First Principles

Virtue Signaling Theater at the Mouth of Hell

The hypocrite is not the person who says one thing and does another. He is the play-actor, the man or woman who puts on a show of righteousness, to fool himself first of all, because he is his own favorite audience.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” 

—Matthew 23:23-24

One thing that strikes me as I consider the backwash of political commentary that characterizes our time is its innocence. I mean the word both intellectually and spiritually. The commentators seem never to have made a serious examination of conscience. They do not think of the words of Jesus above. Perhaps they have never heard them, or his stern warning, that the measure we give will be the measure we get. In their own estimation, they are perfect children, sure of the rightness of what they believe and of their moral stature.

When the boy from Kentucky last year stared blank-faced at the native American badgering him, he was reviled by millions of such moral children, who were ready to string him up. A young computer programmer makes the rather obvious point that women might not be attracted to that kind of work in the same numbers as men, he too is reviled by millions, and he loses his job.

Earlier this week, a woman with a loose dog in Central Park, she behaving badly, was confronted by an African American bird watcher, he behaving badly. When he seemed to threaten her and her dog, saying, “I’m going to do something and you won’t like it,” making reference to a plan to offer the dog a treat he said he carried with him for just such encounters, she called the police, and she mentioned his race. For doing that, she has lost her job, and the dog, too, while she gave millions of moral children the opportunity to dance and hug themselves for how good they are.

Children, we are not good. Shall we take the Ten Commandments, one by one?

“I am the Lord thy God: thou shalt not have strange gods before me.” The commandment enjoins piety and forbids idolatry. Are our churches and synagogues full? Or are we a people who snicker at piety, while turning the word “idol” into a term of praise? “That is all well for you,” someone may say, “but I think that God is a fable.” Nay, think so still, said Mephistopheles to Faustus, till experience teach thee otherwise.

Every injunction of the moral law is a fable to those who are set upon ignoring or violating it. Yet deep within our hearts, we believe that justice is no mere word. If we hang a man for saying an unkind thing, while we ourselves dance along in sins a thousand times worse, where will the justice be? Do we not bring down condemnation upon ourselves, by the dreadful measure we mete out to our brothers?

Should I enumerate these sins? Try, children, to imagine a people not quite so blithe about profanity, neglect of parents and offspring, fornication and adultery and all manner of sexual uncleanness, breach of promise, lying and cheating, theft by quick hands and the strokes of a pen; bloodshed—and let us not spread the oil of self-pity over the murder of children in the womb; gossip, detraction, slander, placing the words and deeds of our brothers in the worst conceivable light; envy and covetousness; pride and wrath and spiritual torpor, the glutton’s and the lecher’s preoccupation with the body, and avarice, including the avarice of ambition.

Perhaps a law of inversion applies here. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for gagging upon gnats while they swallowed camels whole. We may think that if you are going to gag on a small thing like a gnat—the stray word that your brother inadvertently speaks because he is tired or under pressure or not thinking clearly—you will never be able to get to the camel. But that may not be true.

It may be that if you strain at gnats, you will swallow camels, and if you swallow camels, you will strain at gnats. It is as if we each were supplied with a certain fund of moral condemnation. The less we spend upon our own sins, which are the only sins we can punish immediately and with a clear conscience, the more will we spend upon other people’s sins, which we can easily make appear far worse than ours; sins we perhaps do not commit, for the simple reason that we happen not to enjoy them.

Our tastes run to others. Or the less of that fund we spend upon grave sins, those which deprive someone of life, as abortion does, or which corrupt the innocence of children, as pornography does, or which strike at the heart of the family, as divorce does, the more will we spend upon the pardonable sins that everyone is prone to, or even upon what is no worse than a breach of etiquette.

Dismember that child in the womb, doctor, but make sure you extend the correct pinky while you do so.

All this is mere theater for our own delectation, as the words of Jesus suggest. The hypocrite is not the person who says one thing and does another. He is the play-actor, the man or woman who puts on a show of righteousness, to fool himself first of all, because he is his own favorite audience. What is called “virtue signaling” is pure hypocrisy, pure play-acting, unfurling your banner of righteousness and dancing before it, dancing at the mouth of hell.

What we should say, always, urgently, is only the truth: that we are the worst of sinners, and that on account of us the world is as it is, that we are the cause of despair in others, and that if it were not for the grace of God, we should never see salvation.

First Principles

The “1619 Project” Learns from Mussolini

The “1619 Project” is a genuine and instructive exercise in “fascist attitudes and activity” as described by Mussolini.

Contrary to what many think, fascism is not based on the belief in absolute truth. Fascism is based on the belief that there is no truth; that is, on relativism, or nihilism. This position is actually built on a fatal contradiction: a relativist says there is no truth, but in so doing, he is asserting a truth which then becomes the basis for what he intends to impose on everybody else. 

Everybody else has been so polite as to let the relativists go on instead of pointing out that they are proceeding from a premise that contradicts their own premise and therefore they don’t deserve to be listened to. But that’s where we are and where we’ve been for some time in the relativistic postmodern worldview.  

Take the “1619 Project”—a group of essays pushing the thesis that American ideals were false when they were written and that the American Revolution was fought to protect and perpetuate slavery.  

Prominent historians, liberals and conservatives alike, including Gordon Wood, James McPherson, James Oakes, Victoria Bynum, Clayborne Carson, Allen Guelzo, and Sean Wilentz have enumerated the many factual errors in the essays (including at the 1620 Project of the National Association of Scholars). Yet the lead essayist, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has responded mainly by mocking the idea of objective history altogether, as when she tweeted, with irony, “LOL. Right, because white historians have produced truly objective history.” She and her defenders fall back on the idea that they are offering a different “interpretation” or “re-framing” of the facts, or that they are simply generating debate. 

“I think my point was that history is not objective,” she has said. “And that people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts, and that white scholars are no more objective than any other scholars, and that they can object to the framing and we can object to their framing as well.”

This can fairly be described as a fascist attitude. As Benito Mussolini helpfully explained, “If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective, immortal truth . . . then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity . . . From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.” 

The historians who protest “1619,” however, resist the “framing” idea and take issue with the project’s clear misrepresentation of well-established facts

“These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing,’’’ some of them declared in an open letter. “They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” 

Sweeping aside such objections, Hannah-Jones is energetically enforcing her “interpretation,” as Mussolini directed, in her case with the help of institutions that also have been corrupted by ideological thinking—the New York Times, the Pulitzer Committee, and the public school systems that teach the “1619” curricula designed for K-12.

While the historians were waiting for some accountability, Hannah-Jones won journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize. Her prize was in commentary, not history. Was that a backhanded way for the Pulitzer Committee to admit that the “1619 Project” cannot be dignified as history? 

But if that is so, why have professional educators accepted curricula based on the “1619 Project” for teaching in public schools, despite its being faulted by experts and scholars and exposed as mainly ideological? 

Which is the worst wound inflicted on the body politic by the “1619 Project?” 

  • The original compiling of a malicious pack of falsehoods about our country’s founding?
  • Snubbing the demand for historical accuracy and by extension rebuffing any concept of reasoned deliberation as the basis of our common life?
  • Piping this poison into the schools, goading children through misinformation to hate their country? Encouraging minority children to hate their white classmates and white children to hate themselves? 
  • Seeing Hannah-Jones awarded the Pulitzer without any effort on her part to correct her work?   
  • Using white guilt to extort reparations? Hannah-Jones has said, “When my editor asks me, like, what’s your ultimate goal for the project, my ultimate goal is that there’ll be a reparations bill passed.” “I write to try to get liberal white people to do what they say they believe in. I’m making a moral argument. My method is guilt.”

 The “1619 Project” is a genuine and instructive exercise in the “fascist attitudes and activity” Mussolini described—how a false ideology created by modern relativists can be advanced by force of will and contempt for truth on a populace deprived of reason.

Thanks, Duce, for making that clear.

First Principles

Americans Deserve Open Debate About Big Tech and Free Speech

The tech industry and its advocates may not think this debate should happen, but lawmakers certainly do.

President Trump on Thursday signed an executive order regarding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the provision of the law that shields tech companies from liability for censoring content on their platforms.

This comes on the heels of Twitter deciding it would “fact-check” one of the president’s tweets about voting by mail. Chinese propaganda and outright falsehoods from the World Health Organization, meanwhile, remain unmolested by Twitter, self-appointed guardians of truth that they are.

I’ve been writing and speaking about this question for a while, most recently in Newsweek, because it has stirred internecine conflict on the Right between individuals who think social media companies should remain free from policy intervention (ignoring, of course, that they thrive as a result of Section 230, itself a government policy) and those, like me, who believe that these corporations have accumulated a troubling amount of power over our lives, data, behavior, and the free market.

What the Debate Is Really About

This dispute was on display recently, when my Newsweek piece was countered as a “right-wing attack on Sec. 230” by Patrick Hedger, a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Hedger’s rebuttal parses my opinion piece on the technical merits of how I’ve described the liability shield given to the tech industry by Congress. But Hedger fails to address the key points of my argument: the societal and speech ramifications of private corporations acting to censor protest content and, more broadly, the fact that the tech industry needs more accountability in exchange for the government protection it receives.

The argument advanced by proponents of Section 230 as it relates to the First Amendment grows louder as concerns about tech continue to grow. The short version generally distills to this: these companies have First Amendment rights to remove whatever content they want. Go pound sand, you ignorant fool. (If you think I’m exaggerating about that last bit, see this rant from Mike Masnick of the tech industry blog, TechDirt.)

It’s a straw man for the conversation many of us are actually trying to have, which is one about the consequences of the growing power of the tech industry and whether or not our federal policy toward the industry should be reformed as a result. It is important, not just as it relates to Section 230, but also as it relates to Big Tech and individual liberty, data privacy, and market access.

In other words, the conversation I am attempting to have is not one that goes back and forth about the merits of policy minutiae as it is currently written. It’s about what should be done. And a rebuttal to that requires a counterargument, rather than a repeated exegesis about how Section 230—a statute whose broad interpretation has been stretched “outlandishly”—is currently interpreted.

And when it comes to Section 230 specifically, it’s a conversation worth having. The provision, snuck in the back door of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, was never actually debated by the Congress that passed it—in part because the concept of “being online” was still so nascent and social media did not exist in its current form. Its application since then largely has been determined by aggressive litigation from the tech industry, not by public debate.

Congress Has Taken Notice

But, regardless of original intent, it’s a conversation worth having because so many Members of Congress are interested in having it. Republican Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), John Kennedy (R-La.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Representatives Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) have all expressed interest in reexamining Section 230. Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), Jody Hice (R-Ga.), and Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have all raised other concerns about Big Tech.

Libertarian Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) has thrown up a flare about “big business working very hard for big government” in apparent speculation over what Apple and Google may do with the contact-tracing technology they have developed.

The tech industry and its advocates may not think this debate should happen, but lawmakers certainly do.

So, too, do Americans across the political spectrum, 77 percent of whom told Gallup that they think Big Tech has too much power. An example I used to highlight this was Facebook’s removal of anti-lockdown protest content—content that is not illegal but based on nonbinding state government advisories. 

“So what?” replies Hedger. Facebook also removes content that tells you to eat Tide pods, even though that’s not technically illegal. And that’s a good thing.

As a legal matter, the two may be the same, but as a practical matter, conflating the two disregards how Americans prize their right to assemble. Facebook has the right to remove whatever content it wants but, at least in the minds of most people, suppressing the ability of certain users to organize otherwise constitutionally protected activities is subjectively quite different from removing content suggesting one poison oneself with detergent.

There’s a reason members of Congress weighed in about removing protest content but shrugged off the Tide pods. One type of content, regardless of its relative public health wisdom, hews very closely to a sacrosanct right in America. The other is just dumb.

In a similar way, these companies, somehow now relegated to the role of arbiter of debate in the public square, are making subjective determinations about what political content is true or just “misleading,” and labeling or banning it as such. (Brendan Carr, a commissioner at the FCC, has suggested the novel approach of just letting Americans decide for themselves.)

False Dichotomies

Hedger goes on to discuss Section 230 with the binary framing that requires maintaining the law as it is, lest the internet descend into a smutty chaos of porn and extremism. Because if Facebook cannot remove protest organization content, it then also cannot remove terrorist beheading videos. 

This is a false dichotomy. Mostly because few would suggest Section 230 be eliminated outright. Those who have argued for reform recognize that it is a point of leverage to compel more transparent behavior from the tech companies; a rhetorical point, rather than a literal one.

What I am suggesting, as many others have, is that there are reasonable steps Congress can take to generate both more accountability and less centralization from tech, while still maintaining the moderation that everyone deems important.

Other countries, for instance, don’t have a facsimile of a Section 230 policy but still manage to have a free and functional internet. And Congress has already amended Section 230 once, to make websites more accountable for the sex trafficking content that flourishes online. Last time I checked, the internet was still working. Albeit, with less sex trafficking. Most of us think that’s a good thing.

The conversations around Big Tech tend to take on the flavor of a national theology, and tech innovators the status of demigods.

A more realistic conversation would recognize Section 230 for what it is: a congressionally authorized subsidy for the tech industry (Eric Goldman, whom Hedger cites in his own defense, acknowledges as much while arguing that the subsidy should be kept). It would also recognize the tech industry for what it is: a collection of massive companies with unprecedented amounts of power, now being investigated by the federal government and 50 state attorneys general as monopolies.

And like other industry subsidies, Section 230 deserves reevaluation and debate as part of a larger conversation about the growing power of the tech industry over behavior, speech, individual data, privacy, market access—and even elections.

Section 230 reform may not be the silver bullet to any of these concerns, but it’s certainly a part. And while Hedger may not acknowledge that any of the above concerns are real, increasingly, a plurality of Americans do. And so does Congress.

First Principles

The Pandemic Showcases Courts’ Limitations

Why won’t Michigan’s legislature—the political branch that most represents Michiganders—embrace its role in the state’s constitutional system?

