The interesting transition of Dave Rubin

I like Dave Rubin. For a while, I considered him to be representative of a phenomenon that I hope keeps picking up steam: the detachment of left-leaning moderates from a radical left obsessed with a silly game of point-scoring against the right powered by a virulent and cynical use of identity politics. That’s how I came to know him, and appreciate him, given that I have, in the past two years or so, gone through that transition as well. Now, though I still agree with Rubin on many things, I’m beginning to question whether the transition he’s going through is the one I initially diagnosed.

For those who don’t know Rubin, he got his first real taste of spotlight as a member of “The Young Turks,” a popular online TV show that features political analysis from a perspective that’s further to the left than virtually anything one can see on mainstream American television. He left the show and the group, however, when he could not reconcile his disagreements with TYT figurehead Cenk Uygur, who went down the radical road I described above. This became painfully obvious when Uygur insisted upon misrepresenting the views of neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris, whose criticism of religion in general but more specifically of Islam caused outrage in certain left-wing circles. (Those who saw Ben Affleck’s rambling, incoherent attack on Harris when they were both on Bill Maher’s show “Real Time” can attest to this. Also, if you have more patience than I do, you can watch this conversation between Uygur and Harris, of which the Youtube title is complete wishful thinking, and read or listen to accounts of the aftermath as proof of Uygur’s complete bad faith.)

All this to say that Rubin, like many, was brought to question his allegiance to the left following this episode, and many others in which so-called right-wing speakers were de-platformed and/or attacked on university campuses in the U.S. The left, he figured, was putting feelings ahead of reason, group think over individual responsibility, and cared far too little about free speech. Up to this point, he and I are agreed.

He has since set up “The Rubin Report,” a political news talk show that features in-depth one-on-one conversations about hot political topics. The show, funded by donations from its viewers, is doing rather well for itself and continues to grow in popularity. Rubin’s guests have mostly been people he feels the left has attempted to silence in a variety of ways: Harris has been on the show a few times; Rubin has also welcomed former Islamist-turned-Islam-reformer Maajid Nawaz (who remains better know in his native Britain than in North America), not to mention the likes of former Google employee James Damore, controversial University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lindsey Shepherd (who has face the most unfair of backlashes for her alleged transphobia as a result of her merely showing a video of Peterson in one of her classes) and several others.

daverubin

I, like many people who support policies usually associated with the left, was delighted by the presence of people like Rubin who would stand up for free speech in the face of a radical left whose censorius instinct and totalitarian tendencies make it tend to treat free expression as an inconvenience. I believe that even the most despicable opinions should indeed be heard because I also believe our ability to think critically is our intellectual immune system. Both have to be strengthened by exposure to “harmful” agents, not by sheltering from them. Good faith and intellectual honesty both require that we confront the best version of ideas with which we disagree rather than straw men or caricatures of them. Rubin is insistent on this to the point of being repetitive, but I understand why he feels the need to emphasize these points.

Consider the treatment Jordan Peterson gets from many on the left. In Canada, we’ve known about him for a while, ever since he most controversially refused to use “non-gendered” pronouns that were cooked up by members of the LGBTQ community. As for the rest of the world, however, he has garnered a strong following thanks to his Youtube lectures and he became something of a folk hero to many people outside the hard left for his rather skillful display in an interview during which Channel 4’s Cathy Newman repeatedly tried to ambush him by misrepresenting his views. Since then, Peterson has garnered attention as a “hero of the alt-right.” I wish surprise and shock could be in the cards for me, but they’re not. One of the things about this identity politics-fueled radical left has done serially is to use keywords like “alt-right,” or “fascist,” or all the words that end in -phobe (most notably Islamophobe, of course) in order to discredit people whose ideas it wishes to sidestep (obviously the radical right tends to do the same). It doesn’t take a genius to take potshots at Sean Hannity, or Ann Coulter, or Bill O’Reilly, or virtually anyone in the Trump administration, including the president himself. However, besting an intellectual heavyweight like Peterson in an actual argument is a mighty rough task, as Cathy Newman found out the hard way, because he is obviously highly intelligent, but also because his every opinion is fact-based and he avoids ideology like the plague. That’s when the name-calling and the radioactive buzzwords come in handy.

The same is true about Sam Harris. It’s OK to disagree with him on the benevolent/harmful nature of religion (Peterson does), but the misrepresentation of people’s views, especially in the cynical manner that tends to be the signature of the radical left these days, is a tendency that we must all fight with our complete intellectual and verbal might. Rubin has joined that fight and devotes much of his attention and energy to it.

