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From Counterculture to Culture and Back Again
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From Counterculture to Culture and Back Again

On Robert Kennedy Jr. and the right.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks onstage during Bitcoin Conference 2023 on May 19, 2023, in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jason Koerner/Getty Images for Bitcoin Magazine)

After I wrote the last page and showered and ate lunch and feel calmed down now. Heard a song on the radio though—was turning away from rock and roll music which only wasn’t me and got a conservative station with a girl singing ‘Go ahead and hate your nabor, go ahead and cheat a friend’—but I heard, at the time, ‘Go and kill (or shoot) your nabor,’ which disturbed me greatly.

… Hurrah! Hurrah! Great day for democracy and capitalism! A 50 percent voter turn out is expected: Now THAT’S confidence in America. 

Diary of Arthur Bremer, would-be assassin of George Wallace
(Errors in original.) 
(Nixon won a 49-state landslide)

About that other Bobby Kennedy: When William F. Buckley Jr. was asked why Attorney General Kennedy refused to appear on Firing Line, Buckley’s television show, he answered: “Why does the baloney reject the grinder?” 

Anno Domini 2023: So much baloney, so few grinders.

Buckley had some notorious opinions over the course of a controversialist’s career lasting from the publication of God and Man at Yale in 1951, when he was in his middle 20s, until his death in 2008 at age 82. Some of those views touched on obviously serious matters, most notably his early, wrongheaded, and, happily, soon abandoned sympathy for white-supremacist politics in the South, an opinion he voiced infamously in the 1950s but abandoned by the 1960s, when he became an important opponent of George Wallace. A seemingly less serious matter—but by no means an unserious one—was his famous antipathy toward the Beatles, “the crowned heads of anti-music,” as he called them in a 1964 column. Buckley’s treatment of the Beatles was harsh but scrupulously fair: When John Lennon was being lambasted for declaring that the Beatles had become “more popular than Jesus,” Buckley wrote that the statement was “certainly untactful and indubitably accurate.” 

By the time Jimi Hendrix was burning guitars on stage in 1967, the Beatles and their mop tops and their recycled Chuck Berry riffs were positively quaint, but it was the Beatles’ music that stuck in Buckley’s head as the soundtrack of the ’60s counterculture.

You say you want a revolution? 

There were three main constituents in the ’60s counterculture: first and most prominent, its Dionysian ecstasy-cult aspect, typified by Woodstock and the Acid Tests and ultimately following a predictable path as the Merry Prankster LSD-and-rock-’n’-roll weekends of the ’60s followed the boomers right up the socioeconomic spectrum and the corporate ladder to become the moneyed Hollywood cocaine orgies of the ’70s; second, its totalitarian nihilism, typified by the Manson Family’s homicidal spectaculars, the cult-adjacent apocalyptic element that eventually left its idyllic retreats in Big Sur and the communes to return to the cities in the ’70s in the form of the urban antihero ethos personified by Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and his real-world inspirations, of whom Arthur Bremer, mentioned above, was one. 

The first two tendencies evolved and mutated and in some ways merged in the ’80s: The cocaine stayed, the orgies were mostly reduced to soft polygamy, the world of Taxi Driver became the world of American Psycho, criminal anti-heroes were supplanted by cop anti-heroes (Dirty Harry, Charles Bronson playing the same character both in the later Death Wish movies and in non-Death Wish movies), while the boomers, growing more affluent by the year and having got a lot of their ’60s rebelliousness out of their systems by finally vanquishing the demon Richard Nixon in spite of the 1972 landslide reelection that had so cheered Bremer, settled into various degrees of relative conservatism, the political bookends of the era being Ronald Reagan, with his hardened and Hollywood-ized version of Buckleyite conservatism, and Bill Clinton, with his “New Democrat” corporate progressivism. 

What remained of the counterculture was simply the culture, having outlived so much of that to which it was counter

The third major constituent of the ’60s counterculture was its serious left-wing political element, which was at times highly disciplined Leninism, at other times ecstatic Maoism, and at still other times leaned into Manson-style nihilism—all three tendencies can be seen at various stages of the career of the Weather Underground, whose leading lights eventually were absorbed into respectable academia and mainstream Democratic politics, as was that tendency of the ’60s counterculture as a whole. The hard left either merged entirely with the institutions it was marching through, producing 10,000 miserable deans of students and human-resources directors, or else disappeared up its own nose, vanishing into its own jargony intellectual refinement. That produced a lot of radicalized comparative-lit grad students in the ’80s and ’90s. But deconstruction and all that stuff was hard work, and graduate school meant something like a vow of poverty, and so the voguish intellectual pursuits of Foucault and Derrida eventually were supplanted by the less-demanding pseudointellectual pursuits of identity politics, the ever-mutating and ever-expanding world of 2SLGBTQIA+, “white privilege,” and the like, which promised easier and more lucrative career paths to college-educated white progressives. 

