The following essay is an adapted version of the script for this Current Affairs video. The video edition contains many more examples and pieces of evidence.
The illiberal authoritarian left. Antifa. Violent BLM protesters. Critical race theory. Social justice warriors. Cancel culture. Radical trans activists. Open borders advocates. Cultural Marxists. The country faces a number of terrifying threats, and unless we act quickly, we will lose Western civilization as we know it.
This story plays 24/7 on Fox News and PragerU, where right-wing politicians and commentators stress that a dangerous left is producing violence in the streets and trying to indoctrinate children with poisonous ideas and immorality. There are now dozens of books with titles like The Enemy Within: How a Totalitarian Movement is Destroying America, The Dictatorship of Woke Capital, Woke, Inc., Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy, The Authoritarian Moment: How the Left Weaponized America’s Institutions Against Dissent, Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy, Suicide of the West, American Marxism, American Crusade: Our Fight To Stay Free, and United States of Socialism: Who’s Behind It. Why It’s Evil. How to Stop It. Each argues that the country faces a threat from the political left, one that is correctly called totalitarian, authoritarian, or dictatorial. David Brooks, reporting from the 2021 National Conservatism Conference, says that the consensus on the right is that “the left controls absolutely everything.” The major conference speakers all adopted a similar “apocalyptic tone”:
- “The left’s ambition is to create a world beyond belonging. Their grand ambition is to deconstruct the United States of America.” — Josh Hawley
- “The left’s attack is on America. The left hates America. It is the left that is trying to use culture as a tool to destroy America.” — Ted Cruz
- “We are confronted now by a systematic effort to dismantle our society, our traditions, our economy, and our way of life.” — Marco Rubio
Evaluating these statements depends on the evidence presented. But, as we shall see, most of the time, there is no evidence. Those who promote these scary visions of the left are relying on techniques of storytelling rather than fact. The American right has long depended for its success on claiming new, exaggerated threats, and on crafting compelling narratives to convince members of the public to panic in response to these threats. Sometimes the right targets people, ideas, or tendencies that are indeed worthy of serious criticism. But most conservative narratives treat even politically marginal movements or small tendencies as huge threats to our entire civilization. It is hyperbolic fiction. Yet it works.
In reality, the left is far more reasonable than it is made out to be; leftist policy positions such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal enjoy popular support from voters across the political spectrum. In each generation, when progressives get what they fight the right to obtain (like expanded suffrage, Social Security, Medicare), it is hard for the policies to be rolled back, because they have public support. Thus the right moves onto a new threat.
The stories right-wing commentators tell are a kind of delusion. The delusion is especially dangerous because it erodes the humanity of the people being talked about and avoids a serious engagement with ideas that challenge simplistic and nationalist myths inherent in the right-wing world view. The right tries to distract distract us from things that matter, like climate change, healthcare, and racial injustice. The right’s distractions end up benefiting the rich and powerful, who don’t want to see changes put in place around climate change, healthcare, or racial injustice. We are kept from having intelligent conversations about politics, about the issues that average people care about.
At worst, exaggerated and emotionally manipulative tales of Evildoers and Authoritarians and Terrorists and Criminals suck ordinary people into a make-believe world of terrifying phantoms—one from which it can be hard to escape, especially if one never hears a more compelling story in its place. Let’s look, then, at how these ghost stories are put together, so that we can help people to avoid becoming spooked by them, and so that we ourselves never accidentally find ourselves swallowing and then regurgitating crafty right-wing propaganda.
I. The Common Structure of Conservative Arguments
In 1991, economist Albert Hirschman published a book called The Rhetoric of Reaction. Hirschman identified some common species of right-wing arguments. He called these arguments perversity, futility, and jeopardy.
Perversity is the argument that a given social reform will have the opposite of its intended effects. Futility is the argument that a given reform will not accomplish its stated purpose, that the reform will achieve nothing (at great expense). Jeopardy is the argument that a given reform will jeopardize existing society, that it will destroy Western civilization or take us down the road to serfdom.
The three kinds of arguments are in fact quite similar. What they have in common is the suggestion that horrible consequences will flow from some proposed change to the way the social, political, and economic world operates. This kind of reasoning, Hirschman pointed out, has been used over and over by the right for hundreds of years, and has been applied to all kinds of different social reforms. In Hirschman’s words,
“Attempts to reach for liberty will make society sink into slavery, the quest for democracy will produce oligarchy and tyranny, and social welfare programs will create more, rather than less, poverty. Everything backfires.”
It’s easy to think of contemporary examples: The minimum wage will have a perverse effect because it will hurt low-wage workers rather than help them. Welfare will not actually help poor people. Raising taxes will actually reduce revenues by discouraging productivity. Efforts to stop climate change will be worse than climate change itself.
Hirschman points out that similar arguments have been made in every generation. Arguments of this type were even made against those who advocated for universal suffrage and unemployment insurance. Hirschman says that while an argument isn’t necessarily wrong just because it is always made, we should be suspicious of a framing that occurs over and over again the same way, regardless of the particular situation:
“The fact that an argument is used repeatedly is no proof, to be sure, that it is wrong in any particular instance … [But] a general suspicion of overuse of the arguments is aroused by the demonstration that they are invoked time and again almost routinely to cover a wide variety of real situations … [The suspicion is heightened by the fact that] the arguments have intrinsic appeal because they hitch onto powerful myths … or because they cast a flattering light on the authors and provide a boost for their egos. In view of these extraneous attractions, it becomes likely that the standard reactionary theses will often be embraced regardless of their fit.”
He points out that these arguments often appeal not because they are grounded in facts and evidence, but because they follow the structure of emotionally powerful stories we tell ourselves about how the world works in order to better understand it. For example, Hirschman compares the right-wing perversity story with the story of hubris and Nemesis in Greek mythology, Nemesis being the goddess who exacts retribution on those who display too much hubris. You were confident you could change the world, but your confidence will be punished. Hirschman also cites the moment in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris in which Archdeacon Frollo points at the printing press and the cathedral and declares: this will kill that. Something that looks like progress will in fact destroy all our most valuable traditions. It is a fear that greets every change regardless of whether it’s true.
When you actually examine the evidence, it turns out that many common right-wing stories using the perversity-futility-jeopardy framework don’t add up. In 1944, celebrated free market economist Friedrich von Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom, which remains a classic among conservatives. In it, Hayek warned that the tendency toward government planning in Great Britain would lead to the kind of totalitarianism seen in Nazi Germany, and that the tendencies toward authoritarianism were “scarcely less marked in England now than they were in Germany.” In his later book The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek said of social security programs that “concentration camps for the aged unable to maintain themselves are likely to be the fate of an old generation whose income is entirely dependent on coercing the young.”
