The Great Transmogrification
Before we begin, check out a fun and wide-ranging interview I did on an Objectivist podcast called The Secular Foxhole with Blair Schofield and Martin Lindeskog.
1. What If MAGA and BLM Had a Baby?
The coronavirus pandemic is not quite over here in the US and will probably peak again in the Fall or Winter as the delta variant takes over. There has already been a deadly spike that overwhelmed hospitals in southwest Missouri, driven overwhelmingly by cases among the unvaccinated.
But that's just the thing. The next wave is a "pandemic of the unvaccinated." It will tear through the population of those who, for one reason or another, have actively resisted taking a highly effective, universally available vaccine. Large numbers of people have chosen to take on this risk and will experience the consequences. It is regrettable, and tens of thousands more people will die unnecessarily. But I don't expect this will result in a further large-scale economic or political upheaval.
Overseas, however, the pandemic is still very much raging, particularly due to the incompetence of many governments, and this is going to reveal the deep and fundamental weakness of some of these regimes.
I'll talk about Cuba in a moment, but the other big story is South Africa, which has been torn apart by riots and looting following the arrest of its spectacularly corrupt former president Jacob Zuma. This story has not been extensively covered or widely discussed in the US, but it has timely lessons we should all be paying attention to.
From what I can tell, South Africa has managed to take all the worst qualities of Donald Trump's Make American Great Again fanatics and the left's Black Lives Matter fanatics and combine them in one movement. They have a populist authoritarian strongman, Zuma, who incites his supporters to riot in an attempt to get himself out of legal trouble and back into power. Then combine that with the rhetoric of racial grievance and anti-capitalist hatred used to justify rioting and looting, which, in actual fact, destroys the neighborhoods of the poor blacks in whose name it is carried out.
The whole thing is encapsulated in this passage from a good report in The Guardian.
"Zuma's supporters say the 79-year-old former anti-apartheid fighter is the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by political opponents. On Friday, the 'Free Jacob Zuma Campaign,' which is led by two suspended members of the [African National Congress], issued an ultimatum to Ramaphosa, saying the president had 14 days to release his predecessor.
"'Let us be crystal clear; we do not support violence. Only a free president Zuma can address our nation and call for calm,' a statement from the campaign said.
"'White monopoly capitalism and the parasitic black comprador capitalist that continues the exploitation of our people are our main enemies. Their removal from power and continuing control over our economy and lives is non-negotiable and cannot wait a day longer.'
"Zuma's faction claimed to want to implement a 'radical economic transformation' of South Africa, one of the most unequal societies in the world—though, under his rule, unemployment soared, services deteriorated, and institutions were undermined by widespread corruption."
How is this a story about the effect of the coronavirus? Part of the reason Zuma's faction was able to set off a wave of looting is the desperation of South Africans whose chronic and worsening poverty was made even more unbearable by the impact of the pandemic.
Coverage in the New York Times has been scant but emphasizes the half-hearted regret of looters who know their actions were destructive but were also driven by desperation.
"Nearby, standing in front of his five-bedroom home, a laid-off hotel worker who had joined in the looting—carting away flour, chicken, Pepsi and dog food to his family—contemplated the damage that had been wrought: His community no longer had a store nearby for shopping.
"'I feel horrible,' said the unemployed hospitality worker, Sifiso, who asked that his last name be withheld for fear of being arrested....
"'People lose their conscience,' said Sifiso, the hotel worker, who is 32 and lost his job last year in the pandemic-induced shutdowns. 'The government is failing us, meaning that they don't care about how we feel as the people of South Africa. If it means we are going to a mall to loot or to block a road for the government to actually hear people's cries, then so be it.'"
The pandemic has had such a devastating impact, though, because it was striking at a system weakened by rampant corruption in a system designed around racial and economic grievance.
