Shocking Consciences: Things Aren’t as Bad as They Appear

For the last couple days—well, since Friday, anyway—my social circle, which is comprised mostly of college students, military members, and academics, has been shocked by the direction this country is going. When I say shocked, I mean their consciences have been horrified. Even apolitical friends are coming out supporting the fringe Left. Issues they long thought achieved suddenly become issues they fight to achieve. Environmental issues; gender issues, including family planning; LGBT issues—they have been thrusted back years, if not generations, or so they believe. I’m here to tell you all: Don’t fret. All is not lost. This is completely understandable, explainable, and predictable.

Given thousands of years of data (yes, we really have that much) on how societies change, the good news is that we are always shifting to the left, even if an outlying reactionary movement pulls us to the right here and there. That is societies are constantly liberalizing. Even highly traditional societies in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab World are slowly drifting to the left. With each new generation, emancipation is always emerging. Things once considered normal are now ghastly unpopular today. Take for example race issues in the United States.

shifting political beliefs.jpg

Note: This graph is not to scale. It is merely a model to illustrate my point.

Refer to the model above. The red line represents the median voter. It is essential that someone running for office gets support from the median voter (although Trump won without the median voter’s support). Social and political realities are clustered around the MV. The error bars on the model represent the full range of political beliefs, from the far left to the far right.

In my model I’m using beliefs about race among voters (obviously blacks couldn’t vote in 1800, so keep that in mind). In 1800 only the fringe Left supported emancipating slaves and outlawing slavery. But society shifted left, and by time slavery was outlawed the median voter supported emancipation. Within a generation only the fringe Right supported going back to slavery. By time the Civil Rights Act was signed, essentially no one supported slavery. Indeed, the Civil Rights Act defied the median voter, but Johnson knew the society was shifting that way. Today essentially no one supports going back to separate but equal (despite what sensationalist news stories claim). The median voter certainly wouldn’t accept such a policy. A segregationist policy would shock the consciences of the median voter, destroying any hope of that political party remaining in power to continue these practices.

Usually the voting preferences of the median voter acts as a control over the decisions of lawmakers. The fact that Trump and some members of the GOP are defying the median voter means that what happened to Clinton in 1994 has been forgotten by Trump. Once again, when you shock the consciences of the median voter you lose their support.

we can apply this to any social issue. Environmental politics is shifting drastically to the right—towards unthinkable extremes—but the median voter is relatively constant on the left. In fact, there might be a counter reaction from the median voter to shift further left. Trump has said he wants to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade. Considering that only 19% of voters approve of this, and the vast majority of voters support abortion rights in at least certain circumstances (this number has held constant for 40+ years), taking away this right would certainly shock the conscience of the median voter. LGBT rights are relatively fledgling and, in many cases, not fully achieved, but the trend towards emancipation defies the current GOP position.

Even if Trump were successful in appointing justices to SCotUS that turned back the clock generations, the Court cannot take away the voting rights of citizens. The median voter will still hold considerable power in future elections, putting considerable pressure on the GOP to liberalize. In fact, the liberalization of the GOP, which has been occurring since its foundation, is precisely what the Alt-Right is fighting against. Unfortunately for the Alt-Right, it is on the fringes and will never convince a liberalizing median voter.

The present situation can be explained. As society continues to liberalize, people who hold traditional—often religious—beliefs about society feel as if their identities are being erased by society. This terrifies people more than the threat of death. For religiously inclined voters, death is often a transition, but to have that promise taken away by a society that rejects those religious claims means that the devout must react harshly to save their identities and thus their salvation. Fundamentalists fearing for their salvation will attempt to force society back to their position. But given a long enough timeline they will (literally) die off, and their more liberalized progeny will reject the unthinkable positions of their parents and grandparents.

In other words the median voter’s shift towards the left predicts a strong reaction from people who feel their ontological security—and thus their very salvation—is under assault.