The year after the publication of The Road to Serfdom, British voters threw out Winston Churchill’s conservative government and elected Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, who did precisely the opposite of what Hayek wanted. The new government didn’t set up concentration camps for the elderly. They did establish a full government healthcare system, the NHS, which became the most popular institution in the country, gave Britain some of the best healthcare outcomes in the world, and expanded freedom. Hayek’s slippery slope argument was decisively refuted. (A similar U.S. example: Herbert Hoover said in 1932 of the New Deal that “to enter upon a series of deep changes, to embark upon this inchoate new deal which has been propounded in this campaign, would be to undermine and destroy our American system.” This did not happen, either—unless one means by “the American system” the poverty and despair that characterized Hoover’s laissez-faire presidency, in which case FDR did indeed destroy it.)
To take a more contemporary example, it is said that raising the minimum wage will cause unemployment. Milton Friedman called this the most obvious example of a counterproductive policy, saying it was “about as clear a case as one can find of a measure the effects of which are precisely the opposite of those intended by the men of good will who support it.” But over the last several decades, economists who have actually studied the issue empirically have found that this tends not to be true, and that minimum wage increases can lift millions of people out of poverty. The “minimum wages will cause the opposite of their intended effects” theory was a story that could hypothetically have been true. But reality differed from the story. Likewise, it has long been a conservative commonplace that government regulation makes the economy less innovative and dynamic. But a free market libertarian economist who studied the issue carefully simply could not find evidence that it was the case.
These empirical conclusions are hard for some on the right to accept, and Hirschman’s work suggest that one reason is hard for them to accept is because it contradicts the powerful myths that are actually at the root of conservative politics: a belief in divine providence, in a natural order in which those who have the hubris to try to tamper with God’s intended state of affairs will find themselves punished. The stories are told without an objective look at the evidence, because they are about preserving a perceived natural order of things, not the result of dispassionate investigation. Hirschman also noted that there is something satisfying about getting to be a doom prophet who warns would-be reformers that all their efforts are in vain, and that the ones who appear to be doing good are in fact the ones doing evil.
In The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, political scientist Corey Robin adds another important element to our understanding of the commonalities in conservative thought across time. In every generation, he writes, reactionaries are reacting against social movements that threaten the perceived natural and correct order of things:
“Every once in a while… the subordinates of this world contest their fates. They protest their conditions, write letters and petitions, join movements, and make demands. Their goals may be minimal and discrete—better safety guards on factory machines, an end to marital rape—but in voicing them, they raise the specter of a more fundamental change in power. They cease to be servants or supplicants and become agents, speaking and acting on their own behalf. More than the reforms themselves, it is this assertion of agency by the subject class—the appearance of an insistent and independent voice of demand—that vexes their superiors … For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back … When the conservative looks upon a democratic movement from below, this (and the exercise of agency) is what he sees: a terrible disturbance in the private life of power … So long as there are social movements demanding greater freedom and equality, there will be a right to counter them.”
Whether the French revolution, the antislavery movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, in every case people in subordinate or stigmatized groups rise up and demand some alternate set of social arrangements, and in each case reactionaries present them as a threat to God or the nation or all that is decent and holy. If these groups in question win their struggle, reactionaries find a new threat to civilization, and the arguments about perversity, futility, and jeopardy will be repeated once again.
II. The Nature of Moral Panics
Hirschman and Robin help us better grasp how conservative ideology and arguments work. But we also need to understand a social phenomenon that can transcend right-left categories: the moral panic.
In 1964, British newspapers reported on a troubling new phenomenon emerging in the country’s coastal towns: violent gangs of teenagers calling themselves mods and rockers were getting into out-of-control brawls. The press published editorials fretting that these “internal enemies” could “bring about the disintegration of a nation’s character.”
The sociologist Stanley Cohen, in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, showed that all of the fuss over the mods and rockers was massively overblown. There were a few fights here and there, but they were small compared with the violence that already existed elsewhere in British youth culture, such as at football matches. As one mod who had been present at the ’60s seaside explained decades later, the whole situation was:
“…very much exaggerated by the media at the time. They needed stories and they got them. I was here in ’65 and the media came up to us and told us there was a punch-up going on down the road, would we be interested in taking part? We were not interested in taking part, because we were here for the girls.”
The mods and rockers were elevated into a menacing national phenomenon in part because they were vivid characters and the story of marauding rock and rollers helped to sell newspapers. Cohen said it was surreal seeing how the press seemed to be depicting an entirely different world to the one he had actually seen with his own eyes. He saw sensationalistic depictions of the mods and rockers as one example of a common trend, the moral panic, whereby the public is whipped up into a frenzy over a supposed threat that has been highly exaggerated and distorted. At the center of these panics, he said, were “folk devils,” villainous characters created through media reporting. Their human complexity was erased, they were simplified into cartoonish figures. Cohen identified three stages of media reporting on folk devils:
Symbolization: the folk devil is portrayed in one singular narrative, their appearance and overall identify oversimplified to be easily recognizable.
Exaggeration: the facts of the controversy surrounding the folk devil are distorted, or fabricated all together, fueling the moral crusade.
Prediction: further immoral actions on the part of the folk devil are anticipated.
Cohen’s book was published in 1972, but we can see plenty of examples of what he’s talking about both historically and in our own time. From witch trials to the War on Christmas, people are periodically induced, through manipulative anecdotes, into being extremely alarmed by trends that are exaggerated or even completely fictitious. Many of these look absurd in retrospect. Rock and roll music caused moral uproar. Satanists were supposedly everywhere at one point. Dungeons and Dragons was at one point seriously discussed as a cause of suicidal and homicidal tendencies among young people. In the wake of the Columbine massacre, ABC News ran a 20/20 special warning of the murderous threat posed by Goths. (“Police [say the Columbine killers] may have been part of a dark, underground national phenomenon known as the Gothic Movement and that some of these Goths may have killed before.”) In the 1980s and ’90s, there was, of course, a panic over violent video games.
Frequently, these sensationalist panics lead to horrible policymaking. Psychedelic drugs, which have the potential to transform people’s lives for the better, were banned in part due to unsubstantiated warnings about their dangers. Pushes for so-called “tort reform” in the 1990s were driven by exaggerated stories about supposedly frivolous lawsuits, like the woman who legitimately sued McDonald’s after being severely burned by coffee that was served at a higher temperature than industry standard.
