Category Archives: books

John Stuart Mill: The Subjection of Women

In a recent talk, Christina Sommers was asked why she still claims the mantle of feminism after spending so many years trying to defeat the bad ideas that have seemingly consumed its ideological center. She responded that she felt that the classical liberal model of feminism for which she advocates has proven itself a triumph of human emancipation and she wants to see it returned to its former glory. Among the champions of classical liberal feminism on whose work she models her own vision, Sommers cited the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Wollstonecraft, and John Stuart Mill. By reclaiming these ideas, she quipped that she wanted to Make Feminism Great Again. When I picked up this book, a piece of me hoped that I was going to find that inspirational core that Ms. Sommers wants to reclaim. Though it is considered a canonical work of classical liberal feminism, the few worthwhile arguments contained in John Stuart Mill’s famous essay, The Subjection of Women, are overshadowed by what mostly sounds like a foundational text for much of the rhetoric one hears in modern intersectional feminism. 

Published in 1869, Mill’s essay ran contrary to the cultural and political norms of 19th century England. Just as Voltaire’s and Thomas Paine’s broadsides against the religious establishment were transgressive in their time, Mill’s argument was provocative in its time albeit for slightly different reasons. The colossal irony is that the arguments Mill makes that are genuinely liberal would be considered absolute heresy to the modern intersectional feminist. Some of Mill’s claims have aged well while others have been utterly demolished by the passage of time and the availability of empirical data. What’s perhaps most annoying is that almost 150 years have passed since this essay was written, women have been granted the voting franchise along with a host of legal privileges, and despite dominating academia and media, feminists still act as though their ideas are challenging and heterodox.  If anything, modern feminism is not interested in emancipation at all. It’s about according unquestioned deference to the idea that women are still living in subjection and any gains that have been made are either insufficient, suspect or to be disregarded altogether. Even worse, it’s about making men pay penance over the belief that women are presently held in subjection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

Besides being a plea for political equality, The Subjection of Women touches on the psychology of obedience, the connection between morality, liberty and Christian faith, gender differences in skill and nature, and ways in which the patriarchal hierarchy of authority within the family manifested in the democratic state. At the time of its writing, the voting franchise was granted exclusively to men who owned property. Women were, in fact, subject to a fairly rigid set of cultural norms and standards which simultaneously created the foundations for a stable social order and fueled enough angst for female Victorian-era authors and feminist academics for decades to come. Mill rightfully takes aim at the various ways in which law specifically sanctioned such subjection and subordination, but otherwise veers off into unfounded assumption and muddled sophistry. Throughout the essay, Mill repeatedly refers to the subordinate role of women in the most dire terms. By Mill’s reasoning, women apparently possess little or no ability to freely express love, affection nor do they have any genuine willingness to be wives or mothers. He invokes words like “slavery” and “control” while simultaneously recognizing that there has been an ongoing improvement for the lives of men and women alike. Marriage is, at best, a benevolent form of “bondage”. His entire case hinges on speculation over what could be under equal enfranchisement; the results of which can now be measured with approximately 150 years of political history to survey. 

All that is proved in its favour by direct experience, is that mankind have been able to exist under it, and to attain the degree of improvement and prosperity which we now see; but whether that prosperity has been attained sooner, or is now greater, than it would have been under the other system, experience does not say.

Mill often sounds like a social constructionist throughout the piece.  He seems to be dismissive of biological differences while placing an inordinate emphasis on the degree to which convention shapes female nature. If anything, this betrays the low opinion he holds of female agency or the degree to which women were equal partners in constructing social convention. Admittedly, the social conventions were rigidly upheld and women were encouraged to marry during the time he wrote the essay, but this is also partially due to the fact that, at the time of publication, women outnumbered men as a result of military conscription. Once again, feminists mysteriously overlook the “privilege” of being conscripted to die in a war simply for being born male and able bodied.  

It may be asserted without scruple, that no other class of dependents have had their character so entirely distorted from its natural proportions by their relation with their masters; for, if conquered and slave races have been, in some respects, more forcibly repressed, whatever in them has not been crushed down by an iron heel has generally been let alone, and if left with any liberty of development, it has developed itself according to its own laws; but in the case of women, a hot-house and stove cultivation has always been carried on of some of the capabilities of their nature, for the benefit and pleasure of their masters.

The distinction between female nature and skill is somewhat blurry throughout the piece, but he’s basically arguing that female nature has been so thwarted by law and convention, no man knows of what women are truly capable. He makes no meaningful distinction between the skills one needs to employ in a government role versus those necessary in a private sector job.  Is there a female “nature”? In other words, is there a set of characteristics one could broadly describe as feminine? I believe the answer is Yes and these capacities have been confirmed through empirical observations and neurological research. The same holds true for men. Skills, on the other hand, are learned. Mill’s entreaties to remove barriers of entry to private sector employment are unimpeachable, but even after almost 150 years, inequality of representation within the workplace is prima facie evidence of patriarchal social conditioning to the modern feminist. With respect to private sector employment, women have proven themselves as capable as men in professions where there’s skill parity and are also subject to the same moral and ethical failures as men. Whether one wishes to attribute excellence (or mediocrity) in a particular field to male or female nature diminishes the larger importance of maintaining a universal standard of excellence to which any individual should be measured. Is it fair to assert that female nature has contributed to the employment choices women have made despite an omnipresent feminist narrative of crushing patriarchal social pressures? Without a doubt. If women were genuinely interested in construction, street sanitation, military combat training, high tech and petroleum extraction, we’d see it reflected in the data. But we don’t. Are you likely to find a single gender studies paper which attributes this disparity to anything other than patriarchal brainwashing? Probably not. 

The exercise of political power is another skill set altogether. Political power entails the ability to elicit loyalty and command obedience; the accumulation of which certainly does not preclude, and may even necessitate, the usage of coercion, psychological manipulation, blackmail and bribery.

The moral education of mankind has hitherto emanated chiefly from the law of force, and is adapted almost solely to the relations which force creates.

Mill invokes historical examples of female regents and heads of state as evidence that women possess the requisite skills necessary to hold political power and govern the nation state. He simultaneously repudiates the denial of the voting franchise to women as an injustice while claiming that there’s no reason to believe that women would have contrary interests if granted the vote. This is a claim which can and has been tested empirically, and has been proven categorically false. What Mill seems to overlook is the simple reality that with the voting franchise comes not only the question of the nature of rights themselves, but the responsibility for upholding the law. The nation state is, first and foremost, an institution endowed with the ability to exert military and police powers. Historically and presently, this responsibility has been borne predominantly by men. It’s easy to advocate for laws when the duty of enforcement and the cost of legislation is shouldered disproportionately by men. The centuries-long march towards the emancipation of the individual has been a balancing act between the degree to which the State compels moral behavior or reserves to the free exercise of individual agency. Mill earns his liberal credentials by taking an unequivocal stand in favor of the latter. The voting patterns and governing philosophies exhibited by women since the time this was written reveal a strong tendency against individual liberty in favor of legal positivism, redistribution, and laws that are generally more socialistic in nature.

Law and government do not undertake to prescribe by whom any social or industrial operation shall or shall not be conducted, or what modes of conducting them shall be lawful. These things are left to the unfettered choice of individuals.

He sounds only a few degrees removed from your average gender scholar whe he argues that the patriarchal social order is thwarting men’s perception of female capabilities and the range of what can be expressed. Despite dominating academia and being the targets of a global ego stroking campaign spanning every Western country on the planet, feminists endlessly flog the notion that women remain crushed under the bootheel of a soul destroying patriarchal social order. All disparities in outcome are also evidence of patriarchal sexism and subjugation. Virtually every barrier to private sector and government service has been opened to women, but feminists refuse to accept the reality that having a uterus doesn’t automatically make your art good or give you marketable job skills. Mill likely did not anticipate the vast art and entertainment industry we have today nor women’s ability to succeed wildly within it. Unsurprisingly, no quantity of female success is enough for the feminist and they seem unwilling to accept that paintings of menstrual blood and feminist poetry tend only to please feminists. Mill’s argument has metastasized into its own article of faith and has only served to rationalize feminist bigotry, inflame feelings of gender supremacy and claim a mantle of permanent victimhood. 

But they have not yet produced any of those great and luminous new ideas which form an era in thought, nor those fundamentally new conceptions in art, which open a vista of possible effects not before thought of, and found a new school. Their compositions are mostly grounded on the existing fund of thought, and their creations do-not deviate widely from existing types.