Lately, however, Rubin has seemed captivated by an analogous yet different phenomenon: the transition in political allegiance from the left to the right. Peter Hitchens, younger brother of the late, great Christopher Hitchens and one of my favourite English intellectuals, has himself gone through this transition long ago. I disagree with Hitchens (Peter) on a staggering number of things, but I have tremendous respect for his independence of mind despite the fact that it has led him to very different conclusions than mine (or those of his late brother, for that matter). We started to see Rubin’s interest in this when he started inviting people like Never-Trump Republican David Frum, but he has since moved on to other cases, most notably that of Candace Owens. Owens, many will recall, has seen her already-growing fame explode when Kanye West infamously claimed to “love the way she thinks.” What was going through Kanye’s mind is not relevant here. What matters is Owens, and her actual positions.

I’ve watched Rubin’s conversation with Owens. As I watched, something became clear to me: Owens is a powerful and potent adversary for the left. Many radical leftists would likely go so far as to refer to her as an enemy. Despite whatever criticisms anyone may have of her, she is pretty, charming, charismatic and intelligent. She does, however, have her fair share of intellectual blind spots, most notably in her esteem of Donald Trump. I understand that Rubin is a trained political scientist, not a journalist. I also understand that he might feel uneasy about asking his guests hard questions. But too many times during that interview, I was puzzled by Rubin’s silence and/or nodding in agreement. One must be clear: Donald Trump tells lies, actual verifiable lies. To put it another way, he constantly says things that are either provably false or untrue by any sensible criterion (“Nobody respects women more than me. Nobody.” I wasn’t, and still am not, quite sure how to respond to a statement so absurd). Thus, if you’re a Trump supporter, you either believe the lies or you think his lying doesn’t matter. I can’t see Rubin fitting in either of these categories.

So where the hell was the Dave Rubin who was seemingly agreeing with Frum as he was taking the absolute piss out of Trump? Why was that guy not calling out Owens for defending some of Trump’s more indefensible statements? In the interview, she claimed to be in the process of discovery with regards to her intellectual and political self. So would it not have been helpful to her to challenge her when she was on thin intellectual ice as she was defending the President?

And then, there’s Ben Shapiro. When I listen to Shapiro in discussions with Rubin, Peterson or Sam Harris, or when he absolutely dismantles Piers Morgan on live TV in a debate about gun control, I find him to be among the more intelligent conservatives of our time. Then, however, he tweets things like this: “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue.” Sarcasm? Provocation? Maybe. Shapiro is an orthodox Jew, so I’m neither surprised nor offended to see him take Israel’s side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the smart guy who kept calm and exposed Morgan’s virtue-signalling ineptitude and the twat who tweeted this plainly bigoted crap seem like two different people. How do you not call out Shapiro on that when you have him on the show?

I’m in no danger of becoming a fiscal or a moral conservative, but I have distanced myself from the radical left, of which I once considered myself a part, in the following respect: whether it’s intellectually or politically, I believe identity politics are a dead end. I can certainly understand why people might feel the need for them. However, if we want people of different race, religion, sexual orientation et al. to be equal before and under the law, and if we want to achieve real equality for all, emphasizing our differences to the point of creating social cleavages is, to put it simply and mildly, counterproductive. I don’t believe in engineering equality of outcome, but I do believe in equality of opportunity, and I do realize we have not achieved it yet. However, this does not justify us misrepresenting the views of those who disagree with us on how to get there in order to shut them down or branding them as undesirables. In this respect, the radical leftists who have moved to silence people with whom they disagree have shown their true colours, i.e. their totalitarian tendencies. Just like Rubin, I vow to fight their totalitarian efforts wherever I see them rear their ugly heads. I’m just not sure the radical left’s identity politics has had the same effect on Rubin as it has had on me and many others who support him. Watching good people being victims of smear tactics has caused me to detest ideology, especially in its more tribal form which is encouraged by identity politics. As for Rubin, has the radical left’s excesses caused him to reject ideology or just to embrace a different one?

It goes without saying that it would be fine for Rubin to become a conservative. And if this is not what’s happening to him, taking in the right’s better ideas and combining them with the left’s better ideas seems to be the best way to fight for freedom, respect, and open-mindedness. However, if Rubin’s going to take in the good ideas from the right, and give those good ideas exposure, he must avoid giving the same charitable treatment to the bad ones as well. And, as people of the moderate left, committed though we may be to defend free expression, so must we.

