Archive for November, 2021

Death, Memory, and Meaning

November 29, 2021

The biggest fact of life is death. Life’s purpose is preparing to be dead for a very long time. How do we do that?

Some try to evade the issue by anticipating an afterlife. But one suspects few truly believe it, deep down. Else why such efforts to avoid dying?

An alternate kind of immortality is to be remembered. Israel Bitton has authored Who Will Remember You? A Philosophical Study and Theory of Memory and Will. Its cover art is a view from inside an open grave, with a crowd peering down into it. (And as if pointing up a future-oriented perspective, the copyright date is 2022!)

Bitton, 37, is executive director of Americans Against Antisemitism. He sent me his book after finding mine, The Case for Rational Optimism, relevant. Bitton’s work is very serious; his command of the material impressively prodigious. Indeed, I think he expects a lot of a reader. Doing the book justice is laborious. While mostly in plain English, it’s full of dense complex statements challenging to parse and absorb.

Though Bitton’s Jewish identity looms large, God is perhaps surprisingly (but wisely) left out of his philosophical edifice. He does find examples for his points in the Bible. Pertinent to his memory theme, for instance, he cites God doing various benevolent things because he remembers to. (Kind of odd for a being supposedly omniscient. And much he did was atrocious.)

For Bitton memory means far more than just our everyday understanding. He calls it “actually the core description of what underlies the entire physical universe.” The significance of anything “is dependent entirely on memory.” And central to human psychology is what he calls “the will to memorability.” One’s “essential will is not toward power or pleasure or even life itself but to significance, with all the former serving as means rather than ends.” Desiring “above all else, to be remembered. If people remember us, we feel significant in our lifetime and thereafter. If they forget us, what value does our life have? Thus, although the mind seeks significance and the body immortality, they both manifest as the will to memorability.”

Bitton intensively develops and explores this enlarged concept of memory. For example, he says, a hydrogen molecule has memory in that it knows what it is and what to do. Of course he’s not ascribing consciousness to molecules; rather, using the concept of memory to characterize how existence is put together and operates. For a human individual, the brain doesn’t merely hold memory — it is all memory, at the core of everything the brain does.

Bitton notes the centrality of remembrance for Jews in particular, for obvious historical reasons. Of course other religions too memorialize long-ago events (like the Christ story). And memory is a big issue in today’s America. With fierce arguments over what actually happened last January 6; and how we are to remember our more distant history.

The book points out that Judaism says almost nothing about any afterlife, instead stressing living in the present. For Bitton this underlines the importance of being remembered. We wouldn’t be so concerned with living in memory if expecting to live on in Heaven. But while Bitton focuses on being recalled positively, if mere remembrance were the objective, then evil can confer an immortality at least equally potent. Bitton himself remembers Hitler, almost obsessively.

Bitton invokes Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Finding meaning in their lives motivated some concentration camp inmates to struggle to survive. Frankl’s follow-up was The Will to Meaning. Bitton equates meaning with significance. Which, he says, provides the meaning of meaning — can something insignificant be meaningful?

Since will is integral to his system, Bitton addresses the perennial conundrum of free will. Particularly slamming Sam Harris’s book arguing against the idea. Harris accordingly held that the only reason to punish crimes is utilitarian protection of society; we shouldn’t “hate” a transgressor. But Bitton thinks Harris “writes as if living in an entirely theoretical world” with scant nexus to our real one. And if free will is an illusion, Bitton says he accepts that, but we still all live our lives with free will as an operative reality, requisite for “personal coherence.” And humans have a clear ability to act contrary to deterministic dictates. (I always point to smokers quitting.)

Let’s unpack Bitton’s philosophy. Start with memory as the essence of the universe. A better rendering might be information as the core of things. Using that word too not in its everyday sense, but referring to all things being describable and definable as information bits. No information, no existence. And, yes, this might be seen as embedding a memory of everything that went before to arrive at what exists now. Yet that’s a pretty esoteric concept whose relevance to the psychology of how any person lives their life is far from clear.

Nevertheless, in that psychology, Bitton is surely right that a thirst for significance is important. I’m reminded of the concept of thymos as elucidated in Fukuyama’s The End of History. Thymos is, more or less, the desire to have one’s human dignity respected; to be somebody rather than nobody. A political force Fukuyama saw as militating toward democracy.