One of Mill’s most egregious errors is in his underestimation of the female tendency to chase abstraction and use it to collectivize the plight of womanhood under a pretense of emancipation. The entire field of gender studies is arguably dedicated to the singleminded pursuit of chasing an abstraction called “patriarchy” and establishing a definitive and irrefutable causal link between this omnipresent oppression and all adverse outcomes affecting womanhood. 

Feminism in one meme

A woman seldom runs wild after an abstraction. The habitual direction of her mind to dealing with things as individuals rather than in groups, and (what is closely connected with it) her more lively interest in the present feelings of persons, which makes her consider first of all, in anything which claims to be applied to practice, in what manner persons will be affected by it — these two things make her extremely unlikely to put faith in any speculation which loses sight of individuals, and deals with things as if they existed for the benefit of some imaginary entity, some mere creation of the mind, not resolvable into the feelings of living beings.

Worst of all, Mill appears to be one of the progenitors of the notion of “male privilege”. In the Mill worldview, all of men’s worst moral failings are compounded by the social order. He fixates almost exclusively on the idea that men automatically adopt an attitude of superiority while completely ignoring the sacrifices and responsibilities borne by men in order to raise a family.  Excluding the abusive or excessively pathological, is there any love deeper or more profound than that of a mother and a son?  Do sons not love their sisters? Is there no 19th century Englishman who sacrifices every fiber of his being to ensure the best possible life for his wife and daughters? How dismal is Mill’s worldview that he frames male and female relations in such bleak terms? How dim is his view of female initiative and agency that he places the burden disproportionately on the shoulders of men? While there was undoubtedly some truth to what he was saying, the hope for greater emancipation has mostly devolved into an obnoxious global guilt trip. 

Women cannot be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women, until men in considerable number are prepared to join with them in the undertaking.


As a footnote, Mill was surprisingly astute in his observations about Islam’s resistance to reform and the resultant stagnation this inflexibility has bred within Islamic culture. Ironically, the liberal ideal of equality has proven itself a bottomless pit.  The equality for which Mill advocated in this essay has become a pathological pursuit for feminists and the progressive Left in general. The idea of male privilege that Mill introduced in this piece has been extended into every aspect of Western culture to the point where it is an act of bigotry to assert that some cultures hold superior values than others. If he were to utter these sentiments today, he’d be vilified as a white supremacist and a racist. 

To pretend that Christianity was intended to stereotype existing forms of government and society, and protect them against change, is to reduce it to the level of Islamism or of Brahminism.

When citizens of Western democracies are asked whether they are supportive of “equal rights” for women, you’re likely to hear an unequivocal and resounding Yes. The fact that many people will insist that this hasn’t yet been achieved speaks to the true legacy of Mill’s essay: the idea that women are living in a state of subjection. Mill undoubtedly wanted political and social egalitarianism, but what he actually wrought was a cult of perpetual grievance. Clearly, Mill’s essay was a catalyst for change. In 1870, the Married Women’s Property Act was passed which allowed women to inherit property and own money. In 1884, a second act of the same name granted married women the right to own property apart from their husbands. While most would likely agree that these were true triumphs of liberalism, the same cannot be said of the broader legacy of feminism that this essay helped usher into the world.  

Thomas Paine: The Age of Reason

The period of European history known as The Enlightenment was the period in which many of the hallowed values that define classical liberalism were canonized. Among these values were constitutionalism, freedom of speech, and most importantly, separation of church and state. Thomas Paine remains one of the most celebrated exponents of liberal thought. Capping off a trifecta of canonical liberal texts which included Common Sense and Rights of Man, The Age of Reason represents Paine’s defense of freedom of conscience in matters of faith. More specifically, this book is a rejection of religious institutions and an attack on the historicity of the Bible, divine revelation and miracles. Paine is explicit about his belief in God and is affirming deism, but the arguments he sets forth are scarcely different from those we hear from contemporary religious skeptics. It is, in effect, a work of proto-atheism. It’s a very short hop from Paine’s presumed skepticism and mind numbing pedantry to Dawkins and Hitchens. 

Published in three parts in 1794, 1795 and 1807, The Age of Reason rattled a few cages due to the perceived proximity to French Jacobinism. Like Voltaire, Paine’s writing was a sort of intellectual punk rock of its day. Despite this reputation for being a work of heresy, it is an exceedingly tedious and tendentious treatise. The Age of Reason, both the book and the broader Enlightenment consensus are perhaps slightly overrated. Common Sense might have helped build a consensus for the American Revolution, but Paine wasn’t necessarily held in high esteem by some of the Founders. This book opens a window of insight on why this might be so. The elevation of reason as the principle method by which we obtain knowledge and derive universal principles has arguably laid a foundation for moral relativism and a purely materialistic view of the world.

I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Thomas Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine. – John Adams on Thomas Paine

Perhaps more significantly, it also appears to be a stepping stone on the pathway to scientism. He openly asserts that the study of natural philosophy, mathematics and mechanical science is the “true theology”. This conflation of moral virtue with the pursuit of scientific discovery is essentially an article of faith for progressives and atheists alike. The laws of the natural world are discovered. How the human mind chooses to apply these discoveries is up for grabs. This pursuit may be moral and ethical, but it may be completely malevolent. The methods by which data is gathered may be ethical or they may be cherry picked in order to confirm a bias or a preconceived conclusion. Whether it’s the first time such criticisms and claims have been committed to print I cannot say, but The Age of Reason cements a perception of antagonism between science and faith that persists to this day.

The first section is essentially the entire blueprint for modern atheism with one key difference: Paine actually believes in God. This difference is crucial, but every criticism he levels at Christian belief can be found in the rhetorical bedrock of every modern atheist and agnostic from Harris to Tyson. His contention is that the biblical teachings of belief in miracles, resurrection, the Holy Trinity and young earth creationism have engendered an antipathy towards science and paved a path for superstition over reason. He claims that this proliferation of superstitious belief has bred an open hostility to scientific advancement; a claim which is not borne out by recent polling of the scientific community. The absence of any specific examples does not lend credibility to the claim, but this omission didn’t seem to prevent the perception from spreading.

But this, the supporters or partizans of the Christian system, as if dreading the result, incessantly opposed, and not only rejected the sciences, but persecuted the professors. 

In the subsequent section, Paine proceeds to dissect the first six books of the Old Testament in painstaking detail. He lays out a trove of information which he claims falsifies the historicity of the books. It’s rather tedious stuff. When he finally gets to discussing his fondness for the Book of Job, it becomes apparent that perhaps his interpretation of the remaining texts is uncharitable and narrow. He explains why it is a text he holds in high esteem because of the lessons it imparts on human suffering and the striving towards contentment. More importantly, he is perhaps missing the fact that the Bible is not necessarily designed to impart historical knowledge, but that it represents hundreds of years of mankind striving to rise above its animal nature and reach for some ideal of divine perfection.

The one argument that sets this book apart from atheist orthodoxy is Paine’s unequivocal belief in the connection between deistic faith and the objective existence of moral truth. This also appears to be a point of agreement between Kant and Paine since Kant argued that you needed an a priori cognitive structure through which to process sense data. 

In the final section, he takes a sledgehammer to the New Testament by claiming that “Christianity only produces atheists and fanatics”, but history has proven this contention false. Worst of all, his view of the French Revolution seems deeply ahistorical. He contends that the intolerance of the Church had transferred into the realm of politics which is the exact opposite of reality. It was, in fact, secular fanaticism which culminated in the establishment of a violent, state sponsored secular religion known as the Cult of Reason. The magnitude of Jacobin violence meted out to the Church and the Christian faith during The Reign of Terror is staggering.

Paine’s criticisms sound scarcely different from the generic attacks on “religion” that one would find on an atheist meme or a Bill Maher rant. Ironically, Paine considers the New Testament itself as a work of atheism.  I’m not sure how much value the Bible has for the individual reading it in order to find historical or chronological error and contradiction. The Bible was apparently written over a span of approximately 1500 years. The individuals who wrote the scriptures and the process of collecting these works is indeed a subject worthy of scrutiny. However, I suggest that these concerns are secondary to the larger significance to human moral psychology. If one were to take a charitable view, the Bible could be viewed as a collection of works which reveals man striving for metaphysical ideals.  They are designed to reveal man struggling to articulate things beyond what his mind can know or obtain solely through the accumulation of sense data. It is meant to form the bedrock through which knowledge is assimilated so that the works of man would express the divine ideal. Paine’s exercise feels like a wrong turn.

