American Passover

Juneteenth is a great American holiday.

Dear Reader (Including the sleeper FBI agents waiting for their moment to storm The Dispatch),

Happy Juneteenth (Observed)!

If you asked me in the abstract whether America needed another federal holiday, I’d have said, “No.” After the pandemic, America doesn’t need more time off, it needs to get back to work. But, if you asked me if Juneteenth should be a federal holiday, I’d have said, “Sure.” Juneteenth is a good thing for all Americans, not just black Americans, to celebrate.

Apparently some people disagree.

I think they have one good point; the official name was poorly crafted. They shouldn’t have called it the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. This was Chip Roy’s stated reason for voting against the legislation:

Juneteenth should be commemorated as the expression of the realization of the end of slavery in the United States - and I commend those who worked for its passage. I could not vote for this bill, however, because the holiday should not be called “Juneteenth National Independence Day” but rather, “Juneteenth National Emancipation [or Freedom or otherwise] Day."  This name needlessly divides our nation on a matter that should instead bring us together by creating a separate Independence Day based on the color of one’s skin. 

He's right, even though I can’t quite see why this is a reason to vote against a bill he agrees with in principle. But yes, calling it one of those other things would have been better for several reasons. First, “emancipation” or “freedom” are better words because they are more accurate. Second, using the word so close to the actual Independence Day of this country seems unnecessary. And third, it gives trolls a stupid talking point.

So let’s clear something up: No one is going to confuse Juneteenth for the Fourth of July—except people who want to deliberately confuse things. Labor Day is officially Labor’s Holiday. How often do you call it that? Or take Thanksgiving: It was a religious and cultural custom long before George Washington’s 1789 proclamation. When Abraham Lincoln formally made Thanksgiving a federal holiday, he announced it would be a day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” I travel in somewhat limited circles, but I don’t think I’ve heard anybody call it that. I mean, it’s not called A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Praise to our Beneficent Father Who Dwelleth in the Heavens, nor is it the Macy’s Thanksgiving and Praise to Our Beneficent Father Who Dwelleth in the Heavens Day Parade.

If you honestly think that Juneteenth will supplant the Fourth of July as “Independence Day,” I have good news: You’re wrong. People will call Juneteenth ... “Juneteenth.”

With that out of the way, here’s why Juneteenth is a great American holiday: Slavery was very bad.

It’s a common argument among conservatives to point out that the remarkable thing about slavery in America is not that we had it, but that we got rid of it. Slavery was a nigh-upon universal institution after the Agricultural Revolution.

Prior to the first city states, slavery was fairly rare. Taking enemies—or at least enemy men—as slaves was dangerous. It was better to simply murder them, which is what they did. Women and children were taken as slaves of a sort. But again, prior to agriculture and, later, the sort of manual labor associated with building walls, pyramids, or other superstructures, there wasn’t much need for slaves.

But after that time arrived, slavery was common in virtually every civilization on every continent. In Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Thomas Sowell notes that “from 1500 to 1800, more than a million Europeans were enslaved by North African pirates.” He goes on:

During the Middle Ages, Slavs were so widely used as slaves in both Europe and the Islamic world that the very word “slave” derived from the word for Slav—not only in English, but also in other European languages, as well as in Arabic. Nor have Asians or Polynesians been exempt from either being enslaved or enslaving others. China in centuries past has been described as “one of the largest and most comprehensive markets for the exchange of human beings in the world” Slavery was also common in India, where it has been estimated that there were more slaves than in the entire Western Hemisphere—and where the original Thugs kidnapped children for the purpose of enslavement. In some of the cities of Southeast Asia, slaves were a majority of the population. Slavery was also an established institution in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus’ ships ever appeared on the horizon. The Ottoman Empire regularly enslaved a percentage of the young boys from the Balkans, converted them to Islam and assigned them to various duties in the civil or military establishment.

Some take these facts and then imply that the American obsession with slavery is excessive. I think that’s sometimes true. But it also misses a hugely important point: America is different. Slavery in America was different because America is different.

America was founded on principles of universal human equality and dignity. China wasn’t. Germany wasn’t. No other country was. On this, Joe Biden is spectacularly correct (I’ll return to this in a moment).

