The Architecture of Annihilation…

A cathedral is a tribute to God. A skyscraper is a tribute to capital. Cathedrals reflect the glorious narratives of faith. Skyscrapers reflect the profits of capital. This could be an impotent anti-materialist moan. What interests me, though, is something these constructions share: the ostensible status of a human space and the actual devotion to a superhuman force.

In The Thirst for Annihilation, Nick Land writes of “the wild beasts of the impersonal”; thinkers are who are marked by “fatalism, atheism, strangely reptilian exuberance, and extreme sensitivity for what is icy, savage, and alien to mankind.” Perhaps excepting the initial adjective I can think of no more accurate a description of the author of the 1914 document the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture.

“The Futurist house must be like a gigantic machine,” the author insists. This was a prescient proclamation, coming as it did from the times before houses were wrapped in electronic wires. The author has even more ambitious ideas in mind. “We must invent and rebuild the Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, agile, mobile and dynamic in every detail.” How man is supposed to live amid tumult goes unexplored. Does he care? Such details do not seem to trouble him:

The lifts must no longer be hidden away like tapeworms in the niches of stairwells; the stairwells themselves, rendered useless, must be abolished, and the lifts must scale the lengths of the façades like serpents of steel and glass.

There is that reptilian exuberance! In the Bible, of course, it is the serpent which tempts Eve with apples from the Tree of Knowledge, and the promise, “Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods.”

Most researchers have concluded that the author of the manifesto – which followed Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, published five years before – was Antonio Sant’Elia. Dying before the age of thirty, on the battlefields, he designed little in his short and precocious life, yet influenced more fortunate, productive architects (as well as Ridley Scott, who modelled his designs for 2019 Los Angeles on Sant’Elia’s drawings.)

The manifesto bristles with a strange, inhuman energy, proclaiming a desire for skyscrapers that “soar up on the brink of a tumultuous abyss”; “the architecture of calculation, of audacious temerity”; “the use and original arrangement of raw or bare or violently colored materials.”

…just as the ancients drew inspiration for their art from the elements of nature, we—who are materially and spiritually artificial—must find that inspiration in the elements of the utterly new mechanical world we have created…

Why? For the sake of energy; for the sake of dynamism; their power and violence being their own achievement. “To transform the world of things into a direct projection of the world of the spirit.” One has the distinct sense of the people living for the city, not the city for the people; blood pumping around its great, metropolitan frame.

Futurism emerged in the 1900s, as radical theorists welcomed the industrial revolution and the emergence of the motorcar as a chance to shake the recently unified Italy from its stale, nostalgic state and give it fresh meaning and purpose. Enough with the “smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians.” It was time for bold originality and innovation. It was time to make the fatherland a fierce and energetic youth.

Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!

Led by the eccentric poet Marinetti, futurists insisted on the value of speed, and disruption, and, as George L. Mosse wrote in “The Political Culture of Italian Futurism”, “the spontaneity of experience.”

Futurists were antihumanists. “Man is something that must be overcome,” wrote Nietzsche, and that was a sentence Marinetti would have echoed. The first long, ferocious sentence of his Futurist Manifesto references the “electric hearts” of his colleagues (here, again, one finds the image of the serpent, describing “great tubes” on “racing automobiles”.)

Marinetti’s taste for the machine was fetishistic. He authored the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking and organised “aerobanquets”, at which, Alex Revelli Sorini and Susanna Cuttini write, the tablecloth was “replaced by sheets of aluminum and metal plates”, “the table was shaped like an airplane”, and diners roared, “We want fuel!” This is a vivid, if comical, demonstration of a transhumanist urge; a desire to soar, freed from the shackles of physical limitations and humanist sentiments, through the clouds of the unknown. In Marconi’s Wireless, Aaron A. Toscano writes that Marinetti held that humans should be “fast like cars, explosive like bombs, super productive like factories and as free as wireless signals.”

“His polemics rarely focus on concrete possibilities for new machines,” Toscano writes, “Instead he made bombastic claims about an unrealistic…utopia brought about through technology.” This is true enough, yet the utopian – and the dystopian – ideologue can have insights that the realist cannot in tracking implications of events through their potential evolution. One finds echoes of the futurists in the Big Tech enthusiasm for “disruption”, though this a far moderate form of social innovation. The dreams of the futurists had more to do with the Übermensch than with Uber. Their descendants have more radical ideas about the future of technology and men.