But Bitton goes too far in reducing all human motivations to manifestations of the will to significance. Take power. Sure, it does make you feel important, but has many other attributes pleasurable for their own sakes. The food is good. And we’re programmed by evolution to seek power and status in order to get more mates and sex. Sex too is pleasurable in itself, a key motivator, wholly apart from any others. Bitton clearly errs in positing that we seek such pleasures actually as a means to some other end, significance. No — pleasures are rewarding without that.

He does make a strong case for the importance of memory as instilling meaning into the human project and into one’s individual life. Bitton doesn’t mention the famous case of Henry Molaison; a brain injury left him unable to form new memories, making for a life indeed rather meaningless. But being remembered by others is a different matter. It is fundamentally wrong to elevate that as the be-all and end-all of human psychology. Wrong in two fundamental ways.

First, being remembered is obviously something that happens in the minds of other people. Yes, your construct of their remembrance exists within your own mind, and can be rewarding. Plus their acting on their thoughts can materially benefit you. All true. Yet let’s not forget that your pleasure centers are located in your own brain, and only there; not in the brains of others. While “no man is an island,” in a very real physical sense each of us is marooned within the confines of our own skulls. Only there can our rewards be instantiated — anything happening in other skulls can give us pleasure only at second-hand.

The other and more fundamental problem is Bitton’s casting one’s prime motivation as concerning not just something happening in other minds, but happening there after you’re dead. Here too of course contemplation of posthumous phenomena can be pleasurable; but you won’t be around to witness or experience them.

That’s what death is: nonexistence, an end to all experiencing. It’s this reality you must confront in order to live an authentically meaningful life. Authentically meaningful to you. It all must unfold within the confines of your lifetime.

Yet again, you can take satisfaction from things you envision happening afterward — for example, your contributing to the future world’s betterment. But when you are dead, you yourself gain nothing further from it.

Bitton gives numerous examples of people craving to be remembered. Like Achilles choosing to live on in glory, rather than a long earthly life in obscurity. In my own youth, I too imagined my life would be meaningless without fame (or at least “significance”). The corrective came when I authored a book that did give me my “fifteen minutes” of fame (albeit just locally). I thought it would apotheosize me to a higher plane of existence. It did not. That eventually gave me the understanding I’ve tried to express here. Julius Caesar’s fame has long outlived him, but what good does that do him now?

And how long does remembrance last anyway? In the cosmic scheme of things, only an eyeblink. Will even Caesar be thought about in a million years? A billion? Premising your life on memorability must be in vain because everyone is ultimately forgotten. Immortality is a chimera.

Furthermore, while it’s rational to be concerned with remembrance by people important in your own life, Achillean or Caesarean glory is something in the minds of strangers unconnected to you. Its meaning for you is a false sort of meaning. It literally should not matter to you.

Recall Bitton’s baldly querying, “If [others] forget us, what value does our life have?” And he explicitly says significance is something requiring validation from other people; otherwise, again, one’s life has no meaning. This puts the onus for the value and meaning of your life entirely in the minds of other people. I believe instead that your life’s value is primarily to yourself, your life’s project is to make it rewarding in itself, to you. Because you are, to yourself, the most important person on Earth. It’s how you see yourself that counts most, not the opinion of others. “To thine own self be true.”

Do not live with the goal of being remembered. Live a good and rewarding life for its own sake, in the here and now. That’s all we get. Nothing happening after can tickle your bones crumbling in your grave.

NOTE: The author of the book has responded in depth to this review. I have posted his comments at this link:

The Deep State

November 26, 2021

“The Deep State” refers to a locus of true power, hidden, pulling strings behind the scenes. Journalist David Rohde discussed his 2020 book about this, at the New York State Writers Institute’s 9/25 Albany Book Festival.

No, Rohde’s book did not expose the Deep State. Instead exposing the fevered fantasies about it.

The term actually originated in 1990s Turkey, and then Egypt, where something like a deep state was a reality. The idea being that elected governments were just a veneer, their doings without real consequence, the shots being called elsewhere. Mainly by the military, in concert with powerful economic players. In Turkey, that’s been superseded by Erdogan’s autocracy. Egypt’s deep state was overthrown in 2011 but returned even more powerfully in 2013. Pakistan’s another case, its deep state centered on the military and its associated intelligence outfit, never really out of power.

In America, the basic idea long had resonance on the left. The old term “military-industrial complex” entailed something like that. Rohde also pointed to the 1970s Church Committee, investigating the CIA, with a whiff that it was more malignly powerful than we realized. And there were echoes in the “Occupy” movement.