Charlie Kirk writes:

This is an interesting argument to make against Juneteenth for two reasons. First, it illustrates what a partisan opportunist and hack Kirk is. He certainly seemed to favor making Junetenth a holiday when Republicans under Trump would get the credit:

Now that Biden is president, making Juneteenth a holiday is some horrific race-based crime against the soul of America. Weird how that works.

More importantly, Kirk doesn’t seem to understand Lincoln’s point. What Lincoln did at Gettysburg was essentially rewrite the story of America and make the preamble to the Declaration of Independence the new national mission statement. From Suicide of the West:

As Gordon S. Wood has observed, when the Declaration was issued, the important part was the conclusion: the break with England. Only later did the beginning “all men are created equal” take on philosophical and metaphysical significance. “Certainly no one initially saw the Declaration as a classic statement of political principles,” Wood writes. “Only in the 1790s, with the emergence of the bitter partisan politics between the Federalists and the Jefferson-led Republicans, did the Declaration begin to be celebrated as a great founding document.”  And that celebration evolved into sacredness.

There was nothing hypocritical about slavery in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe. To the extent those civilizations had charters, creeds, or some other form of fleshed-out ideals, slavery was consistent with them. In America, slavery was a grotesque hypocrisy whose horror was eclipsed only by the actual horror of the institution as practiced. Since long before critical race theory became a bogeyman, I’ve argued that schools should teach the evils of that hypocrisy—not to dwell in guilt and self-flagellation, but to both acknowledge the facts of history and to celebrate America’s story of overcoming it. Acknowledging this hypocrisy is valuable and important because it illuminates the very ideals being violated. Without principles, you can’t be a hypocrite. You would have nothing to fall short of or betray.

I’m at a loss to understand why celebrating the end of slavery is anything but good. In particular, I’m at a loss to understand why seeing white Americans celebrate the end of slavery is anything but good.

I can see why some black ideologues of a certain stripe might come to grumble about this, because it undermines what was in many respects a black American Passover. All federal holidays end up getting a bit washed out as they become just another reason for vacations, barbecues, or sporting events. The people whom the holidays are meant to honor lose some of their ownership of the events that sparked the holiday in the first place. Too few Americans spend Memorial Day honoring the fallen, or think seriously about the founding on July Fourth. For some, Thanksgiving is more about football than about giving thanks and praise to “our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

But that’s not just an American problem—it’s a human one, and there’s not much you can do about it. 

Moreover, making Juneteenth an American holiday and not just a black holiday underscores that Americans—all Americans—are (or should be) rightly proud that we did away with an institution existentially at war with the best version of ourselves. For those who talk about slavery as if it never shrinks in the rearview window no matter how far behind us it gets, that could be an awkward talking point to work around. It’s harder to claim that “white America” hasn’t acknowledged the evil of slavery when all Americans celebrate the end of slavery and the liberation of our fellow Americans.

Joe Biden, American exceptionalist.

In 2009, then-President Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

I hated that. I wrote a lot about how much I hated it. I hated it for too many reasons to revisit here. But I’ll mention two. First, the term American exceptionalism was never a boastful term, but a descriptive one. America was different in both good ways and bad. America was more religious than other advanced democracies, but it was also more violent. Lacking a feudal past, it was both less class conscious and more hostile to socialism—which emerged in Europe as a class revolt. Indeed, some argue that the term was originally of communist coinage. Jay Lovestone had argued that America was largely immune to Marxist “laws” of history “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions.”

Alas, those trying to keep this point alive have largely lost the battle.

Which brings me to the second reason I hated Obama’s formulation. American exceptionalism came to mean that America wasn’t just different, but that it was special because of its ideals and commitments to things like individualism, limited government, natural rights, etc. Obama had well-developed views on this score, and when he reduced American exceptionalism to mere national pride, he was also reducing those ideals to mere cultural norms that could be left behind as he pursued a “fundamental transformation” of America.

Virtually every prominent conservative agreed with me to one extent or another on this score.

Then Donald Trump came along. Trump didn’t believe in American exceptionalism either (as Yuval Levin demonstrated here), even if speechwriters figured out how to arm him with slogans that suggested otherwise. For Trump, adhering to principles made us suckers if they got in the way of America’s self-aggrandizement (or his own). His version of “America First” was an argument for beating the worst nations at their own game. 