The concept of the moral panic can be criticized for being subjective or potentially politically biased. One person’s moral panic is another person’s legitimate concern. Cohen said that moral panics happen when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests,” but, of course, we need to be able to distinguish real threats from panics. Panics, he said, “exaggerate the seriousness, extent, typicality and/or inevitability of harm.” Ordinary moral conflicts cross into panic when they clearly depart from reality, and where the facts are selectively presented in order to make people more frightened and angry than they would be if they were made aware of the missing facts. Manufacturing outrage like this is not actually confined to the Republican Party; “tough on crime” Democrats warned in the 1990s of the supposed wave of “superpredator” children that would invade our cities. I’ve argued before that the Southern Poverty Law Center, by displaying “hate maps” purporting to show active racist groups all over the country, without mentioning that many of these groups are minuscule, is manipulating people into being more afraid than they should rationally be.
Part of the problem is that the mainstream media operates under bad financial incentives. You don’t need to take a media studies course to grasp that sensationalist news reporting can be driven by the profit motive. (Rush Limbaugh, who specialized in whipping up outrage and disgust at supposed liberal absurdities, once admitted to 60 Minutes that the main goal of his work was “to attract the largest audience I can, and hold it for as long as I can, so that I can charge advertisers confiscatory advertising rates. This is a business.” Asked to clarify whether this meant he was in it for the money, he replied “of course.”) Disaster, chaos, misery, crime, and drama keep us glued to the screen, while low-key reporting on school board budget negotiations does not. “Things Are Okay At The British Seaside Except For a Minor Tussle Between Some Teenagers Wearing Slightly Different Outfits” would have sold far fewer newspapers than “Gangs of Crazed Mods and Rockers Invade And Destroy a Quiet Town,” which is why small, unrepresentative, but provocative incidents get blown out of proportion. It’s the responsibility of a rational person to ask questions like: How representative is this? Am I seeing a few anecdotes, or actual data? Am I letting my emotions get inflamed by something I don’t know much about? Am I losing sight of the humanity of our latest folk devil?
III. Fear and the American Right
Right-wing politicians each have their new public enemies. Sometimes it is an evil empire, sometimes it is the menace of immigrants. But it always requires the escalation of the use of armed force, whether building new missile defense systems, further militarizing the border, or throwing drug users in prison:
- “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation … to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” — Ronald Reagan, Evil Empire speech (1983)
- “America’s new public enemy is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.” — Richard Nixon
- “The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. […] This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world. States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.” — George W. Bush, Axis of Evil Speech (2002)
- “The common thread linking the major Islamic terrorist attacks that have recently occurred on our soil—9/11, the Ft. Hood shooting, the Boston Bombing, the San Bernardino attack, the Orlando attack—is that they have involved immigrants or the children of immigrants… We also know that ISIS recruits refugees after their entrance into the country – as we have seen with the Somali refugee population in Minnesota…. [In] many of the countries from which we draw large numbers of immigrants, extreme views about religion – such as the death penalty for those who leave the faith – are commonplace… In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today. … To put these new procedures in place, we will have to temporarily suspend immigration from some of the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism. … The size of current immigration flows are simply too large to perform adequate screening.” — Donald Trump (2016)
We’ve now seen, first, that right-wing rhetoric tends to emphasize that reforms, especially those by nascent social movements, are destructive and counterproductive and will lead to universal misery, and that those who make these arguments tend to do so regardless of the facts. We’ve also seen that there is a more general human tendency to allow fear to cloud our assessment of reality, and that it’s easy to create and believe in one-dimensional folk devils, scapegoats, and bogeymen.
The Red Scare is an example of how these two tendencies work together. There was a communist movement in the United States, although a small one. But it was elevated into a menace in need of destruction, with movement members hounded out of jobs and blacklisted. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, paranoid about communism, tried to drive Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide, and Lyndon Johnson pursued an absolutely disastrous war in Vietnam that killed millions of people, based in part on ludicrous theories that if South Vietnam was allowed to go communist it would be a step toward Soviet world domination. Eventually the United States lost the war. Vietnam became, formally, a communist nation, which it remains to this day. And the Soviet Union imploded.
The American right has consistently told a story around the fear of civilizational collapse. In this story, the forces of evil lurk around every corner, threatening to destroy us and our children which necessitates a grand struggle for the soul of the country. In every generation, a new threat, a new inhuman enemy, has supposedly been on the brink of undoing society, from the menace of drugs to the Soviet menace to the Axis of Evil.
Of course, it’s not that there are never real problems or threats in the world. Drug addiction, and the violence surrounding the drug trade, is a serious social problem. North Korea is an oppressive dictatorship developing nuclear weapons. Iraq was an oppressive dictatorship even though it wasn’t developing nuclear weapons. But rhetoric about clashes of civilizations, or the road to serfdom, or an axis of evil, has the effect of turning off people’s brains, thus precluding critical thinking. This rhetoric makes people violent and stupid. When these people happen to control the world’s most powerful military, the consequences can be deadly.
The September 11 attacks, for instance, were perpetrated by a small group of idealogues who wanted to appear to be the representatives of a sprawling global terror network. In fact, as Guardian Middle East reporter Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, said in 2004, the Al Qaeda of the American popular imagination was largely a fiction:
“There is no Al-Qaeda organization. There is no international network with a leader, with carders who will unquestioningly obey orders, with tentacles that stretch out to sleeper cells in America, in Africa, in Europe. That idea of a coherent structured terrorist network with an organized capability simply does not exist.”
A small criminal gang was turned into a global menace requiring a never-ending “war on terror” rather than a small-scale law enforcement operation. The fear-based decision-making that came from this resulted in two disastrous wars that cost thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi lives (not to mention other consequences like birth defects and environmental damage), and trillions of dollars. Ironically, the American reaction to 9/11 fueled more terrorism. The U.S. military actions abroad became the most important factor driving radicalization of would-be extremists.