The Michigan Court of Claims on Thursday released its much-anticipated decision in Michigan House of Representatives and Michigan Senate v. Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The court spoke through Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens and ruled mostly in favor of Whitmer. Judge Stephens dismissed the legislature’s lawsuit, denying its request for a declaratory judgment that Executive Order 2020-67 and 2020-68 are “invalid and without authority as written.”

On the merits, the court, contrary to the legislature’s argument, held that the 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act (EPGA), is not limited to local emergencies but validly applies statewide and, further, that it isn’t an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the governor. 

Finally, the court also held that E.O. 2020-68 exceeded Whitmer’s authority under a 1976 law, the Emergency Management Act (EMA), because she re-declared a state of emergency without legislative approval after the initial 28-day window closed. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said the legislature would appeal the ruling to the state supreme court. 

On the heels of all that, Whitmer, in a Memorial Day weekend news dump, extended the state’s stay-at-home order to June 12.

Elsewhere, I discussed the pernicious “lie” that sits at the heart of this lawsuit:

By running to court instead of engaging Whitmer politically, the legislature broadcasts an embarrassing timidity, an apparent belief in its own toothlessness in the face of the governor’s unprecedented “executive-domineered legal regime.” The litigious legislature has endorsed the idea that the courts alone can save Michiganders from her grip.

The legislature undoubtedly is powerful enough to brawl with Whitmer on its own, with recourse to its own capacious powers, and without the court’s assistance or perceived stamp of legitimacy. Not only that, but a declaratory judgment against Whitmer would also be nugatory, as it would need to be given teeth by the legislature which—it bears repeating—has an independent “responsibility to maintain the structure of Michigan’s government.” In other words, the legislature is not exempt from the duty of constitutional interpretation, nor is it free from the gravitational pull of the rough and tumble politics that comes along with the separation of powers.

By leaving the status quo intact, the court’s opinion demonstrates that courts are, by design, poor vehicles through which to do politics and set wise policy. Institutionally, they’re just not up to the task—and that’s fine because that isn’t their role.

To the court’s credit, it did not attempt to impose its own policy preferences by fiat but instead stuck to interpreting and applying the law as written, acknowledging at the outset that the parties did not “ask th[e] court . . . to address the policy questions surrounding the scope and extent of contents of the approximately 90 [executive] orders” Whitmer has issued since March 10.

The question of how to respond to the coronavirus quintessentially is a political question. It involves a synthesis of epidemiological data, economic models, public opinion, constitutional principles, and public health protocols, which must then be prudently assessed and weighed against one another to achieve the best all-things-considered outcome, all while humbly conceding that the entire enterprise is shot through with uncertainty. 

Moreover, this all must be achieved in a way that recognizes the consent of the governed—that is, conducted through the people’s elected representatives in government, not unelected judges. Politics is often about making the best decision you can while flying partially blind, armed with imperfect information and laboring under numerous cross-pressures.

In other words, politics is the queen of the sciences, and therefore

it is up to elected officials to make decisions because they are the ones who are in charge of the whole, that is, the body politic; it is up to them to take all parameters into account and to envision all the consequences of their actions.

Courts, by design, are less able and equipped to do this, and it shows here.

This doesn’t make courts bad. But engaging in this kind of multi-factor analysis across various domains—law, epidemiology, economics, and the many others implicated in the decisions to close down and then re-open an entire state, home to millions of souls—is simply not their forte.

But Judge Stephens discharged her duty ably. She assessed, interpreted, and applied the relevant laws and precedents, as she was required to do as a lower-court judge. She is not a politician, and so she wisely and prudently eschewed politicking and stuck to legal reasoning. By holding that Whitmer’s actions violate the EMA but that they are nonetheless ultimately valid because her statutory authority concurrently rests on the EPGA, Judge Stephens broadcast a message loudly but implicitly: It is up to the political branches to sort this out.

What’s less clear, however, is why the legislature—the political branch that most represents Michiganders—won’t embrace its role in the state’s constitutional system. Anyone who thought the Court of Claims was going to charge into a statewide lockdown implemented to combat, in President Trump’s words, an “invisible enemy” as a policymaker to save the day was kidding himself, or doesn’t understand the institutional limits of courts. A pandemic is where the adults play; courts are at best the junior partner, as in war.

I’ll say it again: “Until the Michigan state legislature grows a spine and starts standing up for nearly 10 million Michiganders, they will languish under ‘rule by [Whitmer’s] pen’—which threatens to extinguish the majesty of self-government and make an outlaw of liberty itself.”

First Principles

Yea, Though I Walk Through The Uncanny Valley

You are being gaslit, but not by a sociopathic manipulator. Instead, the growing psychic pressure is the constricting consensus of an increasingly popular fabricated reality. You are on the business end of a casual conspiracy of complicity.

No, you’re not crazy. They just want you to feel that way.

There is a special flavor of cognitive dissonance experienced by those confronted with the dawning of a collectivist utopia. It’s found in the twilight between luminescent NuThink, and the benighted remainders of objective reality to which we plebs still cling so bitterly.

Allow me to illustrate.

Recently, as I perused the social media headlines about the present plague year, I came across a news item whose image featured the governor of Pennsylvania and his secretary of health, Dr. Rachel Levine, who is in fact, a man. It struck me because the news was not about Dr. Levine’s chimeric redefinition, but it was a serious news piece about a serious issue, and the doctor was peripheral to the point of it. The presentation of such an incongruity—an appointed official whose gender LARP is only slightly more convincing than that of Corporal Maxwell Klinger—without the slightest batting of an eyelash, is the whole game in a nutshell.

You see friend, it requires no acknowledgment since there is nothing of note here. Only the grotesquely gauche would stumble. We have serious business to do. Please focus.

The deadpan delivery leaves you feeling gaslit by the reality being proffered. The implicit assertion is not truth, but the situation itself is reality—formed by consensus, and presented without comment.

But, at least it’s democratic gaslighting…

This collective lack of acknowledgement, cemented by the integration with serious business being done, makes anyone who is tripped up by the disjoint feel that he is on the outside. Anyone hampered by a pedestrian tethering to pre-postmodernism is made to feel the keen edge of their status as the other.

It’s akin to having walked into a business meeting, and finding one of the participants is wearing a bear suit. “What’s with the bear suit?” you ask. The reply is cold stares.

This feat of quiet ostracism, this sudden sense that one is an ideological castaway, coalesces all of a sudden. A breeze blows through you, and you realize the season has changed.

You are being gaslit, but not by a sociopathic manipulator. Instead the growing psychic pressure is the constricting consensus of an increasingly popular fabricated reality. You are on the business end of a casual conspiracy of complicity. There is a new set of tracks on which your train of thought just doesn’t properly run. You are given two choices: reconfiguration or derailment.

You keep entering business meetings, only to be silently greeted by a fellow in a bear suit.

You’re going to keep getting this lesson until you learn it. Capisce?

In After the Ball, a diabolically masterful turnaround strategy created to take American homosexualism from reviled to revered, authors Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen laid out a pathway to bring us to this present moment of bear-suit ubiquity. It began with desensitization, progressed through leveraging perceived commonalities, and promised powerful acceptance.

When you’re very different, and people hate you for it, this is what you do: first you get your foot in the door, by being as similar as possible; then, and only then—when your one little difference is finally accepted—can you start dragging in your other peculiarities, one by one. You hammer in the wedge narrow end first. As the saying goes, Allow the camel’s nose beneath your tent, and the whole body will soon follow.

That was published in 1989.

Once the concept of tolerance was deformed to mean acceptance, and love was refashioned to include things for which it was not designed, it was clear that the plan was getting far more cultural traction than anyone had dreamed possible. As the sea change continued, the launching of S.S. Same-Sex Mirage was a fait accompli. Always, you will note, brought to market in the carefully constructed context of simulated normalcy.

The weight of normalcy packaging plus the momentum of previous acceptance equals the psychic force applied to dissenters who note the incongruities.

This simulacrum of normalcy, coupled with the raised stakes of whatever novel idea is being introduced, creates an uncanny valley of experience. It’s designed to camouflage the situation such that it sufficiently approximates reality for the initiated, but to the sober-minded, the differences create dissonance. That dissonance is designed to cleave off the bitter clingers—to refuse entry to the non-compliant, and convince them that they are the ones failing to grasp this democratically elected reality.

The pressure can feel immense at times—not the Lilliputian arguments for NuThink, but their collective power to layer up, entangle and enervate. Yes, you can see each point where things got ratcheted up, but the cumulative effect—that, you feel.

The most recent gut punch I felt was when I (virtually) encountered “Dr. Glitterbear”—university professor—in his unicorn-jammie-and-white-pumps ensemble. He had apparently led the charge to have a fellow PhD’s published paper about gender anarchy retracted, due to its NuThink compliance failure.

“What’s with the unicorn suit?” Cold stares.

Yea, though I walk through the uncanny valley, I will brook no evil.

As has been noted by those who have experienced totalitarian rule, this immense pressure to conform to a synthesized consensus exerts a real toll on the non-compliant. Presented with each new escalation, the mind struggles like an up-ended turtle wriggling to regain its feet.

It can be exhausting and disheartening to keep the turtle righted.

First, know what the truth is, and why it is the truth. If you’re reading this, I will assume that you’re likely well-engaged in this process. Understand that we are in an ontological crisis, where millions are being swept out to sea. Know how to anchor to the fixed bedrock of actual truth. While this battle is presented as a quibble over small changes, you must understand that it’s actually a conflict over whether reality is already defined, or ad-libbed. For anyone adhering to a belief in Logos and Creation, the definitions are fixed and non-negotiable.

Second, don’t lose your equilibrium. When wading through strong opposing forces, it’s very easy to overcompensate. Movements become exaggerated, and overreactions can abound. It’s oh-so-easy to become shrill, alienated, or paranoid. It’s simple to get knocked back into reflexive overreaction. Learn to find grace under pressure, and don’t allow yourself to be distorted by your exertion against the onslaught.

Third, encourage and invest in others, to strengthen the bulwark against this flood of Dionysian dissolution. Maintaining relationships with other people who are also committed in their fidelity to truth is important. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend, and a cord of three strands is not easily broken.

Finally, do not think it strange, this fiery trial which is upon us. Be encouraged that the Truth himself was similarly opposed, and so we now share in that same suffering. Having done all, stand. Simply bearing witness to truth in a raging sea of illusion, is a kingdom act.

Editor’s Note: A version of this essay was originally published at Illinois Family Institute. 

First Principles

The Restart of History and the Renaissance of Realpolitik

States and their interests, both cultural and historical, to recall Charles de Gaulle, are eternal. They do not, and will never, take a backseat to ideology of any sort. Including our own.

In the heyday of geopolitical optimism after the First Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet empire, political theorist Francis Fukuyama prophesied the “End of History.” What he meant was that liberal democracy was ascendant and would continue to be ascendant in the coming years.

History had other things in mind. That fate culminated in the recent move by the Russian federal legislature to give Vladimir Putin almost unlimited powers until 2036.

How did we get here?

The Boris Yeltsin era in the former Soviet Union, then reduced to a truncated Russia, was an “Era of Good Feelings” between Russia and the West. Yeltsin himself regularly and merrily cavorted with Bill Clinton. But as that was going on, former Soviet officials, now turned wild west capitalists, were using their influence to buy up state assets, privatize them, and become rich overnight. Their louche and garish opulence left a bad taste in the mouths of many Russians. Included in that lot was an obscure former KGB officer who had become deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin.

But that was not the only specter on the Russian scene. A civil war raged in a mountainous Muslim republic, Chechnya, pitting the Russian state against a proud, ancient, mountain people who for decades had chafed under the Soviet yoke.

I talked to American lawyer and investor, Yuri Vanetik, who possesses keen insight into how the political destiny of the former Soviet Caucasus proves Fukuyama’s theories to be fallacies. Says Vanetik:

The North Caucasus and the Chechen Republic, in particular, are comprised of distinct ancient ethnic groups who have never relinquished their cultural identity and self-determination. They were conquered by the Soviets but never defeated, and for that were forced to pay a heavy price during the Stalin forced resettlements, Soviet oppression, and subsequent brutal wars.

Often dubbed the Spartans of the Caucasus, these mountain people possess a deep sense of identity which is expressed through adherence to Adat, the traditions of the mountains, with unique rituals, dances, cuisine, profound veneration of elders, deep deference for extended families, distinct dress and language, and an amazing sense of hospitality, loyalty and courage.

I have visited the region several times in the last two years. Recently, I brought a delegation of business leaders, and journalists. The Chechen people stand as an anomalous semi-autonomous republic; feared, respected, at times despised, and always deeply misunderstood by the West. They have been able to strike a delicate balance through loyalty to Russia. Yet they serve as an example of the error in Fukuyama’s utopian vision.

Their traditions draw comparison with the Americans of Appalachia and the stories and martial records of men like World War I’s Sergeant Alvin York. Distinctive speech, a fighting spirit passed down through generations, a mountainous existence, and a reverence for elders and ancestors recall the people and spirit of a region recently chronicled in Born Fighting by James Webb and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

When Yeltsin left and Putin took power, civil liberties began to fall by the wayside. Putin’s political party gradually muscled out all of the legitimate opposition, and Western gullibility (one is reminded of George Bush the Younger’s line that he could see Putin’s soul in his eyes) all played a part in the process of snuffing out whatever possibility of representative government had momentarily existed during the Yeltsin era.

Vanetik continues: “It appears that the Russian government intended to reassert social solidarity by returning to mitigated, modern empire building in an age of technology, sanctions, and global economy interconnected like never before.”

It may be the type of government that works in the former Soviet territories. Even though dynasties such as that of Azerbaijan, and most of the Eurasian states, are an anathema to our sense of righteousness, they are preferred and they are functional over there.