While I can certainly appreciate that this work was transgressive in its day and probably helped pave the way for a multiplicity of views on faith both benign and malevolent, I’m strongly inclined to think that perhaps it planted the seed of destruction for Reason itself. The human capacity for reason and the discipline of logic are high level functions of the human mind. These abilities are cultivated and are certainly not evenly distributed throughout the population. The human capacity for morality, which is itself a form of faith, supersedes any concern for logic or reason. When it comes to perceptions of moral imperatives, reason is often utterly ineffectual as a mode of persuasion. The compulsion to confirm existing biases and affirm tribal alliances nullifies the possibility of reasoned debate or analysis. Moreover, the progressive Left has essentially hijacked scientific reasoning and used it as a substitute for ideological moralizing in a manner similar to Paine, but less explicit. Humanity is clearly wired for faith of some kind.  If this capacity isn’t funneled into some kind of theism or, at minimum, belief in transcendent moral absolutes, it tends to be transferred to the secular equivalent of Ultimate Authority: the State. To what extent does the capacity for reason even enter the dialogue when morality has been ceded to the secular priesthood? As current events attest, not much, if at all. 

The Age of Reason offers very little that’s meaningful or relevant to the world today. The distinctions between science and morality have been steamrolled and the floodgates of atheism have been opened since its publication. I’d argue there’s nothing in the Christian faith or the Bible that hasn’t been picked apart a thousand times. The Christian faith has already endured every criticism that can be made, and it still ended up producing the freest and most prosperous societies on earth. So free in fact, that the tools of Reason have been deployed to undermine the theological foundations of the West just as Nietzsche feared. The battle for Western civilization in which we’re currently engaged has precipitated a reappraisal and reaffirmation of the ideas at its core. Paine was correct to assert the existence of moral truth, but his dismissal of the broader metaphysical significance of scripture was perhaps a bit cavalier and hubristic. If any faith could use some more of Thomas Paine’s questioning spirit in 2017, it’s Islam.

China Miéville: Perdido Street Station

If you have a taste for horror, fantasy, science fiction or just some virtuosic off-the-chain weirdness, pick up this book immediately.  Mr. Miéville has described his work as “new weird” and though it’s kind of dumb, I suppose it’ll have to do. What he’s doing feels new and original even if the influences are clearly evident. This is a next level genre mashup.

Squalid, gothic urban hellscape?  Check. Avian, insectoid and cactus humanoids? Yup. Bio-engineered mutants? Uh huh. A ghastly crime lord which would make Lovecraft squirm? Yes. A band of heroes embroiled in a tale of political intrigue trying to stave off apocalyptic doom? Got it. Dream eating moths which defecate psychotropic dung? Of course. Gonzo physics, chemistry, artificial intelligence, magic and some crazy shit about crisis energy? Sure. A dimension hopping spider which spews opaque riddle poems? Covered. Sentient mechagod which animates itself with junk from a scrapyard and speaks through a rotting corpse avatar? Got that too. Enough gruesome carnage to satisfy a rabid gorehound? Oh yeah.

Miéville’s imagination and storytelling gifts are dazzling. Perdido Street Station is overflowing with strange, vividly rendered characters and ideas. It’s the kind of material you could imagine being adapted for Heavy Metal. The cinematic detail Miéville brings to the world of Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon deserves special mention. The city is a character in and of itself and Mr. Miéville has succeeded in creating a fantasy cityscape which is simultaneously grand and squalid. 

Thematically, this book is essentially a meditation on choices and the impact our choices have on others. To a certain degree, it is also about the pursuit of individuality and the price you pay for that pursuit. Mr. Miéville’s politics are hamfisted, naïve, and cartoonish, but I’m not going to withhold my recommendation because it is such a flat out tour de force. Miéville is a self-professed Marxist, and he always manages to find ways to portray entrepreneurs and the pursuit of profit as morally degenerate. It’s dumb and predictable, but his novels are so good, it shouldn’t be a deterrence.

Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood’s End

The classic status of Childhood’s End is well deserved because of its provocative ideas, but is not without a few glaring shortcomings. For all his attempts to bring scientific rigor and realism to the possibility of a visitation from an advanced civilization, the book requires a fair amount of disbelief suspension. Like 2001, Clarke uses this novel to present another vision of SF spirituality and human transcendence. 

The first two-thirds of the book are devoted to the arrival of a highly advanced alien civilization which aids humanity in eliminating war, poverty, illiteracy, and crime without resorting to violence or coercion.  Sounds cool, huh? Clarke doesn’t fill in too many details about how this is achieved and it’s fairly apparent that he doesn’t dwell on it for the sole purpose of moving the narrative forward. Since this is Arthur C. Clarke and he does really try to present scientifically plausible SF, this is exactly where I got hung up.  

The Overlords apparently facilitate this quantum leap in technological progress, but the book seems to sidestep the necessity of the entire planet freely choosing to mobilize for all of this global development. Where’s the incentive? Where’s the capital coming from? And how did communism survive? He uses the advent of this would-be Utopia to pose the question of what comes next after you’ve solved the problems of humanity. Do we become complacent slugs? Apparently, we do. With so much automated production and readily accessible plenitude, we lose our initiative.

This prompts a collection of artists to start a colony dedicated to creative arts because all this ready made life is BULLSHIT, man!

Kudos to Clarke for recognizing the ceaseless striving of artists, but it feels a tad too self-congratulatory. Artists aren’t the only ones who continually strive to better themselves. What about everyone else? 

All of this is prelude to the main point of the book; that Overlords were only here to help facilitate the next phase of humanity’s evolution. Our destiny lays in abandoning our corporeal bodies and merging with a mass consciousness that transcends time and space. It’s cool and heady stuff, but the whole idea comes across like SF, hippie-spiritual communism. Who really wants that? 

Oh, and the whole bit about the devil in religious texts? It’s just a reverse time loop, man. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Quibbles aside, it’s a fun read and Clarke channels a vision that is beautiful and majestic in its scale.

It’s also worth reading because this book has provided direct or indirect inspiration for shows like V and Earth: Final Conflict as well as books like Contact.  It’s a pretty big deal in the SF canon.

Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America

In our present Age of Social Justice, study of America’s founders, if it’s being conducted at all, can be summed up in hashtags. The centuries of hard won wisdom which the founders sought to institutionalize through the creation of a constitutionally limited democratic republic are reduced down to a collection of puerile slogans.  The central propositions of individual liberty, property rights, limited government and equality under the law are routinely denigrated as a system of white supremacist, patriarchal colonialism by the academic intelligentsia. Of all our nation’s founders, the one whose entire legacy is increasingly subject to reductionist caricature is Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to a steady drumbeat of smug, ahistorical SJW revisionism from artists and academics alike, Jefferson is likely to be perceived merely as the guy who had sex with his slave to the average American. 

The prevalence of these leftist cartoons is exactly what makes Kevin Gutzman’s new book about Jefferson such an essential read. Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary is a tour through Jefferson’s thought. Specifically, it highlights what distinguishes him from other national founders and why he lives up to the designation “revolutionary”.  These core ideas include federalism, freedom of conscience, colonization, racial assimilation, and the establishment of the University of Virginia. Gutzman’s exhaustively researched book gives us a portrait of a true Renaissance Man; a man whose depth of genius extended beyond his corpus of political thought and spanned every discipline from architecture to anthropology and archeology. As wonderful as Gutzman’s reading of the Jeffersonian record is, it also illustrates the myriad ways his legacy has been overrun, hijacked and discounted. 

The first section of the book focuses on the Jeffersonian idea of federalism, and the various ways he fought for it throughout his political career. Federalism is more commonly known as “state’s rights”, but Jefferson’s concept was even more radical than the narrow construction to which we’re presently confined. For Jefferson, it meant that the federal government was strictly constrained by the powers enumerated in the Constitution and that anything that was not expressly within federal purview would redound to the states. He stood by this principle throughout his political career, and it put him at odds, often acrimoniously, with Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. From his stinging rebuttal to the Hamiltonian Bank Bill to his opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, what emerges is an unbroken line of thought which distinguishes Jeffersonian federalism. Time and again, Jefferson appealed to a strict construction of the Constitution. Specifically, he emphasized the power reserved by the States enshrined in the 10th Amendment, whether to enforce federal law. It might be easy for the modern academic to take Jefferson’s stance towards the Missouri Crisis as an endorsement of slavery, but it should be viewed as evidence of his steadfast adherence to this principle.

Though Jefferson formed what are technically the ideological roots of the modern Democratic Party, I am doubtful you’ll find a single modern progressive who subscribes to the belief that the Constitution is to be strictly constructed or that federal power should be constrained in any way.  One need look no further than the treatment Neil Gorsuch received in his confirmation hearing to see how the Left views a strict reading of the Constitution. 

