On banning ideas

"Big things are easier than small things."

[This is an excerpt from a subscriber-only post.]

There are three ascending stages of awareness in democratic, or populist, political strategy: issuesideas, and institutions.

Issues are for people who are contributing to a common good-faith process. Populists keep thinking about issues until they realize that there is no good faith and they are no longer part of the process. If they stay democrats, their new goal is not to participate in the democratic process, but to restore it.

So they start thinking about the ideas that have become the process. They realize that ideas are not commercial products in a peaceful marketplace, but psychological weapons on a hostile battlefield. They learn to see their own ideas as weapons, and lose their aversion to settling intellectual conflicts by force. A weapon is a weapon.

Finally, they realize that the battlefield of ideas is not level or symmetric, but has a geometry which is a function of the institutions which process and transmit ideas. They see that these institutions are the central nervous system of any oligarchical regime, and focus their energy much more narrowly on ablating and/or replacing this brain.

In the 2020s, American conservatism—which is American populism, or American democracy—is doing very well to get to the second phase. Perhaps we can both pat democracy on the back, and tell it how much farther it has to go.

“Critical race theory”

Recent democratic attempts to “ban” something called “critical race theory” (which, like it or not, is actually just the normal belief system of sophisticated people in 2021) show an interesting mix of promise and opportunity.

The realization that ideas are not products in a marketplace, but weapons on a battlefield, is the seed of this unlikely initiative in setting legislation at war with education—and passing a law that bans an idea. (Even just in elementary schools!)

The fundamental awareness here is that, contrary to a certain mantra, culture is downstream from power. Of course ideas can be banned. Power loves to ban ideas, does it all the time, and almost always gets away with it. Worst of all—power is often, though not always, right.

I oppose banning ideas. I only believe in banning institutions. Power will always have the fundamental right to ban error. With good institutions rather than bad ones, power will never have to use this fundamental right—whose abuse is hardly unprecedented.

Yet the asymmetric chutzpah of “we can ban ideas, so you must oppose banning ideas” is too much Orwell for any normal, sane person to bear. Finally the normal people snap, and kick feebly back; emotionally, the reflex is understandable; strategically, the central realization is that a war is not an argument; and in war, never act reflexively.

The fundamental problem with “banning CRT” is that, while culture is downstream from power, no one can dam a river by taking a dump in it. Passing state laws against “critical race theory” is wrong and ineffective, but not because it goes too far—only because it goes nowhere near far enough.

To be “against” something is to propound a negative—to propose a question, demurely admitting the lack of an answer. Dissidents will never get anywhere till they realize that history is asking them for answers, not questions—and that the larger, more imaginative and more detailed their answers, the more realistic these visions become.

In other words, big things are easier than small things. Here’s an example:

The royal coup

To imagine that the voting taxpayers of America, through their democratically elected officials, should control the curricula administered to their children, is like suggesting that Elizabeth II should rule England. On paper, arguably, she does. In theory, maybe even in practice—she could again.

So how would her Royal Highness start? By wading into the discourse? On Twitter? Perhaps with a slightly incautious remark about Brexit, or migration, or crime… we know what the result would be: a quick slap on her Majesty’s frail hand… it seems too that our President Hindenburg’s handlers, about whom he increasingly complains on camera, may not be entirely averse to negative-reinforcement therapy in eldercare…

Yet a younger, more dynamic monarch, in exactly the same legal position—perhaps Prince Charles harbors, in his heart, some hidden hostility to the 20th century—could literally reboot English history with a Second Restoration. Imagine a next coronation which is also both a populist street revolution and a military coup.

Who would stand against it? Some barristers? A united front of quangoes? Tattooed, diverse, Oxbridge-bred interns, pouring out of Whitehall like hive-mad ants, tearing up the cobblestones in Threadneedle Street and hurling them at the SAS paratroopers? London was always known for her apprentice-riots…

The oligarchy has absolutely no real defense against any such restoration—and you can be sure they know it. One slightly chaotic but generally nonviolent day, and the whole 20th-century regime is as finished as the Stasi.

The essence of war is the destruction of the enemy’s capacity to resist. A revolution is a kind of war, hopefully a cold or peaceful war, and most revolutions happen quickly; they involve a catastrophic collapse of the morale of the old regime, which can go from normal to zero in a few days—and which will remain zero, if its institutions are quickly and thoroughly dismantled.

Yet small tests of the enemy’s capacity to resist can only exercise and strengthen it. When democracy, with its ever smaller, more ragged and less motivated armies, once again attacks straight into the oligarchy’s machine guns, it is just providing a live-fire training exercise.

