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A Conservative-to-English Lexicon a resource for non-native speakers of the Conservative language

A Conservative-to-English Lexicon

a resource for non-native speakers of the Conservative language

For an explanation of what the Lexicon is, see the post that introduced it, and the follow-up. The short version is this: Conservatives have begun using English words in ways that diverge from the definitions you might find in a standard dictionary. Just to give one example — there are gobs of others in the definitions below — moving DREAMers to the bottom of the deportation priority list is an example of tyranny, because tyrants are so famous for not arresting people and instead letting them continue living their lives.

OK, one more: People whose incomes are too low to pay income tax are lucky duckies in Conservative-speak; that’s got to be the first time in history that low income was non-satirically considered an example of luck. (In standard English, lucky is a synonym of fortunate, from which we get the word for a bundle of money: a fortune.)

Things get even harder to follow when two or more new usages combine in a single sentence. For example, when conservatives talk about using their Second Amendment rights to defend against tyranny, they mean that if they need to overthrow the government to prevent ObamaCare from extending health insurance to the unworthy, they’re ready.

The definitions below were abstracted from actual examples of conservative usage, many of which I reference. Within the definitions, words in italics refer to the Conservative meanings rather than the English meanings., i.e., the difference between the Constitution the Constitution.

Activist judge. A judge who applies the Constitution and other laws, rather than the Bible or the Constitution written by the Founding Fathers.

American exceptionalism. The belief that the United States is exempt from all legal and moral standards. Example: Waterboarding is a capital crime when done to Americans, but legally and morally acceptable when practiced by Americans.

Amnesty. The basic English meaning is unchanged since Bierce: “The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.” In conservative usage, amnesty is an abandonment of all moral standards if applied to undocumented immigrants, but “makes perfect sense” when applied to corporate profits held off-shore to avoid taxes. To spin amnesty positively, use holiday. Example: a tax holiday, but not an immigration holiday.

Appeasement. Hesitating before attacking or overthrowing the unfriendly government of an oil-rich nation.

Balance. 1. Providing Democrats as well as Republicans the opportunity to criticize President Obama. 2. Providing blacks as well as whites the opportunity to indict black culture. Usage: “Fox News is fair and balanced.”

Bankrupt. Requiring taxes that the wealthy do not want to pay. Usage: “The government is bankrupt.”

Celebrity. A disparaging term applied to a liberal who can draw a crowd. Usage: Barack Obama “is the biggest celebrity in the world.” Not to be confused with a politician who is popular in Real America, like Sarah Palin, or with statesmen like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronald Reagan.

Class warfare. When the 99% fight back against the 1%. Usage: “Obama’s priority is class warfare. That’s why he relentlessly denounces job creators as ‘millionaires and billionaires.’ That’s why he demands that they be punished with higher tax rates.”

Collateral damage. Humans whose deaths would rattle the conscience of a nation not blessed with American exceptionalism.

Color-blindness. Fighting racial injustice by refusing to see it, much as an ostrich avoids danger by sticking its head into the sand.

Common sense. The opinion of the People, as opposed to the opinion of experts who have devoted their lives to studying the subject. See: science, junk science.

Common sense solution. A (usually unspecified) way to make a problem vanish without inconveniencing any job creators or real Americans, or making them pay taxes. Usage: “All across this country, women are standing up and speaking out for common sense solutions.”

Confederacy. An early attempt to restore the freedom envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Still an object of nostalgia in the GOP’s southern base.

Constitution. A holy scripture written by the Founding Fathers. Like the Bible, it means whatever conservatives want it to mean, regardless of its actual text. The Constitution, for example, protects corporate personhood, and the near-infinite powers it assigns to Republican presidents vanish when a Democrat takes office. Unlike the real-life Constitution, the Constitution includes the Declaration of Independence, and so really does mention God.

Contract. An inviolable pledge, except when made to a union.

Controversial. An adjective applying to any fact or set of facts that conservatives don’t want to believe. Examples: evolution and climate change. Once facts have been labeled controversial, stating them as facts is evidence of liberal bias.

Dependent on government. Anyone receiving welfare, encompassing retirees, students, and the disabled. Usage: “there are 47 percent … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Dividing the country. Talking about the concerns of voters other than real Americans. Examples: Starting a class war by encouraging the 99% to fight back, or discussing the effects of racism. Usage: President Obama “won by dividing the country.”

Elite, Elitist. Those who challenge common sense by insisting on facts. Usage: “The power of the knowledge elite does not stem primarily from money, but in persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society.”

Europe. A hellish dystopia governed by liberals, where people belong to unions, have guaranteed health care, and earn high wages with long vacations. Soon to be overrun by Muslims. Usage: “I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.”

Fair. Favoring the wealthy. Usage: “A true free market is always fair.”

Family. A group of people related by blood to, and under the control of, a straight white man wealthy and powerful enough to protect and control them.

Family Farm. Any piece of land controlled by a single family, no matter how vast it might be. This is how Paul Ryan can say that an estate tax that only applies to estates over $5 million “hits the little guy — like the small business and the family farm.

Fascism. An insult with no meaningful content, similar to “bastard” or “asshole”. The previously well established Mussolini/Hitler sense of the term — a militarist, nativist, corporatist style of totalitarianism claiming to restore a nation to the greatness of its mythic past — is now archaic, having been successfully jammed by tangential usages like Islamo-fascism and oxymorons like liberal fascism. Usage: “The quintessential liberal fascist isn’t an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade-school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.”

Founding Fathers. Loosely based on the American generational cohort that fought the Revolution and wrote the Constitution, the conservative Founding Fathers are heroes of a great mythic past constructed by pseudo-historians like David Barton. Divinely inspired, the Founding Fathers intended to create a non-denominational Christian theocracy, but inexplicably failed to mention God in the Constitution. They were implacably opposed to Big Government, even as they were writing a constitution that vastly extended the powers of the national government beyond those laid out in the previous Articles of Confederation. They “worked tirelessly” to end slavery, while owning hundreds of slaves themselves, and without actually ending slavery until long after they were all dead.

Free market. A system of decision-making based on the only fair principle: one dollar, one vote.

Freedom. 1. The ineffable quality that exempts the United States from all moral standards. (See American exceptionalism). Usage: “They hate our freedom.” 2. The right of the powerful to use their power as they see fit. Usage: “The minimum wage is a freedom killer.” 3. The right of job creators to use public infrastructure without paying taxes, or to exploit common resources (like air, water, or public land) without regulation. Example: Cliven Bundy.

Freedom of religion. The right of conservative Christians to shape society and define social acceptability. Intended by the Founding Fathers only to protect expressions of religion, not atheism or Islam.

Freedom of speech. 1. The right of a conservative to speak and write publicly without criticism. (See persecution.) Synonym: First Amendment rights. Example: Sarah Palin’s objection in 2008 to the characterization of her charge that Barack Obama was “paling around with terrorists” as “negative campaigning”. “If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don’t know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.” While no one had disputed Palin’s right to say what she said, the fact that she faced criticism for it violated her freedom of speech. 2. In election campaigns, the right of the rich to drown out all competing voices. Usage: “Citizens United gives freedom of speech back to the People.”

God. Jehovah, the father of Jesus, as revealed by a literal reading of the Bible. Non-Christians do not believe in God, but in other supernatural beings like Allah. Some liberals claim to believe in God, but they use the word incorrectly.

Hate. Criticism of conservative ideas or disputation of facts alleged by conservatives. See persecution.

Holiday. A temporary suspension of tyranny. Usage: “tax holiday“.

Illegal immigrants (or illegals). Hispanics. Usage: “the more illegals that vote, the better the Obama administration thinks it will do.”

Impeachable offenses. Anything President Obama does or fails to do.

Impeachment. A means of reversing elections, when voters mistakenly choose Democrats. Established by the Constitution, impeachment requires impeachable offenses. Failure to make use of impeachment may necessitate “Second Amendment remedies”.

Indoctrination. Teaching historical or scientific facts that are controversial.

Innocent human life. The unborn, who possess souls of infinite worth. At birth, a child inherits the soul-value of his parents, which — if they are black or poor — does not amount to much. Consequently, abortion in the United States is a moral crisis equivalent to the Holocaust, while our third-worldish infant mortality rate (34th in the world, just behind Cuba) is no big deal.

Institutionalized racism. Racial advantages and disadvantages explicitly written into the law, like Jim Crow. Other embedded racial advantages, like legacy admissions to Ivy League schools or the extra-zealous policing of black neighborhoods, are just the way things are. Usage: “Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.”

Job. An expression of generosity by a job creator, who allows a small amount of wealth to trickle down to a person who does exactly what he’s told. As John Galt told workers at the Rearden factory: “The standard of living of that [medieval] blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.”

Jobs bill. A cut in taxes or regulations for job creators. Usage: “If lawmakers are really serious about creating jobs, they should simply repeal ObamaCare.”

Job creator. A wealthy person, who may or may not be an employer, and who may even have become wealthy by firing people or shipping jobs overseas. Usage: “Let’s cut taxes for job creators.” Does not apply to public works, public schools, or any other government program, no matter how many Americans such a program might productively employ.

Judicial activism. When activist judges rule against corporate interests or white supremacy, or in favor of separating Church from State.

Junk science. Research not funded by a corporation whose profits depend on the outcome. Examples: climate research not funded by fossil fuel companies, tobacco research not funded by cigarette companies, etc. All you really need to know about the term is that is run by Steve Milloy, who is also Director of External Policy and Strategy for Murray Energy, the largest privately owned American coal company. Usage: “It’s just an excuse for more government control of your life. I’ve never been for any [greenhouse-gas reducing] scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole [climate change] narrative.” See sound science.

Liberal media bias. The fading tendency of certain portions of the journalistic establishment to require supporting facts before promoting a conspiracy theory. For an example of the frustration this causes conservatives, consider the following quote from Jonah Goldberg shortly before the 2012 election: “If you want to understand why conservatives have lost faith in the so-called mainstream media, you need to ponder the question: Where is the Benghazi feeding frenzy?”

Lucky Ducky. Anyone whose income is low enough to escape the punishment of income tax. Collectively, lucky duckies are known as “the 47%“. Usage: “Who are these lucky duckies? They are the beneficiaries of tax policies that have expanded the personal exemption and standard deduction and targeted certain voter groups by introducing a welter of tax credits for things like child care and education.”

Marxist. One who regrets the increasing concentration of wealth. Unrelated to any theories contained in the writings of Karl Marx. Example: Pope FrancisUsage: “Elizabeth Warrren, who has almost confessed to her Marxist views”. (Synonyms: communist, socialist, liberal.)

Objective. Adjective describing a person (especially a journalist) who tells it like it is.

The People (or We the People). All real Americans, considered collectively. Usage: “I believe Owen Hill is one of those future leaders and must be supported by ‘we the people’ to take back our country and to restore our constitution as the law of the land.”

Persecution. 1. Denying conservatives the special rights they believe they are entitled to. Example: The War on Christmas, in which conservative Christians are persecuted if they are not allowed to dominate all public space for the month of December. 2. Criticism directed at conservatives. Example: If a conservative says something racist and you point that out, you are persecuting him. (See freedom of speech.) 3. Enforcing laws broken by conservatives. Example: Dinesh D’Souza. 4. Limiting the privileges of privileged groups.

Personhood. A quality shared by fertilized ova and corporations, but not by Afghans, Iraqis, or Pakistanis who become collateral damage. Usage: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

Political correctness. 1. The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to. 2. Avoiding offense to a group unworthy of regard. Example: Saying “Happy Holidays” to avoid offending non-Christians is politically correct. Saying “Merry Christmas” to avoid offending Christians is not.

Politicizing. When a particularly dramatic or tragic event demonstrates how wrong conservatives have been, a liberal who points that out or proposes new policies to prevent future tragedies is politicizing the event. Correct usage: After the Sandy Hook school shooting led to calls for tighter gun laws, Rush Limbaugh said: “You’ve got a horrible event here, and they’re already looking to politicize it.” Incorrect usage: any application to 9-11. The Bush administration’s massive response to 9-11 was not politicization.

Poor. Lacking in gumption or virtue, undeserving, black.

Prayer. A way to appear to take action on issues you don’t actually care about. Example: the prayers routinely offered for the families of victims of mass shootings.

Punishing success. Restoring upper-level tax rates to their levels during the Clinton administration, a dark time of peace and prosperity when no one bothered to become rich because it was too painful. Usage: “If you want to punish successful people, vote for Democrats.” Synonym: punishing job creators.Usage: “We shouldn’t be punishingjob creators.”

Racism. Calling attention to racial injustice with an intention to rectify it. Also called “playing the race card”. (See color-blindness.) Example: the Fox News commentator who said, “You know who talks about race? Racists.” Also see institutional racism.

Rammed (or forced) down the throat of the People. Any government action taken against the will of a majority of real Americans. Usage: “They’re going to do what they have to, the Democrats are, to force this [ObamaCare] down our throats.”