Futurism was something of a forerunner to transhumanist and artificial intelligence research. The Italian transhumanist Stefano Vaj has claimed Marinetti as an influence on what he calls “overhumanism”, a controversial synthesis of transhumanist science and anti-egalitarian thought. The “neoreactionary” sphere formed around the right-accelerationist Nick Land and the “formalist” ideologue Curtis Yarvin is a more explicitly right wing phenomenon that has been influenced by futurist ideas.

Futurism is irrevocably linked with fascism, not least as Marinetti wrote “The Fascist Manifesto” during his close though not untroubled alliance with Mussolini. He and others shared the fascistic lust for violence while rejecting its anti-modernist elements. They were also nationalists, reaching, as Mosse wrote, “to pull down a piece of eternity into rush and bustle of time.” Still, they were a more significant precursor to right-accelerationism, the idea that capitalism will, and should, become more powerful and innovative till it transcends its hapless anthropological managers in the form of the superintelligent machine. Just as futurists saw the industrial revolution as a thrilling vehicle for social dynamism, right-accelerationists see an intelligence explosion as a thrilling vehicle for evolutionary progress.

What can make futurism a closer relative to right-accelerationism than fascist politics is its clear emphasis on the machine over the man, either in an egalitarian or elitist sense. Marinetti held that there could be, in Eugene Ostashevsky’s words, “a humano-mechanical new man.” Unlike Marinetti, Sant’Elia ignores man in his actual or idealised forms. There are references to the places in which he is active, but there is almost no interest in his activity. Statues, theatres and opera houses go unmentioned, while he claims to stand for “the great hotels, the railway stations…[the] colossal ports.” (What happens there? It barely matters, as long as it is activity.) The art that he values is “the superb grace of the steel beam” and “the delicacy of reinforced concrete.”

It is interesting to compare Sant’Elia to a more infamous and influential architect who shared his passion for concrete and steel, his polemical style and his iconoclastic impulse. Le Corbusier had a similar taste for the skyscraper, but a clear, if totalitarian, emphasis on buildings as functional anthropocentric entities. In Sant’Elia’s image of the futurist city as an “immense and tumultuous shipyard” there is an inchoate antihumanist element. Man is not the ship, and we know from Sant’Elia’s anti-traditionalism that nor is civilisation. The ship is the spirit. And what if it leaves?

Recent years have offered eerily substantive analyses of the potential for a posthuman world. In “Meditations on Moloch”, Scott Alexander quoted Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Moloch”:

What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Alexander reflected that as mechanisation increases further into the realms of artifical intelligence “capitalism becomes more and more uncoupled from its previous job as an optimizer for human values.” He sketched out a plausible situation where:

…most humans are totally locked out of the group whose values capitalism optimizes for. They have no value to contribute as workers – and since in the absence of a spectacular social safety net it’s unclear how they would have much money – they have no value as customers either. Capitalism has passed them by. As the segment of humans who can be outcompeted by robots increases, capitalism passes by more and more people until eventually it locks out the human race entirely, once again in the vanishingly unlikely scenario that we are still around.

It is obvious that cities can be immense engines of dehumanisation. Buildings – tall, dark and unenriched my history, myth or ritual – stand like alien statues. Streets, too big and busy for pedestrians or drivers, become navigable by systems of passenger trains. Heights, too tall to climb, demand the use of elevators. Work often involves the refinement of systems and products that will make labour and play easier, more efficient and more novel if outsourced, in whole or in part, to machines, not men.

Accompanying enormous economic and technological opportunities is a decline in fertility. Nick Land calls advanced cities “IQ shredders”. The IQ shredder:

…skims the human genetic stock…in large part due to the exceptional opportunity it provides for the conversion of bio-privileged human capital into economic value. From a strictly capitalistic perspective, genetic quality is comparatively wasted anywhere else. Consequently, spontaneous currents of economic incentive suck in talent, to optimize its exploitation.

“The most hard-core capitalist response to this,” he writes, “Is to double-down on the antihumanist accelerationism. This genetic burn-rate is obviously unsustainable, so we need to convert the human species into auto-intelligenic robotized capital as fast as possible, before the whole process goes down in flames.”

We know man and nature exist uneasily. We know that something has to change. We look, forlornly, across the “ingenuity gap” that separates our challenges our abilities and draw our own conclusions. Some advocate “uncivilization” as a Jeffersonian (that is, Robinson Jeffers) attempt to abandon humanist hubris and reconnect with the non-human world of animals, and plants, and landscapes. Right-accelerationists advocate ultracivilization, which aspires to abandon humanist hubris and await a posthuman world of superintelligences. Here, a city is as natural as a savannah.

