Category Archives: history

George Orwell: Animal Farm

I remember being assigned Animal Farm sometime around late grade school. I also remember coming away from it knowing that it had an important message, but not necessarily grasping the full weight of its implications. Whether it was the naïveté of youth or the institutional bias of public education, the poignancy of Animal Farm was mostly lost on me at the time. After having the benefit of the passage of time, a willingness to challenge my own ideological biases and the accumulation of a bit of knowledge since then, I can unequivocally say this. If there is a more cutting and incisive critique of the entire spectrum of radical Leftism than Animal Farm, I haven’t yet read it. Concise yet sweeping in scope, Animal Farm’s sting applies just as sharply to Stalinism as it does to contemporary intersectional feminism and #SocialJustice activism. It’s hard to believe that Orwell considered himself a socialist after reading this and 1984, but as the saying goes, life is sometimes stranger than fiction. Published in 1945, Animal Farm is widely perceived to be a critique of the Bolsheviks and Stalinism, but it more than adequately covers the entire spectrum of Marxist and neo-Marxist thought since the underlying pillars of the ideology remain the same regardless of how the parameters are modified to fit the times and demographics. 

One imagines that an allegory filled with anthropomorphized animals would be geared towards kids, but I had definitely forgotten just how heavy the subject matter actually was. Besides being full of surprisingly grim detail leavened ever so slightly by some very dark humor, Animal Farm packs a lot of ideas into a small narrative space. Set somewhere in the English countryside, the animals of Manor Farm live under the occasionally negligent yet basically benign stewardship of Mr. Jones. The boar elder of the farm, Old Major, gathers the collective livestock together to share his revolutionary dream of emancipation for all of the animals living under the oppression of human ownership. Old Major proclaims all of humanity to be cruel oppressors and animals will only be liberated if they band together and rebel against their human owners. Once they’ve cast off the yoke of human ownership, they will finally enjoy a life of unimaginable plenitude and brotherly harmony. 

Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever.

Orwell’s ability to synthesize the core essence of Marxist and neo-Marxist thought in such a short space cannot be overstated. Despite the daunting voluminosity and aura of unfathomable depth to this vein of thought, Orwell cuts through the pretentious excesses and insufferable sanctimony and spins out its inevitable conclusions with devastating accuracy. Not only is this anti-capitalist mentality the sole article of faith for anarcho-communists, socialists, and seemingly everyone in the ranks of Antifa, you can simply add a racial component and transport the entire template over to the BLM or feminist worldview in order to have the same readymade good versus evil dichotomy. 

Old Major is essentially the Karl Marx of the animal revolution. Like Marx himself, Major had been well cared for by his human patrons. He’d lived a long life and fathered lots of children. He had suffered no cruel treatment that would warrant the creation of a revolutionary doctrine that called for the extermination of humanity. Also like Marx, he sends them off towards their revolutionary future by portraying himself as a prophet who’s been bestowed with a quasi-divine revelation. He recalls a song he heard as a young piglet the words to which he’d long forgotten. Casting away the veil of bourgeois false consciousness that had clouded his thought throughout his life, the full glory of this liberated animal utopia had returned to him in the form of a song called “Beasts of England”. 

Beasts of England, beasts of Ireland
Beasts of every land and clime
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of the golden future time

Soon or late the day is coming
Tyrant Man shall be o’erthrown
And the fruitful fields of England
Shall be trod by beasts alone

Orwell is keenly attuned to the various tools of propaganda that are deployed by demagogues, and the inclusion of this song is one of many brilliant details which exposes the mechanics of socialism when it is implemented. The entire book is a goldmine of metaphorical and symbolic masterstrokes, but putting “Beasts of England” into the mouths of the sheep simply cannot be topped. Anyone who’s ever tweeted about “sheeple” ironically or not owes it all to Orwell. Modeled very closely off the Socialist Internationale, the invocation of “Beasts of England” throughout the novel perfectly captures how socialism reduces men to mindless bleating herds and completely short circuits the capacity for independent thought. Whether it’s the various campus outrage mobs who swarm together to shout down the slightest perception of WrongThink or the cult-like mantras of BLM activists, the contemporary manifestations of “Beasts of England” aren’t hard to find. 

The Major eventually dies, but the dream of realizing an animal utopia invigorates the minds of the Manor Farm livestock. For some, “Beasts of England” all by itself is sufficient to keep the revolutionary dream alive. After the Major’s death, his pig disciples, Napoleon and Snowball, condense his thought into a doctrine called Animalism. Not only does Animalism serve as a pitch perfect proxy for Marxism, it could easily be seen as dogmatic adherence to any set of ideas used for the purpose of manufacturing a moral consensus, enforcing ideological conformity and consolidating state power. In order to ensure that the utopian dream is fulfilled, the two pigs take it upon themselves to educate their comrades to adopt a revolutionary spirit. 