How not to dam a river

This is how big things can be easier than small things: the big things are useful, but hard. The small things are easy, but useless. Culture is downstream from power; power is a wide river, now as wide as the world. Perhaps it can be dammed. It cannot be partly dammed—no matter how many dumps you take in it.

What is your small thing even supposed to mean? The political strangeness of this smallness cannot be overstated. Yesterday, you sent your son to school in the morning. You picked him up in the afternoon. You were confident that whatever they were doing to him there, it was at least reasonably consistent with your goals as a parent.

Today, you learn that they are chemically castrating him with Lupron-flavored Jello. What is your response? To push for a new law against school-administered Lupron? Or any other chemical-castration drug? Or shall the legislature prohibit schools from gelding boys, or spaying girls, by any means—except for medical emergencies?

The public debates. Hackles are raised. Elections are held. The law passes. And next month, your son is back on Lupron… it is a medical emergency, they explain…

Such is democratic politics in the 2020s. All the victories of democracy over oligarchy are temporary and symbolic; they consume the energy invested in them, and release no energy back; their objective effect is to (a) dissipate this energy, and (b) promote their promoters. While predictable defeat is a grift by definition, it’s an unfortunate fact that even victory can be a grift.

If “critical race theory,” which is no more than the official philosophy of the most prestigious intellectual institutions in the country—it was already normal, if not yet universal, at Brown 30 years ago—is the intellectual poison its critics portray, what on earth could be the value of passing a law requiring these intellectual poisoners to not serve poison—or, maybe, just a little less poison? This is a pretty strange response to learning that your child is being poisoned at school. Some kind of victory!

How would such a law even be enforced? By what judge? The jurisdictions of America must be festooned with ‘50s-era laws prohibiting the teaching of “communism.” How’s that working out for you, ‘50s America? Do you still like Ike?

And the first time some social-studies teacher in Iowa shows some typical product of 21st-century race-logic to his first-year Holocaust class, what is supposed to happen? A new Scopes Trial? With… what judge? Any judge could already rule that any part of our racial regime facially violates many statutes which literally dictate race-neutrality. Any such fool would be quickly overruled anyway, so why should he bother?

The fundamental principle of the 20th-century public education system is that the content and methods of education are determined by experts in education, not by elected representatives. Education policy is oligarchical, not democratic. Or rather: education policy is scientific, not political.

This is simply how our system of government works. You don’t like the way it’s working—and your solution is to make it work the other way, and put politics back in charge of government—but just in this one case? Is the educational system working fine, except in this one case? The whole scientific-policy regime, except this one case?

Of course, no one who wants to ban “critical race theory” (the label is in quotes because, now that it has been “targeted,” it will learn to deny itself and disappear) actually thinks all is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds, except for this one case.

Generally these pundits will admit that their victory is only one small step in a much longer, more difficult journey; that in many ways, yes, it is a symbolic victory; but we have to start with something small and doable… this is exactly the Queen’s attitude when she decides to make that little joke about Hengist, Horsa and Sadiq Khan. Small things are the most difficult and dangerous, because they project the most weakness.

By acknowledging that power is upstream from culture, and the only way to change the culture is to replace the stream of power and status that it lives on, we admit that we are not in the marketplace of ideas, but the battlefield of ideas. By convincing a bunch of state legislatures to pass a bunch of bills “banning critical race theory in the schools,” we show our supporters that we have fired a serious first shot in that battle.

It is easy to see that nothing really has happened. The legislators have no skin in the game. In fact, they love to posture at their peasants with meaningless, unenforceable gestures. The people whom the law is written to restrain do not care about it, are not accountable to it, and in fact get the rare chance to feel like Nelson Mandela for their 15 minutes—especially if it is somehow enforced against them, as in the Scopes Trial.

But it’s a victory, right? Well, no, not really. A tactical victory is not a strategic victory unless it makes the strategic problem easier—unless it moves the pieces on the field to new positions from which it is easier, not harder, to win.

Actually, the position of curriculum laws like this is impossible. When you demand a small amount of power, you declare yourself only ready for a small amount of power. No one is ready for any power who is only ready for a sip of power. If you take that sip, it instantly makes you a target. You do not have the energy to defend the symbol of your legislation, much less to enforce it with a wave of demonstrations, litigation, etc. At best it is just another dead letter, like all those old laws against communism.

And as a democratic movement, your power is only borrowed from the people. When a people uses its democratic power and gets no actual results—which is what always happens with postwar American conservatism—it enters a condition psychologists call “learned helplessness.” It learns that doing anything means doing nothing—so why do anything? By failing, you are actually training your supporters to be losers.

