Recently, the Buckley Program hosted best selling author, Mona Charen, to discuss her new book, Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense. One Fellow, reflected on the dinner.Continue reading “Reflections on Mona Charen”
By: Alex Hu
Recently, Buckley Fellow, Alex Hu, had the chance to interview conservative journalist, Noah Rothman, about his new book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America.
AH: What do you see as social justice and how are the principles of social justice different from the social justice movement that you describe in your book?
NR: The definition of social justice is pretty fluid. It depends on who you talk to, which is why it has become such a malleable philosophy prone to hijacking by disreputable individuals. Social justice as a foundational philosophical notion has pretty robust foundations and noble origins. It comes out of the Catholic Church and John Rawls put a lot of meat on these bones during the 1960s and early 1970s as a way of righting historical wrongs, which is probably why most Americans think of social justice as an anodyne concept, an unobjectionable way of thinking about fairness and equality in society.
In practice, however, in the hands of its activist class, it has become something much different. It is the antithesis of the kind of objective justice we seek at the courtroom, It advocates by necessity discriminatory institutions in order to achieve equality and as such it has created in the minds of its activists a series of pernicious notions that rob them of agency, that force them to think about themselves having to navigate an un-navigable matrix of persecution, and to think of their own allies not as allies but as varying degrees of oppressor. It is a pernicious ideology in its current form. It robs individuals, again, of agency, and makes them fearful of American meritocracy and forces them to surrender their power over to beneficent forces who hold their hands and advocate for their lives. They’re trying to sell you something; in some cases quite literally in the form of the new phenomena of “woke brands.”
AH: Do you see social justice as a strictly left-wing cause? As a self-identified conservative, do you think that dialogue between left and right about this matter is possible?
NR: Well dialogue is certainly possible – I’m actively engaged in it. I’ve been very fortunate insofar as I’ve been taking this message to people who are predisposed not only to disagree with me, but hostile towards the notion that social justice is even something you can question. It has almost theological traits and I treat it in many ways as a religious concept. That’s not a figment of anyone’s imagination – these are vestigial religious concepts. But social justice is no longer a purely left-wing concept. The social justice left and the social justice right mirror each other in a lot of ways. The paralyzing victimization narrative – the notion that you need to erect racially conscious institutions to affect negative social pressure downwards – social leveling – is the sort of thing shared by fringes both on the race conscious right and the social justice left. Both are going at each other in the streets.
AH: How do you think social justice activism will evolve in the future?
NR: Left unchecked, my belief is that the prescriptions social justice advocates want for American institutions are unrealizable. And when you create these moral imperatives that American institutions are not responsive towards one of two things happens to you: one is that you disengage, you withdraw, you become very depressed and say my political activism isn’t worth it and you withdraw from the political process; the second is more dangerous and that’s to radicalize – to resolve to attack the foundations of these institutions; they are so immoral and unresponsive that they cannot be allowed to stand. And that is my view of why we see so much more street violence over the course of the last 10 years, more than we’ve seen in a generation in this country.
AH:I’m curious about what you think about the ongoing case Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, since it seems like affirmative action and modern identity politics often go hand in hand.
NR: So a bit of a digression – two things that I get a lot of pushback for from this book. The first and most prominent is that you simply can’t opine on these issues with the requisite authority, by which they mean your accidents of birth prevent you from having an informed opinion about bigotry in America (it’s revealing if you think that someone with a blindingly Jewish last name as mine has never experienced bigotry in America). It’s a form of ad hominem so I kind of reject it – I don’t give it any credence so I can kind of push past and get to the actual ideas. The second is always – well, what about affirmative action? Isn’t that necessary? And I don’t take any particular view in principle because in a philosophical sense you’re talking about individuals with individual mitigated circumstances and applying as much discretion as you can to provide those individuals with the opportunities that you believe that they as individuals have not had access to.
That’s not what we see in this case against discriminatory processes in Harvard and elsewhere. When you see people defend that in, for example, the New York Times opinion page, they appeal to stereotypes. They say that, well – Asian American applicants tend to come from immigrants which is a plus, but they also come from stable homes and have a better than average work ethic, they’re essentially looking at these people not as people and not as individuals, but as classes, as members of tribes, to be treated as collectives and not as individuals. That is the discriminatory mindset that increasingly typifies the social justice movement. And not just that, but no longer are we talking about individuals who need to be lifted up.