Land wrote in “Machinic Desire”, collected in Fanged Noumena:

Machinic desire can seem a little inhuman, as it rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities, and hacks through security apparatuses, tracking a soulless tropism to zero control. This is because what appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources.

The argument is not that capitalism is a conscious force but that “Gnon” – “Nature or Nature’s God” – proceeds according to remorseless evolutionary logic, driving ever more intelligent and innovative entities across the bones of their outdated predecessors. Capitalism, and its associated scientific and technological trends, unloosed its bonds. Anthropological redundancy is an inevitable end.

The city, in this narrative, is a posthuman factory, exhausting the economic value of its oblivious proletariat. Men walk streets and corridors but in the service of that which ensures their obsolescence. The gigantic machine, with its serpents of steel and glass, aims itself towards a faster, more dynamic and more powerful future.

Posted in Fascism, Futurism, Science, Utopianism | 1 Comment

Rubin, Boot, Koestler and Convert’s Syndrome…

Somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, or at least their formal boundaries, I became something of a proto-SJW, railing against sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and various other things that bore the suffixes “ism” and “obia”. (Not transphobia, as I recall. That wasn’t such a thing back then.) Frankly, I was a little twerp, but if there was one thing slightly unusual about my case it was that I was a convert. Before, I had been an obnoxious Christopher Hitchens fanboy – the kind of “contrarian” who shared all of his opinions – but this phase had spluttered to half after I had belatedly grappled with the monumental horrors of Iraq. Reevaluating my opinions was important. Unfortunately, I endured a bout of Convert’s Syndrome.

Convert’s Syndrome is a curious affliction. It comes in different forms but typical symptoms include rapid, unstable changes of opinion, overcompensation, sanctimoniousness and memory loss. “One cannot see Convert’s Syndrome in isolation,” said Doctor Reese O’Nable of the Maydup Clinic, “In most cases it is the result of sufferers trying to treat the symptoms rather than the causes of an underlying condition.” People who accept that there are problems with their perspectives change object-level beliefs without interrogating their disordered premises. Thus, an attention-seeker switches from one extreme belief system to another without addressing their desire to be sensational. Conformists reject low-status beliefs for more fashionable views without evaluating their desire to fit in. This problem is exacerbated by the complacence that comes from the assumption of one’s newfound righteousness, as well as the desire to assert it to one’s newfound friends.

Take the talkshow host Dave Rubin. Once a bland left-liberal on the roster of The Young Turks, he soon became a bland classical liberal on the payroll of the Kochs. Rubin’s ideological superficiality has become a running joke, with the comedian and Mixed Martial Arts commentator Joe Rogan exposing his anti-regulatory fundamentalism with such ease that it makes the classic Johnny Rhodes versus Fred Ettish UFC beatdown look hard-fought. Whereas Rubin might have once admired smooth talking leftist blowhards like Cenk Uyger, host of The Young Turks, he now admires smooth talking right-wing blowhards like Candace Owens. Rubin’s object-level opinions might have changed, but his philosophical vacuity endures.

Take Max Boot, the war enthusiast and headwear model who rejected conservatism over the failure of conservatives to oppose President Donald Trump. One can understand opposing Donald Trump, of course. What is beyond understanding is how Mr Boot ignores the question of whether the populism he despises might have been enabled by the neoconservative policies that he promoted. It is like Dr Frankenstein joining an anti-monster NGO without considering his role in its creation.

Take Arthur Koestler. The author of Darkness At Noon was as enthusiastic in his communism as he was enthusiastic in his anti-communism, and as energetic in his Zionism as he was eccentric in his anti-Zionism. Compared to him, famous contrarians like Christopher Hitchens were models of consistency. It is not surprising that he was a promiscuous cad in his private life, as he was, in the words of his biographer Michael Scammell, a “Casanova of causes”. The causes changed but what never eased was Koestler’s “thirst for the absolute,” which he ultimately quenched with fond belief in ESP and levitation.

In my article “What Conservatism Isn’t” I explained that in my early twenties I had moved to the right but that a conversion story would be self-indulgent. It would be also be dull. There was no Damascene moment in which Russell Kirk stuck his head out of the clouds and called me to conservatism. There was just a lot of reading, and writing, and thinking, and a slow and painful process which will never really finish.

