I hope you, dear reader, will forgive the indulgent, autobiographical nature of this essay. I have made it an irregular tradition to wax philosophical on Independence Day, usually about how awesome America is. But lately, I find myself conflicted and unsure, and I’m left with no other remedy than thinking out loud.
I am a father now, to the most beautiful baby girl (well, toddler, but I am in denial about that), and I have no doubt that my shifting perspective has been accelerated by my concern for her future. I will do my best to explain to you and myself what has changed in my thinking. Hopefully, along the way, we will learn something.
I have vague recollections of patriotism from my youth, steeped as I was in Fourth of July celebrations and national anthems at baseball games. But my early childhood was one mercifully devoid of any sense of politics. As I came of age and became dimly aware of the world around me, I naturally turned to Comedy Central. I recorded every episode of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report with TiVo (God, I’m old) and watched them as soon as I got home from school. I’m not sure how much I really learned from these shows, but I at least developed a healthy impulse to mock our government.
Around my first year of high school, I discovered a podcast called Common Sense by Dan Carlin (known for his more popular show Hardcore History, of which I am still a devoted listener). Carlin’s primary political orientation was in opposition to what he calls the two-party “duopoly,” attributing many of America’s ills to our majoritarian electoral system that discourages viable third parties. I am grateful that Carlin’s was the first serious political content I consumed because it inoculated me against pre-baked, partisan ideology. I have changed my mind on many issues over the years, but thanks to Carlin, I have never adopted any partisan orthodoxy wholesale. I had a brief fling with the first Obama campaign, swept up as I was in its generic and inspirational message. At the same time, I was voraciously reading Ayn Rand’s entire body of work. I was full of contradictions. I developed a compulsion for playing devil’s advocate and arguing “both sides.” I now know that this was because I did not have strong convictions. I was curious and fell in love with the process of learning and analysis, but I did not yet have a viewpoint of my own.
This was compounded when I was introduced to the moral relativism prevalent in college. Here, everything was subjective. Right or wrong depended on your point of view. It is no surprise that I thrived in this environment. Ostensibly, this approach encourages objectivity and detached analysis. I now recognize that moral relativism is a morality all its own. By discouraging moral judgments, it undermines the pursuit of objective truth that has driven Western Civilization for thousands of years. The rejection of objective truth and the belief that knowledge is socially constructed has resulted in a culture of moral ambiguity in which anything goes. It is fertile soil for those who would advance pernicious agendas, now unshackled by shared moral constraints.
This philosophical approach neatly undergirded my already existing tendency to play all sides of an issue. However, this mindset eventually encountered reality. As a political science student confronted with the likelihood of deferred unemployment via grad school, I decided to apply for internships in the field. Being staunchly independent, I bristled at having to choose between working for Republicans or Democrats. Living in a primarily Republican state, I decided to work for Republicans. I spent a summer in the state capital working on Republican political campaigns, and upon graduation leveraged this internship into a fellowship in the state legislature, working for Republican members of the Ohio House of Representatives.
So, despite my “both-sides-ism,” I found myself working on Republican political campaigns during the 2016 election. Even though I usually maintained neutrality, Trump drove me absolutely insane. He seemingly transgressed what few principles I had at the time. I believed in the superficial decorum and dignity that presidential candidates were supposed to adopt. I resented his boorish behavior and the fact that he seemed to have never read a book in his life, let alone the Constitution. I voted for Clinton while working for Republicans. Clear evidence that I had no idea what I believed. I confidently told everyone in my life who would listen that there was a ZERO percent chance that he would win. I found it impossible to maintain my usual intellectual detachment.
My entire identity was wrapped up in being “the politics guy.” To say that his victory shattered my political worldview and identity would be an understatement. How could I be so wrong? Was I right to be so concerned? I was surrounded on election night by Republicans who were thrilled that he won. These were people I respected. What did they know that I didn’t? The 2016 election was the catalyst for a reexamination of my entire political worldview. This might sound dramatic, but for a decade I had based my personality and major life decisions on being someone who understood the political world around me. I had to confront that I wasn’t the person I thought I was, and that I didn’t live in the country I thought I did.
