Trudeau, Trump and the Assault on Liberal Democracy

What makes a liberal society? How do we find the dividing line between liberal and illiberal regimes? If we want to draw a line between the two, one particularly important question concerns how the majority, or those who hold power, behave toward a dissenting minority. Are minorities treated with genuine tolerance, so that they can air their grievances just as freely as those in power can, without any intimidation?

The trucker protest in Canada achieved international fame, but it seems now to enjoy the support of only a tiny proportion on Canadians (82% think it has gone on too long). Precisely because it did not enjoy majority support, it posed a number of implicit questions to the Canadian government and its supporters. Are we a liberal society? Are we a tolerant society? We now have an answer: Canada is neither a tolerant nor a liberal society. A minority in Canada that gets too far out of line risks being crushed by means of authoritarian measures.

A liberal society allows for the expression of dissent, in particular dissent unpleasing to the dominant regime. In practice this has included a right to peaceful protest. If citizens don’t have this right, they are not living in a liberal society. By all accounts, the trucker protest in Canada has been extraordinarily peaceful and orderly, even going so far as to clean up after itself. The right to donate to causes that express peaceful dissent must also be a fundamental matter, itself basically a form of peaceful dissent. In recent days we have not only seen the government announce its intent to persecute those who exercised their right to donate to a protest, we have also seen shocking behaviour from many in the media, who have publicly exposed donors whose details had come to light through (presumably illegal) hacking, apparently in an attempt to destroy these law-abiding citizens. None of this is characteristic of a liberal society. On the contrary, it is characteristic of a deeply illiberal regime.

In a liberal society, citizens may attack each other’s ideas with ferocity, but they are expected to exercise some measure of restraint in attacks directed at one another, recognising the need to accept profound differences of opinion as part and parcel of a political life that is peaceful without being brutally coercive. Those who occupy positions of leadership in a liberal society have a particular duty to make a show of accepting criticism, even if it is expressed in a tactless or excessively vehement manner.

The failure of Canada’s current Prime Minister to do his job in a manner consistent with liberal norms as the trucker protest unfolded has been nothing short of astonishing. At no point has he shown any recognition that he was dealing with fellow citizens, whose opposition to his policies might admit of some reasoned response. On the contrary, he tried from the start to frame his critics as extremists, members of an out-group who had no standing to criticise his government. He declared their views ‘unacceptable’ and hurled at them the most damning words of condemnation our society has to offer, for example, “antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, homophobia, and transphobia!” (It is remarkable how often a list of words along these lines is strung together these days and thrown at enemies, even when one or all of the words is backed with no evidence at all: the point is to label the target as a member of the out-group, as someone beyond the pale.) This is not how liberal democracy is done.

Though the Prime Minister did not trouble himself with the need to provide evidence for each of the epithets he hurled, we should consider the evidence which has been advanced. It is true that a swastika or two have been sighted near the protests, though there have been reports that the intention was “to suggest, absurdly, that Canada’s covid restrictions are akin to Nazism.” A confederate flag was also sighted at one point, but its bearer was asked to leave, as was an antisemitic nut-job who showed up. A few such individuals provide a slender reed of evidence indeed on which to base a claim of general bigotry with which to dismiss an entire protest movement. In fact, the charge of bigotry is usually laid against those who judge an entire group based on the failings of an insignificant number of its members. For example, to judge an entire religion on the basis of, say, 19 of its adherents who highjacked planes and crashed them into buildings – that would be inexcusable bigotry. How was Justin Trudeau’s behaviour in this case meaningfully different?

Trudeau has been remarkably consistent in his ad hominem attacks on the truckers, directing his attention again and again to attacks on their character and not to their preferred policies (e.g., an end to vaccine mandates). Even the extraordinary, pathetic cowardice he displayed by going in to hiding as the truckers arrived in Ottawa had a sinister aspect, as it carried the absurd pretence that these people were violent extremists. If all this seems a strange way for a Prime Minister to act, his behaviour becomes stranger still when we consider how ineffective it is as a means of containing the situation. Had he reacted with equanimity to large-scale protests, taken the criticism on the chin, and met with the truckers’ leaders, he could have made it clear that he recognises that his fellow citizens have a right to disagree with vaccine mandates, and he might thus have defused the situation to a very considerable degree. Instead, having bothered neither with this nor almost any other intermediate measure, he went straight to the Emergencies Act.

One key seems to explain this bizarre behaviour. Trudeau’s problem has never been that he is unable to accept the idea of protests, even violent protests. When Canadian churches were being burned, one after another, he condemned the burnings, but also called the anger that produced them ‘fully understandable;’ as the trucker saga unfolded in Ottawa, a violent attack was launched by about twenty people on a pipeline and those working on it (photos of the damage caused suggest very real violence). In neither case did Trudeau release a string of epithets of the sort he directed at the truckers, nor did the violence in either case seem to merit the Emergency Act. What is new with the trucker protest is that it is the first time Trudeau has been confronted with large-scale, effective protest against himself and his government. This he does not seem to find ‘understandable’ but rather ‘unacceptable.’ To be particularly unable to take criticism directed at one’s own government is an extraordinary failing in a Prime Minister. One has the impression, in fact, of considerable immaturity. I think this is the sort of thing that Dr. Peterson (a clinical psychologist) had in mind when he said of Trudeau, “he’s a teenager – he’s a teenage actor, fundamentally.”

Unfortunately, Trudeau’s break with liberal norms goes considerably deeper than I have so far suggested. I don’t think there has been enough reflection on the extreme severity, and the extreme authoritarian nature, of the financial measures brought to bear through the Emergencies Act. Freezing a person’s bank accounts is not a penalty like any other. If the police kick my door open and break a few of my bones as they subdue me, I can still eat this week and next. If you were to take away my bank accounts, I don’t know how I would eat after the food in my house had been exhausted. Very quickly, I’d be reduced to begging. In fact, the ability to exchange money is something taken for granted in exercise of pretty much any right at all. I’m not going to labour this point, as it covered here in an excellent Twitter thread. Governments have never in history had much ability to interfere with two individuals exchanging money, so the fact that the act was a sort of critical infrastructure to meaningful freedom never had much significance – it could just be taken for granted as something people could always do.

All that has changed with the arrival of digital banking. People can now be deprived of their money, and of their ability to conduct a vast range of financial transactions – there is now rather a lot that cannot be done at all with cash – with the flip of a switch. What we have seen with these financial measures in Canada in recent days is like the first detonation of the atom bomb, but this is a bomb that only destroys freedom (well, strictly speaking, this bomb was first detonated in some authoritarian regime like China, but Canada is leading the way in the formerly-liberal world). The importance of a kind of right to banking is something that has been on my radar for a year or two, as I’ve already seen a number of attempts, a few successful, to cut people out of online payment processing. It was clear that sometime soon, this was something that legislators would need to attend to. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this new power would be weaponised by the government of Canada to crush peaceful protesters. We read that these measures have not only been applied to people taking part in the protests, but even to those who donated to the protests before the government declared the protests verboten! All this constitutes a shocking, monstrous, outrageous, radically authoritarian act, one that crushes Canada’s pretence of liberality as surely as it crushes peaceful protesters.

And of course, the move can hardly increase confidence in Canada’s financial system. The whole thing is predicated on the notion that if I put my money in a Canadian bank, the money is, well, mine, and no politician can arbitrarily take it away from me. The ease with which ordinary citizens, exercising their right to protest, have been labelled as extremists or terrorists and dispossessed is a terrible lesson for the rest of us. I’ve never had much interest in crypto currency; I will think again. If I ever live in Canada again, I will be sure to maintain at least one foreign bank account, to give me a bit of breathing room in case those in power decide to unperson me.

With all this in mind we should return again to the Prime Minister’s preference for personal attacks when dealing with the truckers. If we grant, for the sake of argument, that these are Bad People, does that somehow invalidate their criticism of his policies? Do Bad People not have the right to protest in Canada? Do Bad People not have rights in general? Not if you put it like that. But when we consider the radically illiberal measures to which the protesters are now subject, then these personal attacks, this unpersoning of opponents, starts to take on a new significance. To the extent that a leader and his followers convince themselves that their opponents are particularly wicked, it becomes easier to turn to unusual and extreme measures: the notion that Bad People do not quite have the same rights as everyone else starts to seem not so monstrous and radical as in fact it is. (It does have to be said that the failings of much Canadian media in covering this whole episode have been very great.)

By becoming Prime Minister, Trudeau has become the dog that caught the car: his unprecedented assault on liberal norms has shown him to be unworthy of holding any significant office at all in a liberal democracy, and by failing to defuse a peaceful protest, causing it instead to blow up into a matter of great significance for Canada’s standing in the world, he has simultaneously shown himself to be incapable of meeting the demands imposed by the highest office in the land. He is far, far out of his depth. I have been trying to think how one might fail at liberal democracy more totally than Justin Trudeau has done. At one point I thought I should concede that he has at least allowed the protests run for a couple weeks rather than crushing them on day one – but of course even the world’s most illiberal regimes do that: even Tiananmen Square wasn’t crushed on day one.

When thinking about radical anti-liberals such as Justin Trudeau, people naturally reach for a certain German dictator, but it is unfair to compare Trudeau to Hitler. There is, however, another, far more appropriate comparison, and that is Donald Trump. Many of us failed to take Trump seriously at first, as he seemed like a clownish buffoon. It took some time before we saw just how much harm such a clown can do to a liberal democracy. Just like Trump, Justin Trudeau never seemed a terribly serious or statesmanlike figure. Intellectually insubstantial, so status conscious as to be the eager slave of whatever happens to be in vogue at a given moment, like Trump he had an immense advantage in politics in the form of national name recognition (though unlike Trump, Trudeau had done nothing at all to earn his fame). And just as Trump launched an unprecedented assault on his country’s constitutional order on January 6th, 2021, so too does Trudeau’s use of emergency measures constitute an act without precedent in Canadian history – previous uses of these powers were in response to world wars or a terrorist crisis – and one no less damaging to Canada’s formerly liberal character than Trump’s act. In similar fashion, Trump’s appeals to absurd conspiracy theories to justify his refusal to concede an election find a parallel in the embarrassing fig-leaf of reasoning with which Trudeau’s government has sought to justify its invocation of emergency measures (if you want to see a Canadian law professor’s thoughts on that reasoning, watch this video). Of course, the comparison is in one respect unfair to Trump, who never proceeded so severely, or with such extraordinary powers, against peaceful protesters: far better to be a peaceful protester in Donald Trump’s America than in Justin Trudeau’s Canada.

The damage that Trudeau has done to Canada’s reputation abroad has been immense and will probably never be fully repaired. Unable to compete with the United States in armed power, Canada has long thought of itself as a sort of moral superpower, but in a matter of days, Trudeau has blown that pretension to bits. An example of our changed circumstances was furnished on February 17th, when a Canadian government Twitter account found itself widely mocked for tweeting out the following: “Canada condemns #Cuba’s harsh sentencing following the July 2021 protests. 🇨🇦 strongly advocates for freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly free from intimidation. We stand with the people of 🇨🇺 in their aspiration for #democracy.” The second sentence stands so starkly at odds with the current situation in Ottawa that it sounds like a joke – in fact, I read it to a friend last night, and he burst out laughing. There is a new reality here: Canada no longer has the moral standing to criticise illiberal regimes around the world, because it is itself run by an illiberal regime, differing from places like Cuba or Belarus not in kind, but only in degree. Elsewhere on Twitter, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and a representative of the Chinese government criticised Canada’s behaviour (quite rightly), and we can expect a good deal more of that sort of thing in the future if the Canadian government ever pretends, absurdly, that it supports the right to protest. Here in Germany, when people refer to my home country’s behaviour as totalitarian, what defence can I offer? In fact, I have to admit I’m glad to have a bank account in Germany, whose government is clearly more likely to protect my basic rights than Canada is: the days when Canada could claim to do liberal government better than Germany are most definitely over.