His defense of federalism during the Missouri Crisis dovetails into the subsequent section which explores his equally fervent belief in freedom of conscience. Just as he believed the federal government had no jurisdiction over an individual State’s sanction of slavery, he fought just as hard to ensure that the State held no power to compel thought of any nature. Especially in matters of faith.  

Any modern progressive who’s championed the separation of Church and State owes a debt of gratitude to Jefferson. Gutzman chronicles the numerous pieces of legislation penned by Jefferson which actively severed the State’s ability to compel any form of Christian teaching or ritual. Jefferson’s ultimate legislative triumph which culminated his thought and enshrined the church-state separation was The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

Jefferson’s insistence on severing Church and State didn’t go down so well with some of the more devout Americans.  Like the hysterical tantrums of the contemporary progressive Left, New England Congregationalists voiced their opposition to Jefferson’s candidacy in 1800 in the most hyperbolic terms. If you took Timothy Dwight’s paranoid rantings and replaced the Biblical references with the Left’s infantile memes bemoaning the demise of Democracy, the net result would be the same. Opposition to liberty never changes, apparently. Only the slogans. 

The purge of all things Jeffersonian from the historical record is easily understood. The current Social Justice Cultural Revolution is pathologically fixated on slavery, racism, and all forms of oppression real and perceived. Many prominent historians have revised their positions on Jefferson downward as PC sentiment rises. Besides being a slave owner, Jefferson held some views which were rather controversial. His advocacy for human liberty was seemingly completely at odds with being a slave owner. It’s easy to look through a contemporary lens and condemn him for holding these views. Gutzman doesn’t sugar coat Jefferson’s thought, but he takes a more even handed approach than his contemporaries.

Jefferson’s written record indicates that he held views that were, in fact, supremacist in nature. With respect to the emancipation of blacks, Jefferson viewed colonization as the preferable alternative to integration fearing that America might see a Haitian-style slave rebellion of its own. He contended that blacks stood a better chance of achieving the type of self-government for which he fought within the context of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous society rather than a mixed one. In this respect, Jefferson was a sort of proto-Richard Spencer.  

Gutzman takes the view that Jefferson’s thinking on this topic was unenlightened and that blacks, by and large, view American ideals with respect and forbearance. I believe he is largely correct, but I am also inclined to believe that the Ta-Nehisi Coates’ of the world will continue to exploit Jefferson and his legacy to fuel their own grievance industries. 

Another popular lamentation actively cultivated by the progressive grievance machine is the treatment of the Native American population at the hands of the Founders. Jefferson’s views towards the Native Americans were oddly contrary to those he held towards the black population since he believed them to be equal in mind and body to the white man. Though it will doubtless do little to assuage the merchants of American antipathy, his policy was hardly the agenda of genocide that you’re likely to hear from the more hysterical voices. Jefferson held that Native Americans had a “right of preemption” against other nations which entitled them to acquire or dispose of property rights through contract or, if necessary, war. Native Americans eventually assimilated American values which were due in no small part to economic and agricultural policies enacted by Jefferson. However, the eventual dispossession of the Native American land is also directly attributed to Jeffersonian doctrine. Just as with the black population, one wonders whether the lamentations of cultural destruction which emanate from Native American activist circles will ever be put to rest.

Thomas Jefferson’s quest to expand primary and higher education through the creation of the nation’s first university was largely geared towards the preservation of republicanism, creating civic cohesion and building what he described as a “natural aristocracy”.  Reading what he wrote about the importance of public education, his rhetoric bears at least a superficial resemblance to progressives like Horace Mann or even Bernie Sanders. Jefferson believed that true populist republicanism could only be preserved through a general elevation of public knowledge.  Needless to say, public education is now an unchallenged article of faith amongst the electorate, but Jefferson didn’t share the progressive belief in the institutions as the engines of human perfection.

Jefferson’s views towards the education of young girls will not endear him to the feminist intelligentsia.  Nor would his insistence that the UVA ethics professor teach the proof for the existence of God curry favor with the atheist crowd. What mattered to Jefferson is that education serve the greater goal of building a civic minded youth culture. 

Is Yvette Felarca the type of public educator Jefferson envisioned best equipped to instill an appreciation for republicanism? Is the Black Femininities and Masculinities in the US Media course offering at UVA building the type of “natural aristocracy” for which Jefferson hoped? Or is it building a different kind of aristocracy?

Dr. Gutzman’s reading of the Jefferson legacy is the antidote to the hegemony of the Ron Chernows and Doris Kearns Goodwins of the world. As much the elite might want to consign the Jefferson legacy to the #SocialJustice Memory Hole, Gutzman’s book reminds us that Jefferson’s thought is hardwired into America’s genetic code. Jefferson was not a saint nor are his ideas beyond criticism or reproach. But that shouldn’t preclude a vigorous reexamination of his record and a reappraisal of his ideas in an age of ever expanding state power and the overwhelming dominance of PC multiculturalism. If anything, the Jefferson legacy leaves us with questions. Can a genuine republican nationalism be created in a multicultural society?  Is it even possible to forge a multicultural, Jeffersonian style republicanism when the progressive intelligentsia have an ongoing incentive to foment antipathy towards American thought? I, for one, am hopeful that this book is the catalyst for that discussion. 

  

Marxism: Philosophy and Economics

If it weren’t for the fact that his ideas resulted in the deaths of around 200 million people, I’d be inclined to tip a hat to the fact that Karl Marx managed to create what amounts to the world’s most durable secular religion. Because I’m old fashioned and happen to regard an amoral, genocidal and totalitarian ideology as…you know…a net negative on human welfare, I can’t really do that with a clear conscience. Marxism is so destructive, yet its appeal remains undimmed by the failure of communism. It also remains seemingly resistant to criticism. If one has any intentions of engagement in the battlefield of debate, you’re going to need to fortify yourself with heavy intellectual artillery. Since it is such a cancerous blight on humanity, opponents of Marxism are well served by understanding its architectural underpinnings. Thomas Sowell’s analysis of the entire system, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, is an essential step toward that end.

Marxism is the apotheosis and the backdrop of the ideological Left. It is a framework which can be recycled and repurposed in order to justify any expansion of political power. More importantly, it provides a critical ballast of narrative that infuses the ideology with a sense of moral urgency and historical struggle against an omnipresent capitalist boogeyman. It can absorb and accommodate new social phenomena (e.g. transgenderism, queer and race “theory”, etc) as well as the latest pseudoscience (climate change, etc) because it is pseudoscience all by itself. Marxism is a seemingly evergreen ideology because it is a theory of history, economics, and sociology wrapped in the rhetoric of equality and justice. It bakes moral outrage into its premises, but considers all moral transgression a necessary but transitory phase in an inexorable, dialectical historical progression towards a society of classless emancipation. In other words, it possesses all the features of religion, but still maintains an appearance of intellectual depth and scientific legitimacy.

How socialists view Marx

This is your brain on Marxism.

The basic propositions of Marxism are easy to grasp, but the system itself is deeply layered. It is propelled by an emotional immediacy and a certain internal coherence that makes it especially resilient to attack. Defenses of Marxism take one of four forms:

  1. You don’t understand Marxism.
  2. (Choose communist state) wasn’t what Marx intended.
  3. Marxism (i.e. socialism/communism) has never been properly attempted.
  4. There’s nothing wrong with the ideology. It fails because of capitalism, bad people, etc.

The latter three defenses are demonstrably false, but Sowell’s book is particularly useful in rebutting the first claim. True believers ascribe a quasi-mystical depth to Marxism that is apparently unattainable to luddites who aren’t sympathetic to his thought. There is something to this claim. Besides the sheer volume of his corpus, Marx presented his work, Capital in particular, as an unfolding dialectic which would unmask the bourgeois appearance of reality and reveal its true essence. Sowell emphasizes two hurdles that this approach presents to the layman. First, Engels himself cautioned Marx that his dialectical approach would potentially be misunderstood. This is telling since his magnum opus, Capital, is an excruciating slog. Further, Marx’ own writing suggests the possibility that he never intended to be understood fully and was simply laying traps for his critics. The latter possibility should be considered since Marx enjoys a reputation among his acolytes as some kind of prophet or mystic whose depths can only be divined by dutiful study at the feet of #WOKE college professors. Any philosopher whose work produces so many fiercely divided opinions over what its True Meaning was may not have ever intended to be fully understood in the first place. The only result that mattered was that he succeeded in building a cult of personality machine for himself and for generations of followers who’ve taken up the ideology.

Oh look. We’re still debating whether or not Marxism works.

