John Wayne vs. Pest Control

When teaching high school history, I always enjoyed the class conversation when I asked the following question:

“While the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, the right to vote was already given to women as early as 1869 at the state level in certain parts of the country. Who knows the first state to grant this?”

The students would immediately guess California or somewhere on the East Coast. Of course the first state to grant this was “The Equality State,” as it was later known. But if you close your eyes and imagine Wyoming in the year 1869, empowered women are probably not what come first to your mind. In fact, the whole “Wild West” evokes images of Colt-wielding rugged white guys, and the roles of women or minorities are eclipsed by this typical imagery — except for the maltreated Indians, of course.

We don’t spend much time learning about the women in Wyoming, nor the first congresswomen to be representatives of frontier states. Similarly, not a lot of time is spent learning of people like the Exodusters, the surprisingly high proportion of black and Hispanic cowboys, nor the discriminated-against Irish seeking land ownership on the frontier.

So, why the West? Big Sky country wasn’t exactly a breeding ground for Progressive ideology, and yet it seemed to be a haven for many disenfranchised folks.

There are many explanations of Wyoming’s politics (and many other western states and territories that quickly followed), but one theory always stuck with me. I appreciate its simplicity, and potential for a theory of all human society:

When society is primitive, and people are barely scraping by, institutionalized inequality has no time or place to establish itself. When you are not sure if your town will make it through the winter, you don’t have time to establish racial, sexual, ethnic, or economic hierarchies.

Of course, there has never been such a thing as a completely equal society. In the same way stronger people could catch more food in early hunter-gatherer societies, the West had rich prospectors, poor farmers, wealthy speculators and struggling prostitutes. Some towns were diverse, some very white. Laws shared this diversity. Some towns had terrible gun violence, others had none. Some towns outlawed guns, some towns lived confidently because everyone carried one. The West was as diverse as a “society” could be, but shared one commonality: there was little evidence of institutionalized inequality relative to the rest of the nation.

Inequality is a lack of justice. And in the West, justice was an entirely local phenomenon.

The Cowboy form of justice relied on a few simple principles — a clear and widely understood definition of justice, and an intimate grappling with truth because the responsibility of ensuring justice usually fell on you or your immediate community. Despite what Westerns portray, this did not usually encourage gun-toting, reckless vigilantism. It simply allowed individuals and communities to do what they thought was best.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have opted for justice as what can only be described as a form of federal pest control. Rather than help ourselves or our fellow man, we beg Pest Control to label an entire species as the enemy of our neighborhood (based of course on anecdotal evidence). Finally, we legislate blanket definitions of “types” of people to consider enemies. We can even put those creeps on watch lists. When we see something wrong, being helpless without Pest Control, we call and wait on hold until we can complain to a bureaucrat who will send an underpaid stoner-turned-raccoon-catcher to take care of it for us.

So, what about today? As a white male satisfied with his own gender, who adheres to a Judeo-Christian morality, there is little I can say about justice for those who feel its absence. Yet despite how cushioned from reality I may be, I share a similar fear.

This lack of justice does not make me fear for my life. But, when we see something terrible and cry for outrage and support from an institution who within hours of the events had literally changed the law to avoid prosecuting a precious matriarch in its Royal Family, I fear dreadfully for this nation.

When the frontier closed in the early 1890s, many saw it as the end of democracy. With no well of opportunity for malcontent pioneers, the role of the rugged, independent and responsible individual who had no choice but to be a good part of his or her community has perhaps died. We lost the idea that nature was our common enemy, and when pitted against it, humans and our issues are very, very small.

While there is no frontier anymore, perhaps we can remember the surprisingly diverse cowboys that roamed it. We can look at righteously angry blacks, agitated police officers, overeducated socialists, worried family-value supporters, disgruntled workers hoping someone can make the country “Great Again,” and see shared, common desires to live our lives the way we and our communities think best. Despite what birds-eye view the media feeds us, there are not many excused from these desires because they feel too “privileged.” The desire to take back our lives and identities is real and growing.

Some might reduce the idea of John Wayne to a white man who shot red men. They are probably the same people who think it is ok to fester in factions that name-call, interrupt parades, and hinder free speech in hopes of gaining the favor of Pest Control.

What’s our goal, then? Provoke nationwide anger? Widespread action? Legislation? Insist more humans die for narratives that negate statistics? If you fear institutionalized injustice, the problem may be the belief that we need to compete for favor from an institution in the first place.