There remains some hope in the courts, perhaps in the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s lawsuit against the current federal government (as of this writing there have been no reports that the bank accounts of those donating to the Association have been frozen). Still, looking to the future, it is difficult to avoid falling into profound pessimism or even resignation. I am old enough to remember the last decade and more of the 20th century, a time still informed to a considerable degree by memories of the Second World War. Back then, we were warned against the complacent belief that the worst of the 20th century could not happen in our own countries. Our protection against those horrors lay not in something special about ourselves or the places we lived, but rather in the preservation of the unnatural habits proper to a free society. These involved the toleration of cranks and eccentrics, a willingness to allow equal standing to those we found offensive or stupid, a readiness to engage with and try to convince our opponents while rejecting the natural urge simply to destroy them; to focus our rhetorical weapons on policies rather than on people. Above all, there was the implicit demand that everyone should always put the habits and institutions of a free society above the cause of the moment, that a political victory should not be won at the expense of our institutions and our society’s liberal character. If few people entirely measured up to these ideals, still they exerted a constant, often decisive force. It’s important to remember that this state of affairs lasted many generations and worked very well: today one encounters people who speak as if liberal democracy was always a sham, and while that may say something about our current situation, it was not always true. I was there, and I remember.

The habits and institutions I list above, and others like them, can be thought of as analogous to a series of earthworks built to protect against floods. Much of the time, it’s easy to forget they’re there, and they’re rarely of direct relevance to everyday life. They can be allowed to fall into disrepair, and no immediate difficulties will follow. But at some point, the waters will rise, and if those flood defences are not in good shape, the waters will wipe out everything in their path.

It is in connection with this metaphor that it is appropriate to mention Hitler in relation to Justin Trudeau. The worst of the 20th century did not appear all of a sudden out of nowhere; whole nations did not wake up one morning and decide to commit atrocities when they might just as easily have decided on something quite different. Nor were places like Canada or the US free from the sort of economic catastrophe or poisonous ideology that proved such fertile soil for tyranny elsewhere. What they did have were mature institutions with deep roots in habit and culture that allowed for the expression of grievances and dissenting views. These meant that when the floodwaters of human irrationality rose to hitherto unimagined heights, political life did not collapse into tyranny, repression and genocide.

Justin Trudeau is not Hitler. What he does represent, together with Donald Trump, is a sort of pre-requisite, the norm-busting imbecile unable to see beyond his petty everyday concerns who, with unspeakable stupidity, actively destroys our defences against future floods, putting the unthinkable back on the horizon of possibility once more.

I will end on a personal note. A few years ago I was working with a German colleague of Turkish descent when Erdogan suppressed the Gülenists in Turkey. My colleague was so upset by the authoritarian measures used to suppress opposition that he said ich habe meine Heimat verloren, a strong statement in German: “I have lost my homeland.” Justin Trudeau’s descent into authoritarianism has given me a first taste of the same feeling. The Canada I grew up in was a liberal, tolerant country run by decent people. I can only hope it becomes that again someday.


Are Trump Voters Hard to Understand?

This post is my attempt to set out some reasons why people might have voted for Trump, reasons that do not require that we see these people as stupid or wicked. A great deal of what I have to say comes down in the end to this: tu quoque. That is, Trump is clearly unfit for office, but so are the Democrats. The question of who is less fit is ultimately a judgment call without a clear answer. There does seem to me to be something here that often goes unsaid. For example, I agreed with pretty much everything in this conversation between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan – in particular, I think they have understood Trump better than many of his critics – but I felt something significant had been left out. So here we go.

The day after Trump was elected in 2016, I went around feeling like I’d been punched in the face (I’ve already written about the night before). I couldn’t believe this had happened. It was clear that we were entering a new era, in which many of the old rules no longer applied. It wasn’t clear how exactly things were going to play out, but it was going to be bad.

This year things are different. I certainly did not vote for Trump, but I can respect many people who did. To my mind, the election presented a choice between two almost unimaginably awful possibilities, each so terrible that I felt completely at sea, unable to discern the correct path. The current situation, with Biden appearing to have won by a very narrow margin indeed, and the Democrats failing to control the senate, seems to me to be the best possible election result. Yes, it’s still quite bad, but every other possibility on the table was really bad.

The advocates of Trump or Biden can see what’s wrong with the other side, and only that. Everything they can see about the presidential race is filtered through the lens of the other side’s faults, with the result that nothing matters but keeping the other side from power. If the other side wins, it is The End – of the world, or perhaps only the republic. Because of the great evil that needs to be defeated, each side is willing to overlook faults among its own people, and so is effectively blind to them.

The faults of Donald Trump have been adequately catalogued elsewhere. What I want to look at here is the inability of even the Democrats’ more intellectual supporters to see what is wrong with their own side. The faults of the American left are very great indeed, to such a degree that I feel I can understand why someone might vote for the other side even in the recent presidential race. Here I will try to set out, first, what I think are at least defensible reasons for voting for Trump, and second, a couple of the decisive moments that have made me, once a tribal leftist, abandon the Democrats: for the first time, excluding the presidency, I voted red, and I have a hard time believing I’ll ever vote Democrat again.

(An aside: one worthwhile look at the myopia of the left came from John Gray a couple years ago, in a piece that reviews Michiko Kakutani’s persuasive but one-sided book, The Death of Truth.

There are three kinds of people whose vote for Trump I cannot fault at all: (1) those who lost, or feared losing, a job for voicing an unpopular opinion; (2) those who watched their life savings and / or livelihood go up in flames in recent months, or feared the same, or who were subject to physical violence or intimidation from the left, or were given reason to fear it; (3) those who have immigrated to America from Cuba or Venezuela or China or Eastern Europe (etc.), having experienced the far-left governments those places had or have, and now believe that they see the same cultural trends at work here. I can also understand how those who are strongly influenced by people in any of these groups might finding themselves voting for Trump.

Let us start with group (1). There are now deeply illiberal winds blowing across the English-speaking world. I have spoken with friends in three states, not all of them conservatives, who have expressed varying degrees of concern about losing their own jobs (and, in one case, friends) for admitting to unpopular opinions, or who work with people who are afraid of losing their jobs. This experience dovetails with the stories I’ve been reading for years now about people who have been fired or otherwise ‘cancelled’ for admitting to moderate and widely-held opinions or similar trivia. If you actually doubt this phenomenon, here’s a Twitter thread that documents over 180 firings, cancellations, etc., each with a source you can check out for yourself. It’s not red-hat-wearing MAGA louts who are getting people fired: it’s almost always when someone fails to conform with the ideas of the left that they find themselves worrying about their job.

Is Joe Biden directly responsible for these firings? Of course not. His party, however, is very much aligned with the ideas that are becoming mandatory, and will do nothing at all to restrain this development. On the contrary, it is not impossible to imagine that the new government will act as an accelerant (note Kamala Harris’ hyper-woke tweet a couple days before the election). In this context I can understand if not everyone looks ahead with boundless delight to prospect of the cultural power of the left being combined with that of the federal government. In addition, there is a significant connection between these firings, which represent a cultural trend that has really got going in the last 4-5 years or so, and the current presidential contest: that trend was anticipated by Joe Biden’s Title IX policy, an illiberal disruption of due process rights within universities. Have you read Laura Kipnis’ Unwanted Advances?

The bottom line is that if you fear these illiberal trends, you know that a vote for the Democrats won’t stop them, and will likely drive them forward. There is also a deeper point here, one that cuts to the heart of certain arguments against voting for Trump. It certainly is important that a president pays proper respect to the norms necessary to a liberal democracy. Trump has repeatedly shown himself utterly unfit for office on these grounds, most recently by failing to affirm in advance that he would accept the outcome of the election and by strongly suggesting he had already won the election before the votes had been counted. A president who behaves like this is a threat to the whole democratic system. But that is not the only possible threat to the system. Our increasingly illiberal culture, supported and driven forward by the Democratic party, can also pose a threat to the possibility of liberal democracy. Is it worse than or not so bad as Trump in the White House? That is a difficult call to make, one on which different people can reasonably come to different conclusions.

Am I being alarmist or absurd here? Well let’s look at group (3), those immigrants from (former) communist countries who now see the same cultural trends at work in the West as they did in the countries they left behind. Consider the following account:

‘…his wife, a naturalized citizen from China, has voted Democratic for as long as she has been able to vote here. This year, she’s voting for Trump. Why? “This whole year has reminded her too much of the Cultural Revolution,” he said. “She has been horrified watching the events of the summer unfold.”

The reader added that she has been part of a big TV network/newspaper tracking poll. She certainly did not ask to be; they randomly called her first back in the spring primary season. She was afraid to turn them down and wished she had never answered the first call. They call her once a week to ask her who she’s voting for. She has told them consistently that she’s a Biden voter, and she has been careful to answer all the ancillary questions in a “liberal way” so as not to give them any idea there is a problem. But that’s not what she really believes. Rather, she is terrified of getting on a list somewhere as a Trump voter. When the reader asks her why she is lying to the pollsters, her response: “You Americans are so naive and so trusting. Chairman Mao and the Red Guard did exactly this same kind of thing in so many clever ways. You will get on a list somewhere and when the time comes, your life will be over. I will never put my family through what I went through. That is why I came here in the first place — to get away from all that.”’

I am not going to multiply examples here. Rod Dreher has just published a book, Live Not By Lies, in which he gives many more examples of immigrants from (former) communist countries who now see the same illiberal culture at work in their new home. I also recommend keeping an eye on his blog, which gives a thoughtful look at current cultural developments from a right-wing perspective – I have found it very helpful indeed in coming to understand the right.

Before going on to group (2), one other point. After the unexpected results of the election, everyone has a theory about how the results confirm his or her preferred theory. But consider how my ‘fear’ thesis explains certain aspects of this situation. As the case of that woman from China shows, this thesis explains how the poll results could be so wrong. It explains why otherwise decent and intelligent people can support an incompetent lout and obvious conman. It can also explain how Trump’s ratings seem always to be so little affected by his latest screw-up (e.g., getting Covid). People who are driven by fear for their livelihoods or basic freedoms will have a sort of tunnel vision, and will cling like glue to the person who may be their last line of defence. Almost nothing will cause them to abandon their support for him.

And of course I’m not only saying that people voted for Trump on account of fear. I already suggested above how a Trump vote could be something a reasonable person might do. There are further good reasons one might have done that. And so we come to my own story.

Group (2) mentioned above is made up of those affected by the riots of recent months. These riots, and in particular the reaction of the Democrats to them, had a great effect on me, shattering certain of my previous conceptions, and breaking the tie that had long connected me to the Democrats.

By the time the Democratic National Convention came around, I was no longer the unquestioning supporter of the party that I had been four years earlier. I was uneasy with certain aspects of the party’s platform, and opposed others. For the first time, I found myself actually listening to what was being said, as someone whose vote might hang in the balance. What did they have to say to my concerns? The background to the convention, for me at least, was the fact that the BLM protests had by this point quite clearly morphed into violent riots in a great many places. There seemed to be no end of videos online showing businesses going up in flames or people being brutally beaten by a mob. I listened to Obama wanting above all to hear his response to all this. I heard his response, all right, and it surprised me: he spoke only of police brutality against peaceful protestors and not at all of violent rioters. When I listened to Biden’s convention speech, he took the same route.

On another occasion, it is true, Biden did explicitly condemn the violence, but I found myself agreeing with those who expressed concerns about the way he did it. His statement was more in the manner of a general statement about violence in general. He did not condemn Antifa in particular. I felt that what was needed was a statement in which he specifically distanced himself from those elements of the left that were active in a violent manner. Trump had put explicit distance between himself and neo-Nazis on more than one occasion, but the recent riots had caused destruction on a scale far, far beyond anything done by any far-right group. To expect Biden to denounce extremist left-wing violence that had grown out of protests he and his party had supported was simply to expect that he not fall below the standard set by Donald Trump. It didn’t happen.

I was now confused as to how I ought to vote. I felt I couldn’t see clearly any more: though Trump is clearly not fit to be president, it now seemed as though the Democrats might be no better. For a time I thought the answer might lie in following people like Claire Berlinski, Sam Harris or Andrew Sullivan, who are not blind to the problems on the left, but who nevertheless argued for the necessity of an anti-Trump vote: perhaps they could see things a bit better than I.

