Ratifying the Idiocracy
The bases of both parties, each in their own ways, crave dumbed down “solutions.” Our elites are indulging them.
Dear Reader (especially any of you who’ve figured out what Ozy Media is, or rather, was.)
We have Karl Marx to thank for the modern term “proletariat.” He used it to describe the class of wage earners with little or no property who achieved class consciousness and would be the shock troops of revolutionary action. Marx, who had studied Roman law, derived the term from the proletarii—the class of free citizens who worked for wages but didn’t have the property or status to be involved in politics.
It’s a shame Marx didn’t study the Greeks instead. The Greeks had a word for a class of free people who were disengaged from politics and civic life and had no desire to be part of it: idiots.
Now, they didn’t mean morons. They meant people just a notch above barbarians who didn’t care about civility. The idiot, explained John Courtney Murray, “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.’”
How great would it have been if Marx had taken inspiration from the Greeks instead of the Romans? Playing “find-and-replace” in The Communist Manifesto yields some fun results.
“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The idiots have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries unite! They have a world to win.”
“But with the development of industry, the idiots not only increase in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.”
“This organization of the idiots into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves.”
Alas, this is an unlikely “what if?” because the word “idiot” had already taken on its Madison Cawthornesque meaning by the 14th century. But it’s still fun to think about.
Anyway, I have Marco Rubio to thank for getting me thinking about Marx this morning.
“The $3.5 trillion Biden plan isn’t socialism, it’s [M]arxism,” the Florida senator declared yesterday. Rubio spelled “Marxism” with a lowercase “M.” I know that sort of thing is allowed on Twitter. Indeed, trolling “elites” into correcting usage and grammar is now a time-honored tactic. “Haw, haw! You care about grammar!”
Still, I’ll take the bait—“marxism” with a lowercase “m” isn’t a thing.
More importantly, his use of Marxism—capitalization notwithstanding—isn’t really a thing either. I don’t think dictionaries are always dispositive on these kinds of questions (see my dad’s take on this in the Wall Street Journal), but this definition of Marxism from Dictionary.com is serviceable enough:
The system of economic and political thought developed by Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, especially the doctrine that the state throughout history has been a device for the exploitation of the masses by a dominant class, that class struggle has been the main agency of historical change, and that the capitalist system, containing from the first the seeds of its own decay, will inevitably, after the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, be superseded by a socialist order and a classless society.
In fairness, I get how you could call the $3.5 trillion Biden plan “socialism.” It certainly has elements of social democracy in it. While Marx’s views on social democracy are more nuanced than you might think, broadly speaking, actual Marxists don’t like social democracy because Marxists place themselves within the “revolutionary tradition” and social democrats tend to be reformists. And, well, democrats.
Regardless, I think Rubio’s trolling is a shame—and shameful—for a bunch of reasons. First, I’m just sick of politicians, on the left and right, thinking this sort of thing is a clever, legitimate or worthwhile use of their platforms. Second, there’s a problem with calling stuff you disagree with “socialism” or “Marxism.” And the problem isn’t just the lack of accuracy or honesty. Lots of stuff Democrats want to do is popular. If you tell people that, say, 12 weeks of paid parental leave is “socialism,” a lot of people will respond by saying, “More socialism, please.” If you think paid parental leave is bad—or good, but too expensive, or not the role of the federal government to mandate—it’s better to make the argument than to simply use a word to anathematize stuff without making the argument. Demonizing labels work only among people who already buy into your definition of the demonic.
Finally, Rubio knows better. He is among the best critics of what he regularly dubs “the Marxist Cuban regime.” If he convinces people that the grab bag of entitlements and welfare state giveaways in the Biden plan is “Marxist,” he’s not only undermining his indictment of Cuba, he’s actually making in a roundabout way the left’s argument in defense of Cuba. For a lot of leftists, Cuba is just an enlightened regime that takes care of its people. They’re wrong. But Rubio does his cause no favors by blurring the distinctions between an actual Marxist regime and a bloated spending spree.