I know, I am jumping into a moment of righteous anger from a community I don’t exactly belong to. But this is precisely why I bring it up right now. It is too ironic that factions squabble over who deserves justice on the day that our federal government changed the very definition of it.

If there was ever a chance for a society to unite, it is over this: Each one of us is an individual, capable of recognizing and opposing evil, and capable of doing good and giving thanks for it.

Featured image by Priscilla Westra

Black Lives Matter Because Human Beings are Sacred

FALCON HEIGHTS, MINNESOTA — A nonviolent man’s life is snuffed out in his car by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. The nation was horrified as his death was streamed over the internet by his girlfriend, who was also in the car at the time with her young daughter.

From what anyone knows of the situation at this point, it is reasonable to assume that Philando Castile would still be alive today, were he not a black man. Mr. David French, a columnist I generally respect, misses this point in an article he wrote in the aftermath of the event. Like Mr. Castile, he is a gun owner and licensed to carry a concealed weapon. Like Mr. Castile, he has been pulled over by the police for traffic offenses (although it is not clear exactly why Castile was stopped). Like Mr. Castile, he says that when he is stopped by police, he informs them that he has is carrying a weapon.

Mr. French is certainly punctilious, and well should he be in such a situation. But fortunately for him, “When I’ve followed these steps, law enforcement has been unfailingly polite and professional.” The polite professionalism of law enforcement was unfortunately not on display the day Mr. Castile was killed.

Mr. Castile of course immediately became the latest icon of the Black Lives Matter movement, which believes that systemic prejudice among law enforcement officers results in unequal and often deadly treatment of black men at their hands.

Meanwhile, in DALLAS, TEXAS — Last night, domestic terrorists ambushed and shot a number of police officers, killing 5. Their ostensible motive was revenge for the deaths of Castile and others.

But if that were true, why did they attack police officers in Dallas, who obviously could have had nothing to do with Mr. Castile’s death, the killing in Baton Rouge of Armando Sterling, or any other recent “officer-involved shootings” of black men?

It’s not revenge. It’s totemistic violence. For the terrorists, people — whether they be black victims, or police officers — are not significant in themselves, but only as symbols of what they represent in some ideological construct.

But in order to bring an end to the cycle of violence, we must renounce all ideologies that reduce the human being to a mere totem whose destruction carries political significance. What is significant about human beings is that each one is a bearer of the divine image, and killing them is a mortal sin.

Until we recognize this and repent of all forms of ideology and prejudice that reduce human beings to objects and abstract symbols of power, the cycle of hatred and murder will continue.

Oh Boy, Another Baby Boomer Election

Last night the Baby Boomers once again cemented their death-grip on American politics as Ted Cruz, the last Generation X candidate running for president, suspended his campaign. While I didn’t particularly care for Mr. Cruz, it was nice to have someone running who wasn’t born in the 1940s. The youngest candidate still in the race is now John Kasich, who was born in 1952. Donald Trump was born in 1946, Hillary Clinton was born in 1947, and Bernie Sanders was born in 1941, just before our nation entered the Second World War.

DONALD TRUMP, the presumptive Republican nominee, is the Yuppie candidate, all about money, power, and the unfettered pursuit of personal gratification. He used to be a Democrat because that was the way to get what he wanted in New York. Now he’s a Republican because these days the Progressive Left is far more intolerant and puritanical than the Religious Right. Trump isn’t a bigot–he communicates a kind of live-and-let live demeanor and doesn’t have a problem with teh gays or other bogeypersons of the Right. He’s happy to acommodate “the blacks,” “the Mexicans,” etc. But Trump’s arrogant, self-absorbed way of talking about things is of course highly offensive to all of these interest groups. You can bet that in private he’s said things about minorities that would make Donald Sterling blush.

HILLARY CLINTON, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is the heiress of the Democratic political machine. She is swift to make gestures of support for every interest group she thinks will get her votes, although she has no real beliefs, only a burning desire for political power. Her endless train of scandals just shows what a clever politician she is. She desperately wants everyone to love her, and is willing to do anything and everything to make that happen. No wonder her daughter and granddaughter don’t want her around.

BERNIE SANDERS is the unreconstructed Hippie candidate; a real blast from the past. Unlike Clinton, he is sincere in his naive socialism, and this appeals to many Millennials who lean toward the Left and haven’t had enough of a reality check yet. It also appeals to other unreconstructed Hippies of Sanders’ own generation, which is why some of my own siblings and my parents’ older siblings are Sanders fans. Basically, anyone whose ears might perk up at the phrase “organic pot.” Sanders has achieved the distinction of maintaining a bubble of unreality around him his entire life.