The far right version of the “deep state” trope, in Rohde’s telling, originated with Peter Dale Scott’s 2007 book, The Road to 9/11. When Scott appeared on Alex Jones’s conspiracy-crazed show, it was off to the races. Not just 9/11, but the Oklahoma City bombing, and Sandy Hook were all staged by the government, for some nefarious reason — like a pretext for confiscating all guns. Which, you know, actually happened.

Then came 2016. Jones and his ilk insanely cast Trump as the hero who’d smash the deep state. But of course it would resist. Steve Bannon’s right-wing Breitbart News, in December, before Trump took office, rang a warning bell that the deep state was bent on thwarting him at every turn and bringing him down.

Many people in government did try to stop things Trump was doing. Considering them wrong and destructive, which was true. But it’s cuckoo to imagine some organized secret conspiracy to illegitimately screw Trump. (Two failed impeachments might at least have proven the “deep state” actually impotent.)

Nevertheless, this notion of a dark plot against Trump was trotted out continually — all the “witch hunt” rhetoric — as a way to revv up his cult followers into even greater frenzy. And it got worse, transmogrifying into QAnon.

“Q” is/was a supposed government insider anonymously ripping off the covers. The “deep state” conspiracy comprises pedophile baby eaters. All the major Democrats are in on it. Trump is waging a secret war against them. On the day of reckoning, “The Storm,” they will all be arrested (executed?) with Trump returned to office in glory. Millions continue to seriously believe this lunacy, despite the march of events since last November (and their putative savior being a mad incompetent fool).

And what does this QAnon story resemble? Obviously the “end of days” and Christ’s second coming. The congruences between Trumpism and religion are indeed striking. For many American “Christians” today, “Christian” is really more a cultural signifier than a true religious faith. For that, they look instead now to Trump. Religion is always a flight from rationality. This Trumpian religion flings reason to the ground and stomps on it.

Baltimore Coin Show Fun

November 22, 2021

Last week I went to the Baltimore coin show. Normally thrice yearly, it hadn’t been held for two years, due to Covid. Southwest has a one-hour early flight, then light rail (very cheap) got me to my first appointment before 8 AM — with dealer Nick Economopoulos in his hotel room.

He’s a good guy whom I’ve bought from for over thirty years. We go through his entire stock, and he shoots me his best rock-bottom price on every coin. Occasionally I might deliberate for a few seconds; usually not. No song-and-dance. And I buy enough to make it worthwhile for us both.

Then on to another dealer in his hotel room, before the show itself opens, a bourse with many tables. Mostly I seek ancient coins to sell in my online auctions. (The current one closes Dec. 7; here’s a link: But I do still buy an occasional item destined for my own collection.

One in the latter category, from Nick, was a dollar-sized Byzantine bronze of Emperor Tiberius Constantine (578-82 AD). The big M signifies the denomination (follis); the “u” the regnal year (fifth). CON is the mint, Constantinople; the Gamma after it, the “officina” or division in the mint. It was $200, actually the most I ever paid for a Byzantine bronze; but the quality is great. I was very glad to get it.

Quality is the name of the game. The U.S. coin market has gone nuts on that, with 11 hairsplitting grades of uncirculated. The “slabbing” companies, who evaluate coins and encapsulate them, for a fee, came up with something diabolical — “registry sets,” recording who owns the highest grade coins. With associated bragging rights (it’s a man thing). So, recently a 1957 Lincoln — cent, not car — sold at auction for $13,800. An extremely common coin, but uncommonly graded “67+.” Okay — but a 66 would go for about $35. As if the one is hundreds of times better than the other. Actually they’re virtually indistinguishable.

Fortunately the ancient coin market is more sane, but quality is still crucial; and it’s a more complex issue, with a lot of variables to consider. While value is a more open question too, absent price guides. All making this a challenging game. And the pandemic seems to have turbocharged demand, so it’s ever harder to buy at reasonable prices. I’ve always considered myself a “bottom feeder,” looking for “bargains.” Yet it’s remarkable what great coins I’ve been able to acquire — albeit with a lot of effort. But that effort is the fun. There’d be no sport in it if I wasn’t so price conscious. However, now rather than a “bargain,” my criterion for buying is a price at least making some sense to me.

