I’ve been a broken record about my sincere embrace of “both sides-ism.” By which I mean, if you didn’t know, I have huge problems with, well, both sides of the political divide these days.
I called my podcast The Remnant as an homage to Albert Jay Nock’s concept of a group of people who react to the false pieties and hysterical obsessions of mass politics the way Billy Ray reacted to the Dukes. Nock could be grandiose in his descriptions of the Remnant. “The Remnant are those who have been touched by a spark from the soul of the world, and who will never surrender to anything less than the Truth,” he wrote in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. The Remnant, he explained, “is not a political party or a social movement, but a spiritual and intellectual fellowship that transcends all such categories.”
Now, I’m not quite as arrogant about it. I just see the Remnant in humbler terms: the good and decent people, of all walks of life, all parties, and all faiths who don’t want to get caught up in all the B.S.
Regardless, this stance annoys a great many people. I’ll spare you a recap of all the attacks on my motives from the left, the right, and from some on the extreme “Never Trump” right. I’ll just say I’m not trying to curry favor with either side, as so many claim. If that was my goal, I’ve behaved idiotically.
But as I’ve often discussed, one criticism of “both sides-ism” strikes me as utterly fair. The dysfunction on the left and right is not symmetrical. For instance, elite universities, the legacy media, and Hollywood are dominated by the left. That means their influence is going to be different than a bunch of right-wing websites, radio stations, and relative red state backwaters. I don’t think this is disputable.
I mean I guess you can dispute it. One thing the last seven years has demonstrated is the infinite capacity of some people to dispute just about anything. I just don’t think you can plausibly refute it.
Symmetry is aesthetically seductive, but it’s also intellectually seductive. For example, during the Cold War, many on the left liked to claim moral equivalence between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They weren’t remotely equivalent. Yes, America did some unsavory things and the Soviet Union did too. But they weren’t equivalent or, if you will, symmetrical. Intellectuals who could keep their wits about them could acknowledge the criticisms of the U.S. without conceding to the claim that we were no better than the Soviet Union.
There was a weird confluence between anti-communist ideologues and anti-American ones. Some anti-communists would often leap to the conclusion that criticism of America translated into support for the USSR. And some anti-American ideologues would leap to the conclusion that criticism of the USSR was de facto support for America. This negative polarization yielded a lot of popular front nonsense, where conservatives couldn’t criticize Joseph McCarthy without being accused of being secret commies and lefties couldn’t acknowledge that Stalin was a genocidal monster without being accused of supporting McCarthyism.
Now, one last point needs to be made. McCarthy was a drunk and a demagogue who harmed the anti-communist cause more than he helped. But he wasn’t frick’n Stalin! In other words, criticizing both McCarthy and Stalin is a form of both sides-ism, but it would be moronic to say that America during the McCarthy era was morally equivalent—i.e. symmetrical—to Stalinist Russia (a bunch of screenwriters losing their jobs is not equivalent in any way to Ukrainian genocide or the show trials). But to read some of the debates back then, it’s amazing to see how distorted everything got. Criticize Stalin and some Red would instantly assume you supported McCarthy. Criticize McCarthy—or even fail to praise him!—and some Bircher type would instantly assume you were on Stalin’s payroll. …
When Barack Obama was running for president, I had a field day mocking the messianism from his biggest fans. Again, I’m using “messianism” literally. As Barbara Walters later admitted on The View, “We thought he was going to be—I shouldn’t say this at Christmas time—but the next Messiah.”
I thought it was creepy, cultish nonsense (And he encouraged it. I mean he actually defined sin as “being out of alignment with my values.”)
I think the messianism stuff around Trump is even creepier, more cultish, and even more stupid. I mean Obama was never my idea of a messiah, but Trump falls even further from the mark. And I think the Obama stuff, as bad as it was, was less heretical and blasphemous than garbage like this:
So sure, Obama was more intellectual and more morally upright than Trump—by a wide margin—but that’s my point. Just because I object to one thing that doesn’t mean I have to endorse its supposed opposite. Among the most annoying complaints I get from people are the ones that go, “I can’t take your criticism of X seriously unless you criticize Y even more.”
Put aside the fact that I am a reliable critic of both X and Y—they’re too pointy!—the simple truth is that whatever the flaws of X are, they are not contingent on what I think about the flaws of Y. There is no quantum entanglement, no EPR doctrine, that says if Team A did something bad, it’s not bad when Team B does it. People who were utterly creeped about by the Obama cult of personality are perfectly comfortable with the Trump cult of personality. People who thought Obama’s cult of personality was harmless—or deserved!—are appalled by Trump’s. Similarly, many of the conservatives who decried Clinton’s lying and sexual predation now seem to think Clinton’s sins absolve Trump’s.
Those who bristle at the cognitive dissonance aroused by such observations will often retreat to some bunker and declare, “Well the other side’s badness was worse than my side’s!” And in some cases they’re right. But so frickin’ what? Serial killers typically only murder a few or a few dozen people. Hitler murdered millions. So, I argue, Hitler was worse than, say, the Zodiac killer. That doesn’t mean the Zodiac killer was somehow good. Both sides routinely fall into the trap of grading political—and personal—morality on a curve. If the highest grade on the chemistry test is a 37, that may make it an A, but it doesn’t make it impressive.
I’m fine with discussing who is behaving worse in the culture war mosh pits. Is wokeness worse than MAGA nationalism? Is left-wing industrial policy worse than right-wing industrial policy? Is Trump sleazier than Clinton? I have opinions! But it’s a pointless and exhausting argument if “not as bad as” gets redefined to mean “good.”
One last point. I care more about conservatism than progressivism. When progressives behave stupidly or creepily, I have no investment at risk. And while I’d prefer progressivism to be less crazy for the good of the country, when it behaves crazily it provides an opportunity for conservatives to win arguments and win over people. When conservatives behave like idiots or cultists, it’s bad for the ideas and principles I care deeply about. As a Remnanty conservative, I feel a greater obligation to point out when conservatives are doing it wrong.
(For instance, the New York Young Republican Club issued a statement in defense of Trump that reads like someone asked ChatGPT to write some German American Bund tract and then translate it into English. Just reading it will make you and your descendants dumber unto the seventh generation.)
So to my leftist friends, I think a lot of your stuff—whether you call it woke or intersectional or “conscious” or Filbert—is anti-American, illiberal, and dangerous. To my right-wing friends, I think a lot of your junk is anti-American, illiberal, and dangerous. Sometimes the rightwing stuff is worse, sometimes the leftwing stuff is worse. Bad leftwing ideas peddled by universities are more dangerous than even worse ideas peddled by YouTubers. But they’re all bad.
And just because you belong to a tribe that thinks the goopy ideas are fashionably cool or just because you belong to a tribe that thinks the Infowarish stuff is brave and patriotic doesn’t mean that both sides aren’t a hot mess—in the same way that snake oil marketed as Brain Tonic is no less fraudulent than stuff packaged as Brain Force Plus. It’s all brainless.