"Most striking of all, however, is the [Black Economic Empowerment] legislation which has, not surprisingly, been nominated by foreign investors as the biggest single drawback to investing in South Africa. It is, after all, effectively a tax on investment—if you want to invest in South Africa you have to more or less give away a large chunk of your equity to BEE partners who have nothing to offer by way of skills or capital other than an ability to get government ministers to take their calls. This is straightforward crony capitalism. The effect of such legislation is to push foreign investment away—at the cost of many jobs—simply in order to line the pockets of a handful of ANC-connected cronies.
"The most blatant example of all is the mining industry which has been losing thousands of jobs for many years under the weight of crazy BEE constraints. Yet the Mining Charter—demanding ever higher BEE quotas—has been held over the industry for years on end. The result is that no new shafts are sunk and mining bosses are quite open about the fact that, even in the midst of the current commodity price boom, they can't justify increasing their exposure to South Africa."
I have written before about how the most surprising part of Nelson Mandela's legacy was his abandonment of his former Marxist ideas. He could have used the dismantling of Apartheid as an excuse for a general looting of the nation's productive enterprises, but he choose the long-term good of his country, instead.
Zuma and his faction made the opposite decision. If it wants to recover, the rest of South Africa is going to have to follow Mandela's path, instead.
2. Cuba Libre: The Next Generation
The other regime whose weakness has been exposed by the pandemic is Cuba. Six decades of Communism have left the country so poor and backward that its economy is deeply dependent on tourism from capitalist countries, and it lacks the resilience to respond when that disappears for a year.
But it is the nature of the regime that is the problem. COVID merely exposed its viciousness.
A disastrous early State Department tweet attributed the protests in Cuba entirely to "concern about rising COVID cases." This was corrected by a much improved White House statement hailing the protests as a "clarion call for freedom." This statement still hedged a bit by describing Cuba's government as an "authoritarian" regime, but President Biden did still better in a press conference in which he declared, "Communism is a failed system—universally failed system—and I don't see socialism as a very useful substitute."
Universally failed. Nice. There is plenty to complain about with Biden, but Bernie sure as heck wouldn't have said that.
Yet note that the middle statement refers to the Cubans' "right to freely determine their own future." That's a phrase that cuts two ways. On the hand, it backs the right of the Cuban people over their own government. On the other hand, it indicates that America won't determine Cuba's future, which is to say that we won't intervene. So expect to see the Biden administration supporting the protests in Cuba, but mostly from the sidelines.
Mostly. Biden did mention that the US may attempt to restore independent, non-regime-controlled Internet access to the island.
"Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) earlier Thursday sent a letter to Biden requesting federal assistance to provide internet access to people in Cuba....
"'Technology exists to provide Internet access into Cuba remotely, using the innovation of American enterprise and the diverse industries here,' DeSantis wrote. 'Similar to the American efforts to broadcast radio into the Soviet Union during the Cold War in Europe, the federal government has a history of supporting the dissemination of information into Cuba for the Cuban people through Radio & Televisión Martí, located in Miami.'"
It looks like we are already taking some measures to help the Cubans circumvent Internet censorship.
The question is how long the communist regime can hold out. There are some indications that it is cracking, including Cuban artists resigning from the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, the official state guild designed to corral them into political obedience. And then there are reports of junior government officials quitting in protest. This might indicate a generational fault line between the old hard-liners and younger officials who are not true believers any more. We'll see if that leads anywhere.
The one clear result is that this has mobilized a whole new generation of Cubans and of Cuban-Americans.
"The Cuban Americans leading the rallies in Florida are two generations removed from those who led the fight against the Castro regime in the early 1960s, and most of them have never been to Cuba. But they have been raised on the stories of their grandparents and parents, many of whom were imprisoned by the communist regime, or fled the island on homemade rafts and survived the dangerous sea journey across the Florida straits....
"Martinez, coalitions director for the LIBRE Initiative-Florida, said that he has heard stories throughout his life about his relatives who are still in Cuba, but that he started thinking about them differently after the recent protests broke out....
