Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Nam Sybillam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum pueri illi dicerent: Στβμλλ τί Θέλεις; respondebat illa: άπσΘνειν Θελω

Sohrab Ahmari published a piece in First Things that placed a Darth Vader helmet atop David French.[1] I realize you scanned that sentence and extracted: random person … publication? … cool … maybe a restaurant. Then Robby Soave (random person) in Reason (publication) returned fire, quickly followed by Bret Stephens (semi-random person), who piled on in the New York Times (definitely a restaurant).[2][3] This was all after First Things declared that it was no longer going to pretend that courtroom quibbling was sufficient nourishment for Western exhaustion.[4]

For many decades, the political right has been an uneasy band of cultural conservatives, economic conservatives, libertarians, anti-Marxists, interventionists, and cufflink dandies. It was joined by a wave of liberal refugees (neocons), who had a penchant for turning faraway lands into resorts for U.S. armed forces, and pro-lifers, who could raise a lot of money. Occasionally a school-reformer or war-on-drugs fetishist or Ross Perot would wander into the tent. If you asked this crowd to rank Space Balls among the group of movies named “Space Balls,” a fight would break out and Ross Perot would declare himself an independent.

Sohrab Ahmari and the First Things rebels declared this supposed consensus dead; these rebels were no longer going to peacefully coexist with those in the big tent who didn’t muster some existential urgency. Never mind that consensus is a facile edenism that never actually exists and that the truce across the spectrum was always uneasy at best. First Things declared war, and conservatives like nothing more than tying their own hands behind their back and running into the ocean, probably screaming something about Hayek and worried about the effects of saltwater on cashmere. To Ahmari’s credit, he actually took Buckley seriously and attempted to stand athwart history and yell Stop![5] Buckley’s sentiment was nice, but it had been interrupted by a 50-year cocktail hour. Ahmari had worked his way through enough Bourbon Apple Sangrias and Elderflower-Lime Martinis and now wanted one of the Molotov variety.

The conservative establishment reflexively went on offense. Jonah Goldberg in the stand-athwart-gin National Review observed that “the Founders believed that a good place was a polity where individuals were free to pursue an individual conception of happiness,” as if those terms live in applied perpetual Platonisms.

Goldberg then shuffles on to his anti-statist schtick (a kinder-gentler Nock), which possesses the atonal credibility of a Lockheed lobbyist promoting another invasion. The anti-statist argument is correct, again in platonic form, but to suggest that the solution to all that ills is a peaceful limitation of state power is a hopeless attempt to boil the ocean. The honest evaluation of the last half century would recognize the Sisyphean failure of such arguments. Goldwater failed. Nixon failed. Reagan failed. Bushii failed. Buckley transmuted into a cocktail party clown by the 1970s. Kissinger is stuck on his Vienna-Conference-as-type-specimen argument for diplomacy, which is, of course, the lap dance of modern government.[6]

Of course, none of these terms — individual, liberty, happiness — mean anything outside of the institutions that breath life into them. None of the operative terms in Goldberg’s statement mean what you think they mean, most importantly individual. (I am, of course, assuming you’re not a time-traveler from the 18th century.)

Free Mind, Free Markets, Free Unicorns

Much of the libertarian right, which is congenitally allergic to doing something, squats under the “Free Minds, Free Markets” flag. This platonic form “free market” exists nowhere ex nihilo; rather, the contours of such markets are defined by the institutions in which they operate. The U.S. free market today has only existed since the 1970s. The Victorian free market (of ideas and capital) was vastly different from today. The 17th century British North American colonies probably enjoyed the freest market on this continent, yet that market had little in common with the modern American market. In each case, the application of this idea is defined by the institutions and culture in which it operates. To suggest that it’s been a success would be to surrender to the Panglossian dogma of theorists and, presumably disconcerting to libertarians, submit to the modern free market panopticon wherein the leviathan warehouses liability and, presumably disconcerting to sane persons, submit to a culture of imagination entirely untethered from a moral universe, and …. well, perhaps we should … I don’t know … do something?

