s last fall’s wave of student protests arrived in Durham, North Carolina, a self-described “group of unaffiliated and concerned students” presented the “Demands of Black Voices.” The Duke University activists wanted “bias and diversity training” for many segments of the Duke community, a new university policy “concerning hate speech” toward “students of color,” a new administrator to address the complaints of students of color only, and permission for students of color to miss classes by citing “mental health trauma” from “racial incidents on campus.”
One demand stood out. “Professors,” the students wrote, “will be in danger of losing their jobs, and non-tenure track [sic] faculty will lose tenure status if they perpetuate hate speech that threatens the safety of students of color. They will also be liable if the discriminatory attitudes behind the speech could potentially harm the academic achievements of students of color.”
A university that dismisses professors whose “attitudes” could “potentially harm” the exam performance of preferred undergraduates has abandoned all pretense of academic freedom. Given how zealously professors normally defend the concept, one might have expected that Duke faculty members would have unanimously condemned the proposal. Instead, the only public reaction came via a statement signed by 23 Duke professors that hailed the students for “forcing us all to learn out loud.” The protesters’ incivility had overcome the “muting of sharply articulated criticism of white supremacy.” And the professors had a message for the students who recommended the dismissal of an unspecified number of their colleagues: “Thank you.”
Little in the professional experiences of the faculty signatories suggested a culture of “white supremacy” at Duke (or, for that matter, at any other contemporary college campus). The faculty statement was hosted on the website of Professor Mark Anthony Neal—who, in a fawning 2006 interview in the university’s official magazine, described his “intellectual alter ego” as “thugniggaintellectual,” who “comes into intellectual spaces like a thug, who literally is fearful and menacing,” producing “some real kind of ‘gangster’ scholarship…hard-core intellectual thuggery.” Signatures for the statement were solicited by Professor Wahneema Lubiano—who came to Duke, with a lifetime position, more than 15 years ago, touting two allegedly “forthcoming” books. To date, neither of these books, nor any other Lubiano manuscript, has appeared in print.
As it turns out, the students could have stayed home. In the name of promoting appropriate thinking on matters related to “diversity,” Duke had effectively implemented the protesters’ plan. Dean Valerie Ashby announced at a November 2015 forum that department chairs would be held “accountable” for inculcating the administration’s “values” among faculty in their departments. And “at every stage of their evaluation,” Ashby revealed, untenured professors learned “how we feel” on questions of race and gender. The message these faculty members received: “You can’t be a great scholar and be intolerant. You have to go.”
In a reaction that captured the fundamentally illiberal spirit that animated the fall 2015 campus movement, this news prompted the assembled audience, filled with student protesters, to burst into applause.
“Sunlight,” Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “is said to be the best disinfectant.” Ashby’s revelation of a previously nonpublic policy joined such other poisonous incidents captured on video as University of Missouri professor Melissa Click’s call for “muscle” to deal with student journalists covering a campus protest, or a shrieking Yale University undergraduate asking her house master, “Who the fuck hired you?” As seen in the administration’s adoption, with faculty support, of Duke’s new “tolerance” tenure criterion, the episodes revealed a shared vision of the academy among the protesters, key segments of the professoriate, and most college and university leaders.
In the narrative offered by the mainstream media—and by the participants themselves—last fall’s campus protests exposed the continuing structural racism in the nation’s colleges and universities. To rectify this purported problem, the protesters demanded that administrators punish students who publicly challenged their beliefs; the right to join sympathetic faculty in dictating the curricular choices of all other students; and the authority to vet new faculty hires, thereby ensuring increased conformity of thought on diversity issues. Administrators should have responded to these intolerant demands by reminding all concerned that institutions of higher learning that abandon academic freedom no longer have a reason to exist. But recent developments, especially during the Obama administration, have made colleges uniquely ill suited to defend ideals of openness and civil liberties. And in any case, most faculty and administrators seem to share the protesters’ desire for universities dominated by a never-ending pursuit of diversity. In this respect, the protesters deserve thanks for unwittingly exposing the public to the increasingly hollow core of the contemporary academy.W
hile university leaders might have worried about negative publicity from the campus uprisings, most faculty and administrators share (or, in the case of administrators, at least purport to share) the protestors’ vision of an academy dominated by institutional racism, in which only extraordinary action can achieve diversity and protect students of color from daily microaggressions. A reminder of this shared vision came during the Durham protests as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case about the use of racial preferences in college admissions. Universities raced to file amicus briefs on Texas’s side; Harvard’s brief, for instance, deemed the use of racial preferences “essential to Harvard’s goals of providing its students with the most robust educational experience possible on campus and preparing its graduates to thrive in a complex and stunningly diverse nation and world,” and it celebrated what the university described as “the transformative importance of student body diversity on the educational process.”