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Le livre le plus important de 2017

Il est peut-être trop tôt pour annoncer le retour de la tyrannie en Occident, mais il est désormais approprié de déclarer ce retour possible. Moins de 30 ans après la chute du Mur de Berlin, nous avons suffisamment négligé notre rapport à l’histoire pour rétablir les conditions favorables à l’ascension au pouvoir d’un démagogue qui transformerait un pays tel que les États-Unis en dictature.

Si vous trouvez que cette idée relève de l’hyperbole, le professeur Timothy Snyder, historien à l’Université Yale, est en désaccord avec vous. Son livre “On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century”, publié récemment et, malheureusement, à l’heure actuelle, seulement en anglais, est à la fois captivant et terrifiant. C’est également le livre le plus important que j’ai lu, et que je m’attends à lire, en 2017. Aucun étudiant du secondaire ne devrait pouvoir diplômer sans l’avoir lu et sans en montrer une compréhension suffisante.

On Tyranny

Il n’existe pas d’excuse valable pour ne pas le lire. Je l’ai terminé en approximativement 90 minutes. C’est une petite perle de clarté et de concision qui soutient que l’Occident (notamment les États-Unis) est plus vulnérable à un virage autoritaire qu’à n’importe quel moment depuis, au bas mot, la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Le livre force le lecteur à confronter le problème et donne des pistes de solutions (de là les 20 leçons) pour neutraliser les dictateurs en devenir. Voici, en résumé, la thèse principale de Snyder (ma traduction):

Tant le fascisme que le communisme étaient des réactions à la mondialisation: aux difficultés réelles et perçues qu’elle créait, et à l’incapacité apparente des démocraties à les régler. […] Nous pourrions croire que notre patrimoine démocratique nous protège automatiquement de pareilles menaces. C’est là un réflexe mal inspiré. […] Les Américains d’aujourd’hui ne sont pas plus sages que les Européens qui ont vu leur démocratie succomber aux mains du fascisme, du Nazisme ou du communisme au XXème siècle. Notre seul avantage est celui de pouvoir apprendre de leur expérience.

Snyder ne le dit jamais ouvertement, mais le lecteur détecte rapidement que l’auteur craint que l’Amérique ne se soit rapprochée de l’autoritarisme en élisant Donald Trump comme président. Snyder ne nomme jamais Trump, mais il fait allusion au nouveau président américain à de nombreuses reprises. Il ne dit pas tant que Trump est le nouvel Hitler, mais nous illustre que le modus operandi du président rejoint constamment celui des dictateurs du XXème siècle.

Étant donné la tendance de Trump à balancer les accusations de “fake news” comme si elles menaçaient de passer de mode et le concept loufoque des “faits alternatifs” d’une Kellyanne Conway complètement à la rue, la 10ème leçon, intitulée “Croyez en la vérité”, semble être une flèche lancée directement vers Trump et son administration. Que cela soit ou non le cas, la justification de Snyder quant à l’importance de croire à la vérité est à la fois cruciale et superbement exprimée:

Abandonner les faits, c’est abandonner la liberté. Si rien n’est vrai, personne ne peut critiquer le pouvoir, car il n’y a aucun cadre à partir duquel le faire. Si rien n’est vrai, tout est spectacle. Le plus gros portefeuille se paie les lumières les plus aveuglantes.

Cela vous rappelle-t-il quelque chose?

Parmi les solutions proposées, Snyder en fait une qui me parle beaucoup et qui me réchauffe le coeur. Je lui suis reconnaissant de son appel à défendre le journalisme, cette profession mal-aimée pour laquelle je suis formé. Les journalistes ne sont pas parfaits, mais leur travail est difficile, encore davantage, voire impossible, sous un régime dictatorial. Comme le souligne Snyder lors de son entretien avec le philosophe Sam Harris, les journalistes, particulièrement dans le domaine de la presse écrite, talonnent bien Trump depuis qu’ils ont réalisé l’importance de le prendre au sérieux. Le moins que nous puissions faire pour montrer que nous apprécions leur travail est de les soutenir, non pas seulement en les lisant, mais en s’abonnant aux publications pour lesquelles ils écrivent. Amen.