I suppose there is the temptation to infer that First Things is suggesting we set fire to the White House, blame the Canadians, and declare marshal law while we march on Edmonton whilst sacking every university en route. And given their ample supply of Catholics, First Things would then dust off their guillotines (doubtless warehoused in Newark) and start rolling the heads of the bougie elite who have so defiled the empire. Those who responded to First Things appear to be fighting this temptation and seem itching to affix a Robespierre badge to Ahmari’s lapel, which of course reveals the weakness of the mythology of those who badge lapels.

The other panel in the libertarian diptych dogma is “free minds,” which is likewise defined by institutions. An initial inquiry into “free minds” — that presumably inhabit individuals — leads to the question: what is an individual? The modern individual began during the Carolingian renaissance, took fuller form in the 19th century and solidified in the 1960s.[7] And yet during that journey of the fulfillment of personhood, the individual was a construct within the institution of the family. About a century ago, that individual began to be extracted from and eventually replaced the family so that we now have a highly atomized entropic end.[8] Again though, the question isn’t one of “free minds” — some platonic form — but rather the form in context of its institutions. These free minds develop and express within an ecosystem, and that ecosystem is not some individual manifestation conjured from the ether.

The loyalists opposed to the First Things position describe freedom and its protections (First Amendment, etc) as the necessary and sufficient tools to cultivate their objective: classic liberalism.[9] But we find that free markets and free minds are but descriptions of the results of institutions and the subsequent culture. The First Amendment begs ontological and teleological questions, starting with can it be the tool to defend because then who creates the tool? The first thing is the institution and the culture it inhabits. These tools, these minds and markets, are expressions of an ecosystem of institutions, and they cannot survive without them.

The workers of the world have never united precisely because culture matters more than markets. Free market purists make the mistake of thinking man makes the God. It is not the tools that support the civilization but rather the opposite; the purified form of libertarianism is as meaningless as the purified form of Marxism. They are both onanistic self-references outside of the institutional context in which they’re enacted. The workers of the world never united because those workers have more in common with the producers than they do with workers from other countries. Irredeemable morons such as Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire died baffled over this problem.[10] Purists of all sorts miss this.

Step 1: Admit You Have a Problem

It is some kind of boardwalk cups-and-balls scam to think that these tools (and of course their platonic forms) can be disengaged from the institutions that created them, and that these institutions aren’t thoroughly Christian. There’s no evidence to the contrary. To think that the church has ever been confined to a building is to be fundamentally ignorant of western history; the development of personhood, the exploration of cause and effect, the nurturing of the political sphere, participatory culture, public media, among others, are expressions of the alchemy of Carolingian theology and ancient Greek power dynamics.

Perhaps more disconcerting is that none of the responses actually respond to Ahmari’s primary assertions. The misreading of Ahmari may not be intentional but it is regrettable; and suggesting that there’s some theocratic cabal afoot is the kind of weaponization of taxonomy that so infects and degrades us. The foremost issue for the rebels is that there’s a problem. A robust tension between institutions and markets produces the kind of progressive dynamism that created the west, and yet one cannot observe our sclerotic institutions and stagnant economy and suggest that such tension exists except in the crevices of impotent rebellion.[11] You are, in the end, arguing against data and Jacques Barzun and the heft of empiricism on your fantasies.[12] And yet these fantasists confuse the diagnosis with the cure — I must not have cancer because chemotherapy sounds horrible. Is Ahmari’s diagnosis wrong? Why does he and First Things discuss institutions and yet you — Reason, New York Times — never mention the word? Stop handwringing about jackbooted crusaders (that Ahmari never conjured) and address the problem. Is Barzun wrong? Is the data wrong? Has the universe not recognized the righteousness of the ink you’ve spilled?

For Ahmari, the type specimen for failure is David French (not a restaurant). Ahmari observes that:

He [French] sees “protecting individual liberty” as the main, if not sole, purpose of government. Here is the problem: The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.