The third moment would push me further. It came with the first Biden-Trump debate. Here two statements from Biden destroyed my previous connection to his party. He defended critical theory, which was dishonestly dressed up as something like sensitivity training, and he defended Antifa, saying it was an idea not an organisation. The latter statement is not simply a defence of something I felt Biden needed to condemn, it’s a defence that requires of us that we ignore readily available evidence: there are Antifa websites, there are pictures and videos of U-Hauls showing up with ‘protest’ materials – there are even uniforms for groups of people confronting the police! Listen to Douglas Murray, who speaks from first-hand experience, for about 30 seconds in this video (from 8:39; UPDATE: listen to this too): Biden’s defence of Antifa was a monstrous distortion, a scandal. I had long thought of the idea-not-organisation line as something characteristic of the far left, of people ready to invent their own reality for the sake of their preferred views. I honestly never imagined that a top-two candidate for the office of President of the United States would say “an idea not an organisation.” Of course no news organisation not on the right called him out on this.

I’m not going to go into critical theory here, but if you have an hour, why not take a look at this video, which gives a first-hand account from an employee of the federal government? It gives a good idea of what is at issue here. (The only time at which I thought of voting for Trump, for about 30 seconds, was after his presidential ban of critical theory.)

The point, however, is that Biden, with those two statements, annihilated what was to me the most important line of argument in his favour: that he would be a figure of the center left, not the far left.

Consider this argument from this perspective at the last few years. These last years had caused me to doubt that the center left can be said to exist in a meaningful way at all. How often have they stood up against the far left in a meaningful way? How often has the center left stood up for liberal principles? In the Christakis / Yale affair, in the Weinstein / Evergreen business, where was the center left? When people are being mobbed online or losing their jobs or having their work unpublished for wrongthink, where is the center left? One lesson of recent years seems to be that the great majority of people who occupy leading or controlling positions in our major institutions and businesses are not worthy of the institutions they represent. They pretty much always abandon any defence of genuine liberalism and give way to extremists, provided those extremists are on the left.

So the worry with Biden was that although he’s a decent man, and one who has surrounded himself with centrists, we’re now living in a world in which that would mean nothing in the end. When pushed by the far left, those centrists would give way, as they pretty much always do these days. But with his comments on Antifa and critical theory, Biden showed that this line of thinking is actually too optimistic. He signalled that he already has given way! Even during an election, that time at which there is most of all a need for a signal to the center, to people beyond the activist crowd – even at this time, Biden sent about the most far-left signal possible on these two issues. So the line about how we’re voting for Biden, not for the worst excesses of the far-left, is quite empty: Antifa and Critical Race Theory represent some of the worst excesses of the far-left, and Biden’s position with regard to them is horribly clear.

I now felt I could see even less clearly than before. Though I might respect the likes of Berlinski or Sullivan, or for that matter the various experts who have defected from the Trump administration saying that he has to go, still I think they’re providing judgments that are one-sided. They need to be held in balance with a consideration of ordinary people, such as those who have been fired or beaten up or had their livelihoods destroyed by left-wing extremists – and in fact our system of government does just that. It now seems to me rather difficult to claim that the Democrats are better than Trump.

There was one more moment that solidified my doubts about the Democrats: Michelle Obama made a speech, and she went all-in on the “mostly non-violent” line concerning the ‘protests.’ Even now I find it hard to believe that she actually said this. The riots that grew in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd now seem to have been the most destructive in American history. You can say “mostly non-violent” of them in the same sense that you can say that France was “mostly non-violent” on June 6th, 1944 or that flights were “mostly non-violent” on September 11th, 2001.

Why did this sort of thing make such an impression on me? Let us recall the days when Trump was originally campaigning for the presidency. One early red flag for me was that rally at which he said something like, “in the old days, they would have had to carry that guy out on a stretcher!” Hearing that, something in me said “Whoa! Hold on a minute!” There is only one answer for someone with significant political influence to the question of violence: you have to be against it. You have to speak out against it. Every time. No exceptions. Trump’s implicit approval of violence, even hypothetical, marked him as someone unfit for office. But what Barack Obama did at the Democratic Convention was not really much better. In the face of actual violence, in the face of brutal beatings and the destruction of property on an immense scale, Obama pretended that it all didn’t exist. It wasn’t worth even a few words in his speech. Michelle Obama’s “mostly non-violent” speech, on the other hand, was definitely worse than Trump at that rally.

No principle is more necessary to a liberal democracy than an explicit condemnation of violence. When the other side gets violent, you have to call it out. When your own side gets violent, you really, really have to call it out.

Of course, what we were witnessing was not simply violence. I was reading that the police were being held back in many places, that the lawlessness was being allowed to happen by the state or municipal authorities – Democrat authorities. It was as I learned this, and considered the words of the highest representatives of the federal Democrats, that I began to wonder if I really felt comfortable supporting the Democratic party. I found myself asking, what has Trump done in the last four years that is as bad as this? What could Trump do that would be worse than this? I have a hard time thinking of anything. Monstrous corruption? Endless lies? All that Russian treason stuff? If it’s all true, it’s still not worse than this.

Among the most fundamental responsibilities of any government is the maintenance of civil order. That’s one of the most basic reasons why we have a government at all. Actually to refuse to do this is not just a profound failure, it’s a betrayal, an abandonment of a foundational principle necessary to any legitimate government. This is a failure on an historic scale, one that bodes very ill indeed for the future of the country. In a sense, it’s worse than Trump, because it’s not proceeding from a single individual, but rather represents the spontaneous action of a great number of people in a party. Violence in the streets is also much less abstract for the average person than the failure of a president to uphold basic norms.

One thing in particular bothers me here: a sort of dissembling that allows people to look away from the truth. Of course neither Obama nor Biden came out explicitly in favour of violence. What they did was in a certain sense worse, for by ignoring reality or using misleading phrases, they gave credence to an alternate universe in which people were not being dragged from their cars and beaten within an inch of their lives, in which there were no small business owners – in one city after another after another! – who had to watch as their life’s work (and savings) went up in flames, and in which mobs were not intimidating people in restaurants and residential neighbourhoods. Unlike explicit support for violence, this fiction allows people to deceive themselves about what they’re doing, to ignore or give tacit support to violence against their enemies while pretending they’re doing nothing of the sort. The message will have been implicitly understood by the worst actors on both sides.

So in the end, it comes to this: I do not see that anything Trump has done has been worse than the failures of the Democrats where mass violence is concerned. It seems to me that if we apply a set of standards to one side, we have to do it to the other. If we are told we must refuse to vote for Trump because there are a certain set of standards beneath which no acceptable candidate may fall, then the other side must be held to the same standards. A president must always clearly signal his obedience to the norms necessary to a republic. A party must always clearly signal its rejection of violence, especially violence by its supporters. In both cases, failure threatens the possibility of a republic.

So the argument that you shouldn’t vote for Trump because he’s not fit for office has an answer: tu quoque. What remains are policy preferences and a personal sense of which is worse. If you’re the sort of person who is more upset by a president who ignores basic norms, you’re likely to be against Trump. If you’re naturally more bothered by violence, you will probably be against the Democrats. Policy preferences will also play a role here, but in any event, it will be a simple matter to dress these preferences up in highly principled and valid arguments.

It should be clear now why I voted Republican aside from the presidency. It would have been unthinkable a few months earlier, but I did it with conviction. What I can’t see is a clear line of argument for one of the presidential candidates that does not ultimately rest on a subjective judgment call. I can respect people who went either way; what I have a hard time respecting is those who voted one way and regard those on the other side as stupid or evil.

It is in the nature of our present situation that the status quo will be opposed in practice by someone like Trump. The ‘progressive’ side of politics has increasingly moved away from persuasion and toward intimidation. So, for example, imagine someone who believes that it is only in the most extreme circumstances that children should be given medical treatments that could sterilise them, after all other alternatives have been exhausted, and only with parental consent, and imagine that this person applies this belief to transgender issues. If our hypothetical person fails to keep these thoughts to himself, he is unlikely to be met with attempts at persuasion. On the contrary, he can expect internet mobbings, character assassination, and attempts to have him fired from his job. (I am inclined to turn a critical eye towards Obama here: to the extent that you push thinking in terms of “the right side of history,” you not only sidestep argument, but delegitimise it. Of course, the tendency was widespread anyway without him.)

In a situation like this, people who particularly value their good name will tend to remain silent. Anyone who publicly opposes the ‘progressives’ must be ready to endure a constant stream of the most vicious abuse, above all accusations of bigotry, which tend to be accepted on the flimsiest evidence and can end careers. The people who don’t care about that sort of thing will mostly be people who care less about norms in general – and already we have a straight line from the behaviour of the ‘woke’ to both the success of Donald Trump and his worst behaviour in office. Anyone who does care about his reputation will tend to qualify his dissent from those views that bring accusations of bigotry, and this will make him less appealing to the three groups of people I mentioned above, who want nothing more than that someone should oppose their tormentors.

I realised recently that I stopped looking at Donald Trump (the political phenomenon) as something external to the intellectual class some time ago. I now see his success as a product of today’s left, and a natural reaction to it – though that is not to say a necessary or justifiable reaction. The culture produced by the left is prior to Trump. If we don’t solve our cultural problem – a problem produced above all by the move from persuasion to intimidation – we are likely to get more Trumps, and worse. Tossing him from the White House will be good, but it will not solve the underlying problem.

Since woke culture is clearly not going anywhere, the terrible choice of 2020 has a good chance of being repeated, perhaps with candidates much more objectionable than the current lot. We have just have seen the launch of a “Trump Accountability Project,” which will maintain a list of those who supported the man. An earlier version of the site, which I was looking at a some hours before publishing this post, even included lawyers Trump had hired. A tweet from a fellow named Hari Sevugan made the project’s intention crystal clear: “Warning to publishers considering signing someone who led a campaign to get Americans to hate each other – you will face a massive boycott led by the Trump Accountability Project. Not just of this book but your whole library.”

This is not how people who believe in liberal democracy behave.  If the totalitarian behaviour of the woke continues to develop on its current course, so too will the willingness of their opponents to tolerate unacceptable behaviour in whoever is left to them as a defender. History shows that there are people far more dangerous to a republic than Donald Trump.

Perhaps this is too pessimistic. I suggested above that our system balances the insight of experts with the views of ordinary people, and the election result allows us to believe that there is no small amount of wisdom in the result. Faced with a choice between two deeply unacceptable alternatives, it looks like this will be a close one, as it should be, and we can still hope that a Biden administration is checked by a Republican senate. As for the illiberal left, if it still seems to roll on without much opposition, perhaps something new will come up before long, producing an effective rollback to liberal norms.

I have tried here to suggest some ways in which a vote for Trump could be a reasonable one. If there are people who find this view distasteful, they should consider the alternative: a readiness to see one’s opponents as utterly deranged, evil and stupid is not easy to reconcile with a readiness to maintain a republic. And of course, nothing I have said should be taken as a claim that every vote for Trump was reasonable. His supporters no doubt included a significant share of dupes and racists – though it is beginning to look as though something similar can be said of his opponents.

Fustel de Coulanges and the Ancient World

Among those of us who believe that many great goods have come from the Enlightenment, a certain understanding of history remains popular. It holds that ancient Greece and Rome present us with a world very much like our own in important respects, a largely secular world, one in which we find republics in which citizens enjoyed equal status to one another. If these republics did not give women the vote or free their slaves, still there is no reason to think that they might not have do so in time. Unfortunately, Christianity soon came on the scene, bringing with it a long night of superstition and material privation. Only after many centuries did Reason find her way back into Western Europe, beating back religious superstition and producing the Enlightenment, and it is to this recent development that we owe the ethical progress of recent centuries.

I used to subscribe to a view along these lines. In recent years, however, I have come to believe that every word of it is false. In my previous post I discussed Tom Holland’s recent book, Dominion, in which he gives an episodic history of the last 2000 years or so, and argues that Christianity is the source of our most fundamental moral conceptions. Since reading Holland I’ve come across another book, The Ancient City by Fustel de Coulanges, published in 1864. It focuses on the pre-Christian era, on the rise and fall of a religion that formed ancient Greece and Rome. De Coulanges provides a sort of foundation to many claims made by Holland, showing us that there is a reason why those ancient republics could never have produced those freedoms that we take for granted today. I want to try to bring out that reason in what follows.

The subject of The Ancient City is a prehistoric form of religion, the worship of the ancestors, and the profound influence that this old religion exerted on the Greek and Roman societies that grew out of it. Even today, the book can be recommended both as a source of insight and on account of the elegant and readable English of its 19th century translation. By showing how the institutions and habits of thought in antiquity were so much a product of its earliest religious practices, de Coulanges explains much that seems peculiar in the ancient world. In the process, he reveals to us how greatly certain of our own habits of thought differ from those of antiquity. Once we have an idea of these differences, it is easier to recognise the moments at which various aspects of our own moral outlook first step onto the stage of history.