Sadly, many of the same conservatives who loved dunking on Obama’s alleged “cultural Marxist” animosity to American exceptionalism had no problem with Trump’s pernicious rejection of it.

Well, Joe Biden disagrees with both of his predecessors. Last week, again and again, Biden said that America really is exceptional. Here he is addressing American troops stationed in Europe:

If our British friends will excuse me quoting the Declaration of Independence, America is unique in all the world in that we are not formed based on geography, or ethnicity, or religion, but on an idea—an idea. The only nation in the world founded on the notion of an idea. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We mean it. No nation can defeat us as long as we stick to our values.

And here is after his meeting with Putin:

I told him that, unlike other countries, including Russia, we’re uniquely a product of an idea. You’ve heard me say this before, again and again, but I’m going to keep saying it. What’s that idea? We don’t derive our rights from the government; we possess them because we’re born—period. And we yield them to a government.

Now, I don’t like the phrase “we yield them to a government,” but it’ll pass as a mangling of Lockeanism.

In these statements, and countless statements like them, Biden has rhetorically committed himself to the patriotic version of American exceptionalism. With the exception of John Podhoretz, I haven’t heard any conservatives celebrate this fact. I’m sure I missed someone, but the point remains. This is a victory for conservatives. You can be sure that if Biden had gone around repeating Obama’s version of American exceptionalism, the Charlie Kirks would go around shrieking about it. (And it’s remarkable how many progressives who in the past heaped praise on Obama or scorn on American exceptionalism have no problem with Biden’s remarks.)

I don’t want to overstate the significance of this. I have plenty of disagreements with Biden over how he translates this rhetoric into policy. But my point is that not every victory for conservatives is a victory for Republicans. Scoring politics as a zero-sum game between two parties is corrupting and dangerous because it drives us to abandon the principles the party is supposed to serve, or transmogrifies them into mere weapons of opportunity rather than points of American consensus.

It is—or was—a staple belief of conservatism (and of the ideals we are supposed to be conserving) that we don’t get our rights from government, but from our creator. Biden deserves praise for saying so. And Juneteenth is worthy of celebrating because it acknowledges this sacred American ideal.

Various & Sundry

Today is Nicholas Pompella’s last day as my research assistant at AEI. He’s done yeoman work during difficult times and I want to thank him for his diligence and for always being of good cheer. He will have a bright future ahead of him. I’ve been asked to post the job opening for his replacement. I won’t say that sending me a bottle of sherry cask finished single malt scotch will lubricate the gears of the process because it really won’t. But I can’t swear it wouldn’t hurt.

Canine update: So a few months ago, Zoë started doing something very strange. Every night, she would go to a Meyer lemon tree in the house that my wife was trying to grow and get one leaf. She wouldn’t chew it. She wouldn’t lick it, at least not very much. She just watched over it like it was under her protection. And then she stopped, with as little explanation as why she started. Well, she has a new object of her affection: An old, filthy rubber squeaky toy frog. When she comes home she races into the house to find it. She needs to sleep near it. We don’t know why. If she gets too protective, we pick it up and put it on the mantle of the fireplace. And she will then stare at it, lest Pippa or Gracie somehow figure out how to rig some ropes and get to it. To reiterate: We don’t know why.

In other news, Pippa went to the surgeon for a consultation about her ankle joint issues. The good news is that she seems to be doing well enough that surgery is unnecessary (they’d have to fuse the joints, which we’d obviously like to avoid or at least put off). The bad news is she’s lost some of her bouncy spanielness. Also, watch for new pics on Twitter. She’s going to the beauty parlor today. People often ask why Zoë never gets to go. Two reasons: 1) We don’t want to pay for the mauling of the groomer; 2) There’s just not much you can do with Dingo fur. Anyway, the girls are otherwise good. Even Gracie has reached a new détente with Chester because she’s learned that when the Fair Jessica gives Chester treats, she gets a transaction fee.

