Category Archives: Christianity

Robert Nisbet: Conservatism: Dream and Reality

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Since the election of Donald Trump, conservatism is increasingly being conflated with fascism, Nazism, racial supremacy and xenophobia. For some, it’s a direct equivalence. Unfortunately, the incessant usage of these smears has not only undermined the true meaning of conservatism, but the entire suite of words used as epithets against conservatives. Given progressivism’s rampant vandalism of language, it’s especially useful to peel back the layers of autistic screeching that have besmirched the mantle of conservatism and take stock of its ideological roots. For anyone seeking a good primer on the classical conception of conservatism, Robert Nisbet’s Conservatism: Dream and Reality is a good place to begin. Both a worthwhile companion and more succinct synthesis of Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind, Nisbet’s Conservatism is a tour through the anatomy of conservative thought. Conservatism, in both cultural and political terms, is fundamentally about the conservation of values, institutions and traditions, and Nisbet’s overview also shares Kirk’s affinity for the thought of the movement’s inspirational forefather, Edmund Burke. Using Burke as his intellectual lodestar, Nisbet’s survey brings to bear the entire lineage of conservatism including Burkean contemporaries like Joseph de Maistre, Benjamin Disraeli, Louis Gabriel Ambroise de Bonald, and Alexis de Tocqueville. The contributions of modern exponents such as Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, Irving Babbitt and TS Eliot are also acknowledged. What all of these men had in common was a shared conviction in the sanctity of traditionalism and a determination to ward off the steady encroachment of conservatism’s two adversaries: liberalism and socialism.

Sparked by Burke’s seminal rebuke to the French Revolution, modern conservatism arose as a response to both the Jacobin fervor for equality and the broader Enlightenment consensus which now forms the bedrock of Western modernity itself. Conservatives viewed the liberal fixation on radical individualism and rational empiricism as an assault on traditional life, and by extension, the hard won fruits of stability, order and civil society. Underneath the conservative conception of the entire social order was a natural epistemological framework for discerning cultural knowledge which forms the basis of the conservative relationship to all institutions of authority. Or to use Burkean terminology, the primacy of prejudice and prescription. Burke and his contemporaries argued that prescription and prejudice was a prerational wisdom borne from popular consciousness and intergenerational knowledge which arose organically from a stable social order. Family, church, and community all formed independent spheres of authority which simultaneously served to constrain behavior, build stable institutions, and mitigate the influence of the State. Burkeans maintained that the very notion of liberty itself hinged on the conservation of this social order. Subsequently, the liberal pursuit of abstract principles and the clinical application of the scientific method in an attempt to distill universal laws by which to govern human affairs was capricious, dehumanizing and detrimental to the very cornerstones of society they sought to conserve.

Liberalism’s tendency to consolidate its thought in an aristocracy of academic elites is one of the perennial gripes that binds every generation of conservatives. In contrast to the feudal conception of dispersed spheres of authority espoused by conservatives, liberalism relies very heavily on a system of education lead by a vanguard of intellectual gnostics in order to reproduce the effect normally cultivated within the institutions of traditional society. Stated in contemporary terms, the progressives need propagandists. Beginning with Burke’s savage attacks on Rousseau to the seething contempt poured on the clinical abstractions of Jeremy Bentham, academic elites have long been reviled by conservatives as the engineers of social dissolution.

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Yeah, well Edmund Burke didn’t know queer theory, did he? Checkmate, conservatards.

Where the conservative mind accepts humanity as it is, the liberal zeal for reform seeks to eradicate all vestiges of the traditional order so that the era of emancipated brotherhood can be fully realized. This religious pursuit of a reformed consciousness is the singular hallmark of all leftist revolutionaries from Rousseau to Lenin to its current manifestation in the postmodern, social justice Left. Both Tocqueville and Burke saw the French Revolution as a pursuit of radical egalitarianism engineered by academics. Within these criticisms was a recognition that the “French revolution inaugurated a kind of revolution of the Word, something previously found in only evangelical, proselytizing religions.” It’s a pattern that repeated itself during the Bolshevik Revolution in the 20th century and appears to be resurfacing now within the postmodern Left.

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Conservatives from Bonald to Hegel argued that the transference of the locus of moral authority away from the spheres of family and church and into the hands of the State is the mental carcinogen at the core of the revolutionary mindset. Rousseau himself was very explicit in the Social Contract that the goal was to institute a “civil religion.”  In contrast to the conservative conception of independent spheres of authority of which both family and church play an essential role, the progressive appropriates the divine sanction the church confers upon the State and bends it towards a revolutionary end. For the progressive, the moral is political. Subsequently, all areas of life must be subordinated to the “civil religion” of #SocialJustice.

Lead by the feminist vanguard, the assault on family life is now out in full display. Conservatives opposed feminism on the grounds that it undermined the traditional role of women as wives and mothers. While relatively few openly embrace the mantle of feminism, the fruits of the feminist crusade for taxpayer subsidized abortion, no fault divorce and gynocentric child custody law are more than evident in declining birth rates, rising divorce rates, unfavorable outcomes for boys and a perverse obsession with gender neutrality.  Add in the progressive obsession with importing immigrants and the conservative argument only gathers strength.