“For Chechens, Putin’s rule appears to provide sufficient autonomy, infrastructural support from a federation of states within the Russian union, and a predictable chain of command that seems to be appealing to many of the semi-autonomous states in the North Caucasus,” Vanetik explains. “Fukuyama’s Western liberal democracy does not work there. In fact, it has failed miserably where it has been attempted. Look at Ukraine, our ally and a professed democracy.”

As the years progressed Putin moved on Georgia and the Crimea, recalling Soviet attitudes of the recent past. This was, as Putin termed the downfall of the Soviet Union, “a political tragedy” and reinstated both Soviet and Imperial Russian cultural norms in Russia.

As the Putin regime wrapped itself in the warm embrace of Holy Russia and started flexing its small but smartly used geopolitical power, Western leaders continued to ignore the warning signs of an aggressive and resurgent Russia. Chechens are an example of an efficient resurgence after brutal wars. The rebirth is arguably tempered with self-determination and loyalty to the Russian Federation. That is a challenging balance to strike and an even more difficult balance to sustain.

Vanetik concludes:

State building has become the default in how geopolitics is played out. The Chechens have rebuilt their territory, fostered goodwill with Putin’s government without compromising their cultural identity. Not so much in defense of hard regimes, but it appears that authoritarian structures work better in certain cultures so long as they are tempered by certain boundaries when it comes to rule of law, transparency, and institutional integrity. It is a truism that benevolent dictatorships are just as much fiction as Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. Notwithstanding, authoritarian structures can work and do work and account for a large percentage of sovereign regimes and autonomous states even today.

And so we come to today. The Russian national legislature has recently made it possible for Putin to rule uninterrupted by democratic niceties until 2036.

Fukuyama’s naïve notion of the total victory of liberal democracy has itself been consigned to rubbish. “The End of History” eventually turned out to be “the Renaissance of Realism and Realpolitik.” States and their interests, both cultural and historical, to recall Charles de Gaulle, are eternal. They do not, and will never, take a backseat to ideology of any sort. Including our own.

First Principles

Coronavirus Is an Opportunity to Reject Judicial Supremacy

The litigious Michigan legislature has endorsed the idea that the courts alone can save Michiganders from Governor Whitmer’s grip. This is a lie.

If anyone has benefitted from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s lawyers. Business is positively booming; if Americans know how to do anything, it’s file lawsuits. The American Spectator reports that since the various pandemic measures were enacted in March (has it really only been two months?), “dozens” of lawsuits have been filed against Democratic governors across the country.

As a general matter, that’s not a problem. In fact, it’s very good to vindicate in court one’s federal and state constitutional rights and in the process check government overreach. After all, that’s the core of what courts are there to do: grant to litigants whatever relief is proper and just to remedy violations of their vested legal rights.

But the logic of that commendable system of judicially protected rights somewhat falls apart when the plaintiffs are government actors. The current situation in Michigan is instructive on this point.

Legislature v. Governor

On April 30, the Michigan state legislature’s Republican-controlled House and Senate each adopted resolutions by voice vote (so no tallies were recorded) that authorized House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey to take Governor Gretchen Whitmer to court in her official capacity. Less than a week later, the legislature filed its lawsuit, asking the Michigan Court of Claims to grant its request for a declaratory judgment against Whitmer, one which holds that her “ongoing ‘emergency’ orders are improper and invalid as a matter of Michigan constitutional and statutory law.” Specifically, the Legislature asked the court, among other things, to “declare that the Governor’s ongoing COVID-19 executive orders . . . violate the separation of powers.”

In a May 6 press release, Shirkey said the legislature “firmly believe[s] the governor is acting beyond her authority and has left us no choice other than to seek clarification from the courts” (emphasis added) The case is scheduled to  be heard Friday.

Whither Ambition?

By running to court instead of engaging Whitmer politically, the legislature broadcasts an embarrassing timidity, an apparent belief in its own toothlessness in the face of the governor’s unprecedented “executive-domineered legal regime.” The litigious legislature has endorsed the idea that the courts alone can save Michiganders from her grip.

This is a lie.

In reality, the legislature has a duty (not to mention the tools) to maintain Michigan’s constitutional structure; that isn’t just a job for the courts, contrary to what anti-constitutional judicial supremacists (and apparently also these skittish state legislators) would have you believe. Simply put, the responsibility to maintain the structure of Michigan’s government falls to all three branches. The legislature is not exempt.

Sadly, Michigan’s Republican legislators have revealed their deeply impoverished understanding of constitutionalism. They lie supine before Whitmer, who has revealed her tyrannical soul, placing Michigan “under rule-by-executive-order for over eight weeks” and counting. Legislators pluck up just enough courage to emerge long enough to ask the third branch of government, the courts, to scold Whitmer rather than simply take action themselves.

The legislature “firmly believe[s]” that Whitmer has far exceeded her constitutional authority but will nonetheless leave it to the courts to “clarif[y]” the situation. (The legislature requested a declaratory judgment, not an injunction; while the latter might have the practical effect of halting Whitmer’s despotic, one-woman show, the former essentially requests that the court simply states the obvious, unbacked by any executive enforcement, namely, that Whitmer has vastly overstepped her exercise of legitimate executive authority. And water is wet.)

The legislature—the “sole lawmaking [sic] body in [Michigan’s constitutional] system”—should exercise its awesome legislative power rather than fight a media-driven proxy war in the judiciary. For even if the legislature wins in court, to what end will this “victory” be driving? A favorable ruling won’t change the underlying political calculus at all. Because to get the result it wants, the legislature would have to act to check Whitmer, with or without a court’s declaratory judgment.

At some point, the legislature will need to embrace the inevitable political cage match—or be rendered impotent. It can pass bills that embody its vision for how Michigan should reopen. It can force Whitmer to go on record and veto whatever “comprehensive and deliberative” plan it will devise to move the state beyond the pandemic-induced lockdown and reopen its economic and social life.

Legislators can call members of the executive branch to testify to the precise thinking that’s driving Whitmer’s dramatic overreaction and let Michiganders sit in judgment of whatever they say—or don’t say. They can amend (or outright repeal) the statutes Whitmer claims are the source of her authority. And, if need be, they can simply slash or eliminate the relevant agencies’ funding—which would render Whitmer wholly incapable of implementing her executive orders—orders which are, as the legislature sees it, based on flawed interpretations of the relevant laws.

In short, it can and should act like what it is: a legislature. It should muscle its way back into this process so that the people of Michigan have a voice and have their interests looked after and represented on this weighty issue. Without question, the legislature is powerful enough to do all of these things. But it lacks the will, the manly resolve, to enter the fray.

Until the Michigan state legislature grows a spine and starts standing up for nearly 10 million Michiganders, they will languish under “rule by [Whitmer’s] pen”—which threatens to extinguish the majesty of self-government and make an outlaw of liberty itself.

First Principles

Is Half of the Country Crazy?

When the only seemingly possible solution is using the power of the government to crush those who disagree, it is time to rethink the entire paradigm.

Is half of the country crazy? Regardless of which side of the political divide you happen to be on, at least half the country appears to be crazy. And they probably think the same about you.

Can this be true? It is difficult to believe half our country—which half doesn’t really matter—is unmoored from reality.

Thomas Kuhn in his revolutionary book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, noted that the common belief of science as a steady cumulative flow of one idea built upon another is simply wrong. Kuhn, who coined the phrase paradigm shift, argues that in reality science moves ahead in intellectually violent revolutions when one world view, or paradigm, is completely tossed aside and replaced by a superior paradigm.

Confronting Unreconciled Anomalies

What leads to these intellectually violent revolutions and subsequent paradigm shifts is the accumulation of “unreconciled anomalies.” These occur when the actual results don’t fit with the expected or predicted results. Sooner or later unreconciled anomalies are either somehow explained away—often just ignored for as long as is possible—or they accumulate until they force a break with the underlying theory their very existence proves to be wrong.

Of course, it is always easier to see these revolutions in the rearview mirror where one can think, “of course it is that way, how could anyone have believed anything else?”

But being in the middle of one of these revolutions is quite a different experience; and that is where we find ourselves today.

No, half the country isn’t crazy. The growing frictions we experience everyday—regardless of your political position—are simply the symptoms of the present failing paradigm.

Discarding the Failed Paradigm

And just like science, the only way to address these “unreconciled anomalies” is to abandon the present thinking which has led to the crisis and discover a deeper, more fundamental truth.

To do so requires the discarding, at least for a while, the left/right, conservative/liberal, and most certainly Democrat versus Republican lens. It is not possible to explore a new paradigm unless one can mentally discard all aspects of the old paradigm.

Until we are willing to do so, the unreconciled anomalies will only continue to grow as will the friction and anger they feed. And of course opportunists will use these frictions to gather power and enrich themselves and their friends. It is a certainty, as any halfway honest analysis of our present political situation reveals to be true.

The left versus right, liberal versus conservative paradigm is failing because it doesn’t overlap with reality. It is based far more on tribal thinking than an analysis of facts.

There are two ways to analyze and rebuild a system:

The wrong way is to analyze the present system(s) focusing on problems and where things don’t work very well. This is “problems-based” thinking and it generally leads to fighting, finger-pointing, and even more friction. It seldom, if ever, works very well with the odds of failure being far greater than those of success.

Unfortunately, this is how most people attempt to address the present impasse. At its core, our political discourse is flawed because it remains mired in the same paradigm that caused the problems in the first place. In practice, it often means communication-based on “if I just repeat myself a little slower and a lot louder those dumb SOBs will finally understand!” thinking.

The other way to analyze and rebuild a system is to mentally toss it and all it was built upon in the trash and to start anew with a completely blank slate. With this thinking, one doesn’t focus on problems since there are none yet. This might sound counterintuitive but it leads to far better results.

How did we do it in the past? Who cares? The issue is how do we want to do it in the future and for that the past is generally irrelevant. And quite often all of those “problems” that seemed so insurmountable, those issues which simply don’t seem to have a solution other than the “other” side pulling their heads out and seeing things my way, simply fade away. They are problems created by the system.

Look at the World Anew

Our political, economic, and cultural wars are all based on these insurmountable problems. Look at the present political situation. Half the country seems crazy and people sincerely speak of a coming civil war as they see no realistic way to solve the arguments other than the physical annihilation or separation of the entire “other” side.

When it seems the only possible solution is using the power of the government to crush those who disagree, it is time to rethink the entire paradigm which at its core creates these realities. If we insist on keeping the present failing paradigm, the unreconciled anomalies will sooner or later be the end of us all.

We can take this step. At least momentarily, toss all your preconceived notions in the trash and look at the world anew. You will find a very simple truth waiting. Individual freedom is the key. Not the powerful organizations we call government. Not the various tribes. Individual freedom and the forces it unleashes is the solution.

The transformative power of individual freedom is based on science and reality; it will always work. Take the leap or stay where you are while you ponder how to destroy the half of the country that seems crazy to you. The choice is yours.

First Principles

The Perils of Philosophy

Self-evident truths are the foundation of common sense realism; for Thomas Reid, common sense is the human faculty which enables us to grasp self-evident truths.

David DesRosiers has written a delightful review of my new book, Reclaiming Common Sense. His review appears in the spring issue of the Claremont Review of Books. He praised the book, and wrote that it could have been of great use to him as a graduate student when he tried to rebut utopian thinkers like Plato. DesRosiers writes:

The Republic—with its rule by the wise and its shocking communism of women and children—revealed to me the danger that reason without common sense poses to the political community.

He makes a great point. And it is difficult to overstate Plato’s influence on philosophy in the West. As Alfred North Whitehead famously wrote, the European philosophical tradition largely “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Plato’s abandonment of common sense in The Republic and elsewhere in his writings continues to exercise an enormous influence today, an influence profoundly opposed to the common-sense thinking of the American Founders.

The Founders claimed they were guided by self-evident truths. To understand the Founders’ thinking, it is important to know that their reliance on self-evident truths shows their reliance on a Scottish philosopher named Thomas Reid.

Reid called his philosophy “common sense realism.” Reid challenged the whole tradition that descended from Plato. His purpose was to put Western philosophy on the firm ground of common sense. In my judgment, he succeeded. The American Founders thought so too. As a result, the Founders’ republic is a far cry from Plato’s Republic.

Self-evident truths are the foundation of common sense realism; for Reid, common sense is the human faculty which enables us to grasp self-evident truths. Therefore, common sense is the power that makes human understanding possible. The Founders relied on self-evident truths to find a new vision of politics, government, and society. Their vision gave us the wonderful country it is our privilege to enjoy each day.

I have been a lifelong heavy reader, a “heavy reader” in the sense that some people are called heavy drinkers, and from nearly the beginning of my life as a reader I have been accompanied by C.S. Lewis. He has been my lifelong protector from reason divorced from common sense. Books that lead you away from common sense can make trouble for you and make you trouble for others.

Lewis, in his novel That Hideous Strength, portrayed a future England coming under the domination of men dedicated to brutal rule by the authority of science. One of the leaders is a character named Wither (“wither: to dry up or shrivel . . .”). Lewis writes this about him:

He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void . . . He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth…

The point of the novel is clear: the belief there is no reality and no truth leads inevitably to brutal rule and ultimately to the abolition of humanity. Destroy truth and you eventually eliminate goodness and beauty. The 20th century offers us more examples of that than we need in order to be certain it is true.

For all practical purposes, Wither had found in Hume all he needed in his quest to be convinced there is neither reality nor truth. Yet it must be said that Hume was better than his philosophy, and not like Wither at all. He was brilliant and charming, liked and admired by Reid and loved by his good friend Adam Smith.

In philosophy, Hume’s brilliance was matched by his boldness. He understood that European philosophy had already abandoned everything we know by common sense. While other thinkers recoiled from daring to complete the chain of reasoning that was right in front of them, Hume was willing to go all the way. As Thomas Reid wrote in his Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, Hume provided all that Wither sought:

No cause or effects; no substances, material or spiritual; no evidence, even in mathematical demonstration; no liberty or active power; nothing existing in nature, but impressions and ideas following each other, without time, place, or subject. (Italics added)

Reid took up Hume’s challenge, making the case that if nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. The existence of the real world can’t be proved and does not need to be proved; it is self-evident that the world exists. And the same goes for basic moral truths. For Reid, the principles of common sense, including the principles of moral common sense, are self-evidently true.