The objective here is negative discrimination. They look at these whole tribes and classes and prescribe downward social pressure. That’s a pernicious way to look at life, not only because it is antithetical to the American ideal of meritocratic institutions and ideas, but because it is more than American governmental institutions can deliver. Our institutions are openly hostile to the idea as they have to be to meet the ideals of the founding. So you’ve erected some imperatives that are not going to be met. In my view that leads you to radicalism – as well as prejudice.
AH: But during one of your segments on Morning Joe, critics of your book seemed to argue that identity politics is actually a pragmatic strategy. They say – OK , you recognize institutional discrimination exists, but how else can we mobilize people to confront this problem if we don’t appeal to identity?
NR: Everyone thinks their identity politics is the right identity politics but the other guy’s is dangerous. The book is not an identity politics book although I’m generally hostile towards it. To suggest that you can operate or create a paradigmatic approach to navigating society that rejects identity politics is like fighting against the tide. This is a sort of thing that is tribal in nature and that’s so common to the human condition it’s probably an evolutionary trait. It’s not something we’re ever going to get rid of.
But it is one thing to say you should be racially and culturally aware and pursue self-actualization and communicate with individuals that don’t look like you. It’s another thing to dedicate institutions to seeing people not as people but as meting out justice and outcomes based on accidents of birth. And that’s increasingly what the social justice movement on the left and the right advocates. Again, it’s impossible and profoundly deleterious to the social fabric.
I think that people like Tiffany Cross – my interlocutor there who I spent some time with outside the camera (we’ve since developed something of a friendly relationship) that I don’t think see much of a difference between having social institutions that are dedicated to this sort of thing and simply being racially and culturally aware. Those are profound distinctions that we need to reacquaint ourselves with. Their design is to remake American institutions in the image of a point of view that rejects color-blindness, not just in your life, which I think is also a little dangerous. But I understand the critique there is that you can’t be colorblind in your life – to be colorblind there is to reject the experience of others and therefore to operate in the bliss of ignorance. I get that, but American institutions cannot judge individuals on the basis of other individuals or else they become fundamentally unjust.
AH: Do you think that there is a problem within Rawls’ original formulation of social justice?
NR: Yes, most certainly. Hayek’s critique was the most succinct. He said that once you create institutions meting out justice, seeking outcomes based on treating individuals unequally, then these institutions fail on their own terms. Rawls himself abandoned the concept of the “veil of ignorance” from which an enlightened distributor would have to distribute justice while thinking about it as a finite commodity. Whenever the dictates of social justice demand it – if there was a particular outcome that they thought was necessary, then out goes the veil of ignorance. It was an arbitrary philosophy and capricious in its application. And I think that’s a feature, not a bug, that somebody operating from such a philosophy by definition has to abandon this veil of ignorance in order to achieve social justice in the real world.
AH: I think a lot of modern social justice activists might say the ideas of those “dead white men” are no longer relevant since the times have changed so much. What do you think about that line of reasoning?
NR: I don’t think we’ve improved on fundamental English common law concepts like the presumption of innocence. This is the sort of thing that they seek to abandon as they try to reboot justice. First of all, it is a noxious sort of hubris to think that you are capable of redefining these foundational concepts of Enlightenment thought when you’re not even familiar with them. And now you’re thinking you can remake society in your own image? History is littered with the bodies of people who think they can remake society in a better way than it has been as a result of centuries of experimentation that has led to this Republican form.
When we reboot justice along the lines of what social justice activists want, we get an undesirable status quo that resulted in the 2011 Dear Colleague letter. That letter prescribed for colleges certain ways they could in which they could adjudicate sexual assault crimes on campus because at root, the social justice philosophy that resulted in that letter held that American justice system is ill-equipped to adjudicate sexual assault crimes. The evidentiary standards for conviction in a courtroom are too high – the demand that a victim confront their accuser too traumatic. So they had to pair this back, perform these trials in campus tribunals, and when those “verdicts” were investigated in a real courtroom, they found that very often accused and accuser alike had been deprived of their first, fifth, and sixth amendment rights. Millions of dollars were paid out to people abused in those star chambers. That’s not justice. I don’t know what you would call it, but it looks a lot more like revenge to me.