For this useless sip of power, you are draining your energy supply. And that energy is going straight to the enemy, who now has a monster for his own fundraising efforts. To end by being useful to your enemies is the final humiliation of defeat.

The battle seen from both sides

The psychology of the struggle over “critical race theory” is easily read in one story: a profile of one Christopher Rufo, in the New Yorker, by Benjamin Wallace-Wells.

Rufo’s success as a conservative pundit makes him look like a young Tiger Woods or Mike Tyson, a once-in-a-lifetime patriotic thought leader. From just about nothing, his vertically-integrated attack against “critical race theory”—from investigation to legislation—has swept across red-state legislatures and is already law in a handful. If useless, Rufo’s wildfire crusade proves a fortiori the impotence of all conservatism—because no one in conservatism gets this level of results. Like, no one.

And indeed, while I hate to say this, Wallace-Wells guts Rufo like a fish—so neatly that the victim doesn’t even feel the knife:

At my lunch with Rufo, I’d asked what he hoped this movement might achieve. He mentioned two objectives, the first of which was “to politicize the bureaucracy.” Rufo said that the bureaucracy had been dominated by liberals, and he thought that the debates over critical race theory offered a way for conservatives to “take some of these essentially corrupted state agencies and then contest them, and then create rival power centers within them.” 

Rufo is so amazing that he has reached stage 3, and is talking about institutions. He has also reached his limit, and what he is saying makes no sense.

Who is going to “contest” these “essentially corrupted” agencies? With the assistance of this… law? Which does not help patriots fire their enemies, or hire their friends? Who will these “rival power centers” be made of—existing employees, or new ones? Will they be in the closet, or out and proud—hiding their power levels, or flaunting them? I cannot think of any cogent answers to these questions, and I suspect the very talented Rufo has simply not looked far enough ahead.

Wallace-Wells, a cold-eyed sicario of the interview form, a killer at the top of his game, pounces:

I thought of the bills that Rufo had helped draft, which restricted how social-studies teachers could describe current events to millions of public-school children, and the open letter a Kansas Republican legislator had sent to the leaders of public universities in the state, demanding to know which faculty members were teaching critical race theory. Mission accomplished.

Mission accomplished. A new reign of tyranny, comparable only to the evil crimes of the tyrant McCarthy, or maybe just Hitler, has settled over the clear pool of science and education. Our democracy itself may be at risk! To defend American values from this Hitler 2.0, subscribe now—for a limited time, receive a free Juneteenth vibrator.

There is a perverse beauty to Rufo’s gaffe of “politicizing the bureaucracy.” This line is half fish and half fowl. To use the proper Russell conjugation, he is either “politicizing the science,” or “democratizing the bureaucracy.”

But we can ask an objective question. Suppose science has been politicized; suppose the bureaucracy has been democratized. How much has this happened? What is the quantitative magnitude of the insult to sacred oligarchy? On a scale of 0 to 1, where 1 means that science has been completely politicized, and 0 means the bureaucracy is perfectly impervious to democracy, how far has Rufo gotten us?

To evaluate qualitative abstractions on a unit scale, bound your range. How much of the job have you done? How much more could you do? If you could do ten times as much, and the job would still not be done, you have done no more than 10% of the job.

After the passing of one of these laws, how much more power could politicians obtain over educational curricula alone? It seems clear that they could easily take a thousand times as much power over the contents of textbooks, and still not have absolute power. If this is true, Rufo has not even solved 0.1% of the problem—even just in education.

Wallace-Wells has a different but equally valid perspective. To him, the principle that science is above politics—that bureaucracy is above democracy—is sacred. Like any guardian of a sacred idol, he regards even the slightest blemish on oligarchy’s golden skin as a horrific sacrilege.

That the idol got scratched is the problem—not mitigated by the fact that it remains 99.9% intact. Are we supposed to let these Neanderthals just win? They will come back and violate ten times as much. Our god will be only 99% intact. This is what happens if we let these human beasts drop even one single trout in the clear water of science…

It is only natural that this zero-tolerance approach makes the enemies of oligarchy very excited when they score a point against it. The enemy is seen screaming and running around, so some serious damage must have been scored against him. No—actually, the damage is negligible. But overreacting is part of his business model.

This is what happens in 2021 when democracy fights oligarchy. The better democracy does, the more oligarchy wins—because the victories of democracy are symbolic and sterile, whereas the defeats of oligarchy are cosmetic and energizing. When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

This was an excerpt from a subscriber-only post. For the full Gray Mirror experience…