Rammed through Congress. Passed by majority vote, without granting an extra-constitutional veto to the conservative minority. Usage: “Senate Democrats rammed through what would later be called ObamaCare … The vote on Monday, in the dead of night, was 60 to 40.”

Rape. 1. A liberal myth used to persecute men who get sex through “consensual conquest“. 2. An excuse made up by women who want to murder their babies. 3. The exceedingly rare act the previous usages are based on, i.e., sex acts committed by thugs, Bill Clinton, and other moral degenerates. When using rape in this sense, it’s important to add a qualifying adjective like real or legitimate.

Real America. Rural areas and small towns, where the majority of voters are real Americans. Usage: “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”

Real American. 1. A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago. 2. A typical resident of real America. Usage: “Real Americans do not recognize [Obama] as a president.”

Religion. Christianity, not including degraded liberal variants that accept evolution or gay rights. Sometimes qualified as “real religion” or “true religion” to differentiate from false religions like science.

Religious. Having to do with religion, i.e., Christian.

Religious freedom. 1. The right of religious people to ignore laws they don’t like. 2. The right of public officials to implement their religious views rather than the law. 3. The right of a religious majority to use public resources to promote their religion.

Science. 1. A false religion devoted to conquering the world in the name of the No God it worships. Usage: “Science, like God in the Old Testament, behaves jealously against any other religion. So science will say to its followers: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. If you have any doubts, try asking an audience at a scientific convention to join you in a prayer.” 2. A conspiracy to impose world government through hoaxes like global warming. Usage: “Global warming is not about science, but about politics — that is, about expanding the power of elites using the coercive instruments of government to control the lives of people everywhere.”

Second Amendment rights. The right of whites, Christians, the wealthy, and other traditionally privileged groups to commit violence when their privileges are threatened by democratic processes. (People not from privileged groups may be gunned down by police — with full conservative support — if they are even suspected of being armed.) Best expressed by Sharron Angle in her 2010 Senate campaign: “if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” Also by Virginia Republican Catherine Crabill: “We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box. But that’s the beauty of our Second Amendment right. I am glad for all of us who enjoy the use of firearms for hunting. But make no mistake. That was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. Our Second Amendment right was to guard against tyranny.”

Slavery. The Old South’s enlightened system for taking care of blacks without a welfare state. Usage: “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Small business. Any economic entity not in the Fortune 500, and maybe a few that are. At various times, small business has included privately-owned firms like Bechtel or wealthy individuals who incorporate, like billionaire George Soros. Since it evokes images of Mom-and-Pop diners or three-chair beauty salons, tax breaks for small business are always popular. But since one mis-categorized multi-national giant can outweigh a thousand Main Street card shops, the bulk of the breaks always end up going to the big boys. (See family farm.)

Social justice. A plot to turn mainstream Christian denominations Communist. Usage: “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.”

Sound science. The opposite of junk science. Coined by The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, “a front group set up by Philip Morris in 1993 … to question the science showing detrimental effects of cigarette smoke.”

States rights. 1. The belief that the 14th Amendment‘s guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws” was never intended to be taken seriously. Usage: “I believe in states’ rights … and I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” — said by Ronald Reagan near the site of the KKK’s Mississippi Burning murders, which were solved by federal investigators after being covered up by local police. 2. The real cause of the Civil War, which had nothing to do with slavery.

Take back our country. Restoring the dominance of the People. As Hank Williams Jr. sang in “Take Back Our Country“: “Move over little dog, cause the big dog’s moving in.” Usage: “It’s time to take our country back.”

Taxes. A method of stealing money from job creators and giving it to poor people. Unrelated to Social Security, Medicare, roads, schools, lowering the deficit, or any other useful goal.

Telling it like it is. Pandering to people who resemble the speaker.  Usage: Middle-aged white guy Wayne Allyn Root: “Donald Trump tells it like it is.” Alternate form: Calling it like he sees it.Usage: Ted Nugent writing, “Donald Trump … calls them like he sees them.”

Terrorist. 1. A Muslim. 2. Any violent person conservatives don’t like. Cannot be applied to violent anti-abortionists, white supremacists, or tax resisters. (See Second Amendment rights.)

Thug. 1. Young black male. Usage: “Trayvon Martin was a thug. His parents know that, you know that, I know that.” and “The Ferguson thugs aren’t alone. The overwhelming majority of violent crime across America is conducted by young, black males.” 2. An agent of government tyranny who might descend upon real Americans at any moment. Usage: “”jack-booted government thugs [who have] more power to take away our constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us.” 3. A union organizer.

Traditional marriage. The type of marriage commonly portrayed in the media when the speaker was a child. Does not include common features of marriage from earlier eras, such as the inability of the wife to own property, the impossibility of divorce (except by act of the Pope), the right of the husband to beat his wife, or the right of the husband to take multiple wives. (Biblical marriage may not have been Adam and Steve, but it was Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah. Don’t think too hard about why the link also has a picture of a sheep.)

Trumponym. (This is said about conservatives rather than by them, but was too good to leave out.) A word used in defiance of all known definitions. Example: “Obama is the founder of ISIS.” Coined by Nathan Heller.

Tyranny. When a Marxist gets elected and then tries to carry out the platform the people voted for. Example: ObamaCare.

Values. Beliefs that condemn gays or promiscuous women. Usage: the Values Voters Summit.

Voter fraud. Any votes cast by people whose demographic profile makes them likely to vote Democratic, i.e., blacks, Hispanics, or students. Alternate form: election fraud. Usage: “Obama likely won re-election through election fraud.”

Welfare. Any payment from the government, including (when convenient) Social Security, unemployment compensation, or student loans. Usage: “Unemployment compensation is just another welfare program.”


A great speech by a southern white politician

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A great speech by a southern white politician

by digby

The New Orleans mayor gave a speech for the books explaining the necessity of taking down the confederate monuments at long last:

Thank you for coming.

The soul of our beloved City is deeply rooted in a history that has evolved over thousands of years; rooted in a diverse people who have been here together every step of the way – for both good and for ill.

It is a history that holds in its heart the stories of Native Americans: the Choctaw, Houma Nation, the Chitimacha. Of Hernando de Soto, Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the Acadians, the Islenos, the enslaved people from Senegambia, Free People of Color, the Haitians, the Germans, both the empires of Francexii and Spain. The Italians, the Irish, the Cubans, the south and central Americans, the Vietnamese and so many more.

You see: New Orleans is truly a city of many nations, a melting pot, a bubbling cauldron of many cultures.

There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum — out of many we are one.

But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were brought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor of misery of rape, of torture.

America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.

And it immediately begs the questions: why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.

There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth.

As President George W. Bush said at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History & Culture, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”

So today I want to speak about why we chose to remove these four monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, but also how and why this process can move us towards healing and understanding of each other.

So, let’s start with the facts.

The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.

First erected over 166 years after the founding of our city and 19 years after the end of the Civil War, the monuments that we took down were meant to rebrand the history of our city and the ideals of a defeated Confederacy.

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.

These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

Should you have further doubt about the true goals of the Confederacy, in the very weeks before the war broke out, the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy.

He said in his now famous ‘Cornerstone speech’ that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Now, with these shocking words still ringing in your ears, I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us and make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago so we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and more perfect union.

Last year, President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments about the need to contextualize and remember all of our history. He recalled a piece of stone, a slave auction block engraved with a marker commemorating a single moment in 1830 when Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay stood and spoke from it.

President Obama said, “Consider what this artifact tells us about history … on a stone where day after day for years, men and women … bound and bought and sold and bid like cattle on a stone worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand bare feet. For a long time the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as history with a plaque were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men.”

A piece of stone – one stone. Both stories were history. One story told. One story forgotten or maybe even purposefully ignored.

As clear as it is for me today … for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights … I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought.

So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race. I just hope people listen like I did when my dear friend Wynton Marsalis helped me see the truth. He asked me to think about all the people who have left New Orleans because of our exclusionary attitudes.

Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it?

Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?

We all know the answer to these very simple questions.

When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.

And I knew that taking down the monuments was going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing and this is what that looks like. So relocating these Confederate monuments is not about taking something away from someone else. This is not about politics, this is not about blame or retaliation. This is not a naïve quest to solve all our problems at once.

This is, however, about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and, most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves, making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong.

Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division, and yes, with violence.

To literally put the confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past, it is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future.

History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd.

Centuries-old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place.

Here is the essential truth: we are better together than we are apart. Indivisibility is our essence. Isn’t this the gift that the people of New Orleans have given to the world?

We radiate beauty and grace in our food, in our music, in our architecture, in our joy of life, in our celebration of death; in everything that we do. We gave the world this funky thing called jazz; the most uniquely American art form that is developed across the ages from different cultures.

Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffaletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think. All we hold dear is created by throwing everything in the pot; creating, producing something better; everything a product of our historic diversity.

We are proof that out of many we are one — and better for it! Out of many we are one — and we really do love it!

And yet, we still seem to find so many excuses for not doing the right thing. Again, remember President Bush’s words, “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”

We forget, we deny how much we really depend on each other, how much we need each other. We justify our silence and inaction by manufacturing noble causes that marinate in historical denial. We still find a way to say “wait, not so fast.”

But like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “wait has almost always meant never.”

We can’t wait any longer. We need to change. And we need to change now. No more waiting. This is not just about statues, this is about our attitudes and behavior as well. If we take these statues down and don’t change to become a more open and inclusive society this would have all been in vain.

While some have driven by these monuments every day and either revered their beauty or failed to see them at all, many of our neighbors and fellow Americans see them very clearly. Many are painfully aware of the long shadows their presence casts, not only literally but figuratively. And they clearly receive the message that the Confederacy and the cult of the lost cause intended to deliver.

Earlier this week, as the cult of the lost cause statue of P.G.T Beauregard came down, world renowned musician Terence Blanchard stood watch, his wife Robin and their two beautiful daughters at their side.

Terence went to a high school on the edge of City Park named after one of America’s greatest heroes and patriots, John F. Kennedy. But to get there he had to pass by this monument to a man who fought to deny him his humanity.

He said, “I’ve never looked at them as a source of pride … it’s always made me feel as if they were put there by people who don’t respect us. This is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. It’s a sign that the world is changing.”

Yes, Terence, it is, and it is long overdue.

Now is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians who can follow in Terence and Robin’s remarkable footsteps.

A message about the future, about the next 300 years and beyond; let us not miss this opportunity New Orleans and let us help the rest of the country do the same. Because now is the time for choosing. Now is the time to actually make this the City we always should have been, had we gotten it right in the first place.

We should stop for a moment and ask ourselves — at this point in our history, after Katrina, after Rita, after Ike, after Gustav, after the national recession, after the BP oil catastrophe and after the tornado — if presented with the opportunity to build monuments that told our story or to curate these particular spaces … would these monuments be what we want the world to see? Is this really our story?

We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations.

And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people.

In our blessed land we all come to the table of democracy as equals.

We have to reaffirm our commitment to a future where each citizen is guaranteed the uniquely American gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That is what really makes America great and today it is more important than ever to hold fast to these values and together say a self-evident truth that out of many we are one. That is why today we reclaim these spaces for the United States of America.

Because we are one nation, not two; indivisible with liberty and justice for all, not some. We all are part of one nation, all pledging allegiance to one flag, the flag of the United States of America. And New Orleanians are in, all of the way.

It is in this union and in this truth that real patriotism is rooted and flourishes.

Instead of revering a 4-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy we can celebrate all 300 years of our rich, diverse history as a place named New Orleans and set the tone for the next 300 years.

After decades of public debate, of anger, of anxiety, of anticipation, of humiliation and of frustration. After public hearings and approvals from three separate community led commissions. After two robust public hearings and a 6-1 vote by the duly elected New Orleans City Council. After review by 13 different federal and state judges. The full weight of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government has been brought to bear and the monuments in accordance with the law have been removed.

So now is the time to come together and heal and focus on our larger task. Not only building new symbols, but making this city a beautiful manifestation of what is possible and what we as a people can become.

Let us remember what the once exiled, imprisoned and now universally loved Nelson Mandela and what he said after the fall of apartheid. “If the pain has often been unbearable and the revelations shocking to all of us, it is because they indeed bring us the beginnings of a common understanding of what happened and a steady restoration of the nation’s humanity.”

So before we part let us again state the truth clearly.

The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.

As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history. Anything less would render generations of courageous struggle and soul-searching a truly lost cause.

Anything less would fall short of the immortal words of our greatest President Abraham Lincoln, who with an open heart and clarity of purpose calls on us today to unite as one people when he said:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to do all which may achieve and cherish: a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Thank you.


What does it mean?

White nationalism is a sector of the U.S. right-wing political sphere that is characterized by a white supremacist ideology.

As Chip Berlet explained, in a 1992 piece co-authored with Margaret Quigley, white nationalism “oscillates between brutish authoritarianism and vulgar fascism in service of white male supremacy” and white nationalists believe that “social problems are caused by uncivilized people of color, lower-class foreigners, and dual-loyalist Jews.”