All the animals nodded in complete agreement, and the cleverer ones at once began to learn the Commandments by heart.

These two had great difficulty in thinking anything out for themselves, but having once accepted the pigs as their teachers, they absorbed everything that they were told, and passed it on to the other animals by simple arguments. 

The adoption of a revolutionary mindset requires constant education and reinforcement of dogma, so the pigs set out to propagandize their livestock comrades. To their dismay, they discover wide disparities in intelligence, interest and attention. They’re also none too pleased with animals who ask too many questions. Mollie doesn’t understand why she must prepare for the revolution if the revolution is a historical inevitability. Snowball doesn’t have time to get into the details of dialectical materialism, so he just tells her to STFU and stop thinking counter-revolutionary thoughts. Despite the fact that the doctrine of Animalism is comprised of only seven rules, this was a bit much for some. The sheep are the least able to memorize the tenets of Animalism, so the entire doctrine is reduced to one very simplistic dichotomy:

Four legs good, two legs bad!


It sounds even better if you imitate the bleating of sheep when you say the word “bad”. At the end of the day, this is all that Marxism and progressivism inculcates. Proletariat good, bourgeoisie bad! 99% good, 1% bad! Progressives good, conservatives bad! POC good, wypipo bad! Womyn good, m*n bad! Science good, faith bad! Orwell is making a supremely important point about the psychological levers that any ideology pulls. The entire apparatus of human consciousness filters the world through a moral lens of one kind or another. The success of the adoption of Animalism hinged on its ability to ascribe evil and deceit to an entire group. It doesn’t matter if it’s the bourgeoisie, the patriarchy or white supremacy. Ultimately, this mentality would be applied to anyone deemed a traitor to the Animalist revolution. Including animals themselves.

It seemed to them as though Snowball were some kind of invisible influence, pervading the air about them and menacing them with all kinds of dangers.

The revolution comes rather swiftly because they are able to exploit Jones’ drunken negligence. After a brief but violent coup d’état, the animals take control of the farm. They celebrate by destroying all artifacts and materials that were associated with humanity. This thirst for purging and destroying the relics of the Enemy is a pattern that has played out in both the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, and is mirrored today in the vandalistic rampages of ISIS, Antifa and campus Jacobins alike. 

All the animals capered with joy when they saw the whips going up in flames.

Their first act was to gallop in a body right round the boundaries of the farm, as though to make quite sure that no human being was hiding anywhere upon it; then they raced back to the farm buildings to wipe out the last traces of Jones’s hated reign.

After Snowball is driven off the farm and branded an enemy of the Animal Farm State, not only is he blamed for all their misfortune, but his historically heroic role in the Battle of the Cowshed is erased. Even worse, collaboration with Snowball, or suspicion thereof, is a treasonous act punishable by death. I had definitely forgotten just how dark Animal Farm was because I had to pick my jaw off the floor after reading the gruesome details of Napoleon’s purge of counter-revolutionaries. I don’t know which demographic Orwell had in mind when he wrote Animal Farm, but even the psychological distance of anthropomorphic animals doesn’t really diminish the sheer brutality of these scenes. But it’s both appropriate and true. Whether it’s the trial of Bukharin or the racial supremacist neo-Bolsheviks at Evergreen or the hypersensitive Yale triggerkin berating Nicholas Christakis, the Animalist pursuit of WrongThink always looks the same. The only real difference is the severity of the punishment. 

The enforcement of Animalist orthodoxy resulted in the destruction of free speech and eventually gave way to despotism. The phenomenon to which Orwell alludes is bone chilling in its ramifications; secular liberalism and the pure pursuit of equality taken to its fullest conclusion necessarily leads to totalitarianism. After Snowball is deposed, Napoleon shuts down all public debate. Under Animalism, the individual not only cannot be trusted to self-govern, but must subordinate himself to the diktats of the anointed vanguard and their emissaries. The animal proles want to contest the edict, but they lack the critical thinking skills that can only be cultivated in a system which encourages a competition of thought. Since Animalist doctrine required strict fealty to core principles in order to forge a unified consensus, post-revolution Animal Farm could not forestall its inexorable slide towards totalitarianism and absolute thought control.

The animals would still assemble on Sunday mornings to salute the flag, sing Beasts of England, and receive their orders for the week; but there would be no more debates.