Of course, Rubio is on a bit of a journey these days, scrambling around to craft a new “common good” conservatism that allows the new right to jettison free market or limited government principles whenever it’s politically convenient. Free markets for me, punishing the woke for thee.
I mean, just a couple days before Rubio was warning about Biden’s Marxist plot, J.D. Vance was telling Tucker Carlson that he wants to “seize the assets” of private charitable institutions he doesn’t like. From Noah Rothman’s blistering critique:
“We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars in ill-gotten, accumulated wealth,” Vance declared. “Why are we allowing the companies, the foundations that are destroying this country to receive tax preferences? Why don’t we seize the assets of the Ford Foundation, tax their assets, and give it to the people who’ve had their lives destroyed by their radical open borders agenda?” Vance, who accused the institutions he wants to liquidate of being “the ultimate institutions of identity politics,” then rattled off a series of communities that should be the select beneficiaries of the largesse he would expropriate and redistribute.
Rothman is right that this is “far left” asininity flying under a right-wing boob-bait flag. I used to do a ridiculous road show called “The Spitfire Tour.” I’d travel around with mid-tier left-wing celebrities as the token right-winger. On campus after campus, I’d listen to Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys rant about how the state should abolish tax exemptions for churches and seize their assets for the good of the masses. It’s the same idiocy, just aimed in a different direction.
As David French says, when you hear “common good conservatism,” think “social justice for right-wingers.” All of this calls to mind another Marxist maxim—albeit from Groucho, not Karl: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them ... well, I have others.”
A month ago, I tweeted, “I am really struggling to think of a time when I despaired more for the country and had so much contempt not just for both parties, but the bases of both parties.”
The backlash was no less remarkable for being predictable. One common complaint was that I was being “elitist.” Elitist is a word where dictionaries really do fall down on the job. It can mean everything from being arrogant or being a snob to believing society should be run by elites. Whether I’m guilty of arrogance or snobbishness from time to time, reasonable people can differ. But I proudly plead guilty to the charge of thinking that society should be run by elites.
My only caveat is that “should” is a misleading word here. Water should roll downhill. Fire should be hot. Maybe bears shouldn’t use our national forests as toilets, but they do and I don’t have much say in that matter. And that’s the point. Every society is run by elites. This was obvious before Robert Michels coined the iron law of oligarchy. Every institution, from pizza joints to empires, has some people at the top making decisions. The only question is who gets to be a member of the elite—and, I suppose, why and how they get there.
Authoritarian, totalitarian, monarchical, and even anarchical societies have elites. And so do democracies. Among the ranks of elites in America are these people called “senators.” Rubio is a member of this elite club. J.D. Vance is already a member of one faction of the elite—he’s a rich and famous former private equity guy and author. He wants to join Rubio’s club. But he goes around campaigning against elites and elitism while, in effect, arguing he should be promoted to a higher rung of the elite.
What does this have to do with idiocy?
Simply this: Our elites are actively cultivating idiocy, both in the Greek sense and in the modern moronic sense. The bases of both parties, each in their own ways, crave dumbed down “solutions” swathed in the gossamer of gobbledygook and rationalized by irrationalism. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is only figuratively talking out of her ass when she mumbles magic incantations inspired by the mumbo-jumbo of modern monetary theory. But she gets closer to literalism when she joins other elites at the Met Gala with “tax the rich” scrawled on her backside. I get that “tax the rich” is just a slogan—but it’s an idiotic one given that we do, in fact, tax the rich. But if you’re an idiot in the Greek sense, someone who doesn’t know much about politics or public finance, you might take that slogan literally and think we don’t.
When conservatives say we shouldn’t add trillions to the national debt, progressives respond, “You didn’t care about the debt when you were in charge.” And they’re right! But this response is sophomoric: You were horribly irresponsible with the credit card, so now it’s our turn to be horribly irresponsible!