The counterculture was the great toxic product of the ’60s. Its triumph ultimately was more significant than other ’60s products such as the anti-war movement (the United States ultimately prevailed over the Soviet empire, no thanks to the flower children) or the period’s main domestic national-policy developments (if we consider that LBJ-era Democrats were parasites on the civil rights movement rather than champions of it), because it swallowed so much of American society and so many of our institutions, from the mainline Protestant churches to the universities to the professional associations. In our time, the great press for radical social transformation comes not from the gutters or the margins or a few addled crazies out in Big Sur or filthy Catskills communes but from the very centers of power and from the commanding heights: the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the Ivy League, the most powerful corporations, mainstream institutions from the pulpits and the editorial pages. 

That being so, it is natural—inevitable—that rightists who are opposed to radical social transformation of the sort currently on offer from elite institutions and centers of power should find themselves at odds with those institutions and centers of power. I write rightists rather than conservatives because the people I mean here are not conservative—they have internalized, embraced, or cravenly aped the main elements of the ’60s counterculture, from its ecstatic primal-scream crowd scenes to its murderous nihilism to its political authoritarianism. Steve Bannon was not kidding when he described himself as a “Leninist.” 

These rightists do not oppose radical social transformation as such, and they do not oppose its imposition by a combination of state, corporate, and civic power; they oppose only the radical social transformation that their cultural rivals on the left—in the centers of elite power—would impose with the considerable social, legal, and economic resources at their disposal. The right is politically incoherent in part because its regnant authoritarian tendency is at odds with its historical libertarianism and in part because it is rent by competing authoritarian visions: the nonsensical “integralism” of right-wing Catholics who fantasize about having real political power; the parallel tendency among certain Reformed and Evangelical sects; the jackboot nationalism of the various new paramilitary expressions of the current right-wing ethos; the unserious grab-bag populist opportunism of Fox News and talk radio and of institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, which today is Fox News with a master’s degree; the New Deal-adjacent rightist progressivism of the born-again right-wing believers in central planning and industrial policy and their romantic neo-agrarian brethren; those physical-culture enthusiasts on the right who have come to believe, with their German antecedents, that authentic nationalism is built in the weightroom; and, of course, the vast galaxy of professional and semi-professional trolls, con-trepreneurs grown adept at relieving terrified old white people of their Social Security checks, and would-be media personalities whose only interest in ideas are as tools for making money and “owning the libs.” 

The stage for a right-wing revival of the counterculture having been set, who should wander into the scene but Robert F. Kennedy Jr., challenging Joe Biden for the 2024 Democratic nomination and – weirdly enough – capturing hearts and minds on the right while he is at it? 

Consider this strange encomium to Kennedy and his new book, The Real Anthony Fauci,  in National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr. where I spent 15 very productive years as an editor and writer. It is written by Matthew Scully, who once was the magazine’s literary editor and who has had a notable, though not altogether happy, career as a speechwriter: He wrote Sarah Palin’s 2008 acceptance speech and did so before he knew who the vice-presidential nominee was going to be or that he was writing for a woman; another woman he wrote a convention speech for was Melania Trump, who did not like his draft and had it reworked, in the process introducing the much-ridiculed plagiarism from Michelle Obama. Scully is known to many conservatives as an occasionally cranky animal-welfare advocate (he at least rejects the idea of “animal rights”) and author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. As far as I know, he has only two legs, but he manages to have a lot of feet in a lot of camps, some of them wondrously non-adjacent. 

