Forgiveness and Reckoning: Preserving American Democracy in the 21st Century

On January 6, 2021, a mob of frenzied insurrectionists, fueled by the lies of Donald J. Trump and his allies in the Republican Party, stormed the U.S. Capitol building. Their aim, it has become clear, was to overturn the outcome of a free and open election by force of violence. 

Most of us are still processing what happened. It’s going to take a while—certainly months, quite possibly years. But the path forward, whatever shape it ultimately takes, must begin with a clear and honest accounting of what is actually happening in the United States. 

That reality is ugly. Among its many hideous facets: the fact that millions of Americans willing voted for a would-be autocrat, and that one of only two viable political parties in the United States—the Republican Party—has spent the last few decades displaying what can be most charitably described as an increasingly gleeful indifference to representative governance and the rule of law in the United States.

The Voters

Even a slim sampling of real-world Trump supporters and Republican voters will tell you that they are not the monsters they appear to be in popular media. Only the most extreme examples of the breed are ever put on film. For the most part, they are ordinary humans with conservative political preferences. Indeed, many of them are good, admirable people. The sort of folks who will pull over to help a stranger stranded in a blizzard. Class acts, through and through.

They have also shown themselves to be precisely the sort of people who will give power to someone like Adolph Hitler. And, yes, Donald Trump is like Hitler. Like Hitler, he is in the class of leaders fully indifferent to the public good and the rule of law—a deranged demagogue willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants; a power-worshipping menace who sees brute force as a viable political tool. 

Of course, there’s an argument that, in extremis, such a beast—ready to abandon all principle and throw support behind the right kind of monster—lurks in many of us. That’s a big, scary maybe for most. For those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020, it’s a dead certainty. 

But even those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 aren’t without blame. Back then, his nature was already obvious. His entire biography up until that point had been a self-made portrait of greed and selfishness. Politically, he was a screaming ignoramus, completely oblivious to the most basic workings of American government. And, just as a person, his monstrous nature was equally undeniable: a serial adulterer, profligate liar, renowned cheat, and boastful sexual predator. 

Hardly shocking that such a man would adopt an approach to governing more akin to an Idi Amin or Muammar Gaddafi than an Abraham Lincoln or even a Ronald Reagan. Again, these aren’t precise analogies. We’re just grouping like with like. 

So what happened? That, to a significant degree, is an open question. Explanations abound, from anxieties over demographic replacement and cultural change to raw economic distress and the rise of siloed political ecosystems, completely overrun with lies and misinformation. Few of these explanations are mutually exclusive. For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter. None of the concerns that might have motivated a Donald Trump—alone or in combination—is sufficient to justify a vote for the man. At every point, a vote for Donald Trump was a vote against America’s constitutional order, the rule of law, and the ideals behind the American Experiment writ large. 

And this is the first ugly truth with which we must reckon: the men and women who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 abrogated their responsibility as citizens. Maintaining the American system of governance isn’t just a mandate for elected officials—it is a responsibility shared among all voters. Everyone who voted for Donald Trump unambiguously failed in that charge. We must recognize this. Say it out loud and write it into the history books. And then, once all that is done, we need to unreservedly forgive them. 

The Party

In reckoning with the legacy of Donald Trump, we cannot afford to absolve the Republican Party. Their hand-wringing in the wake of January 6’s disgraceful chaos is purely performative. Many of them cheerily spread the lies that incited the violence. Plenty still do. In fact, even after the violence had ceased and the insurrectionists had been expelled, 147 Republicans—that is, the majority of Republicans in congress—still voted against certifying President-elect Biden’s lawful victory.

It is a cold, cutting reminder that Donald Trump didn’t happen by accident. Decades of calculated Republican politics paved the path for his ascension. There is no reason to believe they won’t continue to engage in the same kind of politics once he is gone. 

When Trump won the Republican primary in 2016, plenty of people were shocked. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can see Trump’s victory for what it was: an inevitability. He won the Republican nomination for president in 2016 because he is an open and honest avatar of the ethos Republicans have been preaching with escalating fervor since at least the 1980s. That ethos? Nothing beats raw, rugged self-interest.

This, again, is no surprise. The intellectual roots of modern conservatism are set in harebrained ideologies about the optimality of rational self-interest. In today’s GOP, the idea that the government should get out of the way and let the rich get rich while everyone else squabbles over scraps is fully de rigueur. Turns out, the party that spews devotion to country like it comes cheap really only follows one doctrine: have no allegiance beyond thyself. It’s the slogan Donald Trump has lived by his entire life. 

