"The Life of Free People Who Are Invincible"
Five Things You Need to Read Today
1. Libertarians in a Pandemic
You may remember the mantra from the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak that "there are no libertarians in a pandemic." The idea was that the pandemic demonstrates the benevolence of Big Government and our need for more of it.
This position always had a big contradiction behind it: It was generally put forward by the same people who criticized the man in charge of our Big Government, then-President Donald Trump, for his inadequate response to the pandemic. It's an old leftist dodge: Government would be your savior, if only the right people were running it—which is always one more election away.
In service to this narrative, much of the media drafted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as their example of the right kind of leader, there to serve as a foil to Trump and a representative of Big Government done right. That was never a terrible convincing narrative, and now it lies in ruins. See a devastating overview by Pradeep Shanker, who has been warning us all along, of new revelations about Cuomo's disastrous decision to mandate sending COVID patients back to nursing homes, and the state's subsequent undercounting of nursing home deaths.
The simple reality is that the governor's orders led to more deaths. How many can be argued, and likely will be an area of vigorous debate in public-health-policy academic circles for decades to come. But Cuomo then compounded his mistake by purposefully lying and deceiving the public about it, all the while having the machinery of the New York state government cover for him as well.
That's in the past. In the present, the rockiest part of the vaccine rollout has been the role of pettifogging regulations under which a "fair" distribution of the vaccine, as decided by bureaucrats, is far more important than its actual delivery to as many people as possible.
I hasten to add that I don't know yet, and I don't think anyone knows, how big a problem this really is. But here is the most garish example I have heard of yet, from the town of Elberton, Georgia.
Some 470 shots of the Pfizer vaccine were confiscated from the Medical Center of Elberton, a private clinic that had been the largest provider of vaccinations in Elbert County, leaving behind just enough medicine to guarantee second doses to people who have already been inoculated.
"Everything that we had tried to do up until now to vaccinate our county was just laid to waste," Dr. Jonathan Poon, who works at the clinic, told NBC News....
In addition, the Georgia Department of Public Health said it would not be providing any more vaccines to the medical center for the next six months until July 27.
"DPH took the action after learning the provider had been vaccinating individuals in the Elbert County School District who were outside of the current Phase 1A+ eligible population," the agency said in a statement. "There is no other reason for the suspension than what we have previously stated."...
[A]s recently as Dec. 7, educators were considered by the state to be in that "essential group," Poon said, adding that they were able to vaccinate about 177 school workers before the public health department shut them down....
The first inkling that they might have run afoul of the state was Jan. 26 when the department called "asking whether or not we had vaccinated teachers," the doctor said. "And at the time we, of course, believed that that was part of the proper procedure, so we said yes," Poon said. "And in less than 48 hours, the state handed down a ruling that our vaccine status was suspended and that we would no longer be able to vaccinate individuals."
Note that this is not necessarily the product of "woke" leftism. This is from Georgia, a conservative state with a government that has long been run by Republicans. So this is not a partisan issue. Rather, this is the universal bureaucratic mentality at work, in which pettifogging compliance with the rules is more important than actually accomplishing a task—even when that task is a matter of life and death.
This is the sort of thing that will generate more "libertarians" in the widest sense—that is, skeptics of Big Government—during the pandemic.
2. MyDominion Pillows and Smartmatic News Channel
I have argued that the January 6 attack on the US Capitol was a Catastrophic Credibility Loss Event, one that turns people decisively against a certain party, its leader, and its worldview.
This is true for the general public. But the hard-core base of the Republican Party, about half of them, have merely redoubled their commitment to Donald Trump and to Trumpism, burrowing deeper into their ideological bubble. Hence the spectacle of most Republican leaders coming crawling back to Trump to apologize for briefly acting like sane people for a week or two after January 6.
This sort of thing has raised questions about how to deprogram those who have gone down the rabbit hole of election conspiracy theories.
That's a question about the demand side of the conspiracy theory industry. But more effective measures may come on the supply side. The people who create and promote these theories are spreading malicious falsehoods that destroy the reputations and businesses of specific individuals, and in many cases, they are doing it for profit. This makes them perfect targets under long-established, centuries-old, common-law measures against libel and defamation.