ICYMI

In lieu of last week’s G-File, last weekend’s Ruminant

The week’s first Remnant, with Tevi Troy on the cusp of the Five-Timer’s Club

Playing moral equivalence games with Russia

Cher is not, in fact, a political scientist

Bahnsen returns to discuss lucre

Say what you will about the guy, but Ibram X. Kendi’s suit jacket in this photo is delightful

And now, the weird stuff

Nine Russian hikers die, and I prefer to think that the Yeti is responsible

The Ancient Aliens meme-guy is on LinkedIn, but he has so few friends

Less Chesterton’s Fence, more Carnegie’s Fence

An account dedicated entirely to making deepfakes of Tom Cruise

Britney Spears=MKULTRA test subject? It all makes perfect sense…

The New Know Nothings

This time around, we’re talking about people who actually know nothing.

Hey,

A good deal has been written about the resurgence of the Know Nothing political tradition in America. I won’t be adding much to it here.

But in case you need a refresher, the Know Nothings were a political movement and, ultimately, a political party that began as a secret society. At once difficult to categorize ideologically but easy to recognize, they were populists and nativists. Indeed, the name of their official political party was the Native American Party—back then “Native American” was a term for the white folks who got here first, mostly of English descent (think Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York). 

The label “Know Nothing” didn’t begin as a pejorative, because the movement began as a network of secret societies not all that dissimilar to QAnon. When members of these organizations were asked about their political views, they would say, “I know nothing,” or, “I know nothing but my country.”

Their actual views were a dog’s breakfast of crazy, normal, progressive, populist, and reactionary. They were fine with bigger government, opposed slavery, supported workers’ rights, hated the Irish, and believed the pope was conspiring to destroy America by flooding it with mackerel-snapping hellions bent on overthrowing the republic. They didn’t allege that papists were pedophiles in the deep state drinking the blood of children, but they came pretty close. Posters in Boston—where Know Nothings controlled the governorship and the legislature for a while—declared, “All Catholics and all persons who favor the Catholic Church are … vile imposters, liars, villains, and cowardly cutthroats.”

Okay, now that you’re caught up, let’s put all that aside for a second, because I want to talk about a different kind of Know Nothing. Specifically, people who actually know nothing—or, to be fair, very, very little.

If she could turn back time.

Let’s start with Cher (of all people). Last week, in a since-deleted tweet, the chanteuse declared:

So here’s the thing: She meant Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona senator. She later apologized.

Now, I admit that, in itself, this is a small thing. Lots of people pen errant tweets, including yours truly.

But ...

Cher called someone a “traitor”—­­in all caps, naturally. But rather than take two seconds to make sure she was talking about the right person, she just went with her gut. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect it was because she thought there was no time to waste. Gotta get the message out to those 3.9 million followers!

And then there’s the substance. Cher didn’t apologize for using the term “traitor,” she just apologized for calling the wrong person a traitor. We don’t need to belabor the point, but it’s worth at least acknowledging that Kyrsten Sinema is not, in fact, a traitor. Opposing abolishing the filibuster is not traitorous under any plausible definition. Nor is it grounds to kick someone out of the Senate.

In short, Cher had no idea what she was talking about. Bear in mind, she didn’t just get two names confused. She knew Gillibrand was a senator from New York, which is why she called on New Yorkers to—what?—kick her out somehow. If she followed politics even a little, she’d know that the Kirsten she thought was Kyrsten was from Arizona, not New York.

Oh, and by what mechanism would New Yorkers kick her out? Impeachment? Defenestration? Prayer circles? Transporter beams? This is like one of those Twitter games where someone asks, “Show me you have no idea how politics works without saying so.”

I bring this up not to dunk on Cher (though that has its pleasures) but because I think it illustrates a much broader phenomenon: the near total disconnect between political passion and rudimentary knowledge.

Balls and strikes.

Before you go on about how I am an elitist who wants some sort of unelected priesthood of experts, or a caste system where our intellectual betters run the “system” without plebeian interference, let me note that I’ve written tens of thousands of words, including in several books, against the cult of expertise.