It’s not a new development. As early as the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idea that the United States was falling victim to a glacial socialist coup was beginning to gain traction in conservative intellectual circles. There, the libertarian views of folks like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James M. Buchanan, and Milton Freedman* were increasingly in vogue. What started as suspicion—that things like environmental protection, workplace safety regulation, social security, medicare, minimum wage laws, and public lands management were fundamentally illegitimate uses of government power—gradually blossomed into conviction. 

Not only is this worldview ethically repulsive, it also lacks any solid intellectual footing. In its most pristine and abstract form, this a worldview rooted in demonstrably false ideas, equally detached from any kind of scientific understanding of human behavior and the raw facts of human history as visions of a communist utopia.

Indeed, the communist movements of the early and middle 20th century supply one of the modern GOP’s most illuminating historical parallels. Both are what happen when people forcefully substitute a picture of what reality is actually like with a picture of how they would like it to be. Throughout the twentieth century, many serious, intelligent people bought into communist ideologies and became thoroughly convinced they had found humanity’s best way forward. As a result, they willingly supported authoritarian regimes and participated in unspeakable atrocities. 

Much the same is true of the modern GOP. The ideology is radically different, but its intellectual footings are equally unhinged and the promised utopia just as ill-conceived. Simply spelled out, they believe that humans, freed from the burden of taxation and pursuing their own individual self-interests in a fully deregulated free market, will spontaneously build the best possible society, both in terms of fairness and resource distribution. It is, of course, an insane vision—and a far cry from the Millsian governmental restraint of classical liberalism. And it only gets worse from there, as more extreme members of the Republican Party liberally season their Ayn Randian libertarianism with white nationalism and an incongruent dose of theocratic authoritarianism. 

Since first gaining traction, this radicalism has only spread. Billionaire ideologues like Charles and David Koch organized a vast network of plutocrats and funnelled tens of millions of dollars into deliberate indoctrination campaigns. They used organizations like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Federalist Society to preach the good word of rational self-interest and unfettered capitalism to anyone willing to listen. Meanwhile, they groomed future judges and funded hardline primary challenges to unseat moderate Republicans, building a coalition of converts that has been increasingly successful at putting theory into practice. Public goods have been privatized, regulations rolled back, taxes cut on wealthy Americans and massive corporations, oligarchic influence granted constitutional protections—all with a zealot’s faith that these actions would build the best possible world for everyone.  

Increasingly convinced that taxes and regulations represent a slow walk into Soviet-style tyranny—and that the United States should function as a white, Christian theocracy—Republican politicians, thinkers, and media figures became more and more recalcitrant. During the 1990s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich made treating the opposition like an existential threat—now standard practice in the Republican Party and a direct cause of January 6’s violent insurrection—an official GOP policy. At the same time, entrepreneurs in cable news and political talk radio learned to monetize political grievances by flattering conservative political biases, thereby radicalizing many American conservatives in the process. 

All extremely corrosive to representative governance in the United States. All perfectly consistent with the doctrines of greed and selfishness that form the core of 21st century Republican politics. For decades, with varying degrees of opacity, Republicans have been advancing the argument that the best way forward for America is for each and every American to do whatever they can (barring, prior to January 6, 2021, direct violence to people or property) to secure their own best interests. With straight faces, activists like Grover Norquist—who badgers and cajoles virtually every Republican politician into signing a clownish anti-tax pledge—argue that taxation is equivalent to slavery** and basic entitlements like social security and Medicaid represent an outright pinko assault on individual liberty. 

It’s a perverse, historically illiterate, and ethically vile perspective, essentially arguing that financial support for public goods is a human rights violation. But these absurd notions—that a government taking money from private citizens to build roads, fund education and national security efforts, and provide a safety net for the vulnerable is morally equivalent to slavery; that government regulations aimed at protecting natural resources and mitigating the harmful byproducts of industry are tyrannical—were common currency in the Republican Party long before Trump tossed his name into the ring as a presidential candidate. In 2016, the Republican electorate simply confirmed that they had bought everything the Grand Old Party had been selling. They just wanted it in an honest package, fully stripped of the appeals to public spiritedness, mutual toleration, respect for democratic norms, and basic human decency you might get from someone like Mitt Romney. Donald Trump was no aberration. He is the living, breathing distillation of everything the Republican Party has preached for at least forty years. 

For most Americans, these ideas are unpalatable. But rather than shape a platform with broader appeal, the Republican Party has instead labored to amplify the obvious structural flaws in the U.S. Constitution that give acreage a voice alongside voters. Just consider: California has a population 68 times larger than Wyoming, but in the electoral college, a citizen in Wyoming has 52 times more representation than a citizen in California. This is a problem the Founding Fathers did not anticipate or appreciate. It benefits Republicans massively, allowing them to secure political influence that grossly exceeds their numbers, such that both of the last two Republican presidents came into power on fewer votes than their opponent (hundreds of thousands for Bush, millions for Trump). Meanwhile, the majority Republicans maintained in the Senate between 2019 and 2021 represented around 20 million fewer voters than the Democratic minority. Elected Republicans cheerily embrace this anti-democratic imbalance, acting as if the framers of American government were not humans but infallible oracles. 

