Our Staring Contest With the Abyss
Dear Reader (including Seth Moulton, whoever he is!),
Sometimes I think the zombie apocalypse is really going to happen, because humans have the strange ability to create the villains they want to oppose.
Yesterday, I caught an interview on NPR with the black fiction writer Rion Amilcar Scott. Let me pause already and explain: I normally wouldn’t care about the race of a fiction writer, but Scott writes fiction about blacks. In his new collection of short stories, The World Doesn't Require You, Scott offers a bunch of tales spun off from a successful slave revolt in the fictional Maryland town of Cross River. In the course of the interview, Scott said this:
We have a lot of alternate realities in which the Confederacy wins, which I don't think we need because (laughter)—they lost the war, but the idea about all they won. So I wanted to have a place where the idea of battle is still waging but there's actually a physical victory.
I want to be fair, because Scott was chuckling and hard to understand in that moment (and I think the transcript is slightly off), but it seemed quite clear to me that Scott was saying that in the real world the Confederacy lost the war but won the battle of ideas.
And that is just about the craziest and most pernicious thing an American can say. Just to review the record, the Confederacy not only lost the war, it most definitely lost the battle of ideas as well. This is not my own rosy, quasi-literary interpretation of American history. It’s simply as much of a historical fact as anything can be. It is no less true than saying the Nazis and Japanese not only lost World War II physically, but intellectually as well.
After the Civil War, the slaves were freed and the Constitution was amended several times to ban that hateful institution as well as the disenfranchisement of blacks. It’s true that the former slave states did fight a rearguard effort to claw back some of their losses by imposing Jim Crow and other evils. And it is also true that the battle of ideas outlasted the end of formal hostilities by generations. Indeed, there are still some related political clashes to this day, as the descendants of the victors now try to scrub the last vestiges of a defeated culture from the historical record in acts of modern day iconoclasm.
But by no reasonable understanding can the tearing down of Confederate statues be seen as anything other than the continued routing of the defeated. Whatever significance you ascribe to the election of Barack Obama, it strikes me as literally impossible to see it as anything other than tangible and obvious proof that the Confederacy didn’t just lose the Civil War, it lost the war of ideas as well.
1619 and All That
Now, as I said, I may have misunderstood Scott. But it’s an easy mistake to make, given that this broader idea that America is a racist, white-supremacist nation is the chief motivating passion of many on the left today—and not just the campus left.
The New York Times recently launched its 1619 Project, which gets its name from the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves’ forcible importation to what became the U.S., “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
I think the project is deeply flawed, even though there is much value in some of it. I also think some of the criticisms of it are flawed as well.
But I want to stay on the big picture (National Review’s The Editors podcast has a good discussion of the topic, by the way). There are many ironies to the left’s intellectual effort to set America’s Founding nearly two centuries before the American Revolution, as well as many to the right’s response.
Many of my nationalist friends passionately agree that America was a nation, or a “people,” long before the United States was born. And it is true that the first European settlers brought with them ancient customs and traditions but also fairly novel and distinct political and religious ideas that were disfavored in the Old World. This doesn’t mark my conservative nationalist friends as “white nationalists.” It marks them as faithful students of American history.
It’s funny: In other contexts, the 1619ers tend to hate this argument precisely because it supports the case that America really is a nation, not just an idea. It also lends credence to notions of American exceptionalism that have roots much deeper than 1776. The uniqueness of American society chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville did not spring solely out of the Constitution’s text, like Athena from Zeus’ forehead.
But now the 1619ers want to argue that the conservatives were right about America being a nation all along; they just want to make that case the heart of an indictment against America. If the American nation was founded with the arrival of the first slave, then the American nation is evil from birth by implication, and the American Revolution and all that followed can’t siphon the toxin from the fruit of the poisoned tree.
Idea v Nation
But wait, there’s more. The next irony is that the conservative nationalists are resorting to the argument that America really is an idea, an assertion that many of them roll their eyes at in other contexts. My friend Rich Lowry regularly heaps scorn on the claim that America is an idea. But in this excellent column on the 1619 project, he finds himself rightly and necessarily resorting to precisely that argument to rebut what amounts to a nationalist argument from the left.
To be fair, Rich doesn’t say America is “just a nation” any more than he says it is not “just an idea.” But his rebuttal of the 1619 Project is an exercise in what the Marxists call “praxis,” the application of ideas or theory to the real world. And the rebuttal to the 1619 Project can only truly be made by straightforwardly explaining how the idea—and ideas—of the Founding unfolded over time.
The Civil War was about many things. But slavery and the hypocrisy of slavery in a nation founded on the idea that “all men are created equal” were at the core. Abraham Lincoln took the opening of the Declaration and made it the central idea of this country. He didn’t create that idea out of whole cloth; after all, Jefferson had made it the lede of the Declaration. But Lincoln made it the central idea that other competing ideas must get out of the way of.
A century after the Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to his fellow Americans, specifically white Americans, and told them they were hypocrites for not following through on that idea. The Founders issued a “promissory note” and America had not yet made good on it. That was a major assault in the battle of ideas, and King and his comrades secured tangible victories in the Civil Rights Acts.
And that’s why it is so grotesque to pretend, claim, or believe that the Confederacy won the battle of ideas.
A Tale of Two Nationalisms
People are loading a lot into the cargo hold of the word “nationalism” these days. But at the most basic level, nationalism is the idea there is a real “we the people” from which political authority and legitimacy flows. Nationalism is related to democracy by their common relative: populism.