AH: One final question – do you think that in some sense globalization is contributing to a central sense of anxiety that’s leading to these social justice causes? I often hear that people fear threatened by the rising cosmopolitan tendency to wipe out diversity and connections within local communities – maybe they might be trying to compensate for that in identifying with larger movements?
NR: That’s an interesting thought. I can’t say I’ve put much thought into it. That’s the first time anybody has put that question to me that way. What I can say is that the old left framed identity politics in terms of class-consciousness – class politics, and I don’t relate to that in my book because that’s not really how identity politics is defined or pursued by social justice activists today. Identity for them is accidents of birth – demographic traits, sexual orientation, gender, race, and what have you – and even religion to a minor extent. Socioeconomic status takes sort of a back seat only insofar as individuals who are already perceived to have “privileged” traits are judged on the basis intersectional theory – being white, male, and heterosexual. You often hear socioeconomic status described as a form of privilege, but it’s generally not in the old sense of class allegiance.
AH: Mr. Rothman, thank you so much! We all look forward to reading your new book.
Alex is a rising sophomore in Timothy Dwight College, and can be reached at email@example.com
By: Hannah Dickson
Hannah Dickson:At the end of your book there is a quote describing how you believe we have reached the end of history—the top of a summit—and how the only the only direction we can go to prevent socialism or nationalism is back down. What are the ways that society can stay on the summit and persevere to avoid these suicidal tendencies?
Jonah Goldberg: As I said in the book, Fugiyama gets a lot of grief for saying it’s the end of history, but if we go by what he actually meant he was talking about the end of history in terms of fearing out the proper role and function of the state. I’m a big Hayek guy and my view is that liberal democratic capitalism is unnatural and because it does not, at least as designed, recognizes identity essentially. Whether that’s identity through bloodlines, gender, skin color; it is supposed to be a macrocosm of neutral rules that are equally applicable to everybody. It is completely unnatural to the history of humanity. So, part of my view is because it is unnatural human nature keeps trying to find paths back in—like the jungle growing back. Part of the trick is to recognize that it is one of these demons that take different forms. It could be identity politics. It could be the aristocracy. It could be populism. It could be all of these different things. But, basically what it’s trying to do is bring us back to a tribal way of living and that’s part of it.
The other part of it, which is why the working title for the book for a long time was “The Tribe of Liberty,” is that you have to take into account human nature when you teach people this stuff. If you teach this stuff purely as a set of mathematical principles that are sort of almost deducted from a Cartesian point of view then people aren’t going to have an emotional commitment to it. They aren’t going to have the passion, so part of it is that you have to teach patriotism in a nonpartisan way that makes us have a tribal attachment to these weird customs that were sort of invented by the English that make us think that this unnatural way of living is in fact natural.
HD:You say that one problem with capitalism is that we don’t see the benefits of it. Can you speak more to this?
JG: One of the problems with capitalism—there are many problems with capitalism, one of them is that it’s also unnatural—it is the most successful cooperative enterprise in improving that state of humanity that has ever been invented. It only has one drawback: it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t feel cooperative. It feels deracinating and alienating, because in a certain sense it is. But it gets stranger because we are cooperating together peacefully. It is this miraculous thing in the history of humanity because normally the correct response to a stranger is killing them and taking their stuff. The problem is, it can be very corrosive to storehouses of social capital: organized religion, the family, tradition and customs. So if we don’t tend to those things we can spend down that social capital and then we no longer create the citizens that make for good capitalists.
HD: In a capitalist society we need political discourse, some opposition, in order to have a market of ideas. Therefore, where is there a balance between the spectrum of political discourse and the tribalism that is tearing America apart?
JG: One of the things that I think is imperative is pushing as much politics down to the lowest level possible. Our political competition happens in that zone of life in which you actually know the names of people you’re arguing with, where you recognize them. There’s this thing called Dunbar’s Number where we are only supposed to know 150 to 200 people. As human beings, the rest become abstractions. The more you push these things down to the lowest level possible, the more your bleed out that sense of unseen powerful forces are running my life. Instead, the powers that be are Phil and Andy and Susan and whoever. You see them in your communities and that creates a certain amount of humility. You still have culture war fights but the winners have to look the losers in the eye. I think that’s an important part of it.