Cheer up, friends. The findings from all available research into political psychology, political and social sciences, and hard statistical analyses are on your side. In the words of Tracy Turnblad, Link Larkin, Penny Pingleton, Seaweed J. Stubbs, Edna Turnblad, Wilbur Turnblad, Motor Mouth Maybelle, Velma Von Tussle, and Amber Von Tussle, “You can’t stop the beat!

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What the Hell Happened to Our Fake News?

Being a skeptic is not trite, but it’s also not difficult. Simply put, don’t believe anything until you have a good reason to believe it. This is true for almost all claims. While it’s unreasonable to expect evidence for claims like “I have a pet hamster,” religious claims, political assertions, and wild accusations demand evidence and, in many cases, demonstration prior to acceptance.

During the most recent US presidential election I incorrectly assumed most voters would dismiss preposterous #pizzagate stories and their ilk as nothing more than Onion-esque comedy. Previously I chuckled at stories claiming the democrats were trying to marshal Sharia in Florida. I smirked when “ABC News” (dot co) alleged Hillary Clinton was paying actors to protest at Trump rallies. Who would believe these stories, especially when the sources are so ridiculously and obviously fake? Skepticism is easy.

As we know I was wrong. Many, many people believed these stories. An entire election was in some ways swayed because of fake news (although let’s not put all the blame on gullible voters). And post-election the problem has imploded, forcing Trump, religious pundits, and, well, everyone to acknowledge that fake news is a problem. Unfortunately, the laws of cognitive dissonance have stolen fake news criticism from skeptics.

The laws of cognitive dissonance per Leon Festinger (in no particular order)

  1. When confronted with truths that contrast with our beliefs we will either double down and deny the truth and hold onto our beliefs,
  2. or accept the truth and change our beliefs,
  3. or work the truth into our preexisting set of beliefs.

Number three appears to be what Trump and religious pundits are doing.

Recall Trump’s first post-election press conference where he attacked CNN and Buzz Feed News as “fake.” While Buzz Feed is strictly an entertainment website with left-leaning stories (and a lot of “facts” that don’t pass simple scrutiny), CNN is a strictly center entertainment news source.

Let me back up a second. CNN is not the Agence French Presse or the British Broadcasting Corporation or National Public Radio. CNN is concerned with selling adds more than providing substantive information. CNN’s job is to entertain us with sensational stories so that we tune in or click a headline. It’s important to understand the limits of CNN’s merit as a news organization, but CNN is—hands down—a much better source of correct and balanced information than Info Wars, Natural News, or RT. But to call CNN fake is problematic and dishonest.

Today I stumbled across this blog post by the Friendly Atheist. Apparently the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has usurped the “fake news” accusation and lobbed it at a man who simply called his husband his husband. (Here is the press release where Donohue does this). The way he phrases it is very strange too. “The Catholic League does not tolerate fake news.” It’s as if he’s saying “You can always trust the Catholic League. Nothing we ever say is fake.”

I want my fake news back

Trump and Donohue (and scores of others) have been forced to accept fake news sources exist. For Trump, rather than accept that fake news propelled his campaign, he has turned fake news accusations back on a legitimate—albeit sensational—news source. He has worked the fledgling anti-fake news phenomenon to his advantage.

Donohue has taken the condemnation of fake news sites and worked it into his anti-same-sex-marriage beliefs.

Neither accepts the reality of fake news unless it gives them a narrative advantage.

This is frustrating, simply put. Both Donohue and Trump are influential enough that they can turn idiots into pseudo-skeptics who believe a news source must be fake simply because someone they admire calls it fake. From personal conversations I’ve had with friends, family members, and students, it appears more people believe CNN is an actual fake news organization.

Am I going to have to spend the next few years defending legitimate sources? What’s next—is Mike Pence going to call Nature a fake peer-review science journal?

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Simple Logic for Religion and Politics

Syllogisms are not what many people think they are, and the American political landscape is a testament to this fact. Too often I hear people construct logical arguments with sound sounding propositions but, taken together, are deeply flawed. Take this very simple syllogism and compare it to the common  political one that follows, which is a little more complicated:

Simple syllogism:

  • If 1 + 1 = 2
  • and 2 + 2 = 4,
  • then 1 + 1 (+) 1 + 1 = 4

Common political syllogism:

This syllogism was lifted from a pro-life website’s article that attempts to make a logical argument for why abortion should be illegal.