De plus, la première leçon de l’auteur, et possiblement sa plus angoissante (car, dit-il, à défaut de l’appliquer, les 19 autres n’auront aucun sens), est celle de résister à une tentation à laquelle nous incite chaque jour la société: celle d’obéir à l’avance. La plupart du temps, observe Snyder, le pouvoir n’est pas saisi par les dictateurs; il leur est octroyé. (Le terrifiant exemple de la Turquie, qui s’est récemment transformée en dictature par voie de référendum, me vient à l’esprit alors que j’écris ces lignes.) Les dictateurs profitent, voire dépendent, de la docilité instinctive des gens, ce qui est préoccupant compte tenu de la propension à la complaisance de la Génération 2000 pour autant qu’on lui promettre une vie confortable et un écran quelconque. (Nous vivons à une époque où un professeur d’anglais s’est fait reprocher de donner comme lecture 1984, de George Orwell, à ses élèves. Les étudiants ont dit qu’ils n’en “avaient rien à foutre” du contrôle social tant qu’ils vivaient confortablement. Voilà qui représente un échec parental catastrophique, mais je m’éloigne du sujet.)

Une leçon du XXIème siècle

Stephen Colbert avait une sage pensée à partager le soir de l’élection de Trump:

Alors, comment notre politique s’est-elle autant envenimée? Je crois que c’est parce que nous avons fait une surdose. Nous avons trop bu du poison. On en prend un peu pour haïr ceux qui ne sont pas d’accord avec nous (“the other side”). Et ça goûte plutôt bon. Et on aime comment on se sent. Et il y a un petit “high” qui vient avec le fait de condamner, n’est-ce pas? Et on sait qu’on a raison, n’est-ce pas? On sait qu’on a raison!

En observant mon entourage, j’aimerais proposer, comme addendum, une leçon initiale issue du XXIème siècle: ne fais pas l’erreur de croire que ceux dont les valeurs diffèrent des tiennes ont le monopole du fanatisme politique et des pulsions liberticides. J’affirmerais qu’Internet, censé démocratiser toutes sortes d’information, a été un cancer pour la qualité du discours politique en Occident. On critiquera les médias de masse avec raison, mais leur obsession à vouloir présenter chaque point de vue, même s’ils n’ont pas toujours la même valeur, a pour bénéfice d’exposer les gens à la perspective de ceux avec qui ils sont en désaccord.

À l’époque actuelle, alors que n’importe qui possédant un ordinateur et une connection internet peut se créer gratuitement un blogue, le monde “en ligne” est devenu le théâtre de chambres de résonance où des gens qui partagent les mêmes croyances alimentent leur propre offusquement devant l’indécence et la stupidité de ceux qui pensent différemment. Ce n’est pas ainsi que nous parviendrons à mener une discussion collective intelligente à propos de l’avenir de la liberté et de la prospérité. Le résultat est plutôt que les gens se construisent un univers où ils n’ont pas seulement droit à leurs propres opinions, mais à leurs propres faits. Vu notre tendance à préférer la compagnie de ceux avec qui nous sommes d’accord, les gens deviennent de moins en moins habitués à ce que leurs idées soient remises en question et de plus en plus immatures lorsque cela se produit.

En soi, cela est déjà un problème, qui est subséquemment exacerbé par la détestable tendance, partagée par l’extrême gauche et l’extrême droite, de s’adonner à cette pratique tout en se faisant croire que seul l’autre côté s’en rend coupable. L’extrême gauche, animée par un désir généreux de protéger les sections les plus vulnérables de la population, tend à voir des -istes et des -phobes partout et, lorsqu’elle se fait reprocher cette vilaine habitude, accuse les auteurs dudit reproche de revendiquer un droit à l’intolérance. Bien que plusieurs critiques de l’extrême gauche soient effectivement intolérants, plusieurs autres proviennent de la gauche modérée et ne méritent pas qu’on les associe aux véritables racistes et homophobes d’extrême droite.

Parlant de l’extrême droite, il lui arrive souvent, à cause de sa propension à tourner en dérision les préoccupations de la gauche, de décerner auxgens de gauche le titre de “police du politiquement correct” ou de “social justice warriors” (ce terme est très commun dans les milieux anglophones, mais n’a pas de réel équivalent en français). Encore une fois, rien de productif n’émane de ce genre de rhétorique. S’il est vrai que certains membres de l’extrême gauche poussent la rectitude politique à (pardonnez-moi) l’extrême, il n’en demeure pas moins qu’on recense un nombre beaucoup trop élevé d’individus vulnérables qui subissent réellement de l’injustice et de l’intolérance et que le fait de les aider est une entreprise louable.