The prohibition of free speech also liberated Napoleon and his cohorts to completely control information, alter the tenets of Animalism, and rewrite history itself. When Napoleon eventually declares that trade with humans must be permitted in order to procure necessities that the farm simply could not produce, it also required the abandonment of previously sacred Animalist commandments. After Napoleon changed one tenet, it was merely a matter of time until all of Animalism had been rewritten to the point where the porcine politburo had exempted themselves from every commandment they imposed on the proles. 

Among its many pointed critiques, post-revolution Animal Farm is yet another righteous kick in the teeth to the failure of economic planning. Though the animals were somewhat successful in carrying out the duties of managing Animal Farm in the beginning, the age old problems of thwarted incentives, mismanaged resources, and inadequate technology that have plagued socialist economies throughout the ages reared their ugly heads. Food shortages and rationing became a way of life for all the proles except for the porcine Kremlin and their canine goon squad. 

In addition to being throttled by the absence of price signals and normal forces of supply and demand, the revolutionary ruminants of Animal Farm had to contend with the problem of producing a harvest using a population of animals with wildly disparate skill and intelligence levels and none of the humane incentives normally cultivated under a healthy market economy. Since Animalist (Marxist) orthodoxy proclaimed humanity to be parasitic, it blinded the hidebound herd to the laws of market economics. As clever as the cloven hooved revolutionary clerisy were in fomenting animosity towards humans, what they failed to grasp was that humans possessed skills they simply did not have. Animalism had nothing to say about how exactly economic life would carry on after the revolution. It simply indoctrinated the idea that the act of comandeering the means of production by force would somehow magically bring about an era of unbounded abundance. 

The storyline pertaining to Mollie the horse offers a scathing rebuke to contemporary feminism. Mollie is a mare who likes the attention of humans (men), likes to accentuate her beauty with ribbons, and likes the indulgences (sugar) that are created by humans (men). Prior to the revolution, Orwell describes Mollie’s questions as the “stupidest” ones, but they’re only stupid to Animalist elites like Snowball who care only about submission and obedience from the herd. Mollie quite reasonably wonders about the availability of sugar and the permissibility of ribbons after the revolution. Snowball haughtily mansplains to her that neither will be permitted because they are the product of mankind and indulging either pleasure is counter-revolutionary. Mollie finds her fears of post-revolution Animal Farm confirmed when she discovers that the very creature comforts and attention she enjoyed from humans had been outlawed by the porcine politburo. Mollie defects and returns to human ownership, but her existence is never acknowledged again by the remainder of Animal Farm. 

Snowball’s dismissal of Mollie’s concern perfectly encapsulates feminism’s sheer hostility to marriage, feminine beauty and manhood itself as it is expressed through the entire “body positivity” movement. Feminists are hostile to women who are naturally attractive and physically fit. Especially towards those who allow themselves to be “objectified” by the male gaze. Mollie wants the attention and companionship of humans (men) while Boxer and Snowball treat her with suspicion and contempt for having these desires. Fat positive activists promote the idea that losing weight and exercising restraint around eating is some patriarchal conspiracy to force body size conformity, but so-called “body positivity” is simply an overt attempt to normalize a natural tendency in women to seek indulgence and remove any accountability to make themselves more attractive to men. It is also a potent reminder that, by and large, women like to beautify themselves and to be recognized for it. Even the most fat positive, pierced, tattooed, blue haired, non-binary, black lipstick wearing feminist is looking for validation of her looks even if it only comes from their personal online hugbox of sycophants. 

For anyone who thinks that Orwell belongs to the Left and his seemingly inexplicable attachment to democratic socialism somehow exonerates socialism, the joke’s on you. Over the years, many of the most trenchant critiques of leftism have come from within the ranks of the Left. The message of Animal Farm couldn’t be more explicit or urgent. If I knew why people, Orwell included, remained committed to the Left after enduring an ideological wrecking ball like Animal Farm, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this piece. Regardless, Animal Farm is happening right before our eyes. The first step towards actual liberation is recognizing that the only chains that exist are the ones that the ideology itself places within your own mind. 

Advertisements

Damnation Alley (1977)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jack Smight’s adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel, Damnation Alley, is an unsung classic of post-apocalyptic SF. Following the precedent set by the similarly themed television show, Ark II, Damnation Alley is the story of a group of WWIII nuclear holocaust survivors traversing the radioactive wastelands of a blasted out America in search of the remnants of humanity. Yes, its cheeseball B-movie reputation is not without some validity, but I maintain that its virtues outweigh its demerits. Post-apocalyptic SF is roughly analogous to the Western. In other words, a post-flood Biblical allegory. How do you rebuild civilization after all has been destroyed? 