 

Where family pride ceases to act, individual selfishness comes into play. When the idea of family becomes vague, indeterminate, and uncertain, a man thinks of his present convenience; he provides for the establishment of his next succeeding generation and no more. Either a man gives up the idea of perpetuating his family, or at any rate he seeks to accomplish it by other means than by a landed estate. – Alexis de Tocqueville

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One of the more surprising revelations of Nisbet’s research is the conservative opposition to industrialization and laissez faire and its attendant effect on the relationship to property. Contrary to the modern perception of conservatives as heartless and calculating champions of dog eat dog capitalism, a theme that echoed throughout the writings of early conservatives is an outright hostility to free markets that even surpasses those of the Marxists. Disraeli, Coleridge and Bonald along with many others rejected the atomizing effect capitalism had on society. In laissez faire, they saw the erosion of social bonds and destruction wrought on rural life.

Closely related to the conservative critique of free markets is an equally fervent critique of property rights under capitalism. As the laws of entail and primogeniture were whisked away under the modern capitalist order, so too would it undermine the belief in private property itself and eventually pave the path for full scale socialism.

One of Nisbet’s most provocative claims is that the longstanding conservative opposition to liberalism is that it’s a Trojan Horse for totalitarianism. He contends that the veneer of liberation only severs the cultural bonds of family and community that simultaneously form the basis of a stable social order and serve as a bulwark against an oppressive State. In light of the current state of the Left throughout the West, it’s hard to say they were wrong. In fact, the entire multicultural, social justice project seems like a perverse and artificial inversion of the organic forms of social organization championed by conservatives. In place of the network of religious, cultural and familial constraints on behavior, progressives are attempting to fill every crevice of society with overzealous reinventions and policing of language coupled with weaponized identity politics.

One notable figure to whom Nisbet makes repeated reference throughout the book is Joseph de Maistre. Isaiah Berlin sees him as the architect of modern fascism whereas Nisbet places him alongside classical European conservatives like Burke, Bonald, Disraeli and Tocqueville. Though Maistre may not have been an easygoing guy, I am inclined to think that Berlin’s reading of Maistre’s work is uncharitable and his overall appraisal incorrect. Admittedly, Maistre doesn’t engender the warmest feelings when discussing the importance of the role of the executioner in society, but among other things, his opposition to the rationalist consensus of the Enlightenment and the secular tyranny of the French Revolution was entirely well founded.

I further propose that Berlin’s attempt to pin fascism to Maistre or classical conservatism not only contravenes conservatives’ steadfast opposition to state engineered collectivism and feudal conception of dispersed authority, it represents an early attempt by a liberal to attribute the phenomenon of fascism as the exclusive province of the political Right. Christopher Dawson correctly asserted that fascism should be viewed as a product of liberalism since it ultimately seeks to collectivize the individual with the State. The fact that fascist regimes appropriated elements of conservative dogma only changes the particular flavor of its collectivist and leftist ethos. Though Berlin was a thoughtful scholar, this tendency among liberals to assign blame to conservatives for the fundamentally socialist character of fascism has continued unabated. As Paul Gottfried has repeatedly argued, it is not only a feature of contemporary social justice orthodoxy, but it has congealed into a dementia that has consumed the progressive Left.

Nisbet rightly points out that throughout the past few centuries of Western democracy, there has always been a delta between conservatism as pure ideology and as a set of prescriptive cultural norms versus political conservatism. Quoting Benjamin Disraeli, Nisbet emphasizes the fact that political conservatives are creatures of their age, and subsequently, are subject to all of the vagaries that accompany the acquisition of political power.

The truth is, gentlemen, a statesman is the creature of his age, the child of circumstance, the creation of his times. A statesman is essentially a practical character ; and when he is called upon to take office, he is not to inquire what his opinions might or might not have been upon this or that subject he is only to ascertain the needful and the beneficial, and the most feasible manner in which affairs are to be carried on. – Benjamin Disraeli

While this accounts for conservatives’ numerous concessions to progressives, political scandals, ideological purity tests and plagues of corruption, it also creates a bit of a conundrum for conservatism itself. If conservatism is about upholding fixed principles, cultural tradition, intergenerational knowledge and a restraint on state power, what has American, or European, political conservatism actually conserved?  Nisbet concedes its failures, but is sanguine about its future.

Quite apart from symbolic value and even genuine, concrete reference, family, kindred, neighborhood and locality, even region and race, have a universal historical meaning that is not likely to be entirely eroded away by the acids of modernity. – Robert Nisbet

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Nisbet may have been a little too optimistic. The Trump era has ushered in what is probably the most fervent and concerted attack on conservatism. Through Trump can hardly be considered a doctrinaire conservative on any given issue, the issues on which he has taken firm public positions that are genuinely conservative are deeply consequential for the future of the republic. The progressive Left is fully possessed by a revolutionary nihilism which only seeks to eradicate all vestiges of the past and has shown nothing but contempt for any form of historical American tradition. We are living in an time in American history in which the Left’s thirst for power is so unrestrained, they are willing to foment both racial antipathy and open hostility to family life. The Left has abandoned the idea of a country with borders and a set of dominant cultural norms in favor of a radical cultural egalitarianism and a globalist utopianism. While the Left revels in its smug certainty that conservative insistence on immigration restriction is inherently bigoted and a design flaw in the conservative mindset, it is more rightly viewed as the time honored recognition of a pluralism of values and the necessity for the preservation of national values. The Left has made it clear that there is nothing to defend, nothing to uphold and nothing to conserve in the American tradition. When we’ve reached a point when even “The Star Spangled Banner” is a bone of contention between progressives and conservatives, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the conservative is the real radical of the 21st century.

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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 transcendence. 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.

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.

