The Lurking Negans
Forces left and right are threatening to return civilization to the state of nature.
Dear Reader (including the moral leaders who make payroll),
Let’s start with some rank punditry before I get all apocalyptic on you at the end.
Biden did not have a great debate last night. But if you’re one of his advisors (and not leaking to the press like Steve Schmidt on a bender), any night where Biden doesn’t shout “get these squirrels off of me!” is probably a pretty good one.
I kid, but not really. I think people are overanalyzing the primary in general and Biden in particular. Very few people care at this point, and my hunch is even fewer will care in the months ahead. As Felicity Huffman told the FBI when they found her photoshopping her daughter’s head on to Steph Curry’s body, let me explain.
15 million people watched the first night. That’s not terrible, though it’s lower than 2016’s first debates. And for cable news, where 3 million viewers is gold – which, if you watch cable news, you know you should buy from the guy with the big teeth at Rosland Capital – 15 million viewers is great. But that’s 4.5 percent of the U.S. population. In other words, out of every ten Americans, nine-and-a-half had something better to do than watch Marianne Williamson declare that love is a battlefield. Of course, as they teach you your first day at cable pundit school, “what really matters” are the soundbites and clips that come out of the debates. But even here I don’t think Biden hurt himself too much.
Yeah, sure, Kamala Harris helped herself, but the fawning coverage is overblown. Most of her inevitable bump in the polls will come from a boost to her name ID thanks to that fawning coverage, and most of those points will come out of Warren’s or Sanders’ columns, not Biden’s.
Meanwhile, nearly everybody on the stage this week was to the left of the average Democratic voter, some a little, some a lot, some oh my God. Democrats who describe themselves as “very liberal” constitute somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the party. As Harry Enten has noted, the majority of Democrats are over the age of 50, at least half call themselves moderate or conservative, and most don’t have college degrees. Biden’s lead in the polls is explained almost entirely by his support from older Democrats. And he did nothing last night to shake that support.
It seems pretty obvious to me that talking about free college and cancelling student debt – never mind abolishing private insurance – plays differently to older Americans who either never went to college or already paid off their debts (or who don’t want to lose their health insurance).
And the idea that Biden really hurt himself by disagreeing with Kamala Harris on busing strikes me as cockamamie. Those who don’t know what busing was probably aren’t supporting Biden anyway. Those who do know what it was – because they remember it – are probably in Biden’s column already because busing was wildly unpopular, among whites and blacks. Meanwhile, the Jacobin parsing of socialized medicine was fine for the socialist barista crowd, but my hunch is that Biden will be helped by defending Obamacare – and hence Obama – with African-Americans.
Hillary Ruined Everything
I want to write a full column on this. But I think what we’re seeing in the Democratic primaries is the ongoing fallout from the H-Bomb.
The story of how Hillary’s unpopularity helped elect Donald Trump is familiar enough. But she also made Bernie Sanders into a much bigger deal as well. He was the alternative to the Hillary package – Clinton fatigue, corruption, pantsuits, etc. As a result, a lot of Democrats concluded that Bernie’s agenda – “socialism” – was much more popular than it really is (which is not to say it’s as unpopular as it should be). So nearly all these Democrats are running in Bernie’s lane, not Biden’s. The irony is that now that there are so many more compelling and younger Democrats promising more or less the same junk, Bernie looks more like the Old Man Who Yells At His Soup he always was. Socialist Bernie seemed exciting next to Hillary Clinton, because a steel rod looks exciting next to Hillary. She’s gone, so Bernie is fading. But the socialism, like herpes, is not only lingering, it’s flaring up.
“Hasta la victoria, siempre,” Bill de Blasio declared in Miami, and everyone is having a good laugh. That’s because the phrase – “Until Victory, Always!” – was one of Che Guevara’s favorite personal slogans (other than “Up against the wall”), and if there’s one constituency that one should not approvingly quote Fidel Castro’s beloved assassin around, it’s Cuban-Americans in Florida.
Because de Blasio is an astoundingly unserious person, despised even by many progressive New Yorkers for being a kind of anti-Mussolini – he literally can’t make the trains run on time – it’s acceptable to mock him for it. But his unseriousness gives him a kind of immunity, in that it makes appeals to his own ignorance a believable explanation. It’s a little like Donald Trump’s ability to use “America First” without embarrassment; everyone believes he had no knowledge of the term’s history.
But three things are worth noting. First, de Blasio is probably lying. He was a famously pro-Sandinista hippy in his 20s, de-camping to Nicaragua celebrate the Guevarian revolution there. He’s used the term before, but only in front of audiences that probably think Che Guevara onesies are adorable kitsch.