Laying out the prototype for his role as Colonel Hannibal Smith in The A-Team, George Peppard is pitch perfect as grizzled hard ass, Major Eugene Denton. Jan-Michael Vincent plays his subordinate, Tanner, who’s just a little too uppity for Denton. Rounding out the cast of heroes are Paul Winfield as Keegan, a young Jackie Earle Haley as Billy and token female, Dominique Sanda as Jackie. The film opens at a nuclear missile facility at which our two main heroes are stationed as missile combat officers. What begins as a training exercise ends up as a Defcon 1 scramble to fire defensive strikes at an incoming volley of warheads from the other side of the globe. The spectre of nuclear war was a theme found throughout lots of film and television made throughout the Cold War era, but there’s something genuinely harrowing about the nuclear cataclysm in Damnation Alley.  In a scene that surely provided the inspiration for the arcade game, Missile Command, the commanding officers listen in stunned silence as the technical officer reads off the names of American cities while we watch blips of the electronic map signal each warhead strike. A montage of actual mushroom cloud atomic explosions follows as most life on earth is extinguished. 

After the conflict, the globe is an irradiated hellscape and natural weather patterns have been disrupted as a consequence of the bombing.  Using techniques that made SF films from the 70’s so great, color filters and effects transform the skies into a roiling cauldron of psychedelic radiation and are accompanied by ominous analog synth howls. A short text frame sets up the appropriate vibe.

The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. When this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.

After surviving yet another catastrophe resulting from a porno mag that caught fire next to some explosive materials, our heroes set out to find what remains of civilization in the other star of the film, the Landmaster. Designed as a fully functional all-terrain military vehicle, the Landmaster is a glorious 12-wheel feat of vehicular badassery.  Most people probably consider the Mad Max films ground zero for futuristic car porn, but Damnation Alley clearly set the precedent. The various location shots of the Landmaster barreling through the canyons and desert plains of American southwest are indeed pretty righteous. 

In contrast to just about anything made today, this vision of post-apocalyptic earth retains a remarkable amount of civility, respect for military order, and concern for the welfare of the one woman and teenage boy. There is some heartwarming paternalism exhibited by both Peppard and Vincent towards the young Haley. Even the run-in with hillbilly mutants is remarkably civil. For all the pedants bemoaning the lack of realism, it’s important to bear in mind that this was made during a time when traditional heroic archetypes and acts of patriarchal chivalry were still considered worthy of canonization in cinema. It’s not the story that Zelazny told, but it’s worthwhile on its own terms.

There are, of course, some rather delightful post-apocalyptic thrills, too. Overgrown scorpions, flesh eating cockroaches, and radioactive dust storms are among the travails that our band of heroes must overcome.  And no SF action movie would be complete without a few lines of pure hardboiled tough guy grit. Naturally, that honor belongs to Peppard’s Denton.

Maj. Eugene Denton: There are areas of radiation we couldn’t get through. It’s not a matter of wrong turns though – “Damnation Alley” is a hundred miles wide a lot of the way. 

Tanner: “Damnation Alley?” Who named it that? 

Maj. Eugene Denton: I did.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, but the signal that indicates that they’ve reached civilization is the sweet sound of jazz-rock pumping through the radio transmitter. Hallelujah!

Damnation Alley is a piece of post-apocalyptic SF that you just don’t see anymore; an optimistic view of humanity and its ability to reclaim civilization. As the genre progressed over the years since the release of the film, one sees an increasingly despairing and cynical view of humanity. One could say these were more realistic visions of human nature, but people sometimes forget that an occasional uplifting ending gives people a sense of hope and an ideal to which to aspire. Cynicism is the norm.  Affirming positive values is a lot harder than it is to sit back and sneer at pollyanna idealism.

Despite being paired with another personal favorite from that year, Wizards, Damnation Alley tanked. Not only was the film a commercial flop, but Zelazny apparently hated it. Not even the tidal wave of Star Wars’ popularity was sufficient to boost its prospects.  It won’t do anything for you if you have no taste for this kind of film in the first place, but if post-apocalyptic SF is in your wheelhouse at all, the trip down Damnation Alley is worth taking. 

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.