The unfiltered reality here is that the Republican Party has been an open threat to American democracy for quite a long time. This is true even if you set aside their strange embrace of the screamingly obvious design flaws the Founders left in the Constitution and focus only on their recent legislative track record. Over the past two decades, Republicans have worked to make voting harder and harder for people unlikely to vote for them. Meanwhile, they have appointed “originalist” justices to the Supreme Court, who have handed down rulings like Citizens United vs. FEC and McCutchen vs. FEC that give wealthy individuals and corporations increasingly exaggerated influence over the shape of our elections and the legislation they ultimately produce. Throughout 2020, they enthusiastically supported a president who refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, thereby undermining a cornerstone of representative governance and the rule of law. American democracy has eroded in recent years. The Republican Party—together with the deranged and rapacious carnival barkers in the conservative media echo chamber—has been the chief instrument of that decay. 

Living in the Painful Wake of Truth

Nations that have been gripped by turmoil, instability, violence, and tragedy, sometimes form truth and reconciliation committees. Ultimately, what this amounts to is a process of finding out precisely what went wrong, who did what and why, and then moving past it. In a way, it’s political group therapy. Painful and difficult, but also useful and, often enough, essential, truth and reconciliation committees supply a template for overcoming vast sociopolitical difficulty. 

The United States should establish a formal truth and reconciliation committee. But ordinary citizens need not wait for some official proclamation to start the work. In fact, given the nature of our national emergency, we can afford no delay. We must talk, freely and openly, about the forces that have nearly crippled our capacity to function as a representative democracy.

The events of January 6, 2021 were disgusting, shocking, and disgraceful. The Republican Party, as an institution, played a massive role in causing them—not only spreading malicious fabrications about the security and legitimacy of the 2020 election, but working steadily for decades to undermine public faith in the basic human capacity to use governments as instruments to solve problems and better people’s lives. Indeed, even after a raving mob of conspiracy theorists stormed through the Capitol building, 139 Republicans in the House of Representatives—that is, the majority of them—and 8 in the Senate voted against certifying election results in Pennsylvania and Arizona. Their stated motivations have no basis in reality. These are simply people who have no respect for representative governance or the rule of law. Every atom of pain caused in the January 6 insurrection is on their hands—and the hands of the people who voted for them. 

This moment could hardly be more precarious. But we aren’t going to be able to back off this ledge and move forward absent an honest reckoning with how we got here. The Republican Party and conservative media are directly—and chiefly—to blame for the dismal state of American politics. Meanwhile, millions of our neighbors have shown us that, under the right circumstances, they will send a would-be tyrannt to the White House. 

We have to forgive our neighbors this transgression. Not, to be clear, those who actively took part in an insurrection against American democracy. They should be punished to the fullest extent of the law—and be made subject to whatever social sanctions their friends, family, and employers deem appropriate. But the ordinary Americans who voted for Donald Trump and otherwise went about their lives made a mistake. Provided they can admit as much, they deserve a pass. Complete absolution. 

For Republican leaders and media figures, the situation is far trickier. For decades, the Republican Party has operated in a climate of political hysterics, hoping to build their extremist vision of capitalist utopia.*** The true believers really see democratic governance as an existential threat to their way of life—a slow crawl to some kind of socialist hellscape. But the party of rugged self-interest has also attracted plenty of unprincipled crooks and sycophants—men like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, Duncan Hunter and Lindsey Graham—who don’t seem to believe anything at all—save, of course, that they can and should do whatever they can to gain personal power and profit, irrespective of the consequences. Barring an embarrassingly small handful of exceptions, that is the Republican Party of 2021—a party of gibbering ideological extremists and conspiracy theorists, liberally seasoned with reflexively perfidious and self-interested goons. 

Indeed, despite his pro-democracy rhetoric in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, Senator Mitch McConnell has built a career around defying democratic norms in pursuit of myopic political ends, working with Donald Trump to install ideological zealots—men and women sympathetic to the extreme doctrines outlined above—on courts throughout the nation. In 2016, he blocked President Barack Obama’s constitutionally mandated supreme court appointment, and marked the full sweep of President Obama’s tenure with an open commitment to derail his entire agenda—and, by extension, the will of every American who had voted him into office. It’s possible an insurrection was enough to shake McConnell and cause him to rethink his behavior. It’s also highly unlikely. 