Revisiting the Argument for Atheism: Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian

Given that atheism appears to be a rising trend in the US, it’s worth taking a look back at one of the seminal arguments against the Christian faith to see how well it holds up. Besides his numerous contributions to mathematics, history and philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s contribution to the modern atheist movement is significant. Russell comes from a long line of religious skeptics which goes back to David Hume and Immanuel Kant and finds modern expression in Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens among many others. Mr. Russell may have been a gifted intellectual in many respects, but his 1927 essay, Why I Am Not A Christian, is logically inconsistent, poorly argued and uncharitable towards Christianity. It also reveals a paradox at the center of the atheist worldview which, in my opinion, few atheists have acknowledged let alone sufficiently addressed.

By staking a monopoly claim on rationality, reason, and by extension, the scientific method and the entire realm of scientific discovery, atheists have essentially positioned themselves as the new arbiters of morality. While atheists have busied themselves dismantling the edifice of religious morality using the tools of logic, they have simultaneously claimed that a new secular moral order can be constructed from these tools alone. In some of the more extreme cases, moral principles do not matter at all. That’s the core conceit of Why I Am Not A Christian, and the very philosophical error that places Russell in the same company as Karl Marx. Though Russell wrote extensively on morality and ethics, a condemnation of faith or a failed attempt at logical refutation isn’t a sufficient replacement for a system of morality and ethics, however flawed it may be in certain respects, that’s been developed over centuries. Russell deserves credit for making the attempt, but moral relativism and utilitarianism have proven themselves pretty weak substitutes.

Russell’s essay is worth reading for the simple reason that he attempts to actually refute the intellectual arguments for the existence of God.  It’s a phenomenon that’s mostly absent from the contemporary cultural discussion, but there is, in fact, a set of intellectual arguments for the existence of God that were famously articulated by Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. There is a widespread, and arguably bigoted, perception amongst atheists that Christians are knuckle dragging, anti-science mouth breathers who have neither a willingness or ability to engage in formal debate. Since the argument has already been fought by the likes of Russell, atheists generally take it as given that the debate is over, and engagement with these arguments is unnecessary. Conversely, Christians have largely retreated, been ignored, or simply failed in the intellectual arena against the likes of charismatic and intelligent atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. Given that atheists lay claim to being the superior logicians, it’s surprising to see how lazy and weak Russell’s arguments actually are.

The First Cause Argument

Though he can be forgiven for making this claim since what came to be known as the Big Bang Theory was introduced the same year he made this speech, Russell’s opening volley is completely contravened by the weight of current scientific evidence in favor of the Big Bang Theory. The religious skeptic’s argument against First Cause ends up being torpedoed by the weight of current scientific evidence.

That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity.

Well, Mr. Russell, I hate to pull Hitchens’ Razor on you, but what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.  Why aren’t there any more specifics on the multitude of theories that supplanted a causal theory of cosmic expansion? This was a missed opportunity to specify how science contravened faith, and he dismisses it with a hand wave. Naturally, the Big Bang Theory lends itself to the First Cause argument to which Russell retorts with a reductio ad absurdum that persists to this day.

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.

The obvious rebuttal to this claim has already been spelled out by Aquinas, and Russell bypasses it like it’s inconsequential. If there is motion in the universe, and all motion requires a mover, and the moved cannot be the mover, ergo, there must be an original unmoved mover. The laws of the universe that govern our world flow from the Big Bang, and thus far, science has nothing definitive to say about what preceded the Big Bang. But even if one finds Russell’s argument persuasive, the ramifications of his argument should be troubling to any rationally minded person who values objective truth. If one removes the possibility of causality in explaining the universe or human action, you’ve arbitrarily excised a significant line of philosophical inquiry and a key tenet of the scientific method.  And to everyone who considers it a given that science and faith are incompatible, just remember that the most significant scientific theory explaining the origins of the universe came from a Catholic priest.

The Natural Law Argument

Russell’s argument here is essentially that it is too simplistic to say that the phenomena of the natural world or the cosmos can be explained away by saying Goddidit. He further contends that because Newtonian laws of gravitation were overturned by Einstein’s more complete theory of General Relativity, “natural laws are really human convention”.

Utter bollocks.

Scientific law gets called law because it explains phenomena that are constant, immutable and unchanging. There isn’t a single scientific law that has been invalidated or overturned since the time Russell wrote this piece.  Whether we’re talking about Special Relativity or Pascal’s Law or Planck’s Law, scientific law gets called a law because it reveals the machinery of the natural world expressed as a mathematical equation and can be reproduced under controlled conditions.  It is the continuous discovery of natural law which forms the foundations of a body of scientific knowledge from which technological innovation arises. Why a self-professed man of science like Russell argued something so asinine is beyond me.

The Argument From Design

Also known as the Teleological Argument, the argument from design essentially asserts that if the conditions of the creation of the universe were altered ever so slightly, life as we know it would not exist.  Russell dismisses this out of hand. At this juncture, I’m going to refer readers to an excellent piece by SJ Thomason which steps through all of Russell’s arguments and explains why considering the possibility for design does not preclude scientific inquiry, but expands it.

Russell then goes completely off the rails and starts sounding like a proto-SJW in the remainder of this section. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why did we get the KKK or the Nazis? The obvious rebuttal is that humanity was given free will.  It is entirely up to us to distinguish right from wrong and choose accordingly.  That is the challenge of being alive.

The Moral Arguments For Deity

This is the core failure of Russell’s argument, and by extension, the entire atheist enterprise in my opinion.

I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question.