He has found a hero in Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is, among many other things, an anti-vaccine conspiracy crank, a Kennedy-assassination-conspiracy crank (the other one: “Sirhan Sirhan didn’t kill my father”) and a thoroughgoing authoritarian who has called for the imprisonment of those with views on climate change at odds with his own—on charges of ranging from “reckless endangerment” to “treason” or as “war criminals”—along with the legal abolition of conservative and libertarian-leaning organizations ranging from the American Enterprise Institute to the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. (He also has called for the forcible dissolution of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where I work as a writer covering the climate movement and other subjects.) The editor of National Review magazine, Ramesh Ponnuru, is an AEI fellow, as is writer Michael Brendan Dougherty, and, presumably, the magazine’s historically skeptical line on climate change would be enough to get the entire editorial board dragged off to the Hague along with Charles Koch and whomever else. That being the case, RFK Jr. seems like something less than a natural fit for the National Review set. 

Please do not think that I am here engaged in the tedious business of pretending that anything published in National Review or the New York Times or The Dispatch necessarily expresses the sensibility of the publication as a whole—much of my own work for NR over the years was way outside of the editorial consensus or the magazine’s corporate line, and the magazine traditionally has sought a genuine diversity of opinion in a way that many other publications only pretend to do. What I mean to highlight here is the very great distance between what conservatism has been and what conservatism—or the rightist movement that still calls itself “conservatism” for marketing purposes—is. 

Scully’s diagnosis of Kennedy’s situation within the Democratic Party and the progressive movement is that he would remain in good standing “if only he didn’t have so much integrity.” That isn’t true. But there is much in Scully’s encomium to Kennedy that isn’t quite right—or quite honest. He argues that Kennedy is being marginalized for opinions that ought to be commonsensical or at least non-controversial. Scully:

Among his many provocations: Kennedy claims that pandemic lockdowns were calamitous for working people and for children; that citizens should choose for themselves whether to receive vaccines; that corporate influences on government are pervasive and corrupting; and that censorship contrived by the state is intolerable. Worse even than these outrages, during the pandemic this man called into question the conduct and veracity of Anthony Fauci. And this offense — challenging Doctor Fauci! — is still regarded as the most shameful assault on science since the persecution of Galileo.

Scully insists that it is for these reasons that Kennedy is being targeted by that hammer of the establishment, the Washington Post

Scully is correct that these should be non-controversial opinions. In fact, they are non-controversial opinions, or at least opinions that the Washington Post is happy to see debated in its pages, as are many other mainstream organs. Is Kennedy being punished because he opposes vaccine mandates, believing that “citizens should choose for themselves whether to receive vaccines”? No, he isn’t. Leana Wen has argued against vaccine requirements in the Post, on more than one occasion, as have others. The Washington Post has reported on COVID-shutdown learning losses, its editorial board considered the possible virtues of the Swedish model, it has published very pointed criticism of Fauci’s “credibility gap,” etc. These supposedly verboten ideas are commonplace in the pages of the Washington Post, the New York Times and other mainstream newspapers. Nobody is being punished for criticizing vaccine mandates, lamenting the educational and economic effects of COVID shutdowns, or for attempting to de-canonize Anthony Fauci. Kennedy’s problem is that he is intellectually dishonest. 

Scully’s problem is that he is willing to go along with that. 

Kennedy is a marginal figure in part because he is a hysteric, but in greater part because he traffics in specific claims that—and this part still matters!—are not true. For example, Kennedy has long been a champion of the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism. There isn’t much evidence for that claim. There was a famous 1998 study suggesting a link between vaccines and autism; the study later was retracted and the author’s medical license revoked because he had falsified data. Kennedy’s own attempts at journalism on the subject have fared no better: Salon and Rolling Stone both retracted his shoddy work, which was filled with factual and analytical errors, based on manipulated and manufactured evidence characterized by “flaws and even fraud tainting the science,” as Salon’s editor at the time, Joan Walsh, put it, producing claims that were, as she said, “misleading.” Rolling Stone is, of course, infamous for publishing made-up junk that accords with its half-educated political sensibility, but Salon is no great Olympus of journalistic excellence, either—and Kennedy’s work was insufficient for meeting the exceedingly modest standards of these outlets. 

What Kennedy trades in is salacious insinuation, and so Scully in his National Review piece does the same, writing:

An industry with annual revenue in the hundreds of billions of dollars is protected in law from liability for any ill effects of products that are mandated in law for public use. We’re supposed to be aghast at the suggestion that sound medical judgment might at times have given way to motives of self-enrichment at the expense of public health? Many television, print, and online outlets subsist on pharma-advertising revenue. That cannot possibly influence coverage? And in a country so heavily reliant on costly pharmaceuticals, why do we find so much persistent sickness, more than in European nations and even among children? I leave it all for others to argue, except to observe that such questions are plainly valid and necessary. The most scandalous feature of all here is the absolute prohibition on them. A less timid, herdlike generation of journalists would realize that books like Kennedy’s are exactly the kind of work that they themselves ought to be doing.