Second, the mockery of de Blasio, while welcome and appropriate, represents a kind of power-worship, because what offends or amuses the chattering classes isn’t that he quoted Guevara but that he did it in the wrong place. (Think of it this way: Approvingly quoting Hitler around Jews is worse than approvingly quoting Hitler among gentiles, but approvingly quoting Hitler is still wrong). If Cuban-Americans weren’t an important constituency in an important state, none of the pundits chuckling at his gaffe would have a problem with it, despite the fact the Guevara was a thoroughly evil butcher who oversaw executions and the organization of labor camps (among whose slave laborers were members of the LBGT community, by the way).
Third, while I don’t think de Blasio dreams of executing people or rounding up enemies of the Revolution, this was a kind of Kinsley gaffe. This particular kind of gaffe was named after Michael Kinsley, who famously said: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn't supposed to say.” Again, de Blasio lacks the will and desire to lead a violent revolution – that would require, among other things, putting down the bong and waking up before noon – but he is quite open about his vision of social justice. His single favorite quote – which he smirkingly repeated Wednesday night – is this supposedly brilliant insight that “there’s plenty of money in America, it’s just in the wrong hands.”
The State Carve-out
If people took de Blasio – or political rhetoric – seriously, this would disqualify him from public office. There is something about the progressive sensibility that makes people think something outrageous in small groups is somehow noble when the state does it.
For example, Hillary Clinton once said the country needs to move beyond the idea there’s any such thing as somebody else’s child. More recently, Melissa Harris-Perry said something similar about the supposed outrage of parents thinking their children belong to them: “We have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to their communities.” Kirsten “Young Mom” Gillibrand says she will fight for your kids like they’re her own.
Imagine if some woman at the supermarket rushed up to you and said, “Your kids belong to me, too.” Imagine you’re using the bathroom at a Packers game and the guy at the next urinal says, “Hey, you need to drop this notion that your daughter is exclusively your child.”
At minimum, you’d call security. But for some reason, if some bureaucrat, elected official, or emissary of the state says it, it’s supposed to make it better.
It makes it so, so, so much worse.
Because unlike the creepy lady in the frozen food aisle or the weirdo in the bathroom, the government actually has the power to follow through on that.
The same goes with de Blasio’s “wrong hands” garbage. If I stand up on a crowded bus and say, “There’s plenty of money on this bus, it’s just in the wrong hands,” you’d assume it was prelude to a stick-up. But when someone running for commander-in-chief says it, we’re also supposed to nod approvingly?
I’ve always disagreed with Albert Jay Nock’s claim that the state is just a sanctified criminal organization (even though, as I argue in my book, it probably started that way). But I’m becoming more and more sympathetic to the idea as I listen to people like de Blasio. Because if he followed his premises through to their logical conclusion, people with guns would take property out of the wrong hands and put it in his. Sort of like his hero Che Guevara, who wrote in his diary after executing Eutímio Guerra: “I ended the problem with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain…His belongings were now mine.”
The Remnant’s Plight
Speaking of Nock, this has me thinking about one of my favorite tropes of apocalyptic fiction: the nobody who becomes a warlord after the Fall. The Walking Dead’s Negan, the leader of the Saviors, was a gym teacher who took the lessons of the school yard and applied them to the new post-liberal order. In The Postman, General Bethlehem was a photocopier repairman before the White House burned at the battle of Georgetown.
One of the things I like about this plot device is the assumption that beneath the mild-mannered veneer of civilization lurk the barbarians, brutes, and big men nature intended some of us to be. Real life provides plenty of real-world examples of the same phenomenon. The mild-mannered clerk – or house painter – of the Weimar era becomes the sadistic bastard of the Nazi Reich when given the opportunity. The intellectual of Czarist Russia becomes the liquidator of Kulaks under the right incentives. The relatively decent working stiff becomes the bully of the cellblock when thrown behind bars.
Change the rules and you change the people.
Civilization isn’t just a noun, it’s a verb. The vast network of institutions – from families to churches to businesses and bowling leagues but also rules, traditions, and customs – mold the clay of human nature into certain forms. In one sense, clay is the wrong metaphor, because clay is too malleable (that’s why Immanuel Kant preferred the more poetic phrase “the crooked timber of humanity). But, in another sense, it’s just right. Clay that does not dry enough droops and bends with the pull of gravity. Clay that dries too much turns brittle and breaks under the right amount of pressure. So it is with human nature. The totalitarians never succeeded in making the New Aryan Man or the New Soviet Man, but they came close with a few people and they did lasting damage to millions more.
But here’s the thing: The same holds true for Liberal Man. We abide by the rules of the liberal order because we have been conditioned to do so by an intricate system of rules and institutions. Very few people are simply “born” classical liberals. Nock hinted at this when he said that you could only truly be a Nockian liberal if God or nature had already arranged the “the furniture of [your] mind” that way. Many of the kids we’re raising today are being trained to see liberalism as a tool of white supremacy or the patriarchy. Some will reject that; many won’t.