God knows, it would be hubristic for me to insist that I have settled on the wisest, cleverest opinions but I did at least avoid another fit of Convert’s Syndrome, and the main reason for that was the laboriousness of the progress. If there is a God, He might reveal himself in a moment of profound enlightenment but there is no one realisation to be made that should transform a political perspective. Belief systems are not built on clear truths that might hit one like an snowball to the skull but deep layers of premises that take time and effort to understand, evaluate and, perhaps, rebuild.

The most essential advice that I could give to someone who believes that their political opinions have been wrong, then, is not to embrace a new set of them too soon; not to ingratiate oneself with another in-group just because they seem appreciative and welcoming. There is a lot of value in being a convert. While it might take some courage to reject old friends and allegiances, one is almost certain to find an audience among people who dislike the opinions we once held. We enjoy being told that we were right along, and people being convinced of this assures us that the winds of change are in our favour. This is not, of course, to say that converts need to be cynical but the promise of a platform and a sympathetic hearing introduces a niggling bias into the equation. It can be courageous to say that one has been wrong, but it can be even more courageous to admit that one is unsure of what is right.

Posted in Rationalism | 7 Comments

In Defence of Roger Scruton…

If the Conservatives fire Roger Scruton from his new position as “housing czar” it will be as vivid a symbol of surrender as running a white sheet up a flagpole. Scruton is Britain’s most prominent and respected conservative intellectual. No one comes close. That singular fame is a grim reflection on the state of conservatism in the home of Burke, Eliot and Oakeshott but that is an argument for another day. The fact remains that the left has isolated a grand old lion from his scattered pride and if his brothers and sisters allow him to be hunted they have far too little spirit to deserve survival.

First, the charges against Scruton must be seen in the light of his achievements. No one alive today has given more epistemological and rhetorical ballast to the ideas of conservatism. His books The Meaning of Conservatism, Thinkers of the New Left and How to be a Conservative have sustained the intellectual tradition as the left has overtaken the British cultural and educational spheres and the Conservative Party has become little more than a force for economic liberalisation. His work on aesthetics, such as in The Aesthetics of Architecture and On Beauty, make him uniquely qualified for his new role. His career has not been without embarrassments – such as his dubious dealings with the tobacco industry – but they have been more than overshadowed by his achievements.

Since the 1980s, Scruton has not been an especially controversial figure. He has argued politely with left-wing intellectuals, and generally avoided the “no platforming” tactics of the social justice crowd. When he was knighted in 2016 there was no uproar. It is only now that journalists have scented blood that hacks and pundits have been combing through his articles and books for evidence of deviant traditionalism.

What are the charges that have been levelled against Scruton? Luciana Berger MP claims that he “peddles anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.” What is that about? The claim began on the centre left “Red Roar” blog, which draws attention to a passage in a speech that Scruton gave in Hungary. “The Jewish minority that survived the Nazi occupation [of that country],” he said:

…suffered further persecution under the communists, but nevertheless is active in making its presence known. Many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish, and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire. People in these networks include many who are rightly suspicious of nationalism, regard nationalism as the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th century, and do not distinguish nationalism from the kind of national loyalty that I have defended in this talk. Moreover, as the world knows, indigenous anti-Semitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics, and presents an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews.

One could argue with some points that Scruton made. The reference to a Soros “Empire” is a little inflammatory. It might not be obvious enough that he is not suggesting that Hungarian Jews are monolithic. His sympathy for Viktor Orban could be challenged. Yet even if one has disagreements with Scruton’s rhetoric and opinions in this speech it is plainly false to suggest that he is “peddling antisemitic conspiracy theories.” He does not suggest that Jews are scheming or malicious. He has sympathy with their fear of nationalism, and draws critical attention to “indigenous anti-Semitism” in their homeland. Moreover, he defended Soros in interviews against attacks on his then Hungary based Central European University. What kind of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist does that?

The second charge against Scruton, detailed in a lengthy Buzzfeed article, is that he thinks “Islamophobia” is a “propaganda-word”. So? He does not deny that “Muslims in our society are often victims of prejudice, abuse and assault” and calls this “a distressing situation” but he thinks the term “Islamophobia” has pathologised a range of opinions including justified aversion to hostile and theocratic elements of Islamic teachings. I agree. Perhaps the government does not but is it so beholden to progressive trends that it believes that this opinion renders one deserving of exclusion from mainstream politics? It is a sad day if so.