Political Research Associates identifies white nationalism as a faction of what it calls the “xenophobic right.” Under the umbrella of white nationalism, it identifies four different major groups:

  • “cultural supremacists,” who believe that non-white people can, and should, adopt white culture
  • “biological racists,” who rely on (false) essentialist views of race
  • “segregationists,” who want race-based enclaves within a country
  • “separatists,” who want separate nations for different races

What’s the difference between white nationalism and white supremacy?

White supremacy is an ideology—a way of understanding the world—as well as a system of oppression, whereas white nationalism is a political faction that practices that ideology and upholds that system.

Some, such as Barbara Perry in her 2001 book In the Name of Hate, and Mana Kharrazi, at “Beyond the Safety Pin,” have argued that white nationalism is a coded term for white supremacy, or a rebranding of white supremacy.

Although the terms aren’t synonymous, it is true that white nationalist groups trade in using coded language to obscure their white supremacy. As Perry points out:

In their search for respectability, some hate groups have rejected explicitly racist terms for more “subtle” code words that act as proxies for traditional rhetoric. Primary among these is the assurance that they don’t hate blacks or Jews or gays; rather they simply love their own race.

This is what makes it possible for blatantly white supremacist leaders like Richard Spencer and David Duke to deny being white supremacist while simultaneously saying things like, “America was until this past generation a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

White nationalists often claim that it’s not that they hate people of color, it’s just that they naturally, as white people, love white people best—and, importantly, they wholeheartedly believe that white people and white culture are under attack.

They see white people and white culture as inherently or “naturally” superior, but instead of understanding that this is actually the definition of white supremacy, they are convinced it’s simply an unassailable truth.

Should I use this term?

Yes, but when you do, be clear that white nationalism and white nationalists are white supremacist in nature.

A good standard that many media outlets use is to say “white nationalist and white supremacist,” to avoid the risk that a reader may interpret white nationalist as a neutral term divorced from racism.

What’s your take on white nationalism? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me!

Note: Many thanks to Jessica Campbell, co-director of Rural Organizing Project, for her help with this post.

What Liberals Don’t Understand About Freedom

Democrats would be more successful with this simple reframing.

This article is adapted from George Lakoff’s the ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! (September 2014) and is printed with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.

FDR, in giving his Four Freedoms speech of 1941, suggested that Democrats’ mission was to expand human freedom. Yet today Democrats have ceded the very concepts of freedom and liberty to Republicans. It’s time to take freedom back as the central Democratic issue.

Conservatives talk constantly about freedom and liberty, defining the nation’s understanding of these core values. But conservatives and progressives understand the concepts of freedom and liberty very differently.

For conservatives, individual responsibility is central: democracy provides the “liberty” to pursue your own interests, without any help from others (which would make you dependent and weak) and without any responsibility for others.

This is the exact opposite of the progressive view, perhaps expressed best by Elizabeth Warren. Senator Warren often repeats a central truth that the conservative view misses entirely: democracy is about citizens caring about one another and working through their government to provide public resources that allow freedom for all.

How do public resources create freedom? Consider the business world. It’s hard to run a business without sewers, without roads and bridges and airports, without an electric grid, without satellite communications, the internet, GPS systems, and without healthy and educated employees. The public—you and me and the rest of us over decades—have, through our government, provided all these public resources. The development of computer science depended on government funding, as did the development of the computer chip industry. Our pharmaceutical industry required NIH research funding. In short: the private depends on the public! Without collective investment, Americans would not be free to start, run, and work in businesses.

The same is true of individual private life. Physical well-being is fundamental to a free life. If you do not have access to health care and you get cancer, you are likely to be trapped not only in debt peonage by the healthcare industry, but in physical anguish or death. So-called “women’s issues” are freedom issues, too—the freedom for individuals to be able to control their own bodies, and follow their doctors’ advice. Without safety regulations for our food and water supply we are not free. Without highways or air traffic controllers or an air force that trains most of our pilots, we would not be free to travel without fear for our safety.

Freedom of opportunity is created through public education, without which most Americans would lack the knowledge and skills that free you to choose a path in our society. Early childhood education is crucial. By the time a child is about five years old, half the neural connections she was born with have died off—the half least used. A huge range of life’s opportunities are made possible or choked off in those early years.

Equality? Serious financial inequality cuts off life’s possibilities. If you are facing an accelerating decline in wealth or long-term financial insecurity, you are less free. Further, your ability to change your position is circumscribed by how expensive it is to be poor — not just financially but in the poverty of educational opportunity, social know-how and connections, pure joy, and breadth of life experiences. And a recent Princeton study shows that with escalating inequality, the wealthy come to exercise vastly more power over our political process.

Unions? Without them, workers can be subject to unpredictable working hours, workplace dangers, unfulfilled pensions, and other forms of corporate servitude. Pensions, after all, are delayed payments for work already done. They increase your freedom in your senior years. Unions also guard against discrimination on the job, whether by race, or gender, or ethnicity.

Foreign policy? The military, economic and political effects of globalization and high technology make it more and more apparent that threats to freedom in other regions of the world become threats to freedom here. The economic policies of China and India make it increasingly difficult to deal with global warming, compounding a problem in which the US has long been complicit. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has led to greater investment by the US in upgrading nuclear weaponry while our domestic budget shrinks. Low wages and anti-unionism abroad has led to major job losses here as companies seek out the cheapest labor internationally. Freedom abroad and freedom at home are always linked.

Global warming? The freedoms affected are enormous: freedom from monster storms, droughts, fires, and floods—as well as the economic disasters that will follow. Freedom to experience nature as we have known it—not just for us but for future generations. On this issue, Democrats have had to battle intransigent Republicans who would sacrifice the freedom of future generations to enjoy the security that we have now.

The freedom to control one’s life and participate in our democracy is what unites progressives. Yet, very few progressives actually say this out loud. Progressives are bad at communicating the interdependence of issues and hence the links among forms of freedom.


The answer lies in an understanding of framing. Frames are mental structures that organize our thoughts. All words evoke larger frames: “tax relief” frames taxation an affliction, for example, instead of a tool for solving collective problems. “Pro-life” evokes the ultimate morality of preserving human life, and makes abortion seem immoral. Speaking of the Affordable Care Act as a “government takeover” turns health care into enslavement. Speaking of the “Islamic State”—or ISIS or ISIL—leads one to think of several thousand militants as a nation on a par with other nations. Using the word “cause” only to mean direct, rather than systemic, causation makes it impossible to see the reality that climate disasters are systemically caused by global warming, and leads to climate denial and its ultimate imposition on the freedom of most people on earth.

In politics, the highest frames are moral frames—ideas of what is right and wrong. Policies are proposed on the assumption that they are right, not wrong or morally irrelevant. Words activate not just policy frames but moral frames, and each time the words are used, the stronger those moral frames get. Even arguing against conservative ideas using conservatives’ language make oppressive frames stronger. Imagine someone saying, “Don’t Think of an Elephant. It then becomes impossible not to. One can’t negate a frame while using that frame—a concept treated in-depth in my new edition of Don’t Think of an Elephant!

Instead, we should reframe the issues we care about. We should describe the regulations and services we need, not in conservative frameworks of cost and control, but in the language of freedom described above.

Because about 98 percent of thought is unconscious, none of this is obvious to most people. Progressives tend to think that just communicating the raw facts on a given issue is sufficient. It isn’t. The facts matter, but their moral relevance is what resonates. People identify with their deepest moral views much more than with facts about policy issues. Freedom is about as deep a moral view as one finds in a democracy. One has to communicate the intimate connection between freedom and fact.



He sat down.
The waiter approached.
'Would you like to see the menu?' he said, 
'or would you like meet the Dish of the Day?'

'Huh?' said Ford.
'Huh?' said Arthur.
'Huh?' said Trillian.
'That's cool,' said Zaphod, 'we'll meet the meat.'

 - snip -

A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beeblebrox's table, 
a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with
large watery eyes, small horns and what might almost have
been an ingratiating smile on its lips.

'Good evening', it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, 
'I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in the parts 
of my body?' 

It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters in 
to a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from
Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and
naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

'Something off the shoulder perhaps?' suggested the animal, 
'Braised in a white wine sauce?'

'Er, your shoulder?' said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

'But naturallymy shoulder, sir,' mooed the animal contentedly, 
'nobody else's is mine to offer.'

Zaphod leapt to his feet and started prodding and feeling
the animal's shoulder appreciatively.

'Or the rump is very good,' murmured the animal. 'I've been 
exercising it and eating plenty of grain, so there's a lot
of good meat there.' 

It gave a mellow grunt, gurgled again and started to chew 
the cud. It swallowed the cud again.

'Or a casselore of me perhaps?' it added.

'You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?' whispered 
Trillian to Ford.

'Me?' said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes, 'I don't mean 

'That's absolutely horrible,' exclaimed Arthur, 'the most revolting 
thing I've ever heard.'

'What's the problem Earthman?' said Zaphod, now transfering his 
attention to the animal's enormous rump.

'I just don't want to eat an animal that's standing there
inviting me to,' said Arthur, 'It's heartless.'

'Better than eating an animal that doesn't want to be
eaten,' said Zaphod.

'That's not the point,' Arthur protested. Then he thought about it 
for a moment. 'Alright,' he said, 'maybe it is the point. I don't 
care, I'm not going to think about it now. I'll just ... er ... I 
think I'll just have a green salad,' he muttered.

'May I urge you to consider my liver?' asked the animal,
'it must be very rich and tender by now, I've been force-feeding 
myself for months.'

'A green salad,' said Arthur emphatically.

'A green salad?' said the animal, rolling his eyes disapprovingly 
at Arthur.

'Are you going to tell me,' said Arthur, 'that I shouldn't have 
green salad?'

'Well,' said the animal, 'I know many vegetables that are
very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually
decided to cut through the whoile tangled problem and breed
an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of
saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.'

It managed a very slight bow.

'Glass of water please,' said Arthur.

'Look,' said Zaphod, 'we want to eat, we don't want to make 
a meal of the issues. Four rare stakes please, and hurry.
We haven't eaten in five hundred and sevebty-six thousand
million years.'

The animal staggered to its feet. It gave a mellow gurgle.
'A very wise coice, sir, if I may say so. Very good,' it
said, 'I'll just nip off and shoot myself.'

He turned and gave a friendly wink to Arthur.
'Don't worry, sir,' he said, 'I'll be very humane.'

It waddled unhurriedly off to the kitchen.

From the book “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” by Douglas Adams

16:9 in English: The Original Function of Groucho Marx’s Resignation Joke

Forside Indhold i dette nummer Arkiv Abonnement In English

16:9 in English: The Original Function of Groucho Marx’s Resignation Joke


Groucho Marx sent the following wire to a Hollywood club he had joined: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”


Jokes that play on self-disparagement should not be taken at face value, as though they were unequivocally sincere expressions of the way in which the jokester actually perceives him- or herself. Sometimes the self-presentation involved is based on a fictional persona, propped up as a target of ridicule, such as the character Jack Benny played in his radio and television shows, when he gave new meaning to the concept of stinginess. The most memorable radio sketch was the one in which Benny is stopped by a mugger who says something like, “All right, buddy, your money or your life,” after which the continuing silence becomes funnier with every passing second. To mistake the fictional character who can’t decide whether he cares more about his own life or the money he is carrying at the moment, for the person pretending to be that character, would be stupid, even if one didn’t know that in his private life, Benny was notoriously generous in giving to charities.

It is also common for professional entertainers to base their jokes on a potential liability for their career – turning that liability into an asset. This is what George Burns did for decades, with self-disparaging jokes that call the audience’s attention to the state of his aging body and his presumed loss of sexual viability. For example at a show he did in 1974, at the age of 78, he made such cracks as: “At my age, the only thing about me that still works is my right foot – the one I dance with,” and “The only thing that gets me excited is if the soup is too hot.” Through these jokes, the comedian turns to his own advantage a condition which might otherwise interfere with his continued acceptance as a vital entertainer. Some comediennes use jokes disparaging their sexual attractiveness in much the same way, such as Phyllis Diller’s “I never made Who’s Who but I’m featured in What’s That,” and “Have you ever seen a soufflé that fell? – nature sure slammed the oven door on me.”

Fig. 1. Groucho Marx.



The present article is a slightly modified version of a chapter in the author’s book, Life Is Like a Glass of Tea: Studies of Classic Jewish Jokes (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1992), pp. 121-130.

One of the all-time classics of self-disparaging humor is Groucho Marx’s famous telegram. In reconstructing the situation in which the comedian actually used the telegram, I will try to show in a kind of “case study” of the joke, that the last thing on Groucho’s mind was any concern with his own failings as a human being. But first, a brief discussion of the way in which the joke was used by Woody Allen, will help to set the stage for our analysis.

