Saturday, December 7, 2019

I Have Proven That This Fire Can Be Put Out

When conservatives in the media spend most of their time talking about how our nation would be better off if somebody, somewhere else followed the right set of ideas, they become like the mathematician in the old joke.
In a recent post, I criticized right-wing pundits who like to harp on the supposed fact that America is a republic rather than a democracy, when in reality, “democracy” and “republic” are just Greek and Latin words for the same thing – and modern America is not an example of that thing. Yet if you spent too much time listening to conservative media, you might come away thinking that the cause of our predicament is that young people don’t appreciate the role of representative bodies, like the Electoral College, in checking the power of the mob.

Give me a break. Nobody in the world is trying to make their country into a direct democracy. Even classical Athens, the favorite bogeyman of the “Republic Good Democracy Bad” crowd, conducted its government through elected officials. The truth is, everybody believes in checks and balances of some sort.

Now, it certainly doesn’t help when, for one of America’s political parties, “checks and balances” means that if you can’t get a policy change approved by the voters, then you can enact it through the courts instead. And it only gets worse when the other party, rather than calling for any resistance to judicial power grabs, just responds by publishing long thinkpieces about how this wasn’t the founders’ intention and how the country would be better off if the courts didn’t “foreclose the democratic process” on the issue, but how ultimately the people who submit to the new ruling are just innocent victims whose only moral responsibility is to recognize that they were wronged and construct elaborate arguments proving it.

It all reminds me of the old joke about the mathematician in the burning building. It goes something like this: A physicist, an engineer, and a mathematician were staying in a hotel when each awoke in the night to see that a small fire had broken out in his room. The physicist went to the sink and measured out the exact amount of water needed to extinguish the flames. The engineer just poured as much water as he could on the fire until it was out cold. And the mathematician got out a pencil and a pad of paper, worked his way through some elaborate calculations, and then went back to bed with a smile on his face, saying “I have proven that this fire can be put out.”

This, roughly speaking, is the way in which the bulk of the conservative movement has responded to the changes which have made this country unrecognizable over the last fifty years. Everybody on the right half of the political spectrum agrees that the country would be a nicer place if the tenth amendment were still followed and state law had the last word on topics not addressed in the constitution. And most of them think that merely by having the right opinion, and talking about it at great length, they have absolved themselves of any duty to actually fight for the freedoms they claim to cherish.

The founders waged a successful War of Independence against the strongest nation on earth in order to defend their right to be ruled by elected assemblies from a distant central government that wouldn’t acknowledge that right. And a few generations later, the free states proved themselves willing to risk war rather than let the Supreme Court have the final say on the slavery issue. But that was then, and this is now. Nowadays, it seems, our goal is merely to demonstrate, on paper, that there’s a better way to do things.

Now the sad thing is that when this is the attitude of a large enough majority, there isn’t any good way out. Secession and nullification are not things that isolated individuals can do. So while I vote for independence-minded candidates whenever one comes up on the ballot in some local race, and give money to Abolish Abortion Texas – a movement that lobbies its home state to treat Roe v. Wade the way that some northern states treated the fugitive slave laws – I don’t have an optimistic outlook on the ultimate success of those ventures.

Still, individuals can at least stop listening to pundits who don’t go any further than repeatedly and passionately explaining why the other wide is wrong.

Consider, for example, the recent case of a Texan court which ruled in favor of a mother’s request for sole custody over her seven-year-old son so that she could change his gender to female over the father’s objections. Over the next few days, that ever-doctrinaire conservative outlet, The Federalist, published three articles explaining in detail why what had happened was awful, but not calling on anyone to do anything about it.

Matt Walsh, who for many reasons is my favorite Christian blogger, bluntly said that the morally justified response would be for the father to flee the country with his child rather than submit.

For now, at least, the case ended up being moot, because the judge reversed the jury’s decision and granted joint custody to both parents. But the appeals aren’t exhausted, and if the outcome swings back the other way, don’t expect to hear about it in the news – the judge also put the father under a gag order, because free speech is apparently just another dowdy eighteenth century anachronism that mustn’t be allowed to interfere with the onward march of social progress.

Matt Walsh is different than most commentators because he calls on his listeners to do something more than passively disagree with the government policies that are making everyone’s lives worse. And that doesn’t just apply to extreme cases like what to do when your ex-wife wants to castrate your son. Walsh is also willing to get on people’s case for sending their kids to a leftist school, or letting their daughters play sports against transgendered boys, or listening to feminist relationship advice, or watching Game of Thrones, or going to a church that doesn’t make people feel guilty for their sins.

These are the sorts of actions that make a difference. What doesn’t make a difference is when you take a few hours out of every week to listen to one of the more mainstream conservative voices – the Rush Limbaughs and Ben Shapiros of the world – talk about how what the liberals in power are doing is bad.

The curious thing, though, is that in many cases these people are capable of much more intellectual depth than they let on. But they also know that spending nine hours out of every ten beating on an issue that all your listeners already agree about is usually what the audience wants. So while you can find nuggets of real value in these men’s output – for instance, Shapiro’s defense of private morality when liberals lampooned him as ‘Ben the Virgin’ prior to his marriage – you have to wade through reams of impotent outrage about how we would all be better off if someone far away was following our ideology instead of his own.

So what should one do instead? Get out of the echo chamber!

There is a certain kind of person who can watch the flames running across the floor of their hotel room and feel them licking at his feet, and take comfort all the while in the beautiful dance of abstract figures which prove, conclusively, that the whole tragedy could be avoided if the people in charge had done things differently. Don’t be that person.

If you notice that the things that are making America a worse place in which to live are present, to any degree, in your own life, then stop doing them. If you have children, then be careful of what influences you expose them to. And instead of giving your time to pundits who rail against problems they’re never going to fix, you should find some way to really contribute to a cause that matters to you.

For example: back in April I published a letter to the editor of my local paper about a Dutch neuro-imaging study that showed how children dependent on ADHD medication will grow into broken adults with lasting deficiencies of GABA+, the same neurotransmitter that the drug is increasing in the short term. It was the only letter about the ADHD controversy which the paper had published in at least five years.

Granted, child-drugging isn’t America’s number one abomination – abortion is – but at least the people who choose abortion pretty-much know what they're doing to their child. When it comes to putting a kid on Ritalin or Adderall, this often isn’t the case: the media doesn’t report on the matter the way it should, and the doctors who prescribe the drugs are under a strong financial incentive to downplay any harmful effects.

If this is an issue that concerns you – and it should – then you could try to put a similar letter in your own paper. Or you could, you know, just talk about how Joe Biden is corrupt and how the Democrats in Congress are treating President Trump unfairly.