The third charge against Scruton is that he believes that homosexuality is an abnormal condition. In an article for the Telegraph he wrote that “same-sex couples” are “alternatives to something,” which is “the joining of man and woman, in an act which leads in the natural course of things not just to mutual commitment but to the bearing of children, the raising of a family and the self-sacrificing habits on which, when all is said and done, the future of society depends.” This is what he considers “normal”, which, of course, also excludes short-term or polyamorous heterosexual relationships. One can disagree with him, of course, but if an outlook that was the norm until what was in historical terms about five minutes ago and still defines the traditional standards of Christianity, Islam and Judaism makes one persona non grata in politics, even when one’s position has nothing to do with sexual matters, conservativism is dead and the Conservative Party might as well rebrand itself the Liberal Party.

It is of course understandable that left-wingers hate Scruton. He has been their enemy for decades, ever since the publication, in 1980, of The Meaning of Conservatism. It is natural that they want him discredited and his ideas underground. What would not be understandable is the Conservatives acquiescing to their demands. They would, in effect, be spitting on their legacy and lying prostrate before their enemies’ advance. They would prove themselves nakedly vulnerable to humiliation and entirely deserving of being humiliated.

Posted in Britain, Conservatism | Leave a comment

A Manifesto for Classical Liberals…

What do you think of when you hear the word “liberal”? Hippies? Commies? Vegans? SJWs? Clintons? Well, you could not be more wrong. The word “liberal”, you see, has been misappropriated by people who believe in big government and identity politics. Somewhere between the New Deal and the New Left the word “liberal” was stolen from its rightful owners: classical liberals.

Classical liberalism upholds the values of limited government and individualism. Adam Smith. John Stuart Mill. George Orwell. Dave Rubin. All of these great men have been classical liberals: believers in the power of men and women to forge their own paths through life, free from the state and social justice warriors.

“The only freedom which deserves the name,” wrote Mill, “is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” Amen to that, John. You put the class in classical liberalism.

The problem is that almost nobody knows what classical liberalism is. However many reports the Cato Institute releases, and however many people Dave Rubin interviews, people still associate the word “liberal” with Barack Obama. What is needed is a manifesto for classical liberals. Here, then, in brief, are the core principles of classical liberalism:

(1) Free Speech. Free speech is good, of course, but it is especially good for classical liberals. As a classical liberal, you will want to talk about free speech as much as possible. The beauty of doing so is that talking about the wonders of free speech as a means of enabling unfettered inquiry and debate, and the evils of censorship in stifling such activities, is far easier than actually using free speech to, say, uncover hidden truths or create original art. Any idiot can defend free speech and so it is a comfortable message to fall back on. Upholding the value of free speech is also a good way to flirt with controversial questions without actually committing to a judgement on their answers. Where do I stand on inherited differences, say, or comparative religion? Hrm, well, I dunno, but I support the free speech of people who have opinions! Sing it loud, liberals, and sing it proud: free speech is good.

(2) Individualism. Classical liberals defend the freedom and uniqueness of the individual. We are all individuals. Say it with me, people: we are all individuals. Classical liberals oppose tribalism. For classical liberals, individuals and not groups are what count. Sure, the history of man is the history of tribes, and human societies have always featured group loyalties and group differences, but the important thing to bear in mind is that free speech is good.

(3) The Enlightenment. The greatest triumph of human civilisation was the Enlightenment, a golden age in Western history where intellectual giants like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, John Locke and David Hume promoted the virtues of classical liberalism while the French lopped off the heads of their aristocrats for some reason. The Enlightenment taught men to cast off the superstitious myths of religion and social hierarchy and embrace objective facts like natural rights and human progress.

(4) Equality. Leftists believe in equal outcomes, a goal that leads to the gulags of Venezuala. Classical liberals believe in equal opportunities. Everyone, whatever race, gender or sexual preference, should be considered on their merits and not their backgrounds. Kids born to unemployed single moms in Nowhere, Pennsylvania should be allowed to apply for the same jobs as kids from Richville, Maryland, and if they don’t succeed, well, they have only themselves to blame.

(5) Capitalism. Classical liberals are capitalists, and oppose government intervention in the market. Classical liberals support the self-expression of the individual, which thrives optimally in a world of corporate power and marketing. Classical liberals are not libertarians, and do not support eliminating regulations and social services. To what extent should they be allowed, and on what bases? Well, free speech is good.

(6) Cultural appropriation. Leftists oppose “cultural appropriation,” or the combining of different elements of different cultures to create something new. In doing so, they are akin to white supremacists who support monolithic cultural entities. Classical liberals support cultural appropriation. No one “owns” a culture, and we make progress when we exchange ideas and influences. Thus, classical liberals celebrate the high cultural values of “sexy squaw” Halloween costumes and fusion cooking.