The conduct of the protestors caused little reconsideration of their agenda in the academy at large. Late in the fall 2015 term, for instance, two Harvard deans prepared a “place mat for social justice” ostensibly designed to instruct Harvard students on how to discuss hot-button issues when they went home for the holidays.The recognition that all sides—on campus, at least—had similar goals on race-related questions had the effect of encouraging the protestors to make ever more extreme demands, confident that their baseline assumptions would pass unchallenged. Events at Yale and Missouri, which attracted the most public attention last fall, demonstrated the pattern. A perception that the Missouri administration was insufficiently sensitive to alleged racial incidents on campus prompted an African-American graduate student to launch a hunger strike, student protestors to occupy the campus quad, and black members of the Missouri football team to threaten not to play unless President Tim Wolfe resigned. At Yale, turmoil erupted after a fraternity party allegedly denied access to black women (which, after an investigation, seems not to have occurred) and an innocuous email from Erika Christakis, associate master of Silliman House, about whether students, instead of a university committee, could best determine appropriate Halloween costumes.
In each case, the defining event—Melissa Click’s call for “muscle,” the shrieking Yale undergraduate—came from a YouTube video, allowing outsiders a rare opportunity to experience the contemporary campus environment firsthand. Both videos produced an enormous backlash off campus, even as the protestors enjoyed victories on campus. At Missouri, President Wolfe quickly resigned. The new leadership team made clear where it stood regarding freedom of thought; the school’s interim vice chancellor for inclusion, a law professor named Chuck Henson, warned that the First Amendment did not give students a free pass to say whatever they pleased. Yale president Peter Salovey declined a call to remove both Erika Christakis and her husband, Nicholas, but otherwise appeased the protestors, announcing that the university would devote $50 million for various diversity initiatives. This response came from a university that already had spent countless millions of dollars on comparable diversity initiatives over the past several decades.
The conduct of the protestors caused little reconsideration of their agenda in the academy at large. Late in the fall 2015 term, for instance, two Harvard deans prepared a “place mat for social justice” ostensibly designed to instruct Harvard students on how to discuss hot-button issues when they went home for the holidays. The section about Yale suggested the following interpretation: “When I hear students expressing their experiences of racism on campus, I don’t hear complaining. Instead I hear young people uplifting a situation that I may not experience. If non-Black students get the privilege of that safe environment, I believe that same privilege should be given to all students.” Though a public backlash (another reminder of the value of Brandeis’s dictum) prompted an apology from Harvard and a withdrawal of the place mats, one of the deans responsible, Thomas Dingman, insisted that the official interpretation of events at Yale was “more rooted in fairness than in politics,” as the Harvard Crimson summarized his views.
Thus, any questioning of the agenda of the protestors was deemed an assault on fairness. And that agenda extended well beyond the behavior seen in the Yale and Missouri videos. The Missouri protestors not only sought to deny First Amendment rights to student journalists but also wanted students—not faculty or trustees—to receive final say over the course of study, through a “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum throughout all campus departments and units, mandatory for all students, faculty, staff and administration.” The curriculum was to be “vetted, maintained, and overseen by a board comprised of students, staff, and faculty of color.” Their Yale colleagues envisioned a campus in which politically correct students dictated coursework for all, through a new, ethnic-studies distributional requirement, whose curriculum would be designed solely by faculty in the “Native American Studies, Chicanx & Latinx Studies, Asian American Studies, and African Studies” programs.
Each of these demands, variants on which appeared at almost every campus that experienced a protest last fall, violated a core principle of academic freedom—that faculty (subject to trustee oversight) have primary responsibility for curricular and personnel matters. On the curricular front, protestors envisioned an academy in which students with the right kind of beliefs would dictate policy. Protestors at California Polytechnic State University wanted the school to “institute mandatory Women’s & Gender Studies or Ethnic Studies courses for students in every major.” Emory University marchers demanded “a General Education Requirement for courses that explore issues significantly affecting people of color.” At Colgate University, the protestors pushed for “CORE courses [to] include national and worldwide perspectives, not just Western traditions.” At the University of Virginia, the protestors argued that “every course…should strive to recognize minority perspectives.” They even provided examples for recalcitrant faculty: “For example, Biology could study genetics across minority communities, or the ethical history of ‘progress’ in relation to eugenics; Systems Engineering could discuss culturally sensitive industrial organization; and Classics could review the writings and lives of ancient minority writers.”