It is entirely plausible that a media outlet might back off of aggressive coverage of a pharmaceutical company or another advertiser. But plausibility is not fact. Does Scully have an example of this he would like to share? A name he would like to name? Scully is, in theory, a journalist—does he have some journalism to contribute here? Of course not. The rightist counterculture doesn’t do journalism—it only does media criticism. And even in that it is not particularly scrupulous with the facts: In spite of Scully’s claim above, it is not the case that pharmaceutical companies are “protected in law for liability for any ill effects of products that are mandated in law for public use.” They have some protections in some situations, but this is far from categorical or absolute. There are, in fact, two different federal measures dealing with such liability, with COVID vaccines being covered under the narrow emergency “countermeasures” program while ordinary vaccines, such as the tetanus vaccine are covered under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which exists because of the utterly uncontroversial fact that vaccines sometimes cause injuries, for instance, in the form of allergic reactions. No one in any official capacity denies that this is the case; what is denied—because it is untrue—is the nonsense put forward by figures such as Kennedy. One could invent any number of utterly discrediting explanations of this sloppy and misleading work that would meet Scully’s plausibility standard, if one were so inclined. 

(One would think that National Review would be especially sensitive to this, given that a handful of rightist-counterculture propagandists have made it their lifework to discredit it, charging that National Review is bought off because the magazine has … advertisers! … and that it is attached to a nonprofit that has … donors! Angels and ministers of grace, defend us.)

There are plenty of people out there who have trenchant criticisms to make of COVID policy (National Review has published some of the best ones), who have substantive accounts of corruption in media and in academic life, who have interesting and useful insights into institutional capture and institutional distortion (Yuval Levin being the most important of these), etc. Why settle on Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a champion? Why do so many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people end up ensorcelled by charlatans, grifters, and liars: Robert F. Kennedy, Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, etc.? 

The answer to that mystery is that people are attracted to such figures not in spite of their dishonesty but because of it—people choose charlatans, grifters, and liars because they are charlatans, grifters, and liars. 

Again, past is prologue: The ’60s counterculture was positively infested with risible and pathetic guru-messiah figures, Charles Manson being the most important of them. But there were many others, generally more anodyne. “I have seldom read any book while feeling such respect for its author,” Scully writes of Kennedy, and if that seems naïve to you, consider that no less a figure than Buckminster Fuller was bowled over by mystical grifter and Rolls Royce enthusiast Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, saying: “You could not meet with Maharishi without recognizing instantly his integrity.” (Please do not confuse the Maharishi with the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, that era’s other notorious quasi-Vedantic, long-haired, luxuriously bearded Rolls Royce enthusiast.) Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada brought kirtan chanting to the United States while dabbling in Nazi stuff (“They were financing against Germany. Otherwise [Hitler] had no enmity with the Jews”), and, seeing how well the bona-fide Indians were doing, enterprising Americans began taking Hindu names and getting into the guru racket: Joyce Green of Brooklyn became the cult leader Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, Timothy Leary associate Richard Alpert became Ram Dass, who had a very simple slogan—“Be Here Now”—and a rather more complicated sex life. It is not very difficult to locate in the rightist counterculture similar figures whose cultural valences are Evangelical (or consensus-Protestant) rather than hippie-Hindu: Joel Osteen, Gwen Shamblin Lara, Paula White, Jordan Peterson, etc. My friend Glenn Beck has a little bit of the cult leader about him, though so far he has shown just enough horsepucky resistance to forgo becoming one. 

Venerable right-wing institutions such as the Washington Times have direct cult connections (the Times was founded by the Moonies, who still control it), while many parts of the right have turned partly away from politics and toward such traditional cult enthusiasms as physical culture, exotic diets, and sexual hedonism; these enthusiasms, in turn, are inescapably wrapped up in quackery, from “neuro-linguistic programming” (a favorite of Russell Brand, another beneficiary of strange new respect from the right) to the pop evolutionary-psychology of pickup-artist seminars to, of course, the anti-vaccine crankery. Turn on any rightist talk-radio program and you will hear almost as much talk about vaccines as you do about “woke”-ism, and more than you will hear about, say, Joe Biden’s tax ideas. It is impossible to miss the increasingly cultic character of a movement that once thought of itself as being mainly about low taxes, reduced regulation, and beating back the Russians. (Russians: Another case of strange new respect!) If you had asked a conservative in the 1980s what would define conservatism in the early 21st century, his answer would not have been AI-generated homoerotic Donald Trump pin-up pictures. But the journey from right-wing misogyny to right-wing homoeroticism has never been a particularly long one.