Those who have spent any significant time reading the classics of ancient Greece and Rome will have come across passing references to the cult of the household gods. In Greek tragedy, for example, or in Cicero, or in Virgil’s Aeneid, whose opening pages contain Juno’s complaint that “defeated household gods” are being imported from Troy – in these and many other places, one touches on a form of religion based on worshiping gods in one’s own home.

De Coulanges’ achievement was twofold. First of all, by amassing all the references in ancient literature to these household gods, he was able to show that there had in fact been a coherent set of practices and beliefs surrounding them that held sway before the dawn of recorded history. More than this, however, he was able to show how the historical Greek and Roman civilisations that we study today grew out of this earlier religion, and were so deeply formed by it that their thinking and way of life continued to bear its imprint it long after it had begun to fade. It is this second aspect of de Coulanges’ work that really concerns us here, for it shows what an alien world confronts us in antiquity, and how unlikely it was that that world might have produced the sort of thinking necessary to the freedoms we now take for granted. (He is also consistently able to produce evidence from ancient Indian texts, showing that a very similar form of religion existed there as well, but that’s another story).

What were these beliefs? It was held that there was a sort of life after death, in which the dead could become gods. To be content in this afterlife, they required a proper burial, and then a regular supply of food and drink in the form of offerings carried out by their descendants according to specific rituals. If properly cared for, these ancestor-gods would become a source of strength and support to their living family. If not, their unhappiness would make them malignant, so that they would ravage the crops and spread disease.

It was around the worship of the ancestors that a religion developed, and with it, an initial form of human community. The first-born son was the family’s priest, the sole heir, and also the chief (or only) political authority. It was he who, at the family’s altar, near the tomb of his ancestors, would offer the ceremonial meal to the dead. It was he who was responsible for the upkeep of the family’s sacred flame, a fire thought to represent the ancestors, which could not be allowed to go out completely, even at night, and which had to be kept pure, fed only by the right kind of wood.

This was not a religion that sought converts. Each family had its own ancestor-gods, who it alone could propitiate with rites, and who were concerned only with the interests of that family. Outsiders were not wanted, to such a degree that the presence of a non-family member during the sacred rites was considered impiety. A woman marrying into the family would be required formally to renounce the gods of her own family, and formally to accept those of her new family. The same was required of an adopted son. This psychological barrier between families was also expressed in physical property, for each family’s property constituted its own sacred enclosure, formally set off as distinct from that of any other family by some form of marker. This practice continued to historical times: “at Rome the law fixed two feet and a half as the width of the free space which was always to separate two houses, and this space was consecrated to ‘the god of the enclosure.’”

In time, these religious families naturally grew. Younger sons, who did not have the right to lead the worship, had wives and children of their own who remained associated with the religion of the ancestors. Eventually, a number of these families, each with its own worship, came together into larger groupings, phratries (in Greek) or curiae (in Latin). As they did this, however, they revealed the power exerted over their thinking by their religion, for the new forms of community took on the character of the old: a common ancestor or hero was ‘discovered,’ and a common worship was instituted, with its own rites, sacred meal, and perhaps even its own sacred flame. This form of religion provided the only basis these people knew to form political communities. When a number of these larger groupings in turn merged into tribes, and several of these later merged to become cities, the same process occurred: common gods and a common worship were instituted – but the already-existing gods and forms of worship were not eliminated in the process. The city’s king was its high priest, the equivalent of the first-born son in the family.

The Olympian gods – Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and so on – seem to have arisen in one of these later phases; at any rate, they existed alongside the family gods without difficulty. Even the Olympian gods initially took on the local, exclusive character of the family gods: the ‘Zeus’ of one city was distinct from the ‘Zeus’ of another city; each was the god of a specific place, and if these two cities went to war, so two would these two gods fight one another. Thus we read in Herodotus of “the Carian Zeus at Mylasa,” and of “the Theban Zeus,” and in Thucydides of “Zeus at Ithome” or “Nemean Zeus.”

The result of this history of civic growth was that cities had built into them the structures and habits of thought of the original family-religion. Just as each family was its own distinct religion, with its own special gods, its own specific rites, its own particular holy days, so too was all this true of each city. Both government and law were religious matters: to be a citizen was to be one who had the right of worship, and it was this religious association that provided rights under the law. If you found yourself in a foreign city, you did not enjoy the protection of the law there as citizens did, for as de Coulanges says, “where there was no common religion, there was no common law.”

This, then, is a sketch of certain aspects of the ancient city as it must have existed at the dawn of recorded history. It is not a sketch of the city as it existed in the last five centuries B.C., that period from which so many of our classic Greek and Latin texts come. De Coulanges tells of a series of revolutions that took place across the cities of Greece and Italy as we enter the historical era, not all at the same time, but according to a broadly similar pattern. Political rights were gradually expanded. Kings lost their political power (though they often kept their religious position), and many who had been excluded from political power were given the franchise: younger sons, then the clients of the major families, then the plebians – these last being those who had come to live by a city, but who had no worship of their own. There came a time when the older religious organisation of the city could be said to have been broken, when people no longer explained the political order directly in religious terms, but rather in terms of the interests of particular groups.

Many elites ceased to believe in the old gods (and perhaps in any gods), although many common people retained these ancient beliefs until the rise of Christianity. This was, no doubt, a less religious era than what had preceded, but religion continued officially to permeate every aspect of life, domestic, civic and military.

Despite all these changes, the key point is this: beliefs that have long formed the foundation of a society do not lose their influence overnight. As de Coulanges puts it, the old religion “exercised empire” over the minds of the ancients. What makes his account so interesting is his ability to explain so many peculiarities of historical Greek and Roman culture by means of the original ancestor-worshiping family. Consider, for example, the particular brutality of war and inter-state relations in the ancient world. It is not an accident or anomaly, but follows naturally from the outline given above. Recall that legal rights were originally a consequence of a common worship: initially, at least, one who did not share the worship did not enjoy any legal rights. It is not at all surprising that a society that had developed on the basis of this principle would also have developed a way of war that was often, by our lights, genocidal. After all, citizens of another city were precisely those who did not take part in one’s own worship. When the Athenians killed all the men and enslaved the women and children of Melos, they were not committing an offense against international law, nor were they thought to have failed to respect their victims’ human rights. What basis was there for such law, or such rights? A brutal action like this against an entire city was very far from unique in the ancient world. Much had changed by Julius Caesar’s day, but still, when he conquered Gaul, he wiped out whole towns and villages, killing and enslaving the inhabitants. When he celebrated his triumph for this, public boasts were made about the great scale of the slaughter, which ran to seven figures. This does not suggest a society in which the notion of the universal worth of human beings exercised decisive influence.

There are many other examples of individual practices or beliefs in the ancient world that might seem to be peculiar or eccentric. Again and again, de Coulanges can show that there is a reason why these apparently bizarre things were believed or done, a reason traceable ultimately to the original family-religion; where I had already encountered some explanation, his work enriched my understanding. We saw one example above in the Roman law dealing with the ‘god of the enclosure,’ but there are a great many others. Why was it forbidden to bury the body of an exile in Attica? Why was it considered such a supreme disaster to be apolis – that is, without a city of one’s own? Why was such a high premium placed on recovering one’s dead after battle? (we read of victorious Athenian generals executed for failing to do this.) Why does Plato forbid the making of a will to dispose of one’s property in his Laws? Why did cities not merge together to form larger states, as families or tribes had done? Why were high-ranking political figures, such as the Roman consul, required to perform religious sacrifices as part of their jobs? How on earth could Romans have believed that Julius or Augustus Caesar would become gods after death?

This should suffice as a summary of certain key ideas in de Coulanges’ work. But having gone this far, three underlying ideas should be considered. First of all, there is no secular space in this ancient world, nor even any conception of it. The family is a religion, war is a religious matter, so too law and government – even the calendar and the length of months differ from city to city, for these too are derived from religion. Religion is intimately intertwined with every aspect of life. (If you want to know when the idea of the secular came into existence, might I suggest my previous post?)

Second, this was a world in which it is self-evident that people are created unequal. Within the family there was a fixed hierarchy, beginning with the eldest male, who was originally owner of both the family’s entire estate (including things his wife had acquired) as well as the exclusive right to perform the sacred rites of the familial religion. The part played by each person within the family was not a matter of choice, but was rather determined by nature, by an accident of birth. When a person looked beyond his or her family, there were further obstacles to any conception of universal equality, for we have seen how each family was a self-enclosed unit, separated by the psychological barrier created by the fact of the family’s own peculiar religion, which excluded outsiders. We have also seen that the city in its turn repeated these forms of psychological exclusion in relation to other cities. This was a world that tended of its nature to emphasise the separation and difference between various kinds of people. Has there ever been a societal arrangement that presented a greater obstacle to a universal conception of humanity?

Finally, it seems to me that the whole system tends of its nature towards a rigid conservatism. Today it seems to us self-evident that we can change our society’s customs. Imagine, however, that you are the eldest male in one of these ancient families. Not only the health of your crops, but also the felicity of your ancestors in the afterlife depends on your keeping the sacred flame alive, on your consistently performing the sacred rites precisely as you learned them from your father – and your own happiness or misery after death will one day depend on the behaviour of your son. That is, it will depend on your success in passing on the rites and customs you yourself inherited. This gives you a particularly strong incentive to oppose changes in customs: too much innovation here, and you could end up eternally unfed and miserable! (In this connection it is worth quoting de Coulanges on ancient Athens: “if a priest introduces the slightest innovation into the worship, he is punished with death”).

It should be clear by now why I do not believe that this ancient world could have produced the moral landscape of the West today. When Pericles gives his Funeral Oration in Athens, he stresses the theme of equality among the citizens, but does go any further, falling short of anything like that phrase characteristic of a later era, that ‘all men are created equal.’ And given this relative deficiency, is it any surprise that we never see in antiquity a development like that of the American republic, in which an initial slave-holding society gradually changes itself to match its rhetoric of universal equality, abolishing slavery, extending the franchise to women, and so on? The foundations of society would have to be radically altered before this was possible.

So where did the new foundations come from? I think we do find, in the final centuries before Christ, the first stirrings of thought that would help produce modern moral notions, and these are found in those two great ancient forces, Greek philosophy and the Roman empire. Even in the era of the city-state, Greek philosophy had begun to develop a new conception of the divine, one quite different from that found in the older family-religion. This new view understood the divine to be beyond any connection to a particular place or group of people – a very different state of affairs from gods who were precisely gods of particular places and people. The growth of the Roman empire, on the other hand, perhaps created the social conditions under which a broader conception of human relations became natural. If the older religion had its origin in a primitive world, in which travel was impossible or dangerous, and in which the people living in the next valley might pose a mortal threat, the arrival of a vast empire linked together by quality roads and ports provided a picture of the world that led towards a less exclusive conception of humanity.

These new ideas did not produce an immediate reordering of society. For that, a mass movement would be required, one that could replace the most fundamental conceptions of how people understood their world and how they might relate to one another. That mass movement was Christianity, a natural growth in the ashes of antiquity. Many ideas characteristic of the new religion – for example, the ground of the notion that all people are created equal – would not be absolutely new, but Christianity would be the actual means by which these ideas came to ‘exercise empire’ over whole continents, becoming self-evident to people far beyond the confines of the philosophers’ classroom. In time, as these ideas were digested and became the basis of new societies, it became possible to conceive of political life on an entirely new foundation, and that was what made modern freedom possible. But that is a story I have reviewed before.


Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

I found this a very exciting book. It provides nothing less than an interpretation and critique of modernity, and the account it gives commands assent in many respects. I found the book helpful because it helped me bring so much together: ideas of which I’ve had an intuition for some time, half thought-out, are set forth here, fully developed and placed in a broad historical context. In what follows, I’m not going to review the book so much as try to set out the logic of some of its main ideas in my own words, offering reflections of my own along the way (the TL;DR review: superb, thought-provoking, jargon-free and short, this is a must-read).