Annie Hall

Soon after the opening credits of Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen tells the “Resignation Joke” while facing the camera (fig.2), in his role as Alvy Singer (1):

The – the other important joke for me is one that’s, uh, usually attributed to Groucho Marx but I think it appears originally in Freud’s Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious. And it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing: Uh… “I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women. (Allen, 1983: 4)

This “key joke” functions here as a self-diagnostic tool enabling our hero – as well as the viewer – to conceptualize a particular neurotic pattern in the life of a person who allows his feelings of unworthiness to prevent him from wanting any woman who would want him. This self-diagnostic use of the joke is further developed in a subsequent scene in which Alvy Singer interrupts his love-making with Allison Portchnik, and succeeds in engaging her in a discussion of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (fig. 3-4). When Allison says: “You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid sex with me,” Alvy replies:

Oh, my God! (Then, to the camera) She’s right! Why did I turn off Allison Portchnik? She was – she was beautiful. She was willing. She was real… intelligent. (Sighing) Is it the old Groucho Marx joke? That – that I – I just don’t wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member? (Allen, 1983:  22-23)

As already seen, Alvy attributed this joke to Sigmund Freud’s Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious (1905). Actually, neither the joke itself nor any likely forerunner appears in that book. Alvy’s creator was probably thinking of a joke which had appeared in Theodor Reik’s Jewish Wit in the following form (2):

Every day in a coffee house, two Jews sit and play cards. One day they quarrel and Moritz furiously shouts at his friend: “What kind of a guy can you be if you sit down every evening playing cards with a fellow who sits down to play cards with a guy like you!” (Reik, 1962: 57-8)

Alvy’s confusion of Reik’s book with Freud’s, takes nothing away from Woody Allen’s brilliant use of the joke in Annie Hall.

Virtually nothing has been written about the “Resignation Joke” in the literature on Groucho Marx. This is surprising, considering the notoriety enjoyed by the joke, especially since interest in it was revived by Woody Allen in 1977. Furthermore, none of the commentators who discuss the joke at all – Sheekman (3), McCaffrey (4), Wilson (5) and Arce (6) – raise the question as to why Groucho sent the famous telegram and what purpose it was intended to fulfill. The situation in which the telegram was sent will now be reconstructed, after which the original function of the “Resignation Joke” will be described, and an attempt will be made to account for its effectiveness in fulfilling that intended function.

The Friar’s Club Incident

We have two sources of information concerning the context in which Groucho Marx first used the “Resignation Joke.” The earlier of these sources is the biography written by the comedian’s son, Arthur Marx, who provided the following account:

[The actor, Georgie] Jessel has always been able to make Father laugh, and as a favor to him, he joined the Hollywood chapter of the Friar’s Club a couple of years ago. But Father doesn’t like club life, and, after a few months, he dropped out. The Friars were disappointed over losing him, and wanted to know why he was resigning. They weren’t satisfied with his original explanation – that he just didn’t have time to participate in the club’s activities. He must have another, more valid reason, they felt.

“I do have another reason,” he wrote back promptly. “I didn’t want to tell you, but since you’ve forced the issue, I just don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” (A. Marx, 1954: 45)

Since this biography appeared in 1954, “a couple of years ago” would place the incident somewhere in the vicinity of 1950-1952, assuming that a year or two may have elapsed between the writing and the publication of the book.

The other account we have was written by the comedian himself in the autobiography that was published in 1959. Much unpleasantness had apparently been omitted from the earlier record, perhaps out of discretion, in order to avoid offending anyone, or because any public criticism leveled at the club had to come from Groucho himself, and not his son. And even here, Groucho took the precaution of withholding the name of the club, which appears under the same alias (“Delaney”) that is jokingly applied to a number of parties portrayed in the autobiography in an unfavorable light.

Groucho begins by telling of his general aversion for clubs, and this is consistent with the earlier description in his son’s book, though here the aversion is concretized to a fuller extent:

I’m not a particularly gregarious fellow. If anything, I suppose I’m a bit on the misanthropic side. I’ve tried being a jolly good club member, but after a month or so my mouth always aches from baring my teeth in a false smile. The pseudo-friendliness, the limp handshake and the extra firm handshake (both of which should be abolished by the Health Department), are not for me. This also goes for the hearty slap-on-the-back and the all-around, general clap-trap that you are subjected to from the All-American bores which you would instantly flee from if you weren’t trapped in a clubhouse. (G. Marx, 1959: 320)

In the remainder of his account, specific grievances Groucho had against the Friar’s Club (alias “Delaney Club”) come to light:

Some years ago, after considerable urging, I consented to join a prominent theatrical organization. By an odd coincidence, it was called the Delaney Club. Here, I thought, within these hallowed walls of Thespis, we would sit of an evening with our Napoleon brandies and long-stemmed pipes and discuss Chaucer, Charles Lamb, Ruskin, Voltaire, Booth, the Barrymores, Duse, Shakespeare, Bernhardt and all the other legendary figures of the theatre and literature. The first night I went there, I found thirty-two fellows playing gin rummy with marked cards, five members shooting loaded dice on a suspiciously bumpy carpet and four members in separate phone booths calling women who were other members’ wives.

A few nights later the club had a banquet. I don’t clearly remember what the occasion was. I think it was to honor one of the members who had successfully managed to evade the police for over a year. The dining tables were long and narrow, and unless you arrived around three in the afternoon you had no control over who your dinner companion was going to be. That particular night I was sitting next to a barber who had cut me many times, both socially and with a razor. At one point he looked slowly around the room, then turned to me and said, “Groucho, we’re certainly getting a lousy batch of new members!”

I chose to ignore this remark and tried talking to him about Chaucer, Ruskin and Shakespeare, but he had switched to denouncing electric razors as a death blow to the tonsorial arts, so I dried up and resumed drinking. The following morning I sent the club a wire stating, PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER. (G. Marx, 1959: 320-321)

Allowances should certainly be made for a good deal of exaggeration in the account cited above. Much of it is tongue-in-cheek, and designed to entertain the reader. However, the basic picture, regarding Groucho’s attitude toward the Friar’s Club, can undoubtedly be taken at face value.

If the two accounts – the son’s and the father’s – are allowed to complete each other, we can conclude that the full sequence of events probably looked something like this:

1) Groucho allows himself to be talked into joining the Friar’s Club, though he doesn’t like clubs in general.

2) He quickly becomes fed up with this club in particular, because of what he sees as its low intellectual and ethical standards.

3) The last straw is the final offensive remark in a series of insults to which he is subjected by a member of the club.

4) Groucho notifies the club that he is quitting, inoffensively giving as his excuse that he just doesn’t have time to participate in the club’s activities.

5) Unhappy about Groucho’s resignation and sensing that there may be more to it than the comedian is letting on, club members press him for the “real” reason.

6) Wanting to be done with this entanglement once and for all, Groucho pretends to disclose the real reason in the famous telegram, and is left alone from then on.

Seen in this light, it is clear that the “Resignation Joke” was invented to fulfill a tactical purpose: that of extricating Groucho from an unpleasant situation, by discouraging any further efforts on the part of club members to obtain a fuller explanation as to his reasons for resigning. But why did it work? To some degree, the apparent self-disparagement may have had a disarming effect. However, I suspect that two properties of the telegram played an even more important role in enabling it to fulfill its intended social function.

One of those properties is a defiance of logic of essentially the same type as that found in impossible figures which induce cognitive confusion by violating their own logic in so logically compelling a manner that we cannot grasp how they fit together.

“Penrose triangle”

“Three-stick clevis” or
“Two-pronged trident”

When Groucho Marx couched his “explanation” in the form of an impos­sible figure, he confronted the club-members with a piece of reasoning that was as impregnable to logic as a “Penrose triangle” or “three-stick clevis,” and which undoubtedly mystified those who would otherwise have pressed him for the real reason for his resignation. There is simply no arguing with an impossible figure, or with a person who is capable of generating one, which in a game situation is like checkmate in the sense that it marks the end of the contest, allowing for no subsequent move.

The second property of the telegram which accounts for its effectiveness, is the fact that it was framed as a joke. In delivering his “explanation” in a form calculated to provoke laughter, Groucho made it difficult for the club-members to know how to react without looking foolish, especially since they were already implicated in the joke, as a collective butt. As one commentator put it–though not in connection with the famous telegram: “Groucho may be the most powerful clown ever. […] because Groucho has the power to turn us nonfools into his private stock.” (Despot, 1981: 671)

Furthermore, the comedian’s toying with shared ridicule may have func­tioned as a kind of negotiation on his part: signaling his preference for sever­ing the relationship in a playful spirit, as well as his willingness to assume (or pretend to assume) the blame for its failure, thereby sparing the club-members’ feelings in exchange for a clean break. It was also a means for telling them indirectly and unmistakably that they were no match for his wit.

In any event, the joke put an end to the club-members’ requests for an explanation, thereby fulfilling a very specific social function. In the process, of course, Groucho launched a hilarious “one-liner” which (he must have sensed) would be retold countless times, and would become a lasting part of his own comic profile.

Paradoxically, one of the most striking examples of a self-disparaging joke turns out to have been motivated by a wish on the jokester’s part to dissociate himself once and for all from a group of people to whom he felt superior.

– – –

Fig. 2. Woody Allen tells the “Resignation Joke” in Annie Hall.


(1) I have taken the liberty of correcting the typography of the title of Freud’s book.


Fig. 3. “You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid sex with me.”

Fig. 4. “Is it the old Groucho Marx joke?”


(2) For the publication history of this joke, see Life Is Like a Glass of Tea: Studies of Classic Jewish Jokes (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1992),  pp. 189-190.

(3) In his introduction to The Groucho Letters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), Arthur Sheekman wrote of the joke: “There, in a few satirical words, is one of the most astute and revealing observations about the self-hating, socially ambitious human animal” (p. 8).

(4) For Donald W. McCaffrey, the joke was a non sequitur, resulting from “a chain reaction of delightful pseudo-logic that almost sounded valid.” The Golden Age of Sound Comedy (South Brunswick and New York: Barnes, 1973), p. 74.

(5) Christopher Wilson described the “Resignation Joke” as an example of shared ridicule, through which “the joker derides himself and his audience simultaneously […] The message of shared disparagement being–’If you don’t mind me, you’ve got no taste!'” Wilson was also the first to identify the joke as “a variant of the famous Jewish joke–’What sort of a shmuck do you think I am? I’m not going to sit down and play cards with the sort of shmuck who’d sit down and play cards with me.” Jokes: Form, Content, Use and Function (London: Academic Press, 1978), p. 190.

(6) In his introduction to The Groucho Phile (London: W. H. Allen, 1978), Hector Arce was the first to set the telegram in its social context: Referring to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills, Arce wrote that Groucho “had some misgivings about the quality of the members, doubts which were verified a few years later when an infamous card-cheating scandal erupted there. When he decided to drop out of the group, he wrote: ‘Gentlemen: Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any social organisation that will accept me as a member'” (p. xv).


After completing this article, I found the following remark entirely by chance: “I can never be satisfied with anyone who would be block-head enough to have me” – a statement penned by none other than Abraham Lincoln in 1838 (7). Its possible significance in relation to Groucho Marx’s resignation joke will be considered in a future article.

(7) Letter to Eliza Browning (Mrs. Orville H. Browning) dated April 1, 1838. This letter is reproduced in its entirety in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1953), Vol. 1, pp. 117-119, and can presently be accessed here or here.


Quatation record

Curiously enough, this one-liner is never quoted in precisely the same way by any two people. However, its underlying concept is so strong that the wording of the punch-line can be varied without in any way altering the impact of the joke. Here are twelve versions of the main sentence:

“I just don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

Arthur Marx, Life with Groucho. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954; p. 45.

“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me. New York: Bernard Geis, 1959; p. 321.

“I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

Arthur Sheekman in Groucho Marx, The Groucho Letters. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967; p. 8.

“I wouldn’t belong to any organization that would have me for a member.”

Joey Adams, Encyclopedia of Humor. Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968; p. 359.

“I wouldn’t join a club that would have me as a member.”

Lore and Maurice Cowan, The Wit of the Jews. London: Leslie Frewin, 1970; p. 96.

“I wouldn’t belong to an organization that would have me as a member.”

Donald W. Mc­Caffrey, The Golden Age of Sound Comedy. South Bruns-wick and New York: Barnes, 1973; p. 74.

“I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.”

Woody Allen’s film, Annie Hall (1977).

“I don’t care to belong to any social organization that will accept me as a member.”

Hector Arce in Groucho Marx, The Groucho Phile. London: W. H. Allen, 1978; p.  xv.

“I don’t wish to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.”

Christopher P. Wilson, Jokes: Form, Content, Use and Function.. London: Academic Press, 1978; p. 190.

“I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member.”

William Novak and Moshe Waldoks, The Big Book of Jewish Humor. New York: Harper & Row, 1981; p. 85.

“I do not care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”

Joseph Dorinson, “Jewish Humor. Mechanism for Defense, Weapon for Cultural Affirmation,” Journal of Psycho-History 8, 4  (1981);  p. 452.

“I do not wish to belong to the kind of club that accepts people like me as member.”

