MS-13 are animals. We all are.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

President Donald Trump called MS-13 gang members “animals.”

E.J. Dionne from the Washington Post disagreed, saying that “It’s never right to call other human beings ‘animals.’”

And writing for the National Review, Dennis Prager responded that Dionne reveals “the moral sickness at the heart of leftism.”

Dionne thinks his position is beyond debate: “No matter how debased the behavior of a given individual or group…dehumanizing others always leads us down a dangerous path.”

Worse, “Dehumanizing those he and his core constituents see as radically different is central to Trump’s project.”

Prager, however, writes that dehumanizing some people actually protects the rest of us. He continues, “By rhetorically reading certain despicable people out of the human race, we elevate the human race. We have declared certain behaviors out of line with being human.”

Prager means human in the moral, not biological sense. Otherwise, what meaning does the word “inhumane” have? Would Dionne not see the Nazis as inhuman?

Prager clarifies that inhumanity should be based on behavior and not “directed at people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or any other immutable physical characteristic.”

Dionne deals in absolutes: never and no debate. But the problem with absolutes is a lack of nuance. However, Prager doesn’t add enough nuance to this discussion. He still imputes inhumanity to individuals based on group membership. Certainly joining the Nazi party or MS-13 involves a serious moral compromise. But some Nazis and gang members commit worse atrocities than others.

We have all harmed others. A key question is: At what degree of harm do we lose our moral status as human? And what must we do to gain it back? Too often the answer is self-serving and lacking in self-awareness.

We are all animals. Biologically and morally.

Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years. And like our chimpanzee cousins, we can be vicious. Even bonobos may not deserve their peaceful reputation. And we still carry this evolutionary heritage with us. But we also evolved frontal lobes capable of inhibiting violent behavior—capable even of reason when we are at our best.

We are all animals. But we can do better.

Prager’s statement about the sickness at the heart of leftism highlights the problem. His us-vs.-them attitude seems to assume that progressives are sick and conservatives are morally elevated.

Does Prager recognize that he too is an animal?

The animal within can too easily escape if we fail to admit we too are capable, under certain circumstances, of inhumanity. Those who fail to understand this are in danger of becoming the monster they seek to destroy.

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Is classical liberalism the same as libertarianism?

Classical liberalism is a big tent with many entrances. Libertarianism is but one.

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© Dave DuBay

YouTube talk show host Dave Rubin likes to ask what, if any, is the difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism. The most common answer is that there is none.

Classical liberalism used to be called just plain old liberalism. But while modern American liberals favor individual freedom in the social sphere, they are often anti-capitalist. Besides, the left today seems to increasingly favor the term “progressive,” which is more straightforward. Meanwhile, conservatives are stronger on economic freedom but weak on civil liberties. But libertarians favor both laissez-faire capitalism and a high degree of personal freedom.

Classical liberalism, like democracy, human rights, and capitalism, resulted from the Enlightenment’s focus on individuality, science, and reason. At its core, classical liberalism is the belief that individual rights are the basis of universal human rights.

After all, if I don’t support human rights for others then I have no reason to expect others to support my human rights. From this it follows that everyone—regardless of identity group or demographic profile—must be equal under the law.

Further, the things I have a right to are things that inherently belong to me. My life, my identity, my speech, my religion and beliefs, my innocence, and so on. Rights, then, restrict government from telling us that we can’t say certain things, that we can’t worship a certain god (or that we must worship a god), that we’re guilty without due process or a fair trial, and so on. But of course, government can restrict us from doing things that deprive others of their rights.

In other words, rights are about what government can’t do, not what government must provide. But this doesn’t prohibit government from providing certain things.

Checks and balances—mechanisms for each branch of government to override the others—also limit governmental power. And decentralization is important. Something should be up to the individual if it’s best handled by the individual. If a municipality can best handle something then the state or province should step back. And the national government shouldn’t intervene if the state or province can handle it.

This freedom extends to free enterprise. But how limited should government involvement in the economy be? Short of anarcho-capitalism most would agree that some government involvement is necessary. Libertarians limit this to property protection. But I think some government regulation of externalities—such as environmental protection; and the provision of a social safety net for the most vulnerable—such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities—is ideal.

This is not a libertarian position. But it’s still within the framework of classical liberalism.

Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer writes for Quillette that “the prevailing emphasis on the group over the individual” departs from classical liberalism. The left categorizes people as oppressed or oppressors based on the intersection of identity groups they belong to. And the right “sort[s] people into collectivities according to religion and national origin.” This “self-factionalizing into groups” encourages “increasingly militant political and ideological movements rooted in personal identity.” Because they are so entrenched in identity politics, neither Democrats nor Republicans are liberals in the classical sense.

Shermer lists the essentials of classical liberalism as:

  • Democracy with voting rights for all adult citizens
  • Rule of law
  • Protection of civil rights and civil liberties
  • Police and military protection
  • Property rights and a secure monetary system
  • Free internal movement for all
  • Freedom of the press, speech, and association
  • Education available to all

To this he adds “adequate public spending to help the needy,” noting that he didn’t support this in his younger, libertarian days. But with a middle-age perspective he sees this as essential to a society that enables the individual to flourish.

Another example of a non-libertarian classical liberal is New York Times columnist David Brooks. A former Republican, he lends his support to the centrist Modern Whig Party. Brooks writes, “If progressives generally believe in expanding government to enhance equality, and libertarians try to reduce government to expand freedom, Whigs seek to use limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.”

The original Whig Party collapsed in the early 1800s over the abolition of slavery. Whether Modern Whigs will become a political force remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

Whether the classical liberalism of Democrats like Bill Maher will prevail over progressive identity politics remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

But perhaps the biggest question of all is the future of the Republican Party. Young people avoid the GOP. But the large majority of millennials who remain don’t support President Donald Trump—the exact opposite of their elders. Millennial Republicans are also more supportive of marriage equality and legalizing marijuana. Will millennials root out right-wing identity politics? Maybe.

 

Blaming Trump is part of the problem

The Atlantic tells us that “Trump is making everyone a little like him.”

I disagree. Notice the headline’s passive voice. President Donald Trump isn’t making us do anything. Instead, we choose to act in certain ways.

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Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

American culture has become coarser in the past half century. Trump didn’t start this trend—not even on Twitter—but he is the logical conclusion of it.

The Atlantic notes former FBI director James Comey’s many insults of Trump in his new book, and Comey’s denials that he’s mocking Trump. Social justice activists are also well known for their abusive online rhetoric. Meanwhile, right-wing ideologues fill online comment sections with all sorts of insults of women and minorities.

This phenomenon is no more left-wing than it is right-wing, though the right has the most globally visible practitioner of it.

Trolling and online insults proliferate because so many people think it’s only wrong when someone else does it. But when I do it, the reasoning goes, I’m speaking out against someone who has hurt others and who needs to be exposed so they can no longer harm others.

Conservatives who say liberalism is a mental disorder are legitimately warning others of liberalism’s threat to civilization as we know it—at least in their own minds. And social justice activists call anyone who isn’t as far left as them a bigot in a justified attempt to fight oppression—or so they say.

But saying that Trump is making us do this evades responsibility for our choices. And it makes the problem worse because it blames the phenomenon on one segment of society, ignoring the fact that really it’s all of us.

No one person is likely to shift the tide, but each individual can play a small part by refusing to play along.

I can choose not to troll online or in person. I can choose not to use insults and instead to focus on why I disagree with someone. And if insulted, I can choose not to retaliate.

Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is not to be like your enemy. Ever seen a situation where someone remains calm and respectful even when being viciously insulted? In contrast to the exaggerated facial expressions, shrill tone of voice, and over the top statements of the attacker, the other person’s relaxed face and thoughtful response makes it look like a conversation between a child and an adult.

Besides, while factual items can be corrected simply by stating the facts (which may or may not be believed), character judgments are opinion and can’t be refuted in the same way. So redirecting from the personalities to the issue at hand can save us from the rabbit hole of “I know you are but what am I.”

What is the future for “once and future liberals”?

Democrats have to come to terms with populism.

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Somewhere in northern Arizona. © Dave DuBay

Will Republicans lose the Senate in 2018? Will Democrats make gains in the House of Representatives? Will President Donald Trump be reelected in 2020?

Who knows. Democratic victories in November 2017 show the strength of anti-Trump sentiments. But progressives are wrong to think that getting rid of Trump will make Trumpism go away. Trump harnessed a pre-existing dynamic. And that populist dynamic—white identity politics, nationalism, anti-free trade—will continue without Trump.

Democrats and the mainstream media, though, don’t have a good track record for making predictions. During the 2016 primaries they predicted that Republicans wouldn’t nominate Trump. Then they predicted a revolt at the Republican National Convention. Next they said Trump would not win the presidency. Then they said he’d be impeached within a few months of taking office. Some still think Trump will be impeached.

