The Road to Serfdom
I wrote recently that anti-wokism is emerging as a political force. And you can see why. Check out this absolutely insane story from New Zealand, where there is a campaign to demand the teaching of aboriginal Maori mythology in science classes, as science.
But here’s the thing. Precisely because these stories are so outrageous, there is a lot of hay to be made in harvesting the outrage clicks. (See an interesting if exaggerated commentary on the media economics that help fuel the culture war.)
That’s why I have always taken it as my responsibility to click through on any such story and check its sources, as I did with the New Zealand piece above, before sending it on to you. I suggest you make sure to do the same, especially if you are so unwise as to spend time on Facebook, because this field has become crowded with charlatans.
Anti-wokeness has also become a great cover for the illiberal right to use as an excuse to impose their own form of cancel culture, just in the opposite direction.
A while back, Kmele Foster, David French, Jason Stanley, and Thomas Chatterton Williams warned against the danger of broadly worded bans on teaching “divisive” ideas in classrooms.
Now we have a conservative activist group called “Moms for Liberty” suing schools in Tennessee for assigning books on Martin Luther King, Jr.
Moms for Liberty, you may recall, was also behind a New Hampshire campaign to offer bounties to encourage students and parents to inform on teachers. See a profile of the organization, including a part about how it’s being used as a way for censorious Church Lady types to campaign against smut: “[State] chapters, which set their own agendas, are now focusing on curriculum members say is too sexual.” You may recall that this sort of thing was part of the context that lured Terry McAuliffe into the gaffe that cost him a second term as governor in Virginia.
Then there is the proposed—I kid you not—”Teacher Loyalty Bill.”
“Just one year after New Hampshire legislators first introduced a bill that banned the teaching or discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ like systemic racism, another bill will be debated this legislative session that would take those restrictions further.
“The proposed bill, HB 1255, is titled ‘An Act Relative to Teachers’ Loyalty,’ and seeks to ban public school teachers from promoting any theory that depicts US history or its founding in a negative light, including the idea that the country was founded on racism. The bill updates a piece of Cold War-era law that bans educators from advocating for communism in schools, and adds additional bans on advocating for socialism and Marxism.”
All of this has the feel of a warmed over Red Scare, in which legitimate fear of a totalitarian ideology is exploited by charlatans and used as an excuse for authoritarian counter-measures.
The actual solution is right in front of us: school choice.
I’m doing some research right now for a piece on what we can learn from Belgium’s School Wars, a bitter conflict that culminated in the middle of the 20th Century with a battle between advocates for secular public schools and partisans of Catholic religious schools. The conflict ended with a compromise in which “parents could choose the system they preferred for their children.”
The parallel to our problem today is pretty obvious, and it provides us with a truly anti-authoritarian model for ending the Woke Wars.
The War on Women
The current woke-versus-anti-woke moment is about seven years old now. I remember its beginnings very well, heralded by the case of the comet shirt guy.
It will be worthwhile sketching out how the issue has evolved since then, which I will do in my upcoming end-of-year review. But what struck me in looking back at the comet shirt case is how much it appeared, at the time, to be specifically about out-of-control collectivist feminism. This was the era in which Democrats used to rail about a “War on Women,” and shortly afterward we had the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment and the casting couch. (But now that Harvey Weinstein is rotting in jail, I am sure that Hollywood has reformed itself and nothing like that could ever happen again.)
But this is not the direction the woke movement has sustained, because as usual, the men have muscled their way in and taken back the center of attention. It’s just that this time it’s men who claim they are women.
Thus, Bernie Sanders recently proclaimed, in response to the Supreme Court oral arguments on abortion, that “It is a woman who has a right to control her own body” because men “aren’t the ones giving birth.” This has been boilerplate pro-choice rhetoric for decades—but this time, old Bernie got ratioed for being “transphobic.”
That is not by any means the worst example. No, the worst example is men who claim to be women pressuring lesbians to have sex with them by browbeating them with the notion that showing a “genital preference” makes them insufficiently progressive.
“Jennie is a lesbian woman. She says she is only sexually attracted to women who are biologically female and have vaginas. She therefore only has sex and relationships with women who are biologically female.
“Jennie doesn’t think this should be controversial, but not everyone agrees. She has been described as transphobic, a genital fetishist, a pervert and a ‘terf’—a trans exclusionary radical feminist….
“I became aware of this particular issue after I wrote an article about sex, lies and legal consent.
“Several people got in touch with me to say there was a ‘huge problem’ for lesbians, who were being pressured to ‘accept the idea that a penis can be a female sex organ.’…
“Another lesbian woman, 26-year-old Chloe, said she felt so pressured she ended up having penetrative sex with a trans woman at university after repeatedly explaining she was not interested….