JOHN KASICH is basically my dad. Younger than the other Boomer candidates, he was still in middle school when “the Sixties” happened. He’s followed his own path and is a decent, nerdy, practical person, moderate in both his personal life and his politics. He is the only remaining candidate who would be a good president. There is little chance of this happening, though.

So the Baby Boomers have 4 more years to finish the program of national and cultural demolition they started in the ’60s. If there’s any America left by then, maybe we’ll get a cool, pragmatic Gen-X president like Paul Ryan to take on the difficult job of building the country back up.

In the meantime, come November, I’m going to write in Scott Walker for president.

Featured image by Flickr user DonkeyHotey

Black Bodies in Space

In a recent Washington Post column (in the Lifestyles section, to be sure, but a column nonetheless), Lonnae O’Neal complains that Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not give John Boyega a sufficiently heroic role to atone for Hollywood’s past misapprehensions about “the direction this country is really going in.” She quotes a Washington writer, Tim Gordon, who observes that “every time [Finn] picks up a lightsaber, he’s getting beat down and the lightsaber is getting taken from him.” That Boyega’s character is not an annoyingly flawless, Superman-like character seems to O’Neal and Gordon sufficient evidence that the creators of Star Wars are still mired in the racist past, although they admit that the film’s casting represents about as much progress as might be expected given the persistence of reactionary elements in the highest echelons of American filmmaking.

It’s not my intention to defend Star Wars to the hilt, or to offer a blanket condemnation of O’Neal’s style of socially conscious film criticism; movies certainly exercise an outsized influence on the American imagination and understanding their subliminal messages is a worthy project. But in fact O’Neal and Gordon’s criticism is a fascinating testament to the hollowness of the atheist approach to anti-racism that’s evidently been gaining ground of late in contemporary civil rights activism. Continue reading Black Bodies in Space

The refugee crisis & why America is different—part 1

This piece originally appeared at Musings On the Right. It is published here in modified form.

As someone interested in immigration from a conservative, American perspective, the recent migration crisis in Europe is fascinating to me. For starters, the genuine human tragedy is palpable. Even the most stringent of nativists must be moved by the images of humanity dying en masse in the Mediterranean Sea.

Furthermore even the most cheerful pro-immigration advocates can’t help but furrow their brows at the potential difficulties with assimilating and integrating migrants from North Africa and the Near East—especially Muslim migrants—in Europe.

These difficulties and America’s recent refugee crisis with Central American children has left me wondering about how the American situation compares to Europe. I want to analyze a few major questions: How does America differ from Europe? What are the pros and cons of Muslim immigration to Europe? Is there a legitimate comparison to be made between the European and American refugee situations? Continue reading The refugee crisis & why America is different—part 1

Marxism’s exhausted legacy:
A conservative reads Norman Birnbaum

If there is really a such thing as “Cultural Marxism,” it is no doubt represented in the person of American socialist sociologist Norman Birnbaum, who has taught for a long time at Georgetown University. I happened to pick up his book The Radical Renewal: The Politics of Ideas in Modern America because it was either free or quite cheap. Also, it had a back-cover blurb by Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, which I enjoyed in my undergraduate political theory studies.

Recently I’ve been exchanging pleasantries on Twitter with a professed Marxist who is distressed by the lack of political solutions advanced by Marxists. I thought I would read this book on his behalf, since, if any discipline is likely to to advance political recommendations worth heeding, it is certainly sociology and not economics.

So I’ll be reading and blogging about this book with no particular program other than to explore and engage with Birnbaum’s ideas. Continue reading Marxism’s exhausted legacy:
A conservative reads Norman Birnbaum

Should we get rid of the child tax credit?

Evangelical college president Greg Thornbury and libertarian biographer Amity Shlaes have written an editorial to explain why a flat tax is better for families than the present regime of child tax credits. (The article said “religious families,” although I don’t see what religion has to do with it other than the fact that my wife and I are married, and our habit of giving 10% of our income to a religious institution.)

A flat tax means everyone’s income is taxed at the same rate, presumably a lower rate than the current average tax rate. The wealthy still end up paying more in taxes as a function of their greater income; the poor pay in proportion to their poverty. It is certainly more fair than a system in which people are taxed both directly and indirectly—a system in which one’s ability to avoid excessive taxes depends on one’s facility with the byzantine complex of exemptions and loopholes built willy-nilly into the tax code.

However, federal income tax is just a fraction of the taxes we all pay. Continue reading Should we get rid of the child tax credit?