The protestors similarly demanded control over the hiring process. Those at Brown University wanted “cluster hires of junior faculty of color,” focused on questions related to social justice. At Dartmouth College, the call was for a “multi-million-dollar commitment coupled with hired positions focused on increasing numbers of faculty/staff of color (i.e. Asian, Black, Latin@, and Native faculty/staff).” Dartmouth protestors also insisted that the college change its tenure policies, heightening the importance of “mentorship and service work”—presumably at the expense of research and teaching—“because professors of color are often called upon…[to perform] these forms of labor.” The Michigan State demands were even more precise: “an increase in tenure-stream faculty whose research specializes in Black Politics, Black Linguistics, Black Sociology, Black Psychology, African politics, Black Queer Studies, Hip-Hop Studies, African American Literature, African Literature, and Decolonial Theory. All these faculty hires must be approved by a panel of Black student leaders and will be tenured in the Department of African American and African Studies.”
Imagine the (appropriate) outrage from academics to student demands for, say, a mandatory course for all undergraduates on free-market principles; or cluster hiring of libertarian faculty; or curricular oversight from a self-appointed committee of evangelical Christian students. Needless to say, a campus environment overwhelmingly tilted in one direction on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity required accommodating the fall 2015 demands, even at the cost of sacrificing fidelity to academic freedom. Writing at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski astutely noted that the typical list of demands “reads less like a manifesto of student revolutionaries, and more like a particularly aggressive salary negotiation…a special sinecure for those with the correct political agenda.” As the $50 million promised by Yale indicated, the protests directly benefited many academic departments—giving professors in these departments an incentive beyond ideology to champion the protestors’ position.
Reflecting this fusion of academic with political goals, Brandeis University professor Elizabeth Emma Ferry altered her class schedule to address themes sympathetic to the protestors (such as “white fragility”). The move typified conduct in the anthropology department, she told the Chronicle of Higher Education: “All of the classes in anthropology” changed their academic focus, purportedly to integrate “the intellectual and political.” But the reality seemed more like forced political speech. For one class meeting, the students stood “in solidarity” with the protestors, an approach that reduced Ferry’s prep time at the cost of violating dissenting students’ rights. It seems never to have occurred to Ferry that perhaps some of her students did not want to stand “in solidarity” with a campus movement that issued such demands as a 10 percent quota of “full-time Black faculty” in all Brandeis departments, or a public apology to Khadijah Lynch, the student who received harsh criticism for tweeting, after the killings of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, that she had “no sympathy for the nypd officers who were murdered today.”
At times, the campus events abandoned any pretense of academic commitment. The targeting of libraries—including harassing students who were attempting to study—provided particularly troubling insight into the protestors’ anti-intellectual mind-set. In mid-November, student protestors at Dartmouth, organized by the campus NAACP, stormed the library, as part of a “Blackout” demonstration. As they chanted, “Fuck your white privilege” and “Fuck your comfort,” the protestors surrounded white students reading at desks and entered one private study carrel, obstructing the occupants’ efforts to leave. “The protest was meant to shut down the library,” organizer Tsion Abera declared. “Whatever discomfort that many white students felt in that library is a fraction of the discomfort that many Natives, blacks, Latina, and LGBTQ people feel frequently.” When coverage of this boorishness generated national criticism, Dartmouth administrator Inge-Lise Ameer soothed the students’ feelings, telling them, “There’s a whole conservative world out there that’s not being very nice.”
At Amherst College, students also staged a sit-in at the college library to “stand in solidarity with the students in Mizzou, Yale, South Africa, and every other institution across the world where black people are marginalized and threatened.” (They offered no insight on how privileged Yale students encountering potentially uncomfortable Halloween costumes compared to the experience of black students in South Africa.) As the sit-in stretched into a second day, leaders billing themselves “Amherst Uprising” issued a series of demands, most of which featured boilerplate, only-in-academia language—such as a call for the Amherst trustees to issue a “statement of apology to students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration, and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism.” Displaying the mind-set of those who taught the protestors, 10 of the 12 members of Amherst’s American Studies department responded with a public letter hailing the protestors’ “depth of . . . knowledge, experience and analysis of these issues.”