That’s the thing: I’m not talking about expertise. I’m talking about the bare minimum of knowledge about basic facts. It’s like the difference between a baseball fan and a baseball expert. To accurately call yourself a baseball expert, you need to know all sorts of arcane things. But if you call yourself a baseball fan, you should still be able to explain what balls and strikes are. You should know what a bunt is and how runs are scored. If you watch a baseball game and shout, “Go sports team! Get a touchdown!” that’s fine. But don’t tell me you’re in any way a baseball fan. Cher was basically the equivalent of someone at a baseball game yelling, “Put Strasburg in the penalty box! That was high sticking!”

But hey, this is the life we’ve chosen as a free country. Everyone has the right to an opinion, yada yada.

Let’s carry this baseball analogy a bit further and talk about the people who actually claim to be players.

Riddle me this.

Let’s consider Jason Riddle.

Riddle, the pride of Keene, New Hampshire, was one of the Capitol rioters. You may have seen images of him quaffing some vino he stole from a liquor cabinet he found amid the ransacking. He got a little taste of fame as a result and now wants to run for office, in part because pro-riot folks told him he should. As he explained to a local NBC affiliate, “In the long run, if you're running for office, any attention is good attention, so I think it will help me.”

And in a world of Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Matt Gaetzes, who can really argue?

Asked what his arrest for participating in the riot should tell voters, Riddle said, “It tells them I show up. I'm going to actually keep my promises and make some changes.” His campaign platform will be something like “Let’s get back to work.”

He’s now running against Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster in the 2022 midterms.

Now, you really should watch the video to get the full effect. But the next time we hear from Riddle, he says, “I thought Anne was a state representative.”

NBC reporter Katherine Underwood explains to Riddle that his intended opponent is actually a congresswoman in Washington, not a state rep in Concord, New Hampshire.

“Oh, I guess I gotta run against that, then,” Riddle says.

Look, I don’t know jack about this guy beyond what I just told you. He may be a genius at canasta. He could be a hair’s breadth from completing his cold fusion reactor in his garage. For all I know, he may be the only person in the world who has Kobayashi Maru-ed 12-minute brownies by baking them in only seven minutes. But when it comes to politics, this guy is a moron; the “back to work” candidate isn’t willing to put any work at all into figuring out what he’s doing.

But he’s not just a moron, he’s an idiot. As I note in Suicide of the West, the word “idiot” didn’t come to mean “stupid” until the 14th century. Before that, starting with the ancient Greeks, “idiot” was a term for, in the words of John Courtney Murray:

“the man who does not possess the public philosophy, the man who is not master of the knowledge and the skills that underlie the life of the civilized city. The idiot, to the Greek, was just one stage removed from the barbarian. He is the man who is ignorant of the meaning of the word ‘civility.’"

And since we're Greeks, let’s talk about Plato. In the Phaedrus, Plato analogizes the human soul to a chariot. The charioteer is our intellect or capacity to reason and search for truth and the horses represent our passions. One horse personifies (or “equinifies,” I guess) the noble passions and the other represents the baser passions. 

Admittedly, it requires manhandling this analogy a bit, but our politics today is shot through with people putting the cart, or in this case the chariot, before the horse(s). If politics required an SAT test, Riddle wouldn’t get the 200 points for filling out his name correctly.

But this is just an extreme illustration of a widespread phenomenon. We don’t need to run through Madison Cawthorn or Lauren Boebert’s greatest hits. They are idiots who champion idiocy as a badge of honor. Cawthorn’s decision to build his staff “around comms rather than legislation” does underscore the point nicely. So does Matt Gaetz’s view that being a jackass on TV is “governing.”

But here’s the thing: There’s really nothing wrong with being an idiot in the original Greek meaning. I mean, it’s nothing to brag about. But you can be an utterly decent and productive member of society without being involved or invested in civic affairs. It’s worth remembering that the ancient Greeks—like the Romans—considered merchants and the like to be inferior people because they were more concerned with their own affairs than the philosophical debates of the elite. 

But there’s something grotesque and disordered about a society that thinks passion—particularly baser passion—is something to celebrate. Here’s Scottie Nell Hughes in 2016 defending pro-Trump rioting: “Riots aren’t necessarily a bad thing if it means it’s because [Trump supporters are] fighting the fact that our establishment Republican Party has gone corrupt and decided to ignore the voice of the people and ignore the process” (Hat tip: Amanda Carpenter).