Take, for example, a new lawsuit launched against Rudy Giuliani, which makes a point of how he monetized his lies about the election.
As he outlined how "pervasive voter fraud" had turned the United States into "Venezuela or China or the old Soviet Union," Donald Trump's personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, paused his video podcast to offer his audience an incredible deal.
For just $596, an online fraud-protection company that Giuliani called "the only folks to trust that I know of" was selling four years of online defense from home-stealing "cyber thieves."
"Use code 'Rudy'—that's me—and sign up for 30 free days of protection," Giuliani said, before resuming a diatribe about an international communist vote-stealing plot—and, later, another advertisement, in which he hawked dietary supplements. The episode of his YouTube series, "Rudy Giuliani's Common Sense," has been viewed more than 500,000 times.
Giuliani's conspiracy-theory infomercials stand at the center of an extraordinary defamation lawsuit filed Monday by Dominion Voting Systems, which is seeking more than $1.3 billion in damages from him for what its attorneys said were 'demonstrably false allegations' that led company employees to endure months of harassment and death threats.
Giuliani, the lawsuit alleges, knowingly spread falsehoods about the company to bolster Trump's failing attempts to overturn the reality of his election loss. But Giuliani had another incentive for doing so, the lawyers wrote: He "cashed in by hosting a podcast where he exploited election falsehoods to market gold coins, supplements, cigars, and protection from 'cyber thieves.'"
Something similar is behind Fox Business Channel's sudden firing of its highest-rated anchor, Lou Dobbs.
Although Fox isn't saying, the timing of Dobbs' cancellation Friday appears to be no coincidence: It took place 24 hours after Dobbs and Fox were named in a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit filed by voting technology company Smartmatic.
Or watch a host at Newsmax, one of the even more lowbrow upstarts challenging Fox News to become the favorite Trumpist echo chamber, panic when MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell starts launching into conspiracy theories against Dominion, after the company already forced the network to air an embarrassing disclaimer to avoid crushing lawsuits.
Someone quipped recently that he looks forward sometime soon to lying back on his MyDominion Pillow and watching Smartmatic News Channel. A lot of people are going to lose their shirts.
A lawyer for Alex Jones has defended his client (in a similar case) by insisting that the First Amendment protects the "pursuit of so-called 'conspiracy theories' concerning controversial government activities." Well, sure, you can't libel the government. But private individuals? Yes, you can libel them, when your conspiracy theory involves accusing them of nefarious deeds they never committed—and when it costs them their livelihoods. Think of the plight of voting machine companies like Dominion and Smartmatic, who face the prospect of never being able to sell their product again because of a conspiracy theory summoned out of thin air so a has-been lawyer can sell nutritional supplements. They have no choice but to sue.
David French provides an interesting overview of the legal basis for these suits and their role in reasserting some element of basic rationality in our political debate.
Free nations need legal guardrails, and defamation, properly defined, has never been deemed part of "the freedom of speech" the First Amendment protects. Legal rules against defamation, incitement, and true threats are among the indispensable safeguards that protect America's experiment in ordered liberty.
Just after the January 6 Capitol attack, I discussed the concept of 'separating the insurgents from the population.' By that I meant precisely using the instruments of law to impose legal consequences for unlawful action while also engaging in good faith and open hearts with the vast bulk of the population that isn't fully committed to its false narrative. Persuasively diminish the demand for defamatory conspiracies. Lawfully constrict the supply.
To be clear, the law cannot mandate rationality in all instances, and politicians are the last people we could rely on to do it. (Hence the absurdity of the "reality czar" idea briefly floated by an idiot at the New York Times.) But libel and defamation are very specific instances in which malicious irrationality causes unjust damages that are legally actionable, allowing the purveyors of irrationality to be held to the evidence-based standards of a courtroom.
3. Faith and Force
The biggest problem with the American right is epistemological. That's what I saw as the central issue in the election: that the distinctive style of Trumpism is to destroy the ability to think and argue in terms of facts, ideas, and principles and instead to make everything about arbitrary claims, personal insults, and emotions.