The idea that the Islamic world itself was at war with the United States led to a generalized suspicion of all Muslims, with right-wing commentators openly expressing their prejudices and encouraging people to be afraid:
- “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.” — Glenn Beck to America’s first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, CNN Headline News (2006)
- “When I get on a plane, I gotta tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” — Juan Williams, Fox News
- “Muslims killed us on 9/11 and there is a huge Muslim problem in the world.” — Bill O’Reilly, Fox News (2010)
- “We need to kill them. We need to kill them—the radical Muslim terrorists hell-bent on killing us. You’re in danger. I’m in danger.” — Judge Jeanine Pirro, Fox News
Right-wing publications have fueled alarm over supposed creeping fundamentalism or sharia law, citing such examples as a women’s- only swim class in Minnesota. In reality, when the right has actually gone into the communities they want to spread fear about, looking for evidence, the results are often comical. In his book American Crusade: Our Fight to Stay Free, Fox News commentator Pete Hegseth, perhaps best known for accidentally throwing an axe at a drummer, describes going into a Somali neighborhood in Minnesota, where he appears to have talked to exactly one teenager and then heard that there were hijabs on models in the nearby Mall of America:
“Instead of embracing Minnesota and American culture, most Somali Muslims have maintained a highly insular existence. As FOX News has reported—and as I saw for myself during multiple trips to Minneapolis for FOX & Friends—for Somali residents in large urban neighborhoods it’s possible to go about day-to-day business without ever interacting with a non-Somali. I walked the streets of ‘Little Mogadishu’ in Minneapolis for hours, encountering Somali Muslims, many of whom have lived in Minnesota for years and most of whom did not speak English. When I asked a local Somali teenager whether his Islamic school taught about American law and the US Constitution, he looked confused and said ‘Actually, I have no idea about that one.’ When asked if it teaches Sharia law, he quickly said ‘Yes, Sharia law.’ … After a recent trip to the Mall of America, a family member of mine explained in detail how the display outside the women’s section of the Macy’s department store had three female mannequins, two of which were wearing the Muslim hijab. The Mall of America.”
A Wall Street Journal report on the horrors of a visit to “Islamic England” couldn’t find anything more sinister than halal eateries and women painting henna designs on their hands:
“We squeezed by hundreds of residents busy preparing for the Eid al-Adha holiday. Girls in hijabs gathered around tables to paint henna designs on their hands. All the businesses had a religious flair: The eateries were halal, the fitness center was sex-segregated, and the boutiques displayed “modest” outfits on mannequins. Pakistani flags flew high and proud. I never saw a Union Jack.”
The paper even had to issue a correction because the writer mistakenly thought a sign declaring an “alcohol free zone” was religious tyranny, even though these signs are commonplace in Britain.
Fox News specializes in the Scary People Coming After Your Way Of Life story, like the blatant lie that Joe Biden was going to take away people’s hamburgers. A few years back, the network became obsessed with the idea that members of the New Black Panther Party were intimidating voters at the polls. They replayed the same footage of one or two Black Panthers outside one polling place. There was no evidence the men had done anything or even that the New Black Panther Party had much of a membership beyond these two guys. The only purpose of the report was to imply to viewers that nefarious radicals were threatening our elections.
Here’s another example: Tucker Carlson reporting on some Roma people moving into a Pennsylvania town, with the headline “GYPSIES: COMING TO AMERICA.” Carlson brings on a Roma guest and blindsides him by asking him to prove that Roma people know how to use bathrooms:
A lot of people mention, and I hate to say it, but, public defecation. There are a lot of news stories about this from around the world.
Okay, go ahead.
Going back a long time, in the UK and here, where groups of Roma settle in a new community and then defecate in playgrounds or on sidewalks or on their front steps. That seems to me a hostile act … These are countries that have indoor plumbing. There are options. When you do that, you’re saying ‘We reject you and your mores.’
Tucker, to respond to your question, like I said, I cannot respond to [this] because I’ve never witnessed it. I’ve been Roma all my life and my family’s been Roma all my life. We use bathrooms. And I’ve been to Europe many times. I can’t respond to something I’ve never seen as a Roma person. I’ve never witnessed any of my family do such a thing. The way you’re making it sound, or maybe the papers are making it sound, is like they’re doing it in protest, if in fact it’s happening.
Well, lots of people over a number of different years—I mean, there are photographs of it online. But I’m asking: what is that about? It’s not something that you need to do. So you have to assume it’s a statement. It’s deeply offensive to the people who live in the community.
[laughs] You’re asking me ‘What is it about?’ I can’t respond on something so vague.
There’s nothing vague about it. There are pictures. There are pictures of it.
It turns out that the story was completely false. The supposed public pooping was just “a 10-year old kid who dropped his drawers when he couldn’t make it to the facilities in time.” The answer to Carlson’s question of why these stories follow Roma people is that stigmatized ethnic groups are often the subject of rumors about their sanitation habits, and people’s prejudices mean that they accept these stories without asking questions like, was this maybe just a kid who had to go? Because there is a pre-existing assumption of cultural difference, with Roma people being seen as a mysterious other, rumors spread more easily than they would about, say, a group of new immigrants from Toronto. It’s not the only time Carlson has lied about immigrants—I’ve previously shown how he manipulates statistics to make immigrants seem more likely to commit crimes than they actually are.
In each of these instances, a thing that really happened in the world—a couple of guys hanging around a polling place in leather jackets, or a group of Roma people moving into a town—is being elevated into a story about dangerous electoral intimidation and a giant culture clash between new immigrants and existing residents. Fox is inviting its viewers to inhabit a world of paranoia and delusion. A good way to understand what is going on is to think of Don Quixote, who fancied himself a great knight fighting giants. The giants were, of course, windmills, but one important thing to note is that Quixote’s story wasn’t completely delusional. He was attacking something that wasn’t real, but he had built that enemy out of something that was real.
Remember this: It’s often the case in conservative fear-mongering that there is something in the real world that is an issue, and sometimes the thing is objectionable. The mods and rockers did have an ugly fight. Sometimes leftists say and do things that are ridiculous. If you pick the worst postmodern philosophers, or the dumbest thing Antifa has done, or the most heavy-handed actions taken in the name of social justice and see those as representative, you can construct an image of a country gone out of control. But the real people that these stories are based on bear as much resemblance to the right-wing propaganda as the windmills to Quixote’s giants. Their and complexity have been reduced, which has turned them into folk devils, the kind of cartoonish figures who appear in propaganda generation after generation.