“‘I felt very bad for hating every moment, because the idea is we are attracted to gender rather than sex, and I did not feel that, and I felt bad for feeling like that,’ she said.”
Interesting how we’ve arrived back at a neo-Puritanism where people are made to feel guilty about their sexual preferences, isn’t it?
That whole article is long but gives a lot of first-hand accounts, while admitting there is little data about the phenomenon because everyone is afraid that a systematic study “would be characterized as a deliberately discriminatory project.”
See also a poignant recollection from a young lesbian about the bizarre evolution of the orthodoxy.
“I was a 19 year old lesbian, who asked, essentially, if it was okay to not be attracted to men. Men who identified as not being men. And I was told no. And I apologized for asking.”
I have also seen this referred to as “TRApe culture,” where TRA stands for “Trans Rights Activists.”
It may seem ironic that our woke moment began with denouncing a War on Women and ended by waging one. But it is not a contradiction at all when you realize that the essence of wokeness is constant tribal conflict, and it’s only a matter of which tribe has clawed its way to the top of the “intersectional” hierarchy at the moment.
The Road to Serfdom
Over at Shikha’s Dalmia’s Unpopulist, Jacob Levy has an interesting reminder that in Friedrich Hayeek’s The Road to Serfdom, he warned that the illiberal right would be at the end of the road paved by the illiberal left.
“One major theme of The Road to Serfdom is the intellectual and historical affinities between the left-wing and right-wing rejections of liberalism in the prewar decades: the triumph of collectivism over individualism, the rising attraction to a militarized image of social planning and conscious coordination. But more of the book is concerned with the future, with the security of such liberal goods as the rule of law, parliamentary government, international peace, free trade, and free inquiry and debate.
“Throughout these chapters, the argument is less about affinity than about unintended consequences: in the long term ‘socialism can be put into practice only by methods of which most socialists disapprove.’ The prewar socialist parties had, ‘without knowing it, set themselves a task which only the ruthless ready to disregard the barriers of accepted morals can execute.’ The socialists were, however, too constrained by democratic scruples to carry the task out; ‘they did not possess the ruthlessness required.’ And so fascist parties, which did possess that ruthlessness, took command….
“In the chapter on ‘why the worst get on top,’ Hayek seeks to explain the dominance of totalitarian parties by ‘blackguards and thugs,’ the ‘unscrupulous and uninhibited.’ The explanations he offers center on demagoguery and, especially, nationalism. The ‘universal tendency of collectivist policy to become nationalistic’ and even ‘violently nationalist’ is the key to the chapter. Indeed, the book as a whole is marked by great hostility to nationalism; he counts it as an argument against totalitarian Communism that it abandons the in-principle internationalism of socialists in favor of militarized nationalism. The propaganda tools of the fascist countries ‘are destructive of all morals: the sense of and respect for truth,’ including even ‘questions of fact.'”
I thought of that when I came across a lefty gloating about how the nationalist right is embracing antitrust.
“Two weeks ago,… conservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton joined Democrat Amy Klobuchar in cosponsoring a bill opposing big tech mergers, a bill that Jordan opposed in the House Antitrust Subcommittee. ‘Tech giants have abused their power, harmed consumers, and censored speech,’ Cotton said. ‘These monopolies should have to prove why buying out their competition won’t make those problems even worse.’
“Cotton and Jordan are both important validators in the conservative movement. Members of Congress can’t study every problem, and they usually rely on ideologically sympathetic leaders on abstruse issues like antitrust. Jordan was counting on being such a leader and making monopoly a partisan dispute, which would immediately cause conservatives to oppose antitrust reform. But Cotton is an equally powerful conservative, so to have someone like Cotton come out squarely on the opposite side of Jordan over big tech means that the Republican Party will be fractured….
“The fight over the nature of corporate power is even penetrating [the] heart of the conservative legal movement. Conservative Senator Josh Hawley has been targeting the decades old coalition between social conservatives and corporatists, which has been so solid since the early 1980s that it doesn’t even seem like it can be pulled apart. But that’s what’s happening. Hawley’s influence directly led Clarence Thomas to muse skeptically about Google’s monopoly power. And a week ago, the Federalist Society, which dominates conservative legal thinking, had at their national convention a debate in which the topic was ‘RESOLVED: Concentrated corporate power is a greater threat to individual freedom than government power.’
“Ashley Keller, the lawyer hired by the conservative Texas Attorney General to take on Google, argued in the affirmative, going after the Chamber of Commerce in particular. ‘Defenders of freedom must face reality,’ he said. ‘The Chamber of Commerce is not our friend. The C-suite grandees who finance it are not our friends either. They were erstwhile allies of convenience—and they are now the enemies of a freedom-loving people.’