Even if Trump is eventually impeached, the Republican establishment won’t come roaring back. Writing for Arc Digital Media, Nicholas Grossman declares that “the Republican civil war is over—the populists won.” Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker framed their retirements as a principled decision, but really it’s a retreat.

Meanwhile, Democrats are doubling down on their support for the establishment, purging Bernie Sanders supporters from the Democratic National Convention.

Resting on their laurels and expecting dissatisfaction with Trump to provide Democratic electoral victories in 2018 would be a mistake. An alternative is for Democrats to listen to and talk with middle America. But identity politics truncates real discussion because it creates a power competition.

Mark Lilla’s postmortem of the 2016 election—The Once and Future Liberal—is controversial. Lilla writes that,

Speaking as an X…sets up a wall against questions, which by definition come from a non-X perspective. And it turns the encounter into a power relation: the winner of the argument will be whoever has invoked the morally superior identity and expressed the most outrage at being questioned. …I think A…now takes the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B.

He says that “JFK’s challenge, What can I do for my country…became…what does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?” Republicans historically have focused on our shared identity as Americans—as citizens of a democratic republic. But Democrats focus on “our identification with different social groups within it.”

As conservatives co-opt identity politics, however, their focus on our shared identity as Americans withers. And barely more than a third of Americans approve of Trump’s performance—lower than any president in recent memory. Generic polls asking whether possible 2018 voters prefer Democrats or Republicans vary from a three point Democratic lead (The Economist and Yougov) to a fifteen point Democratic lead (FOX News). Of course, a lot can change in a year. And we can’t assume that a general preference for Democrats will apply to specific House and Senate races.

But the Democratic Party leadership getting solidly behind the establishment is perhaps a bigger mistake. The populist wave that brought Trump to power—and which almost enabled independent Bernie Sanders to become a usurper in the Democratic Party—is not a fad.

The most important question for Neil Gorsuch

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Phoenix, Arizona

Resisting President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee is bound to be a losing game. The seat will be filled at some point, and Trump is not going to appoint a liberal justice.

But there are different strands of conservatism. George Will brings up an interesting question that should be asked of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

Quoting Lincoln, Will describes the Constitution as a frame of silver for a golden apple, which is the Declaration of Independence. That is, the Constitution details how we protect the Declaration’s ideal that everyone has equal natural rights.

Will criticizes President Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Bork disparaged the ninth amendment, which says that there may be more rights than are explicitly stated in the Constitution.

Will also criticizes late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia‘s claim that democracy means majority rule with protection for “minorities only because the majority determines that there are certain minority positions that deserve protection.”

Scalia’s ideology seems to disparage natural rights. And certainly it ignores James Madison‘s statement that one purpose of the Constitution is that “the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”

Scalia’s disregard for individual rights when the majority see fit not to grant these rights represents a powerful strand of conservatism – particularly social conservatism. And President Trump appears to be in this camp.

But other conservatives emphasize the word “unalienable” in the Declaration’s statement that everyone is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” And considering Madison’s remarks in Federalist #51, the only way that Scalia-style conservatives can truly claim to be originalists is by denying that the Declaration of Independence is all that important to the Constitution which followed.

Will hopes that Gorsuch’s originalism will differ from Bork and Scalia’s by recognizing that natural rights are unalienable, meaning the majority can’t take them away. But note that is is about protecting natural rights, not the judiciary usurping Congress. This is Will’s conservatism.
We don’t yet know what kind of conservative Gorsuch is. I hope Congress asks him.

Is faith essential – even if you don’t believe in the supernatural?

The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.
The FTC Building in Washington, D.C.

Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind covers an enormous range of topics in 400 plus pages. But one (of many) ideas that got me thinking is his claim that we all believe in things that aren’t objectively real.


Money is a cultural myth.


Take money. Why do we think a green piece of paper is so valuable? By itself it has no practical use (though you can exchange it for things, such as food, that do have a practical use). A dollar is backed by the United States of America, and that’s good enough for us.

But why do we trust the US government? It’s faith.

On page 117 Harari writes that “an objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs.” The subjective is dependent on the “beliefs of a single individual.” But the inter-subjective “exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.”

Money is inter-subjective. It’s a cultural myth.

We as a society believe that a little green piece of paper is valuable. But if society lost faith in the backing of the United States then the dollar would become worthless overnight.