The politicians—in both parties—who are the thirstiest for social media virality sound like Bart Simpson running for class president against Martin Prince. “He says there are no easy answers! I say he’s not looking hard enough!”
Donald Trump said last night, “Nobody has done more for Christianity or for evangelicals or for religion itself than I have.” Spare me your “take him seriously, not literally” garbage. That’s the intellectual equivalent of buying indulgences—it gives you permission to take very stupid things seriously rather than denounce the stupidity on display.
I honestly don’t think Trump or Ocasio-Cortez know better. But in a serious country we should want elites who do. And simply knowing the truth isn’t enough. Rubio knows that Biden isn’t pushing Marxism. Biden et al know that getting rid of drive-thru voting is not Jim Crow. J.D. Vance knows that most of his prattle is nonsense. I would like to think that Maxine Waters knows slavery was worse than a couple of border guys riding horses, but I’m not sure. (I’m also not sure which is more damning—ignorance or self-awareness.) Ron Johnson knows the election wasn’t stolen, and he says so when he thinks the cameras aren’t around. Good luck getting him to say it in public, though.
Anybody can know the truth. What makes you a deserving member of the political elite is standing for it—and dealing with it. If a sizable number of your voters think the vaccine makes you magnetic or is tainted by Satan, the politician with integrity has a few choices. He can tell them they’re wrong. He can ignore their opinion. He can look for better voters. Or he can go back to the private sector.
But for too many of them, if that’s what integrity requires, then integrity has got to go—because they are terrified of the voters and donors—large and small—who want idiocy. Conservatives used to mock campus “snowflakes” who would say stuff like, “I don’t want to debate, I want you to feel my pain.” Now, many of them want their idiocy ratified and celebrated because the truth hurts too much.
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement,” Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, famously said, “and he betrays you instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” He didn’t add, “unless I can own the libs.”
Central to good judgement is realism—not foreign policy realism or anything like that, but simple, old fashioned fidelity to reality. Albert Jay Nock’s motto was, “See the world as it is.” This realism used to be the core of conservatism. I would argue it still is. “There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact,” Ralph Waldo Emerson observed. What he meant was that telling people with idealistic or utopian ideas that their ideas can’t work could come across as mean. This meanness can be regrettable, but meanness in the name of telling the truth is always at least partially defensible because telling the truth on issues of necessity is always its own justification.
But populism is about feelings, passions, and rage. And conservatism has become a victim of identity theft by populism. This new false conservatism looked at Emerson’s meanness of fact and ditched the fact. Meanness has become a value unto itself.
The bizarre irony is that for all its superficial toughness, this meanness is derived from a new touchy-feelyness. In just a few short years, we’ve gone from conservatives boldly saying, “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” to, “My feelings don’t care about your facts.”
But hey, just like expropriating wealth from the “undeserving,” at least it’s a bipartisan thing now. So congrats on that.
Various & Sundry
Canine—and feline—update: The other night, Gracie came rolling into the living room like a star player strutting into the locker room after a big win. She had a mouse in her mouth. We don’t know where it came from—there’s no sign of an infestation in our house and our house is about as conducive an environment for mice as Kabul is for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Of course, the mouse wasn’t actually dead. Gracie clearly thought a quick death was too good for this vermin. She put it down for a moment, like a Spanish inquisitor turning to get his tools. The mouse wisely ran. The dogs at this point were gravely concerned. Zoë acted like a scab had entered the factory and taken her job. Pippa, meanwhile, was pleading, “Can’t we all just get along?”
The mouse got away. It might have run out the front door or it may be in the house still. We just don’t know. We’ve conducted a hard target search but can’t find it. Gracie, still effulgent with self-satisfaction, has a new spring in her step. She goes into hunting mode a lot even when there’s no evidence she’s seen it. Zoë, out of pride, is pretending the whole thing never happened. Pippa, out of a Quaker-like love for social peace, is pretending likewise. It was all very exciting. Other than that, everyone is good, though the rivalry between Zoë and Gracie has only intensified.
And now, the weird stuff