Somehow Trump's election loss has, for now, made this problem even worse. Hence the conflict I described above, as the anti-intellectualism of Trumpism has unleashed the mentality of the conspiracy theorist. A conspiracy theory is, after all, the anti-intellectual man's substitute for a comprehensive worldview.
The other destructive trend, though, has to do with the content of the right's ideas, which are becoming more overtly anti-individualist and anti-capitalist.
Consider, as just one example, a recent article in The Federalist by a former Trump administration official announcing a new think tank under the slogan, "For God, For Country, and For Community." Notice what's not on that list: For Freedom.
Here's what this new organization stands for.
For God. The establishment has effectively accepted the terms the left has set to govern the public square. God is excluded, and faith has become a predominantly private matter. It is no longer acceptable for conservatives to argue as citizens or elected officials from a Judeo-Christian worldview.
As a result, many of our leaders are often unable or unwilling to mount a persuasive defense of traditional institutions or offer a check against the modern emphasis on personal autonomy. Nor do modern conservatism's policy priorities provide a satisfying answer to the despair and loneliness of a world that has forgotten God and abandoned community....
At home, it led to the decades-long plundering of the American economy by multinational corporations eager to claim the benefits of American law while disclaiming all responsibility to provide remunerative employment to American workers....
For Community. As culture has moved left, the admirable enthusiasm for liberty has descended into caricature, failing to distinguish freedom from autonomy. As a consequence, our leaders have failed to diagnose some of the country's most pressing challenges.
[Our] mission statement is to restore an American consensus of a nation under God with unique interests worthy of defending that flow from its people, institutions, and history, where individuals' enjoyment of freedom is predicated on just laws and healthy communities.
Note that last line: Your enjoyment of freedom is "predicated" on the greater good of the community. This is a kind of religious collectivism.
That is the basic direction of the right during the Trump years. Religious conservatives of the most illiberal, anti-individualist strain are emboldened and growing in influence, while all other intellectual strains of conservatism are being hollowed out.
And the Trump years are far from over
4. The "Golden Age of Cringe"
I've been warning for a couple of years now that the predominant school of highbrow art right now is political didacticism. (Well, maybe middle-brow art. Our culture doesn't really have highbrow art.) It doesn't really matter how your painting looks or your music sounds. All that matters is that you attribute to it the right kind of political message.
How else do you explain how J.K. Rowling has become Undesirable No. 1 for challenging the prevailing PC dogmas, so that mainstream outlets are asking, "Can More Harry Potter Ever Be Okay?"
According to the Hollywood Reporter, HBO Max and Warner Bros. are exploring their options for bringing the [Harry Potter] franchise to TV....
J.K. Rowling, the world-famous creator of Harry Potter who was once seen as a vanguard of progressive idealism, earned a new reputation in 2020 as a world-famous transphobe. After Rowling made multiple public transphobic statements, ranging from tweets to a long anti-trans manifesto, her name is now synonymous with "TERF"—trans-exclusionary radical feminism, or the belief that trans women aren't women and that biological sex is the only factor that determines someone's gender. Despite being challenged by opposing voices and broken-hearted fans to reconsider her views, Rowling has only redoubled her rhetoric.
That means any discussion of what a new Harry Potter series is or can be has to come with an acknowledgment of Rowling's transphobia and the problems it creates. New stories of the Wizarding World will likely be a complicated joy for many, and purely painful for many trans people whose lives have been made worse because of Rowling's influential views. At the very least, new stories will leave many people feeling deeply conflicted about whether they can support or enjoy a new Harry Potter series in the wake of Rowling's problematic statements.
Ah, the heavy burdens the cult of wokeness lays upon its votaries.
But an election season is the time when we should expect this sort of thing to be at its most intense, the point at which didacticism is not merely political but partisan and calls forth special efforts from its practitioners.
The New York Times gives an overview of a post-election wave of propagandistic art, which draws to a surprising degree from the old religious style of didacticism.
In November, while the nation waited for the presidential election to be called, Laurence Cheatham, 34, an artist in the New York City area, picked up his coloring pencils and began to work.
