The Burkean Conservative recently provided a Facebook post arguing against an opinion editorial by Senator-elect Mitt Romney. This post is adapted from comments I left in reply to The Burkean Conservative.
Mitt Romney’s article argues a premise that seems, to me, inarguable: that President Donald Trump lacks moral character. To its credit The Burkean Conservative does not seem to argue against this premise; rather, the Burkean Conservative seems to argue that we should move on from such arguments and focus on what Trump has done in office.
In this post, I shall do just that.
On Trump and “Fake News…”
Argument, paraphrased: “Trump is doing a good job handling the fake news media.”
Rebuttal: One would think a good messenger for the idea that the media is flawed and biased would not be a serial liar and birther known for planting false stories in tabloids about himself hooking up with supermodels in the 80s, and who once claimed that Ted Cruz’s father had something to do with the JFK assassination. I’ll leave the list there, but everyone knows I could keep describing Trump’s own promotion of fake news stories for the duration of this post, and just doing that would make it longer than it is in its present form.
This is not to say that the media is not flawed and biased. It is to say that the idea that Trump is doing a great job illuminating the media’s flaws and biases is ridiculous. Absolutely no one believes that Trump has deep-seated beliefs about the need for a fair and accurate press, because he has spent decades trying to ensure that press about himself and his enemies is not that. If you ask him for the names of the best journalists working today, he will give you the names Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro. That is not because they are more fair and accurate than the average journalist—they are far, far less—it is because they like him. That is Trump’s only metric of fairness and accuracy: whether people are saying nice things about him.
Remember, the term “fake news” became popular as a description of Trump. He then co-opted it to describe any negative news about him, and because branding is the only thing he’s genuinely good at, the rebranding worked. This post-truth attitude of our president is much more poisonous to our nation’s collective notion of truth than anything the mainstream media has been up to for the past decade.
So no, he is not doing a great job handling the media. He bashes the media whether they are accurate or not, based entirely on whether they are telling him things he wants to hear about himself. That is not “doing a great job.”
On Trump’s moral character
Argument: “Put aside his private moral character. He was elected, and he’s doing a good job if you look at policy.”
Rebuttal: A presidential candidate’s moral character does not stop mattering once they are elected president, and the idea that it does would have been inconceivable to The Burkean Conservative before Trump. The Burkean Conservative authors have allowed Trump to lower their standards.
Obama was, overall, a man of good moral character. As was Bush. Trump is not. This matters. But even if one chose to put aside Trump’s private behavior and just focus on how he governed, it is hard to see how he has done so morally. Here are several examples elaborating on this point:
A moral administration would not even do a few of these things, let alone all of them. And this is only the corruption that directly stems from his position as POTUS. So be my guest: ignore his private behavior, his tweets, his demeaning comments, his incoherent rants at rallies. Ignore the corruption before he came into office, such as his hoax of a charity, defrauding people with Trump University, his shady business deals. Ignore the misogyny toward even many conservative women during the campaign. Just focus on what he’s done as president. That’s damning enough.
I hope these arguments are persuasive to at least some of those who insist we ignore Trump’s private behavior and focus on what he’s done as president. These are not partisan attacks, and should not be considered partisan issues. Whether you are on the right or the left, we should all be able to look at the list above and see that many of Trump’s actions as president have been objectively awful.
In an earlier article I wrote about the rise of Jordan Peterson and the waning influence of New Atheism as we head into the future. While covering this topic, I mentioned that Jordan Peterson criticized the New Atheists for accepting, to some extent, Christian metaphysical presuppositions (though I argued he probably would be more accurate to call them religious metaphysical presuppositions). What, in fact, does this mean? Is there a point to be made about this? And how is one, as an atheist, to go about moving beyond this criticism?
The answer is multifaceted. Let me first observe that Dr. Peterson is making a substantive and observable point. For example, Sam Harris is quoted as saying the following at the Beyond Belief conference in 2006:
"It is rather more noble to help people purely out of concern for their suffering than it is to help them because you think the Creator of the Universe wants you to do it, or will reward you for doing it, or will punish you for not doing it. The problem with this linkage between religion and morality is that it gives people bad reasons to help other human beings when good reasons are available."
As we can see above, what the New Atheists have done is taken a religious principle (in this case Christian altruism) and merely removed it from God. Often in response to such accusations one might argue, as did Christopher Hitchens, that these ideas are not based in Christianity but can be found in a variety of societies and cultures over time. This is why I would argue that Dr. Peterson is wrong to call these ideas as requiring "Christian" metaphysical presuppositions. It is more proper to consider them "religious" metaphysical presuppositions since they are not limited to Christian constructs.