The atheist argument poses a deep conundrum because it is either implicitly or explicitly a call for a secular moral order. The atheist, by and large, most definitely has a sense of right and wrong because not only would any atheist seek punishment for the murderer, rapist and thief, atheists mostly busy themselves lambasting the evils of religion. If the atheist attacks a religious moral tenet in favor of a secular moral advancement, he is positioning himself as an arbiter of morality. If the atheist rejects the idea that faith is the foundation for moral realism, then you have consigned the entire realm of morality to the relativistic world of political ideology, or worse, scientism and utilitarianism. The atheist that claims a “belief in science” over faith is not only peddling a ridiculous fallacy since good science does not require belief in the first place, but is glossing over the larger issues of morality and ethics. One cannot have sound science without sound ethics, and I would contend that it is a precondition for any serious quest for scientific knowledge. The sciences of the natural world are neutral on morality and ethics. Few people would embrace it today, but eugenics were once considered cutting-edge science. On the other hand, the modern social sciences make no effort to hide the fact that they are both normative and subjective, but affect a pretense of being the engines of modern moral progression simply because they live under the broad banner of science. Gender studies, critical race theory, and climate change “science” now form a de facto secular moral order from which any dissent is met with censure and opprobrium. Committing violence in service of the advancement of political goals and being a self-appointed judge of who deserves to be punched for having the wrong political opinions are not only explicitly sanctioned by the progressive political class, academics and celebrities, but they are evidence of moral virtue.

At its core, the atheist argument is a negation of belief, and an active embrace of non-belief. It also falsely asserts that faith and reason are mutually exclusive faculties, and the existence of one automatically short circuits and precludes the exercise of the other. If this doesn’t lead to a state of pure nihilism, it creates an inherent cognitive dissonance with respect to positive engagement with humanity itself. By and large, humans generally strive towards a very general notion of Doing Good and Making a Difference. Happiness, love, friendship, loyalty, forgiveness and charity are all abstractions which cannot be quantified, and yet, these abstractions are the mythical sky wizards that every atheist presumably chases in his own life under the guise of “science” or “reason”. Every act performed which carries an expectation of positive good, whether it’s money donated to a soup kitchen or a vote cast for a politician, is its own act of faith. If an atheist truly has any hope for humanity, he must, at some level, have belief in humanity’s capacity for good. This all by itself is an act of faith. It is the Golden Rule in practice. Cynicism and nihilism are easy.  Finding reasons to be hopeful about humanity is a far deeper challenge which pretty much requires some level of faith.

The yearning for justice and righteousness; more specifically, the desire to do right by for our fellow man and leave a positive legacy for posterity is hardwired into the human consciousness at some level. However, it is not a forgone conclusion that any given human will make choices that will expand and spread virtue, and it is entirely possible that many will be actively constrained and thwarted in their ability to exercise it or possibly even violate others in one way or another.

As Thomas Sowell argued, the world is roughly divided between those who subscribed to a “constrained” vision of humanity which posits that human nature is fixed and unchanging or an “unconstrained” vision which asserts that humans can be molded by social forces and institutions. Atheists mostly belong to the latter camp. Sadly, no one gives a shit about “a rational proof for secular ethics” or any other lofty philosophical disquisition on morality and ethics. Bertrand Russell wrote a bunch of stuff, but who reads it except for philosophy nerds and academics? The study of neuroscience in hopes of uncovering the “moral landscape” as Sam Harris describes it seems like little more than a recipe for pharmacological and technological micromanagement of the human will. The yearning for justice appeals to human emotion, and subsequently, humans tend to respond more positively to narrative and allegory when it comes to formulating notions of morality and justice. This is why Biblical allegory and mythology have been far more effective vehicles for the transmission of moral lessons than philosophical dialectic.

I further contend that it’s far easier to denigrate the Christian faith and morality than it is to proffer a positive alternative. There are no consequences to proclaiming yourself an atheist.  It takes no courage to heap scorn and ridicule on Christians as the enemies of Real Social Progress© and scientific discovery. According to the contemporary progressive orthodoxy, the only real moral transgressions are “bigotry”, white on black police brutality, climate change “denial”, the absence of consent in sexual relations for white, middle-class female college students, saying anything negative about Islam, and pretty much anything uttered by a conservative, libertarian or Christian. But the outrage is strictly confined to the narrative as it’s defined within the walls of academia, the media echo chamber which dutifully parrots every bit of brainless tripe dispensed from the social justice priesthood, and the gender ideologue foot soldiers who dominate Twitter and Tumblr. And by and large, this is where the yellow brick road of atheism has lead: to the sanctuary of the Church of Progressivism. Few atheists would admit it, but political rhetoric and social “science” have replaced the priest’s sermon.

Atheism has become a new orthodoxy which has largely ceded moral authority and agency to the leftist political class, their agenda and apparatchiks in academia.  There are exceptions, but this is the trend.  It seems like little more than a license to condescend to Christians, denigrate Christianity as the font of subservience and totalitarianism, and generally be miserable, nihilistic curmudgeons. Like all progressive thought, it’s not edgy, contrarian or new. With few exceptions, it’s just a standard accompaniment to a predetermined list of progressive political goals.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about making this argument since atheists are definitely the cool kids in the class, but if this is the quality of the argument from one of atheism’s greatest thinkers, then color me unimpressed.