The transformation of the right from political movement to counterculture would have been difficult to imagine because the old conservatism was, in a word, conservative. It did contain within it the seed of today’s anti-institutionalism and anti-establishment libertarianism, as in Buckley’s famous formulation:

I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit.

But Buckley’s anti-establishment mode was a means toward conservative ends rather than revolutionary ends, ends defined and limited by considerations generally held in contempt by the rightist counterculture. Buckley’s conservatism was republican and mildly anti-democratic but populist when convenient, rooted in tradition but also transcendent, as in the sentences that immediately follow the ones above:

I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not?

Indeed, it is a program of sorts. 

But whose program? 

Like the ’60s counterculture that birthed it, today’s rightist counterculture parts with the likes of William F. Buckley Jr., T.S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk on one issue above all: hierarchy. The old right assumed the validity of hierarchy even as conservatives assumed that their natural place would be at the top of it. The new right (and, as Jonah Goldberg notes, this is the fifth or sixth “new right”) rejects hierarchy, because its members feel that they are at the bottom of the hierarchy or trending in that direction in a world ruled by Davos Man, and because, in consequence, its aims are revolutionary and radical and, as such, incompatible with the organic life of society. Kirk thought enough of the relationship between hierarchy and natural social life to list it as his fifth conservative principle:

[Conservatives] feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.

Just as the ’60s counterculture sought to obliterate the difference between high art and popular entertainment and to subjugate all expert distinction, from that of the physician to that of the art critic, to the judgment of “the People,” so does today’s rightist counterculture take as its main enemy so-called elites and, in particular, experts in fields that require a high degree of specialized technical expertise. Hence the hatred of Anthony Fauci above all other available hate-totems. 

Fauci is, of course, an insufferable, sanctimonious, self-aggrandizing bureaucrat—but it is his insufferability, his sanctimoniousness, and his self-aggrandizing that makes him more like a Fox News host or a talk-radio mouthhole than any other aspect of his character. The partisans of Donald Trump can hardly say that they reject the insufferable, the sanctimonious, or the self-aggrandizing. What distinguishes Fauci from a Sean Hannity or a Dan Bongino isn’t his unappealing affect—which is their affect, too—but his relatively high level of education and his professional accomplishments. Belittling that kind of education and the institutions that provide it is one of the main activities of such figures as Ted Cruz (Princeton, Harvard Law), Tucker Carlson (La Jolla Country Day School, St. George’s School, Trinity College), and Lou Dobbs (Harvard), while National Review’s in-house college-hater, George Leef, holds a law degree from Duke. 

Hierarchy is on the outs: The New Criterion, a magazine where conservatives used to go to read about the ongoing relevance of Clem Greenberg or the New Criticism, today publishes the silliest and most disreputable kind of beer-hall rants alongside Jay Nordlinger’s excellent classical-music criticism. T.S. Eliot chose the name of that journal’s spiritual successor, The Criterion, for a reason: He took the view that, “Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards,” and that it was the job of the critic to apply and illuminate these standards in an inevitably hierarchical way. But what did T.S. Eliot know? After abandoning America for England—where he sometimes wrote poems in French!—the effete old snob published proto-feminists such as Virginia Woolf, impenitent elitists such as W. B. Yeats, and even a “groomer” in the person of E.M. Forster. We can be sure that such abominables would be made to feel entirely unwelcome at Mar-a-Lago today. 

And that is the essential countercultural question: What gives a snoot like Eliot—or anybody else—the right to say what the standards are going to be? In a world of populist billionaires, why consult a poet, of all irrelevant things? 

Poetry, Eliot argued, “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” A parallel observation from Michael Oakeshott finds modern individualism something that only a certain kind of person is able to “enjoy as an opportunity rather than suffer as a burden.” Many writers about culture and politics over the years have assumed that one joins a mass movement, participates in a march or a riot, or gives oneself over to the Dionysian ecstasy of a psychedelic rock show—or a political rally—in order to escape the loneliness of individualism and the responsibilities of individualism. 