The title is no doubt intended to provoke, and many will assume this to be a reactionary tome, one that attacks left-wing politics, perhaps even aiming at the abolition of democracy. Though the author is clearly no left-wing radical, this is not the point: ‘liberalism’ here is understood in reference to the Latin liber – i.e., we’re focused here on a particular conception of freedom, that of liberating people from anything that might restrain them from fulfilling their desires. As Deneen shows, this conception has gradually attained a position of extraordinary dominance, such that it is generally assumed by those on both the right and the left: both sides of the political spectrum come in for criticism here. More than this, we find this conception of freedom driving modern science, as well as our economic, political and cultural life (or what’s left of them).

The notion of freedom as simply a liberation from restraint is to be distinguished from a different way of thinking about things that was decisively influential in antiquity and the middle ages. This older approach considered ethical matters in a broader context, seeking a stable basis from which the best overall life could be lived. Such an approach led naturally to a recognition of the need to discipline and direct natural desires as part of a natural order of things; it was thought that if we let our desires get out of hand, we could become enslaved to them, harming ourselves in the process. So, for example, many of us have adopted reasonably moderate habits with regard to our desire for food and drink; if we fail in this, obesity and/or ill-health are likely to result (an alcoholic is an example of someone enslaved to his appetites). Real freedom, from this older standpoint, is to be found in the attainment of character, in habits that lead of their nature to a good overall life (e.g., that will lead a person in possession of an immense wine cellar not to drink himself to death, but rather to enjoy his wine moderately in the course of a life which will no doubt be enriched by many other activities).

Deneen’s argument is that the modern conception of freedom, of liberating ourselves from external restraints, has not only become overwhelmingly dominant, but can now be said to have failed on its own terms. More specifically, he aims to show that as a consequence of the overwhelming success of this ‘liberalism,’ we not only find ourselves without much of the freedom that was promised, but we also find ourselves faced with new and imposing restraints on our freedom.

To give a better idea of what I think is at issue here, and to give an example of how this ‘liberalism’ has failed, I’m going to reflect a little on modern science and technology. A century ago, science was regarded as providing an unambiguous good: mastery over the natural world. This mastery included improved understanding, but was much more a practical matter, making life more comfortable, safer and longer. The new mastery over nature conquered distances and diseases, and even other civilisations (thus the rhyme that summed up a decisive advantage enjoyed by imperial armies: “Whatever happens/We have got/The Gatling gun/And they have not”). A century later, this unambiguous optimism has disappeared. The change began in the First World War, in which Europeans had to fight enemies who also had Gatling guns (i.e., machine guns), and the Second World War, culminating with the atom bomb, was even worse. Of course, it was precisely the new mastery over nature that made these two wars so terribly destructive. There followed the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, in which the conquest of distance meant that the enemy’s nuclear missiles could arrive very swiftly indeed from the other side of the world. As we emerged from the Cold War, environmental problems loomed ever larger, and some genuinely apocalyptic scenarios are now the subject of repeated expert warnings. In the meantime, we now read that antibiotics are proving less effective, and an antibiotic-resistant strain of some common malady – or a new superbug of some sort – is a real possibility. All these events have forced a retreat from that long-ago optimism: certainly science provides better understanding, but the mastery of the natural world that it provides has come to seem an ambiguous good indeed. Nothing could now be less surprising than an event causing death on the grand scale, and it is our mastery of nature through science that makes such an event possible. (Deneen sums the matter up succinctly: “among the greatest challenges facing humanity is the ability to survive progress.”)

All this, I hope, gives an idea of what it means to say that liberalism has failed. The sort of mastery aimed at by science, the idea of freeing ourselves from the limits of the natural world: these ideas now seem to have the capacity to produce real harm, and there is good reason to believe that our striving for mastery will culminate in a devastating reminder of our limits, in an utter helplessness. Deneen is able to tie the problem back to the very beginning of the modern scientific project: “Francis Bacon… compared nature to a prisoner who, under torture, might be compelled to reveal her long-withheld secrets.” The image points to a brutal, forceful compulsion, a relationship in which we do not try to live in accordance with nature, and do not seek any kind of compromise, but rather in which we seek her utter subjugation to our will. The whole project was conceived in this manner from the beginning – that is, as an assault on nature. Centuries after Bacon, we have succeeded in torturing out many secrets, but we find ourselves reminded ever more forcefully that we are part of nature, and nature is part of us: we should be careful about how exactly we relate to her, for if we get this wrong, it will hurt us. Everyone who has worried about the environment already has a basic grasp of this.

But does any of this really have anything to do with an idea of freedom? After all, science just provides improved understanding; the use we make of it is another problem entirely. But it is just here that the idea of freedom as a liberation from limits on our desires becomes relevant, for what the environmental consciousness of our time brings to light is precisely that we need to put a limit on our desires: the earth has finite resources, and so as our power to exploit them increases, so too does must our consumption find a limit. If our era has decided on a liberation from limit as one of its most fundamental principles, then we have a problem: our idea of freedom has run into its consequences, and these suggest the need for a quite different conception of freedom. We shall see that something similar is at work in other domains.

To get a better idea of what is at work in this notion of freedom, let us turn to Thomas Hobbes, who looms large over Deneen’s account of ‘liberalism.’ Before reading Deneen, I had not been cognizant of the radical break with the past that Hobbes’ theoretical conception of man in a state of nature represents, nor the immense influence it would wield over subsequent thought. In this putative natural state, the individual is imagined as an isolated entity, without commitments or natural attachments like a culture, a particular place, or the family. From this initial state, people proceed to choose various forms of commitment from which they hope to derive some benefit – e.g., we choose to accept the authority of the state because it provides the security and stability within which we can pursue good beyond mere survival. This represents a break with the sort of thinking that dominated antiquity and the middle ages, according to which people’s most fundamental attachments to one another were through nature, not choice. Thus Aristotle declared man to be a political animal; the basis of the city in Plato’s Republic is that people are not by nature self-sufficient, but need one another: the focus is on human nature, not on choice. Later Christian thinkers followed the Hellenic lead.

I have to admit that I have an awful lot of sympathy for critiques of Hobbes’ view. Obviously it is false to suggest that we begin political life as isolated individuals who actively choose our commitments. On the contrary, we begin as children, and children have parents, so that we begin as part of a family. By the time we are old enough to think about political life or to make substantial choices about the way we are going to live, we have been through a prolonged period of dependence on others, in which we have been without any choice at all about a great many things – and this is true even for orphans. The result of this is that we also begin mature political life with a culture (i.e., whatever is communicated to us by those we encounter as we grow up). Accordingly, there is an immensely important role played by things that are not chosen, by things that we acquire passively and in a non-rational way. I consider Plato and Aristotle to be greater political philosophers than Hobbes partly because they begin from a recognition of realities such as these while he does not. Deneen gets to the heart of all this by quoting Bertrand de Jouvenel: social contractarianism was conceived by “childless men who must have forgotten their own childhood.”

To say all this is nothing new. What is much more interesting is how Deneen can show what a tremendous – and often malignant – influence Hobbes’ ideas have had on subsequent political life. I want to bring out the logic behind this as best I can, so let us reflect a little farther on Hobbes. I have just characterised Plato and Aristotle as more realistic than Hobbes, but Hobbes would believe that he is the truly realistic one, for he takes as a most fundamental fact the reality that while people often pay lip service to lofty ideals, in fact they are moved by the basest impulses, and are deeply self-interested creatures. Thus the Hobbesian individual chooses to accept the authority of the state, but does so out of self-interest, and never gives up on this focus on self-interest (or on the basest impulses). Laws are compared by Hobbes to hedges of the sort you can still see on the side of country roads around England, “not to stop travelers, but to keep them in the way.” That is, they are external constraints, without which human nature would drive people to behave in all sorts of chaotic and destructive ways; Hobbes’ project is not to reform that nature, but rather to provide something capable of restraining it to some degree: fear, provided by the overwhelming power of the state.

This sketch should be enough to give an idea of the logic behind some of Deneen’s central claims. Our consideration of Hobbes has left us with (1) individuals who make choices from their basest impulses in a self-interested manner, and (2) a state with overwhelming power, which is necessary to restrain those individuals from many of the choices they would otherwise tend to make. Intermediate loyalties, of the sort people often have to families, guilds, churches, a particular place, and so on – i.e., into predefined forms of life that would otherwise limit and thus reform an otherwise anarchic human nature – are of decidedly lesser importance (Deneen notes how the well-known cover of Leviathan shows only a giant (the state) made up of anonymous individuals – i.e., intermediate commitments are not represented). Deneen does not consider this view of things to be an eternal verity; rather, as it has become ever more widely accepted it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It naturally affects behaviour and corrodes the authority of all institutions other than the state. What we increasingly end up with is isolated individuals, deprived of the supports they once enjoyed through intermediate institutions like the family, and increasingly powerless in the face of the vast power of the state.

We can now begin to consider examples of the failure of ‘liberalism’ other than science & the environment. In Deneen’s view, the state of affairs brought about by this self-fulfilling Hobbesian prophecy explains the dire state of our political life today, in which individuals are liberated as never before, and yet feel alienated from their governments: “growing numbers of citizens regard the government as an entity separate from their own will and control, not their creature and creation as promised by liberal philosophy… The liberties that liberalism was brought into being to protect – individual rights of conscience, religion, association, speech and self-governance – are extensively compromised by the expansion of government activity into every area of life. Yet this expansion continues…” This expansion of government is the Leviathan; it must expand to react to the anti-social tendencies of a populace that increasingly understands itself as Hobbesian individuals, who increasingly do not have characters formed by those institutions that once played a role between individual and state, but which now wither away to an ever-increasing degree.

A similar phenomenon is to be found in our free markets, and of course it also extends to various supra-national institutions, agents and creations of globalisation. I am not going to review these in detail here, although it does seem to me that the European Union provides an excellent example: its powers have been expanded at the expense of democratic national governments on the basis of narrow referendum victories in those nations, or even (in the cases of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and France) in the face of defeats. In the Brexit referendum, the most frequent (and perhaps the strongest) arguments on the Remain side took the form of necessity – i.e., that Britain could not escape from the EU without catastrophic economic consequences (these have yet to appear, but I am hardly alone in remaining worried about them). Many believe that the EU would like to see Britain fail after it leaves, so that other member states will be too afraid to take the same path: here again is the Leviathan, restraining the impulses of its citizens through fear.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its ability to give deep explanations of various malaises of our time – that is, to present many well-known problems of our recent history in the context of, and as the logical result of, a much wider historical development, one going back at least four centuries. Thus Deneen can show how ballooning national debts are a natural product of the narrow conception of time that follows from liberalism; so too can he show how the eclipse of (genuinely) liberal education by technical and practical studies is part of this development (I’m not going to try to explain those here). There is also a deeper view of political life here, one critical of both the left and the right as we know them today, for both are influenced by – and yet (interestingly) also critical of – ‘liberalism.’ The left is critical of the adverse effects that free markets can have on the poor, while it promotes maximum liberation for individuals from restrictive social norms; the right is critical of the effects that such a liberation from social norms can have on the poor, while it promotes free markets (if you don’t think a liberation from social norms can harm the poor, may I recommend Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple? I will be blogging about him in the next week or two). What is remarkable is that both sides have enjoyed success insofar as they accord with ‘liberalism’ – i.e., with the notion of freedom as a liberation from a restraint on our desires – and both sides have failed insofar as they have sought to withstand this same ‘liberalism.’ In fact, while writing this post, I happened across a blog post on the last few decades of British politics which pointed to the respective victories of left and right: “it was as though a deal had been struck; you can have diversity, minority rights and discrimination laws if we can have privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts.”

Deneen does not quite say as much, but it strikes me that the intractability of our environmental problems is to be seen in the same way as this mutual failure of the political left and right: what environmentalism is bringing into focus is a need to make a limit to our consumption part of our way of life, but this conflicts with the deepest commitment we have concerning how people ought to live. That is, the idea that we ought to be free to choose how to live, that there ought to be no limits to our desires aside from the laws of the state – these are the most basic commitments of ‘liberalism,’ and they have come to seem self-evident truths to most people. The state can pass coercive laws all it likes to try to force people to live in an environmentally sound manner, but quite apart from the resentment and possible backlash these might provoke if coercion is taken too far, such measures are unlikely to succeed on their own. A successful environmental movement surely requires that we make limits on consumption (and thus on our desires) part of our choices: one chooses to turn off the light in an empty room; one chooses not only to ride a bike or take public transport instead of driving a car, but also to support urban landscapes that are conducive to such things; one chooses to compost and recycle, and to try to avoid producing too much waste; one chooses to support laws necessary to a sustainable environment; etc. Environmental problems are hard to solve not because they pose an insuperable technical problem for scientists, but because the solution to them conflicts with ‘liberalism,’ and as the successes and failures of the left and the right in politics suggest, ‘liberalism’ is so deeply fixed in our understanding of how to live that it carries all before it.