“Keller called for more aggressive actions on antitrust, and for reexamining the consumer welfare standard that is the bedrock for anti-monopoly policy. And this was on the main stage of the most important conservative event for conservative judges to consider debates on core legal questions.”
The author warns his readers that the “conservative case against dominant tech firms isn’t the same as the liberal case.” But he seems oblivious to what will actually happen if the right embraces antitrust. This is a government power so arbitrary that it is ripe for abuse, and specifically can be used as a cudgel to intimidate private firms to support the ruling faction. This is exactly how such provisions are used in all systems of authoritarian nationalism, as in Hungary and Russia. Lefties who hate “concentrated corporate power” are so blinded by their dogmas that they cannot project how much more they will hate concentrated governmentpower in its actual implementation.
We would be foolish to see the nationalist right as an acceptable alternative to the left—just as the left is foolish to pave the road for the use of arbitrary power by people they despise.
This Is Your Brain on COVID
Speaking of nationalists on the right embracing the tools of the left, the right has found yet another instance in which it loves government handouts: welfare for people who quit their jobs rather than get vaccinated.
This all flows, of course, from the fact that Republicans chose to take the biggest crisis of the moment, a global pandemic, and turn it into a totally unscrupulous partisan campaign.
I warned above about having to be careful to sift through the outrage clickbait on anti-wokeness and sort the real from the fake or exaggerated. I wanted to add an even bigger warning about literally anything you hear about COVID.
For example, you might have heard on social media that the Merriam-Webster dictionary spontaneously rewrote its entry for “anti-vaxxer” to include those who “oppose…laws that mandate vaccination.” It sounds like an Orwellian attempt to change the meaning of a word to fit the latest political talking points.
But as Yair Rosenberg points out, this has been the Merriam-Webster definition since before 2018. It’s the conservatives who suddenly changed their views on vaccine mandates, not Merriam-Webster.
And why was opposition to vaccine mandates included in the definition back before the pandemic? Prior to 2020, those who opposed vaccines were virtually the only ones who opposed vaccine mandates.
(Today’s conservatives might want to insist that they are drawing some super-geeky libertarian distinction between opposing vaccines and opposing mandates for vaccines—and I will continue to suspicious about why they have suddenly embraced esoteric libertarian ideas on this one issue alone.)
Or you may have heard about a scientific study supposedly linking mRNA vaccines to heart disease. But it’s not a scientific study. It’s a mere “poster abstract,” a short summary of a non-peer-reviewed conference presentation, which was roundly criticized by doctors who attended it. And the presentation was from a quack doctor who uses Gwyneth Paltrow’s woo-woo website to sell doubtful nutritional supplements as a cure for what ails you. You know, the kind of guy conservatives used to make fun of.
I mention all of this partly as a warning that we are awash in a sea of misinformation on this issue, but also because there is a more serious bogus claim making the rounds: dark rumors of COVID “concentration camps” in Australia, spread almost exclusively by non-Australian commentators.
Quillette, which is based in Australia, published a good corrective on this story.
“‘There are all kinds of reports all over the internet of Aboriginal people being chased down, hunted down like wild animals by their own government, by their military,’ beams American commentator Stew Peters on his online Stew Peters Show, ‘Kids are being chased by the military personnel, tackled to the ground, pinned down and forced jabbed with syringes…. They’re being chased down in the bush in the wild there like animals and injected.’ American YouTube personality Tim Pool has taken to Twitter to raise specters of the Holocaust. Over a series of tweets this past week, Pool has blamed military trucks in Katherine for ‘shipping’ people to ‘concentration camps,’ referring to Howard Springs Quarantine Facility where some people have been isolated.
“Dealing with conspiracy theorists can be frustrating at the best of times. But there’s a special kind of provocation experienced when you have insider knowledge that puts you in a different epistemic position altogether from the conspiracist….So for me, a social welfare worker living in the Katherine area in an organization assisting indigenous clients, this is one of those rare times that a conspiracy theory debunks itself.
“There’s no army here holding people down and vaccinating them against their will. Nobody is being rounded up at the point of a gun. The army is not even carrying guns….
“Some people here in the Katherine area aren’t even aware of the conspiracy theories taking shape on social media overseas about our communities. ‘This is the first time I heard that, when I happened to be watching TikTok this morning,’ the Kunwinjku man Andy Garnarrandj told Australia’s National Indigenous Television network. ‘It’s not happening here.’…
“The camp Ellis speaks of is the Howard Springs Quarantine Facility, where he and 39 other indigenous people from these areas have been taken to isolate for two weeks. This is Tim Pool’s ‘concentration camp,’ the same one that interns international arrivals including our National Olympians.
