"Stop Yelling Stop" and Check the Time

It's 2021, and Jonah Goldberg has nothing interesting to say.

It’s hardly a piercing insight to point out that 2016 broke a lot of people. Those of us who had lived and worked in politics—in nearly every capacity, and from any ideological place—sensed that something was happening; a consensus was breaking apart, and atoms were shifting around into unusual places. 

Uncertainty and confusion is always a nerve-wracking thing, especially if your living is tied to making sense of an industry, prognostication about it, or engaging in advocacy on one issue or several. Years or decades involved in politics invariably leads to a whole set of interlocking relationships, alliances, business partnerships or feuds, anywhere from petty to heroic.

Even now, I think that the folks who follow American politics “for fun” or merely intellectual interest don’t sufficiently appreciate how challenging it was, in 2016, to avoid what looked like a collective mental and emotional breakdown in the political commentariat.

There are a number of assumptions, within this project’s name, “Late Republic Nonsense,” about the present and future state of America, and its health as a cohesive polity. To describe it in the most dispassionate and non-judgmental way possible: the people who live in this country have two radically different ways of understanding justice, and these understandings are mutually exclusive.

As time has gone on, the dividing line between these understandings has grown wider and more unforgiving, though that line is merely the intellectual core of what is essentially a conflict between cultures and identities. In other words, we share very little in common as citizens, so of course, despising one another comes naturally and has the potential to infect any interaction. It doesn't get more peaceful from here.

This is, as I’ve said, “what time it is” in America. 

But it’s been five years since that moment in 2016. A few pundits on the nominal Right never seemed to get their shit together and look at their watches. The policy priorities they had championed or obsessed themselves with for the prior two decades have proven to be irrelevant to the current political moment, as well as to the country’s problems in the future.

While they raged at Donald Trump’s personal foibles, character issues, and missteps, what seemed to animate them most was the suggestion on the part of many of us on the Right that America had, at its most foundational level, changed in ways over the past years and decades. These people have no idea where we are in the movie; they’ve got no idea “what time it is.” 

Their overheated opposition to Donald Trump’s voters in 2016 left them without their old audiences, and deservedly so. In order to stay in this business—their skill sets only included being paid to give their opinions about politics, after all—they could only adapt by changing patrons and audiences.

Last month, I wrote at Claremont Institute’s wonderful publication, The American Mind, suggesting that arguments with these people are useless. We’re not having a good-faith discussion, and we agree on very little. In what could be called the Late Republic, having the same debate over and over again with entrenched, dead-end political enemies is a tremendous waste of time. Take that energy—that mental space—and put it into creating something with your allies, instead.

That said, I also warned against cutting people out of your life over political differences; if you value their friendship, definitely do talk about anything else. Life is too brief and uncertain for sincere and beautiful connections to rot, get corrupted or disappear over—if you can help it.

This week, Jonah Goldberg had some frustrated and dismissive thoughts about the piece in his newsletter. Naturally, he misunderstood every point I’d made in order to strike his favorite hobby horse, weakened and nearly crushed under his weight: the mean conservatives are calling me mean names on twitter, because they’e really bad, mean people with low character.

For a moment, I considered responding to Goldberg in kind. It would be satisfying, I guess, in a way that concocting a really viscous insult would be satisfying. But it would also bore me to tears. And, as I wrote, it would change nothing.

No, I don’t think debate itself is pointless, Jonah. Having the same, dull debate with you, though, is far worse than pointless; it’s boring—and a waste of time.

Here’s the piece again, in case you missed it. I hope you enjoy it.

Stop Yelling Stop

William F. Buckley described his mission with the then-new National Review as “standing athwart History, yelling stop.” On an institutional level, for the last several decades, the old man’s yelling has been understood as “public education”; owing to tax laws that benefit supposedly non-partisan non-profit institutions, Buckley’s yells and shouts translated into an industry of conservative magazines and think tanks, functioning with varying degrees of effectiveness and sincerity. 

Many have written exquisitely rendered accounts of our decline. Cutting and perceptive tweet threads, articles, and books appear daily, taking a scalpel to our current situation. Chronicles of civilizational collapse go back to the Bible, or earlier. We have lost faith, corrupted ourselves and our society and, consequently, everything we love and believe will turn to ash. I understand the appeal of this doomsaying, both temperamentally and intellectually. It’s not shocking that this genre is a specialty of a movement which calls itself “conservative,” for the desire to hold on to the old ways presupposes a love of those old ways, and defense of them against the onslaught of History. Such a movement is, tautologically, both fearful of and disgusted by the future—if, as they say, “current trends continue.”

Suffice it to say that, for the present audience at least, this case about the fracturing of the United States and its recent, post-constitutional regime, has already been made. (And if, for reasons of ignorance or the congenital inability to know what time it is, the reader needs more convincing, he can turn to Michael Anton’s excellent book The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.)

But “yelling stop” takes place in our personal lives, as well. Those of us on the Right who are interested in politics or in the sorry state of our civilization certainly do our share of yelling. “Wake up,” we say with each tweet, group chat, article, or phone call with friends who might be slow to realize the gravity of the situation. “You need to know what time it is.” 

You might, right now, belong to several Signal chats, email listservs, Twitter or Facebook threads, or other forms of group correspondence that make you feel like slamming your head against the wall. Your interlocutors may be wonderful friends, and the chats may be cordial and erudite. Just as often, though, these chats are not so nice; these conversations are even more frustrating. You’re fighting with your sister-in-law’s roommate on Facebook because you want to convince her, or to hone your rhetorical skills—but you’re wasting a tremendous amount of time and energy.

Even putting aside issues of social media censorship, deplatforming, or worse, the risks involved in having earnest, thoughtful political discussions and debates with non-intimates today clearly outweigh the rewards. Do you draw a paycheck from owning the libs on college campuses or on T.V. chat shows? Probably not.

Many of these conversations take place on what, for us, is already well-trod ground. For example, it’s been a half-decade since we’ve debated the trajectory and realignment of the priorities of American Right in the time of Donald Trump. The positions have hardened. By 2021, your Never Trump friend is not going to be convinced of the dangers to what’s left of the founders’ regime and the urgency of the moment. He will keep whining about “authoritarianism” and “nativism” and cite the corporate media’s tired mythological view of the last half-decade. 

This is one of the most common dead ends on the Right, even in high-quality American conservative punditry. Very little is left to gain by continuing to fight this battle as if it was an honest debate. If your goal is to convince your interlocutor, and convince him to abandon the fundamental, often emotion-derived premises by which he organizes his political opinions, you are wasting your time. 

(Shitposting (as it’s known), on the other hand, is an exception—and far more productive than it seems. It is, by definition, not intended to convince; it’s a MOAB rather than an intellectual volley, and it serves the key communications function of bolstering your side. The more biting, the more effective and entertaining. Remember Alinsky’s Rule 6: “a good tactic is one your people enjoy.”)

Even more important than your time, however, is your political mind, given the surprisingly limited amount of focus it is capable of maintaining. Your political mind is like an Overton Window, which is a way of understanding the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream at a given time. On either end of the window are radical conceptions which come to gain mass public appeal as you come toward the middle. The goal of the political communicator, strategist, or ideologue is to nudge the window open, moving a once-unthinkable policy into the mainstream center. Political professionals can do this in an infinite variety of ways, from public relations campaigns to media bombardments or expressions of power from woke capital. It shifts all the time, but only with intention.

It’s much the same on the personal level, as well. The space within the window can be understood to be your political imagination—but it could also be thought of as your attention. This is a finite resource, and the “location” of your battles within the range of that open window is important. By constantly fighting over the same turf, you are reaffirming the political location of your center. 

These debates waste a tremendous amount of productive energy by constantly retracing arguments that have been long settled in your mind. Cut this habit out of your life. Agree to disagree and don’t engage further. (This isn’t an admonition to cut people out of your life based on politics, or to make more enemies; you can talk about gardening, or music, or how fast the kids grow up these days.)

Then, the first step in the right direction is to clear your mind of pointless political conversations by selecting interlocutors with whom you don’t have to have mindless, basic fights on irreconcilable issues. Find a group of friends and colleagues with which you have a relatively close shared understanding of the problem, both the problems of the past and the likely future. The people in your tribe are those with whom you agree in most philosophical respects but may differ with when it comes to tactical considerations. You don’t have to agree on everything, but you need to be able to speak (or type) in a kind of shorthand and have a baseline level of agreement that doesn’t cause the same argument about the same basic concept to break out again and again. 

By establishing a new, more productive baseline for political discussions, you will be able to nudge the window open wider in the direction of your choice. This effort to detach isn’t walking away from the battlefield; it’s forcing you to husband and refocus your resources and time into making political change on a practical level. 

Because this new baseline—this mental real estate—is necessary in this crucial moment. 

Under the sway of a fashionable woke ideology, the Left’s politicization of all aspects of society won’t let up. What is coming will require considerable collaborative effort, focus, and interpersonal trust. It will involve the creation, eventually, of entirely new ecosystems and industries, from finance to culture. The vast scale of what needs to be created is daunting—build your own: social media networks; payment processors; banks; server farms; book publishers; supermarket chains; universities; dating apps; and on and on. At the same time, the Big Sort will intensify, as Americans relocate to states with which they’re more politically aligned. If we hope to combat a now-galloping Blue state anarchotyranny, Red America must be as autonomous as possible—culturally, politically, and economically—either within the context of federalism or under another type of construction. 

There is much work to be done. So much, in fact, that even surveying the scope of the problem becomes overwhelming, and a cause for inaction. Tackling this problem, however, requires a shift in political mindset, and allowing the space for thoughts and conversations that maybe, not so long ago, seemed unthinkable. 

You can only get there with friends. 

—Originally published in The American Mind, June 18, 2021

On the Turntable

The last track from Marisa Monte’s beautiful new record, Portas. It’s a catchy, uplifting singalong throwback to the 1970s, and features Seu Jorge and his daughter, Flor. I’ll have a review of the album next week.