Point being, we would be fools to give the Republican Party a second chance. For years, they have championed a platform rooted in cynical, predatory appeals to people’s worst instincts—superstition, fear, paranoia, greed, self-interest, xenophobia, tribalism, bigotry, religious mania—and watched their brand become less and less attractive to more and more Americans as a result. In response, they have not moderated their views, but instead doubled-down on a strategy of minority rule. Recognizing this, it becomes clear that preserving representative governance and the rule of law in the United States will involve both crushing the Republican Party out of existence and forgiving everyone who ever voted for them. 

*As with Karl Marx, one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. These men were mostly intellectuals. A subset of their ideas spawned extremist political movements. But, as always, one should treat the full scope of the work, character, and lives with a proper mix of curiosity, charity, and context. I hope future generations will do likewise for me if any of my bad ideas inspire a movement that threatens representative governance and the rule of law after I’m dead. 

**Noteworthy here is the simple fact that someone upset about the tax code in one state or country can move to a place they find more amenable to their financial interests. Slaves who decided grinding their bones into dust as a piece of private property—particularly the Black chattel slaves directly insulted by this line of thinking—never had that option. Many of those who tried to take it anyway were brutalized and murdered as a result. 

***Capitalism, to be clear, is not some kind of abject evil. Generally speaking, open markets and economic liberty are a good thing. But the extreme position—that individual humans pursuing their personal interests in a market stripped of everything save the most basic protections on life and property is a route to the best possible society—is absurd.

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Partisan Identity and the Death of Representative Governance

 

There is a danger in thinking of ourselves as political and—more precisely—partisan animals. A big chunk of our modern political derangement flows directly from incorporating ideas like “liberal” and “conservative” into our individual identities. As I write in an essay at MerionWest, this is dry kindling for the spread of partisan discord.

On either side of the political spectrum, discourse is dominated by unhinged ideologues whose voices are amplified by their reactionary opposites and an attention-hungry media that feasts on controversy. The most salient opinions are often those most thoroughly divorced from discernible reality. From pole to pole, nuance and clarity are actively derided. On the political right, a pandemic has become a hub for belligerence and conspiracy theories. On the political left, race, gender, and power have suddenly transformed into religious fetishes, and dissent has become an act of intolerable violence. The political arena is no longer a contest of ideas, but of identities.

None of this reflects a political reality anyone would esteem. And most of us—regardless of how we voted in the last election—recognize this. But because the idea of left and right, of liberal and conservative, has seeped so deeply into our brains and characterizes so much of our political discourse, many of us are left fumbling for fresh traction. There is something kooky—even dangerous—going on in the shrill fringes. It is true wherever you look. Unfortunately, our way of understanding ourselves as political animals does not leave us with a lot of options. Open dissent from political orthodoxy risks excommunication—from friends, from family, from professional affiliations.

Read more at MerionWest.

Thinking Thoughts About Gods and Science in Other Venues

I recently wrote a couple of brief op-ed for the website Atheist Republic, an online community for folks inclined toward secular thinking.

I figured I would link to them below. Follow the links for the full text.

Religious Belief is Hard Work 

Religious belief stands in belligerent indifference to information about what the world is like. It persists in spite of nature, not because of it. The scales started to fall from eyes as I developed a deeper and more expansive understanding of science. In a panicked state of youthful naivety, I tried to justify my religious beliefs despite the fact that they were contradicted by many of the more elegant and substantive truths derived from science. It was an exhausting struggle.

Aspirational Atheism

…an embrace of reason need not stop at recognition of and resistance to the harms of superstitious belief. It can also inform our sense of what we want for ourselves and our fellow humans. Reason leads us to reject religion, but it also leads us to recognize our shared humanity. It leads to the eradication of disease and the recognition of individual human rights. Embracing reason is the groundwork for unleashing human potential and building a world increasingly amenable to the business of human thriving.

On the Value of Work

Historian James Livingston has written an interesting piece for Aeon. In it, he asks “what is the value of work?” – a question given added urgency by the fact that, hanging just over the horizon, is a future where advances in AI and automation may wipe out a huge segment of job market.

The conviction that there is a clear correspondence between effort and reward probably emerged on the pre-industrial American frontiers. Out in the hinterlands, the connection between hard work and economic return is always obvious. If you’re a farmer, the amount of food you harvest follows directly from the amount of seeds you sow, the work you put into building irrigation systems, and the time you spend tending your crops. Ranchers would have had more beef to sell if they spent more time watching their herds. For a fur trapper, supplies and money varied in proportion to the number of hides he could sell back to a company at the end of the season. Gold prospectors got more money out of mining more gold.