It’s important to look carefully at history to see how the same techniques are deployed over and over again against different enemies. What is said about Catholics is said about Jews and then about Muslims. Against empathy, toward suspicion. But as leftist cartoons have effectively shown both then and now, these attempts to create alarm keep people from asking important questions about who actually holds the wealth and decision-making power in the country:
There’s a video on YouTube from 1965, showing former Republican Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson giving a speech called “America on the Path to Destruction.” Benson delivers a warning that the country is in terrible peril, on the “soul-destroying road of socialism.” What’s interesting to me is that the person who has uploaded the video calls it prophetic, saying that it’s “like he saw the future,” since Benson talks about “the destruction of the Constitution, the complacency of the American people,” etc. Benson does indeed sound as if he could be talking today, but I would interpret the reason for that somewhat differently. I would argue that what we see here is not Benson being uniquely prophetic. It’s that right-wing rhetoric is so recognizable generation after generation, regardless of the facts and issues. We are always on the road to serfdom, with new demons supposedly threatening our whole way of life.
IV. Critical Race Theory, The “Woke Religion,” Social Justice, Antifa, Cultural Marxism, The Regressive Left, Etc. Etc. Etc
In the last days of the 2021 Virginia governor’s race, the right began talking about problems with the state’s education system. Schools were shielding transgender sexual predators and teaching critical race theory. The right tried to paint a portrait of the state’s public schools as indoctrination mills where the left’s out of control ideology was causing children terrible harm. Tucker Carlson called Barack Obama a “heartless monster” for suggesting that reports of a sexual assault by a transgender student in a Virginia school were “phony right-wing outrage.”
The transgender bathroom assault was a clear example of phony right-wing outrage, though, because facts were being buried in order to make people more upset and to draw a political implication that wasn’t there. First, the boy in question was apparently not transgender; he was just a boy wearing a skirt. The boy and the girl in the bathroom went into the bathroom together, because they had gone into the bathroom together several times before to have sex, but this time she refused and he assaulted her. It didn’t occur because the school had a policy allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, because the school didn’t have such a policy. Reason magazine’s Robby Soave, who is a critic of the social justice left, said that the story was “substantially misreported in order to fit a conservative social agenda.” Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire twisted the facts of a horrible sexual assault in order to demonize trans people.
There happens to be no evidence for the idea that allowing trans people to use the bathroom of their choice will lead to assault. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council says that it’s intuitively obvious it will happen, but in fact it isn’t. Bathrooms, generally speaking, do not have bouncers outside checking your gender, so an. In fact, the Virginia case shows exactly why. The school didn’t have a policy allowing boys into the bathroom if they wear skirts. The boy and the girl just went in, where he committed assault. It happened without a trans-inclusive policy, because skirt or no skirt, a door is a door, and a person intent on committing assault can just walk through it.
We see here the elements of moral panic. A folk devil, the transgender sex predator, is created. The facts are distorted to make people afraid. The voices of actual trans people disappear from the conversation, and they are turned into a cartoonish menace. We also see the classic tropes of right-wing rhetoric: a movement for equality by an excluded group will lead to disaster, violence, the undoing of the social fabric, and the poisoning of children. It’s always the same, and it’s almost always a ghost story. Someday, in some bathroom, there may be a transgender person who commits a sex crime—just as cisgender people may commit crimes in bathrooms. But those who already view a certain group as deviant are on the lookout for incidents they can use to confirm their prejudice.
Next, let’s talk about critical race theory (CRT). Republicans all over the country have been scrambling to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Donald Trump called it a “sickness that cannot be allowed to continue,” issued an executive order that attempted to restrict federal contractors from trainings that incorporate concepts associated with CRT, and, more recently, published an op-ed in which he called CRT a “twisted doctrine is that it is completely antithetical to everything that normal Americans of any color would wish to teach their children” and wrote that “teaching even one child these divisive messages would verge on psychological abuse.” He said further that the left’s “indoctrination” of students in CRT was a “program for national suicide.”
In Virginia, conservatives made the state’s supposed teaching of critical race theory an issue of parental rights. Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who originated the anti-critical race theory campaign, celebrated the Republican victory in Virginia as a triumph, writing that:
“Glenn Youngkin made critical race theory the closing argument to his campaign and dominated in blue Virginia. We are building the most sophisticated political movement in America—and we have just begun.”
It’s unclear to what extent CRT affected voters, though many cited education policy as their top concern. But it’s clear that Republicans believe scaring people about critical race theory and “cancel culture” is a politically winning strategy.
Some on the left, in response to this, take what I think is the wrong approach. They say that critical race theory is not being taught in schools, or that the right is misunderstanding what critical race theory is, and that this is a panic over nothing. There’s something to both of these points, but in reply, Republicans point to examples of works that are, in fact, being taught in schools that draw from the body of scholarly work that calls itself critical race theory, and then they claim the left is lying.
I think the sensible way to discuss matters is this. There has been an effort in recent years on the left to get people to confront what we see as the pervasiveness of racism in America. The body of work called critical race theory that emerged in law schools during the 80s and 90s was an attempt to show that even once the laws of the country were ostensibly “race neutral,” they still facilitated racial inequality. The classic example of this, which CRT scholar Derrick Bell put forward, was the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Bell pointed out that instead of requiring that Black students be given good schools, the court required that they be given integrated schools, a goal that ended up being enforced through the unpopular measure of busing. Bell argued that by eliminating racial discrimination without mandating real equality of educational resources, the Court had ensured that Black children would continue to receive an inferior education to white children while absolving the legal system of charges of racism.
This was a highly provocative and interesting argument, and much of the critical race theory scholarship is similarly challenging. I’ve written an article explaining why I think this body of scholarship is valuable. Let me explain. I first encountered critical race theory when I was an undergraduate, when I was assigned a science fiction story by Bell called “The Space Traders.” In the story, aliens come to the United States and offer enough mineral resources and riches to solve all of our country’s problems—if the country is willing to give its Black population to the aliens and let them be enslaved. After much national deliberation, the country votes in a secret ballot, and it turns out that the white people of America are willing to make this devil’s bargain. The story ends with Black Americans getting onto the spaceships, leaving the country the same way, as Bell points out, in which they came.
I hated this story when I first read it. I thought it was too cynical about Americans. Of course we’d never agree to such a thing. But it haunted me, and over time, I realized that in many ways, Americans already agree to this kind of sordid arrangement. There is massive wealth inequality between Black and white people in this country, much of which is the direct consequence of the fact that Black people started with no capital, while white people have inherited the wealth that came from 250 years of slavery. This situation doesn’t seem to trouble white people today. In fact, they barely seem to notice it. We are okay with the stolen wealth of the slavery era being kept. This is the kind of corrupt moral bargain that seemed so outlandish in Bell’s story. But I realized over time that it wasn’t science fiction; it was historical fact.