(7) Horseshoe theory. As seen above, classical liberals have observed that the far left and the far right are not only bad but eerily similar. One supports a world of racial diversity, feminism, gay rights and nationalisation while the other supports ethnonationalism, patriarchy, traditional morality and the corporative state. As you can tell, there is hardly any difference between them.

(8) Democracy. Year after year, across the world, voters have endorsed statist candidates of the right and left. They have yet to hear the message of classical liberalism. If men and women who support economic redistribution and authoritarianism would only read On Liberty or Rights of Man they would become classical liberals and we could achieve the dream of a sensible, moderate President who would cut taxes, legalise marijuana, trigger SJWs and discuss the great issues of the day on The Joe Rogan Experience.

I hope this manifesto has convinced you to embrace the classical liberal inside yourself. From birth, we are assailed with collectivist propaganda: in our schools, in our churches, on our televisions, on the Internet, in our universities and in our jobs. The time has come to wake up from your statist slumbers. Listen to our podcasts, read our books, like, comment and subscribe, donate to our Patreons and be an individual.

Posted in Liberalism, Libertarianism | 5 Comments

The Corrosion of Conservatism by Max Boot…

Max Boot, like Jennifer Rubin, once claimed to be a conservative critic of President Donald Trump but has become critical of conservatism itself. His new book The Corrosion of Conservatism explores his dissatisfaction with the Conservative movement and explains, as the subtitle puts it, why he left the right.

To some extent one cannot disagree with Boot about Trump and his followers. The President is a cheat, and a liar, and a narcissist, and has dangerously unreflective opinions on matters such as climate change. Still, there is a deep irony to this book. Trump is a product of the corrosion of conservatism, but who was responsible for that corrosion? Look no further than the ideological tendencies of which Max Boot has been a dedicated representative.

This rather personal book takes us back to election night, when, to console himself on witnessing Trump’s triumph, Boot “swilled a scotch and took some sleeping pills”:

I know you’re not supposed to combine sedatives with alcohol, but you’re also not supposed to elect a bigoted bully as president of the United States. This was a day for disregarding the rules.

One hopes this was an isolated incident of weakly rationalizing dangerous lifestyle decisions.

Boot took Trump’s success personally. “My America had become Trump’s America,” he writes, “My conservative movement had become Trump’s movement.” In what sense, though, had it been his? He writes, after this prologue, of his political education. Born to Russian Jewish parents, he emigrated with his mother and father to the United States. Once he had acclimatized to American life he became interested in conservatism after being given a subscription to the National Review. “[Its] brand of conservatism was known as fusionism,” he writes, “A term coined by the philosopher Frank Meyer for an inclusive approach combining free-market economics with traditional social views and a hawkish, anti-Communist foreign policy.”

This is significant. On the next page, Boot writes of reading Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and sneers at Donald Trump for his ignorance of this “conservative canon”. Yet Boot offers no sign of understanding the fact that Meyer’s “fusionism” represented a radical liberalising tendency in American conservatism. When he writes that it is “optimistic and inclusive”, then, it makes you wonder if he really has read Kirk, never mind Weaver, or Voegelin, or even the famous editor of a certain conservative magazine which was launched with the aim of standing astride history and yelling “stop”.

One feels that the young Boot was attracted to conservatism for aesthetic more than intellectual reasons. He writes of his youthful admiration for Buckley, whose “sophistication and joie de vivre” were matched by a “jet-set lifestyle” complete with yachts, skiing trips and dinners with celebrities. “This is who I wanted to be.” Italics his.

Boot wrote for his student newspaper at Berkeley, interned at the Los Angeles Times and began to write for the Christian Science Monitor. In one of the many annoying asides in his book, he informs the reader that most of his colleagues at the Monitor belonged to the eccentric Christian Science faith, and reflects that this:

…deepened my appreciation for the diversity of America and made me realize I could like people very different from myself even if there were far more of “them” than there were of people like me. I wish more Trump supporters, anxious about the changing demographics of America, would have a similar epiphany.

Yes, America. If Max Boot can temporarily work with Christian Scientists you can learn to love endless mass immigration.