Atheism Versus Moral Realism

Though I consider myself an atheist, I get a little tired of the atheist contempt heaped on Christianity. There’s certainly no shortage of fundamentalist nutbags or clips of Pat Robertson spewing nonsense on which to pile scorn and ridicule. Hating on Christians and Christianity has become a bit of a tired cliché among atheists and progressives alike[1]. It’s especially galling when atheists will champion Christian values when they’re being upheld by a Democrat politician.  Christian values become instantly legitimate when a Christian religious leader validates their bias towards the moral righteousness of a particular policy agenda. On the other hand, Islam is rightfully receiving a vigorous critique from some corners of the atheist community on the grounds that it is barbaric, backwards and counter to basic liberal principles. Each of these phenomena raises an important point often derided and dismissed by atheists: the importance of moral realism. 

How can you claim moral retrogression in human behavior or in any ideology if you don’t claim that there is objective moral truth in the first place? Indeed, how can one formulate any theory of ethics, justice, or rights without some basic, universal, objective standard upon which to judge right and wrong?

Atheists argue that the belief in God is irrational because there’s no empirical proof of his existence. Atheists also tend to claim a mantle of moral superiority, myself included, since we view the world through the cold lens of hard reason, rationalism and empiricism. This belief in the power of reason reaches back to the Enlightenment and that the exercise of this capacity alone will guide us to a secular moral truth. Since God is a delusion, how can one uphold religious morality as a standard by which to guide our own actions let alone judge others? Surely, only a sad and limited consciousness would embrace the antiquated notion of a Supreme Being. Isn’t this belief in a Supreme Being, in fact, the very reason that people commit such horrible atrocities in God’s name, reject science and hold bigoted and exclusionary beliefs to this day? MUH CRUSADES, CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL, HOMOPHOBIC BAKERS, AND ABORTION DOCTOR MURDERERS, AMIRITE?! Though it is a debate that been waged for centuries, conservative theist YouTuber, The Distributist, argued very persuasively that even if you are an atheist, you cannot disregard or take lightly the theist argument for the existence of God on the basis of morality. 

In the video, The Distributist responds to Vernaculis’ snide, condescending response Dr. Peter Kreeft’s moral case for the existence of God. In Kreeft’s video, he lays out all of the classic secular arguments for morality and why morality cannot be regarded as a set of preferences.  These arguments include:

  • Evolution
  • Reason
  • Conscience
  • Human Nature
  • Utilitarianism
  • In each case, both Kreeft and The Distributist argue that from these premises, morality will devolve in a few predictable ways. It will be subjectively constructed and enforced. It will potentially regress backwards or will arise from an a posteriori analysis which may or may not serve as a useful moral foundation for an evolving society. The latter case assumes of course that civilization has weathered the vagaries of a society based on a relativistic morality in the first place. Since mankind is subject to flaws, has the ability to make choices, and the establishment of moral normativity and ethics is necessary if one hopes to have a shot at actual civilization, it follows that one can only appeal to an external, immutable moral absolute which is both universally accessible and exists outside man and nature.  The Distributist and Kreeft both conclude that if there is absolute moral law, there must be an absolute lawgiver. Ergo, God exists.  

    Not bad.

    Setting aside whether one accepts the argument at all, why would a world of moral absolutes be preferable to moral relativism? Wouldn’t that lead to a RELIGIOUS TYRANNY??

    No.  

    For example, if murder is objectively wrong, it it was wrong in the past and remains wrong today. The fact that those vested with moral authority commit murder (e.g. priests, politicians, monarchs) doesn’t invalidate the moral law. Rather, it only proves that the person in question failed to live up to the law in his life choices.  Just as the unchanging laws of nature have allowed for vast scientific and technological discovery, an unchanging moral law provides an equally sound basis from which to make moral choices.

    Using any of the other bases for formulating morality, one could arrive at a valid moral rationale for murder, and history has borne this out.  Stalin was an atheist and saw no moral transgression in murdering millions of his citizens. He was the leader of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat who was merely facilitating the historical inevitability of a socialist worker’s paradise. It was justified on both evolutionary and utilitarian grounds. Checkmate, moral realism!

    Regardless of whether one accepts that moral objectivity proves the existence of God, it raises a deep challenge for the atheist who isn’t a moral relativist.  It requires that the atheist instantiate a metaphysical construct of Good and Evil which isn’t tied to any supernatural being or phenomenon.  It’s certainly possible to impart morality and ethics without religious beliefs, but religion is meant to express some kind of eternal moral truth in the universe.  Needless to say, this raises all kinds of questions around whether a religious text that commands you to stone your wife, condemn homosexuality or refrain from eating bacon can really be regarded as some kind of eternal moral truth. The point is there is indeed a necessity for objective morality as a foundational proposition from which one exercises free will. 

    Notable atheists, Sam Harris and Stefan Molyneux in particular, have attempted to proffer theories of morality that are grounded in science and logic. However, I propose that this is a fundamental epistemological error and the consignment of morality to the realm of science or logic negates and nullifies that which makes us human. Humans are driven by many factors, but by and large, we aspire to express love, be of service to others and do the Right Thing by our fellow humans. Even if you have no religious belief, humans aspire to reach the ineffable and the infinite through earthly works and human relationships. We extol examples of heroism, charity, goodwill and kindness and condemn acts of predation, cruelty, indifference and violence. We champion art which affirms our deepest yearnings for love, connectedness, companionship and eternal beauty.  We want to be reminded that our lives have meaning, that doing the Right Thing actually matters. We want to know that it is possible to affect change for the better. By inserting morality into the realm of science or logic, we’re subsuming these aspects of ourselves which cannot be quantified or proven through a logical proposition and building a world of mechanistic determinism. 