I became obsessed with understanding where I went wrong. My first order of business was to reexamine my sources of information. I told everyone in my life that Clinton was guaranteed to win because the “experts” I was reading all said the same thing. My trust in institutional media cratered. I came to the realization that mainstream media outlets pushed the narrative that Clinton was going to win because they wanted her to win, not because they were sure she would. As silly as it sounds now, I was then under the illusion that legacy media was unbiased. I read the New York Times and watched CNN relatively uncritically. I began to consume a more diverse media diet.
The first thing I did was to take conservatives seriously when they referred to the mainstream media as the “liberal media.” I had always known that outlets like Fox had an obvious bias, but I now began to look at them as operating in direct opposition to every other cable news outlet. It is impossible to understand Trump without understanding that he appealed to Americans who felt excluded from mainstream narratives.
These folks, with Trump as their leader, took to social media as an alternative means of communication, separate from the “fake news.” Trump was not just operating in opposition to the media, but to an entire class of cultural elites that had previously been invisible to me — likely because I subconsciously aspired to its membership.
Halfway through the Trump administration, I left my career in politics to go to law school. My re-entry into the academy was a culture shock. Here, I was face to face with the would-be educated elite. I quickly noticed that the entire faculty (with two notable exceptions) and most of the student body shared a predictable ideology. I was frequently confronted with phrases such as “systemic racism” and “white privilege.” This ideology manifested in bizarre shapes and forms: The dean of the law school bragging about being a “dark-skinned Mexican;” a rich, black student blurting out that she “didn’t care about Asians;” being interrogated in nearly every law-firm interview about how I would “contribute to the diversity of the firm” (obviously, I would not); receiving scholarship opportunities, only to read the fine print and learn they applied exclusively to racial and sexual minority groups, and “women of any race” (i.e. everyone but straight, white men); the university pastor opening our graduation ceremony with a benediction in which he profusely apologized for standing on stolen native land, but never once said the word “God.”
I was bewildered. Here, in an environment where people are preparing to argue for a living, was an ideology completely allergic to argument. Appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks abounded. Individuals were reduced to their immutable characteristics, like skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.
And then 2020 happened. I first learned about COVID-19 by reading a New York Times headline criticizing Trump’s ban on travel from China as promoting anti-Asian bigotry. I forgive a lot of the insanity during this time. No one knew one way or the other how severe the virus would turn out to be. We were running out of toilet paper. I even wrote my law school administration a hastily researched letter using phrases like “flatten the curve.” I had no idea what I was talking about, of course, but in the face of an unknown threat, and in the absence of good information, I defaulted to trusting “experts” and attempting to keep my vulnerable loved ones safe.
But it still frightens me how readily we, me included, acquiesced to the forced shutdown of our entire economy. The human toll of the shutdowns is only dismissed by those who could afford Uber Eats and Amazon Prime. If you were fortunate enough to have a job that allowed for remote work, life was possible, although not entirely tolerable. If you were a student like me, you could keep your camera off in class and play video games. But if you worked in the service industry or a blue-collar job, making a living became temporarily illegal. If you owned a business, too bad. Flatten the curve. Stay inside. Smoke weed. Watch Netflix. Trust the Science™.
Did masks work? Maybe, maybe not. Did the vaccines work? Maybe, maybe not. Did the lockdowns make a damn bit of difference? Maybe, but probably not. During the pandemic, it became clear that Science was a belief system divorced from the actual process of doing science. Credentialed experts were treated as the high priests of this belief system, appearing on our televisions in their white robes and telling us what we had to do to be good people. I too went along with this for a time.