C.S. Lewis was with Reid all the way. The idea that Lewis was a common-sense thinker might come as a surprise to you, but I believe he provides the best introduction to common sense realism there is. My lifelong immersion in Lewis is surely what made reading Reid easy and fun for me. In his introduction to That Hideous Strength, Lewis refers the reader to the companion volume, The Abolition of Man. Abolition, he explains, makes the philosophical case; Strength portrays the ideas in story form. Here is Lewis the common-sense realist in The Abolition of Man:

If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly, if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.

Given the chance to read those words, Reid and the Founders would agree whole-heartedly.

First Principles

The Indispensable American Family

Someone may say we ought to live in open sewers, because filth and disease are subversive; or that we ought to cut ourselves with razors, because razors are edgy. What response can you give to him? He has placed himself outside of moral reasoning entirely.

In August 1884, Washington Gladden, possibly the most famous Christian preacher in the America of his day, wrote an article in The Century Magazine on “Three Dangers” besetting the welfare of the nation he loved. Of the first and third dangers he named, intemperance and gambling, I have little to say here. I will note that Dr. Gladden concedes that alcohol may be used well, even for conviviality, though he himself did not drink.

More challenging to our moral callousness is that he includes, under gambling, speculation on the stock market: “To say that gambling in margins is as bad as faro or roulette is a very weak statement; it is immeasurably worse. It is far more dishonest. The gambler in margins does his best to load the dice on which he bets his money.”

In our time, said gambler has connections to federal bureaucracies that govern the lending of hundreds of billions of dollars. The housing market collapse is a dreadful case in point.

But it is the second of the three dangers that I will discuss here, “those unsocial forces that make war upon society by assaulting the family.”

Gladden was a liberal churchman, one of the fathers of the Social Gospel, and it is as such that he speaks. “The monogamous family,” he says, “formed by the union of one woman with one man, and by the increase of children born to them, is the structural unit of modern society.” He is deliberate about every word. Society is like a physical organism, which is composed not of separate particles, but of organized cells.

So, too, “the modern social organism is composed not of individuals, but of households.” Far from being primitive and atavistic, the family, he says, is “a late product of the social evolution,” and “it is by most philosophers admitted to characterize that society whose type is the highest and whose foundations are the firmest.”

Whom does he call upon to support this assertion? Not John Wesley or Jeremy Taylor, but the liberal economist Walter Bagehot and the agnostic ethicist Herbert Spencer.

“Tribes in which promiscuity prevails, or in which the marital relations are transitory,” says Spencer, “are incapable of much organization . . . Only when monogamic marriage has become general and eventually universal, only when there have consequently been established the closest ties of blood, only when family altruism has been most fostered, has social altruism become most conspicuous.”

Of Roman boys bred to become Roman men, Bagehot notes, “they were ready to obey their generals because they were compelled to obey their fathers; they conquered the world in manhood because as children they were bred in homes where the tradition of passionate valor was steadied by the habit of implacable order.”

It is not that Gladden wants Americans to become Romans. The family is indispensable, he says, “for the cultivation of the moral qualities that fit men for association with one another,” as it is “a training-school in which discipline and the habit of subordination and the unselfish sentiments and habitudes are acquired. Without these virtues society is impossible, and there is no school for the cultivation of these virtues that compares with the monogamous family.” Indeed, “an increase of the proportion of the people who do not live in families means an increase of public peril, a decay of social virtue, a diminution of the common weal.”

We need but look at the moral squalor of American cities, and the bewildering sexual and familial chaos wherein millions of American children are supposed to find their way to moral clarity and order, to see that what Gladden says here is true.

It is the kind of truth, too, that hardly admits of argument. Someone may tell me that we ought to live in open sewers, because filth and disease are subversive; or that we ought to cut ourselves with razors, because razors are edgy. What response can you give to him? He has placed himself outside of moral reasoning entirely.

What caused Reverend Gladden to worry about the American family in his time? For one thing, the dreadful surge in divorces.

From 1860 to 1878, in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, he says, divorces rose from 243 to 600, while the population had increased only 45 percent. The census figures from 1880 show that Massachusetts had a population of 1,783,085. Taking that figure as a fair estimate of the population in 1878, that means that there was one divorce for every 2,972 people. A scandal, that.

I can hardly imagine what Gladden would say to our figures now. In 2018, the population of the United States was 327.2 million, and there were 780,000 divorces. That gives us one divorce for every 402 people. The rate is between seven and eight times as high as what Gladden thought warranted some serious attention.

Of course, what I have called the “index of social dissolution” is much higher still. For in our time, many people do not bother to marry at all, but still have children, of whom 40 percent are now born out of wedlock. So if we included as “marriages” all those sexual liaisons that last longer than two years and that produce at least one child, our “divorce” rate would be as Mount Everest is to Mount McKinley: unimaginable, to what is hardly imaginable.

Asking what the reason is for this state of things, Gladden points to two developments, one of them economic and one of them moral.

The economic cause was clear: young men and women by the millions were leaving the country to work in industrial mills in the populous towns and cities, where they were “thrown together rather rudely in their work,” living in boarding houses that “afford them none of the restraints of a home.” Its moral cause he attributes to the “popular social philosophy, which during the last quarter of a century has greatly exaggerated individualism . . . Most of our talk has been of rights, not much of duties or of services; and the consequence is a disinclination to assume the responsibilities and to make the sacrifices involved in the family relation.”

In our time, we cannot even talk about the sexes as such, since every individual claims the right to make up his own biology, his own “identity,” even his own pronominal system. Gladden would have seen this correctly as the height, or rather a deep sinkhole, of the antisocial. And women, whom Gladden and many a friendly liberal viewed as the heart of a people’s moral sensibility, lead the charge to ensure that we will not return to anthropological realism; nay, that a professor at a college, whose calling is to search for truth wherever he may find it, shall lose his very employment if he should even begin to discuss the matter.

I think it would be a fine and enlightening thing to read the works of American liberals before that sharp turn toward secularism we find in the wake of the Great War. Enlightening, and not comfortable.

First Principles

This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs‘s 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind. It is republished here with the permission of RealClearPolitics.

Started in Slavery, Founded in Freedom: 1619 vs. 1776

The United States of America was indeed started in slavery, but it was founded in freedom.

Now that everyone with a computer and an opinion has had his or her say on the merits and shortcomings of the “1619 Project,” we are now in a position to step back and ask ourselves: What is really at stake here?

The most controversial aspect of the project has not been its content—apart from one important, mistaken historical claim in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which has since been corrected—but its framing. No one is talking about the excellent and inspiring articles on Howard Law School graduates, black music, or the “pecan pioneer” (yes, it’s in there!). Even Hannah-Jones’s essay hasn’t been subjected to comprehensive commentary and analysis in the manner that it deserves. Instead, the focus of critics has been concentrated on the title page of Hannah-Jones’s essay—“Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written”—and Jake Silverstein’s “editor’s note” introducing the project. And then, of course, there is the title: 1619.

. . . as Bob Woodson and others have pointed out, subtracting 1776 from 1619 renders the American story depressing and perhaps irredeemable.

What do these parts of the project jointly convey? That American identity—stated in terms of “true birth date” or “origin”—is an either/or and that 1776 must be rejected as a legitimate competitor to 1619 in this determination. The year 1619, in other words, preempts and nullifies 1776. Critics have, after all, complained not so much about the addition of 1619 as the explicit subtraction of 1776 in Silverstein’s (and, to a lesser extent, Hannah-Jones’s) framing. And as anyone with a calculator can work out, 1619 minus 1776 is a negative number; as Bob Woodson and others have pointed out, subtracting 1776 from 1619 renders the American story depressing and perhaps irredeemable. According to John McWhorter, this operation makes American civic education into an education “in studied despair over events far in the past, and a sense that it is more enlightened to think of yourself as a victim than as an actor.”

If we have to jettison 1776 to take 1619 on board, the question famously raised by Martin Luther King, Jr., and quoted by Clarence Page in a recent article for the 1776 Project, “Where do we go from here?” seems difficult to answer. It is certainly important to know where we’ve been in order to understand where we are now, and it is certainly important to understand where we are now in order to determine where we should go from here, but we can’t chart a course for the future based only on where we’ve been in the past. We have to have a goal in mind, something to shoot for, a target at which to aim. We have to have somewhere we are going to, not just somewhere we are coming from.

The question is whether the undeniable historical fact of the preexistence of American slavery tainted or invalidated entirely the ideas and arguments about natural human rights that motivated and justified the American Revolution . . .

So what’s really at stake in the 1619 vs. 1776 debate is whether the revolutionary principles of 1776 are capable of providing such a goal or target. The question is whether the undeniable historical fact of the preexistence of American slavery tainted or invalidated entirely the ideas and arguments about natural human rights that motivated and justified the American Revolution—and that, presumably, have continued to motivate and justify the American experiment in self-government from that time to ours. The question is not about what happened in 1619 but about what happened in 1776.

So what happened in 1776? In the main quad at the University of Missouri, just outside the building where Jefferson’s tombstone is currently housed, there is a statue of Jefferson sitting at a writing desk, pen in hand, and the Declaration of Independence on the paper in front of him. This expresses much of the significance of 1776 in the popular imagination: not unlike Moses going up Mount Sinai and coming back with the Ten Commandments, Thomas Jefferson went into his study and emerged with the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson himself helps solidify this view by literally etching his authorship of the Declaration of Independence in a stone tablet (his tombstone). The man, the moment, and the document are forever conjoined.

If this is what really happened in 1776, Silverstein’s either/or sounds plausible. We know that Jefferson lived far downstream of 1619. His livelihood and self-image depended squarely on his status as a slaveholder. In his well-known 1820 letter to John Holmes, Jefferson almost makes Silverstein’s either/or argument for him, saying about the predicament of Southern slaveholders such as himself: “Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Though many of us would like to think that 1776 weighs on the justice side of this scale, it is not clear whether Jefferson would agree. According to the author of the Declaration, 1776’s promise of “self-government and happiness” for himself and those like him was under threat during the Missouri crisis by devotees of the “abstract principle” dictating the geographic restriction of slavery.

If 1776 is inextricably bound up with the historical Thomas Jefferson, and the historical Thomas Jefferson is hopelessly bound up with the consequences of 1619, Silverstein’s argument seems right. The year 1776 is not a true alternative to 1619 but a mere diversion from an acknowledgment of the latter’s unjust and harmful effects. The either/or falls away as the antislavery Jefferson of the Declaration collapses into the apparently pro-slavery Jefferson of the Missouri Compromise and 1776 collapses into 1619. American history, as Wilfred McClay put it in a recent article, becomes “little more than the lengthened shadow of slavery.”

The more one reads of the public documents, pamphlets, sermons, and letters of the decades preceding and the years immediately following the Declaration of Independence, the more one realizes that Jefferson was really more stenographer than author.

This is not, however, what happened in 1776. Contrary to Jefferson’s proud claim on his tombstone, there were many joint authors of the Declaration of Independence. It was adopted (after alteration) by the entire Continental Congress and largely expressed what Thomas Paine had called the American “common sense” and what Jefferson would later call “the American mind.” The more one reads of the public documents, pamphlets, sermons, and letters of the decades preceding and the years immediately following the Declaration of Independence, the more one realizes that Jefferson was really more stenographer than author. Jefferson was an original thinker, but the later accusation that he had plagiarized the Declaration contained more than a grain of truth.

The candidacy of 1776 as a meaningful and valuable constituent of American identity cannot, then, be buried along with Jefferson himself. The ideas of 1776 that were expressed in the Declaration—natural human rights, limited government by consent, the right of revolution—were shared equally by Jefferson and countless other individuals at his time, many of whom were not as clearly implicated by association with the evils really and symbolically unleashed in 1619. These ideas are something apart from any of the individuals at the time who espoused them.

But are the ideas of 1776 themselves vitiated by their embeddedness in a time and place affected so deeply by 1619? Can these ideas provide enlightenment despite being spoken under the shadow of the terrible injustice of slavery and by some of its most famous beneficiaries? And are the ideas of 1776 merely one of the “multiple traditions” out of which the tapestry of American identity has been woven since?

These are not easy questions to answer, but they are answerable. There is, first, the historical fact that ideas of natural human rights, limited government, and the right of revolution were not invented by American colonists. The scholarly consensus of at least the last thirty years has been that early American political ideas were outgrowths of much earlier political and religious ideas, forming a distinctive “amalgam” of these preexisting materials. The political thought of John Locke, Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, and others was combined with Protestant theology in Europe, as well as in the New England colonies, in order to form the basis of what would become the revolutionary ideas of 1776. According to eminent intellectual historians like Brian Tierney and Richard Tuck, the roots of these ideas extend all the way back to medieval times, some 500 years before 1619. These ideas may be mistaken or undesirable for other reasons, but it is safe to say that their origins are innocent of entanglement with the practice of enslavement.

There is also the fact that the core revolutionary idea that “all men are created equal” does not in any conceivable way support the interests of slaveholders, or even the interests of the non-slaveholding American revolutionaries at the time.

There is also the fact that the core revolutionary idea that “all men are created equal” does not in any conceivable way support the interests of slaveholders, or even the interests of the non-slaveholding American revolutionaries at the time. While it is true that the progress of equality among whites has long been supported by a parallel dynamic of inequality between whites and nonwhites, a clear declaration of human (or even of male) equality could only run counter to this dynamic of reinforcement. A declaration that “all white men are created equal” or, better yet, that “white men are created superior to nonwhite men,” would have fit the bill much better.