I think one of the things that unsettles so many people about the present age is that we feel like we can see what lurks behind the frayed curtain of civilization more. For Trump critics, they see how weak the threads of “democratic norms” are and how strong the desire for a Big Man really is. Critics of the left see much the same thing in the rising tide of wokeness and socialism. The post-liberals on the right mirror the anti-liberals of the left and see some terrible wrong turn in the Enlightenment. Of course, “Wrong Turnism” was itself a popular Enlightenment era idea. It was Rousseau who said:
"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, "Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."
For the first time in my life, significant numbers of self-described conservatives are closer to Rousseau in this regard than they are to John Locke, who considered the dawn of private property to be the beginning of civilizational advancement, not the end of it.
All of the critiques of the liberal order today – that it is unjust and “rigged” racket rewarding the hidden string-pullers behind the scenes – are simply replays of Rousseau’s critiques of the Enlightenment itself. He believed the new liberals or philosophes had simply replaced the priests of yore for their own benefit.
It is entirely fair to say that liberalism is always threatened and plagued by self-dealers, crony capitalists, self-serving intellectuals, and rent-seeking exploiters. But that is not what liberalism is, it’s what liberalism is designed to hold at bay (as Charlie Cooke brilliantly explains). That is the entire plot and theme of the Federalist Papers and the Constitution itself. The Founders set up a system that recognized that most people will, when the opportunity presents itself, take the shortest route to what they want. Nock called this Epstean’s Law: “Man tends always to satisfy his needs and desires with the least possible exertion.”
Getting rid of the liberal order won’t get rid of Epstean’s Law; it will codify it. In a system where the right to be wrong is denied, questions of right and wrong will be settled not by reason but by power. The King, Czar, Fuhrer, Kaiser, Commissar, and Emperor are right not because they have the best argument for the Highest Good, but because they have the power to enforce their vision of the Highest Good on everyone else.
When I listen to de Blasio talk about wrong hands, Gillibrand prattle about other peoples’ children, or Harris proclaim she will do things she has no power to do, I hear a yearning for back-tracking to the Wrong Turn. And I hear the same thing in so much of what Donald Trump says as well. But I hear it even more loudly in the applause that accompanies it.
No, I don’t think everyone entertained by Trump’s jokes about refusing to leave office actually wants him to be president-for-life. Nor do I think everyone who cheers de Blasio, Sanders, et al wants to seize the means of production. But I do think many of them don’t fully appreciate what they are applauding, because they are seeing and hearing this stuff as if they were watching an amusing reality show. I have deep and abiding faith in the majority of the American people that, if forced to take these power-hungry premises seriously right now, they would reject the logical conclusions demanded by those premises.
My concern is that the longer this reality shows plays out, the more the rules will change, until the liberals in all parties are nothing but a Remnant. And when we get there, the Negans will be waiting in the wings.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: I only briefly saw the girls before I turned around for a business trip to Palo Alto (more about that later). I couldn’t get a video of the canine welcoming committee, but there was all of the waggling, jumping, and eventual verbal chastising from the Dingo I would have expected. But in other news, Zoë added yet another squirrel kill to her ample file. And Pippa got an assist. Here’s the text message from my wife about the incident. “It was a classic example of what a killing machine Zoe and Pip are when they work together. We were walking down the street, Pippa [who walks leash-less, unlike Zoë] zeros in on a squirrel that was on the grass by a tree. She chases it up one side of the tree, Zoe is waiting on the other side and grabs Mr. Squirrel. She shook him a few times and then dropped him. I hate these situations so much because I am unable to take a living thing out of its misery. So I encouraged Zoe to pick him back up and finish him off, which she did.”
I know such carnage horrifies some people including, truth be told, me. I’m a big softie about such things. But it is what it is, and given how good a deal the squirrels have it in my largely predator-free neighborhood, it’s a small price for them to pay – except for the ones who have to take one for the team.
For those of you who are truly desperate for dog content, here are the doggos fetching, exploring nature, modeling, eyeing squirrels, waggling, driving, playing with toys, wrestling, and swimming.
Why doesn't Trump's tough talk on China extend to Uighur persecution?
The latest Remnant
The media’s double standard on culture-war controversies
And now, the weird stuff.
Debby’s Friday links
This day in history
Sea turtle killer back in jail
Conflicting science behind nutrition
Is there a fifth dimension?
Wolf spiders love the color green
Smell like the Louvre
Vikings and slaves
The robot that’s stuck on Mars
The parasites that ruin songbirds’ tunes
Make your Venmo transactions private
Skull bone spurs
Who started the flat earth conspiracy?
Montford Point Marines
Teen catches kid who fell out of a window
Why do the eyes in some paintings follow you?
Noninvasive Genetic Tests for IVF