If a liberal said this about Black Lives Matter or Antifa rioting—and a zillion of them did!—Hughes and her ilk would be the first to recognize the perfidy of this thinking.

But again, my point isn’t about the left, the right, or the hypocrisy of either side. It’s about the country. And it’s about the invincible arrogance of placing feelings over everything.

The roots of this romanticist mindset go way back, probably because this is a problem with human nature. There have always been populists and rabble rousers who think passion is more important than reason or knowledge. Thirty years ago, Democrats started arguing that the most important quality in a politician was “concern,” or the ability to, in Bill Clinton’s words, “feel your pain.” When Hillary ran for the Senate from New York, she said her chief qualification as a carpetbagger was that she was “more concerned about the issues that concern New Yorkers.” To which I replied, “Would you prefer a blasé surgeon remove your appendix or a very concerned plumber?”

Say what you will about the Clintons—and I’ve said a lot—they at least did their homework. Democracy requires homework.

Again, this is not an elitist point. It’s about civics. It’s about patriotism. I don’t think you need a Ph.D. in political science to be a good president—Woodrow Wilson had one and he was a horrible president. But if you don’t know what you’re talking about and you want to run for office, you have a moral and patriotic obligation not to be an idiot.

William F. Buckley’s line about how he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard University has taken a beating in recent years. But I’d like to think he assumed that if all those 617-area Abernathys and Adamses were suddenly made congressmen and senators, they’d take a little time out of their suddenly busy schedules to figure out what congressmen and senators, y’know, do.

We expect that of babysitters and baseball coaches. Is it so crazy to expect it of people who hold some degree of political power over our lives?

A Slow Kowtow to China

Why do celebrities and elites prostrate themselves to China while bashing America? Hmmmm ...

Dear Reader (Including deer-reader hybrids),

You know what would make a good movie? The Wuhan lab-leak theory.

I don’t mean if it were proved to be true it would make a good movie. Though, if it were proven true, that would make an even better movie.

I mean the right director could make a great film built on the premise that the virus that just killed its 600,000th American this week was the result of a terrible accident in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. I’m thinking of a mix of Contagion, The Insider, and the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, with maybe a little Seven Days in May, Network, and The Lives of Others thrown in for good measure. I know that’s a lot of stuff to borrow from, but I think Steven Soderbergh or Michael Mann could pull it off.

There are so many elements to it. From the whistleblowing doctor, Li Wenliang, who died from the disease he warned the world about, to the heroic scientists who developed the vaccine, and the WHO bureaucrats who cried “racism” on China’s behalf. Then you have all of the surreal domestic political angles, from Trump and Fauci down to the pro- and anti-mask hysteria. And, of course, the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup of the whole thing.

Now, some might say that making such a movie would be dangerous,  irresponsible, or unfair. After all, the idea of a lab leak is just a theory right now.

To which I respond: So what? You know what else is just a theory? That Lyndon Johnson was part of a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy—and Oliver Stone made that movie 30 years ago this December. It got eight Academy Award nominations and won two of them. And, by the way, the lab-leak theory is very plausible. The Johnson-coup theory isn’t.

When I write “some might say” above, I use that phrase as a rhetorical device. The truth is that many would say it. And by many, I mean countless Hollywood executives, most editorial pages, movie stars, singers, and of course, NBA players.

One of the most remarkable—and remarkably corrupt—things about our culture is that it is intensely fashionable to disparage, condemn, or slander American government, American history, and America itself. It’s also equally unfashionable to even criticize China—a country with no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, and no democracy. In some circles, simply raising the fact that the Chinese politico-military nexus has a million people in a gulag archipelago of concentration camps is proof of your lack of sophistication and seriousness. Just ask Lebron James.

Major corporations have no problem signaling their fashionable wokeness by boycotting Georgia, North Carolina, or Indiana. But ask them why they do business with a country that is crushing democracy in Hong Kong and ethnically cleansing Tibet and East Turkestan, and you’ll get an answer of mumbling doublespeak. Gay people have more rights in every state in the union than they do anywhere in China. And unlike America, China actually has a real policy of Jim Crow and apartheid. 