One other insight into recent history is particularly worthy of mention: Deneen can link his understanding of ‘liberalism’ in a particularly compelling way to the major totalitarian movements of the 20th century. I happen to have read a fair bit on this particular matter – might I suggest my post on the great Sebastian Haffner, who writes with particular insight on Hitler and Nazism? – but still I felt I was learning something here, discovering for the first time the full significance of points I had encountered before. It should be enough to quote Deneen here: “an earlier generation of philosophers and sociologists noted the psychological condition that led increasingly dislocated and disassociated selves to derive their basic identity from the state. These analyses – in landmark works such as Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community – recognised, from various perspectives and disciplines, that a signal feature of modern totalitarianism was that it arose and came to power through the discontents of people’s isolation and loneliness. A population seeking to fill the void left by the weakening of more local memberships and associations was susceptible to a fanatical willingness to identify completely with a distant and abstract state.” This passage was a real moment of insight for me. It is, I hope, clear enough how this connects to what I said above about Hobbes and the gradual withering of institutions other than the state.

It would be wrong to fault Deneen for not stressing the positive achievements of liberalism. He is plainly aware of these, but his book is a critique, and no doubt one of the ways he was able to keep it so short was by maintaining a strict focus on his purpose. Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves of what is good in ‘liberalism,’ for it shows us just how uncomfortable the ground is to which Deneen has brought us.

It seems to me that there is no good that is characteristic of our own times that can be separated from the peculiar conception of freedom I set out at the start. We tend to look down on all previous ages because none of them could realise anything like the rights and opportunities that we can. We are not entirely wrong to do this, and yet all of these new rights and opportunities are a result of ‘liberalism.’ Consider: quite apart from the matter of material discomforts, few of us would want to live in the middle ages. Imagine being born the son of a blacksmith: the circumstances of your birth would be understood to determine your future to a considerable degree. You would probably be expected to follow in your father’s footsteps and become a blacksmith; if you proved somehow unsuited to that, you could no doubt pursue some other menial occupation, but you could never become a member of government or a diplomat, and marriage or friendship outside of your class would be quite out of the question. The idea that all people can pursue any career they wish, or that anyone can become president – these are surely consequences of conceiving of individuals in the abstract Hobbesian manner, without the natural attachments that come through accidents of birth and upbringing. Still more is this true in the case of women, who once would have had but one path open to them as a result of their situation as determined by nature, the path of marriage and motherhood (if they did not become nuns). I am inclined to think something similar is true of slavery – i.e., that ‘liberalism’ plays a significant role in explaining why our own era had successful anti-slavery movements while antiquity did not. It is clear that there were people arguing against slavery in ancient Greece, for Aristotle attempts to answer them. But note the sort of argument he uses: there are people who by nature are slaves. This sort of argument is on a shakier footing once we have accepted Hobbes’ beginning point, for his state of nature emphasises how people are fundamentally the same, moved by the same basic drives (in the case of slavery, I think Christianity is also part of the story).

Thus it seems to me that Deneen leaves us in a very difficult position: I think his criticisms of ‘liberalism’ are fundamentally sound, and yet it should be clear that we want to be very careful indeed about how we move away from it. It might not be enough simply to say that we want to maintain the new rights and opportunities, the fuller realisation of human dignity, that liberalism has brought about. After all, our behaviour is deeply influenced by our theoretical commitments – this is a lesson of the connection between Hobbes and aspects of our current situation – and it might well turn out to be the case that if we simply go back to an older view of humanity, one that does acknowledge the reality that we are partly formed by our particular natures and circumstances, that political life might “snap back,” so to speak, to an earlier state of affairs to some degree, one in which many of our current freedoms have disappeared. That is, we might find that our revised principles drive us once again towards the notion that women should stay in the home, or something similarly reactionary. This seems to me all the more possible in light of the fact that, as the problems inherent in ‘liberalism’ impose themselves on everyday life, the possibility of a reaction looms into view, and reactions often go too far.

No doubt we can already see the outlines of what we need next. I focused so much on the matter of the environment above because it seems to me that in this one case we can see the appearance, even among the most progressive people, of a widespread recognition of a need for more than mere liberation from restraint, but of a need for virtue, for a formation of character that limits the desires from within. That is, environmentalists can see clearly that we need to be less free as ‘liberalism’ conceives of freedom. If environmentalists are starting to see this, it’s not so clear to me that the immediate facts of the case will lead people to a similar understanding in other areas. But the first thing to do is to recognise we have a very deep-seated problem, and Deneen’s book certainly does that.

What’s Left by Nick Cohen

This is an excellent book. It deserves a far wider readership than it will get. It is an introduction to the phenomenon of the regressive left, a recent arrival in left-wing politics that casts aside the proudest traditions of that part of the political spectrum, abandoning the universality that used to come with ideas like human rights, and making its peace with fascism and other illiberal ideas that used to be the exclusive property of the far-right. First printed in 2007, What’s Left has recently come back into print, and has been enjoying a flurry of sales because of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour party in Britain. Certainly Cohen was prescient, and his book can be profitably read to increase one’s understanding of British politics, but I think its significance goes far beyond that. For me, the book is important for the insight it gives into the philosophical school known as postmodernism: the regressive left is what happens when postmodern ideas take root in political life. Cohen covers some difficult intellectual ground with magnificent clarity. The result is a book that reads like a novel and will greatly deepen your understanding of ideas that are coming to define the times we live in (and with the arrival of president Trump, postmodernism has come to have a terrible relevance to American political life as well; I’ll say a word about that at the end).

I’ve long had an interest in how certain seemingly esoteric ideas – that is, ideas that you would assume were of interest only to a few professors in ivory towers – are in fact critically important to everyday life. Cohen’s book shows how ideas that have been peddled by academics for the last half-century or so have trickled down into everyday life, with deeply troubling effects in political life across the West.

The book is not, however, a philosophical tome. What’s Left focuses on recent history, reaching its climax in the second Iraq war. Cohen experience of this time is what brought about the book: as a friend of certain Iraqi exiles, he found himself occupying different ground than many of his fellow leftists, and the perspective proved fruitful. He tells us he didn’t join protests against the first Iraq war because he saw Arabs carrying signs saying things like “Free Kuwait.” He supported the second Iraq war because of Iraqis who vehemently supported it, and because he was all too aware that the line about Saddam Hussein being a brutal dictator who ought to be removed was, well, true (you’ll learn a thing or two about Hussein’s Iraq along the way). But a key insight clearly came as Cohen reflected on the distance the rest of the left had travelled without him since the 80’s. Back then, on the basis of its support for universal human rights, the left was against Hussein and in favour of Iraqi democracy. By the time of the second Iraq war, it was the right that was against Hussein and in favour of Iraqi democracy, while the left was at best confused. Actually, Cohen makes clear that ‘confused’ is too generous, for it becomes clear that many left-wingers had simply abandoned their previous commitment to universal human rights.

Iraq, then, is one of the book’s central threads. If, like me, you were against the Iraq war from the start and have on that account felt rather pleased with yourself ever since, the book can be uncomfortable reading – and all the more valuable for that. This is far the most thought-provoking thing I have read on Iraq.

But I think the book’s real value lies in the ideas that it treats, ideas relevant far beyond a particular conflict. One idea central to the book (and to postmodernism) is relativism. You have probably encountered the doctrine in the form of cultural relativism – i.e., the idea that no culture’s practices are better than any others. So, for example, in some cultures, it’s appropriate to eat with a knife and fork, in others, with chopsticks, in others still, with your hands. The cultural relativist reminds us that no one of these approaches is better than any other – indeed, that it would be deeply wrong and even evil to take any one of them as absolute and to try to impose it on others. In theory, this sounds great, and many of the doctrine’s advocates see it as necessary to sustain or to further develop the left-wing movements of the 20th century, in that they think it the only foundation on which real tolerance and coexistence are possible. Cohen, however, deals with the way the doctrine actually plays out in the real world, and there it proves to have disastrous potential.

One relatively recent application of relativism involves a sharper and more exclusive focus on minority groups. So, for example, Cohen tells us how “the idea that a homosexual black woman should have the same rights as a heterosexual white man was replaced by a relativism which took the original and hopeful challenge of the early feminist, gay and anti-racist movements and flipped it over. Homosexuality, blackness and womanhood became separate cultures that couldn’t be criticized or understood by outsiders applying universal criteria.” This refusal of criticism involving universal criteria was applied above all to the foreign cultures found in other countries.

Consider, for example, Michel Foucault, celebrated among many academics as one of the great minds of the 20th century, and often taken to be a particularly progressive thinker. In the  early 80’s he became enamoured of the Ayatollah’s new regime in Iran, and warned against criticising it – Iranian culture has a different “regime of truth,” he said. That is, they have their own culture with its own practices, and we have no right to try to criticise it in terms proper to our own culture. But what was at issue in this case was not merely matters like how we eat our food, but questions such as whether or not people who protest against the government should be tortured, or questions concerning the rights of women. Cohen brings the heart of the matter out clearly: “if the bishops of the French Catholic Church had achieved the theocratic power of the ayatollahs and used it to prescribe what Foucault and his colleagues could teach at the College du France in Paris, I’m sure Foucault and all his admirers in Anglo-American academe would have gone ape and shouted ‘fascism.’ As it was, the victims of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy had brown skins and lived in a faraway country.” Far from being a progressive thinker, Foucault supported tyranny and the crushing of human rights – not in his own country and for himself, mind you, but for other people born elsewhere. More than that, he effectively brought the weight of his academic reputation to bear against those in the West who would criticise the Iranian regime and who would support Iranians who wanted something better.

Cohen shows how Foucault is far from an isolated example. There is no shortage of other instances of the same phenomenon, such as the academic we encounter who objects (in almost incomprehensible prose) to the fact that certain people in the West are criticising the practice of burning women to death. To be quite clear: the complaint is not that women are being burned to death, but that people are criticising the practice of burning them. After all, what right do westerners have to criticise another culture?

A major theme of the book, then, is the abandonment of universal values for a view of the world that understands people to be fundamentally different from one another on the basis of some favoured category (gender, race, culture, etc.). People are effectively put into silos, on this view, and told they cannot understand or criticise those who occupy other silos. Spend a little time with this idea and you’ll start to see it all over the place. Consider, for example, how England’s Guardian newspaper produced a fawning puff-piece about the local leader of the extremist Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. I can’t remember ever having seen a similar treatment of, say, Tommy Robinson in those pages: he’s a western right-wing extremist, and as such is to be subject to severe censure. More telling still, a few days later, the same Guardian published a considerably less flattering piece on Majid Nawaz, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir who has turned into a crusader for a liberal order. The Guardian has internalised the idea that the appropriate relation to culturally foreign ideas (even if they’re now on the streets on England) is to be one of understanding, not criticism, and this is now so deeply rooted that even a reformer of Pakistani heritage gets treated with hostility. (The phenomenon was remarked on at the time; see also this post by David Paxton on a related issue).

Angela Merkel gave another example when she responded to the US presidential election by saying that Germany was prepared to continue to work with the US, but only on the basis of the liberal values both countries had long held dear. Laudable, yes, though a colleague at work pointed out that she had made no such statement concerning president Erdogan in Turkey. For those who have not been paying attention, Erdogan has not merely run a campaign that was beyond the pale, but has recently used his office to do things like close down newspapers and lock up dissenters in their thousands.

But I digress. There is another idea that crops up repeatedly: relativists will tend not to think ideas through to their logical consequences – indeed, the doctrine makes this impossible in some circumstances – and so we encounter people who adopt doctrines in a merely partial fashion, unwilling really to commit to anything and failing to confront the full reality of what they are advocating. This brings about what I call mere criticism – that is, we end up with people who focus all their energy on being against something, often coming up with effective critiques of it, but never offering solutions, never being for anything. So, for example, Cohen points to the oft-repeated claim that the war against Saddam Hussein was ‘illegal:’ “logically, they should then have followed through and demanded that the Americans release Saddam Hussein from prison and restore him to the presidency that the invading forces had ‘illegally’ stolen from him. But, as the theorists of the Eighties and Nineties had anticipated, there wasn’t much call for logic in a post-modern world that welcomed self-righteous fury without positive commitments.”