“The responsibilities and uncertainties of an autonomous existence weigh and prey upon him,” Eric Hoffer writes in The True Believer. “He longs for certitude, camaraderie, freedom from individual responsibility, and a vision of something altogether different from the competitive free society around him—and he finds all this in the brotherhood and the revivalist atmosphere of a rising movement.” But I wonder if it isn’t Eliot who has it more correct here: that the true believer joins the counterculture not to escape his personality to acquire one? An enemies’ list is not a terrific basis for a life, but it isn’t nothing. From that point of view, we might understand why the ecstasy of the mass event (Woodstock, Trump rallies, January 6) goes hand-in-hand with nihilism: shame. The failed individual, Oakeshott argued, was forced to live with “his resentment of the moral superiority of individuality,” that resentment being the only truly shameful aspect of his otherwise unremarkable character. 

That kind of resentment is expressed in the countercultural urge to tear down, to destroy, to level, to lower, to ridicule, to profane. The January 6 rioters who left feces in the Capitol halls are the spiritual brethren of Andres Serrano, though without their sights set quite so high: Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was sacrilege, while the January 6 cretins produced only vandalism as the actual coup d’état was being attempted by men in suits elsewhere.

The assault on a particular set of elites or institutions very quickly becomes an assault on elites and institutions per se, on the principle of hierarchy and on the principle of organization toward ends beyond the immediate gratification of We the People. The assault on some particular aspect of higher education becomes an assault on higher education as a whole, or on education as a whole. Criticism of the captains of high culture becomes abandonment of high culture. Romantics have always believed that man is closer to perfection in his natural state than when he has been taught algebra and made to memorize a few lines of Shakespeare or, Heaven forbid, taught a little bit of Latin or even Greek. Who needs Harvard-educated doctors when there is hydroxychloroquine and Ruff Greens and Dinovite and Balance of Nature? And who really needs J.S. Bach in a world in which “Heart Like a Truck” exists? Who would study Talleyrand when there is Twitter? 

The rightists feel themselves shut out from the centers of power and from the commanding heights of culture—which, of course, they are, partly through their own lowmindedness and incompetence, partly through the bigotry and chauvinism of the people who run such institutions as the New York Times, Harvard, and Facebook. This is not the first time we have heard this tale told: from Catiline to the French Revolution, the bitter and resentful people on the outside looking in have sought to overturn the existing order in the hopes of creating a new one that would welcome them inside, where they imagine warmth and comfort await them. (The better kind of outsider has always been the one on the outside looking out, willing to forgo comfort when necessary.) Sometimes, these revolutionists are the poor and the miserable, but often enough they are from the middle classes and from downwardly mobile well-to-do families, who believe that they have a basic moral claim on something that has, for some explicable reason, evaded their grasp. Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson did not rise from the lumpenproletariat—what could be more comfortably American than a well-scrubbed right-wing demagogue succored by the splendid TV dinner fortune? 

When Flower Power climaxed in the Tate-LaBianca murders, a great many sentimentalists asked: “How could this happen?” The better question would have been: How couldn’t it? When chaos is your program, chaos is what you get—and chaos is a package deal: You don’t get John Lennon without Mark David Chapman, Ram Dass without David Koresh, no Swami A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada without Jordan Peterson, no Bill Ayers without Timothy McVeigh. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is from the same category of things as Alex Jones and Lyndon LaRouche, who are the silly versions of the type, as Kennedy is. But the ignorant and excitable counterculture always has its more serious ideological backing: It is less easy to laugh at Alfred Rosenberg or Mikhail Suslov, respectively prominent ideologists of German National Socialism and Soviet Communism. Suslov, at least, would have understood that conservatism has always been about ordinary, bourgeois things: property, process, order, decency, tradition. Revolution has no time for any of that. 

The problem for conservative institutions in 2023 is that there isn’t much juice in conservatism—all the action is in revolutionism and the rightist counterculture. For certain kinds of institutions, that counterculture has to be coddled, at least for the moment, in return for access to money and power. The big donors mostly do not want buttoned-down conservatism: They demand Kulturkampf; in the political realm, Mitt Romney is a minor figure in a Republican Party dominated by the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene. It is possible to try to keep a foot on both camps: open to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his crankery, and open to criticism of such idiocy. There is a place for point-counterpoint. But I wonder if that is really good enough. I do not believe that Ronald Reagan launched his career with a speech titled “A Time for Not Quite Choosing.” 