Que nos valeurs nous situent à droite ou à gauche, il est intellectuellement déficient de ridiculiser ou de discréditer ses adversaires politiques en leur associant des surnoms sarcastiques ou des épithètes apeurants pour éviter l’exercice d’écouter et de réfuter leurs arguments.

Avec le temps, ceux qui tombent dans pareil piège en viennent à se considérer comme ennemis plutôt qu’adversaires et comme dangereux plutôt que simplement dans l’erreur. Cette distinction importe parce que l’hostilité qui accompagne le fait de voir ainsi son adversaire empêche la conversation plutôt que la favoriser. Au bout du compte, lorsque le candidat réellement fasciste/communiste arrivera, un côté sera si heureux qu’il soit de gauche/de droite que ses membres ne verront pas la face cachée de ce nouveau leader charismatique avant qu’il ne soit trop tard. Entre temps, l’autre côté aura tellement miné sa crédibilité que la population fera la sourde oreille devant ses avertissements. Nous devrions en fait réitérer que notre engagement envers nos valeurs communes telles que la liberté transcende nos désaccords sur la taille idéale de l’état-providence ou sur la manière appropriée de traiter nos minorités. Nous ne pouvons nous permettre que la gauche et la droite soient deux factions qui crient “au loup!” dès que l’autre s’exprime. Parce qu’à la fin du Garçon qui criait “Au loup!”, le loup débarque pour vrai.

Un rappel dégrisant 

Nous payons le prix, a dit Snyder lors de sa conversation avec Harris, du fait d’avoir élevé une génération en pensant que l’histoire était terminée. Cette idée réfère à la proclamation célèbrement optimiste de Francis Fukuyama à l’effet que la chute du Mur de Berlin représentait “la fin de l’Histoire”, c’est-à-dire la fin de la confrontation entre différentes idéologies pour atteindre une certaine forme de suprématie. Grosso modo, Fukuyame voulait dire qu’avec la chute du communisme, la démocratie et le capitalisme étaient destinés à gouverner le monde de manière pratiquement incontestée. Peu après, nous découvrions qu’il avait tort; Fukuyama lui-même s’est rétracté mais, selon Snyder, la génération qui approche l’âge adulte a été élevée comme si Fukuyama avait eu raison. Le résultat, dit l’historien, est que les enfants de l’an 2000 n’ont pas vraiment appris l’histoire, et encore moins ses leçons. Lorsque combiné à leur docilité peu commune, qui émane souvent d’un hédonisme complaisant, leur manque de culture historique les rend plus vulnérables non pas à succomber à l’autoritarisme, mais à l’accueillir.

Voilà qui devrait nous ramener à l’important poème de Michael Rosen… (La traduction est de moi. Navré pour ceux à qui elle déplaira.)

Je crains parfois que

les gens croient que le fascisme arrive en chic uniforme

porté par grotesques et monstres

à l’image des interminables récits historiques sur les Nazis.

Le fascisme se présente comme ton ami.

Il restorera ton honneur,

te rendra fier,

protégera ta maison,

te trouvera un emploi,

assainira le voisinage,

te rappelera ta grandeur d’antan,

purgera les vénaux et les corrompus,

éliminera tout ce qui te semble étranger…

Il n’arrive pas en disant…

“Notre programme veut dire les milices, les emprisonnements de masse,

la déportation, la guerre et la persécution.”

Tout ceux d’entre nous qui ont, de quelque manière que ce soit, de jeunes gens à leur charge devraient rappeler à leurs élèves ainsi qu’à eux-mêmes ces vers, de même que le contenu du livre de Snyder, pendant que cela est encore possible. Si cela est encore possible.

The most important book of 2017

It may be too early to state that tyranny has returned in the West, but we can now safely say that it could. A mere three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have sufficiently neglected history to reestablish the conditions under which the right demagogue could seize power in a Western country such as the United States and turn it into a dictatorship.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, Yale professor and historian Timothy Snyder disagrees with you. Snyder’s recently published book, “On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century,” is both harrowing and terrifying. It is also the most important book I’ve read, and expect to read, in 2017. No high school student should be allowed to graduate without having read it and demonstrated a sufficient understanding of it.