Beyond that, maybe because its just fresh in my head, I just did this piece for National Review about the moral equivalent of war and I was rereading Randolph Warren’s book about war being the health of the state. He maintains the distinction that [Bill] Buckley and a lot of people would also maintain that there is a real difference between the government and the state. The government is that clunky vessel or tool, a mechanism that we use to make decisions and argue about policy in life. The government is open to criticism. Politicians are open to criticism. Just because you disagree with me on something politically doesn’t mean you’re necessarily a bad person, it just mean we have disagreements. The state is this thing, which is sort of a big them in my rhetoric from the last fifteen years, that is particularly at the hands of progressives, a substitute for God. In the sense that the state does the things that God would do if God existed. The problem with that is that’s totalizing. When you start arguing about what the state should do it automatically puts people on the wrong side of good and evil kind of questions. You have these problems in all sorts of areas in our life. Because global institutions are worn down and social capital is being spent down people are retreating from their local communities and going online for virtual communities, which are garbage. Instead of looking to do politics where they live, they’re looking at politics at a national level. When they look at politics at a national level it is impossible not to turn people you disagree with into abstractions that you think are evil.
HD: Specifically for college students or young adults, maybe even some future politicians, what would you want us to take out of your book in terms of how we approach society knowing these things about its ultimate fate?
JG: Yeah, I mean there are a bunch of different things. One of the reasons I’m here because of the Buckley Program. I was fortunate enough to know Bill Buckley. People ask me what Bill was like and one of the things I always say is that he was the best mannered person I have ever known. Good manners are those things that we do and say that make people feel respected. We have kind of lost that understanding of what manners are. While I think there is a lot of garbage in political correctness, there’s a lot of what you might call ‘priest craft’ in political correctness, when the priesthood changes the meaning of the word just to make you feel bigoted and in the defense when you don’t need to be. It is an aspect of political correctness that ignoring, then, to come up with good manners and to show people respect. Too many young conservatives think that because being an asshole is politically incorrect, therefore it’s okay to be an asshole. Bill Buckley was biting, he was assertive, he was forceful, he was tough, but he was never an ass. That is something that is lost, not just among the college students but also among a lot of grown up conservatives too including some of my more famous colleagues on the right. And I’ll be honest it was a lesson that I needed to learn myself. More broadly, I think that just simply understanding. The book has a pretty pessimistic title but it ends on a note, which is sort of more upbeat, which is about gratitude. As my friend Yuval Levin likes to say, conservatism when you boil it down is simply gratitude. It is this idea that says these are the things that I think are not only lovely but lovable and I want to pass them on to the next generation because I love them. That’s how gratitude leads to conservatism. We don’t teach gratitude, we teach resentment and entitlement. You get a very different society when you choose those. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of that is taught even here.
HD: With our society impaired by identity politics and tribalism, what do you think makes a good political leader?
That’s an interesting question. I would say that first off, there are precious few politicians that I have respect for these days. I could probably name them on one hand. Part of the problem is that the incentive structure we have set up does not reward people for being good leaders; it rewards people for being followers. The way that Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham have been behaving of late really breaks my heart. We live in a populist moment. Populism, whether it’s on the left or the right, has very little tolerance for arguments. Instead, everybody has to get with the program. I’m very much a Calvin Coolidge guy. My view is that the cult of unity is one of the most dangerous things in human history. The hero in the Anglo-American political system isn’t the mob; it’s the guy who stands up to the mob.
The problem with the incentive structure we have right now, the guy who stands up to the mob loses his job. It takes some triangulating and it takes some bobbing and weaving, and that sort of gets to one of the rules at National Review. Bill Rusher who was the publisher of National Review for a very long time, his advice to young people who were starting at NR was that politicians would always disappoint you. It was because politicians are necessarily bad people, it is just that the lane that they’re in requires them to do things that will always disappoint some 23-year-old firebrand who wants to work at National Review. Or, as it says in the Bible, “put not your faith in princes.” For young people in particular, one of the things that gives me a little bit of hope is that young people tend to care more about the principles than the party. They care more about the arguments than the personalities. It shows up in polling data. Ben Shapiro actually had a really good piece on this on The Standard last summer. If you’re over 65 and you’re a self-identifies conservative not only do you want Trump to run again, you basically want him to be president for life. If you’re 18-24 or even under 35 and you’re a self-described conservative you overwhelming want to see Trump primaried. Part of Ben’s explanation, which I think is right, is that young people actually live in a more diverse polyglot world where they have to talk to people who disagree with them. For old people, they have already done the self-sorting. They are already watching Fox News all day long.