Amherst president Biddy Martin did not issue the requested mass apology but otherwise embraced the protestors’ diversity-obsessed agenda—which, after all, she and most of her faculty shared. She promised to “build a more diverse staff and faculty, with more aggressive recruitment and effective hiring and retention strategies.” (It is absurd, of course, to suggest that Amherst, like all elite schools, was not already fully committed to this goal.) Martin hinted at preference for new professors whose research agendas would enhance “understanding of the issues our students are raising.” And she welcomed the idea of “safe spaces” to “provide comfort and familiarity.” Martin’s proposals, like those of similar colleges and university presidents, would create even more ideologically homogeneous campuses on issues of race, ethnicity, and “diversity.”
Not long ago, some academic leaders fretted about such a development. During her tenure as Brown’s president, Ruth Simmons repeatedly expressed concerns about the lack of intellectual diversity on the notoriously left-leaning campus. In 2008, she said students told her of “a chilling effect caused by the dominance of certain voices on the spectrum of moral and political thought,” and she cautioned that “familiar and appetizing offerings can certainly be a pleasing dimension of learning, but too much repetition of what we desire to hear can become intellectually debilitating.”
This problem no longer concerns Brown’s leadership. The university’s current president, Christina Paxson, promised to allocate $100 million to create a “just and inclusive campus.” Responding to the protestors’ demand for the “deliberate hiring of faculty who work on critical issues related to social justice such as topics on race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class as they pertain to specific disciplines,” Paxson indicated that Brown would bring aboard between 55 and 60 additional “faculty from underrepresented groups” by 2025, and would institutionalize the very type of groupthink against which Simmons warned, by tailoring new hires so as to create “communities of diverse faculty who are connected by common research interests.”
As the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has pointed out, Paxson’s proposals seemed “entirely consistent with how Brown would have tackled these issues ten years ago.” (Indeed, Paxson’s ideas seemed entirely consistent with how Brown had tackled “diversity” issues for at least a generation.) To the extent that the claims of the student protestors could be taken in good faith, Friedersdorf continued, they implied “that at least some long-running assumptions about race held by Brown’s administrators and faculty are incorrect.” Paxson—like Yale’s Salovey or Amherst’s Martin—had no interest in considering the effects of this legacy of failure.
How much these failed policies have harmed students remains a subject of intense debate. One of the Amherst protestors, Imani Marshall, confessed to the New York Times’s Anemona Hartocollis that “she had felt unprepared academically and socially for Amherst”—to such an extent that she sometimes hoped that she would not wake up the next morning. The recognition of her unpreparedness affected how Marshall interacted with her classmates: “I always feel like I need to prove to other people that I do belong here.” Amid relentless messages from faculty and administrators that Amherst was beset by institutional racism, Marshall unsurprisingly interpreted her struggles as resulting from racism’s effects, and she joined the Amherst Uprising movement. But isn’t it at least possible—reflecting the argument Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. offered in their remarkable book Mismatch—that a student who, by her own admission, was neither academically nor socially prepared for the college to which she was admitted would have been better served by attending another institution?
It’s not hard to understand why most administrations and faculty members have refrained from asking such questions, and have provided such minimal resistance to these demands. As the founding statement of the new academic alliance called Heterodox Academy pointed out: “In the 15 years between 1995 and 2010 the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left”; around 60 percent of academics identified as liberal or left, with higher percentages in the humanities departments that helped propel the student protests. On matters related to diversity, as seen in the overwhelming academic support for racial preferences in the Fisher case, the current campus opinion is near-monolithic.
In the professors’ distorted view of reality, the students whose demands included a college-mandated re-education campaign for their ideological opponents were actually those “silenced” on the Amherst campus.This groupthink has made campuses unusually vulnerable to the protestors’ attacks on free speech. Even on a campus as resolutely left-wing as Amherst, last fall a handful of undergraduates had stood against the grain. Pro-life students created an “All Lives Matter” poster to highlight what they saw as the horrors of abortion. And unknown students posted a flyer entitled, “In memoriam of the true victim of the Missouri protests: FREE SPEECH.” The flyer cheekily included a line informing fellow students that “if you want to protest this sign, feel free. Because that’s why the First Amendment exists.”