Today, the relationships are considerably more nebulous. Those who have had a lot of luck in life are quick to point to the efforts that preceded it. No doubt, those are causally efficacious, but they are hardly comprehensively explanatory. There are plenty of people who work hard and go nowhere. Likewise, there are even a few people who become wealthy beyond any coherent sense of proportion to the value they add to society. Was the work Lloyd Blankfein did in 2015 really worth over $23 million? Are there products circulating the globe whose value has been increased by $71.5 billion dollars by the efforts of Warren Buffett? Those questions are clearly rhetorical, because the objective answer is a flat, unequivocal “no”.

To argue otherwise is to imbue markets with a sort mystic omnipotence, suggesting that the prices that emerge from economic transactions are always and everywhere reflective of their true value. Which is pure, unadulterated nonsense. There’s simply no way for economic agents to account for all the information that kind of computation would require. As a result, situations emerge where subsidiaries achieve market valuations in excess of their parent companies, or where an 86 year old man is worth $71.5 billion dollars despite never having invented a world-altering technology, discovered a lifesaving medical treatment, or even sold a piece of art. That people have profited immensely from grossly unethical – sometimes even outright criminal behavior – without ever suffering the slightest consequence suggests that the myth that human value is somehow reflected or enhanced by wages and net worth is not only misguided, but laughably deranged.

Once, decades – maybe even centuries – ago, under certain conditions at the fringes of the industrialized world, that was true. Not any longer. Some people work hard and do pretty well for themselves. Others work just as hard and accrue riches greater than the GDPs of entire nations. Some work even harder – two jobs and brutal swing shifts – and can’t save enough to retire or afford health insurance. Desperate to preserve that crusty, ramshackle American ethos of rugged individualism and the self-made man, some might interject that surely, while it is possible to succeed tremendously or fail miserably despite your best efforts, it is also true that it is impossible to succeed at all without at least putting your shoulder to the wheel in the first place. For the most part, that’s probably true – but I would remind that misty-eyed romantic that there are people alive and wealthy today because a rich man’s sperm fertilized a rich woman’s egg – generations ago.

Speech and Expression on the University Campus: Insights from a Concerned Millenial

Let’s be clear at the outset. The world is populated by the victims of injustice. Aside from an incredibly small coterie of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) people, it’s difficult to find many individuals whose family tree is not somewhere populated by people who have been oppressed, marginalized, or brutalized by the privileged and powerful. Examples of vicious, criminal exploitation and fiery intergroup conflict are littered across the reaches of history. Deeper still, into prehistory – written in depressed skull fractures and broken bones and embedded projectile points that tell the story of some anonymous group’s inability to recognize the members of another as fully human.

Most of the time, when a person claims to have been the target of racism or sexism or ethnocentrism, politically or economically disenfranchised by a culture indifferent to their experience, it’s worth taking them seriously. But there is a segment of Western intellectual culture that has inadvertently begun to corrupt these legitimate grievances into an engine for authoritarian control. Rightly recognizing the colossal disparities in opportunity scattered across modern social, political, and economic landscapes, they seek to champion equality by creating strict parameters on the bounds of permissible speech and rigorously silencing dissent. Laudable intentions aside, they have launched a campaign that begs for resistance from those who prize intellectual liberty and cherish diversity.

Nowhere are the battle lines more clear than on university campuses, where social justice warriors (SJWs) are pressing a hard front against what they perceive as a system that has consistently marginalized minority and fringe groups as a matter of institutional design. Universities are, for them, mechanisms for neoliberal indoctrination, where students are taught to perpetuate a destructive social and economic order.

Generationally speaking, most of these people are my peers – millennials who have been taught to frame the world in terms of narratives and identity. It’s impossible to understand their motivations without recognizing this. Whether they realize it or not (and many of them don’t), they are acting on the tradition of idealist thought that begat postmodernism, a pernicious school of intellectual pedantry wherein subjective experience is given primacy as arbiter of truth. Grossly misguided on a number of fronts, the postmodern tradition nonetheless exerts a powerful influence on the reasoning of those who seek to foment social change by either co-opting or reframing what they see as the prevailing narrative.

This places them in conflict with defenders of classical liberalism, who view truth as something discoverable. In this view, reality has a singular nature and there are objective truths about the world that can be uncovered through criticism, discourse, observation, and experimentation. Importantly, this goes beyond the realm of physical reality and hard scientific fact. Even in the social world, there are conditional facts. These take the form of statements like, given goals A, B, and C, social system x is better than z and y. Classical liberalism sees progress as not only possible, but desirable. Necessarily, this breed of liberalism celebrates diversity, debate, and boundless inquiry.