Critical race theory is therefore a body of intellectual work that forces us to ask hard questions about the country. I happen to think it’s worth teaching in school, and it’s a good thing that there is more attention being paid to race, because it’s something Americans are uncomfortable discussing even though it’s glaringly obvious that racial differences in housing quality, wealth, education, health, are experiences with the police have something to do with the fact that for hundreds of years we lived in an outright apartheid state.
Of course, there are some silly excesses among the antiracist left, and the right loves to point to the most extreme examples, like punctuality being called a white quality or something trivial being labeled a microaggression, or corporations performing their wokeness to a ludicrous degree. But what’s fundamental to the new antiracism, even in such controversial works as The 1619 Project, How to Be an Anti-Racist, and White Fragility, is a set of serious challenges to the story this country tells itself. These challenges should not be written off. Instead of engaging with that body of work seriously, the right elevates it to a neo-Marxist conspiracy to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed.
Christopher Rufo himself has been quite open about the fact that he is simply trying to turn “critical race theory” into a vague bad thing that people associate with leftist insanity, and he is not actually trying to force an honest conversation about the body of scholarly work known as critical race theory. He has said:
“We have successfully frozen their brand into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think, critical race theory. We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
This is an admission that Rufo is on a propaganda mission, and is not trying to find the truth. A revealing moment about the dishonesty underlying criticism of critical race theory came in a recent Manhattan Institute panel discussion featuring Rufo and other critics of CRT. One of the critics was Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law Professor who has been arguing against critical race theory since the 1990s. Kennedy isn’t a huge fan of CRT, but even he was amazed that it could be dismissed as worthless. He told Rufo and others:
“[I’ve criticized them all… But] you all spoke for a good 45 minutes as if the people who call themselves critical race theorists don’t have anything to contribute… One of the reasons why these ideas are prominent, why they are getting traction, is because there’s something to them. There’s a certain strength. […] This is coming from someone who has been critical. But let’s give credit where credit is due.”
Kennedy is a serious critic who engages with CRT on an intellectual level. The American right, on the other hand, are simply trying to turn CRT proponents into bogeymen.
The situation is complicated by the fact that on one level, critical race theory and antiracism are a threat to what the right sees as “America as we know it.” That’s because these ideas challenge the founding myths of the country, and force us to acknowledge that the country is still marked by terrible injustice. If the claims of the antiracist left are correct, then the right’s view of America as the greatest country on earth, a shining beacon of freedom, will be seriously challenged, and there will be a very strong case to be made that there needs to be serious new federal policy to address racial inequality across many domains. The right may be paranoid, and may dishonestly try to label everything they don’t like critical race theory, but they are not wrong to sense that things they believe to their core are being called into question.
I’d like to suggest that many of the right’s other enemies, from Marxism to postmodernism to social justice and antifa, are similar to critical race theory in that they are both not as powerful as the right would have you think, and are less unreasonable than the right is willing to acknowledge. If you actually look at the works under discussion, you may find that they don’t say quite what the right says they say. Ibram X. Kendi, who is loathed by the conservative right for example, when allowed to speak for himself, does not say that white people are all consumed by hateful evil racism, but that their racial biases tend to be unconscious and happen without deliberate intent, and that even people of color can be racist without realizing it.
JOY REID, MSNBC:
Do you believe that white Americans are inherently racist?
IBRAM X. KENDI:
Oh, I do not. And indeed in How to Be an Anti-Racist, I make the case that we shouldn’t believe that anyone is inherently racist or that we should identify anyone as a racist. I make the case that “racist” isn’t a fixed category. It’s a descriptive term that describes what a person is being in any given moment based on what they’re doing or saying. And so if a person is saying “Black people are lazy,” they’re being racist. But if in the very next moment they’re advocating a policy that creates justice and equity for all, they’re being anti-racist.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times reporter whose 1619 Project has become infamous on the right, is seen by them as an unpatriotic America hater. But if you read her work, it becomes clear that she is trying to create an American story that encourages Black Americans to feel proud of the United States, by emphasizing that they have just as much a claim to have founded and built the country as the slave-owning “founding fathers.” The 1619 Project is condemned by those who have not bothered to think seriously about what Hannah-Jones is trying to do. She explains:
“Black Americans have been one of the greatest gifts to this country because it has been through our constant resistance that we actually have as much of a democracy as we have. So I opened with the story of my dad and this flag that he flew in our front yard and how as a teenager I was deeply embarrassed by this outward show of patriotism from my father. I understood that Black Americans were still second-class citizens. This was a man who was born on a cotton plantation in apartheid Mississippi, one of the smartest men that I knew but who never had any real opportunities in this country. And yet here he was exhibiting patriotism. He was a veteran. You know, we all hear these statistics about Black Americans’ overrepresentation in crime and overrepresentation in out-of-wedlock birth and all these statistics. But we never hear that Black Americans are also overrepresented in those who serve this country and who join the military, and that we actually join the military at the highest rates of all racial groups. That has long been the case and we fought in every war this country has ever fought.
My opening essay really wants, from the moment you first start reading it, to [give] this sense of surprise about the way that we’ve been taught to think about this history and Black Americans. I make the argument that our Founders did not believe those majestic words of the Declaration of Independence when they wrote them. Of course, [they are] some of the most famous words in the English language: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights, and of these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When those words were written, one-fifth of the population of the thirteen colonies lived in absolute bondage, in chattel slavery. Thomas Jefferson owned about 130 human beings when he wrote those words, and in fact had brought his own enslaved brother-in-law to Philadelphia with him to keep him comfortable as he wrote those words.
But Black people read those words of the Declaration and they saw those words as liberatory and applying to them. And Black people were determined that even though they knew those words weren’t meant for them that they were going to believe those words and that they were going to fight generation after generation to force this country to live up to those ideals.”
I could go through all kinds of other lefty social justice concepts and books and show why, even when these thinkers and their ideas are open to criticism, they are often less unreasonable than the right wants to make them seem. Karl Marx, for instance, was a serious economist, a fact acknowledged even by the free market capitalist Joseph Schumpeter, who believed Marx to have been among the deepest social and economic thinkers of all time. Even the Soviet Union was a more complex place than the right would like you to believe. (They did beat us to space, after all!)