That Byzantine coin is a case in point. Not so long ago $200 would have seemed unthinkable; now it feels cheap. (I’ve seen ones not as good selling for twice as much in auctions.)

I worked the show, going from table to table, until the 6 PM closing. And after a long productive fun day, buying many goodies, and a nice dinner, I got home before midnight, picked up at the airport by the best wife in the world. What a life.

Two Waitings

November 19, 2021

In 1977, when Avon published my fantasy novel, my middle initial was omitted on the cover. So we got a tart letter from the other Frank Robinson — Frank M. —a more prominent writer. Thought his name was being ripped off.

I’d never read any of his books. Decades later, I chanced on one at a library sale, and stuck it on my shelf. Then I picked up one by Ha Jin only because my wife and I had read aloud together another novel of his.

Those two books sat side-by-side on my shelf for a long while before I suddenly noticed both had the same title! — Waiting. What are the odds? Then I saw both were published in 1999! The coincidences tickled me enough to read them.

Frank’s is no literary masterpiece, but entertaining in its way. As a writer, I liked seeing how he managed to put across what was really a preposterous premise. That when Homo Sapiens supplanted the Neanderthals 35,000 years ago, another different species, resembling us more, managed to survive, living hidden among us. Waiting to consummate some final triumph over us. Mind control helps.

I have little truck with fictional psychic powers. And that those “Old People” could somehow maintain a separate bloodline for over a thousand generations seemed absurd. The novel acknowledges interbreeding, but says with two different species, any offspring were sterile, which nobody noticed. (We’ve since learned many humans have a little Neanderthal DNA, disproving the sterility theory.)

Nor did anyone notice these “Old People” were, well, physiologically not human. Until one doctor stumbles on an autopsy. The doc’s murder, to silence him, launches the book’s plot.

Which got convoluted. And the book seemed padded with much extraneous scene-setting. And what was it with all the coffee? OK, characters would drink some coffee. But this author seemed besotted with coffee shtick.

A line near the end made me laugh out loud: “Back at the house on Noe, he and Mark had taken a nap, then gone out shopping for a Christmas tree.” Mundane normal life. But after the cataclysmic (and bloody) denouement just hours before? “Shopping for a Christmas tree?”

Ha Jin’s novel concerns Lin Kong, whose girlfriend is waiting for him to divorce his wife. Who ever heard of such a story? (Quite a contrast to Robinson’s outrageous premise.)

The writing style is matter-of-fact. But not spare in a Hemingway way. Wouldn’t be bad if the story weren’t so enervating. We’re told early that the wait will be eighteen years. Then we’re led through the whole numbing saga.

It takes place in China from the mid-’60s through the ’80s. She’s an army nurse; Lin an army medic, in a loveless arranged marriage with an older woman, back in his home village, which he visits just once annually. Neither relationship entails any sex. Might have enlivened the narrative.

I was struck by just how regimenting, oppressive, inhumane really, Chinese communist society was. That shaped the course of Lin’s life. The contrast with free-wheeling American life was stark. China loosened up somewhat after those times; yet Xi Jinping seems intent on carrying regimentation to new heights. How do the Chinese stand for it? Actually it seems regimentation is in their DNA, very different from ours. Being cogs in a machine suits most of them just fine. And they actually profess revulsion toward America, as no model they’d wish to follow.

Lin’s introspection toward the end was touching. His wife had refused a divorce; but a rule allowed it unilaterally after 18 years of separation, and (contrary to my expectation) Lin actually does it, and marries his girlfriend. She makes up for lost time in the bedroom. Then come twins. But Lin isn’t happy. It all feels like a chore, imposed on him. He doesn’t feel he really loved either wife. Considers himself a useless man, his life wasted; and he’d indeed seemed a passive sort to me. Yet others see him as very fortunate. On that note the book ends.

Xi talks of the “Chinese dream.” It’s no analog to what we call the “American dream.” Xi means China being pre-eminent in the world. If the whole world becomes more like China, I’d call that a nightmare.

“Intelligent Design” — Another View

November 14, 2021

You’re walking in a forest and find a watch on the ground. Seems obviously the intentional creation of an intelligent designer. Applying this analogy to all creation has always been a central argument for creationism or “intelligent design.” Originally introduced by William Paley’s famous 1802 book Natural Theology. Many religious believers do look at nature’s intricate clockwork and cannot see how it could have arisen without an intelligent designer. Just like Paley’s watch.