Sparks fly between classical and “postmodern” liberalism when it comes to setting up the conditions of discourse. Given their view on truth, adherents to the classical school oppose most limits on expression. Absent forms of speech and lines of inquiry that lead directly to measurable harm, everything ought to be on the table. This sets the stage for reciprocal patterns of criticism and feedback that, however gradually, tend to improve our understanding of how the world works – and the lives of those who live in it. In the postmodern view, discourse is a matter of narrative – it’s about who can do the best job of disseminating their ideas about how the world does or should work. No one is searching for truth because they don’t think truth – in the strict sense of objective, universally applicable facts – exists. Instead, they’re trying to get their personal truth the highest platform and loudest megaphone. Not surprising, those sympathetic to this line of thinking are far more comfortable with tactics that involve limiting the speech of their ideological opponents. All they are doing is clearing a path for what they perceive to be a more righteous narrative.

To this end, trigger warnings, no-platforming, social and/or institutional sanctions on microaggressions, and concern over cultural appropriation are being wielded by social justice warriors on the postmodern left as instruments of social control. They seek to advance narratives of marginalization and disenfranchisement (that, I can’t stress this enough, are far too often rooted in reality) by erasing the narratives that have served to justify or perpetuate cycles of oppression and victimization. Correctly, they recognize that black Americans, transgendered people, immigrants, and other minorities have been systematically mistreated and abused by a dominant social and economic order that is, at best, indifferent to their concerns. Partial resolution and recompense, in their view, comes from stifling the vectors by which the ideas perpetuating that old order are spread.

For the postmodern left, to countenance – or even listen to – the expression of ideas that run contrary to their agenda is to legitimize them. Thus motivated, they frequently pressure university authorities to disinvite speakers who promote concepts and perspectives they feel are controversial or threatening. Failing this, they berate and harass speakers, hoping through sheer voluminous and cacophonous antagonism to prevent the expression of viewpoints that make them feel angry or uncomfortable.

In some cases, the targets of the postmodern left’s righteous ire are truly reprehensible people, trumpeting discredited or hideous notions about race and sex and inequality. Other times, their crimes are more mundane – regular folk who happen to have said something in poor taste. Bad manners – recently rebranded as “microaggressions” by the authoritarian left – are often sufficient grounds for excommunication from the realm of civil discourse. As a result, everyone from leftist comedians and former democratic politicians to right-wing ideologues have seen their opportunities to speak in university venues threatened or outright rescinded.

The problem with all of this is, chiefly, that using one person or group’s subjective experience of offense to curtail the speech of another makes the field of legitimate discourse an infinitely retreating frontier. In classical liberalism, the threshold between acceptable and unacceptable speech is clear. For the postmodern left, it’s nebulous and fluid, changing with the company. Taking their strategies for muffling opposition seriously immediately begs the question: who gets to decide who says what and where? If the answer is that everyone has a right to hit the mute switch on any ideas they find hurtful or distressing, limitations on speech become an unstoppable kudzu, spreading and choking expression into a pacified husk.

In my experience, members of the postmodern left recoil at the suggestion that their views on speech – and the range of mechanisms they feel are appropriate for protesting the speech of others – are tainted with such blatant authoritarian overtones. It is, according to the common refrain, about privilege and positionality. Privilege is, of course, highly germane to any discussion that touches on concerns over the politically and socially disenfranchised and positionality is just an obnoxiously pedantic repackaging of a childhood truism: different people have different perspectives.

Properly boiled down, concerns about privilege return to the problem of unequal access to the tools and mediums that help people promote their perspectives. This is, in the vernacular of the postmodern left, a worry over who has the capacity to get their narrative to the most ears. Granting the obvious, they are right to note that not everyone has equal access to platforms for spreading their ideas. For instance, I could get my ideas about the ills of society and their appropriate remedies to a lot more people if I had a TV show somewhere in the quagmire of banality that is the 24 hours news cycle. But, to the detriment of humanity, I don’t – which places me in a relationship of unequal access to those that do. By the same token, there are those against which my access to tools for self-expression looks remarkably privileged: I have the Internet in my home – not everyone does; I have a passing grasp of written English – not everyone does; I have a college education – not everyone does; and so forth.

According to the SJW playbook, expression is a zero-sum game. Those who have extraordinary access to the most effective means for disseminating their ideas do so because other people do not. Consequently, efforts to limit the speech of the privileged – and thereby curtail the spread of the narratives they promote – are considered valid ways of leveling the playing field. If everyone can’t have their own TV show on a major network, no one should. If this sounds puerile in the extreme, it’s because it is. Nevertheless, it is precisely the reasoning SJWs have deployed to justify their efforts to badger their ideological opponents into silence. Recently, the activist and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied used this line of thinking to argue that white novelists shouldn’t be permitted to convey the perspectives and experiences of minorities in their fiction. Doing so, in her mind, represents a form of theft. If a white author tells the story of a gay black woman, it spells fewer opportunities for gay black women to tell stories of their own.