  • It is prima facie immoral to kill a human being
  • Abortion kills a human being
  • Therefore, abortion is immoral

This is followed up with a third premise and a second conclusion:

  • The unjustified killing of human beings is illegal (e.g. murder)
  • Therefore, abortion should be illegal

Without getting into a political discussion about whether or not abortion should be illegal or legal, this is a horribly constructed syllogism that combines the is with the ought-to-be. The author of this syllogism even used the words “is” in the first premise and “should be” in the second conclusion. I’ve said this a thousand times; there is no logical way to get from the is to the ought-to-be.

Transforming subjective reasoning into objective reasoning

Why does this bother me so much? Because these kinds of arguments are cloaked in objective authority, but underneath it belies logic and is nothing more than a subjective claim—an opinion. This is very much politics at the street level. I don’t even pretend that there will ever be a solution to this problem. People are idiots, even I, but you—reader—you might learn to be less of an idiot if you take this to heart.

It bothers me so much because people actually believe there is some kind of objective truth behind their claims. This allows for deeply religious beliefs to stand on the merits of logical arguments rather than an ancient book. Religion can sneak into the conversation without us even knowing it. Call people out on this bullshit, and be prepared to confess the subjectivity of your own arguments.

We can construct a new syllogism about abortion that keeps us in the is territory:

  • If no murder is legal,
  • and if some abortions are legal,
  • then some abortions are not murder

(This of course depends on 1) the current status of abortion in your country, and 2) the definition of murder—for the purpose of the syllogism I added the caveat “no” to denote that we are not talking about legal homicides, such as self defense or executions. A second caveat is the use of the word “some” to denote the difference between partial birth abortions and your everyday termination in a clinic).

The only way to construct a syllogism about what should be is to admit that this is merely an opinion. The premises do not address the objectivity of your beliefs, but rather the objectivity that your beliefs exist. For example:

  • If you believe murder is wrong,
  • and if you believe abortion is murder,
  • then you probably believe abortion is wrong


  • If you want abortion to be illegal,
  • and if electing candidate X will help make abortion illegal,
  • then you probably want to elect candidate X

There’s no other way around it. Even with this I had to add the caveat “probably” because there really is no objective opinion. There are no objective truths in people’s preferences other than the fact that preferences exist. The next time you hear “1 + 1 = 2, and 2 + 2 = 4, therefore, we should blah, blah, blah,” call them out on their bullshit. They will try to present their opinion as an objective truth when it certainly isn’t. As soon as we all come to accept that religion and politics are personal and subjective, we might be able to have more constructive conversations about what should be.

All this said, once we’ve accepted that the ought-to-be is merely based on our preferences and is subjected to the individual, there certainly is a logical way we can reach our preferred ought-t0-be state, even if it’s as complicated as a political opinion, which I will present in a future post (it’s an incredibly “messy” model—hint).

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A New Religion That’ll Bring You to Your Knees: My Father’s God Has Orange Hair

Being a political scientist is not what many think. We are not politicians drafting legislation. We are not activists trying to make the world a better place, according to our own preferences. And we certainly aren’t trying to get people to believe what we believe. Instead we strive to explain incredibly complicated phenomena by use of empirical data, simulations, and, where those are not possible, qualitative analysis. Because most people don’t understand this, we are often dragged into meaningless conversations about religion politics. People are always trying to tell us what they believe. And to be honest, I don’t care about your beliefs.

A Short Anecdote

Prior to Trumpism I was able to hold intelligent conversations with my father about political science. He would call, asking about the Russian annexation of Crimea, or some other major event, and I would attempt to explain it using traditional international relations theories. Although my father and I sit at divergent ends of a political spectrum, our conversations always centered on what is, and never what either of us believed ought to be.

Post November election everything has changed. My father, emboldened by (what I can only describe as) a “personal” victory in the electoral college, calls me thrice a day to berate my beliefs, demonize everyone left of him (which, considering how far right he is, is pretty much everyone), and to tell me why Trump is the Lord and Savior will be the best president since Madison.