Reason makes what it thinks is a counterpoint, comparing such fretting “to what David French, as a lawyer, has actually done for religious liberty.” French has helped Christians be Christian “as a lawyer.”

French is a kind of romantic in the worst sense, confidently naïve while dismissing the crescendo of clopping hooves up the Quirinal Hill.[13] Perhaps he pins a daisy behind his ear and hums Imagine. Shortly after Trump descended the gold escalator, some of the establishment crowd suggested that French was a viable 2016 presidential candidate (actually happened) in what amounted to a gross misreading of the ethos even beyond Lyndon LaRouche’s 1988 pitch to build condos on Mars (actually happened, on national television no less). The French sacrifice is reminiscent of the Pope’s concession for private paganism to thwart the Visigoth invasion. It’s a solution formed wholly from exhausted desperation, and the Against-Ahmari Right’s solution is to file an amicus brief somewhere. If only Pope Innocent had thought of that.

It’s a purist’s delusion to think that autonomy is anything but fantasy, just as the fervent atheist or scientist thinks he has no religion. Titularly autonomous agents are formed and tethered by family, genes, education, church, state, major league baseball and God knows what else. There is no tabula rosa identity-selection. Such identity is largely shaped and informed by our institutions, and there can be no doubt that our institutions have been captured, weaponized, and degraded. They are exhausted, lack dynamism, and, to use Barzun’s analysis, observe a future of diminishing possibility. The “movement we are up against prizes autonomy” because such perceived autonomy is shaped by institutions; it is, in the end, an effort to widen the aperture of influence on the individual as much as possible and enable control (individual, social, civil) by the institutions the “movement we are up against” has captured.

Reason’s “David French, as a lawyer, has actually done for religious liberty” is some kind of rhetorical Enron accounting. This “done for religious liberty” is true only if one defines religion as the discrete impotence of the purely personal, a thoroughly modern definition of religion of which our Founders couldn’t even have conceived and produces the modern incoherence in natural law. In order for this defense to gain substance, one must define religion to confine religion to the vapor of one’s conscious, something no progressing Western society has accomplished. So, it seems, Reason too is pitching condos on Mars.

Stephens, in the New York Times, offers the promotion of the “classically liberal concept of a neutral public square,” without any awareness that the public square is and has never been neutral. Then he approaches “the value-neutral liberalism he [Ahmari] now claims to despise.” When the only argument you can defeat is one of your own making, you’ve conceded the point. The First Things rebels aren’t rejecting the “neutral public square” but rather observed that neutrality is a myth.

Stephens continues: “To be the polite conservative — the kind who presents well at, say, the Aspen Ideas Festival — was, Ahmari decided, to be a sucker. It was to play by the house rules of the culturally dominant left, in which the house always has the advantage and usually wins the game.” Of course Stephens offers no response to this.

Quantify the Universe, then Scale

Unremarked by the loyalists is the First Things issue with “affluence.” Of course, they have no answer, though I suspect First Things could have elaborated their position. But too few observe that capitalism and consumerism aren’t tethered; one is the engine of progress and the other may be the cancer of our demise (if I were writing a book, this would be the place for a detour into Marxist materialism). Consumerism, public markets and the debt-growth economy seem rather credibly to be Visigoths in our midst. (So yes, metaphorically, I suppose we’re sacking ourselves, much like the French did in the 1780s-90s. This French is also not a restaurant, but a nation — or so they claim.)