Amherst Uprising countered not by protesting but instead by demanding that the administration issue a formal statement that Amherst would “not tolerate the actions of student(s) who posted the ‘All Lives Matter’ posters, and the ‘Free Speech’ posters.” The statement continued: “Also let the student body know that it was racially insensitive to the students of color on our college campus and beyond who are victim to racial harassment and death threats; alert them that Student Affairs may require them to go through the Disciplinary Process if a formal complaint is filed, and that they will be required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”
Such a blatant call for punishing students for speaking out on a contentious issue—in Amherst’s case, a call quite literally to rebuke advocates of free speech—should have met with stern condemnation in any academic environment committed to the open exchange of ideas. Instead, two Amherst academic departments praised the protestors’ work. In an open letter, the Black Studies department gushed that the “demands to be heard and seen are righteous.” The professors “heard those demands as a department and we are reminded of how central they are to our mission…of our purpose here as teachers, fellow campus citizens, as a department, and comrades in the struggle for racial justice here at the college and in the wider world from which we all come.” These well-compensated academics, many of them with life tenure, complained of the “exhausting work” they had to do to make such a point. The American Studies department added that the protests demonstrated that—on one of the nation’s most politically correct campuses—“people of color too often are marginalized and silenced” and are victims of “an unsafe environment that is antithetical to intellectual exchange.” For residents of such an allegedly “unsafe” environment, the protestors certainly seemed to feel safe to make wild demands.
In the professors’ distorted view of reality, the students whose demands included a college-mandated re-education campaign for their ideological opponents were actually those “silenced” on the Amherst campus.
President Martin did not go quite this far, cautioning against censorship. Yet in the contest between the hundreds of protestors who had occupied her college’s library and the tiny number of Amherst students who had stood up for free speech, she left no doubt about her sympathies. “Those who have immediately accused students in Frost [Library] of threatening freedom of speech or of making speech ‘the victim’ are making hasty judgments,” the president railed. “While those accusations are also legitimate forms of free expression, their timing can seem, ironically, to be aimed at inhibiting the speech of those who have struggled and now succeeded in making their stories known on campus.”
The Amherst protestors’ hostility to dissenting viewpoints reflected a movement, as the liberal commentator Jonathan Chait observed, “that regards the delegitimization of dissent as a first-order goal.” Missouri’s student-body vice president, Brenda Smith-Lezama, pronounced herself “tired of hearing that First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.” After negative off-campus reaction to a Yale Daily News op-ed from undergraduate Jencey Paz, who proclaimed, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain,” editors shamefully honored Paz’s demand to remove the op-ed from the newspaper’s website. At Smith College, media that wanted to cover a campus sit-in needed to “participate and articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color.” Incredibly, Stacey Schmeidel, Smith’s director of media relations, backed the protestors’ imposition of a litmus test for journalists, remarking, “It’s a student event, and we respect their right to do that, although it poses problems for the traditional media.”
In a November interview, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), commented on the sudden change among students, who for most of FIRE’s history had defended the work of the nation’s preeminent campus civil liberties organization. This time, however, he found it “disheartening to see how they are now using freedom of speech to demand there be less freedom of speech.” Former ACLU national board member Wendy Kaminer was even blunter, observing that for many on campus today, “what’s shocking is that free speech . . . is an evil to be purged.” Like Lukianoff, Kaminer detected a recent shift in student attitudes: “The ‘I’m not in favor of censorship, but’ mantra that reigned a decade ago has been replaced with ‘I’m strongly in favor of censorship, and.’”
A robust defense of civil liberties by campus administrators would have provided the obvious response to the campus protests. In theory, colleges and universities are unusually well equipped to make such a defense. All public universities, of course, are bound by the First Amendment’s protections. And even though the Bill of Rights does not apply to private universities, virtually all have contractual guidelines or mission statements that claim to protect the freedom of speech and promote the open exchange of ideas. A 2015 survey of private institutions’ policies by FIRE found only two nonreligious schools—Vassar and WPI—that did not promise freedom of speech for students.