A Short List of What My Dad Believes Trump Will Do

This list is frustratingly stupid, according to a political scientist (me).

  • He will send troops to Israel, storm the West Bank and Gaza, and kill every Palestinian that doesn’t leave the newly annexed Israeli territories.
  • He will label political rivals Islamic terrorists and have them sent to Gitmo, where they will languish without trial.
  • He will both (contradictorily) reinforce the Cuban embargo as well as “liberate the Cuban people” by installing American democracy.
  • He will declare war on China by nuking major cities.
  • He will unilaterally declare war on any UN member state that attempts to prevent any of the above actions.
  • He will fire, arrest, and/or execute for treason any judge who stands in the way of the above actions.

What the Hell?

My father not only believes Trump will do these things; he supports Trump doing these things!

  • He literally said, “Genocide isn’t a war crime if no one can stop you. And who’s powerful enough to stop the US?”
  • He literally said, “I don’t care if Trump has to lie and label democrats Islamic terrorists. If they don’t support Trump, they are just as bad as terrorists.”
  • He literally said, “We need to liberate the Cuban people. They need American democracy, and we’re going to override Obama’s dangerous relationship with a dictator.”
  • He literally said, after I explained how Chinese mercantilism is not easily combatted, “Trust me, Trump is going to give them one chance to play nice. If they don’t take the hint, we’ll wipe out a few cities, kill a few million of their people, and then they’ll play nice.”
  • He literally said, after I explained international law and how diplomacy and multilateralism are viable alternatives to unilateralism and war, “No one in the UN can stop us. If we have to nuke every other country to save our reputation as the big kid on the block, Trump will do it.”
  • He literally said, after I explained the separation of powers (elementary stuff), “No judge is going to stop Trump. He’ll just fire any judge [including Supreme Court justices] who won’t let him do what America needs” and “If that means throwing them in jail and executing them for treason, so be it. I won’t lose any sleep over it.”

What the Hell Happened?

My father had Reagan, and he had W. He supported and worked for Oliver North’s senatorial campaign. He has always been a staunch republican, loyal to the party. But with Trump he became a fanatic. He’s disavowed the US constitution, the Geneva Convention (and many, many others), human rights, rule of law (maybe that’s redundant), and the very reality we understand in a multipolar nuclear world (mutual assured destruction). So what happened?

Notice none of the above points mentions ISIS or terrorism (except to label rivals as terrorists). He refuses to accept it, but the answer is he is terrified that Islamic fundamentalists are going to kill him and erase his identity.

Populism is a social response to the threat to either existential or ontological security. Trumpism is the response to both. My father non-sequiturally colors his proscriptive statements, a la Trump, with “ISIS is going to keep killing us” and “Muslims want to create a Muslim theocracy in America.” Back him into a corner, and he’ll bring up either ISIS or Muslims (unable to differentiate between the two). And it’s always about them killing us or erasing our identity as a liberal democracy, which, ironically, is precisely what he wants to do.

My father has never been a religious person, although he views himself as a Southern Baptist. But now he is a devout and pious Trumpist. Somehow he believes in the teachings of Trump with the same fervor religious fanatics believe their books. And, not to let that pesky thing called cognitive dissonance get in the way, he is willing to kill his neighbors and dismantle the American system of governance in exchange for a totalitarian regime—in order to save the lives of his neighbors from people who want to dismantle the American system of governance in exchange for a totalitarian regime.

My greatest fear is sitting through these kinds of conversations when people find out I’m a political scientist. I never thought my father would find religion and try to convert me. And I certainly fear Trumpism will continue to produce such dedicated adherents who want to teach me a thing or two about how the world should work.

I’m sure there are many others out there. My dad can’t be the only one.

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Time’s Arrow Rounded a Bend: Trump, Putin, and the Reduction of Certainty

Reducing uncertainty is the only thing politics strives to achieve. While legislation might be written to address precise economic, political, or social grievances, the process is an exercise in uncertainty reduction, making sense of highly complex phenomena. The more certain we can be about the future, the less afraid we are to face it.