Marxism must be judged by the results it has produced in the world and the actions of its adherents. Revolution by violent means, strict demands for ideological conformity, and complete subordination of the individual to some self-appointed elite have been the consistent hallmarks of every attempt to implement this ideology. When the written record is examined, it is rather easy to see how the ideas correlate to real world outcomes. Fortunately for us, Sowell breaks down Marxism’s festering carcass so that its fetid anatomy can be examined.

Rather than delivering a polemic, Sowell spends most of the book analyzing each component of Marxist philosophy in a dispassionate, scientific manner. Lest you believe that Sowell’s political leanings have biased him against the ideology, just keep in mind that he spent 25 years working on this book and earned an advanced degree from Harvard on this very subject. By systematically stepping through each aspect and sourcing his argument from the original texts, Sowell distills Marx to his essence without building straw men. The book reveals the central pillars that bind the entire philosophy with Sowell’s trademarked clarity and precision.

Sowell analyzes the full arc of Marx’ career, and he is very honest about the many inconsistencies, failures of logic, dubious elisions, cop outs and ideas that were never fleshed out. Delineating where Marx ends and Engels begins is a problem rarely discussed by doctrinaire socialists and academic apologists, but Sowell is careful to point all of these things out while cautioning the reader to consider the larger context of his work.

PHILOSOPHIC MATERIALISM

Marxism belongs to a philosophical tradition known as materialism. It is a philosophy which posits that there is no spiritual reality and all that exists is the material world. Not only does this view consign human volition to determinism, it provides an opening for the likes of Marx to embue social and material forces with spiritual and supernatural qualities while operating under the guise of social science. Social transformation is the product of material and social forces to which the individual is completely subordinate.  

THE MARXIAN THEORY OF HISTORY

Marx’ materialist conception of the world dovetailed into his theory of history. This historical aspect of the Marxist doctrine is downplayed by modern acolytes, but deeply significant because it compounds the moral and ethical void in the entire system. Marx was a member of the Young Hegelians and developed a theory of history which closely resembled the thought of his mentor. Marx saw the transformation of one stage of society to another in a quasi-deterministic manner that was driven by changes to the material conditions and social relations rather than the movement of individuals or ideas. According to Marx, these changes naturally bred conflict because all capitalist innovation simply created new enmity and jealousy.  Marx and Engels spent much of their careers waiting for capitalism to fail and for all of their ghoulish hopes of societal collapse to come true, but they never did.  Rather than admitting error, apologists will keep moving the goalposts to validate Marx’ so called predictions.  If the development of a revolutionary consciousness was the ironclad, scientifically sound historical inevitability he claimed, calls for revolution were redundant. 

THE CAPITALIST ECONOMY

The Marxian conception of the capitalist economy was more sociological than economic. The only purpose Capital serves to the contemporary audience to confirm the prejudicial notion that capitalism is an inherently predatory and exploitative system. It does not offer a positive theory of socialism nor does it add anything to classical market economics. It’s three volumes of tortured, fallacious metaphysics layered on top of thought pioneered by greater minds. Marx completely disregarded the necessity of varying skill levels in the development of an advanced economy, and consigned the entrepreneur completely to the role of soulless predator.  

MARXIAN ECONOMIC CRISES

As is the case with most of the economic analysis in the Marxian system, Marx’ “theory” of business cycles was a half-baked hodgepodge of existing theories jerry-rigged together in order to add another layer of oppressive class struggle. Mismatches of supply and demand were evidence of a lack of proportionality in sectors and were ultimately evidence of “ever widening crises” and deepening class struggle. 

MARXIAN VALUE

The Marxian concept of value is one of the lynchpins of the entire ideology. It’s less a theory of production or consumption goods and more of a theory of social relations.  Marx leaned very heavily on the labor theory of value as articulated by Ricardo and Smith, but was distinguished by his emphasis on “socially useful labor” and the quantity of surplus value extracted by the capitalist. Somehow, contemplating all this the surplus value was a critical act of dialectical inquiry that sharpened the revolutionary consciousness. 

POLITICAL SYSTEMS AND REVOLUTION

Sowell’s treatment of the Marxian concept of proletarian revolution is proof positive of the even-handedness of his analysis.  As easy as it is to point to that one paragraph from the Critique of the Gotha Program as prima facie evidence that Marx wanted a dictatorship, Sowell takes pains to emphasize that this should be taken in context with his overall vision of the transformation of social relations and productive forces. Ultimately, these subtle nuances didn’t override the ideology’s central propositions pertaining to the predatory nature of capitalism. 

Marx was sympathetic to the Paris Commune uprising, and saw it as an exemplary model of a proletarian dictatorship. In The Civil War in France, Marx professed support for four feelgood principles to which any modern progressive would readily align himself. Universal suffrage, an open society, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and a non-militaristic viewpoint sound good on paper just like many other Marxist epigrams. The abject failure of this experiment and the support he gave it were evidence that he was giving birth to a totalitarian ideology. 

One of the most pernicious myths of the Marxian system was Marx’ claim that, unlike his utopian forebears, he had put forth a theory of “scientific” socialism. Despite the numerous flaws and inconsistencies within the system, this perception of scientific legitimacy not only persists as Belief, but abets all complementary doctrines of scientific social organization.  

MARX THE MAN

Similar to Gary North’s contribution to Requiem for Marx, Sowell gives us a portrait of Karl Marx’ life.  Rather than being the type of working class prole he claimed to represent, he was born into a middle-class family of means. Marx enjoyed a life of lavish patronage from his parents, wealthy in-laws, and his intellectual wingman, Friedrich Engels. He was notoriously spendthrift with other people’s money, and apparently, quite the party hound. He regarded university as little more than a “camping ground” in which to while away the hours. His megalomaniacal tendencies and apocalyptic visions were present in his early poetry, and were simply transferred over to his political writings later in life. Marx’ entire career was marked by failed attempts at media success, squandered wealth borrowed from others, bitter rivalries with other intellectuals, and a marriage marred by self-imposed impoverishment, financial incompetence, emotional strife and infidelity. In short, he was the very epitome of the smug, entitled, coddled, narcissistic, middle-class progressive who goes to college to end up studying Marxism or subjects informed by Marxism. 

THE LEGACY OF MARX

The endurance of Marxism’s appeal is simultaneously befuddling and tragic. Despite numerous refutations and contributing absolutely nothing of enduring value to modern economics, the basic template of Marxian proletarian oppression has been transferred over to the entire spectrum of sociology, arts and humanities. Marxism fits very neatly into the two realms of academic “science” which are the Left’s current vehicles for the implementation of Communism 2.0: gender studies and climate science. 

Even if Karl Marx never existed, the Left would have invented him. Since the Left’s true goal is absolute political dominion, it needs a secular cult of the State in order to advance its agenda. It makes perfect sense that a quasi-religious, pseudoscientific, anti-family, anti-capitalistic, atheistic paean to state power written by a pampered, sheltered academic is still the guiding light of the Left.  

Marxism enjoys an unchallenged dominion in the halls of academia. Instead of promoting intellectual curiosity, Marxism inculcates a set of prejudices against capitalism, prefab outrage, simplistic explanations for complex phenomena, and most importantly, a pretense of moral superiority.  

Marxist thought is reaching a state of peak fermentation in America and Europe after decades of gestation. True believers are beyond reason, but for those looking for intellectual ammunition to ward off the Marxist zombie apocalypse, Thomas Sowell’s book is an indispensable weapon for your arsenal. 

Much of the intellectual legacy of Marx is an anti-intellectual legacy. It has been said that you cannot refute a sneer. Marxism has taught many-inside and outside its ranks-to sneer at capitalism, at inconvenient facts or contrary interpretations, and thus ultimately to sneer at the intellectual process itself. This has been one of the sources of its enduring strength as a political doctrine, and as a means of acquiring and using political power in unbridled ways. – Thomas Sowell

Voltaire: Candide

François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was an author, philosopher, and provocateur extraordinaire. Rooted in a fervent belief in freedom of thought, he repeatedly broached subjects deemed forbidden by authority, and became the living embodiment of secular Enlightenment values. Candide was the novella that earned him his eternal infamy. The scorn he directed at the Catholic Church would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, but other aspects of the novel would arguably be just as, if not more scandalous now if he attempted to publish it today.  In addition to its brutal depictions of rape and violence, Candide is a vicious satire of Leibniz’ philosophy of optimism. It’s filled to the brim with barbed criticisms of religious leaders, military culture and government officials, but delivered under the breezy veneer of a simple romantic adventure.