He started by drawing an image of John Lewis and Elijah Cummings in the clouds, looking down at Earth. As the days went on, Mr. Cheatham added Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the sky. And, when Arizona was officially called for the Democratic candidates, he added John McCain, a former Senator of that state. The four hovered above an image of Kamala Harris and Joe Biden in an embrace.
"People needed hope," said Mr. Cheatham.
Click on the link to see the images. This is art as literal political hagiography.
But I prefer Sonny Bunch's overview of the "golden age of cringe," because it treats the phenomenon with a good deal less reverence.
Cringe is best understood as a cousin of camp, though cringe differs from camp in that camp can still be enjoyable on its own terms. When you encounter cringe, you know it because you feel it physically: your eyes squint to avoid the grandeur of the discomfort a work induces.
Cringe made its national debut shortly after election night in 2016. You didn't have to be a Trump fan in 2016—Lord knows I wasn't—to watch with horror as Kate McKinnon, one of the funnier performers on "Saturday Night Live" over the last decade, debased herself and the program by putting on her Hillary Clinton pantsuit and performing a mournful, earnest rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It was a shocking moment, an abdication of comedic responsibility in favor of a decision to paint Clinton not as a politician but as a kind of conduit for grief the show assumed was universal, rather than partisan....
Trump fans embraced their own cringe artifacts; the cringiest was the work of painter Jon McNaughton. Consider "National Emergency," in which Trump, hands clasped in prayer, asks for guidance while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer lift the Mexican flag while trampling on America's. Or "Teach a Man to Fish," in which Trump, not exactly known as an angler, shows a young man carrying a book entitled 'Socialism' how to improve his lot in life. The suggestion that Trump is a religious and self-made man clashes with everything we know about him, but it does speak to the ideals to which Trump's supporters nominally hew....
A lack of distancing irony is, generally, an element of cringe, whether it's imagining Trump nailed to a cross or picturing Michelle Obama as a Jedi master.... Cringe is only possible in a cultural and political moment like ours, when we have so effectively surrounded ourselves with those who share our affections and affectations. It's not until those cultural artifacts break out of our silos—often going viral via mocking screenshot—that we realize just how cringe-tastic they were, and how embarrassing the subservient attitude they represent really is.
I take some comfort in the fact that this is so cringe-inducing it cannot last, and perhaps in a decade or two we will look back on it like the fashions of the 1970s and shake our heads in amazement that people once talked themselves into thinking this was good.
5. "The Life of Free People Who Are Invincible"
The cause of freedom may be in trouble at the moment, compared to somewhat better times in the recent past—such as, say, the fall of the Berlin Wall—but it is still stronger than you might think.
Consider one of the least promising places in the world for that cause: Russia.
Russia has been the example and epicenter for the past decade's resurgence of authoritarian dictatorship. But as in the days of the Soviets, it has also produced some fo the most courageous and heroic fighters against dictatorship. Chief among them is Alexei Navalny.
Navalny is a Russian blogger who has spent years documenting the spectacular corruption of the Putin regime. Late last year, he was poisoned with a nerve agent, and when doctors at the local Russian hospital didn't seem too dedicated to saving his life, he was whisked away to a German hospital. After recovering, he called up the security agent who poisoned him, convinced the man he was one of his superiors back in Moscow, then got him to reveal the details of how the deed was done—and Navalny then released the recording.
What is even more extraordinary is what Navalny did next. He returned to Russia.
He returned knowing that the regime had tried to kill him and that he had responded by only embarrassing them further. Predictably, he was arrested immediately upon his return. The charge? That he violated his parole by leaving the country—unconscious, in a coma, after being poisoned by the regime. Somebody quipped that in America, we have a crime called "resisting arrest," but in Russia, they've invented a new crime: "resisting assassination."
The reaction has been an ongoing series of mass protests against the Putin regime, like the ones that are still going on in Belarus. If you want to know what helps inspire this, check out an amazing video of a Russian teenager coaching her social media audience on how to fake an American accent to avoid being arrest. I burst out laughing when she explained how to pronounce "gonna" in the sentence, "I'm gonna call my lawyer." But then my heart swelled with pride at the thought that the mere possession of an American accent—and an American attitude toward individual rights—is a practical defense against oppression.
