To be indifferent to every claim of truth or fact is the ultimate assertion of power. That’s how Vladimir Putin operates in Russia. That’s how Donald Trump operates here.
To err is human. To tweet is to regret. When I decided last month to leave Twitter, it was in part because I knew that, while I couldn’t avoid the former, I could at least escape the latter. Not everything that pops into the heads of smart people is smart. Still less of it needs to be shared.
“Silence is better for the wise, and how much more so for fools.” I’m sure you know the proverb.
So it was with a grain of salt that I read your Bastille Day tweet:
“The news media in the West pose a far greater danger to Western civilization than Russia does,” Dennis Prager tweeted. [Prager is a conservative radio talk show host and columnist.]
It sounded, frankly, like the kind of involuntary mental wet burp many of us have at moments of ideological irritation — for conservatives, often while reading the New York Times editorial pages.
I didn’t think you could possibly mean it. Turns out, you do.
On Tuesday you doubled down with an online column for Townhall. “The real threat to Western civilization is Western civilization ceasing to believe in itself,” you write. “And, in that regard, Russia poses no danger, while the left-wing dominated media and universities pose an existential threat.”
You’re a smart guy, Dennis, and it’s not a dumb column. “Attacking what the media is doing is not the same as attacking the existence of the media,” you say. True. “Putin is indeed a murderous quasi-dictator,” you acknowledge. Delete “quasi”; otherwise correct. “Civilization connotes a body of ideas and a value system,” you add, making the point that Russia’s nukes can’t destroy it. Well, OK, that’s one way of defining civilization.
You end with a list of various things being done to Western civilization in the name of multiculturalism, anti-DWEMism and so on, none of it with the help of Putin. Much of it s indeed bad, though I’m not sure that Justin Trudeau declaring there is “no core identity, no mainstream in Canada” counts as a Spenglerian moment in the story of Western decline.
But, yes, there’s a lot that’s dumb about the academy and a lot that’s wrong with journalism. It should be criticized, not feared. Foolish conservatives often assume every instance of institutional malfunction is a symptom of civilizational cancer. Wiser conservatives know, as Adam Smith did, that “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.”
Wiser conservatives — and I count you among them, Dennis — also know that when we speak of “the West,” what we’re talking about is a particular strain within it. Marx and Lenin, after all, are also part of the Western tradition, as are Heidegger and Hitler.
For us, on the other hand, “the West” is the liberal-democratic tradition; the one most succinctly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal.” “The consent of the governed.” “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” All the rest, from Exodus to Gettysburg, is commentary.
That’s why the intelligent conservative has no time either for illiberalism, often of the right, or relativism, typically of the left. And that’s why wise conservatives take the threat from Vladimir Putin seriously. He is the champion and most insidious exponent of both.
Through the development of a crypto-fascist ideology that combines ferocious ethnic chauvinism and revanchism, economic corporatism, a dash of religious traditionalism, and a personality cult, he is the model for aspiring autocrats everywhere, from Hungary to Turkey to the Philippines.
Through Russia Today and other direct or indirect arms of Kremlin propaganda, Putin makes common cause with his old comrades on the far left. The goal is to undermine the West every way they can, from exposing military and diplomatic secrets via WikiLeaks, to intervening in and calling into question the legitimacy of the democratic process, to raising the bogus specter of a “deep state” that suppresses the popular will.
No wonder the best book yet written about Putin’s Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev, is titled “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.” Relativism greases the skids for illiberalism. That’s why we NeverTrumpers believe there is a connection between Donald Trump’s compulsive lying and his undisguised affinity for Putin that goes beyond the question of who said what at last year’s Russia meeting in Trump Tower. The connection is philosophical.
To be indifferent to every claim of truth or fact is the ultimate assertion of power. It is to say: Nothing restrains me, not what I promised yesterday, not what I am saying to you now, not what I might do tomorrow. That’s how Putin operates in his sphere. That’s how Trump operates. What’s worse is to see so many conservatives who should know better excuse one president and line up behind the other.
Dennis, you got your wish: Hillary Clinton isn’t president and never will be. But the responsibility of a public intellectual like you isn’t to spend the next several years justifying your vote. It’s to see things plain and in their true perspective. To suggest that Putin is a distant nuisance but Maggie Haberman or David Sanger is an existential threat to our civilization isn’t seeing things plain, to put it mildly.
It used to be that conservatives thought liberals were wrong while liberals thought conservatives were evil. Among the other ways in which Trump has degraded the conservative movement is that he’s turned us into a mirror image of what we used to accuse liberals of being. He’s turned us into haters.
Don’t be a hater, Dennis. Rethink that stupid tweet.