Last year, Apple’s Tim Cook committed the company to fighting the “the fear, hurt, and outrage rightly provoked by the senseless killing of George Floyd and a much longer history of racism.” Fair enough. But why is he doing so much business with a country that, according to the Global Slavery Index, has more than 3 million slaves today?

One common response to this point is that Americans should rightly care about injustice at home because we hold ourselves to a higher standard. I agree! But it’s one thing to say we hold ourselves to a higher standard; it’s quite another to say we shouldn’t hold China to any standard at all. 

Close your eyes and think of a standard your typical preening Hollywood prima donna invokes at the Oscars or on campus to condemn America. Here are a few that come to mind: free speech, democracy, police abuse, racism, reproductive freedom, corporate greed, colonialism, and corruption. (I’d throw income inequality in there too, but it’s a complicated issue. And besides, China lies about its own numbers on the economic front.)

China is worse on all of them—by a lot. Moreover, when we fall short of our standards, we are at least acknowledging those standards. China literally doesn’t even have those standards. Its policy is to deny democracy, free speech, etc. Its policy is racist. You don’t have to bother with critical race theory to explain Han supremacy, because Han supremacy is the actual policy of the country.

So sure, hold us to a higher standard. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But why abandon that standard entirely when it comes to China? Why debase yourself by heaping praise on or prostrating yourself to them? And why put so much energy into bashing America for failing to live up to standards you’re willing to abandon for ticket sales or profit margins?

There are three answers.

The first is obvious: money. Hollywood, the NBA, universities, and big business are addicted to Chinese money and markets. If John Cena inadvertently offended Luxembourg, he would not rush to protect the box office receipts from that tiny country and release a thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another videoin Luxembourgish.

The second answer is also partly about money, but partly about fashion. Hollywood, the NBA, and Apple care about the American market, too. But in America, there’s very little cost to virtue signaling at America’s expense, and there’s often money to be made from it. If Americans punished stars like Sean Penn and George Clooney for lambasting America, they’d do it less. But we have a robust culture of masochism in this country. It’s not so much that outright expressions of anti-Americanism are always rewarded, it’s that we’ve wandered into a definition of patriotism that requires obsessive harping on our shortcomings. It’s a complicated cultural dynamic, and has lots of internal contradictions that manifest themselves in weird ways depending on the context and the partisan climate.

But if you step back and look at the full picture, it’s pretty obvious. We are addicted to a kind of rebelliousness that cannot rationally account for the fact that this is a good and decent country. Where’s the courage in denouncing that? So we manufacture outrage and exaggerate existing foibles. We systemize anecdotes and reify literary and abstract indictments. We can’t have declining, rare, and vestigial racism—it has to be systemic. Police abuses can’t be anecdotal, they must be inherent to policing itself.  

The third answer is that China demands our debasement—and we comply. It began in the 1990s. In 1997, China banned Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. Pitt, his movies, his co-stars, and the studio that made the film were also banned from China for years. The following year, Disney released Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, which depicted China’s brutalization of Tibet. The Chinese threw a fit and Disney honcho Michael Eisner abjectly apologized, calling the film “a form of insult to our friends.” Search Disney+ today—it’s not there.

Hollywood hasn’t made a major movie critical of China ever since. Worse, it’s chosen to censor itself rather than risk Chinese disapproval. In countless movies, the Chinese have to be depicted as generous members of the international community. Remember how China came to the rescue in The Martian? Dr. Strange couldn’t have a Tibetan monk in it, so Tilda Swinton played a Celtic mystic. And let’s not even speak of the travesty that was supposed to be a remake of Red Dawn.

Kowtow now.

Demanding obeisance has a rich history in Chinese culture. In 1793, British envoy Lord George Macartney was charged with opening permanent trade relations with China. The Chinese still clung to the old feudal demand of the kowtow. In the old days, the Chinese believed that the emperor literally ruled the world, which meant foreign rulers were more like vassals. And all vassals must acknowledge the supremacy of the emperor, the Son of Heaven. The problem was that Macartney was essentially a stand-in for the British crown, and he couldn’t in good conscience recognize the emperor as his sovereign.

Kowtowing requires three kneelings and nine prostrations—meaning the supplicant actually lies face down on the floor—in order to demonstrate total inferiority. Macartney agreed to kneel out of respect, but he wouldn’t put his head to the ground nine times.