With Candide, Voltaire set out to skewer what he perceived to be the false piety and facile moralizing of the institutions and authorities of his day. He was one of the original trolls of Western civilization who canonized a spirit of irreverence that’s found throughout the ages in the works of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Lenny Bruce, and presently, Milo Yiannopolous.  Though Milo is routinely compared to Voltaire, I believe this comparison to be only partially true. Voltaire’s provocations are analogous to Milo’s in the sense that he offended prevailing sensitivities, but the targets of his ridicule, specifically his barbs directed at Jesuits and Christianity, feel like Maheresque precursors of the now shopworn clichés of atheists and the Left.

Though superficially a bildungsroman, the ultimate object of Voltaire’s ridicule was Leibniz’ Theodicy which was expressed through Candide’s mentor, Pangloss. “This is the best of all possible worlds,” Pangloss tells Candide from the luxurious confines of Castle Thunder-ten-tronckh in the kingdom of Westphalia. After being banished from the castle for getting a little too hot and heavy with the Duke’s niece, Cunégonde, Candide is beset by one misfortune after another as he traverses through Europe and the New World. Candide finds the naïvete of his wordview repeatedly challenged as he tries to reconcile the message of his mentor with the cruel reality of life outside castle walls. 

Though he was a professed deist, the religious dogma, fanaticism, and hypocrisy of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all sent to Voltaire’s literary guillotine throughout the book. Candide leaves no religious cow un-slaughtered.

Candide translates to “optimism”, and above all else, Voltaire sought to poke Leibniz’ vision of optimism squarely in the eye.  Voltaire saw this philosophy as hopelessly naïve and an inadequate lens through which to view the horror and depravity of the world. One can certainly appreciate that this work was deeply transgressive in its day, but Voltaire’s critique feels like little more than a petty gripe rooted in a failure to grasp the essence of Leibniz’ message. Of course the world is filled with depravity, suffering and hardship. These phenomena exist because they test the faithful. Rather than being an excuse to engage in self-deception through recitations of vacant aphorisms, I suspect Leibniz promoted this philosophy as a way of embracing the totality of life, good and bad. It’s far more challenging to find reasons to be hopeful about humanity when you’ve seen it at its worst. Can you find a reason to be hopeful after your home has been devastated by an earthquake?  Can you find forgiveness and happiness after you’ve been brutally violated? Voltaire eventually resolves this conflict with a very modest aphorism of his own, but he seems to view this philosophy as something shallow, enervating and mind numbing rather than being a lens through which to view even the worst human suffering.

Voltaire is particularly scathing in his treatment of the Jesuits. Upon arrival in South America, Candide and his manservant, Cacambo, avoid being served as the main course in a tribal cannibal feast after calmly explaining to them that neither was, in fact, a Jesuit and that he had just impaled his Jesuit brother.  On these grounds alone, Candide and Cacambo are spared this gruesome fate.  It’s droll gallows humor, and he’s obviously having a bit of rude fun at the expense of the numerous Jesuit missionaries who ventured to South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, but he also appears to hold that appeals to reason are universal regardless of cultural or language differences. This strikes me as proto-SJW Kumbaya fantasy.

Voltaire’s view of Islam was largely negative, and the one aspect of the story that would most assuredly arouse a shitstorm of scandal to this day would be his portrayal of the Muslims. Candide is eventually reunited with Cunégonde only to discover that she was raped and maimed at the hands of the Bulgars. But just when you think it can’t get any worse, their new companion, the illegitimate daughter The Princess of Palestrina and Pope Urban X, tells her tale of woe. Known only as the old woman, she recounts a blood curdling tale of her rape by a “loathsome Negro”, and her mother’s brutal murder at the hands of the Muslims. Since Islam and the effects of Muslim immigration remain a political third rail, this aspect of the book would easily arouse controversy today if anyone in any academic setting were actually reading it.

But that’s not the only thing that would draw the ire of the contemporary Thought Police. His treatment of Don Isaachar has drawn accusations of antisemitism and that most ghastly of contemporary ThoughtCrimes: RACISM. Don Isaachar is one of Cunégonde’s early captors, and is portrayed as greedy and immoral.  I don’t find it particularly antisemitic since it’s not out of the question that Jews like Don Isaachar existed. Voltaire is an equal opportunity offender and he is just as harsh on the Catholic Inquisitor and the Muslims. Besides, like every other manufactured outrage, it doesn’t make sense to judge yesterday’s art against today’s warped standards of Social Justice propriety.

Candide’s arrival in the fabled land of Eldorado certainly suggests that Voltaire was sympathetic towards socialist thought and had utopian notions of his own around how society could look if Enlightenment ideals could be expressed in his ideal monarchy. The citizens of Eldorado have an advanced economy with a dedicated scientific class, public institutions, housing, and art. They have access to precious stones and metals, but they are unmotivated by the accumulation of wealth and give them freely to Candide.  In this respect, one detects the unmistakable seeds of proto-progressive economics, scientism and other related doctrines of social reform.

When Candide finally meets the one man who allegedly “has it all”, Signor Pococurante, Voltaire uses it as another opportunity to make fun of another coddled elitist, but it also betrays a certain cynicism towards the philosophical and cultural legacy of the West which now pervades the modern Left. Candide is dumbstruck as Signor Pococurante dispenses one blistering criticism after another towards every art form and philosophical work of importance. Voltaire wants to tear away at what he perceived as a false veil of deference towards these allegedly Great Works, but like his treatment of Leibniz, it feels slightly misplaced. Signor Pococurante sounds like a jaded hipster or academic progressive who listens to NPR, acquired a liberal arts degree, and has very specific, and mostly negative opinions about everything in the cultural sphere. One could take all of Signor Pococurante’s snide remarks, drop in a couple references to bell hooks, Howard Zinn and Judith Butler, and he’d sound just like a garden variety, Tumblr ready, Social Justice Warrior preparing for a career writing for Vox. This cynicism towards the cultural legacy of the West is now the norm. Within the cloistered halls of academia, so-called “educators” openly cultivate an active hostility towards Western thought as the font of all human opression.

Just like the numerous contemporary atheist critics of Christianity who’ve fancied themselves the torchbearers of Voltaire’s flame, Voltaire was a moralist at heart and his literary jabs were designed to expose the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be arbiters of morality. Whether taking shots at the sexual indiscretions of Catholic clergy, the brutality of the Inquisitors or the Jesuits who do not practice the teachings of Christ they preach, Candide rightfully inferred that the ordained guardians of morality should live by the standards they imposed on the laity.

Society needs people like Voltaire in order to shock people out of complacent obedience and expose social taboos to sunlight. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the Islamic world needs its own Voltaire in order to ignite a reformation within the Islamic faith. Institutional power, whether state, religious or academic, rarely lives up to its responsibility to uphold the truth or live by the standards it imposes on the public.  Yet, people crave the truth, and above all else, crave both a sense of moral certitude and to see hypocrisy exposed.  Since the truth often dies within the walls of power, the responsibility to stand up for the truth always redounds to the individual. Humorists and satirists like Voltaire have often been the catalysts of change that puncture the seal of propriety that the self-appointed arbiters of morality have so assiduously tightened.

Voltaire was the court jester of his time who sought to answer ancient moral conundrums by poking fun at what he perceived to be the strictures and limitations of prevailing orthodoxy. Some of Candide still would arouse controversy today, but his overall posture of enlightened contempt towards the conservative attitudes and institutions of his time has become its own orthodoxy of progressive chic. The poles of entrenched thinking have reversed, and what was controversial in its day is blasé today. There’s nothing even remotely transgressive or edgy about ridiculing Christian morality, institutions or the broader legacy of Western philosophy in 2017. Milo draws comparisons to Voltaire today because today’s elites are, in many ways, the intellectual progeny of Voltaire himself. Whatever validity there was in Voltaire’s quest for a secular moral order in its day has devolved into the smug wisecracking of Bill Maher, the proto-neurofascism of Sam Harris, and a postmodern academic hegemony of absolutist relativism.  All of whom are eagerly marching towards Gomorrah, but still doggedly cling to the delusion that Eldorado is the final destination.

While Candide may be showing its age, Voltaire’s spirit is evergreen because Puritanism knows no ideology, and people know who the busybodies are. Candide’s message of “tending one’s own garden” is a sufficiently universal ethical and moral principle, but the modern progressive intelligentsia have very specific ideas about what you can plant, how big it can be, and what pronouns you can use while tending it. Russell Brand, Bill Maher and John Oliver may imagine themselves to be the secular dragonslayers of hypocrisy who descend directly from Voltaire’s sacred order, but they’re actually the effete royalists who tacitly defend the new priesthood. Voltaire’s flame burns most brightly in the shitposting of Milo, the trolling of Steven Crowder, the savagery of Bearing and the meme magic of 4Chan.  Candide is both of its time and timeless because there will always be priests, politicians, academics and self-appointed behavior cops and thought police who deserve to be exposed, and there’s no better weapon than satire and ridicule.