Boot secured a job writing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal and entered a circuit of exclusive and incestuous conservative social events which he seems to have enjoyed but which sound insufferably dull. At the Journal he advocated tax cuts, free trade, immigration and a strong national defence. “We didn’t talk much about social issues,” he reflects. Of course not. Boot, like many other “conservatives” since Meyer, was nothing more than a liberal hawk. The post-’60s prevalence of crime, divorce, fatherlessness, abortion and drug use had passed him by. The fixation on free trade and tax cuts, meanwhile, obscured the economic as well as cultural degeneration of working class America, which, later, would contribute to the rise of Trump.

A book on America’s small wars earned Boot a position at the Council of Foreign Relations. In the aftermath of 9/11, he became one of numerous advocates of war with Iraq. He takes some responsibility for this. It was, he writes, “all a big mistake”, a “chastening lesson in the limits of American power” and an event that “helped, thirteen years later, to elect a president who stands in opposition to nearly everything I believe in.”

Still, this welcome soul-searching is accompanied by some curious evasions. Boot hardly discusses the rise of neoconservatism and attempts to acquit his ideological comrades of blame for the war. Almost three quarters of Americans supported the invasion in 2003, Boot observes. Yes, perhaps, but far fewer of them had campaigned for the removal of Saddam Hussein since the 1990s. Listening to the deranged John Bolton saber-rattle over North Korea, meanwhile, Boot senses “an echo of my callow, earlier self.” Callow? Boot was thirty-three when the invasion of Iraq began, and had been writing op-eds for the best part of a decade. When did his mature phase actually begin?

Much of the rest of Boot’s book is by-the-numbers anti-Trumpism. Some punches land. Others don’t. Some, bizarrely, are too soft. He has space for details of pro-Trump Twitter trolls but none for the President’s anti-environmentalism.

Boot likes history, and searches through the archives to locate the “roots of Trumpism”. Reading left-wing critics of conservatism, he decides “in many ways, [Trump] is merely the culmination of the right’s ruin rather than the cause.” Boot has discovered – and I hope you are sitting down for this – that some conservatives of the past did not like black people much and were a bit paranoid about communism. Oh, the sweet summer child. Next he will discover that some progressives had a soft spot for the Soviet Union.

Jaded the present, and shocked by the past, Boot wonders if he is in fact a conservative and asks his readers to judge for themselves. Sorry, Max. You are not. Granted, one’s definition of the term should be flexible and receptive to context but there is no standard by which Boot could be called one. He is “socially liberal” and believes that immigrants are “the source of American greatness.” Not just a source, mind you. The source. He bemoans, with some justice, law enforcement misdeeds but does not mention the crime rates than enable them. He speculates that feminists might have a fair point about the “patriarchal society” without considering where the scale of fatherlessness and abortion comes in. He is, again, a liberal, which he has the perfect right to be but which rather precludes him from being a conservative.

Trying to end his book on an optimistic note, Boot issues a rallying cry in defence of “the vital center”. “The example of Emmanuel Macron could point the way,” he says, “We could use an American Macron – someone who can make centrism sexy.” Emmanuel Macron currently has an approval rating of 29%.

Boot is not wrong to lament the crassness, thoughtlessness and dishonesty of the President and much of the Conservative media. Yet who was there to guide the Conservative movement? Boot and other neoconservative and liberal conservative intellectuals, who, unmoored from tradition and untethered to reality – attracted to the elegance and opulence of elite conservatism in the 1980s – at best ignored grave social problems and at worse created them. This encouraged the conditions from which Trumpism emerged.

At the end of his book, Boot imagines himself as a kind of ideological “ronin”. One suspects that his wanderings will not be so impoverished as to rule out regular visits to the CNN studios and a comfortable bed at the Washington Post but one also hopes that Boot will use this time to reflect on corruption and decadence of his master’s home.

Posted in America, Books, Conservatism | 8 Comments

My Book!

My book, Kings and Comedians: A Brief History of British-Polish Relations, has been published today and is available on Kindle and in paperback, as well as from It contains war, repression, liberation, art, heroism, war, betrayal, poetry, war, football and war. I hope you enjoy it. The introduction is below the fold:

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Andrew Sullivan’s Paper-Thin Conservatism…

Debating intellectual conservatism in the age of Trump may be like debating ethics in the face of an angry bear. Perhaps the bear will do some good. Perhaps the bear will feast on people who deserve to be consumed. But the bear is a creature of instincts, not ideas, and is immune to any kind of intellectual persuasion. What ideas can do is help us deal with the bear, and help us to envisage a post-bear world. Should conservatives harness Trumpism or reject it in toto? The first option is reflected in Julius Krein’s excellent magazine American Affairs, and the second is maintained by, among others, Andrew Sullivan.