The fallacy here is that the watch is purpose-built, unlike anything in nature, which never aimed to produce exactly what we see today. Instead it’s an undirected process that could have produced an infinitude of alternative possibilities. All existence is just whatever happened to fall out of that process — very unlike a watch made according to plan by a watchmaker.

Recently I encountered an 1813 essay by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (“A Refutation of Deism“) with a different but compelling answer to Paley’s watch analogy. One assumes the watch was designed “because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind . . . but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had actually found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted.”

Shelley goes on, “The analogy, which you attempt to establish between the contrivances of human art and the various existences of the Universe, is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know before hand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Take away this knowledge,” and the whole idea collapses.

Finding a watch in a forest might again seemingly suggest some non-natural origin. But suppose you find not a watch, but a mouse. You’d have no doubt of its naturalness. Yet if you think about it, the mouse is actually a far more intricate little “contrivance” than a watch. Most people accept that the mouse resulted from a billion year process of natural evolution. As Shelley said, if we knew nothing of watchmakers, we’d assume the watch must have somehow arisen that way too.

Creationists rhapsodize about how perfectly organisms seem fitted for purpose. Shelley refutes this too, with the observation that “if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest,” humans could not exist. Every living thing must of necessity be fitted to its habitat. No fitness, no animal.* So it’s far from miraculous. Shelley realized this even without the benefit of Darwin’s later elucidation of evolution (the real explanation for it all).

Creationists mistakenly characterize the idea of evolution as a random chance process, which of course could not produce anything like a watch or a butterfly. But evolution is in fact the opposite of random. A ruthless process of eliminating what doesn’t work. Actually, evolution operates by serial kludges of modification to what came before, often resulting in very imperfect matches of form to function.* Wouldn’t a really intelligent design for humans include a third eye in the back?

Shelley was, again, not a scientist but a poet. And wrote this when just 21 years old! I was blown away by his essay’s trenchancy, how beautifully he made his points, in plain clean language, not the convoluted prose so typical then. And so iconoclastically outside the mainstream of the time too. (He was expelled from Oxford for his atheist writings.) What an amazing testament to the power of the human mind. One might almost call it a miracle.

* Richard Dawkins has observed that predator animals are well fitted to catch prey; prey animals fitted to escape. So whose side is God on?!


Dave Chappelle’s Netflix Trans Shocker

November 10, 2021

Comedian Dave Chappelle had a history of offending some trans activists. His latest Netflix special, Closer, focusing on that subject, sparked a firestorm. Netflix was assailed and picketed, some employees joining in, demanding the show’s cancellation.

My wife and I decided to watch it, to see what the fuss was about.

And I was shocked.

Not by anything Chappelle said. Instead, what shocked me was that something so mild provoked so much umbrage. Chappelle actually seemed quite empathic toward trans people. Venting envy at what he saw as their success, compared to Blacks, in combating discrimination. One long riff concerned a trans comic he befriended and mentored. Though her act had bombed, Chappelle honored her as a great human being. The story’s gut-punch coda was her suicide. But also, Chappelle did skewer trans activist extremism — a subset of “woke” censorious intolerance.

It’s understandable that the trans community, as longtime social outcasts, would be coming from a sense of beleaguerment. But now that’s turned 180 degrees, with any deviation from their rigid catechism deemed a cancelworthy offense.

Wokeism weaponizes linguistic hair-splitting to delegitimize its targets. I’ve written about a man savaged for almost saying “colored people.” He quickly corrected it to “people of color.” But that didn’t forestall denunciation by, among others — get this — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

As a lover of language, I believe words do matter. And have meaning. But there are two sides to that coin. Some trans activists, even while fixating on how words are used, in other ways reject the concept that words have meaning. Witness J.K. Rowling’s condemnation as transphobic for holding there’s a difference between trans women and what we’re now supposed to call “cis-gender” women. If allowed to say “women” at all. Yet these words simply denote physiological differences. Which trans activists want to deny; while their own promotion of “cis-gender” terminology is itself differentiating. Otherwise why not just call them all “women?” Yet still it’s somehow deemed a crime to acknowledge the differentness.

This is the kind of thing Chappelle was deconstructing. He pointedly observed that every person alive was born through the birth canal of a woman. “Woman” is a useful category word applicable there. A transgender woman, even if considered female for most purposes, nevertheless differs from cis-gender women in certain respects. “Transgender” too is a useful category word. That’s what language is for. Where is the offensiveness?

