formerly wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus when he was a senior editor of American Greatness. He is the author most recently of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.

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