Leo Rosten, Giant Book of Laughter. New York: Crown, 1985; p. 227.

I have run into only one commentator who actually succeeded in butchering this joke:

“Another of the many stories about the Marx Brothers concerns Groucho, who is alleged to have applied for membership of an exclu­sive New York club. When he was told that his application was accepted he is said to have pointed out that no club with a good repu­tation could possibly accept Groucho Marx as a member–therefore he would rather stay away. And he did.” John Montgomery, Comedy Films. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954; p. 251.

The false dichotomy of trigger warnings BY DANTIP on MAY 28, 2015


The false dichotomy of trigger warnings


by Massimo Pigliucci

There has been lots of talk about so-called “trigger warnings” lately. Although they originated outside the university (largely on feminist message boards in the ‘90s, and then in the blogosphere [1]), within the academy this is the idea that professors should issue warnings to their students about potentially disturbing material that they are about to read or otherwise be exposed to. The warnings are necessary, advocates say, because such material may “trigger” episodes of discomfort, emotional pain, or outright post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This is clearly a crucial issue for a teacher such as myself, who is responsible for contributing to the education of scores of students every semester, and who is of course also concerned about their welfare and their thriving as human beings. So I read a lot, and widely (meaning both pro and con), about the issue, and have talked to colleagues and a number of students, in order to make up my mind not just in a theoretical sense, but also as guidance to my own actual practice in the classroom.

One of the most recent episodes concerning the controversy over trigger warnings (henceforth, TW) featured four Columbia University students belonging to the local Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, who wrote a letter to the Columbia Spectator [2] arguing that exposure to the writings of the classic Roman poet Ovid should have come with TW because they contain references to rape. Referring to the experience of another student in a Literature Humanities course, the letter reads, in part:

During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

As far as I can tell, this is pretty representative of some students’ point of view on the issue. Let me now give you a taste of how some faculty responded to this sort of argument. (I will ignore the more brash and insensitive commentary that has come especially from some conservative and libertarian quarters, because I don’t think they help the discussion move forward. If you really wish to have a taste of them, read through a partial compilation published by The Washington Post [3].)

For instance, a group of seven professors who teach in some of the fields most often targeted by advocates of TW — gender studies, critical race studies, film and visual studies, literary studies —listed a number of reasons why TW are a bad idea [4], among which:

Faculty cannot predict in advance what will be triggering for students.The idea that trauma is reignited by representations of the particular traumatizing experience is not supported by the research on post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma.

There is no mechanism, in the discourse of ‘triggering,’ for distinguishing material that is oppositional or critical in its representation of traumatizing experience from that which is sensationalistic or gratuitous.

PTSD is a disability; as with all disabilities, students and faculty deserve to have effective resources provided by independent campus offices.

Faculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty teaching in gender/sexuality studies, critical race theory, and the visual/performing arts will likely be disproportionate targets of student complaints about triggering.

Trigger warnings may provide a dangerous illusion that a campus has solved or is systematically addressing its problems with sexual assault, racial aggression, and other forms of campus violence, when, in fact, the opposite may be true.

These two excerpts already lay out much of the meat of the discourse on TW. On the one hand, faculty ought to be sensitive, rather than dismissive, to students’ concerns. This is our duty both as teachers and, simply speaking, as human beings. On the other hand, there are several reasons to think that requiring formal administrative policies about TW (as a number of students are now requesting, and universities are considering) is likely to have a good deal of negative consequences, not only for faculty, but for the students themselves.

Indeed, some students are pushing back against their own colleagues. Here is a number of comments collected during a survey on TW by a faculty who wished to explore the issue with her own students [5]:

“I would like to experience the novel without warning beforehand.”

“I think one purpose of triggers is to face deep trauma and to hopefully grow from it.”

“This is the real world and bad things happen. Caring for those affected by these topics is also a necessity.”

“If someone is so shocked that they couldn’t deal with readings, they should really be seeking help professionally and not take the class at this time.”

The same faculty, Lori Horvitz, points out that she feels unjustly attacked when students who push TW imply (or say outright), that she is simply unconcerned about their welfare: “I want to scream: ‘I care! This is why I have chosen to teach difficult material, about the oppression of women and minorities, in the first place.’”

The American Association of University Professors has also tackled the issue, and it has come down squarely against TW [6], for many of the same reasons listed by the multi-faculty op-ed mentioned above. The report begins by noticing how the range of subject matters that have been put forth for TW is vast, covering pretty much every potentially controversial (and educational) topic within the academy: racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. The authors of the report mentioned a specific incident in which students at Wellesley College objected to a sculpture of a man in his underwear on the grounds that it might be a source of triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault, even though the artist wanted to represent sleepwalking.

Here are some of the most salient points of the AAUP report:

* The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.

* [TW] single out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. … If such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether.

* Administration regulation constitutes interference with academic freedom; faculty judgment is a legitimate exercise of autonomy.

* Trigger warnings conflate exceptional individual experience of trauma with the anticipation of trauma for an entire group.

* A trigger warning might lead a student to simply not read an assignment or it might elicit a response from students they otherwise would not have had.

* Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered.

* Trigger warnings reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education.

* The classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD, which is a medical condition that requires serious medical treatment.

* Trigger warnings are a way of displacing the problem, however, locating its solution in the classroom rather than in administrative attention to social behaviors that permit sexual violence to take place.

Again, while students’ concerns should never be treated lightly, the above list also raises a number of crucial objections to TW which go right to the core of what it means to engage in higher education, and they too should not be dismissed as simply a parochial attempt by faculty to retain their “privilege,” or simply to save their ass from being sued. (To achieve the latter goal, actually, it would probably be easier to just slap a generic label on every syllabus and be done with it. Though of course that would hardly do anything useful for anyone.)

One of the recent contributions to discussions about TW that I found most compelling, however, is an article by Todd Gitlin in Tablet Magazine [7]. Gitlin doesn’t provide a systematic list of concerns, he simply begins by recalling a stark episode that occurred during his own education, when one of his teachers exposed the class — needless to say, without warning —  to two films about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The first one was Triumph of the Will [8], often considered the “greatest” Nazi propaganda movie ever made; the second one was Night and Fog, by Alain Resnais [9], the first ever documentary about the Holocaust. This is Gitlin’s commentary on the episode:

The juxtaposition of the two films was, of course, no accident. They were programmed in sequence to make unavoidable the sense of a causal vector running from the submissive ecstasies of Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz. You didn’t need a diagram. It was a shattering afternoon. The audience left in dead silence.

I’ve not forgotten the shock and logic of the segue. (Neither has a classmate I checked with, who was there as well.) Those images were engraved into our souls. The cinematic double whammy certainly made me, to use the current euphemism, ‘uncomfortable.’ Oh yes, to put it mildly, it made me very uncomfortable. That was the point. Mission accomplished, Professor Sam Beer of Harvard’s Soc Sci 2. You impressed upon this 19-year-old soul an unbearable, ineradicable warning about mass rallies and mass murder. You didn’t draw me a diagram. You burned into me that more powerful thing: a synapse.

Gitlin then recounted his very recent encounter with journalist Charif Kiwan, who introduced — at Columbia University — a documentary about the ongoing destruction in Syria with the following words: “We want to haunt your imagination. Please be disturbed.”

So, what is there to be done about trigger warnings? On the one hand, we have a strong push by (some) students for a fairly broad application of the concept to an extensive variety of subject matters and individual texts or other materials that are often used in academic settings. The rationale behind this push is a series of concerns, ranging from not wanting to experience discomfort in class to wishing to avoid episodes of PTSD in people who are prone to them.

On the other hand, we have a pretty strong push back by a number of faculty, and one of their leading organizations. Here too the rationales are varied, from issues of academic freedom to the lack of empirical support for the effectiveness of TW, from the possibility that they offer a false sense of security (and, mostly, cover for the administration) to the risk of invalidating precisely what is most precious about higher education.

There is one concept that seems to have eluded the majority of articles and interviews on TW, though (of course, I haven’t done an exhaustive search, and I would be stunned if nobody has brought this up before!): the idea of best practice, on the part of faculty.

University faculty are professionals who develop fundamentally two skills during their careers: scholarship and teaching (either in that or in reverse order of importance, depending on the institution at which they work). Both of the corresponding activities inevitably present ethical issues. A faculty qua scholar, for instance, knows (or should know) that it is not acceptable to plagiarize other people’s work, or to fabricate data, or to take unfair advantage of the work done by junior colleagues and students. This doesn’t mean, of course, that these things don’t happen. But when they do, both the University and professional organizations already have tools to act appropriately to redress the wrong and punish the offender.

Similarly, when it comes to teaching, my colleagues and I know that certain things are unacceptable. Students’ complaints should not be dismissed out of hand; students should not only be allowed, but encouraged, to analyze critically not just the materials they are given, but even the very structure of the courses they are taking, no holds barred. Again, when faculty fail to do so there are already mechanisms at the professional and administrative levels to deal with it (I know because I was a Department Chair for five years, and I have dealt with some pertinent cases).

When it comes to the issue we have been tackling, then, best practice most certainly includes the idea that one doesn’t spring shocking material on students for the sake of shock: it has to have pedagogical content. It is not okay, say, to start a class on human anatomy by showing a video of a beheading carried out by ISIS. There would be no point at all in doing so, other than a perverse delight in disturbing one’s students. But such a video may very well be pertinent in a class devoted to the study of terrorism, for instance. Should it be accompanied by a warning that potentially disturbing material will be shown? Hell yes, but that’s just commonsense (and, again, good practice), as the material is disturbing quite irrespectively of whether it triggers memories of one’s own experiences (not many students have that particular kind of memory, after all). What about something like Ovid’s description of rape in the Metamorphoses? [10] I’m not a classicist, but that does not sound to me like it requires a special warning, although it would be good — in the modern classroom — for the faculty to lead a discussion not only about the poetic language (which is, indeed, beautiful) but also the cultural and historical context that made rape the subject of poetry to begin with.

The issue, then, is: can we come up with general, encompassing rules for what requires a warning and what doesn’t? And who is to make the relevant decisions in practice?

The answer to the first question seems clear on empirical grounds: no. There are too many situations and materials, and too varied students’ experiences for it to be possible to arrive at operationally useful rules. And a simple generic label won’t do the trick, in fact likely having negative pedagogical consequences, making a mockery of the whole idea of TW.

The answer to the second question is: not students, and not administrators, but faculty (though with input from both students and administrators). Why? Because, as hard as it seems to understand for the American public these days, teachers are professionals, who are therefore much better positioned than either students or administrators when it comes to decide what and how to teach.

Administrators these days tend to think of themselves as the real owners of universities, but in fact they are by far the least important component of all: both research and teaching is done by faculty, and the major point of a university is to teach students. Administrators are there to, well, administer, i.e., to do their best so that the people they serve — the students and the faculty — can respectively learn and do their jobs. Period.

Students, for their part, are not “customers,” as they are often portrayed nowadays. And they are not equal players in the classroom either. There is a (good) reason why I’m standing in front of the class and they are lined up on the other side, just like there is a reason why you sit on the table while the doctor examines you, not the other way around. That said, of course, students (like patients) have rights, which include being heard by the faculty (doctor) with the expectation that their point of view will be taken into due consideration, and that if it isn’t, they have further recourse (to the university’s or the hospital’s administration).

Best practice, then, means that we should reject the imposition of official policies about TW, but also that faculty have a (moral, pedagogical) responsibility to conduct themselves in the classroom in a way that serves their students to the best of their abilities. And this may include occasional warnings for specific instances of potentially disturbing material. But bear in mind the conclusion of Gitlin’s essay mentioned above: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free” Not comfortable — free.”


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] How The “Trigger Warning” Took Over The Internet, by A. Vingiano, BuzzFeed, 5 May 2014.

[2] Our identities matter in Core classrooms, by K. Johnson, T. Lynch, E. Monroe, and T. Wang, Columbia Spectator, 30 April 2015.

[3] Columbia students claim Greek mythology needs a trigger warning, by M.E. Miller, The Washington Post, 14 May 2015.

[4] Trigger Warnings Are Flawed, by E. Freeman, B. Herrera, N. Hurley, H. King, D. Luciano, D. Seitler, and P. White, Inside Higher Education, 29 May 2014.

[5] Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. Why should books?, by L. Horvitz, The Guardian, 18 May 2015.

[6] On Trigger Warnings, by the AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, August 2014.

[7] Please Be Disturbed: Triggering Can Be Good for You, Kids, by T. Gitlin, Tablet Magazine, 13 March 2015.

[8] You can watch the full Nazi propaganda movie (1hr 44m) here.

[9] Here is Resnais’ documentary (about 32m).

[10] Which you can check out for yourself here.

The false dichotomy of nature-nurture, with notes on feminism, transgenderism, and the construction of races

Source: The false dichotomy of nature-nurture, with notes on feminism, transgenderism, and the construction of races

The Reactionary Temptation An open-minded inquiry into the close-minded ideology that is the most dominant political force of our time — and can no longer be ignored. By Andrew Sullivan

The Reactionary Temptation

An open-minded inquiry into the close-minded ideology that is the most dominant political force of our time — and can no longer be ignored.