The absurdity of this argument should be self-evident, but allow me to expound. It’s not that members of marginalized groups don’t deserve better, more effective platforms for sharing their perspectives. They do. But getting them to that point isn’t a matter of putting caps and boundaries on the expression of other people. My lack of a cable news show or book deal isn’t due to the fact Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have lucrative contracts in both domains. That’s not to say there aren’t people who face real – even insurmountable – institutional barriers. It just that getting the right people over those barriers, or – better still – permanently obliterating those barriers for everyone, isn’t a matter of erecting new obstacles for the people lucky enough to have been born with more privilege and power.

Positionality, on the other hand, fuels a brand of identity politics that inadvertently justifies and encourages authoritarianism. Because the postmodern left disavows the very notion of objective, discoverable truth, they are disturbingly sympathetic to the view that personal experience is the source of an infinitely expanding world of subjective truths. This opens the door to arguments of the form “as a person of identity A, I have access to experiences a, b, and c, creating opinion X, which – due to identity A – cannot be questioned.” The idea that anyone’s personal experience grants them unique access to an unassailable personal truth is, in no uncertain terms, absurd. Individual identity and personal experience gives one access to a unique opinion and perspective – open to endless challenge and dispute and, by metrics independent of their identity and experience, potentially wrong. Individual opinions on the causes of climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, or the roots of police brutality are immaterial to the hard reality of their causes, efficacy, and roots.

Privileging personal perspective in this way is not only logically fallacious, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Make no mistake – this line of thinking has the capacity to corrode the very foundations of civil society. If objective reality is either entirely unknowable or directly dependent on personal experience, all claims to truth are automatically granted equal validity. A postmodern SJW campaigning against racial discrimination or economic disenfranchisement has no basis for questioning the views of her ideological opponents. She can’t claim that the bigoted, hateful beliefs that motivate many of Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters are wrong – the inferiority of black people, the chaos wrought be Mexican immigrants, and the inane white victimhood narrative aren’t ill-founded nonsense, they’re a part of that person’s lived experience and personal truth. It would be surprising if most SJWs did not find this line of argument repellent, but it is implicit in their worldview. If you think truth is subjective and “positionality” grants a person special access to distinct, unquestionable realities, you can’t claim that a member of the Aryan Brotherhood’s opinion on white superiority or a Wall Street hedge fund managers opinions on economic equality are unfounded. You’ve abdicated your entire basis for evaluation by rejecting the notion of objective, discoverable truth.

Paradoxically, this is problem of privilege on all fronts. It’s difficult to spot a person pleading for trigger warnings or bemoaning the proliferation of microaggressions from a gutter. These are concerns for people who attend liberal arts classes in a rich, modern, industrialized country. Imagine a person complaining about the apparent misuse of cultural emblems while struggling to get out from under a predatory title loan, forced into poverty because a stint in prison over a petty drug offense is strangling their job prospects, or starving to death in a third-world hovel. Certainly it’s not impossible, but it seems strikingly unlikely. The recent authoritarian push from the postmodern left is only possible in world where people have the luxury to fret on behalf of the truly marginalized and oppressed.

Likewise, it’s easier to disparage the notion of objective truth if you live in a social climate that distances you from the costs of your ignorance. Objective truths about the nature of illness and efficacy of vaccines have eliminated diseases and extended human lives. Living in a society where at least some influential segment of the population – including scientists, entrepreneurs, and some politicians – have consistently endorsed the notion of objective, discoverable truth and rigorously applied that perspective for generations has gone a long way toward buffering the postmodern left from the costs that would be entailed by taking their views seriously. They don’t have to worry about catching smallpox, have the ability to navigate unfamiliar cities via GPS, and maintain virtually limitless access to numerous outlets for instantly communicating their identity narratives because other people have accepted the idea of knowable reality and universal truth and made incredible scientific discoveries as a result. In the same vein, all social progress – representative government, the abolition of slavery, public education, women’s suffrage, civil rights, marriage equality, social assistance programs – emerge from the work of people who accept the proposition that there a conditional truths about how to build good societies.

Certainly there are students whose ethnicity or gender identity presents them with unique challenges. For me – a white, cisgendered male from a middle-class family – to criticize their activism places me on incredibly fraught ground. In many ways, I am privileged. But the notion that my privilege bars me from the conversation, fatally hobbling my capacity to offer constructive criticisms or a defense of cherished liberal values like unfettered speech and intellectual freedom is reprehensible. It suggests there is gulf between me and my fellow humans that is fundamentally unbridgeable, and that kind of thinking has never been a recipe for building a more just, inclusive society. Yeah, I’ll never know what it’s like to be a black man in routine traffic stop or a transgendered woman searching for a restroom in the rural American south. But these are graver instances of a more mundane truism, because I’ll never really know what it’s like to be my white, male neighbor either. That doesn’t mean there isn’t value in trying. Putting bounds on what people can and cannot say seems like a reliable way to make sure no one ever succeeds.