The Founder (2016)

A cynic might view John Lee Hooker’s portrait of Ray Kroc, The Founder, as an indictment of the American Dream itself. McDonald’s has come to signify everything illusory, toxic and and inhuman about American capitalism and idealism. Whether it’s Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, or any of the various #FightFor15 campaigns, the progressive Left has the fast food industry squarely in the crosshairs. Depending on the outrage du jour, the fast food industry is underpaying workers, poisoning the population with toxic food, contributing to the obesity epidemic, hastening the global warming crisis and propping up oversized agribusiness conglomerates. No other restaurant chain embodies all of this amoral rapacity, soulless industrialism, and ruthless expansionism more than McDonald’s. Of course, there is some truth to the charges leveled at McDonald’s and the fast food industry. However, as this film brilliantly illustrates, these qualities were features of Ray Kroc’s personality flaws and what he injected into the McDonald’s brand rather than design flaws in the fabric of American values or even the fast food industry.  

The Founder is a fairly straightforward historical biopic which, like its subject matter, succeeds on economical storytelling and tasty performances. It’s a fascinating story because it reveals how McDonald’s and fast food became synonymous with American values. More importantly, it shows how Ray Kroc deformed those values through his own ruthless ambition. 

Hollywood films often present their subjects through an ideological lens of progressive politics, and I suspect the filmmakers of The Founder had a similar aim. As long as you recognize that, the film presents some fairly decent lessons in market economics, industrial engineering of food production, contract law ethics, and brand building. The title of the film is very loaded because it draws up an assumption in your mind about its meaning. What Ray Kroc “founded” is not exactly what you might think.

Before McDonald’s, Ray Kroc was a mediocre traveling salesman trying to hock milkshake multimixers to the burgeoning fast food industry.  The drive in was the dominant model and it included features of the fast food experience that have been long consigned to the historical memory bin. Hamburgers and fries were served on washable dinnerware and delivered to your car by waitresses on roller skates. Ray Kroc had a mass market mentality, but no one in the middle American fast food business seemed to share it. His attempts to appeal to American ingenuity and Say’s Law fell on deaf ears.

Ray Kroc: But if ya had the Prince Castle, 5-spindle, multimixer… with patented direct-drive electric motor we’d greatly increase your ability to produce… delicious, frosty milkshakes, FAST. Mark my words. Dollars to donuts, you’ll be sellin’ more of those sons of bitches… then you can shake a stick at. You increase the supply, and the demand will follow… Increase supply, demand follows. Chicken, egg. Do you follow my logic? I know you do because you’re a bright, forward thinking guy who… knows a good idea when he hears one. So… What do you say? 

When Kroc receives an order for eight multimixers from a burger joint in San Bernardino, his hopes and curiosity intensify. Kroc arrives at McDonald’s and he is thunderstruck. He receives his order instantaneously, the wrappings are completely disposable, there’s no wait staff, and there’s a line of customers as far as the eye can see. However, all of this innovation came from the minds, sacrifices and work of Dick and Mac McDonald. Through a combination of ambition, courage, and Dick McDonald’s ruthless pursuit of cost savings and production efficiency, McDonald’s changed the fast food game for all time. Kroc is captivated and ingratiates himself with the McDonald brothers. 

Kroc pitches the McDonalds a national vision for the restaurant. The Golden Arches are more than just a visual brand; they are the symbolic glue between the Christian cross and the American flag. The McDonalds aren’t sold because they tried franchising the restaurant but couldn’t maintain quality control. Dick McDonald was a master of industrial food production and a capitalist through and through, but he didn’t want to lose control over the quality of the product. Being the more sentimental of the brothers, Mac sees a possibility for the kind of national success that eluded them and persuades his hard headed brother to sign a deal with Kroc.

Kroc returns to the Midwest with his sights set on complete domination. He makes appearances at Rotary clubs, churches and synagogues and begins recruiting families into the McDonald’s franchise with the fervor of an evangelist. Kroc may not have invented the food production system, but he did succeed in grafting the idea of McDonald’s to the psychological infrastructure of American ideals: family, opportunity, optimism. 

Despite his early success, his is unable to repay his business loans due to the small percentage allotted in his contract. He grows increasingly impatient with Dick McDonald’s insistence on quality control. Kroc really turns an ethical corner when he forms a real estate holding company at the advice of Harry Sonneborn.  By owning the land on which the franchises are built, he is guaranteed a larger revenue stream and capital base. Most importantly, it offers him leverage over the McDonalds. When he sees a possibility to cut costs with milkshake mix instead of real ice cream, Kroc sets himself on a collision course with the McDonalds. Kroc amasses enough power to buy his way out of his contract. Through the process, he kicks his wife of 39 years, Ethel Kroc, to the curb and courts the wife of franchisee, Rollie Smith. 