    Sadly, atheism has long been the province of the socialist Left throughout the world. While there are certainly atheist libertarians, the overwhelming majority of atheists have built a new global church of atheism in the government which has replaced moral realism with an endless array of moral wrongs to be punished and rights to be conferred. This cult of moral relativism has reached its apotheosis in the agenda of the modern day social justice warrior. Feminism, multiculturalism, and scientism all converge within the progressive agenda to form a set of moral precepts which are easily sold by ideologues, academic hacks, would-be intellectuals and politicians. Rape statistics are used by feminists not because they actually care about rape victims, but because they wish to inculcate shame and guilt in men for having the Original Sin of an XY chromosomal pair. Environmentalist doomsayers who inveigh against consumption, fossil fuels and “climate science deniers” are no different from your garden variety Baptist preacher invoking the fires of Eternal Damnation.  #Blacklivesmatter activists are far more concerned with policing what people say and think than attending to the needs of the black community. The higher priority is to have white people atone for White Privilege by implementing an agenda of “economic justice”. What do all these agendas have in common?  They all lead down the road towards the new and improved globalist serfdom.  

    Moral relativism is little more than a recipe for a recursive loop of existential ennui, angst, cynicism, anxiety, and nihilism. It also provides a readymade validation of Marxist alienation. The cult of scientism is pushing us into a society that’s increasingly automated, mechanized, deterministic and disconnected from ourselves and one another. The identity politics of guilt and shame are creating more division and enshrining a culture of victimhood and censorship. As the problems wrought by the relativists proliferate, the atheist priesthood doubles down and agitates for an ever expanding sphere of government sanctions, dispensations, accommodations and privileges.

    The advancement of human liberty and the market economy has afforded modern society the luxury of rejecting religious belief. Christianity remains a punching bag for atheists, but at this point, it appears to be little more than a license to hate conservatives. We live in a world where burning a Bible scarcely raises an eyebrow, but a drawing of Muhammad is a potential death sentence. Clearly, not all religions are equal, but the obvious moral depravity of Islam is continually overlooked by the progressive wing of the atheist community because it’s apparently a far worse sin to appear “bigoted” towards Muslims.  As far as “scientific” moralism goes,  Sam Harris’ handwaving away of Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War and career of corruption should tell you everything you need to know about how reliable this theory of morality is. The verdict is in on moral relativism and it is a recipe for self destruction.

    Classical liberalism has given us the freedom to pursue life on our own terms even if it involves no religious belief.  But atheists aren’t adding to human progress by embracing moral relativism. 

    [1] Most atheists also self-identify as progressive.

    Helen Kendrick Johnson: Woman and the Republic

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    The attainment of women’s suffrage which accompanied the passage of the 19th Amendment is generally regarded as synonymous with Human Progress. Like the abolition of slavery or the passage of ’64 Civil Rights Act, I’m doubtful you’ll find many people who’ll see women’s suffrage as anything other than a badly needed step of evolutionary human progress to redress a boorish and retrograde inequity. Nor are you likely to find a history book or media depiction of the suffrage movement as being anything less than heroic and principled.  It’s difficult to even fathom the idea that there was anyone who was opposed to women’s suffrage, let alone a woman. Surely, anyone who would argue such a position is beneath contempt and unworthy of mention in the annals of history. 

    As it turns out, Helen Kendrick Johnson was that woman and that’s precisely what makes her anti-suffrage treatise, Woman and the Republic, such a fascinating read. Published in 1897, Woman and the Republic is roughly analogous to Thomas Sowell’s 1984 book, Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality. Johnson examines the arguments of suffragists and scrutinizes their claims against the historical data and the daily reality of life in late 19th century America.  At the time of its publication, the suffrage movement was fifty years old and suffragists had a very specific agenda. Their grievances were spelled out in the Suffrage Declaration of Sentiments and the History of Woman Suffrage. Johnson proceeds to demolish these arguments one by one in a very elegant and systematic fashion. You could say she was both a proto-Christina Hoff Sommers and Phyllis Schlafly. Not all of Johnson’s arguments stand up to scrutiny, but when one measures her arguments against the claims of contemporary feminists and progressives, one can certainly assert that she was correct about more than most would be willing to concede. 

    The single most astonishing revelation of Woman and the Republic is that the grievances of the suffragists are exactly identical to the grievances of contemporary feminists.  This book is 119 years old, and Johnson could easily be teleported into the 21st century and would find herself exasperated that feminists are still griping about the same things as their 19th century forebears. 
    The clearest example of this is Johnson’s elegant yet brutal takedown of the 19th century wage gap.  Yes, indeed.  Just like feminists of the 21st century, suffragists of the 19th century were in fact whinging about the wage gap back in 1897 and Johnson disposes of these claims like a boss.  While rational people who value empiricism over manipulative, demagogic claims have been trying to stamp out the wage gap myth for decades, Helen Kendrick Johnson was the clearly the mythbusting OG. Though largely arguing from biological determinism but always grounded in sound economics, Johnson supplies a trove of data indicating that women are properly compensated according to skill. She further contends that they suffer no unequal access to the labor market and that wage discrimination is largely influenced by the fact that women often leave the labor force to have children. Johnson rightfully points out the glaring absence of outrage around female representation in physically strenuous and technically challenging fields. The deafening silence she received from suffragists is exactly analogous to the selective outrage exhibited by contemporary feminists. 