But what you really need to read is the transcript of a fiery speech Navalny gave at his hearing.
The explanation [for my arrest] is one man's hatred and fear—one man hiding in a bunker. I mortally offended him by surviving. I survived thanks to good people, thanks to pilots and doctors. And then I committed an even more serious offense: I didn't run and hide. Then something truly terrifying happened: I participated in the investigation of my own poisoning, and we proved, in fact, that Putin, using Russia's Federal Security Service, was responsible for this attempted murder. And that's driving this thieving little man in his bunker out of his mind. He's simply going insane as a result.
There's no popularity ratings. No massive support. There's none of that. Because it turns out that dealing with a political opponent who has no access to television and no political party merely requires trying to kill him with a chemical weapon. So, of course, he's losing his mind over this. Because everyone was convinced that he's just a bureaucrat who was accidentally appointed to his position. He's never participated in any debates or campaigned in an election. Murder is the only way he knows how to fight. He'll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner. We all remember Alexander the Liberator and Yaroslav the Wise. Well, now we'll have Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner.
I'm standing here, guarded by the police, and the National Guard is out there with half of Moscow cordoned off. All this because that small man in a bunker is losing his mind. He's losing his mind because we proved and demonstrated that he isn't buried in geopolitics; he's busy holding meetings where he decides how to steal politicians' underpants and smear them with chemical weapons to try to kill them.
The main thing in this whole trial isn't what happens to me. Locking me up isn't difficult. What matters most is why this is happening. This is happening to intimidate large numbers of people. They're imprisoning one person to frighten millions....
I hope very much that people won't look at this trial as a signal that they should be more afraid. This isn't a demonstration of strength—it's a show of weakness. You can't lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. I hope very much that people will realize this. And they will. Because you can't lock up the whole country....
I am fighting as best I can and I will continue to do so, despite the fact that I'm now under the control of people who love to smear everything with chemical weapons. My life isn't worth two cents, but I will do everything I can so that the law prevails.
The line that struck me here was "my life isn't worth two cents." Navalny came back to Russia knowing it could be very well be a death sentence. That's the only way to explain this kind of raw courage: Navalny knows he is probably going to die, and he has simply decided that freedom is worth dying for.
The best explanation I can give is from another man who made the same decision and lived to tell about it, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, interviewed by Bari Weiss.
I remember when I overcame the fear of the first interrogation, when they explained to me that I'll be sentenced to death. And I understood that the goal wasn't to make my life longer but to remain a free person. Then it became much easier....
Three years before I was released—and of course I didn't know if it would be three years or 30 years—the Americans reached what they believed was a very good deal with Russia. They said: We'll release Sharansky if he asks to be released on humanitarian grounds, because of his poor health from the hunger strikes and so on.
The Americans wanted me to accept, Many Jewish leaders also wanted me to accept. And they were very angry at me for refusing it, and with Avital, my wife, for refusing to pressure me. But it wasn't a question for a moment that I would accept this deal. Why? Because this was a global struggle. The struggle was to unmask the real nature of this regime. The moment that they are perceived as caring about humanitarianism, you lose.
It's not a struggle of how to get out of prison. The struggle is how to defeat them. It's a moral struggle. I'm sure, already long ago for Navalny, that his is not a struggle for his physical life....
Everybody is afraid at the beginning but you overcome it. You're in the middle of a struggle where the aim of the struggle is not how to survive. It's how to show the world and mobilize the world to change the regime. He's saying: If you become like me you'll see how enjoyable it is. To say to people, "I'm not afraid to be killed," makes no sense. Everybody is afraid to be killed. But if you say: Think about this. Think about how to enjoy the life of free people who are invincible. That's the subtext of everything he's saying.
I recommend Sharansky's books about his own experience, because he explains how the decision to act like a free man, even in the midst of a dictatorship, is so liberating in itself that it makes the risks, the struggles, even the prospect of death, seem worthwhile.
Freedom is such a central, fundamental human need of human life that it will always call heroes to its defense, no matter what the circumstances.