In 2016, I argued that conservatives had to choose whether theirs was going to be a movement of cranks and quacks and conspiracy-peddlers or a movement of meaningful conservatism. They made their choice, and I suppose they are learning to live with it—standing athwart history, barking at the moon with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and all the filth, waste, and imbecility for which he stands. Maybe they will choose to be something else, someday. Maybe not. The ’60s counterculture did not choose to reform itself—it was simply absorbed into the body politic, like a virus, hijacking the healthy organic processes of infected cells and organs. 

And Furthermore … 

The opening section ran a bit long this week. I’ll try to economize a little from here. 

Economics for English Majors

Regime, as I have written before, is a funny word: It is a variant of regimen, and it doesn’t necessarily mean something wicked or scary—you can have a strict exercise regime, a liberal tax regime, etc.—but, in politics, especially in U.S. politics, regime is used as though it means bad, generally authoritarian government

From Robert Higgs (author of Crisis and Leviathan and much else) we get the term regime uncertainty, which does not refer to a wobbly state but to a form of economic risk in which property owners fear that their property rights are insecure, that there will be some change in the underlying legal or constitutional regime that will alter their property rights in some unwelcome way. 

I’ll let Higgs explain:

In a 1997 article in the Independent Review (“Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War”) I argued that a major reason for the incomplete recovery of private investment during the latter half of the 1930s was “regime uncertainty.” By this, I mean a pervasive lack of confidence among investors in their ability to foresee the extent to which future government actions will alter their private-property rights. In the original article and in many follow-up articles, I documented that between 1935 and 1940, many investors feared that the government might transform the very nature of the existing economic order, replacing the primarily market-oriented economy with fascism, socialism, or some other government-controlled arrangement in which private-property rights would be greatly curtailed, if they survived at all. Given such fears, many investors regarded new investment projects as too risky to justify their current costs.

… Over the years, some economists have urged me to forsake the term “regime uncertainty” and to use instead an expression such as policy uncertainty, rule uncertainty, or regime worsening. I have rejected these suggestions because the idea I seek to convey encompasses more than simply policies or rules. Moreover, regime uncertainty does not necessarily signify only apprehension about potential worsening as a central tendency.

Regime uncertainty pertains to more than the government’s laws, regulations, and administrative decisions. For one thing, as the saying goes, “personnel is policy.” Two administrations may administer or enforce identical statutes and regulations quite differently. A business-hostile administration such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s or Barack Obama’s will provoke more apprehension among investors than a business-friendlier administration such as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s or Ronald Reagan’s, even if the underlying “rules of the game” are identical on paper. Similar differences between judiciaries create uncertainties about how the courts will rule on contested laws and government actions.

One of the many reasons that Ron DeSantis’ attack on Walt Disney has been so wrongheaded and destructive is that it introduces a new source of regime uncertainty into our economy. Businesses’ ability to make long-term plans and to deploy their own capital are limited and mediated in all sorts of ways by government. To take one example, planning and zoning laws limit what a company can do with real estate that it owns, from what kind of building can be built on a particular site to what kind of activity is permitted at that location. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, though the example of Houston, which thrives in spite of its general lack of meaningful zoning laws, does suggest that many cities use too heavy a hand in such matters. But ordinary laws and administrative powers can be used in tyrannical ways: If the powers that be in New York decide that they don’t like something the New York Times has printed and reinterpret the local zoning rules in Queens to shut down the Times’ printing press there, everybody would see that for what it would be: censorship by other means. That doesn’t mean that zoning laws are unjust—it means that they can be abused, like any law. 

The arrangement that the Walt Disney Company has long enjoyed with the Reedy Creek Improvement District in Florida may or may not be good policy. If the state of Florida decided that it wanted to revisit the improvement-district concept and amend the relevant laws, that would not necessarily be wrong or unwise. But what Gov. DeSantis has done is to use his power over Reedy Creek to punish Disney for political speech that he does not like. I do not much care for Disney’s cultural politics, but DeSantis’ use of state powers to sanction a private firm for political speech is a serious abuse of power.

It is also a precedent. 