The further analysis would recognize that economists (not alone in the church of social science) have freebased quantity into a lethal absence of quality. So while we have the purity of numbers and the illusion of control that quantifying the universe enables, we have obfuscated the humans in the equation. Economists possess great skill at sacrificing the good on the altar of the quantifiable. The humanities that have been so defiled in the last half century existed to remind the civilization that engineering demand curves and supply chains does not extend to engineering souls. And yet Prufrock disappears from the neo-Marxist manipulated demand curve, and the loyalists file amicus briefs in the court houses of the Waste Land. In the formulation of Reason and the New York Times and the National Review, it is First Things and Ahmari — an Iranian Catholic — who deserves opprobrium because they’ve rejected confining their lives to coffee spoons; for the loyalists, classical liberalism is wholly manifested in choosing your own spoon.[14]

Reason views The 300 as a small honorable group standing in defense of a civilization. Ahmari views them as losers. He’s empirically correct; they did lose, Xerxes entered Athens, torched the inhabitants, and destroyed the Parthenon. The 300 failed except for providing Hollywood with a script. Ahmari views The 300 as inadequate; Alexander is the correct response.

NB. My interpretations and extrapolations of the positions of the dramatis personae are wholly derived from the articles in the first four footnotes. As such, they may be incomplete or wrong or subject to revision, as people and ideas and footnotes should be.

[1] The first four footnotes are to the primary articles in question. Much of this article will not make coherent sense without reading them. “Against David French-ism.” https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/05/against-david-french-ism

[2] “David French Is Right: Classical Liberalism Is the Best Framework for Protecting Religious Freedom.” https://reason.com/2019/05/31/david-french-sohrab-ahmari-conservative-libertarian/

[3] “The High Church of the Low Blow”

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/31/opinion/sohrab-ahmari-conservative.html?

[4] “Against the Dead Consensus.” https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/03/against-the-dead-consensus

[5] From the 1955 National Review mission statement: https://www.nationalreview.com/1955/11/our-mission-statement-william-f-buckley-jr/

[6] FYI Goldberg is the reason I cancelled my NR subscription many years ago; NR ceased being intellectually robust in the 1960s but by the early 2000s it had devolved into irrelevance and Goldberg was the horizontal deep-water drill rig of vapidity. Just look at their subscriber numbers. Compare the rapid decline of National Review’s subscriber numbers and financials (which are publicly available) to First Things’, and you’ll see the direction of trends. And while you’re at it, reviewing the same numbers for Mother Jones should defeat any “it’s the internet” excuses for National Review’s impending demise.

[7] Charlemagne and personhood. https://medium.com/@nathan.a.allen/the-1-000-year-argument-b635f005f91

[8] Ridiculously good paper on social and civil entropy: https://medium.com/@nathan.a.allen/false-spirits-jacobin-jackals-43c2be64fb73 (Ok, I wrote it, but still.)

[9] Which, really, amounts to chasing after a rainbow on a unicorn. The purified “classic liberalism’ never existed, and there’s no evidence it can ever exist. I expect Reason to convene a conference opposing Xenu’s tax efforts.

[10] High dosage stupidity: The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library THE PROBLEM OF NATIONALISM http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/lists/nachlass/probnati.pdf

[11] Stagnant economy: https://medium.com/@nathan.a.allen/shiny-dark-ages-part-1-58d7c4823ed3

Institutions: https://medium.com/@nathan.a.allen/shiny-dark-ages-part-2-or-ray-dalio-hates-money-517c10259780

[12] Barzun is probably the premiere intellectual historian of the last century. His magnum opus: https://www.amazon.com/Dawn-Decadence-Present-Western-Cultural/dp/0060928832/

[13] Barzun would likely label French a primitivist. French is a member of the Never-Trump crowd that rejects Trump on moral grounds (among others). In 2016, an article of mine was published (in perhaps Breitbart but honestly I forget where these things end up) that argued that what voters saw in Trump was a defender of the faith, not pope but prince. The defender of the faith need not be of the faith. However, the urge for moral purity — a kind of Victorian fetish that produces hypocrisy more than morality — is quixotic coming from a group that employs philosophical purity but would never require institutional morality … apart from Trump, apparently.

[14] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock

About Nathan Allen

Formerly of Xio Research, an A.I. appliance company. Previously a strategy and development leader at IBM Watson Education. His views do not necessarily reflect anyone’s, including his own. (What.) Nathan’s academic training is in intellectual history; his next book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense….

Agitator.