Instead of going through and showing the nuance in everything, let me just offer a couple of common tendencies to be on the lookout for:
1. Crucial Facts Will Be Left Out of the Story
Every time there’s a story about “cancel culture” or “the woke illiberal authoritarian Maoist left,” read the details of the news story closely to make sure they haven’t selectively left out details in order to make the left appear crazier than it is. For instance, when I read the first chapter of John McWhorter’s Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, I was struck by a story he tells in the first chapter about a university administrator fired for sending an email saying that “everyone’s life matters.” “What kind of people,” McWhorter asks, would demand that someone be fired over something so trivial? Well, I looked up the incident, and in fact the person who was fired says she was actually fired because her boss had a pre-existing grudge against her (“my firing was based solely on Dean McKinney’s dislike for questioning of her authority“) and used the email as a pretext.
Now, you can say she was still fired over the email, even if it was a pretext but McWhorter is trying to show that the left believes people ought to be fired over this. It turns out that nobody really did think she ought to be fired over it. There was no mob calling for her head. The student who complained about the email even said she didn’t think the woman should have been fired. The facts of the story were manipulated to make the left appear crazy.
In an excellent article on “moral panic journalism” about the social justice movement, Michael Hobbes shows that many of these articles are similarly based on fraud. As he writes:
The articles we’re discussing here are called “The New Puritans” and “The Threat From The Illiberal Left.” Nothing about their presentation implies that the danger of the left is minuscule compared to right-wing authoritarianism. A far greater number of people will see the title, skim the content or glance at a newsstand than will ever read these stories in full, much less internalize their self-admitted weaknesses. This is how moral panics happen. In the 1990s, hundreds of articles warned Americans about the dangers of “political correctness,” a right-wing swamp fungus that functioned almost exclusively as a tool to discredit progressive demands. In the 1980s we got “stranger danger,” a nationwide ulcer of anxiety about creeps in white vans kidnapping children. By the time journalists got around to debunking it (there’s only around 100 stranger kidnappings per year in the entire U.S.), we’d already passed a wave of laws that expanded mass incarceration — and did nothing whatsoever to keep children safe.
When we look at the cases of “cancel culture” at its supposed most extreme, we often find that the full facts offer a far more complex picture than that of a marauding, mindless, anti-free speech left. Take the example of the editor of the New York Review of Books who was fired after publishing an article by a radio host who was accused of serial sexual assault. The fact that the editor in chief was fired for publishing the article could be seen as an example of the authoritarian, speech-suppressing tendencies of MeToo, which doesn’t value alternate perspectives. But the essay itself was full of self-serving factual distortions. It was demonstrably beneath the standards of journalistic integrity that a magazine should want to hold itself to. The editor was fired because of the quality of his work.
The same is true of a controversy surrounding the Third World Quarterly’s publication of an essay called “The Case for Colonialism.” The conservative author of the essay insisted that backlash to it was cancel culture, but as I and others showed, the real problem with it was that it defended colonialism by ignoring colonialist atrocities—that is, it was a poor work of scholarship, the intellectual equivalent of Holocaust denial.
2. Anecdotes Become The Data
Stories about the illiberal authoritarian left are generally built on anecdotes. Consider the time white supremacist Charles Murray encountered an angry protest when he tried to speak at Middlebury College. I oppose efforts to stop people from speaking, even when they’re racist pseudoscientists, but it’s notable that Charles Murray spoke successfully at Harvard and Yale the same year. In fact, when you actually look at the number of instances in which speakers are blocked from campus every year, these instances are small in number. Those trying to paint the left as Stalinists don’t look at the cases in which right-wing speakers showed up and nobody protested, but only the ones where something happened, which is why you see footage of Charles Murray at Middlebury over and over.
In these stories about the authoritarian illiberal left, small incidents are used to create supposed national trends. You may have heard of the students at Oberlin college who were upset that their dining hall food was culturally appropriative. The incident was used by the Atlantic to draw conclusions about an entire generation of young people. But it essentially wasn’t true. The story came about because some international students were asked by a student journalist what they thought of the dining hall food. They said they hated it and it was culturally inauthentic, an insult to their countries. The remarks were mild but they were used to draw huge conclusions about an entire generation. Now, are there some people who are excessively critical of what is seen as unfair borrowing of other people’s cultures? There are. But the idea that there is some widespread prohibition on cultural borrowing ignores the fact that there are people who engage in it all the time and receive almost no backlash.
3. Ridiculous Hyperbole
I mean there’s no comparison between Mao and a trans activist, is there?
Because trans activists aren’t killing millions of people!
The philosophy that’s guiding their utterances is the same philosophy.
The consequences are …
You’re saying that trans activists …
Could lead to the deaths of millions of people.
No, I’m saying that the philosophy that drives their utterances is the same philosophy that already has driven us to the deaths of millions of people.
Okay. Tell us how that philosophy is in any way comparable.
Sure. That’s no problem. The first thing is that their philosophy presumes that group identity is paramount. That’s the fundamental philosophy that drove the Soviet Union and Maoist China. And it’s the fundamental philosophy of the left-wing activists. It’s identity politics. It doesn’t matter who you are as an individual, it matters who you are in terms of your group identity.
That’s Jordan Peterson comparing transgender activists to Maoists, because the philosophy is the same. But the Chinese cultural revolution was a bloodbath in which people were murdered by the score in the most brutal ways. As the interviewer points out, there is a huge difference between trans activists and mass murderers, but Peterson says the philosophy is the same because it emphasizes “group identity.” (So does nationalism, but this kind of identity politics is treated as healthy.) These kinds of ludicrous exaggerations are common in descriptions of the left, which include comparisons to Stalin, Robespierre, and Mao. The comparison is dangerous, because if it’s taken seriously, it might justify brutal action to suppress the left. To avoid an authoritarian nightmare, after all, extreme means might be justifiable. If leftists are really threatening to destroy the fabric of the country and our civilization as we know it, what measures would be justified against them? We can see a hint in a recent exhortation by Christopher Rufo:
“It’s time to clean house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to the universities, abolish the teachers unions, and overturn the school boards.”
But why would it stop there? If truly the left poses the kind of threat conservatives say it poses, this should just be the beginning of their efforts to suppress it.
4. No Charity
I see a lot of accusations made against the left. Sometimes they’re fair; usually they’re exaggerated. I don’t think eBay should have stopped selling the Dr. Seuss books with the racists bits in. But I also think it’s ridiculous to say, as Mark Levin does, that Bernie Sanders wants free college to indoctrinate people.