On Tyranny

You have no excuse. I read it from cover to cover in about 90 minutes. It is a clear, concise little book that compellingly argues the West (and more specifically the U.S.) is more ripe today for a tyrannical takeover than it has been at any moment since – at least – the Second World War. The book is constructed in a way that forces the reader to diagnose the problem and it suggests steps (hence the 20 lessons) to stop wannabe dictators in their tracks. In a nutshell, here is Snyder enunciating the thesis of the book:

Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them. […] We might think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. […] Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

Snyder never says it outright, but one only has to read a few pages of the book to realize the author fears the U.S. has moved closer to a dictatorship by electing Donald Trump as President. Snyder never mentions him by name, but references him several times. It’s not that he says outright that Trump is the new Hitler, but shows us that Trump is resorting to the 20th century dictator playbook constantly.

Given Trump’s tendency to throw “fake news” accusations around as if they were going out of style, and Kellyanne Conway’s goofy concept of alternative facts, lesson number 10, entitled “Believe in truth,” seems like a deliberate jab at Trump and his administration. Whether or not it is, however, the reason for Snyder’s emphasis on believing in truth is both crucial and beautifully put:

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then everything is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

Does any of this ring a bell?

As a part of his tips for keeping tyranny away, Snyder makes several suggestions that rang close to home for me and warmed my heart. I was especially grateful for his call to defend journalism, the always much-maligned profession for which I was trained. Journalists are not perfect, but theirs is a difficult job, made harder if not impossible by any dictator, and as Snyder pointed out in his conversation with the great Sam Harris, journalists, especially in the print medium, have done a quality job holding Trump’s feet to the fire. The least we can do in return to show our appreciation for their work is to support them, not just by reading them, but by subscribing to the publications they work for. Amen.

Moreover, the Yale historian’s first lesson, and perhaps his most stressful (because, he says, if you don’t heed it, none of the other 19 will make sense to you) is to resist an urge society urges us to develop: to obey in advance. Most of authoritarianism’s power is not taken, Snyder observes. It is given. (The terrifying example of Turkey recently turning itself into a dictatorship via referendum comes to mind as I write this.) Dictatorships thrive on people’s instinctive docility, which is worrisome considering Generation Y2K’s propensity for apathy provided you promise them a nice living and sedate with some kind of computer screen. (We live in a time when a Quebec English teacher was chastised by his students for requiring them to read George Orwell’s 1984. The students said they didn’t care about social control so long as they could live comfortably. This represents a catastrophic failure in parenting. But I digress.)

A lesson from the 21st Century

Stephen Colbert had some wise words on the night of Donald Trump’s election:

So how did our politics get so poisonous? I think it’s because we overdosed, especially this year. We drank too much of the poison. You take a little bit of it so you can hate the other side. And it tastes kind of good. And you like how it feels. And there’s a gentle high to the condemnation, right? And you know you’re right, right?! You know you’re right!

Observing my own surroundings, I would like to propose, as an addendum, an initial lesson from the 21st Century: “Do not make the mistake of thinking ‘the other side’ has a monopoly on political fanaticism or on liberticidal impulses.” I would argue the internet, which was supposed to democratize all sorts of information, has been a cancer to the quality of political discussion throughout the West. Say what you will about the mainstream media, but its obsession over giving people “both sides of the story,” even when the two sides don’t have equal merit, has the benefit of forcing people to at least hear out the point of view of those with whom they disagree.

In our current age, when everyone with a laptop and an internet connection can set up a blog, the online world has become the home of echo chambers in which like-minded people wind each other up about the indecency and the stupidity of those who think differently. This is no way to foster an intelligent collective discussion about the future of liberty and prosperity. Instead, people build a universe in which they are entitled not just to their own opinions, but to their own facts. And because of our tendency to prefer the company of those with whom we agree, people have become decreasingly accustomed to having their ideas challenged and thus increasingly immature in their reactions when their views are indeed questioned.

This is in and of itself a problem, but it’s made worse by the fact that both the extreme left and extreme right do it, yet treat it as something only the other side does. The extreme left, out of a kind-hearted desire to protect vulnerable sections of the population, tends to see -ists and -phobes everywhere and, when they are called out on this nasty habit, accuse their critics of demanding the right to be intolerant. While some of the extreme left’s critics are guilty of this, many others come from the moderate left and do not deserve to be lumped into the same boat as the true racists and homophobes of the extreme right.

Speaking of the extreme right, it often, out of some naive belief that it has a monopoly on the ability to grasp reality, will sarcastically tag members of the left as the “PC police” or as “social justice warriors.” Again, while the extreme left does have members who take political correctness to, well, the extreme, there are indeed vulnerable individuals who are in fact victims of injustice and intolerance, and there is no way around the fact that defending these people is a legitimate enterprise.