Then there is Lincoln’s point in his speech on the Dred Scott decision in 1857: “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” This idea of equality in natural human rights did not, in other words, even support the general interests of the American colonists in their argument for independence at the time. While the related ideas of government by consent and the right of revolution did clearly support the cause of American political independence, these could have been derived from narrower, more conservative, starting points than human equality. There was, for example, the long-standing “rights of Englishmen” argument that had been widely used by the American colonists throughout the 1760s and early 1770s. But this was not the argument that the colonists used in 1776. Just as the argument of 1776 could not conceivably support the interests of slaveholders, so it was not well tailored to the material interests of the American colonists in their conflict with Great Britain.

The United States of America was indeed started in slavery, but it was founded in freedom.

If the ideas of 1776 were neither a mere feature of the historical moment, nor supportive of the concrete, material interests of those who held them, why were they “held to be self-evident” at all? The shocking answer is that they were held simply because they were believed to be “truths.” And this distinguishes them in a crucial way from most of the other “traditions” that were held at the time, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, or class distinctions. Most, if not all, of these other traditions supported the status quo and those in positions of power in society. Though they were often buttressed by rational and religious arguments as well, these arguments were, in most cases, recognizable as weak rationalizations of material interest—like the “positive good” argument that would later be given in support of race-based enslavement. The ideas of 1776, by contrast, were justified by the force of a logic that defied the needs of the immediate moment and the concrete interests of those who enunciated them. As much as any human ideas could, they leaped off their page in history.

The men of 1776 should be considered “founders” not because of any personal greatness that they may have exhibited but because they embraced ideas worthy of serving as a foundation for political society. The personal reputations of the American founders are not what’s at stake in the 1619 vs. 1776 debate; the reputations of these ideas are. American identity is not an either/or, as Silverstein would have us believe. It is a both/and, deeply troubling in its contradictions but equally illuminating in its promise to overcome them. The United States of America was indeed started in slavery, but it was founded in freedom.

First Principles

The Pulitzer Prize for Tabloid History

Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times peddled bogus history as fact. Instead of being repudiated, they just won the most prestigious award in journalism.

The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Like the “suicide” of Jeffrey Epstein, the outcome is stunning but not surprising. On its face, the project is completely undeserving of journalism’s highest prize. It is not journalism, but history in tabloid form.

Are we to believe that after American historians have been investigating themes related to race and slavery for nearly two centuries, the New York Times has only now somehow found a secret source that gives them a scoop?

The simple fact is that the Times is neither prepared nor qualified to write history. Neither is Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s director whose introductory essay for the magazine won the Pultizer for commentary. We should not be surprised that the project offers particularly bad history. This is the frank conclusion of our nation’s most eminent historians—including several who have themselves won Pulitzer Prizes, in actual history. 

Gordon Wood called it “so wrong in so many ways.” James McPherson said, “It does not make very much sense to me.” Pulitzer Prize finalist Sean Wilentz led a group of historians who were “dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project” related to “matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism.”

One would at least think that the winner of journalism’s highest prize should represent “honest” journalism, but the Times went out of its way to present a knowingly dishonest account of American history. One of the magazine’s hand-picked fact-checkers, a historian at Northwestern University, flatly refuted one of the project’s central and most damning claims—that the American Revolution was fought explicitly to protect slavery. The Times printed this claim anyway. The editor who allowed the claim to be printed, Jake Silverstein, was rightly forced to print a retraction.

This should have been a big enough embarrassment to disqualify the 1619 Project from consideration for any journalistic award. So, if you are wondering how inaccurate, dishonest, non-journalism can win journalism’s top prize, well, the fix was in from the start. The administrator of the Pulitzer Prize, Dana Canady, is a 20-year veteran of the Times. Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins is also a member of the Pulitzer Prize board. At least three other current members of the Pulitzer board have written for the Times.

For the Pulitzer Prize, this kind of self-dealing is par for the course. More troublesome than these shadowy backroom deals, though, is the appearance of coordination by a network of unaccountable organizations, resting on massive tax-advantaged endowments, to magnify the influence of this inaccurate and incendiary view of American history. The MacArthur Foundation gave Hannah-Jones its “genius grant” in 2017, helping her build the foundation for her project. Then the Pulitzer Center (which has no official connection to the Pulitzer Prize, which is administered by Columbia University) announced plans immediately after the publication of the 1619 Project to push its content into K-12 schools and colleges.

The success of the 1619 Project in wresting control of our historical narrative is not an accident. It is the outcome of a detailed and deliberate public relations strategy. Inquiring minds may want to know: Who is behind the unaccountable organizations driving this strategy, and why have they orchestrated an elaborate strategy to teach us to hate America?

In a healthy journalistic profession, inquiring minds would ask such questions, and be awarded for it. But the profession of journalism is shaped now, more than ever, by the “yellow journalism” perfected by the namesake of the profession’s highest award. Indeed, even his biography on the Pulitzer Prize website admits that Joseph Pulitzer recognized “no apparent restraints on sensationalism or fabrication of news.” The New York Times has discovered that sensationalist journalism, and tabloid history, spark the passions that power newspaper sales and hate clicks.

Greedy capitalists (i.e., greedy corporate leftists)—including the holders of Class A and Class B shares in the New York Times Company—have long known that there is profit in exploiting the people’s vices. But who cultivates the virtues that hold a people together?

In America, we have relied on the teaching of our history to inculcate these civic virtues. Students have been taught about the marginal figures from our nation’s history who claimed that some groups are incapable of sharing in the responsibilities of self-government or are unworthy of the blessings of liberty.

But students have also learned what the historians critical of the 1619 Project emphasize—that the vast American center, going back to our founding, repeatedly has rejected these sentiments. The deliberate sense of Americans over time has been to deny the legitimacy of any kind of racial caste system, and to embrace an American citizenship that requires all to be respected equally under the law and to respect the law equally.

This kind of education emphasized the development of an American consensus on the meaning of our founding ideals and brought young people into that consensus. It is being driven out by the tabloid history of the New York Times 1619 Project which is organized around the sinister claim, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.”

At a time when our nation is forgetting the men who authored those ideals, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and those who helped us more fully to realize them, like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, the New York Times is resurrecting and amplifying the same argument voiced by notorious and discredited characters like John C. Calhoun, Roger Taney, and Alexander Stephens—that America’s founders did not believe what they said about equality.

We should not forget the United States fought a bitter Civil War to repudiate the ideas of Calhoun, Taney, and Stephens. Why should the leadership of the New York Times go unchallenged as it allows the stoking of these fratricidal passions just to further enrich its chief shareholders, the Sulzberger family and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim? And why should the leadership of the Pulitzer Prize Board, Pulitzer Center, and the other unaccountable organizations peddling these pernicious ideas not be scrutinized?

A nation that has no single racial, ethnic, or religious identity, but has only its history and principles to unite it, must guard that history and those principles jealously. Both are too important to be entrusted to writers of tabloid history or practitioners of yellow journalism, regardless of the prizes they give themselves.

First Principles

Dare To Be a Daniel

The remedy for this state of affairs comes from people once again taking charge of their own lives.

There is an old Puritan hymn (based on the apocalyptic Old Testament book of Daniel for the less-than-biblically literate) we grew up singing. Perhaps you recall it: 

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose firm,
Dare to make it known. 

In a famous essay written just after World War II, George Orwell, in one of his great punchlines, suggested, “to bring this hymn up to date one would have to add a ‘Don’t’ at the beginning of each line.”

He was talking about the timidity of modern people, thinkers and doers alike, in relatively safe circumstances, to be quiet about dishonesty. Doesn’t intelligence require truth-telling? But then in the first sentence of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell himself wrote satirically: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 

In our present-day Chinese-induced viral pandemic, which started with colossal lies from the East, perhaps it is time to get to the essential truth. 

Our brilliant global elites over a number of decades made a dangerous Faustian bargain with the Communist Party of Beijing. The deal was supposed to bring them into the capitalist fold and yield greater international order. 

Instead, it has led to this tragedy. We were told untold economic benefits would make them “good democrats,” as we outsourced our jobs to them. Clearly, they are not, and the Communist deception continues unabated. 

In a word, we were conned.

Isn’t it time to pull ourselves from the swamp of political correctness, the lies of advertising, and a near-total bureaucracy that has consumed so many secular people, especially academics and media pundits? 

Global poverty, we were likewise told, is the greatest challenge of our time. Many still believe investments in education to be an essential part of the solution to this grand challenge. Despite spending $2.3 trillion on development assistance over the past 50 years, as William Easterly reminded us in, White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, failure abounds. 

Easterly writes: 

In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out; searchers find things that work and get some reward . . . . Planners apply global blueprints; searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom, while searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; searchers find out whether the customer is satisfied.

So, we ask as searchers, might it be time for leaders, for philanthropists, for business executives, for politicians of all stripes and locales, and for the citizenry at large, to lead where others fear to tread? Donald Trump has been willing to go there. Why not follow his lead? Dare. 

To rethink ways forward, not in some new plan or phony U.N. “millennium goals” but merely by utilizing the magic of the market and the well-known reward of good old American entrepreneurship and innovation? 

Toward a New Economy of Thrift

If we ask those questions in the light of the considerations raised in this present corona crisis, then we are surely guided to thrift, as a much-needed virtue and as an illustration of the true meaning of spiritual capital, of our American aspirational can-do-ism. Thrift, in its Old Norse origin, meant literally “to thrive.” 

How can we thrive again?

I have tried to show the place of thrift and thriving in a theological worldview as well as its effects in generating an economy of stewardship rather than of consumption. Thrift serves as a link between spiritual investment and material reward. And the reward is not merely an increase in productivity and delayed gratification but care for others, for the environment, and for future generations. 

An economy of thrift is one that bears the imprint of the legacy from which it springs. It is one that answers both to the demand that we conserve the earth’s resources, and to the demands of philanthropists, that we care for the poor. It is an economy that shows the effect of reinvesting capital, namely, and perhaps most importantly, to conserve the permanent things.

In place of that economy, however, we have seen the emergence of the economy of transient and consumable things, too many of which were made cheaply and by slave labor in China. I would side with those critics of the consumer society who have seen the fragmentation of the family, the loss of commitment, and the growth of short-term pleasure-seeking as its most evident effects. 

I agree with them that, even if in some attenuated economic theory, the consumer society is capable of self-perpetuation in a continual orgy of stale delights, it will provide only an impoverished life to its members. It will be a life without (the pursuit of) happiness, because without solid virtues, a life in which the old ideas of duty, sacrifice, and responsibility have no place, love is dethroned from its place in the center of things.  

The remedy for this state of affairs is not more state action, more welfare programs, yet another congressional bailout, and more interference and regulation from above in the workings of the market. The remedy comes from below, in the reinvestment of all forms of capital. It comes from people once again taking charge of their own lives, seeking to live as those Calvinist Scots of the 17th century lived, in a state of responsible stewardship over all resources within their control, saving for the future, spending on others in need, and living a life of goodwill and piety, according to the law of God, not some left-wing “Green New Deal” or WHO political edict. 

Restoring Republican Virtues

Perhaps today, together and by leveraging our minds, we can achieve a new revolution in ethical thinking and doing. That’s if we, as the prophets of old suggested, dare to be Daniels. Thrift and its sister virtues, if truly embraced and followed, if fueled and lived, if tied to all the other moral virtues, would, without doubt, lead to greater human flourishing. 

In fact, as the American Founders intended, Benjamin Franklin especially, those virtues would supply us with unprecedented benevolence. The disposition to do well would emanate from an inclination to be charitable and, in the end, would be a gift from generosity. All of this would occur if the virtues became less forgotten and, instead, found new favor and life among us all. 

That is the opportunity of this hour. And there is abundant evidence that Americans everywhere are stepping up, lending a hand, volunteering, and contributing, as they always have.

Their renewal would perhaps be best activated if we in this unusual period of respite and solitude, like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, simply took time and came to appreciate again what he called, the “dappled things”: 

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-fire coal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings. . . . 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him. 

Demonstrators take part in an "American Patriot Rally," organized on April 30, 2020, by Michigan United for Liberty on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses. - The group is upset with Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerÕs mandatory closure to curtail Covid-19.
First Principles

Freedom, If You Can Keep It

It is we, America’s citizens, who ultimately bear responsibility for how our leadership handles this crisis—that is what government by the people, for the people, and of the people means.

Good public health policy is good economic policy. An epidemic run wild will destroy an economy just as surely as a ruined economy will destroy lives.

Political leaders at all levels of government will soon have to make one of the gravest calculations of their lifetimes: identifying the singular point of equilibrium between the physical and economic health of their constituents. They will have to discern that precise moment when health risks for their citizens have declined to the point that they may prudently begin removing restrictions they’ve placed on social and economic activities. 

Where the disease is not prevalent, that may be a relatively easy call. But where the viral outbreak remains a very real and potent danger, opening up the economy too soon could have disastrous long-term economic consequences, as well as lethal health effects.

Much hangs on getting these decisions right. And, as citizens, we are not mere spectators in this drama. Our names may not be on the marquee, but we are more than bit players. 

It is we, the people, who confer power on our leaders. By our votes, we have put those leaders in office, and when this is over, we will have to judge whether those we elected proved worthy of the trust we placed in them. Did they take good counsel? Did they balance the needs of all citizens? Were they arbitrary or equitable in deciding which activities to prevent and which to allow? Did they take advantage of our vulnerability to take just a little more power for themselves? 

COVID-19 has tested not just how our mayors, governors and federal officials manage a pandemic, but also how they manage our freedom. It is a truism that, once people have power, they seldom want to give it up. That all-too-human trait does not recede, even in the midst of a national emergency. 

George Washington was an exception. He rejected the prospect of being crowned king. He said no to a third term in office. His decisions conform perfectly with fundamental American values. 

Our founders recognized the dangers inherent in the allure of power. They acknowledged man’s natural inclination to seek power and set out to constrain it. Hence the separation of powers, the checks and balances, and the division of power between the national government and state governments. The system they designed was brilliant, and it has worked remarkably well up to now. But these are extraordinary times. 