And then summer rolled around. One evening in late May, I received a text from a law school buddy who told me to turn on the local news, knowing that I lived in downtown Columbus. I immediately recognized the exterior of the Ohio Statehouse, just a couple of blocks away from me, on the live feed. I saw a man pick up a large metal garbage can and attempt to throw it through a window, as an Ohio State Highway Patrolman drew his weapon. The scene was absolute pandemonium, and I had no idea the reason. Turns out, as you now know, that George Floyd had died two days prior, and protests and riots were erupting in major cities throughout the country. Windows on my block were smashed and the boards were then decorated with Black Lives Matter murals and graffiti. I watched plumes of billowing black smoke from my apartment patio, as dumpsters were lit on fire and an entire brand-new apartment complex burned to the ground.
And yet, instead of forcing the protestors and rioters back inside to protect us from the deadly scourge of COVID-19, public officials and scientists came out in full-throated support. Columbus City Council declared racism a public health crisis. Thirteen-hundred public health officials signed a letter in support of Black Lives Matter protests, claiming “White Supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19…as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission.” Further, “COVID-19 among Black patients is yet another lethal manifestation of white supremacy.” How? It doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t even be asking. Trust the Science™.
The Nature of the Beast
Several weeks prior to the 2020 election, the New York Post published a story with the headline “Hunter Biden emails show leveraging connections with his father to boost Burisma pay.” Twitter blocked users from sharing the Post’s story and went as far as locking out of her account White House spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany. For two weeks, the New York Post (a newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton) was locked out of its account for publishing a story counter to Twitter’s preferred narrative. Facebook said it was “reducing its distribution on our platform.” We now know that the FBI, knowing that the Hunter Biden laptop from which the New York Post sourced its story was real, warned Twitter ahead of time to expect “hack-and-leak operations” by “state actors” involving Hunter Biden. As soon as the New York Post story broke, Twitter censored the article, citing its “hacked materials” policy. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg admitted, perhaps inadvertently, on the Joe Rogan Experience that the FBI warned Facebook about Russian disinformation shortly before the New York Post published its story. It ultimately doesn’t matter whether this story would have changed the outcome of the election. What matters is that the FBI and Silicon Valley didn’t think we should have the information before we cast our votes.
Now, at last, I began to see the contours of the Regime clearly. I began to understand our system of government by its true nature. A bureaucratic behemoth has hollowed out our constitutional republic and is wearing it like a skin suit, suffocating our ability to make meaningful decisions for ourselves. Power is a living entity. It expands and consolidates. Those in positions of power, in any authority structure, are driven by a relentless pursuit of self-interest. As they amass more power, they seek to perpetuate and increase their control over society. This bureaucratic class transcends political boundaries. It wields immense power, exerting a disproportionate influence on policymaking.
Power and democracy are not enemies. The unchecked power of the majority and its potential for tyranny was a threat our founders recognized. The rise of identity politics and “cancel culture” have resulted in a society where dissenting opinions are stifled, and ideological conformity is enforced from the top down and the bottom up. We all know the things we can’t say at work, or maybe even to some of our friends and family. The original concept of the American constitutional system is predicated on open discourse. But intolerance for opposing viewpoints undermines these foundations, leading to a system that is increasingly dominated by an intolerant majority.
In our modern media landscape, consent can be manufactured. Influential institutions and ideologies exert control over individuals’ thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors without direct force. Hollywood and Silicon Valley provide levers the powerful can pull to steer the ship of state in their preferred direction. The exponential growth of technological progress has created fertile ground for psychological manipulation. Surveillance programs, invasive regulations, and the erosion of privacy have contributed to a climate of constant monitoring and control. Our once vibrant culture of individualism and self-determination is being stifled by an atmosphere of conformity and dependence on the state. In the name of security and “social progress,” the Regime has reached its tentacles into nearly every aspect of our lives.
So where does that leave us on Independence Day? I still feel great patriotism for the story of our founding and the remarkable things America has accomplished. But I can no longer use our material wealth and comfort as a proxy for whether we are on the right track. The American system of government is faltering under the weight of concentrated power, the influence of an unaccountable managerial elite, the erosion of individual liberties, the tyranny of the majority, the stifling of free thought, and the accelerating expansion of technological control.
“Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” — Mark Twain
Our government does not deserve it. Is there anything more American than recognizing that?
Happy Independence Day.