The film tips its partisan hand in a final scene which shows Kroc rehearsing a speech he’s preparing for an event in which Governor Ronald Reagan is scheduled to attend. Kroc is rehearsing all of the catch phrases and appeals to American ideals he perfected during McDonald’s ascent. When he finally approaches the part of the speech involving the first restaurant, he stammers and stumbles. Yes, we get it, folks. Republicans are shallow hypocrites who don’t uphold the ideals they espouse. But that’s a little too simplistic. Kroc won the McDonald’s enterprise, but he sacrificed its soul in the process. He took Dick McDonald’s industrial food production innovation and replaced it with a ruthless Benthamism. The McDonalds were the Jeffersonian capitalists who wanted to keep their idea regional and decentralized, but Kroc was the Hamiltonian who wanted a strong national identity for McDonald’s.

If you walk away from The Founder with the impression that American capitalism and idealism are false and hollow, you bought the cynicism that Hollywood is always selling. Fortunately, it’s a film that I believe has more meat on its bones than the average agitprop shit sandwich. Corruption, soulless industrialism, megalomaniacal ambition and hollow appeals to nationalism aren’t inextricably linked to capitalism. If that’s what the business is projecting into the world, that says more about the values of the individuals behind it. In the case of McDonald’s in its contemporary incarnation, the blame for these phenomena lies squarely at the feet of Ray Kroc. The McDonald brothers embodied American idealism without any grandiose speeches or national ambitions. Capitalism takes on the characteristics of the individuals behind it, and McDonald’s was ultimately hijacked by a particularly ruthless individual.  If there’s any overriding message of The Founder, that is surely it.  

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. 

  

Hidden Figures (2016)

Picking up where The Imitation Game left off, Hidden Figures arrives to crank the Hollywood virtue signalling dial to 11. Instead of a gay, British computing genius who helps the government, we get three black female math geniuses who help the government. Or to use #WOKE parlance, “womxn of color”. By most media accounts, Hidden Figures is a factually accurate account of the lives of three of NASA’s Human Computers: Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Even if it boasts historical accuracy, the screen adaptation reeks of social justice grandstanding and narrative building. 

On the one hand, it’s great that this story is being told and the world can appreciate the critical contributions these women made to the American success in the Space Race. On the other, it is intensely irritating to watch a film whose political agenda bludgeons you over the head with every scene. This is a film that desperately wants you to walk out of the theater determined to dismantle “white supremacy” and “smash the patriarchy”. This is a film that seems blatantly calculated reinforce the omnipresent feminist narrative that women are socialized to be excluded from math and science. This is a film whose every line of dialogue seems customized for HuffPo headlines and #WOKE Twitter. And of course, this is yet another film which portrays women as paragons of pure poise, unshakable composure, boundless intelligence, unassailable virtue, and competence in every facet of life. 

The film kicks off the #RACISM narrative right off the bat. Our three heroines are stranded on a rural road as Dorothy Vaughan repairs their stalled automobile. A police officer pulls up to inquire about their condition, and naturally, he’s a belligerent, racist oaf who treats them with suspicion and contempt. Setting up a behavioral pattern that will define virtually every interracial interaction for the remainder of the film, the police officer is disarmed and bewildered to discover that they’re NASA employees. And like mathematicians and engineers and shit! Check your privilege, RACIST!

The rest of the film seems designed to set up variations on this scene.  In other words, three #STRONG, #INTELLIGENT Womyn of Color suffer one racist indignity after another, but eventually get to show the dumb white supremacists what they’re made of. Dorothy Vaughan is passed over for a promotion despite doing the work of a supervisor in the West Campus computing pool. Mary Jackson is denied an opportunity to advance as an engineer because she can’t take continuing education classes at the segregated school. Katherine Johnson is treated like shit even after she’s assigned to the elite corps of mathematicians working on getting a manned spacecraft in orbit. 

Hidden Figures wants you to believe that it’s “smashing stereotypes with its fearless portrait of WOC”, but it only can do that by building new stereotypes and straw men of its own. With the exception of Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison and Mahershala Ali’s Jim Johnson, all of male characters are racist dolts, faceless functionaries or power hungry bureaucrats. Even John Glenn can’t catch a break from the ever vigilant feminists at Bustle who bust him for calling Johnson a “girl”. Kirsten Dunst fares no better as the utterly unsympathetic West Campus supervisor, Vivian Mitchell.  She has the thankless role of being the token white, female racist who has to repeatedly deny advancement to the heroines due to budget cuts or obscure rules. BUT WE REALLY KNOW WHY SHE’S SHUTTING THEM DOWN, DON’T WE? 

