Category Archives: history

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

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

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.

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mao or Hillary?

Enable every woman who can work to take her place on the labour front, under the principle of equal pay for equal work. This should be done as quickly as possible.~ Mao Tse Tung, 1955

We hail from all corners of the country and have joined together for a common revolutionary objective…. Our cadres must show concern for every soldier, and all people in the revolutionary ranks must care for each other, must love and help each other. ~ Mao Tse Tung, September 8, 1944

Unite and take part in production and political activity to improve the economic and political status of women.~ Mao Tse Tung, July 20, 1949

By increasing women’s participation in the economy and enhancing their efficiency and productivity, we can bring about a dramatic impact on the competitiveness and growth of our economies. ~ Hillary Clinton, September 16, 2011



Once Upon a Time in Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Requiem for Marx

Despite the epic failures of socialism throughout the world, the Left throughout the West has held fast to its perverse and irrational idolatry of the philosophy of Karl Marx.  In America, The Communist Manifesto is the most widely taught economics text in university.  The bookstores of the most elite and prosperous communities are stocked with copies of Das Kapital. Media elites openly trumpet socialism and socialist regimes in major publications without remorse. Socialists now unironically wave banners of Stalin and Soviet flags in public parades and protest rallies. But no matter how spectacularly socialism fails, the Left have mastered the art of apologia when it comes to the writings of Marx. Somehow these failures cannot be attributed to Marxist doctrine. They are handwaved away as merely the unfortunate consequences of bad actors who either misapplied principles or were just despotic malefactors to begin with. Socialists contend either that socialism has never been properly attempted or hold up the welfare states of Scandinavian countries as model societies to which to aspire with no regard for history or market economics. Even worse, Marx’ analysis of capitalism continues to be accorded unwarranted deference, and his quasi-religious promises of earthly plenitude and social harmony continue to hold sway in the consciousness of the Left.

Whatever the reasons for the maddening endurance of this doctrine, what is needed is a stern and thorough repudiation of Marxist doctrine in the court of public opinion.  Preferably, before its adherents do any more damage than they already have done. 

Though others have set out to stamp out the mental cancer of Marxism, there is perhaps no refutation more definitive than Requiem for Marx. Edited and prefaced by former Soviet economist, Yuri N. Maltsev, Requiem for Marx sets out to disassemble and dismantle Marxism root and branch. Comprised of essays by the most notable thinkers in the Austrian tradition, Requiem for Marx lays waste to every facet of this toxic, but seductive ideology. 

Mr. Maltsev’s introduction all by itself should be sufficient to disabuse the average Occupy Wall Street proponent of any fascination with socialism, but it is merely a prelude to the battering ram of truth which follows.  Maltsev describes being indoctrinated to accept Marxist principles from a very early age up to the massive abuses, widespread corruption, indifference, repression and deception he witnessed from within the highest echelons of the Gorbachev regime. While Gorbachev enjoys a reputation in the minds of the Western public as a forward-looking politician, Maltsev paints a far less charitable portrait of a party apparatchik who lacked any intellectual curiosity, and held fast to his belief in socialism despite the large scale collapse happening throughout the Soviet Republic. Most importantly, Maltsev reminds us that rather than being some misapplication of principles, the USSR was, in fact, a sincere and faithful attempt to apply and implement Marxist doctrine.  Put that in your pipe and Bern it, Occupiers.

The chapter written by Hans-Hermann Hoppe is revelatory because he illustrates the parallels between the Austrian and Marxist analysis of exploitation. Marxists and Austrians both posit the existence of a predatory ruling class, but Marxists got it completely wrong by incorrectly pointing the finger at capitalists and producers. Hoppe draws a critical distinction between those who produce and exchange through voluntary contract and the homesteading principle versus those who extract wealth through involuntary and coercive means (i.e. the State). The former are the productive classes and the latter are the parasites.  

Gary North’s examination of Marx’ personal life, spending and borrowing habits, academic output, financial dependence, and absence of any real employment history is absolutely essential because it exposes Marx as the dilettante that he was. The fact that Marx is so heavily favored by pampered, bourgeois academics is sadly appropriate because that’s exactly what Marx himself was.  Not only was he born into wealth and privilege, he married into wealth and privilege, and managed to squander a fortune that easily placed him in the 19th century 1%. Not exactly the hardscrabble life of a working-class prole. Boasting an exhaustive set of original and biographical sources, North paints a picture of a classically narcissistic and predatory personality. Marx was deeply vindictive and spiteful towards opponents both real and perceived, demanded compliance from everyone around him, lived off the patronage of Engels and spent well beyond his means, fathered illegitimate children despite having no gainful employment, and proffered no positive theory of socialism while penning volumes of seething criticism of capitalism. Most tellingly, Marx essentially stopped publishing at age 49, and North argues that this was because Marx had reached an intellectual dead end.  For someone who’s entire theory of exploitation hinged on the idea of class exploitation, the fact that he never bothered to define “class” until the third volume of Das Kapital says quite a bit about the superficiality of his thought. North delivers a stinging rebuke to the political parasites, celebrity socialists, media water carriers and academic wankers who replicate Marx’ cult of personality, venerate his toxic swill, and telegraph their phony concern for the working man while luxuriating in the confines of their gilded fiefdoms. With this chapter alone, Gary North has driven a permanent stake into the heart of the myth of Marx as a Champion of the Working Class.