Disney is using its economic power to fight back. As DeSantis prepares to announce his presidential bid, Disney has canceled a $1 billion office-park project in Orlando, taking some 2,000 six-figure jobs off the table in the process. But while Disney may be able to secure its own long-term interests, other American businesses do not have that kind of clout. And if they have to worry about having the legal arrangements upon which they have built their businesses yanked out from under them every time a politician has a fit of pique, that is going to impose real costs on the economy. It will, over time, fundamentally change our economy in ways that will make it more corporatist, more cartelized—a more cronyistic kind of capitalism in general. 

I could stand to hear a good deal less from corporate social-justice activists. But I’ll take private-sector jackassery all day over government using economic power to try to manage political speech. There are a lot of good things about DeSantis’ administration in Florida, but this matter should be a source of serious reservations for anybody who cares about genuine economic liberty. 

Words About Words

The Wall Street Journal describes a Fishers Island residence: “The house has a canopy of solid aluminum tubes that blocks the home from direct sunlight.”

If they are solid, they are not tubes—they are cylinders. Tubes are hollow. Tubular, even. 

Cool house, though. 

In other wordiness … 

A marketing email directs my attention to “Four great AI plays.” For a second, I thought they meant four great works of drama written by artificial-intelligence programs. What they meant was four great investment opportunities in AI. 

A play is what the oil-and-gas guys call any particular development region: the Wyoming play, the Marcellus play, etc. Non-fracked development is a conventional play.

Play has a long career in English, from its origins in Old English to such 20th– and 21st-century evolutions as “you played yourself.” (Speaking of “You Played Yourself,” Ice-T almost certainly gets credit for introducing the expression “O.G.” into mainstream English.) Many of the modern connotations of play are right there from the beginning, with the Old English: to amuse oneself or exercise; what children do; to ridicule or mock; to perform music.

In the newspaper world, they talk about how to play a story, which I assume comes from the same source as play up or play down, the origins of which are unknown. 

Play used to mean “to have sexual relations with,” a meaning that has mostly disappeared, though it survives in the modern English player and a handful of reflexive expressions that I probably shouldn’t put into digital print in this forum. 

Many of the senses of play have in common the connotation of fiction, pretense, or deceit: playing a part, a stage play, playing someone for a fool, a play for attention, etc. 

As the man said, “Homey don’t play that.” 


If you haven’t read my Inside the Carbon Cult, you might enjoy it. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is making it available gratis right here

Dispatch members—who are my favorite people—can listen to me quiz David and Mike about 2024 and related matters on the most recent Dispatch Live

You can listen to my conversation with my old podcasting partner, Charles C. W. Cooke, here

You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto, here

You can buy my other books here

You can see my New York Post columns here

RIP Tim Keller

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, was a giant in the Evangelical world. He wrote intelligently and movingly on many subjects, from the political polarization of the American church to his own imminent death from pancreatic cancer. His insistence that the church cannot be reduced to politics, or made a hostage of partisanship, made him many enemies.

They were the right enemies to have. 

Christians are pushed toward two main options. One is to withdraw and try to be apolitical. The second is to assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table. Neither of these options is valid. In the Good Samaritan parable told in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus points us to a man risking his life to give material help to someone of a different race and religion. Jesus forbids us to withhold help from our neighbors, and this will inevitably require that we participate in political processes. If we experience exclusion and even persecution for doing so, we are assured that God is with us (Matthew 5:10-11) and that some will still see our “good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:11-12). If we are only offensive or only attractive to the world and not both, we can be sure we are failing to live as we ought.

The Gospel gives us the resources to love people who reject both our beliefs and us personally. Christians should think of how God rescued them. He did it not by taking power but by coming to earth, losing glory and power, serving and dying on a cross. How did Jesus save? Not with a sword but with nails in his hands.

Like the sainted Pope John Paul II, Keller spent most of his life teaching and preaching, and spent the last part of it setting an example: how to be sick, how to die, how to do this with love and hope and faith.

Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.

His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.

Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God:

Which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth for ever:

Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungry. The Lord looseth the prisoners:

The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind: the Lord raiseth them that are bowed down: the Lord loveth the righteous:

The Lord preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow: but the way of the wicked he turneth upside down.

RIP Timothy James Keller, September 23, 1950–May 19, 2023. 

In Closing

The little man at times will pull down any book that he happens to find on the shelf. His instincts are pretty good. He found this one a few months ago, when he first started to crawl. 

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.