The Intolerance of Tolerance

Just recently I read The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson. Carson is one of the best New Testament scholars around, but what he writes in this book (although written from a Christian perspective) has more to do with contemporary politics. His main point is that the concept of tolerance evolved over time to become something impossible to work with.

Being a New Testament scholar, Carson knows very well how language works, and especially how vocabulary accommodates different concepts over time. Not long ago, tolerance was meant to be a secondary virtue. We tolerate things that we don’t like, but that at the same time we don’t believe we should destroy. That was the case between different Protestant denominations early in American history: Baptists, Presbyterians, and so on decided to “agree to disagree,” even though they didn’t agree with one another completely. “I don’t agree with what you are saying, but I don’t think I have to shut you up. I’ll let you say and do the things I don’t like.” Eventually, the boundaries of tolerance were expanded to include Catholics, Jews, and all kinds of people and behaviors that we don’t agree with, but that we decide to tolerate.

The problem with tolerance today is that people want to make it a central value. You have to be tolerant. Period. But is that possible? Should we be tolerant of pedophilia? Murder? Genocide? Can the contemporary tolerant be tolerant of those who are not tolerant?

Postmodernism really made a mess. Postmodernism is very good as a necessary critic to the extremes of rationalism present in modernity. But in and by itself it only leads to nonsense. Once you don’t have anything firm to stand on, anything goes. Everything is relative. Except that everything is relative, that’s absolute. Tolerance today goes the same way: I will not tolerate the fact that you are not tolerant.

The news cycle vs. current events

The other day, while badgering my fellow Notewriters to blog more often, I mentioned that current events are different from the news cycle, and are still important to dissect and blog about. This distinction between the news cycle and current events was sparked by economist Arnold Kling’s recent post on where he gets the news (found in one of last week’s Nightcaps). Basically, the news cycle is terrible. I rarely pay any attention to it. CNN, a left-of-center media outlet that almost everybody has heard of, has on its front page today (the wee morning hours of 4-23-17) a great example of the news cycle:

  • Kellyanne Conway to Dana Bash: OK, you went there
  • Conway says asking about her husband’s anti-Trump tweets is a ‘double standard’
  • Analysis: Trump’s score-settling creates jarring contrast
  • WSJ: Trump to ask North Korea to dismantle nuclear arsenal before talking sanctions relief
  • Opinion: Macron’s bromance with Trump will come at a price
  • Biographer: Trump has lied since youth
  • Melania Trump plans state dinner on her own
  • Stelter: One Trump lie is crystal clear

You get the idea, and remember that CNN is a well-established, long-running media outlet. Other media outlets that focus on the news cycle are just as bad, if not worse (at least CNN pretends, most of the time, to wrap its clear bias in a cloth of objectivity). This is a far cry from the concept of “current events.” Current events, in my view, are arguments about ideas, events, or even people that take place between at least two sides in specific time frame. Most of the time, “current events” involve using events (usually) or people (rarely) to defend or attack an idea. You see the difference? Have a better definition?

The news cycle is largely garbage, but it can still be useful, especially for international news. I never visit RealClearPolitics, for example, because it focuses on the news cycle, but I stop by RealClearWorld, which usually conveys the news cycles of other countries, once or twice a day. Even though I’m consuming a news cycle, I’m still learning something because it’s a news cycle about a place very different from my own.

Five or ten years from now, the bullet points from CNN will be useless and forgotten, but the arguments put forth into the stream of current events will be useful and maybe even prized. What baffles me is that the news cycle, while almost universally loathed, is far more popular in terms of consumption than current events. Doesn’t everybody know how to use Google by now?

“Apparently they have been whispering while others have been shouting obscenities and interrupting guest speakers.”

This is an observation found in the ‘comments’ threads of economist Mark Perry’s blog, Carpe Diem, on a post he did about the reaction of students at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor to their president’s remarks about Donald Trump.

(I’m not going to summarize it here, because you are all probably familiar with this storyline. You can read Perry’s whole post here.)

I wanted to highlight that this comment basically summed up my political experience on campus. I am by no means a conservative, but there was no way in hell I was going to pipe up in class discussions on alternative understandings of “neoliberalism” or even play the role of contrarian. Doing so would have hurt my GPA. It would have resulted in a loss of social standing. It would have invited accusations that I was racist, or sexist, or – gasp! – conservative.

So instead I started this blog and talked about sports or homework with my peers.

My guess is the guy who left this comment was a libertarian or conservative in college back in the 70s or 80s. Michelangelo recently blogged about his experience on campus, but has anyone else found that this is the norm on campuses in the West?

I understand that conservative and libertarian groups like to get obnoxious sometimes, by carrying out public demonstrations like “affirmative action bake sales” or whatever, but the fact that these don’t work (they do help promote a culture of toleration on campuses, albeit in an indirect manner, so I guess I should be thankful for that, but if this is the case then the drum-beating and chanting done by Leftists on campus does the same thing for me in this regard) in convincing the other side of their wrongness suggests that the quiet whisperers are the better thinkers.