"Pedreira said young Cubans on the island have grown up in a very different Cuba from the one exiled Floridians fled. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel doesn't command the respect or fear that Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl Castro did, he said. The Cuban protesters in the United States have picked up on that. They've made the hip-hop song 'Patria y Vida' (Homeland and Life), recorded by a group of dissident rappers, their anthem. The YouTube video has been viewed more than 6 million times.
"'The young people make up unprintable nicknames for Díaz-Canel. They have no respect for him' Pedreira said. 'He doesn't have control over the country like the Castros did, and that kind of lifts the veil of fear. Now you're seeing younger Cubans changing the tone of how they want to live. They're no longer just talking about leaving the island; they're talking about staying to fight for a free future and rebuilding Cuba.'"
I don't want to get carried away with optimism here. We've seen a lot of courageous acts of resistance against tyranny in recent years—in Iran, in Venezuela, in Hong Kong, in Belarus—but we haven't seen many victories.
You may recall my interview last year with Belarussian activist Jaroslav Romanchuk. In the past few days, I got word that Jaroslav has fled to Ukraine in the face of a broad new crackdown. Fortunately, he made it out, but it shows the current playbook for the world's dictators, which is just to brass it out, destroy the country to stay in power, and hope that one of the big dictatorships (China, Russia, Iran) will prop you up.
All of this is to say that the cause of freedom could use a win right now, so we should be watching Cuba closely. I will also be checking to see if there is anything substantive that we can do as individuals to help, and I'll pass that along.
4. The Great Transmogrification
I keep trying to drive home the point that we are living in an era of ideological transmogrification. That's the word for it: "transmogrification." To "transmogrify" means "to transform in a grotesque manner."
What this means is that all the assumptions we used to have about what is "left" or "right," "liberal" or "conservative" are up in the air, and the standard ideological position on both sides is sliding toward something much worse, something much more grotesque than before.
That struck me in the past week when I came across two different pieces along the lines of, "What happened to you?"
The first is a Tom Nichols' evisceration of J.D. Vance. Vance came to everyone's attention a few years back with his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, a look at the cultural dysfunction of poor rural whites that was seized upon as an explanation of the rise of Trumpism. I always thought that was a bit simplistic. Trumpism was not primarily a phenomenon of Appalachia, it was not primarily a phenomenon of the poor, and it was not a response to closing coal mines or widespread opioid addiction. These were self-justifying myths people on the right told themselves.
But the point is that Vance started out with some awareness of how the current direction of the right is the wrong answer to our problems. He was aware of the Great Transmogrification. But then he got political ambitions, wanted to become a senator from Ohio, and decided that if the right was transmogrifying, he had to transmogrify with it. So he adopted all the dysfunctional rhetoric of Trumpism—and he has been desperately disowning all the sensible criticisms of Trump that he made four or five years ago.
Tom calls out the cynicism of this change.
"Not so long ago, [Vance] talked about the self-defeating bias against education among poor whites. He acknowledged the self-destructive habits of some of the people he grew up around. Vance wrote, in this very magazine, that Donald Trump 'is cultural heroin'—a powerful charge from someone who hails from the epicenter of the opioid epidemic—and provided a 'quick high' that could not fix what ails the country. All of that vanished once Vance decided he wanted to go to Washington—and after the Trump supporter Peter Thiel dropped $10 million into a political action committee....
"Worse, Vance has not only repudiated his earlier views on Trump, but has done so with ruthless cynicism, embracing the former president and his madness while winking at the media with a What can you do? shrug about the stupidity of Ohio's voters. 'If I actually care about these people and the things I say I care about,' he told Time, 'I need to just suck it up and support him.'...
"In fairness, Vance is hardly the most offensive Republican out there.... Nor is he even the most craven candidate in Ohio; his primary rival Josh Mandel recently filmed himself burning a surgical mask in the name of freedom. The Republican Party is chock-full of such performative buffoons.
"But what makes Vance so awful is that he knows better. His intentional distancing from his earlier views shows that he is fully cognizant of what a gigantic fraud he's become."
Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan has a similar moment in observing the changes that have happened on the left.
"'What happened to you?'