Border wall near Los Indios, Texas, 2015. Photograph by Richard Misrach
8:59 pm

Look around you. Donald Trump is now president of the United States, having won on a campaign that trashed liberal democracy itself, and is now presiding over an administration staffed, in part, with adherents of a political philosophy largely alien to mainstream American politics. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has driven his country from postcommunist capitalism to a new and popular czardom, empowered by nationalism and blessed by a resurgent Orthodox Church. Britain, where the idea of free trade was born, is withdrawing from the largest free market on the planet because of fears that national identity and sovereignty are under threat. In France, a reconstructed neofascist, Marine Le Pen, has just won a place in the final round of the presidential election. In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant right became the second-most-popular vote-getter — a new high-water mark for illiberalism in that once famously liberal country. Austria narrowly avoided installing a neo-reactionary president in last year’s two elections. Japan is led by a government attempting to rehabilitate its imperial, nationalist past. Poland is now run by an illiberal Catholic government that is dismembering key liberal institutions. Turkey has morphed from a resolutely secular state to one run by an Islamic strongman, whose powers were just ominously increased by a referendum. Israel has shifted from secular socialism to a raw ethno-nationalism.

We are living in an era of populism and demagoguery. And yes, there’s racism and xenophobia mixed into it. But what we are also seeing, it seems to me, is the manifest return of a distinctive political and intellectual tendency with deep roots: reactionism.

Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt. If conservatives are pessimistic, reactionaries are apocalyptic. If conservatives value elites, reactionaries seethe with contempt for them. If conservatives believe in institutions, reactionaries want to blow them up. If conservatives tend to resist too radical a change, reactionaries want a revolution. Though it took some time to reveal itself, today’s Republican Party — from Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution to today’s Age of Trump — is not a conservative party. It is a reactionary party that is now at the peak of its political power.

The reactionary impulse is, of course, not new in human history. Whenever human life has changed sharply and suddenly over the eons, reactionism has surfaced. It appeared in early modernity with the ferocity of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in response to the emergence of Protestantism. Its archetypal moment came in the wake of the French Revolution, as monarchists and Catholics surveyed the damage and tried to resurrect the past. Its darkest American incarnation took place after Reconstruction, as a backlash to the Civil War victory of the North; a full century later, following the success of the civil-rights movement, it bubbled up among the white voters of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” The pendulum is always swinging. Sometimes it swings back with unusual speed and power.

You can almost feel the g-force today. What are this generation’s reactionaries reacting to? They’re reacting, as they have always done, to modernity. But their current reaction is proportional to the bewildering pace of change in the world today. They are responding, at some deep, visceral level, to the sense that they are no longer in control of their own lives. They see the relentless tides of globalization, free trade, multiculturalism, and mass immigration eroding their sense of national identity. They believe that the profound shifts in the global economy reward highly educated, multicultural enclaves and punish more racially and culturally homogeneous working-class populations. And they rebel against the entrenched power of elites who, in their view, reflexively sustain all of the above.

I know why many want to dismiss all of this as mere hate, as some of it certainly is. I also recognize that engaging with the ideas of this movement is a tricky exercise in our current political climate. Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being “normalized.” But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Indeed, the more I read today’s more serious reactionary writers, the more I’m convinced they are much more in tune with the current global mood than today’s conservatives, liberals, and progressives. I find myself repelled by many of their themes — and yet, at the same time, drawn in by their unmistakable relevance. I’m even tempted, at times, to share George Orwell’s view of the neo-reactionaries of his age: that, although they can sometimes spew dangerous nonsense, they’re smarter and more influential than we tend to think, and that “up to a point, they are right.”

I met Charles Kesler in March on an idyllic sunny day in Pasadena, California, where he lives. He’s a soft-spoken, thoughtful figure, with a shock of white hair and a bemused smile on his face. He grew up in West Virginia, with a schoolteacher mom and a dad who owned a grocery store. They were, he told me, culturally conservative and politically mixed. He is now a professor at Claremont McKenna, where he focuses on the roots of a specifically American conservatism, exemplified by his reading of the Founding Fathers. (He’s the editor of a very popular edition of The Federalist Papers.) He also edits the Claremont Review of Books, a small conservative version of the New York Review of Books that attracted attention first in its critique of George W. Bush’s Iraq War, and again last year, when it came out in support of Donald Trump just when the entire Republican Establishment was trying to destroy him. Along with The American Conservative and the new quarterly American Affairs, it’s now a central forum for many of the sentiments that helped Trump win the presidency.

What on earth was a professor like Kesler doing backing a man who has barely read a book in his life, seems to think Frederick Douglass is still alive, and who’d last less than a few seconds in a Kesler seminar? He smiled a little defensively. He’s perfectly aware of Trump’s manifest flaws — his “crudity, anger and egotism,” as he has written. He has conceded that Trump was seeking a job “for which everyone — everyone — agrees he is conspicuously unready.” Even when we met, he averred: “I don’t know how serious he is.” And yet he still gambled on a despotic, undisciplined, impulsive former Democrat.

It was an act of desperation, he explained. In classic reactionary fashion, he believes that we are living through a crisis of American democracy. The Claremont consensus (to put a name on this strain of thought) holds that beneath the veneer of constitutional democracy, we are actually governed by a soft despotism of permanent experts, bureaucrats, pundits, and academics who ignore the majority of the American people. This elite has encouraged a divisive social transformation of the country, has led us into disastrous wars, and has created a deepening economic crisis for the middle class. Anyone — anyone — who could challenge this elite’s power was therefore a godsend.

Kesler’s worldview is rooted in the ideas of the 20th-century political philosopher Leo Strauss. Strauss’s idiosyncratic genius defies easy characterization, but you could argue, as Mark Lilla did in his recent bookThe Shipwrecked Mind, that he was a reactionary in one specific sense: A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Strauss viewed modernity as collapsing into nihilism and relativism and barbarism all around him. His response was to go back to the distant past — to the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Maimonides, among others — to see where the West went wrong, and how we could avoid the horrific crimes of the 20th century in the future.

One answer was America, where Strauss eventually found his home at the University of Chicago. Some of his disciples — in particular, the late professor Harry Jaffa — saw the American Declaration of Independence, with its assertion of the self-evident truth of the equality of human beings, as a civilizational high point in human self-understanding and political achievement. They believed it revived the ancient Greek and Roman conception of natural law. Yes, they saw the paradox of a testament to human freedom having been built on its opposite — slavery — but once the post–Civil War constitutional amendments were ratified, they believed that the American constitutional order was effectively set forever, and that the limited government that existed in the late-19th and early-20th centuries required no fundamental change. (Jaffa made an exception for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he believed was the only way to enforce the post–Civil War amendments against southern resistance.)

The expanded government of the last century, begun in earnest by Woodrow Wilson, was, therefore, an unconstitutional and anti-democratic power grab by educated elites. Kesler and many of his fellow Claremonters believe democracy is exercised best at the local level, in accord with the “unenlightened” views of the citizenry, or directly through members of Congress, unencumbered by the layers of bureaucracy, executive fiat, and the control of centralizing modern governments. They call this ever-growing apparatus “the administrative state,” and they loathe it not so much for how it constricts economic growth (as many conservatives do) but for how it creates a kind of political tyranny — a ruling class that can enforce its morality and policy preferences through Executive-branch regulation. The Obama administration’s reworking of Obamacare after its passage, for example, and its climate and immigration policies were all big policy changes that never went through Congress.

The Claremonters were particularly upset last year by the Obama administration’s use of Title IX to direct all public schools to institute transgender-friendly policies for bathroom facilities. “Political correctness,” Kesler believes, “is a serious and totalist politics, aspiring to open the equivalent of a vast reeducation camp for the millions of defective Americans who are products of racism, sexism, classism, and so forth.” He supported Trump because the candidate relished taking on both the administrative state and the PC movement: “If relimiting the government by constitutional means was not an option … then what is left but to use the system as it is, and try placing a strong leader, one of our own, someone who can get something done in our interest, at the head of it?”

Kesler also saw in Trump’s instincts on immigration and trade a return to 19th-century Republicanism, which he believes is newly relevant in a post–Cold War world. The party of McKinley and Coolidge had, after all, been one that favored tariffs. The party platform of 1896 declared, “We renew and emphasize our allegiance to the policy of protection, as the bulwark of American industrial independence, and the foundation of American development and prosperity.” In 1924, the GOP platform reiterated this: “We believe in protection as a national policy.” Kesler saw Trump as tapping into this old Republicanism, noting that he was the first president in living memory to use the word protection favorably in his inaugural address.

On foreign policy, too, Kesler projects onto Trump’s impulses a return to the classic American position before the Second World War: suspicious of multinational entanglements, prickly in the defense of the western hemisphere, and dedicated primarily to the national interest. On immigration, Kesler sees in Trump a return to the 1920 Republican platform, which proposed to limit the number of foreigners to “that which can be assimilated with reasonable rapidity, and to favor immigrants whose standards are similar to ours.” Trump, Kesler wants to believe, vaults the conservative movement back more than 70 years. And he’s fine with that.

“We would happily trade our current government for one that worked exactly as designed in 1787, as amended in 1865 and shortly thereafter.” You would be hard put to find such a blunt declaration in Kesler’s Claremont Review, but it’s just one of many provocations that appeared last year in the now-defunct group blog the Journal of American Greatness. The blog had a madcap feel to it, bristling with almost tongue-in-cheek assaults on the modern world, on stuffy career conservatives, and risible “social justice warriors.” Its authors included a young Straussian, Julius Krein, who is now editing a new journal, American Affairs, and an older student of Jaffa’s, Michael Anton, who now works in the press office at the National Security Council.

Anton is the most interesting intellectual behind Trumpism, today’s American version of reactionism. He’s the suave, credentialed foil to Steve Bannon’s rumpled autodidact, a Trump official who just published a paper on Machiavelli in an academic journal. I recently met him for dinner near the White House. An immensely tall man, of piercing intelligence and meticulous attire, Anton is a product of post-hippie California, one of many contemporary reactionaries who rejected their reflexive youthful liberalism because of their revulsion at the political left they encountered on campus — in Anton’s case, at Berkeley.

Once a conventional Republican, an aide to George W. Bush, and an advocate of the Iraq War, Anton decisively broke ranks in 2016 and came out as a proud reactionary. Anton’s critique of the current moment — and his justification for backing Trump — can best be summarized by the slogan the group blog adopted: “What difference, at this point, does it make?” (It doubled as a snarky reference to one of Hillary Clinton’s comments during the Benghazi hearings.) He became famous for his essay “The Flight 93 Election,” in which he compared America in 2016 to the 9/11 plane hijacked by jihadists and on a course to crash in Washington. In those circumstances, he recommended: “Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.” It’s not just that Trump is better than the alternatives: “The truth is that Trump articulated, if incompletely and inconsistently, the right stances on the right issues — immigration, trade and war — right from the beginning.”

The Claremont critique of the administrative state and the liberal elite does not appear to be enough for Anton. His aim is at what he calls, rather wickedly, “the Party of Davos,” or the “Davoisie.” This is the administrative state gone global. With The Economist as its Bible and its social liberalism and economic conservatism turned into unquestionable dogmas, the Davoisie, perched in the Alps, luxuriates in self-love. It routinely shoots down any critiques of globalization, sees few problems with mass immigration, and is still busy celebrating an ever-more-powerful European Union and ever-more-expansive free-trade agreements among ever-more countries.

None of this, Anton concluded, has anything to do with the American people and their interests. The Davoisie were too busy lifting foreigners out of poverty and celebrating the latest disruptive tech invention to cast a glance toward, say, the beleaguered inhabitants of Kansas or Michigan. Anton admired Trump, he wrote last year, largely because “he’s single-handedly revived talking about government serving its own citizens first.” Trump understood that the American idea is a compact “for the American people, and not for foreigners, immigrants (unless we choose to welcome them) or anyone else.” Three months into a Trump presidency, Anton hasn’t changed his mind.

Politics comes before economics, Anton insists. Free trade may boost our economy, encourage efficiencies, and advance innovation and wealth, but it affects different people differently. And this matters in a democracy. A society’s stability and fairness and unity count for more than its aggregate wealth — especially when, as in recent decades, almost all the direct benefits have gone to the superrich, and all the costs have been paid by the working poor. In the Journal of American Greatness, Krein scorned the abstractions so beloved of the Davoisie: “There is no ‘free trade’ outside of undergraduate economics textbooks,” he wrote, “and trade agreements exist precisely to determine the winners and losers of those zero-sum transactions inherent in any global competition.” Economically unifying the entire planet is not necessarily in a nation’s interest at all.

Nor, according to today’s reactionaries, is mass immigration. And it’s on this topic — more than any other — where the abstract ideas of neo-reactionaries connect with the fears, passions, and cultural panic of many among the population at large.