Nothing productive comes of these trials of intent. Whether our beliefs place us more on the right or on the left of the political spectrum, we should remember that it is intellectually deficient to dismiss our political opponents with sarcastic nicknames or scary epithets in order to avoid grappling with their views as opposed to actually hearing them out and refuting them.

In time, these people come to see each other as enemies rather than opponents, and as dangerous rather than simply wrong. The distinction matters because the ensuing hostility is a conversation stopper as opposed to a conversation starter. In the end, when the proper enemy actually comes, one side will be so glad to have him/her because he/she seems to agree with them that they’ll be unable to see through this new charismatic leader before it’s too late. Meanwhile, the other side will have exhausted its credibility and its warnings will fall on deaf ears. We should instead reiterate that our commitment to core values like liberty transcends our disagreements over what we deem to be the ideal size of the welfare state or the proper way to treat minorities. We cannot afford to have two factions screaming “Wolf!” about each other. Because, at the end of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the wolf actually does come.

A sobering reminder

We are, Snyder said in his conversation with Harris on the latter’s podcast, paying the price of raising a generation under the belief that History has ended. This is in reference to Francis Fukuyama’s famously optimistic proclamation about the fall of the Berlin Wall being “the end of History,” i.e. the end of conflicting ideologies competing for some kind of supremacy. It basically meant that, according to Fukuyama, democracy and capitalism were now to govern the world mostly uncontested. Soon after, we found out he was wrong; Fukuyama himself retracted his statement but, according to Snyder, the generation approaching adulthood has been raised as if Fukuyama was right. The result, he says, is that Y2K kids haven’t really learned history, much less its lessons. Combined with their uncommon docility, which often stems from hedonism, their lack of historical culture makes them more vulnerable not so much to succumb to authoritarianism, but to welcome it.

This should all lead us back to the wise words of the poet Michael Rosen…

I sometimes fear that

people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress

worn by grotesques and monsters

as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

Fascism arrives as your friend.

It will restore your honour,

make you feel proud,

protect your house,

give you a job,

clean up the neighbourhood,

remind you of how great you once were,

clear out the venal and the corrupt,

remove anything you feel is unlike you…

It doesn’t walk in saying…

“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments,

transportation, war and persecution.”

All those of us who have, in any way, young people in our care should make sure we remind them as well as ourselves of these words, and of the contents of Snyder’s book while we still can. If we still can.

American Hangover

I had trouble going to sleep, and at 8:30 this morning, I didn’t want to get up. I came close to calling sick. The news that Donald Trump is now the President-elect of the United States hit me extremely hard, perhaps even harder than Stephen Harper’s majority victory in 2011. In 2004, after George W. Bush was re-elected, La Presse political columnist Vincent Marissal wrote that “people always thought Americans were too brash, too boisterous, too everything. But never before has the world trusted them so little.” I think the world has moved on from distrust to fear, for Americans and for itself. I certainly feel that way.

Empires fall. Egypt fell. Rome fell. European colonial powers relinquished dominion over previously-conquered countries. Nowadays, the decline of the United States is obvious and well under way. In the eyes of many, however, the election of Barack Obama was an attempt at reversing that decline, or at the very least, at pressing pause on it. After eight years of that, very few people expected the U.S. to press “fast forward.”

Of course, Trump supporters won’t see it that way, quite the opposite. But then, they don’t have the slightest clue as to what their new hero will do to “Make America Great Again.” It’s not (necessarily) because they’re stupid. It’s because Trump himself has given us no indication that he knows, either.

I’m well aware of all the epithets thrown at Trump; the global press has been hurling them at him again since his victory became official: fascism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia are now standing on America’s proverbial doorway. If he meant any of the insanity about the wall Mexico will pay for, or the bracelets Muslims will have to wear, or the mass deportation of illegal immigrants, then dark times await.

But what if he didn’t mean it? What if it was plain calculation? What if he shot off the racist, xenophobic rhetoric because he knew it would galvanize the tea baggers whose support he’d need to win this election? Well, that’s what kills me about his victory. Even if he meant next to none of that stuff (although there is no calculation that could possibly justify his misogynistic “locker room talk”), in the absolute best-case scenario, he remains woefully unqualified for the post that was just entrusted to him.