    The Suffragists did not decry man’s “monopoly” of the honorable and profitable but severe professions of civil engineering, seamanship, mining engineering, lighthouse keeping and inspecting, signal service, military and naval duty, and the like. These, and the drudgery of the world’s business and commerce, man was welcome to keep.

    Nowadays, feminists blame “socialization” for disparities in representation and have gamed the political system in order to feed at the taxpayer trough. Johnson was attuned to this phenomenon as well.

    The influence of women upon politics, and the influence of politics upon women, have already been degrading. This is true of political intrigue in the old world, and of the “Female Lobby” in Washington. It is astonishing to what an extent it is true in our new country, with our fresh and sweet traditions.

    Johnson challenges the mantle of victimhood that was a feature of suffrage, and is the hallmark of contemporary feminism. Modern feminism hinges on a theory of an all-encompassing system of male patriarchal oppression, and Johnson’s criticism feels way ahead of its time.

    While the counts contain concrete statements, the closing clause—”the law in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands”—sets forth an abstract idea in justification of which they furnish no proof.

    Even worse, the divisive, supremacist beliefs that are commonplace among feminists were also espoused by suffragists. The following quote from Utah State Senator and champion of suffrage, Martha Cannon, as well as numerous other examples gathered by Johnson demonstrate that these sentiments were not isolated phenomena.

    Of course I am. It will help women, and it will purify politics. Women are better than men. Slaves are always better than their masters.

    In another striking parallel between the 21st century feminist grievance machine and the 19th century suffragists, Johnson illustrates how access to higher education was politicized. Johnson persuasively argues that the market was already providing expanded opportunity for women, and that this was neither hastened by granting suffrage nor a matter that required enfranchisement. While the world rightfully cheers Malala Yousafzai’s heroic efforts to bring female education into the Islamic world, women of the West suffer no lack of access to higher education. If anything, the vote has only enshrined a culture of entitlement and a toxic alliance between government power, illiberal feminist activism and the entire apparatus of higher education.

    The central pillar of opposition to which Johnson devotes much of the book is her contention that woman suffrage is too closely aligned with socialism and collectivist anarchism. 

    Johnson devotes a significant portion of the first half of the book to failed attempts at woman enfranchisement throughout the Union.  Using a dizzying deluge of voting data and razor sharp logic, Johnson piles layer upon layer of scorn on the various proponents of suffrage who espoused an affinity for socialism, fiat currency, disdain for family, sexual profligacy, and disregard for Constitutional principles.  It’s easy to dismiss Johnson as narrow minded, uptight prig whose views belong in the dustbin of history.  Even if you view prostitution, pornography, sexual liberation and non-traditional family arrangements favorably, it’s impossible to deny the ongoing advancement of everything else she warned against. 

    Johnson insists that if women are going to agitate for suffrage, they must also share in the responsibility that accompanies the maintenance of the nation state.  In other words, be prepared to back up the law with force.  She sees no diminution of woman’s sphere of social or civic influence by honoring the traditional biological division of labor that has defined most societies through the centuries.  If anything, she argues that this traditional separation has privileged womanhood and allowed her to exert an even greater sphere of influence in the realm of private relations and family.

    To give women a position of apparent power, without its reality, would be to make our Government forever unstable.

    The one point where Johnson’s argument feels the most prescient is her concern that suffrage would lead to military conscription for women.  On this point, Johnson was not only Phyllis Schlafly’s philosophical progenitor, but she unwittingly exposes the rank hypocrisy of feminists.  As politicians and military leaders advance legislation that would mandate Selective Service registration for women, the silence from feminist media and blogosphere is deafening. Despite the often desperate and pathetic attempts to brainwash the public to believe otherwise, contemporary intersectional feminism has nothing to do with “equality.”  No matter how often feminists say they want to “smash the patriarchy,” it’s patently obvious that feminists are thoroughly uninterested in smashing this particular expression of “patriarchy.” If anything, the abiding lesson of Johnson’s message is that if you start treating voting as a universal “right” or use the voting booth to agitate for positive rights over the preservation of negative rights, don’t be surprised when the politicians decide to trample your liberty in order to expand their own power.  Most of all, don’t mindlessly regurgitate talking points about “equality” when there is state enforced gender discrimination which places the burden of military conscription squarely on the shoulders of men. 

    Women can be seriously destructive; but no one will claim that organized military duty is really practicable for them. And the suffrage proposition does not look to anything of the kind. The Suffragists demand equal vote in sending their fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, and lovers to the military field of action, and propose to be absolutely exempt from equal share in the duty that that vote now lays upon male voters. Before the law there could be no distinction of duty on account of race, sex, or previous condition of servitude. The “emancipated” woman would be emancipated into that which the Declaration of Independence expressly called for, “the right and privilege of the people to bear arms.”