Never in the history of the United States have Americans given up so much of our freedom. For the most part, we have done so willingly because we believed it was for our own good and for the good of the more vulnerable among us. 

Yet now that the number of fatalities and hospitalizations is running far lower than projected, many complain that this shutdown was unwarranted. A strong argument can be made that those in power did only what they thought was necessary, however, given the limited information available about the disease at the time.

The uncertainty about the nature of the virus and what seemed like a very real potential for rampant death led President Trump and America’s governors to place extreme restrictions on our activities, and we accepted them. That we willingly conceded our freedoms to the leaders we elected and that we trust them to return those freedoms is a true test of what makes America exceptional.

The good news is that the government America’s Founder designed—a republic in which power resides with its citizens—is sufficiently agile and resilient that it can adapt even to an unforeseen crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission noted in its preliminary report released this week, “The American system of federalism provides the appropriate governing structure for responding to a crisis with as many different facets and variable effects as we are seeing with COVID-19.” 

But that also means that we do not get to blithely leave the fate of our country in the hands of those we elected. They are our representatives, not our rulers.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington on January 16, 1787, “The people are the only censors of their governors.” It is we, America’s citizens, who ultimately bear responsibility for how our leadership handles this crisis—that is what government by the people, for the people, and of the people means. 

Thus, if we still value our freedom and have not sacrificed it to the fear of disease, in the weeks and months ahead we must ensure that we remain engaged and informed. We must fully understand the limited powers of our government officials. We must know our history well enough to understand why the Framers of the Constitution designed the government that they did. (And if we do not know it, this is the perfect time to learn it.) Finally, we must care enough about our freedom to demand we get it back—fully—once this crisis has passed.

First Principles

Big Tech, Privacy, and Power

The power of Big Tech has been growing slowly, and in a way that many of us have accommodated as a necessary infiltration. But the scope of that power—and its costs to the culture we have ordered—have been less transparent.

The ground is shifting quickly beneath our feet when it comes to tech, privacy, and power. And, although tech companies, their advocates, and even some policymakers, would like us to imagine these issues are cut and dried, they are not.

In their book The Sovereign Individual, published on the eve of the year 2000, James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg attempt to grapple with the forthcoming technological changes that the new millennium inevitably would bring. “As technology revolutionizes the tools we use,” they wrote, “it also antiquates our laws, reshapes our morals, and alters our perceptions.”

This is the dynamic that has been unfolding slowly over the last 20 years, as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have transformed how we engage with communications, culture, commerce, and one another.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed that transformation into overdrive, while exposing just how significantly power dynamics—between individuals and corporations, and individuals and the state—have shifted.

Earlier this week, Facebook announced it was removing posts intended to organize rallies protesting government stay-at-home policies in various states. Initially, a Facebook spokesman claimed the company was doing this at the behest of state governments. Nearly 12 hours later, the company clarified it was independently removing posts “when gathering[s] do not follow the health parameters established by the government.”

Facebook did not clarify if this meant gatherings in violation of state laws, or executive orders with no force of law, or merely violations of government suggested practices.

This opens up a new, concerning lane for Facebook, and for tech more broadly. As Big Tech cements itself as our primary facilitator of communication (as it most certainly has during this pandemic), it wields outsized power.

Kalev Leetaru at George Washington University recently pointed out the significance of this shift, and the lines that blur as a result:

That a private company can now unilaterally decide to simply delete the promotion of protests it deems unacceptable is a remarkable expansion of its power over what was once a sacrosanct and constitutionally protected freedom. As we cede the public square to private companies, however, those constitutional freedoms of speech and expression no longer apply in some cases. Through those private companies, in fact, government officials can in effect restrict speech they are obligated to protect.

The irony is that less than a year ago, Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech at Georgetown University where he extolled tech’s many virtues, including how tech platforms “have decentralized power by putting it directly into people’s hands.” Yet Facebook’s most recent actions confirm that power of communication for the 70 percent of American adults who use Facebook, rather than being made disparate, is still very much centralized in the tech platform.

YouTube has also put itself in the position of defining “correct” speech—but this time, by aligning itself with the World Health Organization. YouTube’s CEO announced that the platform would remove “anything that would go against World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.”

YouTube’s apparent motivation is to keep people safe from misinformation—which makes their choice of WHO recommendations an interesting one. In mid-January, the organization was telling the world that COVID-19 wasn’t contagious. WHO also publicly opposed the travel restrictions put in place by multiple countries and didn’t declare coronavirus a pandemic until March 11. All along, the organization has taken China’s obviously false claims at face value, allowing the virus to spread.

Yet this is the banner behind which YouTube will fly its “user safety” flag, thus imposing WHO’s views on its massive user base.

Tracking You—For Your Health.

Then there is the thorny notion of contact tracing—the way in which public health experts attempt to contain a viral pathogen by tracing where an infected individual has been, and with whom they’ve been in contact. Traditionally, contact tracing has been analog, based on a conversation between patient and doctor.

But the digital age has exploded contact tracing exponentially. It is much more efficient and accurate to trace a virtual trail, particularly as we leave immense digital footprints wherever we go. South Korea has typified this type of response, tracking COVID-19 patients using credit card data, surveillance camera footage, and cell phone location data. The South Korean government recently announced they’d be requiring infected individuals to wear electronic wristbands to ensure patients did not breach quarantine.

It is unlikely U.S. citizens would tolerate such intense and mandatory surveillance measures. But that’s where Big Tech comes in.

Without being asked, Google already has been sharing aggregate user location data with governments interested in compliance with social distancing measures. The House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives, sent a letter to Google raising concern over the “frightfully detailed, specific, and granular” data being provided to government officials.

Google and Apple recently have announced the development of a contact tracing technology that will use cell phone Bluetooth proximity data to alert individuals if they have come into contact with an infected person. The app’s effectiveness depends upon people self-reporting their own positive diagnosis. Already, security experts have raised concerns about false positives, spoofing, re-anonymization, and “proximity marketing” (yes, you’re just trying to avoid getting sick, but tech advertisers could still make money). Experts have also pointed out how easy it would be for this system to be abused.

The Google/Apple contact tracing app is opt-in—for now. Epidemiologists suggest that contact tracing really only works to slow viral spread if at least 60 percent of the population participates. It’s entirely possible that federal or state governments mandate the use of a contact-tracing app, in which case corporate and state power over the individual would be comingled, with little differentiation.

Michael Kwet, a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, put it this way:

Two corporations, Apple and Google, have come to dominate the smartphone software ecosystem, and they have spent years spying on users and enabling consumer surveillance in their app stores. In the world we built, we now have to weigh the fate of our lives and economy against trust in Apple and Google, the ad-tech industry they support, and government intelligence agencies. . . . This is a nightmare.

There are other questions, too. Could public health agencies get court orders to obtain phone tracking data from communications companies without consumers’ permission? Is it acceptable for aggregate location data to be made public?

We do know that the technology’s operating system will be made available only to governments’ public health authorities—will Apple and Google prevent authoritarian governments from using the technology in unintended ways? Will health authorities be able to build apps on top of the Google-Apple technology that could enable more invasive tracking?

Then there is the security of personal health data itself. This is supposed to be protected by HIPAA, the nation’s health privacy law. But the Department of Health and Human Services recently announced it would relax enforcement of HIPAA to facilitate the disclosure of health information between healthcare providers and their business associates. Google is a “business associate” of several major hospital chains already, and as part of the relationship receives the full medical records of patients without their knowledge or consent. What constitutes a HIPAA violation under this technology? Would Apple or Google be held liable?

We Have Been Here Before

COVID-19 has presented fundamentally difficult questions about the tradeoffs between public health and privacy, and the relationship between corporate and state power.

In some ways, however, we have been here before.

In the days after 9/11, Congress grappled with similar questions as they put together the PATRIOT Act. The law authorized massive surveillance of the American population, and the years since have seen that power abused and manipulated. (Tech companies also got in on that game; for years they willingly and secretly shared troves of user data with the National Security Agency.)

What we needed then was sober-minded deliberation and thoughtful analysis—not the rush to give away civil liberties as we grasped for a sense of security.

The lesson there should be applied here. As we rightly seek a functional public health response to a virus that currently lacks a vaccine, the push toward erasing the boundaries of our private lives will only increase. The belief that private industry “innovations” are inherently good and thus do not pose a risk to us has the potential to lull us into complacency. Indeed, the people who warned us about the PATRIOT Act appear to have no such qualms about Google.

But the potential for mandated usage remains, as do a host of questions, both technical and broadly philosophical. These questions should be pondered, not rushed; interrogated, rather than dismissed. As corporate power increasingly co-mingles with state power, this process becomes even more important.

The power of Big Tech has been growing slowly, and in a way that many of us have accommodated as a necessary infiltration. But the scope of that power—and its costs to the culture we have ordered—have been less transparent.

Like the bird that falls asleep on the back of the hippopotamus, we don’t actually think much about the status of where we are until the hippo moves. And now, the hippo is moving. And the massive power Big Tech has amassed has been revealed. How much or how little say we have over the arrangement, however, is still being determined.

First Principles

Will Consciousness of Death Remind Americans to Value Life?

In the 103 years since the last comparable pandemic, our cultural relationship with life and death has changed.

May 1 celebrations used to be about the renewal of life, replete with beribboned poles and spring dances, long before the Soviet and Chinese communists appropriated those joyous rituals—replacing flowers with tanks. May Day parades, ostensibly for the purpose of commemorating International Workers Day and instilling pride in the motherland, were meant also to intimidate adversaries at home and abroad.

As much of our country may be set to return to work on May 1 after what has been a nearly three-month confinement, the way in which COVID-19 compelled us to live exposes cultural paradoxes overdue for examination. In the 103 years since the last comparable pandemic, our cultural relationship with life and death has changed.

How will we remember this period of time?

Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci asserts that COVID-19 will be with us for some time, and thus, long-accepted societal practices must change to keep infection rates at a minimum. Fauci ignited controversy by suggesting that the widespread social ritual of shaking hands should be discontinued in our new world. “We don’t need to shake hands. We’ve got to break that custom.” His admonition, initially shocking to many, has been quietly accepted by many others as the death toll mounts in places like New York. Other, more informal public displays of affection are likewise being forsaken in the small family gatherings still left to us.

Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and self-described “funeral industry rabble-rouser” popular on YouTube. In 2011, she founded The Order of the Good Death, whose mission is “about making death a part of your life. Staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.”

In her book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory (2018), she graphically describes how the American fear of death results in a terrible disassociation with reality. Doughty’s goal is to reintroduce a cultural affirmation of, and comfort with, death in our lives—as opposed to the antiseptic and expensive service that the modern funeral industry currently offers us. Doughty has argued that Americans tend to deny death and decay:

Looking at the body you understand the person is gone, no longer a player in the game of life. Looking at the body you see yourself, and you know that you, too, will die. The visual is a call to self-awareness. It is the beginning of wisdom.

Doughty frequently takes the funeral industry to task for not offering a more personal, holistic mourning and burial experience like those from earlier times in our country’s history. She tells viewers that the family, usually the older women, would wash and dress their loved one’s body, carefully arrange the body on a couch or bed, and the community would come together and mourn. A black ribbon wreath on the front door notified visitors and bypassers of a family in mourning. Funeral homes, fixtures in communities today, were unknown until the mid-1920s.

During the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, life did not shut down. Large and small businesses continued to operate. Concessions to safety like gauze masks were made, and a substantial public service campaign to cover coughs and sneezes was launched largely with help of volunteers like the Boy Scouts.

Historian Catharine Arnold documented the outbreak in Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History. She exposed the vulnerability which the experience of survival amid mass casualties can leave in its wake. She includes an account by author John Steinbeck, who had been an adolescent during the height of the pandemic. Steinbeck had recovered after a lengthy convalescence but carried on with lasting physical and mental repercussions. “The experience bestowed a strange psychological legacy, leaving Steinbeck with a profound sense of vulnerability which shaped him as a writer.”

Both Doughty and Arnold make salient points about the cultural treatment of death. Doughty is not wrong to call out abuses and scandals in the funeral industry, but she overplays the role of the industry in shaping our now-ingrained abjuration of death’s reality. “Burial,” she explains’ “means an embalmed body in a heavy-duty casket with a vault built over it so that the ground doesn’t settle. That body is encased in many layers of denial.” However, our current funeral practices are not only the cause of the cultural shift in attitudes towards mortality.

While no one would deny that there are funeral directors who prey on grieving families and abuse their own indispensability for financial gain, Doughty misses some concurrent changes in social mores that are even more directly responsible than the funeral industry. Other corporate ventures have come to trivialize the experience of death in the same measure that funeral directors are said to capitalize on our fear of death. Video games, in their quest to enhance and prolong the period of play, enable their characters to come to gory ends and then respawn with even greater powers—a potentially hazardous twist on cultural archetypes of death and resurrection.

There are scholars who have warned us. John Paul II is often described as the philosopher’s pope. There is little doubt he was influenced by Israeli thinker Martin Buber. The purpose of his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae was to clarify and expand Pope Paul VI’s Humana Vitae, updating it to include new threats from technical innovation and mediated by governments, social activists, and media. The net result of those changes has been to diminish the inherent value of human life as an essential truth. The encyclical reaffirmed the Church’s stance on contraception, abortion, and euthenasia:

…[in the]present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” there is an urgent need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.

When governments at the behest of society provide access to these “social” services, they promote a self-centered efficiency at the expense of, and furthering the depreciation of, life itself as a value.