Noam Chomsky (“the boy at the edge of the gang”) as he appears in the book provides an example of this phenomenon that gives it focus: he is seen to be very much against mass killing, so long as the blame can be pinned on America. If it’s America’s enemies who are to blame – well, let’s just say that chapter Six, together with Chapter 5, contains an utterly devastating, crushing attack on Chomsky, in particular on his moral authority. I can remember people gushing about him in Vancouver in the 90’s, talking about his upcoming talk as though it were the chance of a lifetime to stand in the shadow of one of the greatest intellectual lights of our time. I couldn’t make it; I now feel rather glad not to have been involved. Cohen’s criticism is a knock-out blow: I can no longer take Chomsky seriously as a moral authority, and I will feel forced in the future to question the judgment of those who do.

Chomsky’s one-sided anti-Americanism points to a reality about the regressive left that Cohen has brought out more clearly elsewhere (for example here): they tend often simply to be against the West, or against America, rather than for the universal values that the West (or America) ought to stand for, and sometimes fails to live up to. This notion of mere criticism is also worth keeping in mind as you watch current events, because it is the difference between the regressive left and the left that has integrity.

It is in relation to Iraq, however, that the bad ideas from academia really go mainstream, as the great mass of people opposed to the war fail to make important distinctions, and wind up effectively – and sometimes explicitly and actively – opposing democracy and supporting a brutal dictatorship for the people of Iraq. An ethical approach would have been to oppose the rash activity of Bush and his followers while supporting Iraqis who wanted democracy by all possible means. Instead, we read of occasions on which Westerners actually shouted down left-wing Iraqis who were trying to achieve for their own country the same rights we enjoy in our own. Being against Bush was more important than allowing any kind of help for democratic Iraqis. Thus the German government refused to allow its own officials who had experience in dealing with the legacy of the GDR and Third Reich in Germany to go to Iraq to advise on how to approach the same sort of issues there.

But perhaps the best example in the book of how postmodern thought such as that of Foucault had filtered down to the mainstream comes in the following exchange:

Tony Blair: There is global struggle in which we need a policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justice –

John Humphrys (a BBC presenter): Our idea of democracy…

Blair: I didn’t know that there was another idea of democracy.

Humphrys: If I may say so, that’s naïve.

Blair: The one basic fact about democracy, surely, is that you can get rid of your government if you don’t like them.

Humphrys: The Iranians elected their own government, and we’re now telling them –

Blair: Hold on John, something like 60 per cent of the candidates were excluded.

(BBC Radio 4, Feb. 2007)

I’ve always hated Blair, but there’s no disagreeing with him in this exchange. I’d like to hear if Humphrys made an apology to all those young Iranians who in 2009 proved willing to be imprisoned and tortured because they wanted “our idea of democracy.”

Cohen lands some decisive blows on other leftists I had previously admired (or at least not despised). I can’t pass up the chance to quote Cohen on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: Moore “brushed aside the millions forced into exile and the mass graves and torture chambers and decided instead to present life in one of the worst tyrannies of the late twentieth century as sweet… Presented with propaganda which might have come from the studios of the dictators of the Thirties, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and audiences in art house cinemas on every continent did not protest at the whitewash of totalitarianism, but rose to their feet and shouted themselves hoarse.”

(And I’d just like to say that I find it extremely pleasing to hear Jean Baudrillard described as “an overrated French theorist.”)

As I said at the start, What’s Left is currently enjoying good sales in Britain because of its relevance to current political events there. But the ideas it treats – bad ideas whose progress Cohen follows from relative obscurity among top academics and fringe movements to subsequent ubiquity in mass street protests and mainstream politics – have come in no small way to define the nature of our times. The book is thus relevant far beyond Britain. As a former humanities academic, I think it should be required reading for all students of postmodernism: it gives a look at what this intellectual movement actually means in practice, something we rarely hear about. There’s more insight into postmodernism in this easy-to-read book than in many pounds of incomprehensible academic prose.

Unfortunately, What’s Left is likely to be relevant for a long time to come, because all levels of our society have been marinated in these bad ideas to the extent that they’ve come to seem self-evident to many. They’re still being taught at every university; read the book and you’ll start to see them everywhere. And because they have the imprimatur of many of the supposed great minds of our times, those who speak against them can often seem like unintelligent cranks. Cohen’s book is a reminder of the importance of good theoretical thinking, and a reminder of the importance of speaking up against bad ideas like these.

A final thought, and one that goes beyond the book: perhaps the most fundamental idea in postmodernism is the denial that there is any reality beyond particular, limited perspectives. I can remember when I was a postmodernist (I was about 18), I would deny that there was any such thing as truth at all. One particularly worrying aspect of both the Brexit campaign in Britain and the US presidential campaign is that both campaigns could legitimately be described as “post-truth:” claims that were simply false were able to take on a life of their own, and the fact of having spoken falsely does not seem to have carried a penalty. Indeed, in the case of Trump, his falsehoods and self-contradictions were so numerous that reporters simply couldn’t keep up. It has not always been like this, and with the arrival of this post-truth reality, our politics have become genuinely postmodern. We can only hope that we can find a way out of this postmodern condition before we’re subject to the most devastating consequences.

What’s Left is a first-rate, readable book that will not only make you think hard about Iraq, but also provides an introduction to some of the defining ideas of our time. A must-read for anyone interested in politics or the deeper intellectual currents that drive things. Books this good are rare indeed.

(also, if you want an idea of what Cohen’s all about, try here or here)


Haffner and Hitler

I’ve had Sebastian Haffner on the brain lately, so I’m going to post something I wrote a little while ago on him…

The beginning of 2016 saw a significant passing: the Bavarian government lost control of the copyright to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This means that it is now legal to print a new edition of the work in Germany. A massive 2000-page scholarly edition has arrived, and it will include the 800 or so pages of the original text with ample commentary pointing out every factual error and self-contradiction. There has been some commentary suggesting that a way ought to be found to keep it illegal to produce new editions, but I don’t really see the point. Not only is the book freely available online, but it’s not like it’s a work of any real intellectual power – I have a hard time believing that anyone who’s read it has suddenly found himself converted to Nazism by the sheer force of the arguments.

I’ve never read Mein Kampf. From what I’ve heard, it’s long and terribly boring. My own contribution to this particular anniversary will be this post, on by far the best author I’ve encountered who has treated Hitler.

I have read a fair bit on the Third Reich. Many know far more than me, but I’ve read many thousands of pages. However, it’s not the heavy tomes by Shirer or Kershaw or Bullock that have contributed the most to my understanding of the subject, but rather what are probably the two shortest relevant books I’ve read, both by Sebastian Haffner. (admittedly, you probably have to go through a few of the 800-pagers to really get the most out of Haffner.)

The first of these books is Geschichte eines Deutschen, available in English under the cringe-worthy title, Defying Hitler. (It seems publishers will do anything to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a title.) The second is Anmerkungen zu Hitler (“Remarks on Hitler,” though sold in English as The Meaning of Hitler, a translation disliked by the author.) You should read both.

Since I’ve already done a couple posts touching on the former book, I’ll focus on the latter here. Part of the book’s genius is the writing itself. Short, simple sentences, no big words, no massive accretion of footnotes with a vast bibliography at the end, no vast accumulation of facts in the manner of the 800-page tomes that historians today typically produce. Haffner feels no need to impress us with this sort of thing; what does impress is his thought itself. Psychological insight, thoughts on the significance of the last eight months of the war, on Hitler’s decision to declare war on America, on the meaning of the Battle of the Bulge: there is a great deal to mull over in this book, and I think most of it is correct (Haffner does try to argue that Hitler would not have been remembered as a great man if he had died in 1939, which I don’t find so convincing: with genocide and war, the difference between talking and doing is an important one).

One central thesis of the book is altogether compelling. Winston Churchill, in his memoires of the Second World War, declared himself content to be judged on his results. Haffner applies this criterion to Hitler, and comes to the conclusion that Hitler was a total failure, one of the greatest failures in history.

People look to the fact that Hitler got control of so much of Europe, and feel that he must therefore have been some sort of genius – an evil genius, but a genius nonetheless. In fact, insofar as he did enjoy some kind of success, he did so where there was no substantial resistance to him, but he wasn’t really all that successful: virtually everywhere, he achieved virtually the opposite of what he aimed at.

One of his major aims was a war against Russia and Marxism; his actual accomplishment was to bring both into the heart of Europe, and even of Berlin. He tried to destroy Poland, and the Poles ended up with an awful lot of German land. He set out to destroy the Jews, and instead created conditions in which the creation of a Jewish state was all but inevitable (ohne Hitler kein Israel, he says: without Hitler, no Israel). He did not set out at the start to harm Great Britain, but his war had the effect of radically reducing that country’s place in the world. Certainly Hitler did succeed in killing large numbers of people, including his enemies, but he was interested in the fate of nations, not of particular individuals.

The Russian campaign was the most fateful, and here Haffner remarks that Hitler might have won if he’d come as a liberator. This is exactly right but there’s a fair bit to unpack. I’m going to go into it because it’s an excellent illustration of the importance of the moral aspect in international relations – and a recognition of the importance of this aspect may prove useful in the coming era. Hitler practised an extreme form of power politics that absolutely discounted the importance of morality, and ended up a particularly potent example of the power of the moral element to determine events.

The thing that has to be kept in mind with regard to Hitler’s attack on Russia was that Germany had beaten Russia in World War One, and had done so at the same time as fighting the major democratic powers to the west in another land campaign. In 1941 Russia’s military (and Russia more generally) was greatly weakened by Stalin’s recent purges, and Russians after two decades of Marxism had rather more reason to rebel against their government than they’d had in the days of the Tsar. How was it that Russia surrendered to Germany in 1917, but Hitler lost in the 40’s?

The answer lies in Hitler’s peculiar genius, which found a way to make defeat all but certain. By waging an unprovoked war of annihilation and enslavement, he gave the people of Russia a reason – even a need – to fight to the death, calling forth in them tremendous reserves of determination and hatred, and further, bestowing a legitimacy to Stalin’s government that it would never have achieved on its own. None of this was true in the First World War. In 1917, an end to the war against Germany, even though the terms might be highly disadvantageous to Russia, might have seemed an attractive option to many average Russians; from late 1941, it was not an option at all. If, on the other hand, Hitler’s attack on Russia had been preceded by a propaganda campaign about the iniquities of the Marxist system and the sufferings it had brought to the Russian people, and if Hitler had invaded making it clear in word and deed that he was a friend of the Russian people and an enemy only of its oppressors – well, in that case it’s difficult for me to see how he might have lost. But of course, if he’d taken that route, he would have been somebody else.

Thus it seems to me that the moral element was decisive on the eastern front in WWII. One of Hitler’s (numerous) failings as a thinker was his inability to see the significance of this element. If you push out to the extremes, they push back; in this case, by denying that justice had any power, Hitler made himself utterly subject to that power. He said that once the campaign had been won, nobody would worry about how it started; no remark could have been more blind. (Hitler was looking to Friedrich the Great, who made an unprovoked grab for Silesia, but he ignored the fact that Friedrich did not wage wars of annihilation against whole peoples, but rather campaigns against foreign monarchs. Anyway, it is instructive that even here the hatred aroused by an unprovoked attack never dissipated: Maria Theresa of Austria never forgave Friedrich and remained his implacable enemy for life.)

Above all, Hitler claimed to be acting on behalf of the German nation and people, and here the gulf between aim and achievement is extraordinary. Nobody in human history has ever done his own country so much harm. In a speech in the 20’s, he declared “it cannot be that two million Germans died in vain;” in his own war, seven million would. The cities and towns in the more western part of Germany were largely bombed to rubble, but they got off easily in comparison to East Prussia and Silesia, which simply ceased to exist.

The fate of these two territories is something of which there’s very little consciousness in the English-speaking world – in the histories I’ve read, it’s covered in a few sentences or (more often) not at all – so it’s worth going into a bit of detail at this point. Before the Second World War, Germany extended hundreds of kilometers to the East of its current border; Germans had been living there since the middle ages. After the war, the population was expelled. Before the war, nobody would even have imagined trying to dislodge the people of East Prussia and Silesia from their ancestral homes, and still less would anybody have been able to do so. Even if someone had somehow managed it, the idea that the people of those territories had a right to that land would have remained – and not only in Germany – making an attempt at taking them back all but inevitable (I think it was Foch who said of Versailles, “this isn’t a peace, it’s an armistice for twenty years”).