    Johnson righteously attacks the dubious equivalence between the suffrage and the abolitionist movements. She devotes an entire chapter to the delta between the rhetoric of suffragists and abolitionists. It’s yet another remarkable example of a phenomenon that lives on in feminist and social justice circles alike, and serves as a potent reminder that the feminist script remains largely unchanged. To this day, feminists use the legacy of slavery to inculcate shame and guilt and claim an unearned mantle of moral authority by drawing a non-existent equivalence between the abolitionists of the 19th century and 21st century intersectionality.  Johnson opens the chapter by lauding the abolition of slavery as a triumph of human freedom, but credits the achievement to “enlightened rulers” in the federal government. She attributes the abolition of slavery to the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, but devotes no real attention to the moral argument against slavery itself.  Johnson’s views could be described in contemporary terms as paleoconservative. She consistently appeals to tradition by arguing that the United States federal government was conceived to be confined to limits prescribed by the Constitution for the express purpose of preserving liberty. From her vantage point, suffrage was granted to those who had property rights for the express purpose of upholding the sanctity of property rights as a general principle. The fact that this limited suffrage was the province of men was not only proper and just, but necessary for the preservation of liberty. Under universal suffrage, there’s an inequality of self-interest with respect to the preservation of property rights and a danger that the law could then be perverted to serve as an apparatus of plunder as it is presently. She castigates the champions of woman suffrage who used the abolition movement as a moral fig leaf, but otherwise, denigrated the institution of marriage, favored communism over property ownership, or otherwise held no principles or stake in the institutions which conferred the liberty they enjoyed even without suffrage rights.

    The pauper was excluded from the ballot as not being worthy to share with freemen the honor of its defence. The unfortunate was excluded by an inscrutable decree of Providence. The criminal was excluded as being dangerous to society. The women were exempt from the ballot because it was for their special safety that a free ballot was to be exercised, from which the pauper and the criminal must be excluded. They were the ones who have given to social life its meaning and its moral, the ones who give to civic life its highest value.

    Tackling yet another shopworn cliché that was commonplace among suffragists and is just as alive in progressive and feminist circles, Johnson addresses the suffragists’ contention that the Christian Church not only maintains the subjection and subordination of women, but actively cultivates bigotry, intolerance, and arbitrary authoritarianism. Johnson rightfully challenges the claim that Christian Church’s alleged encouragement of a subordinate role for women will be alleviated somehow through suffrage. If anything, it’s feminism that treats women as a class of people under perpetual assault and in need of constant special attention.  If any ideology is promoting the powerlessness of women, it’s feminism.

    By far, the most burning question with which Woman and The Republic leaves the reader is what has been the true consequence of woman suffrage?  Has it wrought greater liberty and a reign of justice or a cult of obedience to the Church of Democracy and never-ending list of rights to be bestowed?  Has suffrage conferred a deeper appreciation of the principles of liberty or transferred all moral authority to the State?  Helen Kendrick Johnson argued that none of the perceived or actual inequalities in civic life for which suffragists sought redress would be solved with the ballot. After a more than a century of enfranchisement and little to no change in the feminist script, one certainly wonders if, in fact, she was completely correct.

    Cure by ballot has been the one and only remedy suggested by Suffrage conventions for all the ills, real or imaginary, that are endured by women.

    If nothing else, this book underscores the challenge of upholding liberty.  Those who agitate for an expansion of state power are always able to secure support from those want to expand the influence of the state. In Johnson’s time, there was arguably greater sympathy for removing the sphere of influence of the state in public affairs, yet suffragists sought to politicize everything.  Based on what you hear from your average intersectional feminist, Johnson’s warnings seem prescient.

    As time goes on, this spirit becomes more injurious, because progress is carrying philanthropy into higher fields of moral action, and in so doing is carrying it away from and above the plane where rests the ballot-box. While Suffrage effort is directed toward keeping all issues in the political arena, the trend of legislation is to take them out of politics.

    Helen Kendrick Johnson was not a gender egalitarian.  She favored economic liberty, property rights, educational access and equality before the law for men and women alike, but she was unequivocally what feminists would disparagingly call a gender essentialist. She held no objection to women pursuing higher education or employment in the private sector, but absolutely saw an essential role for women in motherhood and building a stable home life. She could be accused of being overly deferential towards men and insufficiently skeptical of state power, but she fundamentally saw virtue in manhood. She argued that the preservation of liberty and peace is best secured by attending to the most essential building block of human civilization: the family.  And in this role, she argued that women had a unique and critical role to play that was, in fact, largely biological.  She believed that the sexes were, in fact, different and each gender is edified by recognizing and celebrating this difference as opposed to repeating dogmatic mantras of Equality

    My main objection to the Woman-Suffrage organization is this, that a wrong mode is employed to gain a right object. The right object sought is, to remedy the wrongs and relieve the sufferings of great multitudes of our sex; the wrong mode is that which aims to enforce by law, instead of by love. It is one which assumes that man is the author and abettor of all these wrongs, and that he must be restrained and regulated by constitutions and laws, as the chief and most trustworthy methods. I hold that the fault is as much, or more, with women than with men, inasmuch as we have all the power we need to remedy the wrongs complained of, and yet we do not use it for that end. It is my deep conviction that all reasonable and conscientious men of our age, and especially of our country, are not only willing but anxious to provide for the good of our sex.

    When contrasted against the prevailing orthodoxy of intersectional feminism, gender neutrality and biological denialism, Woman and the Republic feels weirdly transgressive and revolutionary.  Even if Johnson was a bit of a hidebound biological determinist, her robust defense of liberty, property rights, market economics, and Constitutional principles has only accumulated strength in the years since its publication. Underneath it all, Helen Kendrick Johnson was putting forth a deeply radical notion: women do not need government in order to be powerful.  It will likely continue to be ignored or reviled purely on the basis of her opposition to full suffrage for women all by itself, but in this age of Progressive orthodoxy, this is precisely the kind of heresy that needs to be propagated far and wide. It’s imminently clear that no quantity of legislation will satisfy the grievance machine that is modern feminism. There isn’t a single argument being made today that wasn’t destroyed by Ms. Johnson back in 1897. The question is how long it’ll take for feminists to recognize that, if ever.  After all.  It’s 2016, SYSTERS