I was sitting in a cafe in Beirut when I got the news about Vladimir Putin’s re-ascendency to the Kremlin. Lebanon was split, half supporting a man they believe capable of maintaining order in the Middle East, and half criticizing a man they felt was fostering corruption in the Middle East. The days ahead were uncertain.

I was sitting in a cafe in Beirut a year earlier when I got the news about a civil war breaking out in neighboring Syria. Pro- and anti-Syrian fights broke out in Beirut, and I almost got caught a few times between brawls. The days ahead were so uncertain that the streets were all-but empty for a few nights.

I was sitting in a seminar on global order last Tuesday when I got the news that Donald Trump was probably going to be the next American president (at that time the New York Times gave him a 95% chance of winning Florida). I think we—political scientists—were among those most shocked. Particularly in my field. The years ahead are uncertain.

The Western World failed Russia following the end of the Cold War. Instead of bringing Russia into the fold, we alienated the Motherland, leading to Yeltsin’s infamous quip, “Russia isn’t Haiti… Russia will rise again.” Our status quo sense making reduced our Russian uncertainty, buying Russia time to fester and build. But now we have elected a man into office who has a real fighting chance at rekindling America’s relationship with Russia (don’t tell your Trump supporting family members that; they really, really hate it).

The one thing that is certain is that for the next year or two Russia and the US will become closer than ever, and the White House-Kremlin order will look more like a tea room than a war room.

But Trump is not the man Putin thinks he is, and Putin is not the man Trump thinks. Our newfound romance will be based on mutual selfishness, not mutual understanding. Our certainty about Russia is plagued by uncertainty about Russia, and there will come some times when the leaders realize this and butt heads.

Trump has said he supports committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. He has strongly implied he is willing to consider using nuclear weapons against Jihadists. Either of these two events will not only undermine American-Russian relations; they will certainly give Russia the upper hand (at best).

Let’s take nukes. Every sitting president starting with Kennedy has been pressured by military brass (the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield. Every sitting president has resisted such urge because they understand the concepts of mutual assured destruction and the escalation of force. If Trump uses nuclear weapons against Jihadists in Syria, he will invariably harm Russian interests. This leaves two options. First, Russia can retaliate, leading to a nuclear war (Russia is also rumored to have a doomsday device). This is unlikely, but it’s possible. And second, Russia would take this opportunity to offer an extension of the Russian nuclear umbrella to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and other areas where there are overlapping interests. Certainly in such an event, smaller states will feel more secure under the protection of a benign hegemony than a malicious one. Russia will be the moral leader, and the US will be the maniac. I would even predict a Western swing towards Russia.

A nuclear first use scenario is unlikely, but war crimes and crimes against humanity are somewhat more likely. Trump as Commander in Chief has made it clear he’ll play the Dirty Harry cop, quick to temper and quick to violence, and he’ll break any law that restrains his ability to act. And if Abu Ghraib, My Lai, and No Gun Ri have taught us anything, our military service members in the theatre of combat are not immune from becoming monsters. War crimes delegitimize our position as a benign power, and they have long-lasting consequences, both of which will give Russia an increase in power commensurate to our reduction.

Normally I wouldn’t care about balancing. We’ve been building Europe for generations, even allowing Germany to wield considerable power when history tells us Germany can’t be trusted with power. But I don’t think a bipolar system, or a unipolar system with Russia as the only superpower, is likely to allay our uncertainty in a positive way.

Domestically, there’s the common fear among the LGBT community, environmentalists, and secular activists that a Trump Supreme Court will undo generations of progress. To be fair to Trump I don’t think he’s going to put creationism in the classroom, force conversion therapy on people, or allow Florida to be washed away by rising sea levels. Even if he wanted to stack the Supreme Court or pass anti-LGBT laws, the common voter won’t allow their senators and congressional leaders to draft or support such legislation. A Trump SCotUS can only consider laws passed.