And that’s why, if you look closely, you’ll see that the anti-nationalists have a nationalism all their own. While their rhetoric is formally anti-nationalist, their agenda is quintessentially nationalist. They have their own “we the people” (or “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”). It’s just that their new nation, their “coalition of the ascendant,” is being held back by America’s outdated constitutional structure. Listen carefully and you can hear echoes of the German nationalists of the early 1800s, who believed that the imposition of French Enlightenment principles on the True German Nation were depriving the Teutons of their rightful status and power.
For instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez insists the Electoral College is a “racist scam.” The arguments against the Electoral College and the Senate and for court-packing boil down to the idea that the ‘real’ American nation is being thwarted by arcane ‘anti-democratic’ constitutional mechanisms that enshrine ‘white privilege.’ Sweep away these illegitimate obstructions and the true voice of “We the People” will make itself heard. (Ron Brownstein argues more or less exactly this here.)
This is the mirror image argument of many Trumpist arguments about how “real America” is thwarted by the establishment, the Deep State, or the “fake news.” Both sides believe “the system” is against them. Not all versions of this argument are wrong—the administrative state, crony capitalists, etc. pose real problems—but all versions that turn the Constitution itself into an evil scheme thwarting this or that group’s will-to-power are wrong.
The problem with both arguments is that the whole point of our constitutional structure is to protect political minorities and just plain individual Americans from one-size-fits-all impositions from the central government.
And that’s why I am cheered by the conservative nationalists’ invocation of the Constitution as a defense against the liberal nationalists’ new offensive. The best defense against bad nationalism isn’t good nationalism, but a recommitment to the neutral rules of a liberal order enshrined in the Constitution.
The Enemy We Want
Which brings me to the coming zombie apocalypse. White supremacists exist. Neo-Nazis exist. But to listen to Beto O’Rourke, or much of the cast of MSNBC, you’d think they pose an existential threat to America, perhaps now more than ever. In their telling, the Founding, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement didn’t really happen, or they were some kind of ruse. No not literally, but rhetorically. They skip over the obvious and revolutionary racial progress for the sake of having the enemy they really want to have.
It reminds me of the left-wing hysteria during the war on terror. The dissenters wanted to see their dissent as so much braver than it actually was. Naomi Wolf could be counted on to see the Gestapo around every corner. But if Bush were a fraction of the despot he was portrayed as, the Naomi Wolfs (Naomi Wolves?) would have been carted off to the Gestapo on September 12, 2001.
There is nothing wrong, and much that is right, to dedicating yourself to the cause of fighting bigotry. But it needs to be against the bigotry that exists rather than the bigotry you imagine. If you want to be a giant slayer, great. But attacking windmills like Don Quixote doesn’t make you one.
I don’t know if the right philosopher to invoke here is Hegel, Nietzsche, Carl Schmidt, or Zuul. Hegel’s dialectic allows for a process where the thesis invites its own antithesis. When we look into Nietzsche’s abyss, the abyss looks into us. Carl Schmidt famously said, “Tell me who your enemy is and I’ll tell you who you are.” And Zuul told the Ghostbusters to “choose the form of your destructor.”
At the recent New York Times townhall, a staffer asked executive editor Dean Baquet:
Hello, I have another question about racism. I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that’s going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, “OK, well you’re saying this, and you’re producing this big project about this. But are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?”
This staffer wants to be defined professionally and morally by opposition to a racism seen in everything. It’s like those eccentrics who feel like they were supposed to be born a samurai in feudal Japan, except he or she wants to be a journalistic John Brown.
I’ve spent my entire professional life on the right. But it is only in the last couple years that I’ve seen large numbers of conservatives want to play the role assigned to them by their enemies. No, the vast, vast majority aren’t alt-righters by any stretch. But the space for white identity politics has expanded exponentially. The reverse is also true. A decade ago, conservatives were called racist for suggesting Obama might be a socialist of some type. Now, the left’s biggest—yet often unstated—criticism of him is that he wasn’t socialist enough. Calling people racist often has the effect of making them more racist. Celebrating the overthrow of “white culture”—whatever the Hell that is—causes white people to cling to notions of white culture. Calling people socialists seems to turn them into socialists. Hatred of the enemy is turning the haters into the enemy the other wants them to be.
During the heyday of the zombie craze, you’d see all sorts of stories about zombie fungi, zombie animals, and the threat of zombie diseases jumping to humans. Of course, much of this was just clickbait and fan service. But for a while, the old survivalist paranoia that saw a new Red Dawn around the corner switched to the zombie menace. And there were times when it seemed like it just might happen, because so many people wanted it to. I don’t think real zombies are coming, because feelings can’t change biological facts. But feelings can change human behavior. And just as a country that is convinced it’s heading toward a recession will get a recession, a country that is convinced that a new civil war is coming just might get one of those too.
I’d rather we got zombies.
Various & Sundry
So this is my last “news”letter from the road for a while. Some of my Twitter followers may have figured out that our vacation hit a significant snag and I had to deal with a family situation. I’ll leave it at that for now. But I want to thank all of you for your concern and support.
Canine Update: I cannot begin to tell you how much I miss my gals. Well, I could begin, but I’d have a hard time finishing. By all accounts they’re doing fine, though there was one disturbing development. And I find myself love-bombing random dogs wherever I see them on the road, especially my newly beloved Almondine.
Feline Update: On my detour, I did get to do some extra tweeting of my mom’s very sophisticated cats, her allied strays, and associated skunks.
Last week’s G-File
This week’s Remnant
And now, the weird stuff.
Debby’s Wednesday links
Debby’s Friday links
My ship will go on
Ethan Nicolle warned us
The face of addiction
Juvenile bobtail squid
Has science gone too far?
A waste of time?
England in 1928...with sound
From the “on the nose” department
A bad idea
A rare event in nature
Insert Samurai Jack theme here