The rhetorical outlines for such a defense, moreover, came from none other than President Obama. In a series of remarks about campus matters in fall 2015, Obama celebrated free speech as a tool “to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work.” He expressed his concern about students “getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don’t like, if somebody says something that hurts my feelings, that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that.” Obama disagreed with the idea that “when you become students at colleges, [you] have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”
These were welcome words—but wholly inconsistent with the record of a president whose administration has launched an almost unprecedented assault on the civil liberties of college students. Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been the administration’s weapon of choice in this crusade, and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) its enforcer.
A settlement between OCR and Yale, for example, produced new procedures that allowed Title IX to threaten students’ promised free-speech rights. In fall 2014, after the subjects of an article in a student-run newsletter complained to Yale, an administrator turned around and “counseled the publishers of the newsletter regarding appropriate content.” No one at Yale appears to have thought that the appropriate response to this matter was to inform the complaining students that Yale respected the rights of student journalists to publish freely.
This administration-backed hostility to students’ civil liberties has extended beyond free speech, as colleges and universities bowed to OCR demands and abandoned all pretense of fair play for students accused of sexual assault. Citing Title IX, federal guidelines now require schools to use the lowest burden of proof (which is “the preponderance of the evidence”) in adjudicating sexual-assault cases; in pressuring colleges to adjudicate matters quickly; in hampering the ability of accused students to gather evidence to defend themselves; and, most important, in discouraging the cross-examination of accusers, even in cases where the accuser is the sole witness to the alleged crime.
President Richard Brodhead cited Duke’s new sexual-assault policy as a model for how his administration would address the perceived tension between free speech and comments that hurt the feelings of selected groups on campus. So did Biddy Martin, who promised to address questions of “race and racial injury” just as “we did in response to disclosures about sexual assault and the College’s handling of it.” In that process, Amherst created new procedures that denied to the accused student the right to direct cross-examination, legal representation in the disciplinary hearing, and the opportunity to discover all exculpatory evidence. The college is currently facing a federal lawsuit from a student Amherst deemed guilty of sexual assault—despite text messages from the accuser that contradicted the version of events she presented to the school. That Martin sees this kind of process—which sacrifices her college’s commitment to the truth so as to appease the forces of political correctness—as an ideal upon which to base a campus speech policy is disturbing at the very least.
In this environment, attempts to protect campus freedom of thought mostly seem to have revealed the weak position of civil libertarians on campus today. At Yale, a group of mostly science or engineering professors signed a letter affirming that “while the university stands for many values, none is more central than the value of free expression of ideas.” But this self-evident proposition drew no signatures from members of the history, English, or African American Studies departments, or the university’s programs in American Studies or Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. The document’s organizer, a physics professor named Douglas Stone, captured the atmosphere on campus when he told the Yale Daily News that more of his colleagues would have signed, but they feared controversy.
When the crisis at Yale first attracted national attention, Lukianoff predicted that Erika Christakis’s remaining in the classroom would test Yale’s commitment to academic freedom. If so, the university failed. In December, she announced that she would no longer teach at the school, expressing concerns that the current climate at Yale was not “conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.” University administrators seemed relieved at the development: Dean Jonathan Holloway observed that Christakis’s departure “makes the situation more straightforward from a [personnel department] point of view. I don’t have much to add to her decision.”
On many campuses, the protests have continued into the spring 2016 semester. At Harvard Law School, student protestors appear to have successfully demanded replacement of the institution’s crest, the family coat of arms of a slave owner whose estate helped to establish the school. Despite the decision, the protestors say they will continue to occupy the Student Center’s lounge until, as one of them remarked, an unspecified “something legitimate happens from the administration in particular.” That this conduct denies the lounge’s unimpeded usage to students who do not share their ideological agenda does not concern the protestors.
With little likelihood of reform from within the academy, sunlight remains all the more important. Trustees need to exercise a more rigorous oversight role regarding campus affairs; so too does the media. And parents need to closely examine precisely what kind of institution to which they are sending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition. In this respect, there is a potentially encouraging sign: Enrollment at the 2016–17 academic year to the school that originated the fall protest wave, the University of Missouri, has dropped by about 1,500 students, producing a $32 million budget gap. If a moral argument for upholding civil liberties cannot persuade college and university leaders, perhaps a concern with declining tuition revenue will.
The tag-team efforts of radical students, their professors, and administrators to snuff out elementary rights and elementary rules of civility and fairness have already stunted the academic and scholarly life of this nation. And they will retard the intellectual advancement of the United States and impoverish the life of the mind in this country for generations to come.
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The New Dark Ages on Campus
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.