David Osterfeld’s critique of the Marxian taxonomy of historical modes of production and theory of history completely annihilates the validity of any claim that Marx makes on his system of thought being a genuinely scientific framework.  Throughout his work, Marx makes repeated references to the allegedly irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism, but it appears that few true believers in Marxist doctrine examine the contradictions within the Marxist theory itself.  Among the many confused and confusing notions which emanated from his addled mind, his theory of the inevitability of socialism receives a well deserved thrashing. According to Marx, the material forces of production develop without interruption like some sentient Borg-like hive mind which simultaneously gives rise to the exploitative bourgeois superstructure, improves material conditions and immiserates the proletariat all at once. Individual initiative and innovation play no role in his theory nor does the increased satisfaction that follows from the ongoing material improvement for the vast majority of the population. He simply presents the development of a revolutionary proletarian consciousness laboring under the crushing bootheel of the capitalist machine as an unfalsifiable a priori proposition. Most importantly, Osterfeld illustrates how Marx alternates between a sociological definition of capitalism and an economic one which, if properly distinguished, would have made a clearer separation between the mercantilist interventions of the State and the voluntary nature of market transactions. 

Picking up where Gary North and Hoppe left off, Ralph Raico uncovers the classical liberal roots of the theory of class exploitation and illustrates how Marx perverted the idea and propagated a wildly distorted vision of reality.  Marx cribbed his theories of class struggle from early classical liberal thinkers, François Guizot and Augustin Thierry, but by the end of Engel’s life, the role of the individual in the development of historical materialism had been nearly erased. Through the liberal journal, Le Censeur Européen, Thierry, Charles Comte, and Charles Dunoyer developed the doctrine of Industrialisme, or Industrialism. These thinkers put commerce at the center of society and asserted voluntary exchange as the true engine of virtue, industry, and innovation.  Most importantly, these men also drew critical inspiration from fellow Frenchman and economic theorist, Jean-Baptiste Say.  At the center of the theory of Industrialism was a harsh rebuke to the intervention of the State in economic affairs. All of these theorists correctly identified the State and its enablers as the idlers, exploiters and parasites. Marx and his followers ended up turning this analysis on its head and pitting workers against capitalists while assigning an unwarranted illusion of virtue to the expropriative power of the State.  

Coming in for the coup de grâce is the late, great Murray Rothbard. Drawing from a mind boggling collection of original and secondary sources, Rothbard argues that the Marxian pursuit of Communism was, in fact, religious in nature. Rothbard argues that not only was the Marxian pretense of secular scientific rationalism a pathetic farce, but his work had roots in religious millennarian prophecy which seeks a Kingdom of God on Earth.  Just as Marx’ economic thought was built upon the foundations of British Classicism, his pursuit of communism was merely a repurposing of the work of 16th century religious zealots who also saw inequality as a moral sin and sought redress through confiscation and conscripted labor. Rothbard focuses in particular on the first large scale attempt at Communism in Europe based on the teachings of the megalomaniacial eschatological Anabaptist, Thomas Müntzer.  Though Müntzer’s initial attempt at Anabaptist Communism in the city of Muhlhausen was another abject failure resulting in mass death and his ultimate execution at the hands of the German monarchy, his ideas carried on and were implemented by others to similarly disastrous results. The zealots who picked up the torch of eschatological Anabaptist Communism eventually gravitated to the city of Münster, and under the leadership of another set of proto-Lenins, Jan Matthys and Jan Bockelson, the first major experiment in socialist dictatorship was imposed.  All the features that defined every modern Communist dictatorship were present in the Münster experiment. Private property was confiscated, labor was coerced, disobedience was met with capital punishment, and the lionshare of the produce of society was reserved for the self-appointed elites. 

Rothbard also points out that Marx was a Christian in his youth before he adopted Hegelianism as a college student and his megalomaniacal ambitions, nihilism and abject hostility to humanity were present in his early attempts at play writing and poetry. 

Among the many failures of logic in the Marxian framework is his inability to reconcile market prices to the value of labor inputs. The entire edifice of Marxism rests on the premise that market prices must reflect the value of labor inputs and that the relationship between capitalist and laborers is exploitative by nature. Rothbard neatly emphasizes that Marxists have neither adequately responded to Eugen Böhm-Bawerk’s critique of this aspect of the Marxian system nor come to grips with the insights of the Marginalists.  

Rothbard correctly observed that ideas are notoriously hard to kill even if they’re demonstrably bad ideas like Marxism.  The fact that Marxism forms the backdrop of thought for contemporary sociology, the new secular religion of the Left, is unsurprising. Predictably, the loudest advocacy for socialism is coming from the academic class via gender studies, critical race theory and other variations in postmodern social analysis. These new school socialists have simply put a new veneer on an old formula.  The New Kingdom of God on Earth will be achieved by eradicating racism and sexism. And of course, the age old gripe against inequality of outcomes must be rectified through confiscation and redistribution (aka “economic justice”). There’s no doubt these secondhand theories emanate from the same poisonous well of thought from which Marxism itself emanates.  

The debate against socialism should have been settled long ago.  Sadly, Marxism has retained its place as the unofficial religion of the Left since the Left has no firm principles and, like their Marxist forebears, have made the State their religion. The fantasy of “equality” and the yearning for a secular morality coupled with a prefab indictment of free market capitalism all conspire to keep Marxism alive. Subsequently, academic con artists, media dittoheads, and political hacks are aggrandized and their pretentious paeans to the proletariat proliferate. Aging Boomers and their patchouli soaked, non-binary, queer positive, trustafarian progeny lured by promises of “social and economic justice” and a sweet Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack regurgitate their braindead slogans like manna from heaven while what remains of the free world marches down the road to serfdom once again.  

Perhaps humanity needs to learn its lessons the hard way by repeating its mistakes a few times. It would be nice if it didn’t have to come to that. Marx and his system have been refuted many times over, and this magnificent collection of essays has earned its rightful place as the final epitaph for a philosophy that’s well past its expiration date. It’s high time that socialists pay attention.