"It's a question I get a lot on Twitter. 'When did you become so far right?' 'Why have you become a white supremacist, transphobic, misogynistic eugenicist?' Or, of course: 'See! I told you who he really was! Just take the hood off, Sully!' It's trolling, mainly. And it's a weapon for some in the elite to wield against others in the kind of emotional blackmail spiral that was first pioneered on elite college campuses. But it's worth answering, a year after I was booted from New York Magazine for my unacceptable politics. Because it seems to me that the dynamic should really be the other way round.
"The real question is: what happened to you?...
"What is it? It is, I'd argue, the sudden, rapid, stunning shift in the belief system of the American elites. It has sent the whole society into a profound cultural dislocation. It is, in essence, an ongoing moral panic against the specter of 'white supremacy,' which is now bizarrely regarded as an accurate description of the largest, freest, most successful multiracial democracy in human history....
"And the core point of that movement, its essential point, is that liberalism is no longer enough. Not just not enough, but itself a means to perpetuate 'white supremacy,' designed to oppress, harm and terrorize minorities and women, and in dire need of dismantling. That's a huge deal."
My only problem with Sullivan is that he views this as a phenomenon of just the past five years and looks back fondly on the Obama administration as a high point for the old liberalism—when there were plenty of us, at the time, who recognized it as part of a long transition to where we are now.
But the point is to recognize that in the mid to late 20th Century, you could identify the mainstream American left and right—the left of, say, Kennedy and Clinton and the right of Reagan and the Bushes—as recognizable variants of political liberalism in the broadest sense. Now both ideological movements are veering away from liberalism—and our perspective on them has to change to recognize this.
4. "A Real Visceral Sense of Loss of Cultural Dominance"
What is driving the change on the right? I would argue that it is primarily the cultural collapse of religious belief, and the ensuing panic of the believers. I think Michelle Goldberg generally has it right: "The Christian Right Is in Decline, and It's Taking America With It."
"The presidency of George W. Bush may have been the high point of the modern Christian right's influence in America. White evangelicals were the largest religious faction in the country. 'They had a president who claimed to be one of their own, he had a testimony, talked in evangelical terms,' said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of the 2016 book 'The End of White Christian America.'
"Back then, much of the public sided with the religious right on the key culture war issue of gay marriage. 'In 2004, if you had said, "We're the majority, we oppose gay rights, we oppose marriage equality, and the majority of Americans is with us," that would have been true,' Jones told me. Youthful megachurches were thriving. It was common for conservatives to gloat that they were going to outbreed the left."
Here I have to issue a slight correction: George W. Bush was neither an evangelical nor a "born-again" Christian (apparently, these are two distinct things), and he never claimed to be. He was always just a standard "mainline" Protestant. A Methodist, in fact—a denomination hardly known these days for its fanaticism. But he didn't exactly go out of his way to disavow the evangelicals, for reasons of political advantage.
But let's continue the story.
"But the evangelicals who thought they were about to take over America were destined for disappointment. On Thursday, PRRI released startling new polling data showing just how much ground the religious right has lost. PRRI's 2020 Census of American Religion, based on a survey of nearly half a million people, shows a precipitous decline in the share of the population identifying as white evangelical, from 23 percent in 2006 to 14.5 percent last year. (As a category, 'white evangelicals' isn't a perfect proxy for the religious right, but the overlap is substantial.) In 2020, as in every year since 2013, the largest religious group in the United States was the religiously unaffiliated.
"In addition to shrinking as a share of the population, white evangelicals were also the oldest religious group in the United States, with a median age of 56. 'It's not just that they are dying off, but it is that they're losing younger members,' Jones told me. As the group has become older and smaller, Jones said, 'a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance' has set in.
"From this fact derives much of our country's cultural conflict.... As their numbers have shrunk and as they've grown more at odds with younger Americans, said Jones, 'that has led to this bigger sense of being under attack, a kind of visceral defensive posture, that we saw President Trump really leveraging.'"
You will see some confirmation of this from the right. At Law & Liberty, a publication that is still trying to straddle religious traditionalism and classical liberalism, my former Federalist colleague Rachel Lu notes the trend.