Conversely,  no one’s individual identity or personal experience supplies them with exclusive access to information about the causes of or solutions to the world’s social, economic, and political woes. These are subjects for rigorous, boundless investigation and intense, open discussion. No one’s personal truth will solve racism, nor will putting limits on what varieties of personal experience and individual heritage  are considered germane to the debate.

By all means, advocate for the disenfranchised. That is immensely important work. Those who make it a driving force in their lives are worthy of immense admiration. But no part of a campaign to make the world as good as possible for the most possible people can entail a reduction in anyone’s capacity to express themselves or engage in their favored intellectual pursuits. Bigotry and oppression won’t be erased by silencing their advocates. They’ll be erased by open criticism and debate, by exposing people to other points of view and showing them the inherent humanity underneath superficially insurmountable cultural divides. It’s not about the triumph of individual identity narratives. It’s about the triumph of a single, inescapable truth – that all human lives are inherently valuable – and making that truth manifest in the lives of more than just the socially and economically privileged.

Accepting that aim necessarily entails accepting that there is still a hell of a lot of work to be done. It doesn’t entail establishing endlessly malleable strictures on who can contribute and a priori constraints on what types of contributions are useful. That’s not a recipe for utopia, it’s a recipe for misery. Progress demands accepting the truth of our shared humanity and convincing people that progress entails maximizing the happiness and well-being of all humans. Then we can set about the business of discovering how to best achieve that end – which, it turns out, is a matter of measurable fact, not infinite subjective opinion.

OFFENSIVE

I couldn’t find the identity of whoever created this dandy little flow chart (whoever you are, thanks), but I leave it here in honor of all the SJWs who will ignore everything I’ve written here, then tell me to check my privilege and think of other people’s positionality.

What Do You Know for Certain? If You’re Trying to be Rational, Absolutely Nothing

People often greatly overestimate the ease and accessibility of rational decision making. Most choices – from where to eat for dinner to what to buy with disposable income, from who to vote for in presidential elections to what ideas to accept as good explanations for natural phenomena – are not based on a logical assessment of the available facts. On a proximate level, most people do not have enough information to reliably anchor a process of rational analysis. But more fundamentally, most people lack the combination of intellectual fortitude, integrity, and humility to admit that they are wrong, and – on a more rudimentary level – unsure. Uncertainty is the cornerstone of rational decision making. Those unwilling to shoulder the burden of perpetual doubt are forever hobbled in their ability to coolly and reasonably evaluate the relationships between claims and evidence.

Of course, even those willing to accept the reality of ubiquitous uncertainty are not immune from the pitfalls of emotional reasoning, limited information, and practical time constraints. Emotional preferences are a critical ingredient in any process of decision making. This fact is inescapable. What we “feel” about things often matters as much as what we “think” about them. It is also true that people rarely have access to a table set with all relevant information, nor is it reasonable to expect anyone to have the cognitive capacity to fully encompass it all even if they did. Viewed properly, perfectly rational analysis is a mirage – a fiction of Platonic form.

Nevertheless, those willing to nurture a sense of doubt can, at the very least, aspire to rationality. For the doctrinaire and dogmatic, rationality is a hopeless dream. Those who claim to know, absent any and all provisionality, that a certain perspective is best – that their religion is true, that their favorite “-ism” (capitalism, socialism, feminism etc.) represents the best way to view and structure the world – are signally incapable of intelligently assessing whether or not their ideas are actually useful reflections of anything that exists in the world.

Which is not to say one can’t be more or less confident about this or that idea. One can – and must – deploy an unequal distribution of confidence regarding different claims about the nature of the world. But only – as Descartes argued centuries ago – if one is willing to start from a place where all claims have been reduced (at least in principle) to targets of open and honest inquiry. This much is obvious. The more important point relates to how one treats his or her beliefs going forward. No one should hold a view in such high regard, imbued with such a high level of confidence, that they are unwilling to drop it in the face of newer, more reliable information.

All of this begs an important question. Perhaps you’ve already guessed it: how realistic is it to expect people to behave this way, to display this kind of zen detachment toward cherished ideas? The answer, in most cases, is not very. Yet there is value in the striving. The very attempt to apply this kind of balanced skepticism and uncertainty elevates one’s ability to fruitfully evaluate information well above that of anyone mired in a false sense of certitude. The very essence of absolute certainty is irrevocable irrationality, rooted in crass braggadocio or grasping emotionalism. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is not only an expression of humility, it is an accurate reflection of the kinds of knowledge we can realistically hope to attain, giving us the best possible angle from which to test ideas against evidence.

Doubt is the quintessence of rationality.