The unique genius of Hitler proved capable of overcoming all of these obstacles. Not only did he gradually get Germany into an unwinnable war, but he made sure it was waged with such brutality that he gave Germany’s enemies a terribly compelling reason to want to expel the eastern German population from their homes and force them to resettle as far as possible towards the west. That is, the further to the west the German population was, the safer Russians could feel in the future. And because Germany had by her actions aroused such hatred virtually everywhere in Europe, when the time came to redraw the map of Europe, not only did the Germans not have an advocate present, but nobody who was present was likely to have any sympathy for them.

I have a large book of photos from Silesia. A City Hall built in the 14th century, churches, houses, monuments, Breslau (then among the six largest cities in Germany) – a world that looks very much like the Germany I’ve visited myself. It’s hard to imagine the disbelief and horror with which people would have reacted to the news: all Germans were to leave, on pain of death. That couldn’t possibly be true, could it? But it was, and whole cities were driven onto the roads, bringing with them what they could, never to return. A world simply disappeared, and none of it could possibly have happened if not for Hitler. It was a condition of the acceptance of German reunification by the major foreign powers in 1990 that Germany would give up its claim to these territories, settling this Hitlerian achievement for good. (In Görlitz, a Silesian city that remains part of Germany, there’s a Silesian museum which is worth a visit; among the exhibits are house keys that people took with them.)

More than five hundred kilometers to the east of Berlin was Königsberg, the city where Immanual Kant lived (and never left); it’s now Kalingrad, inhabited by Russians (with short-range nuclear missiles that can reach Berlin).

In his youth, Hitler had admired the Teutonic knights, who over centuries pushed German territory east; he himself would undo their work almost literally overnight. He also admired Friedrich the Great, who had added the (then German-speaking) region of Silesia to Prussia. Thanks to Hitler, not only was Silesia detached from Prussia, but its population was expelled. Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, Romania – all had had significant German minorities for centuries, but Hitler taught all these countries that they’d be much safer without these minorities, so all those Germans were expelled. There had even been Germans living along the Volga in Russia; they were resettled to the far east of Russia. (I met one of the Volga-Deutschen in the US some years ago. He came from a town now in Kyrgistan, called Kant.)

But Hitler achieved even more than this, for he waged the most effective assault imaginable on the very idea of being German: after him, many would say they felt ashamed to be German. This continues even today, when some in Germany support the European project so that they can abandon their German identity for a European one. Hitler and his Nazis actually were what they declared the Jews to be: an utterly negative and essentially destructive force.

This idea of failure, which I’ve now supplemented with my own thoughts, is a central idea of the book, but it’s not the only one. If you want to understand Hitler and the Third Reich, you won’t do better than Sebastian Haffner.

Crying Wolf? Trump and Racism

I have long thought I might write something pointing out that while it is important to call out bigotry, it’s also important to call out false claims of bigotry. As of the election last week, this theme has become partly superfluous, as we’re now knee-deep in commentary saying that the left has gone too far and created a backlash. And strangely enough, I’ve just come across a piece that does an admirable job of calling out some false claims of bigotry, and yet I feel moved to answer it.


Is Donald Trump racist? Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex, thinks not: “there is no evidence that Donald Trump is more racist than any past Republican candidate (or any other 70 year old white guy, for that matter). All this stuff about how he’s ‘the candidate of the KKK’ and ‘the vanguard of a new white supremacist movement’ is made up. It’s a catastrophic distraction from the dozens of other undeniable problems with Trump that could have convinced voters to abandon him. That it came to dominate the election cycle should be considered a horrifying indictment of our political discourse, in the same way that it would be a horrifying indictment of our political discourse if the entire Republican campaign had been based around the theory that Hillary Clinton was a secret Satanist. Yes, calling Romney a racist was crying wolf. But you are still crying wolf.”


It’s a well-argued piece, providing a much-needed dose of sober and critical thought on a subject that often tends towards hysteria. In general, I agree with the points made, but I think the thesis (just quoted) goes too far. That is, at the end of the day, I don’t see that we are still crying wolf, and the reason is this: what about the birther movement?


I think the word ‘racist’ is tossed around far too frequently these days, but I can’t see any other explanation for the birther movement. No president before Obama ever had to put up with the charge that he wasn’t born in America – what a coincidence that the first black president is also the first who has to refute this particular claim that he doesn’t have the right to be president! I’m sure it was just a coincidence, right?


Okay, actually I’m not at all sure. What I found significant (and particularly pernicious) about the whole birther thing is that it provided a means by which the notion that Obama was not a legitimate president could be aired in public and at length. In fact, given that I never heard any reason at all to doubt Obama’s place of birth, I’m inclined to think that the conclusion-tail was wagging the evidence-dog – that is, that people who started with the idea that Obama, the first black president, had no business at all being president, then came up with a line of thought that provided evidence for that view. People who were thinking “this guy has no business being president” could hardly just say that out loud.


I found the whole thing quite disturbing. No, more than that, I found it vile. As much as I think it’s far too easy to get called ‘racist’ these days, I do think the birther movement was racist, racist, racist.


Donald Trump kept the whole thing going longer than almost anyone. Maybe he was moved by a sincere concern regarding the president’s place of birth. Maybe he just wanted to be the guy who was able to force the president’s hand by making him produce the birth certificate. Certainly Trump did declare in September 2016 that Obama was born in America – though of course, at that point it was extremely politically expedient to say that. The fact is that whatever Trump’s motivations, he chose to spend time in the sewer of birtherism. An apology, an expression of regret, might have washed off some of the filth, but without having done even that, he can hardly complain if people think he stinks.


I certainly don’t agree with Obama on everything, and I do think there’s something to be said about the fact that eight years of Obama will end in a Trump presidency, but all that’s for another time. Watching Obama have to sit next to Trump in the White House last week made me ache. Of all the people in America to have to hand over power to, that man. No wonder Obama looked like he couldn’t believe this was happening. (Or perhaps he’d just realised how little Trump knows about his new job – it was reported that Trump didn’t even know that a new presidential administration hires so many people (several thousand), something I, who have never run for president, have known for about two decades.)


Scott Alexander does show that people have been rather over-eager and incautious in their attempts to attribute racial prejudice to Trump, and that accusations have been made that are not justified. But maybe there was a reason for all that.

More Haffner: Irrefutably Clear

In my last post, I wrote around a passage from Sebastian Haffner’s Geschichte eines Deutschen. The book is still on my mind, so I’m going to do the same tonight.

I’m in Europe. This means that tonight, election night in America, I will not be staying up to see the results as they come in. Instead, I will get up tomorrow, not long after midnight New York time, and find out what happened. I find myself thinking of Haffner’s description of the tense situation the night before World War One was declared, when he, as a child, was on vacation with his family in the country:

“Downstairs, in the hall, with its hunting trophies on the walls and a row of pewter jugs and bright earthenware plates ranged along a high shelf, I found my father and our host, the owner of the estate, seated in deep armchairs, solemnly and weightily discussing the situation. Of course I did not understand much of what they were saying and I can recall no details. But I have not forgotten how calm and consoling their voices sounded, my father’s higher tones against the deep bass of our host; how reassuring the sight of their leisurely manner was, the fragrant smoke of their cigars rising above them in slender columns; and how, the longer they talked, the clearer, the better and the more comforting everything became. Until, finally, it was irrefutably clear that war was quite impossible and, therefore, we would not let panic chase us back to town. Instead, as in all previous years, we would stay on to the end of the holidays….

When I was awakened next morning, packing was in full swing. At first, I did not understand what had happened. The word ‘mobilisation,’ which they had sought to explain a few days previously, conveyed nothing to me. Anyway there was little time to explain anything…”

I don’t think this is an election like any other. You could fill an encyclopedia with substantive objections to Trump, but for me, the worst are his statements concerning the use of nuclear weapons, which exhibit an ignorance of the (non-humanitarian) reasons they are never used, and point to a willingness to use them. For example, watch this.

So I don’t think the comparison to WWI is overblown. Since the Comey intervention I have been genuinely nervous. I have literally lost sleep. This is real, and it could happen. Thus I, too, seek comforting thoughts.

Friends remind me that Hillary has a far better ground game, and this is true. They remind me that it’s not entirely clear where Trump’s necessary voters will come from – he’ll win much of what Romney got in 2012, some people who don’t usually vote, and he’ll lose big-time among minorities. It now looks like Nevada and Florida should be blue, and that should surely do it.

And yet… This has felt wrong for a long time. Trump has been riding a wave (and anyway, read this or this).

So I go through everything again and again, until, finally, it is irrefutably clear that a Trump victory is quite impossible.

Hope I don’t wake to something quite different tomorrow.

How Could It Happen?

Some years ago I was walking through Heidelberg in Germany, and noticed a book sitting in a store window. The title: Wie konnte es geschehen? That is, How Could It Happen? This was the question for the Germans, and it’s now the question for much of the West.

The immediate question is, how did we get to a point where something like Trump was possible? If he wins on Tuesday, the question will become academic: we will have moved from whatever mistakes brought this situation about to the consequences of those mistakes. If he doesn’t win, maybe there’s a chance to do something to correct this. I’m not optimistic – indeed, I’m utterly pessimistic – but I see the possible beginnings of that conversation out there already, and it’s worth trying to explore where it should go.

The problem, of course, is not only American. In France we have the FN, in Germany, AfD, in Holland, Geert Wilders’ party, and so on: unsavoury populist parties that reject much of the consensus that has reigned for a generation. America is more of a concern because it’s far more important than anywhere in Europe, but in the long term, I’m more inclined to worry about where Europe could go. (I’m not sure where to place the UK in all this, since it has enjoyed some success in defusing the problem – but that’s another post).

So where is it all coming from? There are plenty of proximate causes, but in the end I think it comes to this: the elites have failed us all by overreaching. The immediate problem may be coming from the masses and from the right, but I’m increasingly inclined to see that as a reaction. The most fundamental problem, the first mover in all of this, comes from above, from the intellectuals, the universities and the media – i.e., from the left. The problem is not that they aimed at something bad, but rather that they pushed too hard towards something good, pursuing it in a one-sided fashion. Further, the problem is systemic, a matter of a thousand paper cuts rather than some one big mistake that some one person made somewhere.

I do see the beginnings of the conversation that I think needs to happen (though again, this is not to say I’m optimistic that it will happen).

If there’s a problem on the left, it’s no surprise to find that the right gives a clear view of it. Accordingly, the (in)famous “Flight 93” piece points right to the heart of the matter: “the Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes. And how does one deal with a Nazi—that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.”

That’s what I would trace things back to: the left, in its attempts to seek out and crush bigotry, has cast the net too wide, failing to keep in mind that not everyone caught up in the net belongs there.

When Andrew Sullivan, in an absolutely spot-on piece on the likely results of a Trump victory on Tuesday, mentions in passing that “the cultural left has overplayed its hand on social and racial issues,” I think he’s pointing in a similar direction. And this piece by Charles Cook notes that the left has a problem coming up with adequate language to describe Trump, having already used all the most damning words on much more moderate people.

Most significant of all is a video from Friday, in which Bill Maher, a left-wing comedian, says the following (from 0:40): “I know liberals made a big mistake, because we attacked your boy Bush like he was the end of the world, and he wasn’t. And Mitt Romney we attacked that way – I gave Obama a million dollars ‘cause I was so afraid of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney wouldn’t have changed my life that much, or yours. Or John McCain. They were honourable men who we disagreed with, and we should’ve kept it that way. So we cried wolf, and that was wrong. But this is real. This is gonna be way different.”

I’ve long thought Maher remarkable for his readiness to think – and express – thoughts that other popular media figures shy away from. It may be that his remarks are the last we hear from the left along these lines for some time: if the crisis passes, it will likely be business as usual again before long. But if we survive the vote for president, that will do nothing to address the problems that brought us here. The next Trump may be more intelligent, more calculating in his approach to minorities…

I think the present moment of crisis has shone a light on an important truth, and I’ve given a sketch here of where I might like to go with this. Though this is not going to be the only thing I write about (I hope), it will provide a thread of continuity, as I try to define things more clearly and provide examples.