Conservatism and progress

Near the end of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov, the eldest brother Dmitri is wrongly accused of his father Fyodor’s murder. Spectators at the trial had mostly assumed Dmitri’s guilt, and many in the crowd felt that Dmitri’s personal wrongs against them were being avenged. Only the reader has witnessed the scene in which Dmitri, seething with rage at his wretched adulterer of a father, grasps a pestle in his pocket—and then, mastering himself, swallows his anger and backs out of his plan to kill his forebear. Only the reader has seen Fyodor’s illegitimate son Smerdyakov admit to the murder.

The Brothers Karamozov concludes, some months after Dmitri’s trial, with the funeral of a peasant boy named Ilyusha. Earlier, Dmitri had learned that Ilyusha’s impoverished father, the “Captain,” was involved in Fyodor Karamozov’s illicit business dealings. Dmitri, who had been swindled by the Captain, exacted a humiliating revenge, dragging him through the street by his beard as his son and neighbors looked on. Ilyusha’s schoolmates teased him violently for the incident, throwing stones that hit him hard in his chest. Ilyusha died from his wounds two days after Dmitri was found guilty for a murder he did not commit.

No court could ever convict Dmitri for Ilyusha’s death. The legal system can only sentence the person immediately responsible for a murder. But Dostoevsky’s genius shines a floodlight on the intricate and thorny web of moral cause and effect. Continue reading Conservatism and progress

Farting around at National Review

Conservatives: we don’t have to freak out about National Review. They haven’t “sold out,” and they haven’t endorsed same-sex marriage, as you can see from articles like these. Their only error is that they continue to employ a managing editor who suffers from intellectual and moral imbecility.

But we must offer them sympathy in this. One wouldn’t, after all, want to cast such a person out on his own resources. He might be driven into prostitution sex work (not that there’s anything wrong with that, by his reasoning).

Joseph Bottum had at least the decency to be wrong in a literary and interesting way. Not so Jason Lee Stearts, whose entire argument—all five thousand, four hundred gassy words of it—rests on an inability to define or use the word “fulfillment” properly. I’m not kidding—there is literally nothing of substance there.

Karl Marx quipped that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Unfortunately, Stearts’s article doesn’t even rise to the level of farce. It’s just flatulence, and not even of the kind that’s likely to provoke intellectual climate change.

Perpetual Pyrrhic Peace

“Peace is a good thing, but a glass of beer is a good thing as well.”
—Fragment of conversation

Thomas Hobbes described the natural political state as a “war of all against all,” waged by solitary people who live poor, ugly, brutish and short lives until, guided by self-preservation, they come together to form political bodies. These bodies deliver us from the state of war and, in exchange for our obedience, promise a peaceful and orderly life. For all of us, our desire for peace is associated primarily with security, a life that can be lived aesthetically and without continuous stress. However, does peace sometimes have a price too high to bear? Can perpetual peace be easily achieved? And can our idealism about peace blind us to its weaknesses and costs?

Painting of Immanuel Kant as a young man
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of the Enlightenment, successfully persuaded Europe that perpetual peace was a goal worth trying to reach. Until Kant, no one imagined that peace could be a sort of normal and unchangeable condition.

The pre-Kantian perception of peace as a fragile state between wars is best embodied by a saying of the Roman writer Vegetius: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

The European Union can be perceived as a materialization of Kant’s idea of a perpetual peace union. After two bloody world wars, the wisdom of Vegetius was rejected in people’s minds and the center of geopolitical thinking was occupied by an idea that is best described with a quote from the ancient Greek poet Pindar: “War is sweet to those that never have experienced it.” Pindar was not so banal, but the popular community tends to take quotes out of context in order to justify their conformism to the spirit of the age.

In Perpetual Peace, Kant claimed that standing armies must eventually disappear. This is because the existence of armies in permanent combat readiness is disturbing to other countries and encourages them to compete in an unlimited arms race, leading to destabilization of the peace. (Kant offered as an alternative to a permanent army, a voluntary period of military exercise for citizens.) Kant also stated that the threat of war is also increased by political unions and the phenomenon of lending one country’s army to the other in order to fight an enemy that is not a threat to both countries.

Kant also affirmed that “no state has a right to interfere in another state’s affairs and government.” Kant created an illusion that relations between states can be perceived in terms of interactions between individuals. Supporting this illusion is the belief that nature leads people and, along with them, states toward peaceful coexistence—that just as civil law protects individuals, international law should protect rationally disputing states. Kant believed that international law would be a better shield for national sovereignty than treaties of mutual belligerency.

ichkantevenKant, who died in 1804, would seem to have been proven right by the breakdown of mutual alliances that plunged Europe into 30 years of devastation. After World War II, European politics began to be rebuilt after the pattern in Perpetual Peace. The European Union is the fullest development of these ideas so far.