Why does this matter? It has nothing to do with intellectual dishonesty: the New Atheists seemed to have shared values beyond the dismissal of God which include personal values like altruism, helping the poor, and a love of a Truth they argue is "good" inherently. However, it is more something like this: atheists have spent years debating theists like Frank Turek who, in his famously frustrated debate with Christopher Hitchens, question where athesit morality comes from. The New Atheists have taken the same route many other atheists have traveled: they endeavor to show that a person can be "good" without God, or more specifically that a person can be just as good as a "good Christian" without God.
What they have done is to demonstrate that one can live up to the Golden Rule, or to the few parts of the Commandments they like, or have proof of Truth-as-good without God. It is like trying to live up to the standards of your admittedly abusive parents while dismissing them for their cruel behavior. The New Atheists are saying, in effect, "Look at me! I am a good Christian, but without the need for supervision." With Hitchens as an exception (who seemed to march to the beat of a different drum on a great majority of these issues), the New Atheists as a whole seem willing to prove how they can be good Christians without a God.
But, if asked what it means to be good, they will accept some sort of religious ethic, often not proudly but as an exhausted, last ditch option. They say things like: help the poor, because it is better to reduce suffering in the short time you have than prolong it. It is better to do unto others as you want done, because life is short and we suffer because of it. They accept the ethic, to whatever degree, as the ultimate sign against the God they despise, hoping to get some sort of praise for being so "good" (in a borrowed sense, obviously) without God.
I make this point for the sake of differentiating the New Atheists from the postmodern or Meta-modern Atheist. This Atheist is at first glance much like the New Atheists, tearing down the obvious contradictions of religion in a literal sense over and over again. They show you just how much a literal reading of the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, and so on makes no sense regarding any rational sense. But the Meta-modern Atheist, however, has come to a very complicated, and perhaps dark, conclusion that is different than the premise of the New Atheists. The true or proper Atheist, according to the Meta-modern Atheist, is one who completely pulls themselves away from religion. They recognize that one can only do so by rejecting even the idea of being good by the standards of God or the religious. You must stand tall, in the face of all things, and say, "I am good, not by your standards, but by my own standards."
To become a meta-modern atheist you must ask yourself, without giving into guilt; "What does it mean to be good?" "How do I know?" And once this has been found out, independently, you can start decided what values you accept. We are not here to dress up for the religious, to say, "Look at me, I give alms just as well as you, without God." The point is to say, "I give alms because of my standards, because my reasons are better than yours." Often, I would argue that the Meta-modern Atheist may not even need to mention God; for God truly to the Meta-modern Atheist does not exist outside of a historical concept. Meta-modern Atheists figure out what is good and what it means to be ethical, instead of surrendering, however loudly, to religious dictations of such terms.
Atheism, as a meta-modern endeavor, is not a fight, my friends. Meta-modern Atheism is the first step in developing who you are. It is the first step in the project of your own humanity. Find your own ethics, don't borrow it. Reconstruct your beliefs, don't deconstruct.
In a Facebook post made on June 2nd, The Burkean Conservative wrote on the outrage over a videogame that simulated a school shooting. In response to this game being available, the writers associated with this site wrote the following:
“Burke often said that in order for freedom to be preserved, it must be limited.
This is different than the libertarian version of freedom that has injected itself so much into current conservative discourse in America. Libertarians will tell you that more freedom in almost every situation is a good idea.
But Burke knew that freedom can only survive insofar as the citizenry remain virtuous. Playing a video game simulating a school shooting in which *you* get to be the shooter is, in my opinion, one of those limits. It demonstrates the point that freedom of expression cannot be absolute if we are to preserve the decency of society, justice, and —ultimately— freedom itself.
This is entirely different than gun ownership. There are valid, tasteful, and wholly justified reasons for gun ownership including hunting, marksmanship training, and home protection. But a video game is for entertainment, and this one bleeds over into a virtual reality that is unnecessary and perhaps dangerous.
Conservatives love freedom. But we understand that it is a fragile and beautiful thing, and that too great a license for vice will destroy the whole enterprise. Say ‘no’ when necessary to protect our civilization.”