Isaiah Berlin: The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made. – Immanuel Kant

If you’re interested in a contemporary philosopher who is able to put thousands of years into clear perspective, I would certainly place Sir Isaiah Berlin at or near the top of the list. Mr. Berlin’s vaunted reputation as an advocate for classical liberal principles and a first rate thought historian is entirely well deserved as The Crooked Timber of Humanity amply demonstrates.  As the title suggests, Berlin focuses on the origins of the movements that have led towards self-destruction and contrasts them against those which have animated modern liberal society. Specifically, he traces the origins of utopianism, cultural relativism versus pluralism, and fascism as well as its ideological bedfellow, nationalism.

Mr. Berlin treats the ideas and subjects with great respect. True to the spirit of his other works, his central goal in this collection serves both as a warning against the encroachment of tyrannical ideas as well to provide as an intellectual antidote to illiberalism. Berlin’s analysis of these thinkers is incisive. When evaluated in light of current political movements, remains relevant and often downright prescient.  One wonders if, with respect to universalism and managerial scientism, he has underestimated the allure and endurance of this doctrine.

Berlin opens with a broadside against the Platonic ideal and the accompanying pursuit of the utopian society.  The Platonic ideal is comprised of three components.

  1. All genuine questions have one true answer and all other answers are errors.
  2. There must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths.
  3. These universal truths are compatible with one another.

Human needs and the means by which to attain them could be discovered through same methods by which natural scientific law could be discovered.  Once discovered, these principles could be codified and implemented through policy.  Berlin argues that this impulse is on the decline in the West, but if the arguments of the contemporary social scientists serve as an indicator, the hunger for pseudo-scientific micromanagement of human affairs remains undiminished.

Berlin contends that Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova (1725) and his doctrine of  the “common nature of nations” as well as a later generation of German Romantics, including Johann Gottfried von Herder, pointed towards a “cultural pluralism” which provided a counterpoint and possible antidote to the empirical absolutism of the Enlightenment.  The cultural pluralism Vico and Herder espoused rested on the contention that there were, in fact, incompatible values between cultures which could not be reconciled to universal principles. Both Vico and Herder’s thought contravened the Enlightenment consensus that man was ultimately governed by universal laws.

In this current age of globalization where the watchword is multiculturalism, Vico and Herder’s conclusions certainly warrant further examination and pose very important questions. What constitutes culture in a multicultural society?  If culture is the product of the transmission of practices and traditions which were generated within a genetically homogenous society over the course of centuries, to what extent are these practices meaningful in a multicultural society to those who didn’t belong to the original culture?  Are individuals from different cultures being held to universal standards of conduct in a multicultural society?  Is it possible to have a multiculturalism which isn’t manufactured by social engineers or a Trojan Horse for hollow identity politics and globalist socialism?  Perhaps most importantly, if individuals from other cultures immigrate to a new culture in search of a better life, do they have any obligation to honor the culture into which they’ve inserted themselves whether voluntarily or by necessity?

Since this doctrine ran contrary to the cultural objectivist consensus of the day, Berlin contends that Vico and Herder’s pluralism should not be confused with relativism.  In other words, neither Vico nor Herder espoused a relativism of fact, but a relativism of values.  His emphasis on this difference is not insignificant in light of the current multicultural zeitgeist. In defense of Vico and Herder, he invokes a poignant quote from John Stuart Mill:

It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Commerce is now what war once was, the principal source of this contact. Commercial adventurers from more advanced countries have generally been the first civilizers of barbarians. And commerce is the purpose of the far greater part of the communication which takes place between civilized nations. Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.

Mill’s quote refers specifically to commerce as the cultural bridge, but his underlying point about the difficulty of understanding a pluralism of values in the absence of commerce is what warrants deeper consideration. The multiculturalists, social engineers and globalists have attempted to engineer such a consensus artificially by advancing an aggressive agenda of Tolerance™ with an ever diminishing set of results to show for it. It’s ironic that the champions of this doctrine have shown such remarkable contempt for the opponents of their agenda and remain unwilling to appreciate the relativism of values which run contrary to their megalomaniacal ambitions.  Once again, one wonders if it is possible to create a multicultural consensus which doesn’t devolve into a clinical and bureaucratic utilitarianism papered over by empty platitudes of Unity©.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the individual Mr. Berlin believes to be the architect of modern fascism, Joseph de Maistre. In light of the rising tide of nationalism which has engulfed America and much of Europe, Berlin’s discussion of Maistre’s thought is especially poignant given that this phenomenon is largely a backlash to the social engineering of the multiculturalists and globalists. While Greece’s Golden Dawn party certainly represents a rising tide of genuine fascism which contains the twin hallmarks of the movement in its various historical manifestations, racial purity and nationalism, Maistre’s thought reminds us that there is more than a little paranoia and manufactured hysteria in the bleating of the progressive Left when it comes to Trump, Brexit and the various nationalist movements on the rise throughout Europe.

Maistre was a true reactionary to every aspect of the Enlightenment project. While the egalitarians espoused a view of man in which universal truth could be attained through scientific inquiry, Maistre rejected this doctrine with absolute impunity. On every aspect of the Enlightenment consensus, from rationalism to individualism to liberal egalitarianism, Maistre regarded these ideas with pure contempt.  By Berlin’s reckoning, Maistre’s vision of social order demanded absolute subordination to the Cross and the Crown.

While it is not unreasonable to conclude that Maistre provided the ideological template for the fascism of modern times, it certainly prompts questions over the appropriateness of seemingly indiscriminate and ubiquitous usage of the term today.  Especially with respect to the Left and their positively pathological and cartoonish hysteria over Trump. The Trump agenda remains an open question, but there is little doubt that the Left is in the business of conjuring ideological boogeymen out of thin air and painting any opposition to their globalist designs as “fascism”.  If the perpetuation of the multicultural agenda hinges on denigrating the foundations of Western thought which allows the very pluralism they allegedly value, they assure a recursive loop of nationalist backlash which validates their own prejudices.

Berlin concludes with a meditation on nationalism which is prophetic yet cautionary in tone, but raises fresh questions all the same.  While there is little doubt that nationalism in its extreme manifestation when married to the machinery of the State has proven itself a destructive force, Berlin reminds us that there is a deep seated humanity struggling to assert itself from under the dehumanizing designs of the sophisters, calculators and acolytes of scientism. The pursuit of universalism animated the West, but also created a unfortunate desire to manufacture a stultifying and artificial uniformity.  There is little doubt that the primal urge of nationalism has been and can be exploited by demagogues and populists, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that some measure of nationalist pride has, in fact, paved a path for the multiculturalism and genuine pluralism so idolized by the Left.  While much of the Islamic world, Asia and Africa remain ethnic and ideological monocultures, the burden of multiculturalism has been placed disproportionately on Western societies. As this policy unravels by the day, is it any wonder that there is a nationalist backlash towards individuals who apparently have no desire to adopt the cultural values of their adopted countries?  Berlin was keenly attuned to this aspect of nationalism and his words presaged the collective rage of the Brexiters and Trumpians to a t.

There is a growing number among the youth of our day who see their future as a process of being fitted into some scientifically well-constructed programme, after the data of their life-expectancy and capacities and utilisability have been classified, computerized, and analyzed for conduciveness to the purpose, at the very best, of producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This will determine the organisation of life on a national or regional or world scale, and this without undue attention to, or interest in (since this is not needed for the completion of the task), their individual characters, ways of life, wishes, quirks, ideals. This moves them to gloom and fury or despair. They wish to be and do something, and not merely be acted upon, or for, or on behalf of.  They demand recognition of their dignity as human beings. They do not wish to be reduced to human material, to being counters in a game played by others, even when it is played, at least in part, for the benefits of these counters themselves. A revolt breaks out at all levels.

While some philosophers and academics seemingly revel in their ability to obfuscate and mistakenly believe that verbosity equals profundity, Mr. Berlin’s prose sings with clarity and actually serves the purpose that philosophical inquiry was meant to serve: to illuminate. Mr. Berlin has written a collection of thought provoking essays which prove that we are well served by understanding how the ideas of the past shape the present, and most importantly, that the contrarians of bygone eras have something of value to offer. Even if it runs contrary to everything we hold sacred. And through this understanding, we may ask the right questions and formulate the answers to the issues of the present and future.