"I can still remember a time when religious traditionalists looked to the future with hope. I remember the sunny optimism of 'Moral Majoritarians,' who seemed certain that the evils of the Sexual Revolution would in time become widely apparent. I recall hearing how 'the hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world.'
"At some point, things changed. Was it under the Obama Administration, when the marriage traditionalists were routed in appallingly undemocratic fashion? Did it happen when the pundits and commentators started adding scare quotes to the phrase 'religious freedom'? Or was it the rise of woke activism that persuaded traditionalists that the future might not be theirs after all?
"The Millennial generation has its own sub-culture of traditionalists, but they are quite different from the fresh-faced Reaganites. They don't have that heady confidence or that same trust that the American political system is going to work for them. Today's young traditionalists are warier and grimmer."
Here you have to adjust for the author's conservative bias, for you will notice that she does not mention American religion's many scandals and hypocrisies as being among the causes of its decline.
But the point here is to see the overall pattern.
One of the implications is that, for all the talk a few decades ago about an impending "theocracy" imposed by George W. Bush—a hysteria whipped up for partisan purposes that got a lot of traction at the time—it is only now that the right has started to get much more overtly theocratic. (See my examination of this at Symposium.)
The more they see their cultural power slipping away, the more they fantasize about regaining it through politics.
5. The Great Awokening
The big irony of the Great Transmogrification is that the collapse of religious belief lamented by the right has been answered by a rising new quasi-religious dogma on the left.
The general term for this is the "Great Awokening," a reference to a 19th Century religious revival called the Great Awakening, but with "woke" ideas in the place of Christianity. (I don't know for certain when this term was coined. The earliest version I know of is from 2018.)
One of the megachurch preachers who has gained fame and fortune from this Great Awokening is Robin DiAngelo, who has a new book out denouncing all of us for our Nice Racism. You should check out two caustic examinations of her Neo-Puritanical approach.
Matt Taibbi is an execrable leftist who has since been red-pilled, but he has his moments, as when he begins his review of DiAngelo's book by pairing her attack on individualism with one from "alt-right" neo-Nazi Richard Spencer.
But Reason's Matt Welch really captures the heart of the issue.
"We are, especially here in Brooklyn, living in Robin DiAngelo's world. And yet she seems so unhappy about it....
"Nice Racism is an unrelentingly sour book, depicting the fight against systemic oppression as a joyless, never-ending slog through minefields of potential missteps, while relying to a comical degree on DiAngelo's exasperated encounters with people who have the temerity to disagree with her approach....
"If you are a white person who has challenged DiAngelo in one of her seminars the past couple of years, you are probably in this book. There's 'Sue and Bob,' who reacted to her eight-point talk on 'What's Problematic About Individualism?' by telling her that, no, they prefer treating people as individual human beings. 'How could Sue and Bob have missed that forty-five minute presentation?' she huffed. 'I was left wondering, yet again, what happens cognitively for so many white people in anti-racism education efforts that prevents them from actually hearing what is being presented.'...
"There's a palpable anxiety gnawing near the heart of DiAngelo's project, one that gives me a bit of hope in our fraught racial times. Sure, people are buying her books, shelling out five figures for her appearances, and being confronted with her ideas at workplace seminars. But are they really getting it?
"Clearly, many are not, even among the self-selected group of progressive knowledge-class workers with a professed interest in DiAngelo's brand of anti-racism....
"There are some people, I am sure, who have a taste for political self-flagellation, for being on the masochistic end of collective shaming, for being told that even the desire for forgiveness is untenably racist. But even among that unhappy subset, there surely are limits to consuming page after page of anxiety-wracked pessimism and an almost juvenile defensiveness over being challenged."
DiAngelo would not be the first preacher to excoriate her congregation for still being miserable sinners. But this gives us some hope that the seming cultural dominance of the new woke religion will suffer the same fate—and, I suspect, on a greatly accelerated timeline—as has befallen the old religion.