In The Burkean Conservative's perspective, virtue and freedom are intertwined in a way that, for a Sartrean like myself, is a bit worrying. While I will not dispute the accuracy of the observation made about mainstream libertarians believing that more freedom is the same as more virtue (which absolutely is the case), I will dispute that the rules of play are not changed, merely amended. The argument is that freedom is related to virtue still, but in an inverse way: the better (not the more) it is limited, the closer it comes to virtue. The last line eloquently encapsulates this sentiment well, but I would like to challenge it with three points: the argument that freedom is not a social construct, the argument that freedom has no connection to virtue on its own, and the argument that freedom of expression is absolute.
As for my first point, I do not find freedom to be a social construct. What do I mean by this? Well, if freedom is a social construct, then it would make sense to argue that freedom is “fragile” and thus requires some form of protection upon on that basis. More concisely, freedom is not reliant on the existence of society or social norms in order to exist. It is, to put it vulgarly, an ontological fact. We are free, and condemned to be so, whether we like it or not. The irony of this is not lost upon me, but I must be serious on this note: freedom, even when physically suppressed, exists. In his article Lettres francaises, Sartre wrote,
“Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces. ... They deported us en masse. ... And because of all this we were free.”
What this statement means, although at first seemingly contradictory, is that freedom exists even when we are limited. Every action is a commitment, and all freedom is not dependent on the outcomes (as libertarians and conservatives argue) but on the very ability to choose. Even strapped in a chair, with your eyes held open, you have a choice. You can scream, or you can be quiet.
This is important because we must realize that any attempt to give “trade offs” for freedom, whether a trade off for security or a trade off for virtue, is impossible. I cannot trade my freedom for anything. In our society, I find we are often told we are giving up or have given up our freedom. That we cannot, say, go to a store and steal some candy bars. However, in fact, you can. That limit is not set by anything but yourself. You can assume the consequences, and you can calculate if it is worth it, but ultimately it is your choice. When someone tells themselves that they “cannot” do something, they commit what Sartre calls “bad faith." This is the idea that we limit ourselves, under the false assumption it cannot be done, when in fact it can, we are merely trying to console ourselves because we are trying to shirk our responsibility.
So freedom cannot be fragile, it is the basis of our entire existence. It is the base of the tree. Any trade off for freedom is nothing more than allowing for yourself to be artificially suppressed.
To my second point, I question this assumed relationship between virtue and freedom. While it makes sense to argue that without freedom, there is no possibility of virtue, the existence of freedom does not correlate to there being virtue in either the conditional or unconditional sense. While virtue itself is hard to define, the nature of virtue tends not to change: it is the idea of acceptable behavior being elevated to a moral imperative. So one would have to be free to accept this idea, but one would have to then act this way regardless of the fact that they could act in some other way. Often, we find in theories of ethical behavior that exceptions to rules can always be found (like when Kant said one can never lie, but then one must consider what to do about the axeman) and often have to be considered due to the variability of life. So if an individual is virtuous, are we to say that it is because they adhere to a specific form of life, or is it because they exercise their own judgement when life gives them lemons?
Alas, we always try to label something virtuous, or to give credence to people by saying if they are virtuous, then the dangers of life will melt away in the face of this virtue. To be free, again if we accept the usual definition of virtue, is to be free to be full of vice. Thus the connection between freedom and virtue is not as clear cut. One can choose to do the virtuous thing, but to try and guarantee it, through some naive idea that freedom is inherently virtuous or through the idea of some regulatory virtue ensuring it, is to not understand freedom.
Third and finally, freedom of expression is absolute. The fear that seems to permeate throughout the post, subliminally, is that freedom of expression lacks consequence. This is not an entirely unfounded fear due to the attempt by our politicians to make a world where consequences are dulled (eg. safe spaces). This notwithstanding, what must be understood is that freedom of expression is absolute. If I want to play the game mentioned above, I can. If, due to this, you wish not to associate with me, or want to report me to the police (which I would say one should), then I am entirely responsible for the consequences.
But freedom of expression is not merely absolute because I have to accept responsibility (which can be done even if I possess the cognitive dissonance to deny my responsibility), but because as I mentioned before, freedom is an ontological fact. Were you to keep me from playing this game, I would still have the freedom to expression, even were it not in the form of playing the game. I am always expressing myself, thus the problem one has in deciding where freedom of expression has gone too far is deciding where to draw the line. To quote one of my favorite TV characters, Raymond Reddington from The Blacklist, “Do you know the problem with drawing lines in the sand? With a breath of air, they disappear.” Thus, it is so with drawing lines on expression. It can go too far, or it can be overcome by changing social norms, or by the innate desire to be free.
I suggest we leave freedom of expression alone.