The Journal of American Greatness’s position goes something like this: The economic benefits (for capitalist elites) and multicultural delights (for progressive elites) of mass immigration are taken for granted by the Davoisie — and by liberals and free-market conservatives more generally. If you live in a major metropolis, with unprecedented prosperity and a tradition of assimilating newcomers, what’s not to like? And if you’re an immigrant, these places are full of jobs you are happy to take. But if your family is in a rural area or a heartland city, where ethnic diversity has not been the norm in the past, and where globalization has dramatically eroded traditional blue-collar jobs, it’s a little more complicated.

Mass immigration, neo-reactionaries argue, creates more job competition for those without college degrees, and, by the laws of supply and demand, lowers wages for some, even as it massively increases profits for a few. At some point, a citizen on the losing end will surely ask: Why is my country benefiting foreigners and new immigrants, many of them arriving illegally, while making life tougher for its own people? And why doesn’t it matter what I think? It’s this question that Anton has a policy answer for. Scaling back free trade and ending mass immigration would “improve the economic prospects of the lower half of our workforce to a greater extent than either would in isolation,” he has written. “The people have repeatedly said ‘no’ to more immigration, ‘no’ to more free trade … but the administrative state will not allow itself to be driven in a direction it does not want to go. It therefore must be broken.”

And then there is the cultural impact of mass immigration, which the Party of Davos, living in a post-national world, celebrates as a vision of the global future. Neo-reactionaries beg to differ. They get a little vague here — tiptoeing awkwardly around the question of race. A nation, they believe, is not just a random group of people within an arbitrary set of borders. It’s a product of a certain history and the repository of a distinctive culture. A citizen should be educated to understand that country’s history and take pride in its culture and traditions. Honed and modulated over time, this national culture gives crucial legitimacy to the American political system by producing citizens acclimated to the tolerance, self-government, and other civic values that democracy needs if it is to function. And so Anton, who gives America’s long history of successful integration of immigrants short shrift, worries about the influx of what he delicately calls “non-republican peoples.” “What happens when the West ceases to be western?” he asked me. On the blog, he was much more direct: He wrote that “Islam and the West are incompatible” and that Muslim immigration should be almost entirely banned. A country like the United States requires “a certain type or character of people.”

Isn’t all this just code for white nationalism? That’s certainly what self-described white nationalists cite in their support for Trump. When I asked Anton bluntly about whether he believes race matters to a national identity, he turned uncharacteristically silent: “I’m not going to say something that could be used to destroy my livelihood and career.” Kesler, when I confronted him with this as well, responded: “The definition of ‘white’ is a political definition. It may be that a lot of people we now regard as inherently and unchangeably Hispanic will turn out to be whites eventually as their incomes go up, as their place in society changes over time in the same way that Italians and Poles and Central Europeans were once ‘second-class’ whites.” Kesler seemed to be describing a white-nationalist country that slowly absorbs others into the fold — turning their cultural “otherness” into an integrated, but still somehow “white,” American identity. “The rate of intermarriage among African-Americans is going up, too,” he tells me as my eyes widen. “How different would American politics be if Obama had defined himself as multiracial rather than black as such … as a new kind of American transcending race?”

Neo-reactionary unease with mass immigration is exacerbated by what they see as the administrative state’s shift from belief in a “melting pot” model in which all immigrants assimilate to a common American culture to the multicultural model, where the government, business, and society recognize different languages and celebrate ethnic diversity over national unity. Anton notes that America is now “a country in which Al Gore mistranslates e pluribus unum as ‘Out of one, many’ and in his error is actually more accurate to the spirit of our times.” The problems of ethnic division are further compounded by the view growing among the elites that America itself is at root a racist white construction, and that “assimilation” is therefore an inherently bigoted idea.

This notion of a national culture, rooted in, if not defined by, a common ethnicity, is even more powerful in European nations, which is why Brexit is so closely allied to Trumpism. In the case of Britain, the question of race is framed within a euphemism used by the British government itself: a “visible minority” versus an “invisible one.” “Since 2001, Britain’s ‘visible minority’ population has nearly doubled, from 8 percent to 14 percent today,” Benjamin Schwarz, the national editor of The American Conservative, noted last year. “It is projected to rise to about 38 percent by mid-century.” Is Britain changing so fast that it could lose any meaningful continuity with its history and culture? That is the question now occupying the British neo-reactionaries. Prime Minister Theresa May has not said many memorable things in office, except this: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

A year ago, Anton took issue with an article I wrote for this magazine in which I described Trump as reminiscent of Plato’s description of a tyrant emerging out of a decadent democracy and argued that we should do what we could to stop him. Anton’s critique was that I was half-right and half-wrong. I was right to see democracy degenerating into tyranny but wrong to see any way to avoid it. What he calls “Caesarism” is already here, as Obama’s abuse of executive power proved. Therefore: “If we must have Caesar, who do you want him to be? One of theirs? Or one of yours (ours)?” Krein put it even more plainly: “Restoring true constitutional — or even merely competent — government requires a fundamental transformation of the underlying culture and elite opinion. It requires, in a certain sense, regime change in America.”

That indeed is the explicit aim of Curtis Yarvin, who takes Kesler’s and Anton’s dismay at modern America to new and dizzying heights — and reactionism to its logical conclusion. A geeky computer programmer in his 40s, he writes a reactionary blog, Unqualified Reservations, under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug and has earned a cult following among the alt-right. His magnum opus — “An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives” — is an alternately chilling and entertaining assault on almost everything educated Westerners hold to be self-evidently true. His critique of our present is not that we need a correction to return us to traditional notions of national culture and to unseat the administrative state and its elites; it is that we need to take the whole idea of human “progress” itself and throw it in the trash can. Things didn’t start going wrong in the 1960s or under the Progressives. Yarvin believes that the Western mind became corrupted during the Enlightenment itself. The very idea of democracy, allied with reason and constitutionalism, is bunk: “Washington has failed. The Constitution has failed. Democracy has failed.” His golden era: the age of monarchs. (“It is hard not to imagine that world as happier, wealthier, freer, more civilized, and more pleasant.”) His solution: “It is time for restoration, for national salvation, for a full reboot. We need a new government, a clean slate, a fresh hand which is smart, strong and fair.”

At first, Yarvin reads like some kind of elaborate intellectual prank (as well as a legendary exercise in trolling). And he writes with a jocular, designed-to-shock style that is far more influenced by snarky web discourse than anything in, say, the Claremont Review. But the more you read, the more his ideological transgressions seem to come from a deadly serious place. He challenges the idea that the present is always preferable to the past: “There is no strong reason to think that governments recent and domestic are any better than the governments ancient and foreign,” he writes. “The American Republic is over two hundred years old. Great. The Serene Republic of Venice lasted eleven hundred.” The assumption that all of history has led inexorably to today’s glorious and democratic present is, he argues, a smug and self-serving delusion. It’s what used to be called Whig History, the idea that all of human history led up to the democratic institutions and civilizational achievements of liberal Britain, the model for the entire world. This reflexive sense that the world is always going forward has become an American orthodoxy almost no one questions. Insofar as progressives see flaws in the system, Yarvin suggests, it is only because the work of progress is never done.

Why do so many of us assume that progress is inevitable, if never complete? Yarvin, like the Claremonters and American Greatness brigade, blames an elite that he calls by the inspired name “the Cathedral,” an amalgam of established universities and the mainstream press. It works like this: “The universities make decisions, for which the press manufactures consent. It’s as simple as a punch in the mouth.” If that concept of “manufacturing consent” reminds you of the Chomskyite far left, you wouldn’t be wrong. But for Yarvin, the consent is manufactured not by capitalism, advertising, and corporations but by liberal academics, pundits, and journalists. They simply assume that left liberalism is the only rational response to the world. Democracy, he contends, “no longer means that the public’s elected representatives control the government. It means that the government implements scientific public policy in the public interest.”

And the Cathedral has plainly failed. “If we imagine the 20th century without technical progress, we see an almost pure century of disaster,” Yarvin writes, despairing from his comfy 21st-century perch. His solution is not just a tyrannical president who hates all that the Cathedral stands for but something even more radical: “the liquidation of democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law, and the transfer of absolute power to a mysterious figure known only as the Receiver, who in the process of converting Washington into a heavily armed, ultra-profitable corporation will abolish the press, smash the universities, sell the public schools, and transfer ‘decivilized populations’ to ‘secure relocation facilities’ where they will be assigned to ‘mandatory apprenticeships.’ ”

This is 21st-century fascism, except that Yarvin’s Receiver would allow complete freedom of speech and association and would exercise no control over economic life. Foreign policy? Yarvin calls for “a total shutdown of international relations, including security guarantees, foreign aid, and mass immigration.” All social policy also disappears: “I believe that government should take no notice whatsoever of race — no racial policy. I believe it should separate itself completely from the question of what its citizens should or should not think — separation of education and state.”

And with that final provocation, Mencius Moldbug disappears into cyberspace.

Reaction is a mood before it is anything else, and I know its psychological temptations intimately. Growing up steeped in traditional religion, in a household where patriotism seemed as natural as breathing, I became infatuated with a past that no longer existed. I loved the countryside that was quickly being decimated by development, a Christianity that was being overwhelmed by secularism, and an idea of England, whose glories — so evident in the literature I read, the history I had absorbed, and the architecture I admired — had self-evidently crumbled into dust. Loss was my youthful preoccupation. The mockery I received because of this — from most of my peers, through high school and college — turned me inward and radicalized me still further. I began to revel in my estrangement, sharpening my intellectual rebellion with every book I devoured and every class I took. Politically I was ferociously anti-Establishment, grew to suspect and even despise much of the liberal elite, and rejoiced at Margaret Thatcher’s election victories.

So a sympathy for writers and thinkers who define themselves by a sense of loss comes naturally to me. I’ve grown out of it in many ways — and the depression and loneliness that often lie at the core of the reactionary mind slowly lifted as I grew more comfortable in the only place I could actually live: the present. But I never doubted the cogency of many reactionary insights — and I still admire minds that have not succumbed to the comfortable assumption that the future is always brighter. I read the Christian traditionalist Rod Dreher with affection. His evocation of Christian life and thought over the centuries and his panic at its disappearance from our world are poignant. We are losing a vast civilization that honed answers to the deepest questions that human beings can ask, replacing it with vapid pseudo-religions, pills, therapy, and reality TV. I’ve become entranced by the novels of Michel Houellebecq, by his regret at the spiritual emptiness of modernity, the numbness that comes with fully realized sexual freedom, the yearning for the sacred again. Maybe this was why as I read more and more of today’s neo-reactionary thought, I became nostalgic for aspects of my own past, and that of the West’s.

Because in some key respects, reactionaries are right. Great leaps forward in history are often, in fact, giant leaps back. The Reformation did initiate brutal sectarian warfare. The French Revolution did degenerate into barbarous tyranny. Communist utopias — allegedly the wave of an Elysian future — turned into murderous nightmares. Modern neoliberalism has, for its part, created a global capitalist machine that is seemingly beyond anyone’s control, fast destroying the planet’s climate, wiping out vast tracts of life on Earth while consigning millions of Americans to economic stagnation and cultural despair.

And at an even deeper level, the more we discover about human evolution, the more illusory certain ideas of progress become. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari points out that hunter-gatherers were actually up to six inches taller than their more “civilized” successors; their diets were much healthier; infectious disease was much rarer; they worked less and goofed off more than we do. They didn’t even have much shorter lives: If you survived the enormous hazards of childhood, you could reach the age of 60, and some lived into their 80s (and stayed within their tribes rather than being shunted off into lonely rest homes). Famines and plagues — the great catastrophes of human history — were less common. Harari notes another paradox: Over hundreds of millennia, we have overcome starvation … but now are more likely to die of obesity than hunger. Happiness? Globally, suicide rates keep rising.

Certain truths about human beings have never changed. We are tribal creatures in our very DNA; we have an instinctive preference for our own over others, for “in-groups” over “out-groups”; for hunter-gatherers, recognizing strangers as threats was a matter of life and death. We also invent myths and stories to give meaning to our common lives. Among those myths is the nation — stretching from the past into the future, providing meaning to our common lives in a way nothing else can. Strip those narratives away, or transform them too quickly, and humans will become disoriented. Most of us respond to radical changes in our lives, especially changes we haven’t chosen, with more fear than hope. We can numb the pain with legal cannabis or opioids, but it is pain nonetheless.

When the velocity of cultural change combines with economic anxiety, is it shocking that human beings want to retreat into a past?

If we ignore these deeper facts about ourselves, we run the risk of fatal errors. It’s vital to remember that multicultural, multiracial, post-national societies are extremely new for the human species, and keeping them viable and stable is a massive challenge. Globally, social trust is highest in the homogeneous Nordic countries, and in America, Pew has found it higher in rural areas than cities. The political scientist Robert Putnam has found that “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ that is, to pull in like a turtle.” Not very encouraging about human nature — but something we can’t wish away, either. In fact, the American elite’s dismissal of these truths, its reduction of all resistance to cultural and demographic change as crude “racism” or “xenophobia,” only deepens the sense of siege many other Americans feel.

