Plus, thoughts on murder hornets and the warping of time.
Dear Reader (including all of the people who think it’s censorship if I block them on Twitter),
Remember back when we were all talking about murder hornets? You know when that conversation started? Twenty-seven days ago.
I don’t know about you, but that number shocked me, because the topic seems so old now. Talking about murder hornets feels only marginally fresher than talking about that dress that some people saw as white and gold and serial killers saw as blue and black. Admittedly that might be because the alleged murder hornets got lawyered up and pleaded down to manslaughter bees (h/t Emily Andras). But I think the more plausible explanation is twofold. First, events are moving faster than our brains are wired to process. Second, because what qualifies as an “event”—which I’ll define as, “Something that happens, that has elements of importance and surprise to it”—has been defined downward.
I don’t think I have to provide examples of the first point, because everyone I know seems to have made this observation at some point. But just to flesh it out: Consider that in our natural environment, our brains like to rest in neutral. The noises and routines of our environment hold pretty constant, the nature of gossip is about familiar subjects and familiar people. Did you hear that Arook fooled around with Bork’s mate? Did you see that Smark ate the forbidden berries and now he’s soiled his loincloth?
Big events shift our brains out of neutral and put them in a higher gear or, if necessary, reverse. “Holy crap! A sabertooth tiger is eating Flork’s face!” “Todd discovered fire!”
As for the second, consider the fact that China is essentially erasing Hong Kong’s democratic safeguards. It’s a move of massive geopolitical importance that future historians will consider vastly more important than roughly 95 percent of the garbage people are arguing about right now. At least that topic is getting some oxygen, but how much are people talking about the growing hostilities between China and India (two nuclear powers, mind you)? What about our slow-rolling admission of defeat in Afghanistan?
Now, I’m not a big fan of “Why are you talking about X when I care about Y?” whining. But that’s not my point. It’s a truism that social media and the internet generally have democratized and commodified commentary. Everyone’s a pundit now.
“Pundit,” by the way, is a Sanskrit word we culturally appropriated from India. A pundit—or pandrit—in India is a wiseman, a scholar, or a gifted musician. Originally in America, “pundit” meant an expert in a specific field or fields. Then it became someone who offers their relatively reasoned opinions for a living. Now, it’s just someone with opinions—and everybody has opinions.
That’s not altogether a bad thing, we all have the First Amendment right to commit journalism (I’ve opposed licensing journalists for 20 years for this reason). But the net effect of these two dynamics is a flattening of what is important, and an elevating of what isn’t. Moreover, because the media environment is now both nationalized and globalized, we are barraged by infinitely more events, both real and in the sense of Daniel Boorstin’s “pseudo-events”—“An event produced by a communicator with the sole purpose of generating media attention and publicity.” China’s internment and cultural genocide of the Uighurs is filed down, while some idiot’s tweet is elevated upward.
We don’t actually measure the passage of time with clocks or calendars, but with events. Try to remember a significant moment in your life—your first kiss, your first promotion, whatever—and come up with the rough date of it. Your brain doesn’t call up a calendar to look up the moment, you call up the moment and then check it against other moments you happen to know the date or time for. The acceleration of events yields the acceleration of time, and suddenly the invasion of murder hornets feels really old—and in a way, you do too.
In Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals, he observes that prior to the rise of socialism, nationalism, populism, and the sub-isms that were merely brand new names for these three kindred forces, rulers did what was in their realm’s interest without much concern for the feelings of the people. A monarch decided whether it was worth the blood and treasure required to take back some lands or answer some insult to the nation’s honor. But, Benda writes, “[The] modern citizen claims to feel for himself what is demanded by the national honor, and he is ready to rise up against his leaders if they have a different conception of it.” He doesn’t claim that this is merely a product of democratic societies. Kings and despots felt answerable to the masses, too.
Prior to the modern age, Benda writes, “leaders of States practiced realism, but did not honor it; Louis XI, Charles the Fifth of Spain, Richelieu, Louis XIV, did not claim that their actions were moral. They saw morality where the Gospel had shown it to them, and they did not attempt to displace it because they did not apply it. With them morality was violated, but moral notions remain intact; and that is why, in spite of all their violence, they did not disturb civilization.” Because of such men, Benda adds, “humanity did evil for two thousand years, but honored good. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world.”
There’s a lot to chew on there, but I’d like to bring things back to the moment we’re in. One of Benda’s points here is that leaders are only leaders if they, well, lead. When leaders—whether kings, presidents, senators or, most importantly, intellectuals in the broadest sense—start from the conclusion that the passions of the masses are always not merely valid but supreme, they cease to be leaders and become followers. “There go the people,” Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin allegedly said, “I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
This was the “treason” Benda took dead aim at. The intellectuals had changed allegiances, from champions of truth—moral truth, universal truth, Christian truth, scientific truth, whatever—to champions of whatever the people wanted. (“The educators of the human mind now take sides with Callicles against Socrates,” Benda wrote, “a revolution which I dare to say seems to me more important than all political upheavals.” For Callicles, “the more powerful, the better, and the stronger” were all different words for the same thing. Benda called this the “divinization of realism,” which I could explain more but that would be a real rabbit hole.
What a stupid time.