Here is a man who has repeatedly displayed an eight-year-old’s level of language and emotional maturity. Here is a man hailed as a successful businessman, as if governments were to be run like businesses in the first place, despite the fact that it’s unlikely he’s remotely as rich as he says he is, that he’s currently involved in no less than 75 lawsuits, and that he’s filed for bankruptcy six times. Here is a man whose vice-presidential candidate has worked against gay rights and argued that cigarettes are not a danger to people’s health. Here is a man whose campaign trail discourse (which included sexism, racism, anti-muslim bigotry, and a mind-warping amount of bold-faced lies) should alarm us, whether he uttered it out of sincerity or out of opportunistic cynicism, for it makes him either a nutjob or a supremely irresponsible demagogue (or both). Here is a man who has managed to get elected despite not presenting a single clear and feasible proposition to better the situation of the Americans of whom he pretends to be the only champion (a feat in itself, I’ll grant you, but not one that makes him presidential).

We’re all to blame

So who should bear the brunt of the blame?, we ask ourselves today. The exercise isn’t as futile as you might think, because it’s only by accepting responsibility that we come to recognize our mistakes as such and learn from them. So…

If you took Trump lightly, his election is on you, especially if you didn’t bother to vote because you thought Hillary Clinton’s victory was in the bag already. This is especially true of those who relied on pollsters, whose ineptitude this result clearly exposes, for reasons to stay home.

If you let yourself be convinced that America’s problems can be solved by taking out your frustrations on journalists, or Mexicans, or immigrants in general, Trump’s election is on you.

If you think the war on islamic terrorism can be won by stigmatizing American Muslims, Trump’s election is on you.

Although, since we’re on that topic…

If you’ve been claiming, as a regressive portion of the left has, that islamic terrorism has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, Trump’s election is on you, too. That’s right. Your so-called inclusiveness is partly responsible for enabling this buffoon of a President-elect we so despise. No, Islamism and Jihadism don’t have everything to do with Western foreign policy. Yes, they do have something to do with the belief system that lies at their core; many of these people’s grievances are indeed religious. Your refusal to recognize the link between beliefs and actions, because it is both nonsensical and hypocritical, has left people who are trying to understand this threat looking elsewhere for proper answers. And since they couldn’t get them from you, try as they might have, many of them turned to the crazies of the far right who, despite the obvious flaws of their overall take on the subject, at least have the merit of stating outright that Islamic terrorism does have something to do with the doctrine of Islam.

If you were a Bernie Sanders supporter and decided to vote Trump out of spite for Hillary, Trump’s election is on you. He told you to vote for Clinton, you imb…….

If you allowed yourself to believe that Trump would, if nothing else, “shake up the establishment,” his election is on you, although you’re probably happy about it, then. What kind of dipshit reasoning is that, anyway? When did “shaking up the establishment” become intrinsically beneficial? If Trump is going to shake the establishment, but that it’s going to be for the worst, how is that a good thing? It’ll lead people to revolt, you say? First of all, you don’t know that. Secondly, even if that’s the case, at what cost and in what form will this pseudo-revolution of yours come? And if your response goes along the lines of “can’t make an omelet without cracking some eggs,” please volunteer to be one of the eggs that get cracked.

If you’ve been claiming that Hillary Clinton was the right appointment for the Democratic nomination, Trump’s election is on you. How could you, in such an obviously anti-establishment era, pick the biggest symbol of the establishment one could possibly find? I want a woman to be President too, but she was the wrong choice. Then again…

If you’re one of those people who let the idiotic American media convince you that Hillary’s rather run-of-the-mill ambition and cunning were on par with, or worse than, Trump’s blatant sexism, shameless bullying, and apparent racism and xenophobia, his election is on you. Hillary Clinton is a politician’s politician. If that’s a character flaw, fine, but then Trump has humanity flaws. No points for figuring out Trump is worse in a year-and-a-half.

The only group left for me to blame are those who voted for Trump enthusiastically. What is there left to say about them? Many did so out of sheer tribalism, but the others, well… Clinton was wrong to call them “deplorables,” at the very least from a PR standpoint, but the fact remains that Trump, kudos to him, I guess, managed to lure out people so politically illiterate that they could be reached only by vacuous vagaries such as his. All he had to do then was make said vagaries about the right thing. I don’t know whether we underestimated Trump, but we certainly did the people who worked for him.

One last thing: while Trump’s election is painful, perhaps even traumatic, what scares me more than Trump himself is the fearful atmosphere that enabled him. As long as that doesn’t go away, Trump will be just the beginning. And that’s not really on Trump himself. He didn’t create this climate of fear; he merely exploited it, rather successfully at that.

And so, of course, the illustrious Edward R. Murrow was right to point us back to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and to the character of Cassius, who so wisely said that “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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