Andrew Sullivan has been a feature of Western political debate for three decades. As an editor, blogger and polemicist he has been in the forefront of arguments about sexuality, race and war. He is an emotional thinker – as vociferously supportive of the Iraq invasion as he was soon vociferously opposed to it – but an independent one. He enraged leftists with his qualified endorsement of Charles Murray’s book The Bell Curve, liberal hawks with his criticism of Israel and Conservatives with his admiration for Barack Obama.

Given these emotional and independent-minded tendencies it is a shame that Sullivan’s explanation of his conservative views is so lifeless and flaccid. Republicans, he claims, in a column for New York Magazine, have deformed conservatism, and his article is an attempt to reclaim it. Fair enough. Yet “Sullivanism”, as I shall refer to it, is a milquetoast modernised form of the conservative tradition.

There is some good stuff here. Sullivan correctly observes that it is anti-conservative to idealise free markets or oppose environmentalism. He justly asserts that it foolish to resist all change. Yet his next sentence reveals the limits of Sullivanism in its implication that all change is, in fact, to be welcomed. “The goal is not to stand athwart history and cry “Stop!”, as William F. Buckley put it.” he suggests, “It’s to be part of the stream of history and say: slow it down a bit, will you?”

It is not. G.K. Chesterton, in a famous allegory, suggested that one might remove a fence in a field once one has realised its purpose and found it wanting. Sullivanism, on the other hand, implies that one can remove the fence as long as one does so piece by piece. Abolishing gender norms? Fine, but not too fast. Mass immigration? Good. Just rein it in a bit. Eroding the institution of marriage? Fair enough. Just remember that erosion is a gradual process.

Sullivan is a great admirer of the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who upheld the value of a “conservative disposition”, which, as Sullivan quotes without attribution in his New York Magazine article, prefers “present laughter to utopian bliss.” Much as I share Sullivan’s esteem for Oakeshott there was always a risk of the philosopher’s ideas collapsing into a vulgar kind of presentism that encourages would-be conservatives to welcome each new form of progressive society as the status quo, like a man lying on his bed and murmuring “there’s no place like home” as his flatmate repaints his walls and destroys his furniture. Oakeshott also said conservatives generally prefer “the tried to the untried,” and the least that a substantive conservatism should accept is that traditional institutions can be so valuable that conservatives should defend them against progressives regardless of how slowly or rapidly they want to undermine them.

Sullivan is right that conservatives vary from place to place depending on their cultural heritage. He is right that Anglo-American civilisation has some measure of liberalism baked into it. Sullivan just is a liberal, though, writing, for example:

The conservative approach to a multicultural and multiracial society is to keep our focus on the individual and do what’s best to help every individual, regardless of their race, gender, or whatever, to be part of our shared liberal democratic inheritance.

There is a danger of conservatives who oppose progressive (and Alt-Right) conceptions of racial and gender identity embracing the liberal rejection of identity itself. Conservatives support local, national and religious or at least moral norms, and the encouragement of those norms as features of a citizen’s perspective. While they have different beliefs on the extent to which those norms should be encouraged, they oppose, as T.S. Eliot put it, “dissolving their natural collective consciousness into individual constituents.”

Sullivan has some amusing asides. He says conservatism “relishes humour in all its forms.” Does it? Or does he? Much as I too believe that laughter is essential to life, I have not read Burke on obscene puns, Eliot on religious satire or Oakeshott on rape jokes. Sullivan concludes with a more specific program for Sullivanism. The conservatism he upholds, he claims, would be a conservatism that can:

…tackle soaring social and economic inequality as a way to save capitalism, restore the financial sector as an aid to free markets and not their corrupting parasite, a conservatism that will end our unending wars, rid the criminal justice system of its racial blind spots, defend liberal education and high culture against the barbarians of postmodernism and the well-intentioned toxins of affirmative action, pay down the debt, reform the corruption of religious faith, protect our physical landscape, invest in non-carbon energy, and begin at the local level to rebuild community and the spirit of American civil association.

Not everything here is bad, of course – though that might have something to do with its vagueness – but does it contain anything Hillary Clinton would disagree with? There is no mention of fatherlessness, divorce, abortion, drugs, crime, jihadism, pornography, attacks on religious freedom, transgenderism, feminism or, indeed, anything about which conservatives and social liberals disagree. Sullivanism is just liberalism stroking its chin and biting its nails.

Posted in Conservatism | 2 Comments