That’s what I see all over the place in America today. We don’t have nationalism of the sort Benda had in mind, because the nationalisms of the early 20th century were real mass movements. What we have today are competing audiences that think they’re movements, and entertainers all too eager to tell them they’re right. President Trump is an entertainer who pretends to be other things. So many of his defenders are playing the same game, pretending that there’s a method to his madness, nobility in his crudeness, genius in his ignorance. One prominent conservative pundit who has thrived in the Trump era has told me and several others that the job of conservative pundits is to represent the people who love and support Trump—not to actually tell the truth, or even to stand up for policies that the people who voted for Trump wanted or would benefit from. I normally call that fan service, but it’s also a variant of Benda’s treason.
Right now, a host of politicians, pundits, and various experts are making incredibly vapid arguments about free speech and censorship, all because the fans don’t want to hear that Trump did anything wrong (much less that he has a thumbless grasp of the issues at play). So now everyone is supposed to believe that the only way to save “free speech” is for the federal government to step in and regulate speech. Consider this statement from Trump:
Now, it may be true that some Republicans “feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices.” But I suspect most don’t because I see their tweets—and Trump’s—all the time. But more importantly, it’s just not true. Just log onto Twitter. Do you see Republicans being “totally silenced”?
I know, I know, you’re not supposed to believe your lying eyes, just as you’re not supposed to take the President of the United States literally, just “seriously”—and when taking him seriously does him no favors, hypothetically. And even when hypothesizing about what he might have meant? Shut up.
The relevant point here is “feel.” Well, what is true for liberals is also true for conservatives: Facts don’t care about your feelings either. Your feelings about the First Amendment or the plain meaning of the law are irrelevant if you’re wrong.
Or at least your feelings should be irrelevant. But again, we live in an age where feelings come first. I may care more about the right’s descent into a mass of populist panderers and entertainers because I care more about the integrity and viability of conservatism, but this is every bit as much of a problem on the left. However justified your rage at the murder of George Floyd may be—and I certainly think rage is an appropriate response—there is no defense of violent riots and looting. As a great conservative Calvin Coolidge famously said, “There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime.” What holds true for police strikes holds at least as true for violent mob action.
Similarly, feeling that you are a different sex than the one you were born into is something that you are free to feel. You’re even free to live according to that feeling. But it doesn’t change what medical textbooks tell us. Rachel Dolezal may feel like a black woman—that doesn’t make her one. Feeling that America was “really” founded in 1619 or that the Revolutionary War was fought to protect slavery may feel right, but that doesn’t make it true. Feeling like the “1 percent,” “the Deep State,” the Jews, or the Lizard People secretly control the government doesn’t make it true. Feeling that Trump was a Russian asset doesn’t make it true. Your feelings about nuclear power … You get the point. I hope.
We are in a moment in which the order of the day is to manipulate feelings, to convert them into money or clicks or votes or ratings or all of the above. It is a moment where people take the emotional feedback from their little slices of the market and divinize it. And one of the most rewarding feelings there is in this putrid climate is schadenfreude, taking joy in the misfortune of others. “Our age,” Benda wrote, “is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.” Those who don’t play along, who speak up for the unpopular truths or just plain decency, are now the new traitors to those who have adapted to the new game. Just look at Mitt Romney.
Over the last week, I’ve been subjected to relentless abuse for telling the truth about a couple of the more adept players of this game. I’ll be fine, but I think one of the most constant insults I’ve gotten is illuminating. No, not that I’m overweight, I knew that. They keep telling me how irrelevant I am now and how no one wants to hear what I have to say. I don’t think that’s literally true, but it does prove my point. I am certainly capable of error, but I have held onto pretty much all the philosophical and policy views I had before they were disappointed in me. The facts haven’t changed all that much where I am concerned; what’s changed are the feelings. And, I’ve been the first to admit all along, that puts me in a remnant.
Various & Sundry
I recorded a great second conversation with Matt Ridley earlier this week, which I’ll put in the ICYMI section below.
I also had a great conversation with Joseph Uscinski on the Remnant yesterday. He’s a leading authority on conspiracy theories, by which I mean he studies their popularity and the role they play in our politics. While asking him the difference between paranoia and “conspiratorialism,” he made an interesting distinction. The latter is when you think “they” are out to get “us,” while the former is when you think “they” are out to get “me.” Which sparked an idea I had never thought of before: Populism is the plural of paranoia. More on that in the future.
A new GLoP is out, and while it was a nightmare to record, it turned out pretty funny. It’s also in the ICYMI.
I participated in a really interesting panel discussion on the new book How to Educate an American. You can watch it here.
Animal update: The doggers were ecstatic about the return of the Fair Jessica, I stopped the video after about a minute and a half but it kept going like that for a while. The girls are very happy, but Zoë’s been a bit under the weather and we’re not sure why. She’s been a bit low energy and she’s been sneezing and wheezing a bit. We think it might be hayfever (not Covid-19). Pippa’s damn limp keeps coming and going, we gotta get a new brace for her (she ruined the last one in the ocean). So we’re taking it a little easy on the excessive ball play again. In a more encouraging development, Ralph doesn’t seem to have as much disdain for me as has been the norm. That’s different from saying he loves me. He doesn’t. But there’s a lot less searing dislike. Maybe spending the last 10 days feeding him has helped.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of a murder hornet from Getty Images.