Sometimes I see people, even those who once seemed sympathetic to the left, arguing that the left has abandoned its commitment to “moral universalism” or lapsed into identity politics. Some parts may have, but we shouldn’t speak of “the left” in broad strokes this way. When I think of the left, I think of the inspiring speeches Bernie Sanders gave in 2020 about unifying people of all identities, about fighting for someone you don’t know even if they have very different kinds of problems than you. Those interested in making statements about the left should not just look at the latest controversy that has erupted on a college campus, but at the great work of leftists political candidates and organizers all around the country. They should show a little charity and understand that many of us are trying to do our best to improve the lives of the least well off.
The Consequences: Protecting the Powerful, Terrifying Ordinary People, Distracting from What Matters
1. Protecting the Powerful
Over-the-top attacks on leftist authoritarianism sometimes identify actual bad tendencies on the left, but often the distortions are attempts to wave away criticisms that could indict the powerful. For instance, take the recent Fox News hysteria about so-called “climate lockdowns.” The story being told is that leftist concern about climate change is a way to seize power in order to imprison people in their homes, because the left likes exerting authority for its own sake. That’s a paranoid delusion, of course, but it’s also the case that getting Fox News viewers to think climate policy is a power-grab by Stalinists has the function of protecting fossil fuel interests. The wealthy in the United States are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change, and under any fair agreement to deal with it, they would have to pay for the damage they’ve done. Sowing the belief that dealing with climate change is nothing more than an attempt to empower the state helps make sure that those who have reaped the benefits of uncontrolled emissions will never pay the costs.
The reality is that conservatives’ actual substantive positions, like cutting taxes on the rich, gutting labor protections, and ignoring the climate crisis, are deeply unpopular. Progressive policies like universal healthcare, free college, and higher minimum wages are, in fact, popular. The ceaseless creation of new enemies to distract us from having a serious discussion of the issues is necessary if Republicans are to have a chance of remaining in power.
A lot of the right-wing narratives about an authoritarian left end up giving people a skewed perspective of who holds power in this country. They end up convincing people that the right does not control much, even though it controls many state and local governments, holds almost complete veto power over legislation, has a senate that is rigged structurally to keep it in power, and dominates the American court system. Plus right-wing media is hugely powerful. This picture of conservatives as the ones who are weak keeps the public from examining efforts by the right to hold onto public office by any means necessary, including punishing dissent and restricting the franchise.
2. Terrifying People
Many in conservative media are excellent storytellers. Glenn Beck is a great admirer of Orson Welles, and it comes through in his dramatic performances. But often, right wing media is a lot like Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, scaring the crap out of people by telling them falsehoods.
The results can be depressing. There are a number of reports of people talking about how beloved family members, after watching Fox News for too long, became scared, bigoted, and unpleasant, losing touch with the world around them. “What happened to dad? It was like an alien took over his body,” said one distressed daughter. Go too far down the rabbit hole, and you can become like the Parkland shooting survivor’s parent who got so into QAnon that he thought his own child was part of a conspiracy and that the shooting didn’t happen. When people’s information channels are spinning stories of the world in which their own children could be part of a plot, they can become as mad as Don Quixote. This is one reason why what Fox News and Alex Jones do is not just socially harmful but downright evil. When Tucker Carlson makes people fear their immigrant neighbors using lies, he makes it more likely that they will support brutal and dehumanizing policies directed against those neighbors, and be less empathetic to their suffering. The consequences of detaching people from reality, such as by encouraging them to live in denial about climate change, could be dire.
3. Distractions From What Matters
“The question that we should be meditating on day in and day out is… how do we save this country before we become Rwanda?” — Tucker Carlson, segment on “anti-white mania” destroying the future of the country
Life is finite and you can only meditate on so many questions at once. When you’re fixated on one issue, you’re necessarily not thinking about others. Around the United States today, workers are going on strike. Immigrants are detained and live under threat of deportation. Climate change is threatening to create refugees around the world and wreak new kinds of destruction. A lot of work needs to be done to improve human lives. The United States has a healthcare system that drives people into bankruptcy and forces them to beg from strangers on GoFundMe to get basic care that people in other countries get guaranteed. Schools need to be repaired, public transit needs to be built, the proliferation of terrifying destructive weapons needs to be curbed, and the economy needs to transition away from fossil fuels. Political decisions made by governments are hugely consequential. These decisions determine whether we’re going to see a future of apocalyptic thermonuclear warfare and climate catastrophe, or a bright egalitarian Star Trek future.
Given the scale and scope of pressing human problems, it might seem as if it would be difficult to get people not to think about the things that matter. But our pictures of the world, our sense of priorities, our emotions like anger and fear and desire, are not created by reason alone. All of us are vulnerable to being scared by ghost stories, to becoming alarmed by the things that other people are alarmed about without rationally reflecting on whether our reactions really make sense. What we are told matters. If we aren’t told about something, it can disappear entirely from view. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s why it’s important to ask the question: what are we paying attention to, and what are we ignoring? Is our sense of the range of important political issues slowly shrinking?
“This election will decide whether we SAVE the American Dream, or whether we allow a socialist agenda to DEMOLISH our cherished destiny. […] Your vote will decide whether we protect law abiding Americans, or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists, agitators, and criminals who threaten our citizens. And this election will decide whether we will defend the American Way of Life, or whether we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.” — Donald Trump, 2020 Republican National Convention
It may seem like there are many conservative arguments. In fact, most are variations on the same argument, an argument that has been made for hundreds of years against social movements ranging from abolitionism to women’s suffrage to the labor movement to the antiwar movement to feminist and social justice and trans rights movements. The story is that there is a left bent on destroying the country. The left is coming for your children. Freedom is on the line.
Sometimes freedom really is on the line, but most of the time, the threat is not from the left. The prison system, the border patrol, the plutocrats—these are the entities with real power, not the Roma child who pooped his pants or the college student a little too enamored with postructuralism. Left ideas, whether critical race theory or Marxism, are actually attempts to identify who holds power and to understand how that power works often to the detriment of average people. Instead of villainizing these ideas, people should pick up some books and engage charitably with them.
The right is having an alarming amount of success in creating a collective delusion, telling ghost stories and having people believe them. When these kinds of ghost stories are accepted as reality, the results can be dire. Once real human beings are seen as cartoon enemies, horrible actions against them can be justified. We have to expose the techniques through which reality is distorted, and keep people anchored to the solid world of fact rather than the terrifying fictions that comprise the right-wing world view.
Watch the video on which this essay is based here.