The Chinese were offended and Britain and China didn’t get the trade deal. I bring up this anecdote for three reasons. First, it’s worth recognizing that the trade deal was in the interests of both countries. Lots of “realists” think that countries do things solely out of raw self-interest. That’s arguably true. But the definition realists use for self-interest is way too narrow. Notions of national pride and honor are also forms of self-interest.

Which brings me to the second reason. America should have some notion of honor. We don’t have a crown, but we do have certain ideas and ideals that we like to claim similar loyalty to. We also like to claim that these ideas and ideals are universal. When we figuratively kowtow to China, we are openly admitting to China that both claims are untrue—or at least negotiable. You can’t claim to believe human rights are universal and inviolable while simultaneously excusing or ignoring the mass violation of human rights that defines China under CCP rule.

Last, none of this is in our interest. It’s not like the Chinese respect us for our groveling. They enjoy watching us bend to their demands and mock our obsequious desire to gain favor as proof of their superior system. They use our self-flagellation over race as a cudgel in their propaganda and diplomacy. Such appeasement only buys greater demands and worse moral and strategic compromises.

Now, saying our principles are universal and/or superior is not a warrant for war, regime change, or anything like that. It’s simply a matter of truth-telling. You can be an abject isolationist and believe our democracy and liberal constitutional order are superior to China’s. This was—until recently—the definitional belief of American isolationism going back to the founding. Just look at Washington’s caution about entangling alliances in his farewell address, John Quincy Adams’ warning about not going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” and the misguided views of the original America First Committee. The fear was about becoming too involved in—and dependent on—foreign matters that would corrupt us here at home. The new America First-ism rests on the premise that we’re no better than places like Russia and China, and that we should stop being suckers by pretending otherwise.

I’m no isolationist—far from it. But the practice of debasing ourselves for the sake of Chinese widgets and market share is corrupting. It erodes our standing in the world, and gives weaker countries an excuse to kowtow to China too. “If America is going to kiss their ass, what choice do we have?” More importantly, it erodes our standing to ourselves and our ideals. It signals that when elites stand up for principles at home, they’re not really doing it out of conviction, but out of opportunism. If they really believed that stuff, they wouldn’t suck up to a country that makes even the worst caricatures of, say, Georgia or Texas, seem tepid.

I whiggishly believe that one day China will be a free country. And when it is, the Chinese will not look back on America today as a spiritual ally the way those who were slaughtered at Tiananmen Square did. They will see us as a country that sought approval from the regime that persecuted their ancestors for the cheap at any price of Fast and Furious 9 ticket sales.

Various & Sundry

Animal update: I can’t remember if I mentioned this before, but Gracie—arguably the greatest cat to have ever walked the earth—has been trolling Zoë a lot lately. She drinks out of her water bowl. She bars the dingo’s passage on the stairs (many dogs refuse to pass a cat on the stairs). She angles for prime spots by the humans and often takes the most coveted space in the house—a viewing position by the upstairs window. 

I assumed it was a Zoë vs. Gracie issue. And obviously it is. But I couldn’t figure out why it was happening with greater frequency over the last few months. I think I figured it out: Ralph is no longer with us, and Gracie is returning to her old habits in the ancien regime that she ruled in a co-monarchy with Cosmo the Wonderdog. Anyway, the dogs are doing just fine. Though Zoë did have an embarrassing failure this morning chasing a bunny. (Note: I do not call Zoë’s attention to bunnies unless I’m highly confident they have ample escape routes.) Pippa, meanwhile, is just Pippa

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

Populism is having a very long moment

The week’s first Remnant, with the inimitable David French

The members-only midweek “news”letter

The week’s first Dispatch Podcast

The week’s second Remnant, with RAND Corporation criminologist Shawn Bushway

Help the Afghan interpreters

And now, the weird stuff

Where the Dispatchers’ salaries go, evidently

Taylor Swift, immortal LaVeyan Satanist?

Environmentalism is even taking the fun out of beer

If you’ve ever tried to learn an instrument by watching a VHS masterclass, SNL’s Fred Armisen has a very specific brand of comedy to cater just to you

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