When we recognize that the European Union is built on Kant’s framework, we can begin to understand the real nature of the Ukraine crisis. Ukraine is not an EU member state, but all its troubles began precisely when its citizens decided not to put up with the political course swaying towards the East. In Kiev, masses of young people waving EU flags demanded that their county become a member of the peaceful union.

However, from a Kantian perspective, no country in the peace confederation could really legitimately interfere in the Ukrainian state’s affairs. It sometimes seems that the West thinks there is no need to seek perpetual peace—as if it is already here. The response of Brussels suggests this view. Publicly expressed concern and minimal humanitarian aid, which in no way offered a significant advantage in a crisis situation, was the maximum help they provided.

There is a dual problem. In the beginning of the crisis, Ukrainian civil society was expected to reshape domestic politics according to their needs, convincing their fellow citizens in public bodies (for example, local militias) that they should contribute to the stabilization of Ukraine’s peace. But the effort to exit the natural Hobbesian state of war failed because of the “green men” found in various places, meaning Russian forces wearing the uniforms of local security organizations, and Russia-supported political fronts.

The same thing happened later when the eastern border of the country was overrun by strange “Ukrainians” who became the entourage of self-proclaimed regional leaders, and of the waves of Russian “humanitarian aid convoys” that were led by neither a humanistic desire for good, nor an inclination to help. Nevertheless, Western lawyers did not dare to publicly express their position because there was not enough evidence that would oblige the European peace union to introduce warlike measures in a foreign country.

Today’s Kantian international law has become a victim of the simulacra. Russia today has mastered the art of juggling simulacra to the detail—not only in its domestic affairs but across the world. The Kremlin has long been aware that dirty deeds can be carried out under a mask that removes legal responsibility. Legally it is hard to positively prove Russia’s direct interference during the Ukraine crisis.

The peace union faces a moment of conflict for which Kant’s theory is too normative. It is naïve to think that all citizens will unanimously want the same thing, but even when the majority is asking for peace and wants to become part of the peace union, the Kantian theory does not offer any mechanism that would protect one country’s process of becoming part of the peace union from interference by another country that is against it.

Kantian trust would suggest waiting until the aggressor state realizes that it is useful to seek the same good. It assumes that this country actually seeks peace and that if it opposes the peace union it is because it sees itself as a guarantor of a higher level of peace.

It is as if international law regulates everything except when a state with significant power becomes the offender! Then the interpretation of international law degenerates into a giant process of politicking and questioning the foundations of legal competence. The Westerners are now defenseless against Russia since they created this system themselves and cannot suggest anything more advanced, and within their system they have no idea how to react to such questioning and Eastern simulacra.

It is not surprising that Poland and Lithuania have become the only countries that are acting like they understand that the peace held by the European Union is not a perpetual peace. These countries are not only related to Ukraine in terms of common history but are also familiar with the Russian style of politics that spread with Marxist-Leninist communism. Although Lithuania should be more familiar with it because of its former existence in the U.S.S.R., Poland is able to act much more decisively thanks to its greater intellectual and sovereign power. It is only through this power that EU mechanisms can be changed.

The democratic mechanism of the European Union is saturated with checks and balances that are supposed to guarantee proportional participation in evaluating and planning the response to geopolitical situations. This proportionality does not take into account the fact that the EU does not have any real military opponents in the West and in the South. A country in the far west of Europe is not willing to waste its resources against a threat it does not feel. Realpolitik has undermined the EU’s successful positioning in the case of Ukraine.

It is not possible to simply paper over Hobbesian pessimism with pages of Kant. A “state of nature” always exists between countries, even if it does not feel like a “war of all against all.” Insecure Eastern European states have to fight for a new revision of the “perpetual peace” that would be less normative and idealistic, and would critically analyze the principles, phases and external hostile forces of peace development. Otherwise, a great price will have to be paid when this overstretched period of artificial peace collapses and destroys all mutual trust and peace in the union. It is necessary to recognize the painful truth: peace and a glass of beer have one thing in common—they both inevitably come to an end.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user cyclonebill

A version of this article first appeared in “Eastern Partnership Countries Close-Up,” a publication of the Institute of Democratic Politics and Wilfried Martens Centre. It has been edited for publication by The Hipster Conservative.