For young people they have to go eat in the cafeteria and if they say that they are conservative the immediate question is: how can you call yourself conservative? What about Donald Trump this? What about Donald Trump that? I think one of the healthy things for young conservatives is that they understand that there’s a moral and philosophical component that is distinct from just all the wins and all the “liberal tears are delicious” garbage. Owning that is a good thing. It is a healthy thing. Goethe says, “be bold and great forces will come to your aid.” If you’re in your twenties and you can’t be bold in what you believe and if you start thinking you have to compromise all your principles then you’re not going to have any principles left by the time you’re my age.
Hannah Dickson is a junior in Davenport College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Jacob M. McNeill
Jacob M. McNeill: “Give me a brief overview of your life experience and career. I’m wondering what your college experience was like. What sort of courses did you take? What got you interested in the law and politics/government?”
Ken Starr: “I was drawn to capitol hill. I was a transfer student to George Washington University. I majored in political science and history. As both Akhil Amar and Winston Churchill say, ‘study history, study history, study history.’ I came to a fork in the road and had to choose between graduate school or law school. I took the graduate school path and went to Brown University to pursue a PhD in political science. I was guided to Brown, and while I loved Brown and much of the graduate school experience, political science at that time, in the late 1960s, was starting to focus on being quantitative. The acting chair of the department had a sign posted on his office door [that said] ‘If you can’t quantify it, it’s not worth talking about.’ Graduate students were required to take constitutional law, and that really sparked my interest in constitutional law. That was a signal that law school might be the more appropriate destination.
The acting chair of my department was a consultant for the state department and his specialty was Sub-Saharan Africa. I told him I really needed a summer job. He said, “you would be perfect for the following program” and so I became a consultant contract program officer to the state department. So, I developed programs, and then traveled with nominees from our embassies in various sub-Saharan African countries. I had the time of my life, got engaged to that young lady right over there (points to his wife). I proposed and she strangely enough accepted. But at that point I had felt that I was destined for law school all things considered. So I go to the highest renowned law school that gave me the most money, and that turned out to be the Duke Law School. Everything was very much about human beings. And it was about how humans are governed. Law school was very demanding but I did well and was encouraged to do clerkships and that sort of thing.
Jacob M. McNeill: “You clerked for Chief Justice Warren Burger. How was that experience? Were there times when you disagreed with him or founds his legal reasoning or decisions objectionable? How does a clerk handle that situation?”
Ken Starr: “I viewed my role as having to assist the Chief Justice. I did not have sufficient confidence in my own judgement to override his. It was my job to assist him and I did that. I do not recall any terribly sharp disagreements during my two years of service with him. He seemed to me to be very respectful of history and tradition and I had already moved into the camp of being Holmesian [Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes] in that sense: the life of law has not been logic, it’s been experience. We want the law to be logical, but law emerges out of the experience of the people, and he was very much of that school. In any event, I think my high-water mark was actually sitting down with him toward the end of the first year when he said, “I would like you to clerk a second year.” So I knew at that point I was being of help to him. I felt, to be honest, this is not false modesty, that there is so much to learn in any clerkship, that by the time you learn it you’re out the door.