But here’s the thing; we don’t know. Our future is certainly uncertain under Trump. I hope he turns out to be the best American president, upholding secularism and human rights, tackling global issues multilaterally, and providing for global stability in constructive ways, but I fear this will not be the case. No one reduced uncertainty when we elected Trump. We merely reinforced Time’s Cycle. Time’s Arrow rounded a bend on November 8, 2016.

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Security and Religiosity: The Jacksonian Values that Wed American Society to Faith

There is a set of academic literature that suggests there is a negative relationship between existential security and religiosity. As security increases, we become less religious as a society. This is demonstrated across societies. More secure societies in Europe are distinctly less religious than less secure societies in, say, Sub Saharan Africa. The threat of death is a compelling religious motivator, and if you are guaranteed limited salvation from death by the society, then salvation by the church is a cogent alternative. But there is one intriguing outlier: the United States.

The US ranks high on both existential security and religiosity. This disparity between what we expect and what we see—in terms of the US—has always fascinated me. How do we as a society hold onto religious superstitions when every other highly sophisticated society has shaken off such beliefs? Outside of my usual work this problem has always sat on the back burner. But maybe we can answer the question using a philosophical framework, one previously set forth for us by Walter Russell Mead in his piece in The National Interest (Winter 1999/2000) titled “The Jacksonian Tradition: And American Foreign Policy.”

The Jacksonian Tradition

Mead’s “Jacksonian Tradition” explains American foreign policy by framing it in a populist structure. Essentially, America is a “warrior culture” because the people—not generals, political scientists, or political elites—know best. And they want a warrior culture, damnit!

Populism is the idea that representative democracies only work if the representatives have connections with the people. Think of our democracy as a form of mobocracy. We disregard expert testimony. We are skeptical of elites. We feel there is something wrong with the country when we are disconnected from the policymakers. We are stubborn against advice or instruction (no senator is going to tell us what we should do). We value normal people like Joe the Plumber. And we believe Washington is a huge conspiracy against the American people (well, not I, but the average voter).

Populism gives us a sense of identity, of authenticity. Our identity is mired in the values of John Wayne; June, Ward, and Beaver Cleaver; and Andy Griffith. These are the true Americans, the pioneers. The characters had both feet on the ground, and they had values everyone believes in. And their television shows never necessitated fancy, complicated explanations. They were simple to digest, and they left you feeling fulfilled.

Mead underscores American Jacksonian values of self-reliance, equality, individualism, honor, and courage. Self-reliance is the legacy of the frontier movement, a you-gotta-take-care-of-yourself mentality, and the government’s job is to get out of the way. Equality is the aforementioned don’t-tell-me-what-to-do outlook. Elites and the working class are equal, despite outward appearances. Individualism means every American has the right and the duty to seek self-fulfillment. Our honor is one of financial esprit, rejection of government help, and resistance to social welfare (more on honor in a bit). And courage means we stand up for what we believe, and we’re willing to lay down our lives if necessary to protect our kinship, family, and the common morality. And Americans are indeed, as Mead points out, quick to settle scores with violence.

Outside of these values is darkness. And war is a necessary evil in an evil world. And so we go to war regularly—not just war, but all out war. The greatest tragedy of the Gulf War, populists would say, is that we turned around at Baghdad instead of ousting Saddam Hussein. But we also fight wars clean, and we expect the “empires of evil” to fight clean wars as well. Honor means showing your enemy respect, a la WWII German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. If you fight a clean war, we’ll fight a clean war. If you take the gloves off, we feel justified in committing mass-scale civilian slaughter.

Implications on US Religiosity

The United States presently sits at the top of a hierarchy of states in terms of power. And as Robert Kagan would say, power compels the US to violence. We must protect our values, but that leaves us vulnerable. Our power is wielded in an evil world where our values are overshadowed by the darkness of an anarchical, chaotic jungle. Our values are constantly challenged by the encroachment of Communism during the Cold War; of European pacifism, socialism, and cooperation; of Islamic terror regimes with no Code of Honor. Being at the top, surrounded by darkness, and facing a barrage of attacks against our values undermines our existential security. If our values are our identity, and our identity is all we have, then an attack against our identity is an affront to our very existence.