Buber’s 1952 book, Eclipse of God, foreshadowed how nothing good could come from the rapidly fading primacy of metaphysical truths: “Eclipse of the light of heaven, eclipse of the light of God—such indeed is the character of the historic hour through which the world is now passing.” Buber was writing in the aftermath of World War II amid the ethical chaos wrought by the devout atheism of National Socialism as well as the postmodern secular philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and other postwar existentialists. Buber also remained acutely aware of false piety, and he did not hesitate to call out devout supposedly moral individuals who collaborated with Nazis:

I do not mean to imply that the evil are anything other than a small minority among the religious or that the religious motives of most people are in any way spurious. I mean only that evil people tend to gravitate toward piety for the disguise and concealment it can offer them.

Echoing Buber, John Paul II wrote:

. . . the eclipse of God and man, typical of a social and cultural climate typically dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles…those who allow themselves to be influenced by this climate fall into a sad vicious circle: When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, or his dignity and his life . . .

It is fair to say that both men were prescient in predicting the spurious nature of what would become woke culture, the fully actualized culture of death the late Pope warned us about.

Although neither Martin Buber nor John Paul II would have had occasion to play “Call of Duty” or “Red Dead Redemption,” they might have watched some American westerns. American popular culture, even including these old westerns, showed a reverence for life and for the concept of all humanity sharing an invisible bond. Several now-classic westerns sent a strong message of American moral exceptionalism. They also took care to affirm an irreducible respect for the humanity of every individual—pointedly including the insignificant, the scorned, the inconvenient. In John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” the passengers risk their own lives to ensure the survival of a pregnant woman and the baby to which she gives birth.

In John Sturges 1960 western “The Magnificent Seven,” the characters played by Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen form an instant brotherhood of protest when a town tries to deny an Indian’s right to be buried alongside the white people of his town. Finally, in Fred Zinneman’s “High Noon,” citizens of a seemingly doomed town rationalize their abandonment of that town and of its marshal Will Kane to certain death, by complaining that nobody outside their town cares about their town anyway. It takes a madam and businesswoman, Helen Ramirez, to argue that the town is choosing to kill itself and thus making it that much easier for the next town to be ground into the dust by the forces of evil.

Over the past two months, the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has taken over 50,000 lives and wrought economic devastation. If there is good to come of this, it will be born of acknowledging the moral abyss whose edge we have too closely skirted. It is not too late for a rebirth of reverence for the precious value of human life, for the somber—not frightful—claim of all our dead upon our respect. We might reclaim lost ground from the culture of death as we reach for the light of life in the very shadow of that death.

First Principles

The Land of the ‘Free’ and the Home of Shelter-in-Place Orders

Americans should not be complacent, nor should they allow panic or fear to lead them to acquiesce to unreasonable restrictions on constitutionally guaranteed liberties.

In mid-March, governors across the country began issuing broad shelter-in-place orders in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The orders contain sweeping restrictions on individuals’ freedom of movement and activity in every sphere of life. They preclude people from going to work, running their businesses, convening to worship, visiting their own properties, taking a drive, attending school, and visiting with family or friends.

The orders are based on the belief that the coronavirus poses a dire threat to the health and safety of the populace. Drawing on the expertise of epidemiologists and other public health officials, as well as the statistical projections of various models on which those officials have relied, governors issued their orders under the belief that “social distancing” will slow the spread of the disease and spare the healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

Most people initially accepted the premise for the orders and complied with them. But as more and more data have become available, it is clear that the models the public health experts relied on for their projections were wrong.

Moreover, as the shelter-in-place orders continue with no end in sight, public-health officials seem to have moved the goalposts to suggest the orders should remain in effect until there are “no new cases, no deaths.”

Meanwhile, the economy is crumbling. As a result, Americans have begun questioning the scope and duration of the shelter-in-place orders, resulting in various protests and rallies.

Beyond Reasonable Necessity

Even as President Trump has created an advisory council and implementation plan in an effort to reopen the country, state governors insist they have plenary authority to make decisions about the scope of their shelter-in-place orders within their states, and continue to extend them, in some cases to extremes that strain credulity.

Police in California arrested a paddle boarder in the Pacific Ocean who was nowhere near any other individual. A man in Philadelphia was forcibly dragged off a bus for not wearing a mask. Numerous states have banned or restricted fishing. In San Diego police cited people for watching the sunset from inside their cars. In Colorado a man was arrested for playing t-ball alone in a field with his daughter. In Michigan, the governor’s order precludes the sale of seeds and gardening supplies.

Police in some locales are directly interfering with people’s exercise of enumerated First Amendment rights. In Kentucky people were issued “quarantine notices” and their license plate numbers were recorded after they drove to a parking lot to attend an Easter service from inside their cars. In North Carolina police arrested a woman for assembling to protest the shelter-in-place order. Apparently forgetting about those pesky fundamental rights, the police then tweeted, “Protesting is not an essential activity.”

These actions are well beyond what is reasonably necessary to address the risks of the virus. But what is the source of authority for state shelter-in-place orders, and what are the limits on that authority? People increasingly are raising these questions, and now would seem an opportune time to review the long history of legal rulings that address them.

The U.S. Supreme Court held in Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts that the police power of a state embraces “reasonable regulations established directly by legislative enactment as will protect the public health and the public safety.” In Jacobson, the court upheld the conviction of a man who refused to comply with the state’s mandatory smallpox vaccination. The court concluded that the state retained control under the 10th Amendment of “all laws that relate to matters completely within its territory and which do not by their necessary operation affect the people of other states.”

However, Jacobson recognized constitutional limits on a state’s right to enact health and safety regulations, noting,

A local enactment or regulation, even if based on the acknowledged police powers of a state, must always yield in case of conflict with the exercise by the general government of any power it possesses under the Constitution, or with any right which that instrument gives or secures.

Jacobson affirmed that even in the case of health laws designed to protect the public from communicable disease, a state may not interfere beyond what is “absolutely necessary for its self-protection.”

Thus, as Jacobson and other cases have recognized, the Constitution provides a backstop, such that the state’s authority ends where the Constitution’s authority begins. Health and safety laws are no exception.

Limits on State Police Powers

One constitutional limit to state authority over health and safety laws is the Commerce Clause contained in Article I, Section 8, which authorizes Congress “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes.”

In an 1824 case called Gibbons v. Ogden, the Supreme Court affirmed that the Constitution confers upon Congress the exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce. Even if a state law is designed to affect only economic activity within its state, Gibbons concluded that the Commerce Clause gives Congress authority where the activity regulated has some commercial connection with another state. Notably, the Court in Gibbons noted that quarantine laws are not merely health or police laws, but “they are also laws of commerce.”

Another limit to a state’s ability to enact health and safety regulations is found where a law infringes upon fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. The 14th Amendment guarantees no state may “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This protection ensures substantive liberty rights, not just process.

The most familiar of the liberties protected by the 14th Amendment are in the Bill of Rights. They include, of course, the First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion, free speech, and the right peaceably to assemble; they also include the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. In addition, the Supreme Court has held that the liberty interests secured by the Constitution exceed these enumerated rights and includes “a rational continuum which, broadly speaking, includes a freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints.”

Where a state imposes a substantial burden on a fundamental right, the state has the burden of showing that it has a compelling state interest and that the state is taking the least restrictive means toward achieving that compelling interest. This test, known as the “strict scrutiny” standard, has its roots in a case called Skinner v. State of Okl. ex rel. Williamson (1942). In that case, the Supreme Court invalidated a broad Oklahoma law that required the forced sterilization of people with multiple convictions for crimes of “moral turpitude.” The strict scrutiny test ensures that a state’s power to enact laws in the name of health and safety will not become an unreasonable pretext for overriding liberty interests secured under the Constitution.

Various state courts have explicitly recognized that states’ authority to protect against epidemic does not justify such arbitrary and unreasonable state action.

A California case (In re Shepard) from 1924 is instructive. In that case, a woman was arrested on a prostitution complaint and was ordered isolated and quarantined based on the suspicion that she was “infected with a contagious, infectious, and communicable disease.” In vacating the quarantine order the court held that the constitutional guarantees of the right to personal liberty and personal security override “mere suspicion” that someone must be isolated due to disease.

How Many Liberties Are We Willing to Cede?

Americans should be questioning whether the coronavirus presents an “immediate, imminent, and impending” threat that justifies the suspension of civil liberties and the decimation of the national economy. Whatever benefit of the doubt states had a month ago has dissipated as we have learned that the data and models the states relied on as authority for their restrictions were wrong. The states’ arguments of a compelling interest were based on dire predictions of 2 million dead Americans. Those models were wrong, and Americans should scrutinize just how “compelling” the states’ interests remain. And when governors are banning people from buying gardening supplies or citing them for watching a sunset, Americans should scrutinize whether states are employing the least restrictive means.

Over the past several months, Americans have witnessed—and in many cases accepted—a not-isolated series of infringements on their civil liberties. At the same time we continue to learn of civil rights abuses by the FBI through the use of federal court orders put in place under the USA Patriot Act after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on our nation. While two decades apart, the situations are not dissimilar and are equally troubling.

As a nation we should understand that fear has a way of driving us to do things we later will regret—things like blatantly trampling on people’s constitutional rights, or, worse, simply surrendering those rights.

Americans should not be complacent, nor should they allow panic or fear to lead them to acquiesce to unreasonable restrictions on constitutionally guaranteed liberties. Instead, Americans must insist that states display a compelling interest and that the restrictions they impose are the least restrictive means necessary to address that interest. The Constitution requires nothing less.

First Principles

A New American Civics Portal

While the Real Clear Foundation’s project will not shy away from the injustices that have taken place throughout our nation’s history—including slavery and racism—those will be depicted rightly as departures from America’s founding principles.

The Real Clear Foundation has launched a new American civics education portal, dedicated to renewing civic education in the United States.

If one good thing has come out of this season of quarantine, it’s that parents, forced to homeschool, are getting to see the unpatriotic and liberal curriculum public schools are teaching. In a recent article at the Federalist, Beth Freeley wrote about a world history assignment on gender theory (parents raising “theybies”) and a physics assignment on critical race theory that her freshman received from his public school. Evidently, a supplemental source like Real Clear’s American Civics Portal could not have come at a better time.

Though the American Civics Portal is not a direct response to the New York Times’ “1619 Project” it is “more than an answer” to it, David DesRosiers, publisher of RealClearPolitics, wrote in an email.

The “1619 Project” is an initiative by the New York Times and the Pulitzer Center to reeducate Americans about American history. They seek to teach school children that America’s real founding date is not July 4, 1776—the day the United States declared independence from Great Britain—but 1619, the year slaves were first brought to Jamestown.

Even now, One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, is working to turn the “1619 Project” into a series of books. This will include new and expanded essays as well as fiction and poetry. Further, according to Pulitzer’s Annual Report, more than 3,500 classrooms around the nation have been given free copies of the “1619” curriculum. That represents more than 100,000 students who are learning that, as Nicole Hannah-Jones puts it in her flagship essay, our founding principles were a lie.

In contrast “RealClear’s American Civics web portal gives students, teachers, and citizens-in-the-making a clear understanding of our nation’s founding principles and history,” stated DesRosiers. “We draw upon the best resources, research, and scholarly writing in order to educate and inspire a new generation of Americans,” he said.

According to RealClear’s website, the project seeks to give readers insight on topics such as inalienable rights, the Constitution, and civic virtue. Included in this project is the 1776 Series, essays that explore founding principles such as the nature of self-government and the republican nature of the U.S. Constitution. Further, this collection of essays will include modern topics of political import such as balancing individual freedom and national security.

Of the 1776 series, DesRosiers wrote, “We see that [the] soul of America finds its articulation in the Declaration of Independence and its New Order of the Ages ambitions. To say that it’s 1619—as the New York Times does—is to introduce a falsehood into our educational system.”

As a whole, this portal masterfully deals with America’s failures and successes without offering either a wholesale condemnation or exoneration. In the project’s introductory essay “American Civics in the Time of Coronavirus,” Carl M. Cannon states that the essays and resources will not present a “sanitized version of America.” He writes,

Lady Liberty is sufficiently beautiful that her blemishes needn’t be powdered over. On the other hand, modern revisionists mainly present a warts-only view of the United States. “American Civics” will do neither. The reigning ethos here will be that the country has nothing to hide and much to be proud of.

While this project will not shy away from the injustices that have taken place throughout our nation’s history—including slavery and racism—they will rightly be shown as departures from our founding principles.

The portal is arranged topically. Those doing research can click on one of several categories such as: EqualityLiberty, and Race and Slavery. Other topics will soon be added that cover self-government, citizenship, the U.S. Constitution, and more. Under each category are numerous informative essays to read. Also on the portal is a list of essential American civics readings that can serve as a source for teachers and students alike.

Tom Tacoma, assistant professor of history and political science at Blue Mountain College, said of the new American Civics Portal,

A fairly large proportion of my students want to be high school history teachers, so I think just exposing them to Real Clear’s Civics portal will be helpful to them as they look to their future careers . . . From what I’ve read already [RealClear has published] thoughtful pieces by top scholars and that’s exactly what I want to incorporate in my classes.

DesRosiers said he hopes teachers will find the page helpful. “This Civics portal brings together primary sources, video, and sample curricula to give students a clearer understanding of their nation’s principles and history.”

After COVID-19 we will need a renewed understanding of American civics to repair the economy and our political culture, Cannon writes. He argues that America has always met existential threats by summoning our inner resources.

Narratives such as the one taught by the “1619 Project” are distorting the understanding of the principles that made Americans capable of overcoming monumental obstacles. In times of war and trouble, our leaders have always been able to refer to America’s founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence to inspire people with its soaring language and ideals. Yet, if Nicole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times have their way Americans will no longer revere such things, but will look upon all of American history with cynicism.

Unlike the “1619 Project,” the 1776 Series and RealClear’s Civics Education Portal takes an optimistic look at American history. It is a breath of fresh air in a time when our nation needs it most.

First Principles

Why the Double Standard With Hungary?

What matters to transnational progressives is not “government by the consent of the governed,” but the elite consensus developed and refined in unelected judicial-administrative bureaucracies.

In reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, all European democracies have instituted large-scale emergency measures. But one nation in particular, Hungary, has been subjected to an unprecedented barrage of international criticism for its response to the crisis.

The Hungarians are charged with moving towards “dictatorship,” bypassing the rule of law, suspending the parliament, and canceling elections. These accusations are false on all counts.

The emergency legislation declaring a “state of danger” is one of six types of emergency measures listed in Hungary’s fundamental law and constitution. The Constitutional Court is operating and could reject the emergency legislation either wholly or in part.

The “state of danger” legislation passed the parliament with the required two-thirds majority. It can be revoked by the parliament by a simple majority at any time.

On March 31, under the headline “Coronavirus Kills Its First Democracy,” the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor breathlessly “reported” that in Hungary “Parliament is closed, future elections were called off.”

Unfortunately for the Post’s already-tattered credibility, none of this is true. The Hungarian Parliament has not been suspended. In fact, it has been meeting every week in person, not virtually. When CNN’s Christiane Amanpour asked Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó why parliament was closed, he told her that he had just spoken five times in parliament that very week. An embarrassed Amanpour muttered, “OK, that’s news to us.”

Further, there are no plans to cancel elections. National elections are scheduled for 2022 and local elections for 2024. The only exception is if a current member of parliament dies or resigns there would be no special election to replace him during the emergency because of limits on the number of people permitted in public buildings and spaces during the pandemic. Several American states, including Virginia where I live, have already delayed their primaries for similar reasons.

Critics argue that since Viktor Orbán’s government has an overwhelming majority in parliament it is unlikely to rescind the emergency legislation against the wishes of the prime minister. True, but this is, of course, the nature of democracy in a parliamentary system when a party or coalition of parties has a strong majority.  When Margaret Thatcher had a solid majority in the House of Commons, she eliminated several elected metropolitan city councils, including the Greater London Council headed by “Red Ken” Livingston, later mayor of London. She has not been considered by historians as an “authoritarian.”

What’s So Different About Hungary?

It is, however, another aspect of the vicissitudes of parliamentary democracy, as John O’Sullivan (president of the Danube Institute and a former Thatcher speechwriter) noted, that four once-popular British prime ministers (Thatcher, Tony Blair, Harold MacMillan, and Neville Chamberlain) who held commanding parliamentary majorities were forced out of the prime ministership by internal party revolts.

“The lack of a sunset clause [in the Hungarian emergency legislation] is worrisome,” O’Sullivan argues, “but talk of the end of democracy is overheated.” He does not “justify the emergency law as it stands.” Nevertheless, O’Sullivan writes, the addition of a sunset clause would be beneficial by “lower[ing] the political temperature on all sides.”

Be that as it may, the Hungarian government is pretty much doing what everyone else in Europe is doing in terms of health guidelines on social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Other European states (those usually more EU friendly, one might add) are more intrusive than Hungary in restricting civil liberties and democratic practices.

France has a state of emergency. French President Emmanuel Macron’s government bypassed parliament to adopt controversial pension legislation by decree. Further, the French government has postponed the second round of local elections and drastically enforces household curfews with fines, imprisonment, and sometimes by physically forcing people back into their homes.

Significantly, a report by Agnes Zsofia Magyar, a senior research fellow at the Danube Institute, revealed that France has instituted a “state of emergency,” rule by decree over 1,000 times since the inception of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Macron in his first two years in office has used rule-by-emergency decrees 84 times. Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, used emergency decrees 273 times. I don’t recall anyone calling Macron or Hollande emerging “dictators.”

Since COVID-19, Italy has canceled elections. Spain is using drones to track citizens proclaiming “zero tolerance” for curfew violations. Belgium is run by a temporary caretaker government that lacks the clear democratic mandate of a parliamentary majority.

None of these countries are the object of criticism from the EU leadership, the mainstream international media, or foreign policy elites often described as “liberal internationalists” in the United States and in Europe. Why is that?

A Hungarian member of the European Parliament asks: “Why is the introduction of a state of emergency completely legal and acceptable in some Member-States, but completely illegal and unacceptable in others? On what grounds?”

To answer that question we must first answer two other questions: What forces are leading the attack on Hungary? And what do these forces have in common?

Attacks on Hungary are coming from the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen; the president of the European People’s Party (EPP), Donald Tusk; the Council of Europe; U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert Colville; Human Rights Watch; the Washington Post; the New York Times; CNN; Barack Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice; and journalist Anne Applebaum.

What do these individuals and institutions have in common besides hostility towards Viktor Orbán and his democratically elected conservative, sovereigntist government?

Well, they are also hostile to Poland’s elected conservative, religious, and sovereignty-oriented administration. Moreover,  they would be delighted to see conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of power. Further, they bitterly opposed Brexit and the British Conservative Party’s embrace of democratic sovereignty. Significantly, there is not one person, group, or organization, listed above, that favors the reelection of President Donald J. Trump. Is there a pattern here?

Transnational Progressives Can’t Stand Orbán or Trump

In op-eds and essays that are specifically focused on Hungary, these foreign policy gurus apparently can’t help themselves and feel compelled to add some remarks vilifying President Trump and his administration.

Thus, Rice, while arguing that Hungary should be expelled from the EU, managed to slander Trump maintaining that he used the term “Wuhan virus” for defamatory purposes. Rice claimed the phrase was deliberately “designed to stigmatize people of Asian descent.”

Likewise, in the middle of a widely circulated Atlantic essay denigrating Hungary’s emergency legislation as “creeping authoritarianism,” Applebaum characterized government spokesman Zoltán Kovács as follows, “Think Kellyanne Conway with facial hair.”

Besides snark, what the attackers of Hungary have in common is a consistent worldview: they are transnational progressives. They favor increased European integration, expanded globalization, and the transfer of authority from democratically elected governments (which they often view as retrograde and reactionary) to supranational institutions run by experts (e.g., the International Criminal Court and the European Court of Human Rights).

This worldview, in the words of French political philosopher Pierre Manent, is “post-political” and represents a dogmatic “fanaticism of the center.” “Post-political” means that decision-making is transferred from politics (i.e., the democratic process) to administrative (bureaucratic) rule. Drawing on Manent, Assumption College political science professor Daniel Mahoney explains that this narrative (which has become the transatlantic elite consensus) “erodes national identity and sovereignty” and reflects post-1968 “dogmatic” and “aggressive secularism.”

Most of the current critics of Hungary are left-liberal transnationalists, and therefore, are suspicious of democratically elected conservative governments that emphasize sovereignty and patriotism, especially if these governments are also friendly to traditional Christianity and Judaism. They portray these policy positions as backward and bigoted. Remember a recent (March 27, 2020) New York Times op-ed headline, “The Road to Coronavirus Hell was paved by Evangelicals”?

While they loudly proclaim support for democracy worldwide, in practice they prefer the rule of judges and administrators to that of elected parliamentarians and executives.

The current critics of Hungary were silent when the unelected officials of the European Union (supported by Germany and France) forced democratically elected leaders in Italy and Greece out of office in a supranational bureaucratic coup in 2011. They have little, if any criticism, of the EU’s widely acknowledged “democracy deficit.”

Does anyone remember any complaints from the editorial boards of the New York Times or the Washington Post, or any op-eds by Susan Rice decrying what even leftist German politician Joschka Fischer worried was the EU’s nondemocratic governance structure? For the past several decades, when citizens in national referenda on European Union issues rejected the preferred EU leadership outcome, those citizens of democratic nation-states were forced to vote again and again until they made the “right” decision that was acceptable to EU elites.

The current critics of Hungary cheered as oligarchical elements of the British elite attempted for three and a half years (and they are still trying) to thwart the will of the British people for a return of democratic self-government as expressed in the Brexit referendum.

They applaud when judges in the United States, Europe, or supranational courts block democratically elected officials from exercising their primary constitutional duties by attempting to control their own borders by halting illegal immigration.

For transnational progressives the “consent” of the vast majority of citizens of Western democratic nation-states to massive illegal migration from the developing world is superfluous. What matters is not “government by the consent of the governed,” but the elite consensus developed and refined in unelected judicial-administrative bureaucracies.

There is no reason why American (or European) conservatives—or traditional liberals, for that matter—should accept this false narrative on Hungary’s emergency law fabricated by foreign policy elites who are suspicious of democratic majorities and are contemptuous of conservatism in any form, but particularly a conservatism that is respectful of sovereignty, popular self-government, nation, family, and religion.

First Principles

Millennials and Zoomers: Socialism Will Ruin Your Life

The reality is that there are a few, extremely powerful people, set to benefit, who want to dismantle a civilization that is the culmination of millennia of the world’s best minds—a distillation of the heights of human glory and wisdom.

Hello Americans 35-and-under. As a fellow Millennial, I’m talking to you. 

Socialism, and its close cousin, Communism, is descending on North America with a vengeance. And the main reason it might soon succeed is that you’ve been lied to and indoctrinated your entire lives through the media, the school system, and institutions of higher education. 

We are particularly vulnerable in this time of pandemic national crisis, as we are seeing brazen attempts at unrelated government overreach in both Canada and the United States in recent days. This should be a warning.

At first blush, many of the tenets proposed by these philosophies and political approaches seem common sense and attractive. Who doesn’t want everyone to have enough money to live? Or to have access to top-notch health care? Or expect respect for the equal dignity of both sexes and all races and classes?

But the way socialism and communism propose to address these needs is rooted in a false conception of economics and human nature, an ethos of unbridled envy and thirst for power.

These systems will empower an elite of the few and take everything that is precious to you, just so you can, theoretically, have your ration of bread and toilet paper and equally share misery—that is, until the bread and toilet supplies simply run out. 

We have had a test run with this reality in recent weeks with the coronavirus crisis. But at least it is temporary—for now.

I already know it’s likely I’ll be accused of “fear-mongering” or exaggeration, so let me beat the naysayers to the punchline. Until you’ve read The Gulag Archipelago, can regurgitate the actual stats of torture and killing in Mao’s China and the Cambodian genocide, and have internalized the very real application of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals to the radical Left’s approach to politics these days, your accusations simply don’t carry weight.

I have read these. More than that, I personally know people affected to this day by these corrupt regimes—regimes our young and, unfortunately, coddled generation has no context for understanding. The gruesome stories are beyond belief, but they are real. The relevant words: mass starvation; betrayal; cannibalism; torture; existential distrust of family, your lover, your child. 

I met an older Polish man on my way to Krakow a few years ago who told me grimly that at the age of eight, his father was taken from their home one night, with no reason given, and he never saw him again.

We horrifically dishonor the suffering of millions by buying into the idea that the fragile stability, freedom, and economic access we have enjoyed is something that we deserve and with which we nonchalantly may tamper. Our pride and entitlement are sickening. Perhaps the more proximate case study of Venezuela would do us some good—10 years flat from the implementation of socialist government, and Venezuela’s world economic position plummeted

Some argue this devastating economic plummet wasn’t due to socialism, but that rebuttal doesn’t hold water. True socialism has never once confirmed a different result. The Scandinavian countries, often pointed to as socialist success stories, in fact, veered away from full socialism, foreseeing the havoc that system would wreak on their countries. In nearly direct proportion to the extent of socialism’s implementation do we see its horrific destruction.

In his university years during the 1970s, my dad, with strong idealist and socialist sensibilities, traveled to Romania—a country still self-proclaimed as socialist, though not communist—to visit family, right in the center of the region behind the Iron Curtain. After being ruthlessly searched at the border, and hearing the personal stories of his family, he came back to Canada a sworn enemy of the evils of creeping communism and socialism in the West. One need only smell the bitterness to know the poison. If only more could smell.

The reality is that there are a few, extremely powerful people set to benefit from the system who want to dismantle a civilization that is the culmination of millennia of the world’s best minds—a distillation of the heights of human glory and wisdom. They have been working single-mindedly and with dedication toward achieving this goal for more than a century, which is why it’s the air you breathe now—that is, the principles you’re being constantly fed and are so familiar to you now—don’t seem all that threatening. We didn’t drink the Kool-Aid; it spiked our amniotic fluid.

The main issue, and the most temptingly deceptive, is that the socialist and communist principles compare us to an invisible ideal—one which has never happened and, as any sane person can admit, will never happen. Human nature is flawed and corrupt and stubborn. Our systems, imperfect as they are, are among the best ever created to curtail the worst of this corruption and power-obsession. 

To have a justice system that isn’t mob rule is novel. To have even a concept of “human rights” is novel. To be able brazenly, condescendingly, and obliviously to speak “truth to power,” regardless of the worth of your opinion, without any real consequence, is an utterly Western ideal, fought for with blood. Do you know this? Can you picture a world without these underpinnings?

Minorities: where would we rather live than here and now? Truly—where? And when? Name it and own that, and then we can have a conversation. Might you be someone whom the world has treated unfairly? Absolutely. And any decent person of goodwill wants to remedy that as much as possible. That is the constant, unfailing work of a truly civil society. But we are insane if we do not see what we have. We are disastrously, grotesquely ungrateful.

I have hesitated to speak or write thus far because, being a sensitive person and someone who cares about individual humanity and truly heartbreaking stories, I know we can proliferate nuance to the sky with the difficulties of very real humans in every strata of society. As a songwriter, I tell these stories without agenda, and I consider it one of my greatest honors. There will always be people falling through the cracks in a flawed world, and we will always have a serious moral responsibility to see, love, and help our suffering neighbors. 

Thus, the likelihood of this message being hijacked by the particulars, as a smokescreen to the pulsing seriousness of this immense leviathan undercurrent, is high. (Refer back to Rules for Radicals, please.)

But it is time for us to realize we are on a sinking ship, and without putting up a fight, we will soon all be under waves of horror most of us have never thought possible. All of the victim narratives, the railing against patriarchies, the spoiled brat tantrums on the world stage, will become utterly irrelevant as we all crumble under the tragic weight of the great collapse of everything we have ever held dear.

Thirty-five-and-under, I’m talking to you: how much are you prepared to lose?