There Is No Vital Center in No Man’s Land
I spent the past weekend at a delightful event, the fall meeting of the Philadelphia Society. Founded in 1964, it’s meant to expose conservatives, libertarians, Classical liberals, and other friends of the American founding to each other’s ideas and arguments. I attend whenever I can, and when it’s just a Lyft ride away in Fort Worth, I definitely can. There were lively panels, including some strong disagreements, this year. Distinguished speakers included former Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, and pioneering journalist Mollie Hemingway.
But one talk hit a deeply sour note, and bordered on incivility.
Now that doesn’t bother me in itself. It livens things up, for one. More importantly, it can be the occasion for forcing out into the open silent divisions that really need to be addressed — not buried under big-tent bonhomie. And this clash of opinions really did expose some dark, unsettling truths about where we are as a country.
Fauci and Biden Are “Nudging” Us into a Gulag
The panel in question opened with Prof. Matthew Crawford, of the University of Virginia. He painted a scathing picture of how America’s left has adopted “behavioral economics” as a means of training the population, along the lines of dog handlers or beekeepers. Increasingly, instead of trying to persuade citizens to adopt the habits and attitudes that they believe are wise, leftists in government use behavioristic techniques to condition and control us.
They seek to bypass Americans’ critical faculties, and employ the techniques of children’s toy marketers and Las Vegas casino managers. Instead of being openly persuaded, we are to be silently “nudged” to adopt the behaviors, habits, and values of a small class of cultural radicals.
In other words, today’s left has adopted fully the attitude Frederic Bastiat warned of in The Law. They see themselves as gardeners, and the rest of us as plants. We’re bushes, and they have the buzzsaws, so they can turn us into topiaries — or bottle us up as bansais.
A Public Health Dictatorship
Crawford explained how this new elitist strategy has emerged with full force during the COVID pandemic. We saw such manipulation in the wildly shifting advice about masks, then social distancing, then “two weeks to stop the spread,” followed by full-scale lockdowns. Lies from Anthony Fauci and the WHO and the Chinese government were quickly supported by massive censorship of social media. Then the “canceling” of experts such as … Robert Malone, who invented the very technology for mRNA vaccines. The goal isn’t really public health, but social control, the neutering and taming of willful, individualistic Americans into silent, obedient sheep.
You, Sir, Exemplify the Madness!
Crawford’s talk went over well with the audience. But the next speaker decided to … liven things up. Prof. Frederick Turner, a poet and literary critic at the University of Texas, delivered a witty and scathing jeremiad aimed at Crawford. He spoke of the “paranoia,” “scapegoating” and avid conspiracy theories that emerge historically during pandemic crises — going all the way back to the fictional Thebes of Oedipus Rex, and pogroms of Jews during the Black Plague.
Turner “thanked” Crawford for providing a live example of such contagion-driven madness, which Turner could dismantle in real time and in Crawford’s presence. Turner opined that such “right-wing paranoia” was the moral equivalent of Woke conspiracy theories about “Systemic Racism,” then warned darkly that this sort of thing was what led to “catastrophes” such as … January 6.
It was bracing. Had I been attacked with this level of learned vitriol, I don’t know how well I’d have handled it. Crawford sat stoically, enduring this abuse, and responded with a few short, sarcastic questions. I’m sure he needed time to process getting turned into an object lesson in psychopathology at a friendly gathering. The next speaker, a little shaken, opened with a quip. “Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
A Hoary Rhetorical Tactic, with No Application Today
Of course, I had to jump in. This kind of interpersonal conflict is the briar patch I was born in. What is more, I could see what Turner was doing. It was nothing criminal, or necessarily dishonest. It’s a common rhetorical strategy. Increase your own credibility by casting yourself and your own position as the vital center, the Golden Mean, between two equally absurd extremes. For Turner, those extremes are the “paranoid” authors of the 1619 Project on the left, and the equally paranoid COVID dissenters on the right. The left-paranoids tear down statues, the right-paranoids attempt insurrections. And Professor Turner mounts a pedestal in the center, to call for order and calm. Maybe along with the editors of National Review and The Bulwark.
That strategy might, just might, have worked in campus politics in the early 1980s. It’s long past its sell-by date now. It doesn’t fit the facts in today’s world, something Turner needs to realize. (I would spend 20 minutes with him later at the cocktail hour, trying to help him see some of those facts. These ranged from the FBI’s role as the likely instigator of violence on January 6, to that agency’s invention from whole cloth of a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Then its effort to recruit hapless malcontents who might try and carry it out.)
The Only Thing in the Middle Is Poison Gas
There is no middle ground between those who regard America as founded on evil, and those who see its founding as imperfect but good. There is no moderate position on censorship of media, vicious coercion of citizens to take experimental vaccines, or FBI infiltration of school board meetings.
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But things are worse than that, as I made clear when I went to the mic and posed my question. Okay, I gave a mini-speech. What I said was something like this:
Professor Turner, I’ve long admired your work. I’ve read your manifesto, A Culture of Hope. And even that epic poem you published. I agree with you that the pandemic has created a paranoid culture of contagion, scapegoating, and potential human sacrifice. All these things are true. But we on the Christian right are the victims, not the perpetrators.
My own sister, a nurse, is vaccinated. She won’t let me visit her home for Christmas, because I’m not. But shouldn’t she feel safe now, and maybe be worried for me? Isn’t that how real vaccines are supposed to work?
I’m at higher risk of dying from COVID if I catch it, because I am fat. But I don’t want to benefit from vaccines that depend on using organs stolen from unborn babies.
Our government isn’t acting as if the vaccinated are safe. Instead, it sees them as threatened (somehow) by the unvaccinated. We are the ones being scapegoated in the name of a paranoid fear, a sense of contagion. And meanwhile, the vaccines were all either made or tested on unborn children who died via gruesome partial birth abortions. So there’s your human sacrifice, Prof. Turner, of unborn babies.
And then the moderator cut me off, so I sat down.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”