If we are our values, and our values face constant threat, then salvation comes not from the state—which, as mentioned earlier, populists believe is a mass conspiracy against America (just ask any Trump supporter)—then salvation must come from the pulpit.

In America we have low infant mortality, high life expectancy, fairly decent healthcare, a large GDP, a robust middle class, and enough amenities to make Jay Gatsby blush. We work hard, but we value our downtime. Leisurely entertainment dominates the economy—Hollywood cinema, NFL games, Lady Gaga, and entire sectors set up to prepare the outside of your home for the annual arrival of Santa Claus. By this, one should expect our society to resemble Estonia or Sweden in terms of religiosity, not South Africa or Palestine.

I argue that our Jacksonian values wed us to our faiths, due in part to our position as a global hegemon that wields considerable raw power. The threat of death is everywhere, not only literally, but also ontologically. We face attacks by terrorists and threats by Vladimir Putin, and we also face a global market of counter-values that ostentatiously challenge our identity as honorable Americans. How do we protect our physical and spiritual being? The church certainly guarantees they can do both.

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The Alt-Right and Atheism: Overlap and Divide

A small but growing conservative movement is popping up in the US, fueled in part by well-known atheist Youtubers and bloggers. The movement is referred to as the Alt-Right—or alternative right—movement by some. And some atheist are quick to endorse Alt-Right positions and complain about social phenomena regarding race issues, nationalism, reactionary politics, and Trump-entusialist beliefs. Often these Youtube videos or blog posts espouse a special criticism of social justice warriors, or SJW for short, often citing the First Amendment and “free speech.” And to be honest, I agree with a lot of what critics like the Amazing Atheist and Sargon of Akkad say… except, of course, where I don’t.

I’m not going to go down the exhaustive list of usual Alt-Right positions. Rather I’m going to say what I agree with and what I don’t—from the position of a person who watches these videos and read these blog posts. Specifically I will address race issues, free speech, feminism, and immigration policy.

Race Issues

From what I’ve seen and read, many Alt-Righters and Youtube atheists are incredibly critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. This criticism is definitely warranted in some areas. For example, the oft-cited BLM belief that you can’t be racist against white people is only true if we develop a brand new definition of racism and jettison the standard definition. This new definition is often forced upon society in order to win the argument by technical knock out. If you change a definition so that your opponent cannot defend him/herself, then winning the argument is not very victorious. And it’s not very honest. It’s actually quite meaningless (unless you’re Kim Jong Un).

BLM activists also live in a world where an acceptable method of submitting its beliefs into the global market of ideas is to obstruct the lives of everyday citizens. Blocking traffic and annoying people just trying to live their lives is not the ideal way to win over converts.

But the BLM movement also exists in a world where perception is key. Whether or not BLM has good ideas, I think we can acknowledge that they have perceptions about the state of the world. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the activists to submit their beliefs to the global market of ideas. And while it’s difficult to test these ideas (for example, police departments will probably not confess to racist practices), we can at least study the factors that lead to such perceptions. I’d be willing to bet many statisticians and social scientists already are.

Free Speech 

Alt-Righters nail free speech. When a university professor physically assaults a student and asks for “muscle” to remove a student reporter from a “safe space,” this is entirely unacceptable. Free speech does not include physical intimidation. From my perspective safe spaces should be forums for open dialog, without fear of personal attack. Spaces that exclude based on race, gender, or sexuality are only safe so long as you a good at covering your ears and shouting “la la la I don’t hear you” for the rest of your life. At some point though you are going to have to reconcile your beliefs with the real world.

But while free speech is usually the domain of the state—and, for example, Sargon of Akkad knows this very well—it doesn’t help their cause when people with Alt-Right beliefs build caricatures of their opponents in 40 minute Youtube videos just to make the finishing blow during the last 30 seconds. The video debate between Thunderf00t and Sargon over Brexit exemplifies the strengths of Sargon’s beliefs when he isn’t able to build straw men (to be fair, this is despite whether or not Sargon makes a compelling point—to me it’s lost in the bias).