The bulk of the film centers around Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine Johnson and her ascent through the ranks of the mathematics team responsible for the Friendship 7 mission. Upon her arrival, the film sets up the predictable racial tension as she is greeted by a roomful of silent white, male stares. It doesn’t take much to anticipate the trajectory the film takes, and there’s barely a surprise throughout its length. With the predictability of the mathematical equations Johnson calculates, you can anticipate every single dramatic cadence. As Paul Stafford, Jim Parsons is yet another two dimensional cardboard cutout who’s only job in the film is to bark instructions, enforce bureaucratic protocols, and marvel at Johnson’s genius when she shows him up. Costner is mildly sympathetic as the gruff department head who places his trust in Johnson’s ability. Naturally, he also gets to be the White Knight who makes the “smash white supremacy” meme literal by destroying the segregated restroom sign with a crowbar. 

There are numerous points which require varying degrees of suspension of disbelief, but one of the biggest is Johnson’s relationship with her three daughters. Johnson is a widow for the first half of the film, and the only caregiver is her mother. Her daughters are extraordinarily well behaved, happy and show no signs of discontent being separated from their mother most of the time. Johnson’s male counterparts have to phone home to their wives with the bad news that the Soviet launch of Sputnik will require that NASA redouble their efforts, but the one person who’s consistenty burning the overtime candle is Johnson. SEE SEXISTS? ALL THAT NONSENSE ABOUT MEN WORKING LONGER HOURS THAN WOMEN IS HATE FILLED PROPAGANDA! WOMEN CAN SHOULDER EVERY BURDEN WITHOUT A MAN AND THERE ARE NO CONSEQUENCES. 

To the film’s credit, they emphasize the central role that religious life played for the black community during that time. Social graces, manners, respect for elders and being well dressed are values which are consistently upheld in religious circles. The events of the film predate the Great Society and the destruction of the black family it wrought. Henson’s character is courted by Ali’s Jim Johnson, so the film is actually willing to portray marriage as a positive virtue. 

I doubt there’s much discussion of it in #WOKE media, but the film touches a third rail of racial politics: the correlation between race and IQ. Charles Murray continues to be raked over the coals for The Bell Curve, but the film is portraying a phenomenon that is, in fact, pretty rare. You’ll find plenty of hand wringing in progressive publications and government websites over the shortage of African-Americans graduating with STEM degrees. The film clearly wants you to point the finger at the reliable boogeyman of #SYSTEMIC #RACISM, but the hard truth is that very few African-Americans are pursuing STEM degrees. The Hollywood and academic elite undoubtedly believe that putting forward nothing but positive stereotypes will bolster self-esteem in the black community. It may make for a great circle jerk of self congratulations, but reduces filmmaking to SJW propaganda. 

Sadly, the film is also a pretty obvious bit of government propaganda. Don’t get me wrong. I remain enthralled by the possibility of spaceflight, but one simply cannot underestimate the symbolism that NASA, and by extension, this film represents. Spaceflight is largely viewed as the last remaining frontier of human achievement which can only be realized through the infinite benevolence of the State.  The government wants to preserve a monopoly on this realm of endeavor because it needs to own every area of aspirational idealism in order to keep people distracted from all of the horrible shit it’s doing. If people continue to hold the belief that the government can be used to confer an endless array of Public Goods and reach the highest pinnacles of human achievement, then no one is happier than the politicians. 

One of the biggest ironies of the film is the disconnect that presently exists between the contemporary radical wing of racial justice activism and the film’s open celebration of the MLK Civil Rights legacy. While the film lionizes the breakdown of Jim Crow laws, the collegiate safe space crowd openly EXTOLS racial segregation as next level #SocialJustice. 

I wanted to like Hidden Figures, but Hollywood seems pretty intent on prioritizing political virtue signalling over making good drama lately. Everything about the film is expertly crafted, but it sinks under the weight of the agenda it’s carrying. Fences appears to be a film portraying the life the ordinary black father, but what are the chances Hollywood is going to make a version of this movie for hidden black men? I know which side of that bet I’m on.  

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.

Thomas Paine: Common Sense

Just like the famous shot heard around the world from the battle of Lexington, Thomas Paine’s liberty treatise from 1776 opens with a fire of clarity and purpose. Trumpian pugilism notwithstanding, it is a rare commodity in today’s era of political obscurantism and postmodernist chicanery.

Some writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

In four sentences, Paine draws a critical distinction that has been buried under years of political rhetoric and false morality.  In the classical liberal formulation, the nation state exists only to punish violations of individual liberty and property.  In the modern progressive mind, the nation state is the ultimate arbiter of virtue whose guns and prisons can somehow be repurposed to serve a seemingly endless list of moral imperatives.  The ballot box can magically confer an ever expanding list of “rights” to any group claiming the mantle of oppression.