“This is not America. I want you to understand that. In communities like Binjari there are upwards of thirty people living under a single house roof. That makes a mockery of the idea of self-isolation at home. So when the government realized that 39 people were probable infections, they were transferred, without protest, to Howard Springs. Of these, all 39 have tested positive, meaning that hundreds of indigenous people in their households have been spared infection.”
(See a new follow-up piece on this.)
In other words, what the conservative clickbait media is calling a “concentration camp” is simply quarantine, one of the oldest, most well-established, and most humane ways of protecting a vulnerable population from infectious disease.
Early in the pandemic, I warned against trying to filter information about COVID entirely through your normal political categories without first understanding the scientific and epidemiological issues. But many people on the right have done the opposite, shaping their understanding of epidemiology to fit their pre-existing political obsessions and fears, and therefore seeing “authoritarian” plots in ordinary public health measures.
Thus, conservatives have been begun adopting dogmatic opposition, one by one, to every single established anti-pandemic health measure, from masks to vaccines to quarantine. Don’t let yourselves get swept along in this mass hysteria.
The New “Nuclear Moment”
At the same time, there are stirring signs of sanity on one issue: nuclear power.
Robert Zubrin offers an overview of the possible change in fortunes for fission reactors. I recommend this article with reservations, because Zubrin includes a very overwrought WWII analogy and the phrase, “a force of fierce female fission freedom fighters,” which has to be some sort of crime. But here’s the basic story.
“The past few weeks have seen a radical change in the outlook for nuclear energy. Coincident with the global COP26 conference, major center-left forces have shifted their position from opposition to support. While a year ago French president Emmanuel Macron was calling for cutting the nuclear fraction of France’s electric power from its current 75 percent down to 50 percent (thereby eliminating the world’s only actually decarbonized major electric-power grid), on November 9 he called for ‘relaunching construction of nuclear reactors in our country…to guarantee France’s energy independence, to guarantee our country’s electricity supply and achieve our objectives, in particular carbon neutrality in 2050.’ Whereas a few months ago European Union bureaucrats drawing up the ‘taxonomy’ that defines which energy sources would be considered carbon-free (i.e. valid substitutes for fossil fuels) excluded nuclear power, now nearly all except the fanatical Germanic states have reversed themselves.”
I’ve also noticed this shift in elite opinion—not yet a completely shift, but the beginnings of one. (At the official level in the US, this is so far limited to our Secretary of Energy “voicing support for types of reactors that do not yet exist.” A true profile in courage.)
Part of the impetus for change is political.
“The [Democratic] party was not about to abandon its core belief that carbon emissions present an existential threat to humanity, so changing its position on coal mining or fracking was out. But nuclear power is carbon-free. If the party embraced nuclear power, it could support both economic growth andenvironmental necessity. Not all Democrats saw things that way, but some did.”
Beneath that is a deeper logical quandary. If people actually believe that global warming caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide is destroying the planet, and there is a proven technology that can generate power reliably and on a large scale without pumping out carbon dioxide—then what excuse do we have not to use it.
Zubrin grasps why we haven’t done this already.
“Personally, I do not agree with the Third Way line that nuclear power is needed to stop the ‘existential crisis’ of climate change. I don’t believe there is such a crisis, and I’m not willing to pretend I do. In the 1950s and 1960s, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s visionary director, Alvin Weinberg, attempted to use the ‘existential crisis’ of that time, the ‘population explosion,’ to make the case for nuclear power. I think that was a mistake, because the Malthusian ideologues pushing the population crisis were intrinsically hostile to nuclear power. They hated it for the same reason that the current green anti-human movement hates nuclear power: It threatens to solve a problem they need to have.”
I would express this in deeper terms. The driver of most of our modern politics—definitely on the left, but now increasingly on the right—is hatred of capitalism. So people need to find some kind of original sin that brands capitalism as evil. They look for that in “inequality” or racism (the current favorite) or in scenarios of environmental catastrophe. They decided nuclear power was dangerous and bad precisely because it was a great technological advance.
If the environmental left has painted itself into a corner where it can no longer oppose nuclear energy with any semblance of coherence, then we should be ready to take advantage of it.
For myself, with the looming prospect of a Winter War in Ukraine by a resurgent imperialist Russia, I view the switch to nuclear energy as a vital security question for the liberal West. By shutting down all their coal-fired power plants and all of their nuclear plants, the Germans left themselves with only two energy options. First, they can rely on wind and solar power—which failed this summer when there were a couple of weeks of cloudy and windless weather. Or they can prop up their electrical grid by importing enormous quantities of Russian natural gas.
This is what they have actually been doing, and it makes Germany a weak link in the West’s defense against Russia. By their own choice, they have put themselves in a position where standing up to Vladimir Putin could mean suffering through a long, cold winter.
If Europe cannot be entirely woken up from its global warming delusion, the least we can hope for is that they regain enough sanity to embrace nuclear power again.