Not so with an apple. An apple can provide nutrition even if you don’t believe it can.


Human rights don’t exist objectively.


Harari also argues that human rights don’t exist objectively like an apple does. Human rights are a cultural belief, and a relatively new one at that.

But this doesn’t mean that human rights aren’t real. This mythos is real because it serves not only a practical, but an essential, purpose in human societies.

The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, occurred when humans evolved the ability for abstract thought. Abstract concepts are mental tools just as spears are physical tools. We need to conceptualize our world, and shared concepts are essential for cooperation and cohesion in a society of more than a hundred or two hundred people.

The gods, and later the one God, are also social constructs. Zeus no longer exists because too few people believe in him. But the God of the Bible does still exist (as a human construct rather than an objective reality) because many people do believe in him.

A lot of people see religious diversity (especially atheism) as a threat to social cohesion because diversity and disbelief mean that society loses the uniting mythos of the one true God.


The faith that science will save us is mistaken.


How does this bode for the atheist quest to rid the human race of faith?

From Harari’s point of view, reason also is a human construct with no objective reality. Though reason has been immensely useful as a cognitive tool.

But the belief – the faith – that science will save us is mistaken. On page 253 Harari states that, “All modern attempts to stabilise the sociopolitical order have had no choice but to rely on either of two unscientific methods.”

One is to “declare that it [a scientific theory] is a final and absolute truth.” The Nazis did this with biological claims, and Communists did it with economic claims.

The other is to reject science in favor of “a non-scientific absolute truth.” This is what evangelicals and Islamic fundamentalists do.

A casual look at the progressive/conservative divide in America today reflects these options. Conservatives deny climate change and want biblical myths taught in science class rather than the theory of evolution. And some progressives (particularly radical left-wing students) insist that their theories about social justice must be believed and not debated.


The 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run.


As such, today’s culture war (like all culture wars) represents a rejection of the established mythos and an attempt to have a new mythos dominate.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the rejection of the 1950s mythos. The 1980s through the early 2000s saw the new mythos’s quest for mainstream acceptance, which was accomplished through cultural relativism. Demanding dominance would have failed, but asking people just to think about the new mythos as one set of beliefs among many gets your foot in the door.

Today we see a demand for ideological dominance among progressive students at private colleges (and some state universities). Where this will go is hard to say.

There are several possibilities. Progressive students might see their mythos dominate within three or four decades. Or, mainstream culture might adopt some ideas that today are considered radical (much like gay marriage was radical twenty years ago) while retaining some traditional ideas. Alternatively, a third as yet undefined mythos could emerge (though that’s highly unlikely).

But the 1950s mythos will not reassert itself in the long run. Donald Trump wants to make America great again, implicitly invoking the 1950s of the Silent Generation’s young adulthood, Baby Boomer’s childhood, and Generations X’s imagination. But even if Trump becomes president the older cohorts that elect him will eventually age out of the political system.

Go ahead & vote for a third party if you want to. Well, maybe.

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Mt. Blue State Park, Maine

People say that a vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson is really a vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton and/or Trump, depending on which poll you believe, respectively.

Well, no one I know has actually said that. They say a third party vote is really a vote for someone else. But that logic is flawed, as my parody illustrates.

A vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for Gary Johnson, and a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Jill Stein. It really is that simple.

Of course, what people mean is that a vote for a third party candidate has the effect of electing the ideologically opposite major party candidate.

But they’re forgetting about the Electoral College. I noted before that the United States has always been a two party system because the president is elected by the Electoral College and not by popular vote.

This winner take all system means a third candidate could thwart a majority in the Electoral College, throwing the vote to the House of Representatives where it’s sure to become a cluster fuck.

A third party vote in swing states like Ohio or Florida could affect the national election, if there’s critical mass in that state and if the Electoral College math nationally is close. That did happen in 1992 when Bill Clinton got elected with a minority of the popular vote.

But most states clearly lean Democratic or Republican. Hillary Clinton will not win Texas, and Donald Trump will not win Massachusetts.

There probably aren’t enough Gary Johnson supporters in Texas to give Hillary a victory there. And Massachusetts Green Party voters are unlikely to hand Trump a victory in that state.

So vote the way you want. But with this point of caution: My personal metric (which I’m pulling out of my hat) is that if the major party candidates are less than 10 percentage points apart in your state, and if a third party candidate seems to be getting a lot of attention, then you should think about the possibility that a split vote could elect the worst of two evils.