Here’s an anecdote the readers of your blog may like. I’m serving in the Reagan administration as Chief of Staff to the Attorney General. I’m making a presentation as a DOJ representative to the Virginia State Bar. Lewis Powell was a lion of that bar. He was a member of the Supreme Court. He’s in the audience. I’m making a presentation about DOJ policy he didn’t need to be there for, but he was very kind to stay. He comes up to me after and says, “would you be willing to join Mrs. Powell and I for lunch?” It turned out that the one question he had, was whether my second year of clerking for Chief Justice Burger had impaired or hampered my progress towards partnership in a firm. I said, “my best reflection is I was actually helped by the second year because I was continually exercising judgement, even though it wasn’t the real judgement, but I had to say to the Chief Justice, “here’s how I analyze the case and here’s how I encourage you to vote.” Well, I was exercising a sort of apprentice judicial judgement. In many ways, it really helped me, even though I didn’t have some of the tools of the trade that my collogues who started in firms right away had. But one quickly finds out how to develop the tools of the trade.”HHe comes uop
“I think in this country we should have more of a tradition of resignations on grounds of principle, not law clerks, but we’re seeing that unfold in the UK. the United States, we have relatively few high-level examples of people resigning as a matter of principle. My view is you should if you cannot serve whatever the administration is in conscience and carry out the policy, then you should resign.”
Jacob M. McNeill: “In terms of your time as Special Counsel during the Clinton administration, with all the twists and turn that the investigation took, reflecting on it, are you surprised the route your career took? Are you surprised that all that happened?”
Ken Starr: “Yes and yes.”
Jacob M. McNeill: “Would you do anything differently?”
Ken Starr: “Many tactical things. The one big thing would have been more resistant to add-ons to the investigation especially taking on very time-consuming additional assignments. This is pretty ancient history, but the travel office firings, for example. These were add-ons through the Attorney General. Above all, it would have been helpful if during the Monica Lewinsky events Janet Reno [the then Attorney General] had another Independent Counsel ready to go and pass that investigation onto a new Independent Counsel.”
Jacob M. McNeill: “I want to talk about Brett Kavanaugh.”
Ken Starr: “Great!”
Jacob M. McNeill: Obviously, he was in the spotlight recently. What are your thoughts on how his nomination and confirmation hearings played out?”
Ken Starr: “I don’t think it was good for the Senate, I don’t think it was good for the Supreme Court, and I don’t think it was good for the country. I think things should have been brought out sooner rather than later. I don’t mean to criticize the world’s greatest deliberative body [the United States Senate], but people who are trained in the law should be very sensitive to the process. Felix Frankfurter said, ‘the history of liberty is largely the history of procedure.’ The Senate has procedures and they should have been more closely followed. I decried the disruption that unfolded: the heckler’s veto. But now having said that, that’s part of the democratic process and you can choose to do that, it’s just not helpful. I do think there needs to be procedural fairness to the person making the complaint. She should be treated fairly and compassionately. She should be listened to with respect. I also think the nominee is entitled to procedural fairness as well. Now having said that, I know Brett Kavanaugh. I love Brett Kavanaugh. I have worked with him in different settings and have known him to be a person of integrity and decency, and so I believe Brett Kavanaugh. I have never said a harsh word against Dr. Ford. I am not questioning in any way her in any way, her motives, but they’re just two different people with conflicting stories. I know one of them very well and have worked with one of them very extensively, and I believe Brett Kavanaugh.”
Jacob M. McNeill: “ What do you think about the general climate in The United States today surrounding sexual misconduct and do you have any concern that people may be presumed guilty before being proven innocent?”
Ken Starr: “I understand that this was not a trial and there is not presumption of life tenure. I think the values of our criminal justice system inform the way we govern the process. We want people to have the right to be heard and treated respectfully. But I do think that overall, all too frequently, there is a rush to judgement, We need to hit the pause button and make sure that we listen to both sides and weigh both sides carefully, especially in a quasi-criminal setting including Title IX on University campuses, I do think that the criminal justice values even though there is no criminal procedure, should have procedural fairness in place when there are serious sanction in place.”
Jacob McNeill ’21 is a Sophomore in Morse College. He can be reached at email@example.com
By William Galligan
A reflection on a talk with Dr. Steven Hayward about the rise of socialism.
Dr. Hayward described his initial reaction to the recent revival of socialist thought around the globe as one of surprise. According to Hayward, the steady retreat of socialism, which began with the collapse of the USSR, has suddenly reversed despite the obvious failures of recent socialist experiments like those in Venezuela and China. Even in America, the label of socialist has once again become acceptable and electable. House representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has become one of the most influential politicians on the Hill. Such occurrences would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.Continue reading “We Live in Strange Times”