Hope’s Not a Four Letter Word
When we choose to despair, we blind ourselves to positive trends and encouraging developments.
Dear Reader (Especially those of you who kept hitting refresh on your email box last night),
Happy Saturday morning. I hate missing any deadlines. And I really hate missing ones for this “news”letter, which has a long tradition of existence for the G-File reading community. But yesterday, after an auspicious start at the Rocky Patel Cigar Lounge in Norridge, Illinois, events conspired against me. I had been optimistic I could get it done, I just hadn’t counted on being squeezed into a seat in steerage that was too small to open my laptop never mind type on it.
My AEI colleague Yuval Levin likes to say that optimism is the wrong way to think about the future. He once told me on an episode of The Remnant (and on another occasion when he was throwing stale sandwich crusts through the little sliding window of my cell door), that optimism deprives us of agency. Optimism is just a guess we make from the sidelines about how the future will work out. It implies that the unfolding of events is outside of our control. He prefers the word “hopeful” on the grounds that it suggests a goal we can work toward. I’m not entirely convinced that, as a semantic matter, hope implies more skin in the game than optimism—“hope is not a plan” and all that. But I think his intended point is the right one. If we respond to events as if our responses matter, it’s more likely that we can actually shape events, too.
I’ve written a lot about how I don’t like slippery slope arguments or teleological arguments. There is no “right side of history”—at least not the way people normally use that term—i.e., that a specific future is inevitable and therefore you might as well give up fighting for the one you want. This formulation, as Robert Conquest once said, has a “Marxist twang” to it.
Similarly, while I have modified my blanket opposition to slippery slope arguments, I think the core weakness of such arguments is that they, too, ignore human agency. Statements like, “If we recognize a right to own a gun, we won’t be able to stop people from having bazookas” or, “If we allow gay people to get married there will be no way to stop people from marrying horses” ignore the fact societies can draw lines, make distinctions, and, like Jean Luc Picard, proclaim “This far, and no further!” (Though I think in this instance it should have been “no farther.”)
If a guy heads down to City Hall with a lovely Clydesdale and demands to get hitched declaring, “But you let two dudes get married!” the judge won’t be rendered powerless. “I guess it’s out of my hands. I mean, I see the law in front of me, but I’m helpless before your argument.”
I bring this up not because I’m brimming with optimism about the near future, though I am fairly optimistic about America in the long term. No, I bring it up because it’s worth thinking about plausible and desirable ways the future can unfold so as to make hopefulness more practical. A lot of people are so addicted to narratives of despair about how “the other side always wins” and “things are only getting worse” that we tend to blind ourselves to positive trends or downplay more encouraging developments. And if you blind yourself to the good stuff, it will make it that much harder to build on it. So it’s worth asking yourself, what kind of politics—or society—do you want to see in 10 years?
What do I want?
I should put my cards on the table. Here’s a non-exhaustive snapshot of the kind of America I’d like to see. I want to live in a country where most people don’t think very much about the federal government or national politics. To the extent the federal government is involved in our daily lives, I’d like it to reject metaphors about it being our mother, father, or nanny. In fact, I’d prefer if people didn’t look at the federal government metaphorically at all. But if they had to, maybe think of it as your neighbor. It’ll chip in to help in a dire circumstance or emergency, but its generosity and patience are not inexhaustible, at least not for people who can help themselves. But oldsters, shut-ins, the disabled. Maybe neighbors agree on a plan to help on a more permanent basis.
I want to see a broadly tolerant country where minority rights are protected. I also want a country where majority values are respected. The only way to have that kind of country, by the way, is to have more federalism–under which national minorities can live as local majorities. I want America to remain the strongest country in the world and the leader of the free portions of it. And I’d like us to do what we can, where prudent, to see the free world expand. I want government, at every level, to recognize that spending and borrowing have natural limits.
That’s probably enough on government. One helpful heuristic: Ask yourself “What would Mitch Daniels do?” and whatever the answer is you can be pretty sure I’ll say, “That. I want that.”
As for the culture, the first thing I want is for everyone to lighten up and to remember that speech isn’t violence and violence isn’t speech. I want the people who think they are helping anyone but themselves by deliberately making people mad, insecure, or paranoid to find more fulfilling and socially beneficial vocations. I want to live in a country where we have differences, but we all love this country as it is and aren’t embarrassed to say so. For all sorts of reasons, from the instrumental and pragmatic to the principled and philosophic, I want religion to be respected and given room to flourish.
One of the reasons I want religion to flourish is that I want middle class values or “bourgeois norms” to be as universal as possible. Sure, there’s always room for the occasional commune or Bohemian couple on the third floor that is always burning something earthy and playing music too loud. But what I mean by “as universal as possible” is “as universal as possible.” I don’t want, say, working hard and doing well at school being seen as a “white” thing. None of the really important things in life—fundamental principles, values, manners, etc.—have a skin color or ethnicity to them. Moral values do not attach to identity politics, because identity politics is ultimately about tribal power.
I want as many kids as possible brought up in stable, two-parent families where they are loved, and taught the basic fundamental rules of not just a free society, but a good society—and of personal success. Be polite, take people as you find them, work hard, delay gratification, be honest—basically all the best bits of the Protestant work ethic, organized religion, the success sequence, and what your grandmother was supposed to tell you. I want this for white families and black ones, gay families and straight.