From an academic perspective feminism has some really great ideas. I recommend Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics for a good discussion of where feminist theory can make some good contributions to society. From a scholarly position I welcome Enloe’s and J. Ann Tickner’s brand of feminism.

But I agree with the Alt-Right and many atheist thinkers that feminism as a social, economic, or political theory is fine and dandy, but feminism as lens for viewing everything as racist and sexist is a cancer to the global market of ideas. But there’s also some problems.

Is there a pay gap? Absolutely. Is it the product of career choice? Not completely, but yeah, to an extent. Regardless of how we answer those questions (and these are merely my best guesses), I again have to take the more conservative route. Should the system prejudice men in order to close the gap? I don’t think that’s a very good solution, and it smacks in the face of David Hume’s Guillotine. If the pay gap exists in the way feminists believe, how do we logically get to: women should succeed at the expense of men? I don’t think we can do that.

In other words, I agree with Sargon and the Amazing Atheist with this one, with one minor deviation.


This is where I almost completely part ways with the heavy hitting atheist vloggers and bloggers. I think a Facebook post I made in September 2015 sums up my positions pretty well:

One of the things that strikes me most about the migrant crisis in Europe is that many of these people are coming from Afghanistan, meaning they are willing to travel—sometimes on foot—through ISIS controlled territories in Iraq and Syria, facing assault, rape, or death every step of the way, for the mere possibility of a better life in Europe, Turkey, or elsewhere. To us this should say something about their hopelessness and yet resolve; instead we’re focusing on whether or not we can share.

There seems to be a massive reactionary force happening. The fear of Islamic terror in Europe and the US decapitates us from the humanity we slowly strive to achieve[1]. When I lived in Lebanon during the fledgling months of the Syrian Civil War—before the Islamic State rode into Syria—I was often asked my position as a political scientist on Assad and the Free Syrian Army. My answer was always the same:

“I am against all sides because people are fucking dying.” (You can get away with using English profanity in Lebanon—just don’t use Arabic profanity).

My position has not changed with the arrival of the Islamic State. Rather, it has become more pronounced. I am against all sides, including American and European nationalists, because 1) people are dying, and 2) we are actively striving to prevent their salvation from death.

And perhaps the most important point: A refugee denied basic humanity, a refugee denied salvation from Jihadist terror is a potential Jihadist terrorist in the making.

Look, people with different beliefs as ours do not live in a vacuum, and neither do we. And when they cry out for help, if we treat them as unequals because of their beliefs—if we treat them as sub human[2]—we cannot expect refugees from terror to choose between going home and face death, or going home and mitigating death by joining the group trying to kill them. A refugee denied is a terrorist made.

Final thoughts

I’m not sure how the switch came around. Atheism does not naturally lead to a political stance. And, for example, the Amazing Atheist even shifted from supporting Bernie Sanders to (weakly) supporting Donald Trump. This is a remarkable shift (even if TJ says he’s not voting for anyone). And I think it could be an overreaction to the Atheism+ movement (that seems to believe if you’re not a bleeding heart liberal, you’re the literal devil). But these shifts do not necessarily reflect a growing trend in atheist thought towards nationalist and reactionary policy. This post merely stands to discuss a phenomenon I’ve noticed in user-based media.

Are the Amazing Atheist and Sargon of Akkad Alt-Righters? I honestly don’t know. And this post does not claim they are (even if I have used strong language). I don’t think they’ve ever claimed to follow the movement, but it’s forgivable to say there’s some overlap—at least—with their political views and the Alt-Right movement.

And finally, I’m not so hesitant to accept alternate viewpoints and seeing if we can find some common ground for the purposes of debate—as long as the debate is a free and open debate, and not one where I cannot win by default (or skin color). And I’m not afraid of the encroachment of Islam to the point where I will turn my country inward.

[1] For a fantastic article on this process utopian, see Booth, Ken. “Security and Emancipation.” Review of International Studies 17, no. 4 (1991): 313-26.

[2] This is a well-understood method for creating war-driven societies: Campbell, David. Writing Security United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Rev. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

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