Scientist Richard Dawkins was also pilloried for the same notional offense as Rowling. The American Humanist Association revoked his long-ago “Humanist of the Year” award. And when I posted an essay defending people changing gender, but also criticizing the attack on Dawkins, and trans extremism more generally, some ferocious responses illustrated exactly what I was talking about. For example, bashing my calling gender dysphoria biological, a brain-body mismatch. (Bizarre, because if they’re right, then trans haters might have a point in considering it a psychological perversion.)

Dave Chappelle got similar bashing. What a pity; the activists doing this seem blind to how harmful it actually is to their cause, generating far more antagonism than sympathy. It’s an old truism that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. James Carville ascribed recent Democratic election setbacks to excesses of “stupid wokeness.” Though why didn’t voters punish the Republican counterpart? Apologists for a coup attempt, the deranged “stolen election” lie, covidiocy, etc. Wokeism versus Trumpism — we’re whipsawed between the two countervailing pathologies.

America’s Didius Julianus Moment

November 6, 2021

Didius Julianus was the Roman Emperor who bought his crown at auction.

Here’s the story. The madman Emperor Commodus (the one in Gladiator) was murdered on the last day of AD 192. Succeeded by Pertinax, an upstanding statesman. He tried to discipline the Praetorian Guard, an elite corps of soldiers tasked with protecting the emperor, and grown overly powerful. They killed Pertinax after three months. Now, it had become customary for a new ruler to gift the Praetorians with a cash bonus. So they held an auction to see which aspirant for power would offer the biggest bonus. In effect, auctioning off the rulership itself. The winner was Didius Julianus, bidding an extravagant sum.

Three months later, he too was murdered. It’s said he hadn’t fully paid up.

In the grand sweep of history, this episode is a small footnote. Yet it’s well remembered, not just for its titillation, but mainly because it signaled something important. The once noble empire being reduced to this sad farce showed it was hollowed out and off the rails. This is where “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is reckoned to have really begun.

Now America is in Didius Julianus time. We just had a madman president. Losing re-election, he conspired mightily to remain in power, culminating in his supporters storming the Capitol. His deranged ego unable to face, like a man, his defeat, he concocted a preposterous lie that the election was a fraud. Thoroughly disproven at every turn. One warped soul creating such a lie is understandable. Less so the millions of his cultists for whom it’s become an article of faith, central to their whole political ethos.

The fools worshipping their false god are sacrificing, on the altar of his ego, their very brains, as devotees of his “stolen election” catechism. But this is not so much about the last election as the next one. Which his party of cynical opportunists assiduously works to steal themselves. Exploiting Trump’s big lie as a pretext for measures to supposedly forestall election theft which actually aim to perpetrate it.

We saw this pathology ascendant even in deep blue Trump-loathing New York State where, on November 2, two ballot propositions to enable election day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting were both defeated. Why would voters reject such options to make it easier for them to vote? Because Republicans campaigned against the proposals as inviting election fraud. Which in reality is virtually nonexistent. Yet voters swallowed this bilge. The real reason Republicans oppose making voting easier is because they think it disadvantages them. Trump himself openly said that if every citizen can vote, you’ll never see Republicans elected again.

Few Americans have ever heard of Didius Julianus. Indeed, few know much history at all. Which is a big part of the problem. It’s not just the race history Republicans are making such an issue of. It’s the larger picture of America’s place in history, its import, what it all means. Too many have no concept of what actually made America great. That’s why they can vote so irresponsibly. The craziness warping our whole body politic into a grotesque zombie of its former self. All because one sicko couldn’t accept losing. It makes the tale of Didius Julianus seem bland in comparison — and shows America is, like Rome in his day, hollowed out and off the rails.

The Roman Empire actually limped onward for centuries after Didius Julianus, but its greatness was now in the rearview mirror. “Make America Great Again?” What a sad ironic joke.

The Threat from the Illiberal Left

November 2, 2021

Robert Boyers’s 2019 book, The Tyranny of Virtue, decried the woke left campus culture’s oppressive censoriousness. My 2020 review* ended by noting that the infection hadn’t much spread beyond academia. But already that needs a revisit.

The Economist recently had a cover story about this. It begins, “Something has gone very wrong with Western liberalism.” Meaning the classical liberal philosophy arising from the Enlightenment, and countering the “confessional state” of the prior millennium, that pervasively enforced religious conformism. Enlightenment liberalism believes free debate is the route to truth and progress, honoring individual human dignity, with all coercive power constrained.