Kurt Vonnegut: Harrison Bergeron

If you were to compile a list of works of speculative fiction whose predictions of the future were truly prescient, it would have to include Kurt Vonnegut’s short story masterpiece, Harrison BergeronI am hard pressed to think of any work which so perfectly captures the pathological mentality of the modern day social justice warrior so perfectly and traces out the ramifications of this mentality if it were made into public policy. Sadly, it’s a process which seems well underway.  
Vonnegut manages to build his dystopian world in one elegant paragraph: 

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

With this single paragraph, he places us in a nightmare future where the crusade for equality of outcomes has been pursued to its fullest conclusion. In this not-too-distant future, the US Constitution contains over 200 amendments, people have lost the distinction between positive and negative rights, and perverted its original intent beyond all recognition. The ideas of equality before the law, individual rights and equality of opportunity preserved by a Constitutionally limited State have been completely supplanted by an all-consuming obsession with equal results which can only be attained by destroying uniqueness, individualism and humanity itself. Equality is, of course, enforced by a government bureaucrat, United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Anyone who possesses a quality, attribute or skill that might set him or her apart from everyone else must be handicapped in order to preserve equality of outcomes. The intelligent receive a mental implant which short circuits their ability to think. The attractive are forced to hide their beauty behind masks. The physically able are forced to carry sacks of lead balls padlocked to their bodies. Those with beautiful voices are given speech impediments. And so on. 

The action centers around George and Hazel Bergeron as they watch their son, Harrison, commit the highest act of sedition possible after escaping prison at age fourteen.  Harrison sheds his handicaps and dazzles the world by dancing a ballet on live television before the world. 

One need only to look at any of the social justice jihads being carried out on campuses and in the media to discover that Vonnegut was on to something.  The decades-long feminist outrage against “patriarchal beauty standards” has culminated in the so-called “body positivity” movement which not only destroys the one objective standard present in modeling, but seemingly seeks to reprogram manhood to be attracted to overweight women. The politics of grievance have reached an apex with the never-ending quest to name and shame anyone with “privilege”. Genetic and biological traits now supersede individual rights or merit and are sufficient grounds for legislative redress or special administrative dispensation by today’s social justice jihadists. Perhaps the most pernicious of all the social justice crusades is the pursuit of gender neutrality by those who insist that gender segregation in sports somehow reinforces “harmful” gender stereotypes.  And let’s not forget the deathless claim of a wage gap between men and women which is shamelessly flogged by the political and media establishment despite being debunked several times over. 

Meanwhile, different versions of the United States Handicapper General get created in college campuses and different levels of federal and local government throughout the country. 

What other outcome is possible from this mad pursuit of “equality” if not the anesthetized, institutionalized mediocrity and servitude portrayed in Harrison Bergeron?  As Paul Gottfried and many others have argued, this therapeutic agenda being administered by the democratic priesthood and their lackeys seeks nothing more than to debilitate the population and pave the path to socialist serfdom.  The only equality one can reasonably expect to uphold as an ideal is equality of opportunity. Once you seek equality of results, you destroy the foundation of liberty upon which any possibility for real achievement rests. Speculative fiction of this nature is meant to serve as a warning against the realities of the present. The signs of the nightmare world Vonnegut portrayed are everywhere. Here’s to everyone discovering their own inner Harrison. 

Ben Mezrich: Once Upon a Time in Russia

Once Upon a Time in Russia is Ben Mezrich’s highly entertaining and informative account of the rise of the so-called Russian oligarchs who accumulated power after the collapse of the USSR. The allusion to the American Wild West is intentional since the period chronicled was nothing short of a seismic shift in Russian society. The story centers around the ascent of two of Russia’s most ambitious oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, and the complex web of power they wove in order to attain their respective positions. Within this sticky mass are dueling loyalties, inverted moral expectations, and internecine turf wars within and without the government. The book is refreshing because it opens a window of insight into the rise of private industrialists in a country which was (is) highly secretive and outlawed private industry for decades. Though it was certainly not as bloody and repressive as the Bolshevik regime, it was a period filled with plenty of violence and political intrigue in its own right.  Like Mezrich’s other novels, Once Upon a Time in Russia was culled from exclusive firsthand accounts of events, but it reads like a hardboiled political thriller/gangland novel.   

Imagine being an entrepreneur attempting to obtain some semblance of security for commerce and property rights after living under the bootheel of a corrupt kleptocracy which terrorized its own population for 70 years and you get a small sense of the challenges these men faced. Some people are likely to view the oligarchs as the corrupt gangsters who destabilized and terrorized, but in my estimation, this book paints a more nuanced picture. The new, quasi-liberal order in Russia was very fragile, and the only way they could push back against the resurgent Communist Party was buy patronage from the the Yeltsin government. 

You know you’re in for a juicy tale right off the bat. The book opens with a meeting of the oligarchs hosted by Vladimir Putin at none other than Joseph Stalin’s Moscow dacha.  Dashing all hopes that they had just bought themselves a yes-man, freshly installed president, Vladimir Putin, chose an appropriate venue to send the message that the oligarchs were subordinate to the Russian government. Not vice versa.

The story kicks into gear by taking us back to the beginning of Berezovsky’s story.  An assassination attempt on Berezovsky leaves him badly burned, his driver dead and his car a bombed out slag heap. Since he couldn’t get any business done without security, he enlisted the services of FSB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, and became what’s known in Russia as a krysha or “roof”. Taking private money under the table for security work was considered illegal, but given the porous nature of the state institutions in the early days of the newly liberalized Russian Republic, people were often willing to look the other way.

With Abramovich’s partnership and protection from Litvinenko, the two oligarchs set out to consolidate ownership of aluminum, oil, and most importantly, television. The remainder of the story weaves its way through the Yeltsin and Putin regimes as the oligarchs compete for political influence in the new and very tenuous capitalist order. It’s a race for survival and economic power, but the fate of the recently freed Russian economy hangs in the balance.  

As Berezovsky’s influence grew, his ties to Litvinenko came under scrutiny of the bureaucrats in the FSB who had ties to his political enemies and commercial rivals.  Litvinenko was ultimately given an order to execute Berezovsky, but couldn’t betray his trust or patronage.  Berezovsky used his growing influence to unseat the director of the FSB and replace him with an individual he believed to be a reliable yes-man: Vladimir Putin.  How much they had to learn about this former KGB administrator.

After Putin’s election, Berezovsky grew frustrated by his betrayal, and used his own influence in the Russian television station, ORT, to undermine public confidence in Putin. Berezovsky shamelessly exploited the Kursk submarine incident and attempted to make a random military accident a referendum on Putin’s leadership. This overt act of vindictiveness and dissidence forced Putin’s hand resulting in Berezovsky selling his shares in ORT and being exiled from his home country.   

Berezovsky’s antagonism towards the Putin regime threatened the stability of Abramovich’s active interests in oil and aluminum in Russia which sets the former krysha/protege relationship on a collision course.  The escalating tensions between these former business associates culminates in a civil suit over Berezovsky’s claim on assets accumulated during the active years of their partnership. 

Mezrich’s narrative seems to stick to the facts, but he compromises his own objectivity when describing the failing Communist regime as “right-wing”.  Communism is an ideology long associated with the political Left, and the Soviet Republic was, in fact, Marxist doctrine taken to its logical conclusion.  Throughout the book, he refers to Communist hardliners as “conservatives” while describing capitalist reformers as being for “democracy”.  Besides the fact that it distorts the historical legacy of European classical liberalism (and American constitutional conservatism by extension), he’s feeding the standard Right/Left false dichotomy of American politics which places the Left on the side of virtue, reason and decency and the Right on the side of authoritarianism, thuggery and resistance to change. Lenin believed in democracy, too, and it ultimately amounted to nothing. Democracy and economic freedom do not necessarily go hand in hand, and the American Left have more and more in common with the Bolsheviks with each passing election cycle as Bernie Sanders’ campaign amply attests.

Though it’s a minor detail, Mezrich also betrays his bias in his passing mention of Litvinenko’s conversion to Islam and apparent sympathy towards the Chechen Muslim separatists.  Litvinenko’s story certainly wasn’t the focus of the novel, but given the ever increasing prevalence of Islamic terrorism as well as the intensified focus on the connection between Islamic belief and acts of terror, Mezrich missed an opportunity to anchor this story more firmly into the debates of the present.  

Minor flaws notwithstanding, Once Upon a Time in Russia is an entertaining read which shines a light on a slice of history which, like Russian Communism itself, remains largely unknown to America and the West. Highly recommended.