Thomas Paine embodies what is now referred to as classical liberalism. Since today’s liberals have perverted and collapsed this basic distinction beyond all recognition, Common Sense restores the word “liberal” to its true meaning.

In Common Sense, Paine makes an appeal to American colonists to secede from British rule and form a constitutionally limited State. It is, in many ways, the first #Brexit. It is equal parts polemic, Biblical history and political philosophy.

It’s easy to understand why this wouldn’t go down so well in today’s Age of Social Justice. Besides being the work of a white male, Common Sense’s primary object is anathema to the modern Left: liberty.  In contrast to the childish romanticism of the modern Left’s conception of the federal State, Paine views government without the blinkers of progressive pablum. He sees it as at best, a necessary evil, and at worse, an engine of destruction.

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.

Paine even attempts an argument that has been all but abandoned by the modern Left: an appeal to economic common sense.  Paine views the construction of a naval fleet as a unique opportunity for economic gain and common defense. Rather than being another screed of a tyrant reaching for imperial power, we hear a humble man making a rational appeal to economic logic in service of rallying the skills and resources of his countrymen in order to fulfill a single revolutionary objective.

No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce. We need go abroad for nothing. Whereas the Dutch, who make large profits by hiring out their ships of war to the Spaniards and Portuguese, are obliged to import most of the materials they use. We ought to view the building a fleet as an article of commerce, it being the natural manufactory of this country. It is the best money we can lay out. A navy when finished is worth more than it cost. And is that nice point in national policy, in which commerce and protection are united. Let us build; if we want them not, we can sell; and by that means replace our paper currency with ready gold and silver.

Paine even expresses a concern for fiscal prudence and the burden that profligate spending would place on future generations.  The disdain he heaps on the politician who trades political favors for power is especially refreshing.

But to expend millions for the sake of getting a few vile acts repealed, and routing the present ministry only, is unworthy the charge, and is using posterity with the utmost cruelty; because it is leaving them the great work to do, and a debt upon their backs, from which they derive no advantage. Such a thought is unworthy a man of honor, and is the true characteristic of a narrow heart and a pedling politician.

Paine promoted a fervent belief in religious freedom, and the idea that it is the indispensable duty of government to protect this freedom.

As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith. Let a man throw aside that narrowness of soul, that selfishness of principle, which the niggards of all professions are so unwilling to part with, and he will be at once delivered of his fears on that head. Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe, that it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be diversity of religious opinions among us: It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness. Were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle, I look on the various denominations among us, to be like children of the same family, differing only, in what is called, their Christian names.

It’s very easy to read this and use it as a bludgeon against contemporary pro-Trump/anti-Muslim sentiment, but I believe it’s important to remember that this sentiment came from an avowed deist, and specifically, one who was raised in the Christian tradition. Has any similar sentiment arisen anywhere in Islamic culture? Does Islam promote a diversity of religious opinion now or at any other point in history?  To what extent is this belief of religious pluralism shared by contemporary Muslims?  Will progressives hold Muslims to this standard when they profess intolerance towards non-belief in Islam? Paine may have been appealing to what people in Western society regard as universal principles, but it doesn’t follow that every culture will share these principles.

What’s especially refreshing about Common Sense is the absence of the stink of academia.  That’s not to say that all academic thought is staid and stolid, but Paine’s prose burns with vigor because this is the work of a man who grasps the historical portent of the moment and knows that he has a winning argument.

At the center of Paine’s plea for liberty is an appeal to posterity, decency and yes, common sense.  Though Paine is largely viewed as one of the founding fathers of modern liberalism, the contemporary Left has all but abandoned Paine style liberalism.  Modern progressivism has traded the generosity of spirit and moral clarity of Paine for a shrill, condescending elitism which prioritizes identity politics and subservience to perceived institutional expertise over individual liberty. I doubt any progressive would concede the point, but you’re more likely to find the unifying message of Paine in an average Trump supporter sporting a MAGA hat than you will in a dyed hair collegiate gender studies major Berniecrat.

On these grounds I rest the matter. And as no offer hath yet been made to refute the doctrine contained in the former editions of this pamphlet, it is a negative proof, that either the doctrine cannot be refuted, or, that the party in favour of it are too numerous to be opposed.Wherefore, instead of gazing at each other with suspicious or doubtful curiosity; let each of us, hold out to his neighbour the hearty hand of friendship, and unite in drawing a line, which, like an act of oblivion shall bury in forgetfulness every former dissension. Let the names of Whig and Tory be extinct; and let none other be heard among us, than those of a good citizen, an open and resolute friend, and a virtuous supporter of the rights of mankind and of the FREE AND INDEPENDANT STATES OF AMERICA.

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 manufacture 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.