And is it any wonder that reactionaries are gaining strength? Within the space of 50 years, America has gone from segregation to dizzying multiculturalism; from traditional family structures to widespread divorce, cohabitation, and sexual liberty; from a few respected sources of information to an endless stream of peer-to-peer media; from careers in one company for life to an ever-accelerating need to retrain and regroup; from a patriarchy to (incomplete) gender equality; from homosexuality as a sin to homophobia as a taboo; from Christianity being the common culture to a secularism no society has ever sustained before ours.

When this velocity of cultural change combines with a deepening — and accurate — sense of economic anxiety, is it shocking that human beings want to retreat into a past, to resuscitate the nation-state, and to reach backward for a more primeval and instinctual group identity? Or that they doubt the promise of “progress” and seek scapegoats in the governing classes that have encouraged all of this to happen? And is it not evident why, when a demagogue occupies this cultural vacuum and finally speaks this forbidden language, they thrill to him?

Our job in these circumstances is not to condescend but to engage — or forfeit the politics of the moment (and the future) to reaction. Lincoln got the dynamic exactly right with respect to the Trump voter: “Assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and tho’ you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”

The tragedy of our time, of course, is that President Obama tried to follow Lincoln’s advice. He reached out to those who voted against him as often as he could. His policies, like Obamacare, were aimed at helping the very working poor who gave Trump the White House. He pledged to transcend the red-blue divide. He acknowledged both the necessity of law enforcement and the legitimate African-American fear of hostile cops. A black man brought up by white people, he gave speech after speech attempting to provide a new narrative for America: one of slowly integrating moral progress, where racial and class divides could be overcome. He criticized the reductive divisiveness of identity politics. And yet he failed. He couldn’t prevent the disappearance of the American middle class; he couldn’t calm the restive anxieties of the white working class; he couldn’t stem the reactionary tide that now washes ever closer ashore. If a man that talented, with that biography, found himself spitting into the wind, a powerful storm is indeed upon us.

This, of course, is not to defend the neo-reactionary response. Their veiled racism is disturbing, and their pessimism a solipsistic pathology. When Anton finds nothing in modernity to celebrate but, as he put it to me, “nice restaurants, good wine, a high standard of living,” it comes off as a kind of pose, deliberately blind to all the constant renewals of life and culture around us. When Houellebecq has one of his characters sigh, “For a man to bring a child into the world now is meaningless,” I chortle. When Dreher hyperventilates that today’s youngsters “could be one of the last generations of this thing called Western civilization” and that American Christians today must “live lives prepared to suffer severe hardship, even death, for our faith,” I take my dogs for a walk. When Yarvin insists that “if the 20th century does not go down in history as the golden age of awful government, it is only because the future holds some fresher hell for us,” I check my Instagram account. There is something hysterical here, too manically certain, bleaker than any human being can bear for long.

And how can you seriously regard our political system and culture as worse than ever before in history? How self-centered do you have to be to dismiss the unprecedented freedom for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals? Or the increased security for the elderly and unemployed, and the greater access to health care by the poor and now the working poor? Compare the air we breathe today with that of the 1950s. Contrast the religious tolerance we take for granted today with the enmities of the past. Compare the racial integration of today, incomplete as it may be, with Jim Crow. Observe the historically low levels of crime compared with the recent past — and the absence of any world wars since 1945. Over the very long haul, too, scholars such as Steven Pinker have found convincing evidence that violence among humans is at the lowest levels since the species first emerged.

If the neo-reactionaries were entirely right, the collapse of our society would surely have happened long before now. But somehow, an historically unprecedented mix of races and cultures hasn’t led to civil war in the United States. In fact, majorities welcome immigration, and enjoy the new cultures that new immigrants bring. A majority backed Trump’s opponent last November. America has assimilated so many before, its culture churning into new forms, without crashing into incoherence. London may be 40 percent nonwhite and repellent to much of rural England — but it works, its inhabitants seem unfazed, its culture remains world-class. The European Union massively overreached by mandating a common currency and imposing brutal austerity, but its conflicts have not led to mass violence, its standard of living remains high, and its achievement of Continental peace is far preferable to the carnage that destroyed Europe in the last century. It may well stagger on, if it can only moderate itself.

It is also one thing to be vigilant about the power of the administrative state and to attempt to reform and modernize it; it is quite another to favor its abolition. The more complex modern society has become, the more expertise is needed to govern it — and where else is that expertise going to come from if not a professional elite? For that matter, the liberal media has nothing like the monopoly it once enjoyed. There are two “Cathedrals” in the 21st century — and only one has helped produce a conservative Supreme Court, a Republican Congress, a Republican president, and near-record Republican majorities in statehouses around the country. Non-leftist thought is suppressed in the academy and is currently subjected to extreme intolerance and even violence on many campuses. That has to change. But some ideas from the neo-reactionary underground — like the notion that carbon has little to do with rising world temperatures — are in the underground for a reason. And still, climate-change denial is the de facto policy of the American government.

Beyond all that, neo-reactionaries have a glaring problem, which is that their proposed solutions are so radical they have no chance whatsoever of coming into existence — and would be deeply reckless to attempt. Their rage eclipses their argument. The notion that public opinion could be marshaled to effect a total reset of American government in favor of a new form of monarchy, as Yarvin suggests, is, to be blunt, bonkers. And is America seriously going to remain a white-majority country? How, exactly? Can the U.S. economy suddenly unwind global manufacturing patterns? Can America simply abandon its global role and its long-standing commitments to allies?

Of course not. And the Trump administration is, day by day, proving this. An isolationist foreign policy collapsed at the first gust of reality. A thinly veiled Muslim immigration ban would have accomplished nothing — most Islamist terrorism is homegrown — and went nowhere. The communities that once thrived off manufacturing or coal mining are not coming back. Even the most draconian mass deportation of undocumented immigrants will not change the demographics of America — or suddenly raise wages for the working class. Global trade has become too entrenched to be reversed. The dismantling of Obamacare dismantled itself — not because of an elite plot but because, when confronted with its being taken away, a majority of Americans balked.

There is, perhaps, a way to use reactionary insights and still construct a feasible center-right agenda. Such a program would junk Reaganite economics as outdated but keep revenue-neutral tax reform, it could even favor redistribution to counter the deep risk to democracy that soaring inequality fosters, and it could fix Obamacare’s technical problems. You could add to this mix stronger border control, a reduction in legal immigration, a pause in free-trade expansion, a technological overhaul of the government bureaucracy, and a reassertion of Americanism over multiculturalism. This is not an impossible direction for the Republican Party to go — though it would have to abandon its know-nothing narcissist of a leader and its brain-dead congressional leaders. The left, for its part, must, it seems to me, escape its own bubble and confront the accelerating extremism of its identity politics and its disdain for millions of “deplorable” white Americans. You will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.

Reaction can be clarifying if it helps us better understand the huge challenges we now face. But reaction by itself cannot help us manage the world we live in today — which is the only place that matters. You start with where you are, not where you were or where you want to be. There are no utopias in the future or Gardens of Eden in our past. There is just now — in all its incoherent, groaning, volatile messiness. Our job, like everyone before us, is to keep our nerve and make the best of it.

*This article appears in the May 1, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

Beyond Alt: Understanding the New Far Right

Syd Barrett: The Madcap Who Named Pink Floyd Rolling Stone’s 1971 interview with Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s founding lead singer

Syd Barrett: The Madcap Who Named Pink Floyd

Rolling Stone’s 1971 interview with Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s founding lead singer

Syd Barrett Gems/Redferns

LONDON—If you tend to believe what you hear, rather than what is, Syd Barrett is either dead, behind bars, or a vegetable. He is in fact alive and as confusing as ever, in the town where he was born, Cambridge.

In 1966–67, Barrett was playing lead guitar with Pink Floyd. He’d named the band and was writing most of their music, including the only two hit singles they ever had. His eerie electronic guitar style and gnome-like stage presence made him an authentic cult figure for the nascent London underground, then just beginning to gather at the UFO club and the Roundhouse. The Floyd were a house band and the music went on into the wee hours.

Cambridge is an hour’s train ride from London. Syd doesn’t see many people these days. Visiting him is like intruding into a very private world. “I’m disappearing,” he says, “avoiding most things.” He seems very tense, ill at ease. Hollow-cheeked and pale, his eyes reflect a permanent state of shock. He has a ghostly beauty which one normally associates with poets of old. His hair is short now, uncombed, the wavy locks gone. The velvet pants and new green snake skin boots show some attachment to the way it used to be. “I’m treading the backward path,” he smiles. “Mostly, I just waste my time.” He walks a lot. “Eight miles a day,” he says. “It’s bound to show. But I don’t know how.”

“I’m sorry I can’t speak very coherently,” he says, “It’s rather difficult to think of anybody being really interested in me. But you know, man, I am totally together. I even think I should be.” Occasionally, Syd responds directly to a question. Mostly his answers are fragmented, a stream of consciousness (the words of James Joyce’s poem “Golden Hair” are in one of his songs). “I’m full of dust and guitars,” he says.

“The only work I’ve done the last two years is interviews. I’m very good at it.” In fact, Syd has made three albums in that time, produced by the Floyd. The Madcap Laughs, his second, he says, was pretty good: “Like a painting as big as the cellar.” Before the Floyd got off the ground, Barrett attended art school. He still paints. Sometimes crazy jungles of thick blobs. Sometimes simple linear pieces. His favourite is a white semi-circle on a white canvas.

In a cellar where he spends much of his time, he sits surrounded by paintings and records, his amps and guitars. He feels safe there, under the ground. Like a character out of one of his own songs. Syd says his favourite musician is Hendrix. “I toured with him you know, Lindsay (an old girlfriend) and I used to sit on the back of the bus, with him up front; he would film us. But we never spoke really. It was like this. Very polite. He was better than people really knew. But very self-conscious about his consciousness. He’d lock himself in the dressing room with a TV and wouldn’t let anyone in.”

Syd himself has been known to sit behind locked doors, refusing to see anyone for days at a time. Frequently in his last months with the Floyd, he’d go on stage and play no more than two notes in a whole set. “Hendrix was a perfect guitarist. And that’s all I wanted to do as a kid. Play a guitar properly and jump around. But too many people got in the way. It’s always been too slow for me. Playing. The pace of things. I mean, I’m a fast sprinter. The trouble was, after playing in the group for a few months, I couldn’t reach that point.”

“I may seem to get hung-up, that’s because I am frustrated work-wise, terribly. The fact is I haven’t done anything this year, I’ve probably been chattering, explaining that away like anything. But the other bit about not working is that you do get to think theoretically.”

He’d like to get another band together. “But I can’t find anybody. That’s the problem. I don’t know where they are. I mean, I’ve got an idea that there must be someone to play with. If I was going to play properly, I should need some really good people.”

Syd leaves the cellar and goes up to a sedate little room full of pictures of himself with his family. He was a pretty child. English tea, cake and biscuits, arrives. Like many innovators, Barrett seems to have missed the recognition due to him, while others have cleaned up. “I’d like to be rich. I’d like a lot of money to put into my physicals and to buy food for all my friends.

“I’ll show you a book of all my songs before you go. I think it’s so exciting. I’m glad you’re here.” He produces a folder containing all his recorded songs to date, neatly typed, with no music. Most of them stand alone as written pieces. Sometimes simple, lyrical, though never without some touch of irony. Sometimes surreal, images weaving dreamily, echoes of a mindscape that defies traditional analysis. Syd’s present favourite is “Wolfpack,” a taut threatening, claustrophobic number. It finishes with:

Mind the Reflecting electricity eyes
The Life that was ours grew sharper
and stronger away and beyond
short wheeling fresh spring
gripped with blanched bones moaned
Magnesium Proverbs and sobs

Syd thinks people who sing their own songs are boring. He has never recorded anyone else’s. He produces a guitar and begins to strum out a new version of “Love You,” from Madcap. “I worked this out yesterday. I think it’s much better. It’s my new 12-string guitar. I’m just getting used to it. I polished it yesterday.” It’s a Yamaha. He stops and eases it into a regular tuning, shaking his head. “I never felt so close to a guitar as that silver one with mirrors that I used on stage all the time. I swapped it for the black one, but I’ve never played it.”

Syd is 25 now, and worried about getting old. “I wasn’t always this introverted,” he says, “I think young people should have a lot of fun. But I never seem to have any.” Suddenly he points out the window. “Have you seen the roses? There’s a whole lot of colours.” Syd says he doesn’t take acid anymore, but he doesn’t want to talk about it… “There’s really nothing to say.” He goes into the garden and stretches out on an old wooden seat. “Once you’re into something…” he says, looking very puzzled. He stops. “I don’t think I’m easy to talk about. I’ve got a very irregular head. And I’m not anything that you think I am anyway.”

This story is from the December 23rd, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.

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