Turkey just shot down a Russian fighter jet

Yes, folks, things just got way more real in the Levant.

Here is NOL‘s first-ever post on Syria (by yours truly). It’s from 2012 (which means NOL is nearly four years old!) and it holds up pretty well if you ask me.

Jacques Delacroix, an ardent hawk who recently quit NOL (again) and who ironically criticizes libertarians for being “dogmatic” and “predictable,” had this to say about Syria in 2012:

Russia would not risk to go to war with us on behalf of Syria because that country is just not important enough to the Russians’ game.

And also this:

The current murderous situation [in 2012 Syria] is not acceptable. Therefore, the risk of some sort of Islamist take-over is worth running.

Jacques and other military interventionists have been getting the Middle East wrong for decades, and yet people still take them seriously. Just to be clear: Jacques and other hawks were perfectly aware that attacking Assad would mean opening up a space for ISIS and other nasty Sunni organizations to grow. Jacques just thought Islamists would be better than Assad because they’d at least have some form of democratic legitimacy. Then, after the recent massacres in Paris, Delacroix and other hawks began arguing that Islamists have to go, too (along with Assad). The Russians, who Jacques (and other hawks) confidently told the public would not dare intervene in Syria, think that Islamists have to go (too many Russian commercial airliners are blowing up in the sky) but not Assad. Not a pretty picture, and Western hawks are largely responsible for the mess.

Here is an old post detailing just how wrong Jacques was on Libya, and instead of acknowledging just how wrong he was (he was really wrong), Jacques changed the subject and repeated oft-debunked litanies.

Anyone can be wrong, of course. I thought Mitt Romney would beat Obama back in 2012 (the economy was in terrible shape…), but I learned from my mistake and people can generally learn something from me (even if it’s only to see things from a slightly different angle) when I write on American politics.

When Jacques and other hawks are wrong they become dishonest about their past mistakes, though. They don’t acknowledge them. They don’t try to learn from them. They instead repeat their sacred litanies over and over again, hoping that they will eventually be proved correct (a broken clock is right twice a day, after all). This moral failing on the hawks’ part is what’s responsible for the violence and carnage in Syria. It might be responsible for World War 3 (Turkey is a NATO member). Their dogmatism and the dishonesty it entails is far more of a threat to individual liberty than Islamist terrorists or even the violent policy prescriptions (and cultural chauvinism) Jacques and his ilk call for (and rely upon in the public sphere) on a daily basis.

Jacques and the interventionists (cool band name, by the way) are responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead people and millions of displaced ones. They initiated this carnage using made-up “facts,” poor logic, and appeals to violence. Where is the outrage? How can we change the climate of opinion so that those who lie constantly and unabashedly lose influence and prestige? Is incompetence that prevalent in our open society, or is dishonesty to blame?

The Importance of Literature

I’ve got two long-form posts in my queue that are not quite finished. One is on how individuals rent-seek identity, and the other is on political labels and dialogue. In the mean time, here is an excerpt from an insightful essay on the (supposed, in my opinion) decline of arts and the humanities in American universities:

Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie. It is a short step, John Stuart Mill argues, from the view that one’s opponents are necessarily guided by evil intentions to the rule of what we have come to call a one-party state or what Putin today calls “managed democracy.” If universities embody the future, then we are about to take that step. Literature, by teaching us to imagine the other’s perspective, teaches the habits of mind that prevent that from happening. That is one reason the Soviets took such enormous efforts to censor it and control its interpretation.

This is from Gary Saul Morson, who teaches literature at Northwestern, writing in Commentary. This essay, for reasons I cannot fathom, reminded me of two recent posts by two prominent libertarians, economist Bryan Caplan and philosopher Jason Brennan, that deride the arts and humanities. Here is Caplan:

I’m an academic.  A university library is supposed to be a warehouse of great thoughts.  But the vast majority of the books seemed literally indefensible.  Lame topics, vague theses, and godawful writing abounded.

Brennan’s post is more tongue-in-cheek but still worth reading.

Just replace ‘evil’ with ‘stupid’ or ‘lame’ or ‘useless’ and…voila.

Now, I’ve been around libertarian circles long enough to know that these critiques, of the arts and humanities, put forth by libertarian academics are more about debunking Leftist narratives (“you can, and should, do what you want because you, simply by being alive, have a right to whatever you want, including access to the arts and humanities”) than they are about trashing the arts and humanities, but I am a bit worried that the newest readers to old libertarian arguments are not as familiar with the subcontext of Caplan’s and Brennan’s arguments. These newer readers might not be as familiar with the old Leftist arguments about the arts and humanities being something that everybody should have access to, and as a result these newer libertarians might become anti-education, or worse: anti-democratic, though not anti-democratic as in being critical of the democratic process as it stands today, but anti-democratic as in becoming intolerant to views that are shown to be less superior in some way to our own.

I wish the more prominent libertarians among us would remember to include reminders that the ultimate target of their attacks are Leftist narratives that ignore reality, and not education.