This is widely sneered at today (notably by China’s regime, espousing very different values). In the West, it’s a case of “what have you done for me lately?” short-sightedness. In fact, liberalism’s principles were greatly responsible for stupendous human progress, in so many ways, in the past few centuries. But now those principles are being eroded, and consequently progress is faltering.

The threat from the populist Trumpian right is clear enough. An atavistic tribalist assault on the very concepts of truth, universalism, and a common public interest. January 6 an attempt to achieve by force what debate and democratic processes could not.

You might think the left, being focused on still-persisting injustices, would push back with a redoubled liberalism. But the “woke” left has gone the opposite way, and off the rails. Even indicting “neoliberalism” as a bête noir.

There is a (perverse) logic to it. Classical liberalism wants to remove barriers to individual flourishing. Something the illiberal left actually deems a snare, a way of maintaining illicit hierarchies of power — racial, sexual, class, etc. Which they obsess about — seeing every problem as one of power and privilege. Like having a hammer and seeing every problem as a nail. Hence, ideals of individual human dignity must yield to group empowerment (for favored groups).

Which is the essence of tyranny. Giving us the naked authoritarianism of speech codes, cancel culture, suppression of any ideas contravening a rigid orthodoxy. Literally believing no one has a right to any opinion they deem inimical to their own. Because, of course, they’re right and virtuous. Thus too they feel entitled to impose desired outcomes by fiat rather than discourse. Indeed, deeming the marketplace of ideas itself illegitimate — just another construct of the power dynamics they demonize.

All together reconstituting the old “confessional state;” the Inquisition. The Economist does note that at least nobody today is burned at the stake. Not literally — but many careers have been destroyed.

And not just in academia. It’s moved out to the wider society. The Economist documents how “woke” left thinking has markedly spread, particularly among younger, more educated Americans, especially Democrats. And especially when it comes to race matters.

Well, Trump, and George Floyd, had much to do with that. Yet it seems ironic that the woke left’s stridency about racial justice probably has worked to aggravate racial tensions and cynicism. As you’d expect when pitting group against group. Is it surprising some whites react with hackles up?

David Brooks, in a recent column, notes how a prominent scientist was disinvited from lecturing at MIT because he’s publicly argued that college admissions should not consider race. That issue is indeed arguable; and a clear majority of Americans agrees with the scientist. Yet their view is treated as a scarlet letter at MIT. Thus does the woke left make itself outrageous to mainstream Americans not only in the ideas it pushes but also its arrant intolerance. Handing a cudgel to the populist right in our culture wars.

Perhaps woke ideology’s spread from campuses was inevitable as they pumped out legions of graduates thusly indoctrinated. Even while most students actually hate the oppressiveness, cowed into silence by those louder voices. With the internet and social media providing newly powerful megaphones, while traditional forms of journalism and public discourse are shouldered aside. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The Economist also sees this as a generational conflict, with Gen Z and young Millennials contending for sway against Boomers and Gen Xers who still largely run things.

One of wokism’s watchwords is a fetish for “safety,” including emotional safety, trumping liberalistic concerns. Thus the overblown snits about “microaggressions,” and hostility to ideas that might create discomfort. With the huge irony that the people made truly unsafe here are the targets of this intellectual pogrom. Their rights — their safety — don’t count. The Economist cites a book, The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, tracing extremist “safetyism” to America’s wave of overprotective parenting. Creating a sense of entitlement to live in a cocoon undisturbed by life’s rumbustiousness. Including exposure to discordant viewpoints.

And meantime, as the magazine also notes, for all their shrillness attributing group inequalities to entrenched power hierarchies, that need to be smashed, the woke left is remarkably silent about concrete racial inequities that the old left cared about — nonsexy issues like persistent segregation in poor neighborhoods, and especially the concomitant problem of rotten schools in those areas. A gigantic factor perpetuating and even aggravating American inequality. If you seriously want equalization, schools would be a terrific place to start (even if they don’t teach critical race theory).

The Economist casts its discussion as hopefully a rallying cry for true liberals to stand up more forcefully against wokism’s perversion of their philosophy. But while the magazine does (like Boyers did) see some signs of a backlash against the illiberal left, its final line darkly opines that “America has not yet reached peak woke.”

* Here, and in Skeptic Magazine: