Virtue Is Non-Binary

I often find myself quoting David French, a lawyer/author I read and respect. Despite the fact that I deeply disagree with certain of his positions, I find him thoughtful, civil and willing to concede the legitimacy of those with whom he differs–attributes entirely missing from the MAGA Rightwingers with whom, until recently, he shared a political party.

French recently published an important opinion piece in the New York Times on masculinity and in the process of that discussion, he made an (implicit) point that should be widely shared. The essay centered on current concerns over the perceived “crisis” in masculinity and the status of men and boys.

To understand the state of men in this country, it’s necessary to know three things.

First, millions of men are falling behind women academically and suffering from a lack of meaning and purpose. Second, there is no consensus whatsoever on whether there’s a problem, much less how to respond and pull millions of men back from the brink. Third, many men are filling the void themselves by turning to gurus to guide their lives. They’re not waiting for elite culture, the education establishment or the church to define manhood. They’re turning to Andrew Tate, Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson and a host of others — including Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson — to show them the way.

French describes the various “remedies” prescribed by these particular individuals, and dismisses them:

It’s as if an entire self-help industry decided the best cure for one form of dysfunction is simply a different dysfunction. Replace passivity and hopelessness with frenetic activity, tinged with anger and resentment. Get in the weight room, dress sharper, develop confidence and double down on every element of traditional masculinity you believe is under fire.

Yes, men are absolutely feeling demoralized, as Richard Reeves put it in his brilliant book “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.” But what is the influencer advice in response? Lash out. Fight. Defy the cultural elite that supposedly destroyed your life.

After pondering various definitions of masculinity, and considering their positive and negative attributes, French makes an incredibly important  point–the observation that led me to use the term “non-binary” in the title of this post. (Non-binary isn’t simply a description of one type of sexuality–it refers to matters that cannot be reduced to an “either/or” proposition.)

Can we sidestep the elite debate over masculinity by approaching the crisis with men via an appeal to universal values rather than to the distinctively male experience? In other words, is there a universal approach to shaping character that can have a disproportionately positive impact on our lost young men?

French quotes Jeffrey Rosen for the classical definition of “pursuit of happiness,” which–to the nation’s Founders– did not mean “pursuit of pleasure” but instead meant pursuit of virtue: being a lifelong learner, self-mastery, flourishing and growth. In this reading, the pursuit of happiness is “a quest, not a destination, in part because we are always a work in progress, even to our last days.”

And what are these classical virtues? Benjamin Franklin’s list included temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity and humility. I prefer the shorter and simpler formulation in Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage.

French argues–persuasively–that the pursuit of these virtues, aka a “virtue ethic,” is far preferable to America’s prevailing “success ethic,” which measures manly success by materialistic metrics. He argues that the current obsession with an ideal masculinity diverts attention from the urgent need to provide children with “a purpose that is infinitely more satisfying than the ambition and rebellion that define the ethos of the gurus who are leading so many young men astray.”

What struck me about this conclusion is something French didn’t say: that the pursuit of virtue is ultimately non-binary. It is not the exclusive province of either males or females, but an aspiration appropriate to humans generally.

Discussions of masculinity and femininity are all well and good; I’m not blind to the biological and/or psychological differences between cis men and women. But a great deal of current male resentment–not to mention misogyny and homophobia– is a result of efforts to emphasize those differences and ignore the much larger human commonalities between (among?) the genders.

Franklin and Aristotle identify human virtues. We need a culture that elevates pursuit of virtue to a status that is at least equal to pursuit of material success, and avoids emphasizing what makes the genders distinctive rather than the human characteristics they share.


An Accurate Description

I have previously cited observations and analyses from David French, a genuine conservative with whom I often agree. (Tomorrow, I will post about a significant disagreement with him, so it isn’t all sweetness and light.) French recently published a very perceptive essay in the New York Times, considering the worst possibilities of a second Trump term in office.

French began by recognizing that a second term wouldn’t be characterized by the internal divisions of the first, which saw an effort by responsible aides and appointees to contain Trump’s worst impulses. He recognized that, in a second term, there would be sufficient numbers of “pure Trump sycophants” to completely staff the White House–and “his MAGA base would replace the Federalist Society as the screener of his judicial appointments.” But he has an even more ominous fear.

I dread the division and conflict of a second Trump term, and I don’t minimize the possibility of Trump doing permanent political damage to the Republic. But the problem I’m most concerned about isn’t the political melee; it’s the ongoing cultural transformation of red America, a transformation that a second Trump term could well render unstoppable.

To put the matter as simply as possible: Eight years of bitter experience have taught us that supporting Trump degrades the character of his core supporters. There are still millions of reluctant Trump voters, people who’ve retained their kindness, integrity and good sense even as they cast a ballot for the past and almost certainly future G.O.P. nominee. I have friends and family members who vote for Trump, and I love them dearly. But the most enduring legacy of a second Trump term could well be the conviction on the part of millions of Americans that Trumpism isn’t just a temporary political expediency, but the model for Republican political success and — still worse — the way that God wants Christian believers to practice politics.

I will inject here my assumption that French’s own (genuine) Christianity is what has allowed him to continue dearly loving those in his family who support Donald Trump. Not being a Christian of any sort–and being blessed with a family utterly devoid of Trumpers–I will admit that I can conceive of no way I could continue to respect a family member who failed to see Donald Trump for the ignorant, self-absorbed and increasingly mentally-ill specimen he is. And in the absence of respect, love comes hard…

As French writes, he has never before seen extremism penetrate a vast American community so deeply, so completely and so comprehensively.

As the Iowa caucuses approached, Trump escalated his language, going so far as to call his political opponents “vermin” and declaring that immigrants entering America illegally are “poisoning the blood of our country.” The statement was so indefensible and repugnant that many expected it to hurt Trump. Yet a Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll found that a 42 percent plurality of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers said the statement would make them more likely to support Trump — a substantially greater percentage than the 28 percent who said it would make them less likely to support him.

French notes with alarm that  numerous “Christian” Republicans believe Donald Trump is God’s chosen man to save America. Trump himself shared a video modeled on Paul Harvey’s famous video “So God Made a Farmer,” that proclaims “God Made Trump.” The result–as French quite accurately notes–is “a religious movement steeped in fanaticism but stripped of virtue.”

Absent public virtue, a republic can fall. And a Trump win in 2024 would absolutely convince countless Americans that virtue is for suckers, and vice is the key to victory. If Trump loses a second time, there is a chance he’ll end up a painful aberration in American politics, a depressing footnote in our national story. But if he wins again, the equation will change and history may record that he was not the culmination of a short-lived reactionary moment, but rather the harbinger of a greater darkness to come.

I’ve quoted liberally from French’s essay, because I think he is absolutely correct–he has identified the (terrifying) stakes of this year’s election, and the consequences of victories for Trump and the MAGA Republicans who idolize and emulate him. (Here in Indiana, that most definitely includes mini-Trumpers Braun and Banks.)

Sociologists, psychologists and political scientists have a variety of theories about why people embrace fascism. We’re still exploring the reasons so many “good Germans” refused to see the writing on those walls.

Whatever the reason, the rest of us absolutely cannot allow America to enter that “greater darkness.” Polls may show a majority of Republicans have lost their way, but a majority of Americans have not. That majority needs to vote.


Very Good Questions

I’m not a huge fan of Maureen Dowd, the columnist for the New York Times. I probably agree with her more than I disagree, but I’ve been put off at times by what comes across as cattiness, or perhaps just a “too cute” writing style.

That said, she ended last Sunday’s column with a very important set of questions.

The column was about the hugely controversial testimony of three college presidents over anti-semitism on their (very elite) campuses. My own reaction parallels that of another Times columnist, David French. French is a former litigator who spent a considerable portion of his legal career battling censorship on college campuses. He wrote that what struck him about the presidents’ answers wasn’t legal insufficiency “but rather their stunning hypocrisy.”

As French accurately notes, private universities are not bound by the First Amendment, although academic freedom principles–which they do follow– are modeled after the Free Speech provisions of that Amendment. If those schools hewed more closely to First Amendment analysis, the “context matters” responses would have been largely correct.

So if the university presidents were largely (though clumsily) correct about the legal balance, why the outrage? To quote the presidents back to themselves, context matters. For decades now, we’ve watched as campus administrators from coast to coast have constructed a comprehensive web of policies and practices intended to suppress so-called hate speech and to support students who find themselves distressed by speech they find offensive.

The result has been a network of speech codes, bias response teams, safe spaces and glossaries of microaggressions that are all designed to protect students from alleged emotional harm. But not all students.

French is absolutely correct that “the rule cannot be that Jews must endure free speech at its most painful while favored campus constituencies enjoy the warmth of college administrators and the protection of campus speech codes.”

Dowd similarly alluded to the hypocrisy of the testimony. She quoted Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, who criticized “the inability of these individuals to articulate a simple, straightforward answer to what should have been the easiest question in the world… These presidents are not committed to free speech. They’re committed to favored speech. They selectively enforce the codes of conduct when it works for them or their friends in the faculty lounge.”

When it comes to the current war in the Middle East, Dowd points out what every sentient person knows about the conflict: there are no good guys.

Netanyahu isn’t just personally despicable, he and his supporters have done enormous damage to Israel both domestically and internationally, and there is simply no justification for the way Israel has treated the Palestinians over the past twenty plus years. But as Dowd says, that’s no excuse for what Hamas did on October 7th. Hamas is a terrorist organization intent upon wiping Israel and all Jews off the face of the globe. But again, that undeniable fact does not justify the indiscriminate killing of innocent Palestinian civilians.

As Dowd writes, these things should be self-evident. But then, so much of our current political turmoil is the result of refusal to accept facts that should be self-evident.

Dowd writes:

I think this is still America. But I don’t understand why I have to keep making the case on matters that should be self-evident.

Why should I have to make the case that a man who tried to overthrow the government should not be president again?

Why should I have to make the case that we can’t abandon Ukraine to the evil Vladimir Putin?

Why should I have to make the case that a young woman — whose life and future ability to bear children are at risk — should not be getting persecuted about an abortion by a shady Texas attorney general?

Why should I have to make the case that antisemitism is abhorrent?

To which I will add another: why should we have to make the case that criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, but blaming all Jews for decisions made by the Israeli government (or for whatever is going wrong in someone’s life) is?

I see an eerie parallel between the current eruption of anti-Jewish hatred sparked by the events in the Middle East, and the explosion of anti-Black bigotry that followed the election of Barack Obama. Obviously, ancient tribal hatreds had been there all along–simmering, barely suppressed bigotries just waiting for an excuse to emerge.

The most poignant “why” question of all has to be: why are we humans so tribal? Why do we insist on seeing people who differ from us in some way as a monolithic “them” rather than the discrete individuals they are?

In the immortal words of Rodney King, why can’t we all just get along?


The Wages Of Cowardice

What explains the chaos/civil war in the GOP?

I’ll admit that I haven’t always been a Mit Romney fan–I really didn’t pay much attention to him until his infamous “47% “takers” remark, and that gave me a very negative opinion of him. (I’m also not a fan of the “makers versus takers” view of the world.)

That said, he has steadily risen in my opinion, thanks to his vote to impeach Trump, and–along with his announcement that he will not run for a second Senate term– his willingness to be honest about the current GOP.

Romney has said publicly what most observers have long surmised–that the more rational members of the Senate’s Republican caucus share his disdain for Trump. They recognize Trump’s profound ignorance. They laugh at his ungrammatical pronouncements. They shake their heads over his “policy” choices.

But not in public.

Rarely have We the People been treated to a display of utter cowardice equal to that we are currently experiencing. As David French has written in the New York Times, the Republican Senators who refused to do their constitutional duty and vote to impeach

punted their responsibilities to the American legal system. As Mitch McConnell said when he voted to acquit Trump, “We have a criminal justice system in this country.” Yet not even a successful prosecution and felony conviction — on any of the charges against him, in any of the multiple venues — can disqualify Trump from serving as president. Because of G.O.P. cowardice, our nation is genuinely facing the possibility of a president’s taking the oath of office while also appealing one or more substantial prison sentences.

The GOP appears to be stuck with Trump, a candidate recently–and accurately– described by Jennifer Rubin as “unhinged, vengeful, incoherent, dangerous and neo-fascist.”)

French began his column by agreeing with a recent, densely-argued law review article concluding that the clear language of the 14th Amendment–if applied–disqualifies Trump (or any other traitor) from holding further public office. He then acknowledged the realities of trying to enforce that disqualification–and the likelihood that the current Supreme Court would refuse to intervene if the attempt were to be made.

While I believe the court should intervene even if the hour is late, it’s worth remembering that it would face this decision only because of the comprehensive failure of congressional Republicans. Let me be specific. There was never any way to remove Trump from American politics through the Democratic Party alone. Ending Trump’s political career required Republican cooperation, and Republicans have shirked their constitutional duties, sometimes through sheer cowardice. They have punted their responsibilities to other branches of government or simply shrunk back in fear of the consequences…

And then, of course, there’s Congress, where GOP members are in thrall to their crazy caucus.

For many of them, the answer lies in raw fear. First, there is the simple political fear of losing a House or Senate seat. In polarized, gerrymandered America, all too many Republican politicians face political risk only from their right…

Mitt Romney has pointed to a different fear: physical harm to a lawmaker’s person or family. The Trumpist cult that now controls what was once a political party is capable of real violence, and several elected officials are reacting to explicit threats from members of that cult.

The problem is, appeasement never works, as Kevin McCarthy now understands. Cowardice simply encourages the mob mentality that animates today’s GOP. As French reminds readers,

A fundamental reality of human existence is that vice often leaves virtue with few good options. Evil men can attach catastrophic risks to virtually any course of action, however admirable. But we can and should learn lessons from history. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, two of our greatest presidents, both faced insurrectionary movements, and their example should teach us today.

As French says, people of character and conviction once inhabited the American political class, and those people gave us the tools to defend the American experiment. He says that “All we need is the will.”

We won’t have “the will,” however, until and unless we elevate better people to office. In Indiana, we have empowered a number of people whose intellectual and moral deficits and lack of concern for the Constitution and the public good make them utterly unfit for any public office.

We have our smarmy, “me myself and I” actors (Rokita, Braun), our looney-tunes, bigoted far-Right culture warriors (Banks) and the cowards who appear to know better but have thus far been unwilling to act on what they know (Young). There are many others. None of them will step up to the plate and impose accountability.

Bottom line: we have to replace them.


Why I Love David French

I make it a point to read anything I come across from David French, whose writing I love because it is both eloquent and thoughtful–and admittedly, for the same reason most of us like writers: he shares my own beliefs and concerns. (Come on–admit it. We all prefer the folks we consider wise because they agree with us.)

In a recent essay for the New York Times, French focused on one of my longstanding and primary obsessions: the American public’s lack of civic literacy, and the consequences of that pervasive lack.

French used what he aptly termed the the “Articulate Ignorance of Vivek Ramaswamy” as his jumping off point, using reactions to Ramaswamy’s glib ignorance as an example of the way “in which poor leadership transforms civic ignorance from a problem into a crisis — a crisis that can have catastrophic effects on the nation and, ultimately, the world.”

French refers to the research that I have often reported on this site:

Civic ignorance is a very old American problem. If you spend five seconds researching what Americans know about their own history and their own government, you’ll uncover an avalanche of troubling research, much of it dating back decades. As Samuel Goldman detailed two years ago, as far back as 1943, 77 percent of Americans knew essentially nothing about the Bill of Rights, and in 1952 only 19 percent could name the three branches of government.

That number rose to a still dispiriting 38 percent in 2011, a year in which almost twice as many Americans knew that Randy Jackson was a judge on “American Idol” as knew that John Roberts was the chief justice of the United States. A 2018 survey found that most Americans couldn’t pass the U.S. Citizenship Test. Among other failings, most respondents couldn’t identify which nations the United States fought in World War II and didn’t know how many justices sat on the Supreme Court.

Unlike my periodic rants on the subject, French isn’t sharing these statistics to bemoan public ignorance. He wants to make a different argument, namely

that the combination of civic ignorance, corrupt leadership and partisan animosity means that the chickens are finally coming home to roost. We’re finally truly feeling the consequences of having a public disconnected from political reality.

Simply put, civic ignorance was a serious but manageable problem, as long as our leader class and key institutions still broadly, if imperfectly, cared about truth and knowledge — and as long as our citizens cared about the opinions of that leader class and those institutions.

French reminded his readers of the time that Gerald Ford’s gaffe about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe made a huge difference in that campaign. As he says:

Note the process: Ford made a mistake, even his own team recognized the mistake and tried to offer a plausible alternative meaning, and then press coverage of the mistake made an impression on the public.

Now let’s fast-forward to the present moment. Instead of offering a plausible explanation for their mistakes — much less apologizing — all too many politicians deny that they’ve made any mistakes at all. They double down. They triple down. They claim that the fact-checking process itself is biased, the press is against them and they are the real truth tellers.

He follows up with several examples of Ramaswamy’s blatantly, factually incorrect (and actually ridiculous– but articulate!) statements–and the reaction of the GOP, which  “deemed him one of the night’s winners.”

He sums it up:

The bottom line is this: When a political class still broadly believes in policing dishonesty, the nation can manage the negative effects of widespread civic ignorance. When the political class corrects itself, the people will tend to follow. But when key members of the political class abandon any pretense of knowledge or truth, a poorly informed public is simply unequipped to hold them to account…

A democracy needs an informed public and a basically honest political class. It can muddle through without one or the other, but when it loses both, the democratic experiment is in peril. A public that knows little except that it despises its opponents will be vulnerable to even the most bizarre conspiracy theories, as we saw after the 2020 election. And when leaders ruthlessly exploit that ignorance and animosity, the Republic can fracture. How long can we endure the consequences of millions of Americans believing the most fantastical lies?

I told you so…..