And, in the no doubt many circumstances where people aren’t brought up in those ideal circumstances, it’d be nice if people weren’t jerks about it.
So that’s a very brief description of where I’d like politics and society to go.
Again, having a destination in mind not only helps you chart a path, it helps you navigate around the unpredictable obstacles that you’ll encounter on the way. Moreover, if all those cliches are true, that “life is a journey, not a destination.” and “the real treasure was the friends we made along the way,” then finding compadres with similar hopes seems like a good idea for a bunch of reasons.
As the construction foreman says, let me get more concrete.
Lots of bad things are happening. And it’s worth keeping in mind, everyone can agree on that much—even the factions who have convinced themselves the “other side always wins.” No one really thinks they’re winning these days. So maybe be a little less grandiose about how badly you’re losing.
But, if you have eyes to see it, you can see lots of things that might lead the country and the world in a better direction.
I’ve ditched the thousand or so words I wrote yesterday at Rocky’s—I’ll save that stuff for later. Instead let’s do this list style (not to be confused with List Style Kung Fu—the most ineffective martial art ever created):
Inflation is terrible, but it’s done something the intellectuals and economists couldn’t. It has convinced (sane) Democrats and (sane) liberal wonks that the magical thinking of Modern Monetary Theory and its workaday equivalent—“Let’s just spend money like a pimp with a week to live!”—has natural limits. This is a teaching moment conservatives can build on (particularly if they also acknowledge that Republicans have been terrible big spenders, too).
Globalism and capitalism may come to the right’s rescue. I’d written about this at length at the cigar shop, but I’ll give you the short version. The leaked Disney Zoom call has freaked a lot of people out—and understandably so. Disney shouldn’t be the edgy tip of the spear of cultural change, particularly on issues that intersect with sexuality and children. I shouldn’t have to explain this. But you know who might? Shareholders. And you know why? Because even if American audiences are okay with whatever stuff Disney’s got planned to enlighten kids about transgenderism or whatever, foreign audiences (outside of Europe) won’t be. Evangelical Christianity is booming in Africa. China’s in a moral panic about sexual stuff (they just banned “effeminate men” from TV). There was a time when the right complained that capitalism and globalism were driving Hollywood to undermine American values. Well, those same forces may—just may—turn out to be a backstop of those values.
We’ve heard a lot about how Donald Trump’s endorsements don’t have much oomph. And that’s true and it’s good news. But I think people are missing the more important part of those stories. In many states, Trump is holding off on endorsing until he can identify who will win. Note the causality there. He doesn’t endorse people so they can win, he endorses people who will win so he can take credit. If Trump and Trumpism were the powerful force he and its shills claim, it’d be the other way around.
The Democrats, at least the smart ones, are basically Ron Burgundy in the bear pit now. They realize they’ve made some terrible decisions. They are poised for a massive, massive shellacking—and it’s all because they listened to loudest voices in their bunkers and bubbles and ignored people like David Shor who—I defecate you negatory—was vilified by progressives for arguing that politicians should say and support [checks notes] popular things. Even Nancy Pelosi thinks progressives have screwed the Democrats with minorities. When Democrats lose, presumably people like Shor will benefit. And even though Shor is a self-described socialist who has many views I disagree with, the Democrats—and the country— would be better off if he and folks like Ruy Teixera had more sway. I think they will.
On foreign policy, the loudest and crankiest people are sucking up a lot of oxygen. But in the meantime, a whole bunch of countries want to join NATO, arm Ukraine, topple Putin, throw Russia out of the U.N., etc. It is heartbreaking that some important lessons and principles have had to be relearned at Ukraine’s expense, but it’s good that they’re being relearned.
I get that China is a formidable challenge and threat—just like we thought Russia was 40-odd days ago. I’m not saying China is as much of a paper tiger as Russia, but they share some things in common. Both governments are afraid of their own people. Why does Russia lie about its COVID deaths and why is China so draconian in its lockdowns? Well one reason is that neither government thinks it can endure the embarrassment and anger of a lot of its own people dying. As I wrote last week, authoritarian governments can be strong, but they’re also brittle. They lack the tools for self-renewal. They are aware of their own lack of legitimacy, which is why they have to borrow the language of democracy to justify their autocracy. There’s stuff we can exploit there.
Anyway, I could go on. But you get the point (I hope). There are trends going in the right direction, and there are trends going in the wrong direction which illuminate the right direction. Despair is surrender. Hope may not be a plan, but it is an attitude that empowers you. When you embrace despair, it’s all piles of manure and no Christmas ponies. You should always watch out for the manure, but don’t forget to look for the ponies. They’re out there.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So, I was traveling most of this week (and I will probably have to travel again next week). So I don’t have many tales of canine adventure. Though the girls definitely had some fun times. And they’re doing quite well this morning and were very happy to see me last night.
But I want to do something different for this Canine update. My friend Noemie Emery is brilliant and lovely and wonderful. But the relevant part here is how much she loves dogs, particularly her dogs. Sadly, for personal reasons, because of a necessary move, she has no choice but to put hers up for adoption (it’s a long story and not mine to tell). It has nothing to do with the dogs, who are sweet and good. It would give her great peace of mind if someone could take in Haley and Twizzler—and, you’d get to hang out with Haley and Twizzler. It’s a win-win.
And now, the weird stuff