What do conservatives owe Alec Baldwin?  What do they owe Colin Powell?  Are they obligated to object to football, baseball, and NASCAR fans chanting “F**k Joe Biden?”  Are they required to be kind, gentle, and decent to people who have ridiculed them, condescended to them, blatantly lied about them?  Do they, in short, have a duty to be civil to those who are uncivil to them, in a world where incivility is the norm?

As far as we can tell, there are three popular answers to these questions.  The first answer, exemplified here by Rod Dreher, is that of course conservatives should be civil and kind.  These are human beings we're talking about, after all, and delighting in their misfortune is callous and repugnant.

The second answer, characteristic of the Left more generally, was spelled out the other by CNN’s Jake Tapper and amounts, more or less, to: “It doesn’t matter. Republicans suck”:

CNN host Jake Tapper has accused Republican politicians of attempting to exploit the fatal shooting on the set of an Alec Baldwin movie to score political points with 'cruel' jokes about the incident….

Tapper said that the tragedy was 'heartbreaking, for normal people' but that 'there's something about our politics right now that is driving people away from our shared humanity.'…

Tapper went on to say that a mocking tweet from Vance, who is seeking the Republican nomination for US Senate in Ohio, 'more disappointing.'…

Tapper noted that [J.D.] Vance had once been a CNN contributor 'hired for his perceived insight' but said he was now part of an Ohio primary race 'that seems to have become the Fear Factor of American politics, with contestants positioned against one another as to who can performatively appeal to the best at the lowest, common denominator.'

Tapper went on to claim that he'd received a text message from an unnamed Republican official saying that 'After JD Vance's tweet, being a horrible person is now actually a job requirement in this party.'

Finally – and understandably, given the position taken by people like Tapper – conservative lawyer, novelist, and columnist Kurt Schlichter discussed the third position in a column titled “The Alec Baldwin Conundrum”:

[D]o we really want to live in a world where our reaction to a tragedy caused by an enemy is not sorrow and compassion but mockery?

It doesn’t matter what we want. We do live in such a world, in large part due to the likes of Alec Baldwin. Besides his scuzzy abuse of the people – notably women – in his orbit, he is a particularly loathsome social media presence, and as a result, conservatives are gleefully resurrecting his old tweets about guns and his wish for them to be used on his many, many enemies in the wake of his horrible act….

[I]n combat you use the necessary weapons. Nazis and communists used guys with guns to attack us; we used guys with guns to kill them. Was there a moral difference, since everybody used guns, asks the moral illiterate? Yes. The other guys were Nazis and communists, and shooting them was a moral imperative because they were Nazis and communists. Our mean tweets are in the service of light, theirs are on the side of darkness.

To not engage on the terms that reality has set before you is to accept defeat. You might not like the rules, but there they are. In a society that has made the rule that you pummel your opponent when he is down, to not play by the rule is to unilaterally disarm.

To be sure, each of these approaches has some inarguable merit.  Gloating at, much less campaigning on someone else’s suffering seems, at a minimum, unkind and un-Christian.  At the same time, however, Biden and Baldwin especially put themselves in this position and, indeed, have said far worse about their political opponents than has been said about them.  In 2012, recall, Biden told congregants at a black church that Mitt Romney, of all people, was going to put them “back in chains.”  As Schlichter notes, THEY made the rules, and they should be forced to play by them.

It probably goes without saying that each of these approaches has its drawbacks as well.  What’s most interesting – and telling – however, is that they all have one HUGE drawback in common.  They’re all reductive.  The answers given apply to a specific matter and specific individuals, whereas the question asked – how does one deal with those who despise him? – is much broader, affecting virtually the entirety of social relations in contemporary society.

What are the defining characteristics of our society?  How is it structured?  Who are the most powerful players?  Who are the in-groups and the out-groups?  Obviously, these are complicated (not to mention loaded) questions.  One of the keys to understanding what we’re trying to get at here, however, can be found in a line from Schlichter’s column:  “[D]o we really want to live in a world where our reaction to a tragedy caused by an enemy is not sorrow and compassion but mockery?”

Alec Baldwin, you see, is “an enemy.”  He is not an opponent.  He is not an adversary.  He is not just some stupid, aging pretty boy with a loud mouth.  He is an ENEMY.  And because he is so easily classified as an enemy, and because others are easily classified thusly – or, conversely, as “friends” – it is also quite likely the case that we are living in the total state.

From The Dictatorship of Woke Capital:

Carl Schmitt was a brilliant legal scholar in the Weimar era who was also what one might call a “case in point.” One of Schmitt’s primary con­cerns was what he saw as the blurring of the line that separated the state from society. This, he argued, fostered a permanent state of argument, hostility, and change—in the political realm. Looking at the Western world after the Great War, Schmitt saw that liberal democracy provided man with a nearly unlimited variety of partisan and ideological view­points. Each of these was displeased with something in society, saw some flaw that desperately needed fixing. And so, each promised the means to fix that which was broken, to harness the power of the state to deliver its favored end or to destroy the state if it prevented the actualization of that end. Schmitt called this the “total state,” which he defined as a society that “no longer knows anything absolutely nonpolitical.”

Schmitt believed that, traditionally, Western societies were not like this, that the state and therefore politics applied only to a very narrow band of public matters—land, trade, state finances, and family ties, for example. The new liberal democracies, the new “total state” was defined by its interest and participation in every aspect of civic life, from the social to the economic, from the personal to the religious….

Starting from the banal observation that a state needs a sovereign, Schmitt moved on to the slightly less banal idea that a popular (i.e., demo­cratic) sovereign is perfectly adequate in a homogenous state, where all citizens share the same self-identification and many of the same principal interests.

In practice, however, there are no states that possess this homoge­neous self-identification, and that means that the political realm becomes a battlefield on which various ideas and beliefs compete for supremacy and on which people and groups come to see others as “friends” or “ene­mies.” Schmitt believed that the distinction between these two, between friend and enemy, is not necessarily defined by traditional dualistic moral concepts like “right and wrong,” “good and evil,” “beautiful and ugly.” Rather, he suggested that the “political enemy” “need not be morally evil or esthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is nevertheless, the other, the stranger . . . each participant is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.”     

When Alec Baldwin – a stupid, aging pretty-boy with a loud mouth – spends his days attacking, threatening, and belittling gun owners, Trump supporters, and conservatives more generally, he puts himself into the political realm.  He advances the Total State and declares himself a friend of some and an enemy of others.  When Joe Biden warns black people that Republicans will literally enslave them, he is declaring himself a friend to those black people and an enemy to Republicans.  Likewise, when JD Vance asks Twitter to reinstate Donald Trump so that Trump can make Alec Baldwin jokes, he too is declaring allegiance to friends and hostility to enemies.  When Kurt Schlichter ACCURATELY refers to Baldwin as an “enemy,” and no one finds cause to object to that characterization, then the Total State is upon us.

It may not surprise you to learn that Schmitt – the “crown jurist” of the Third Reich – is controversial.  He was a Nazi, after all, and not by happenstance.  He was a brazen anti-Semite and sought refuge in National Socialism as the provider of a unifying sovereign who could restore order and “preserve [his] own form of existence.”

None of this can or should be ignored.

At the same time, however, his brilliance as an observer of early liberal society is renowned, as is his prescience about the fate that befalls liberalism when its universal politicizing tendency is allowed to advance unchecked.  He had significant influence on – not to mention friendships with – scholars ranging from Leo Strauss to Herbert Marcuse (a story for another day).  His legacy is important, not just as a cautionary tale about the ruin that befalls an individual and a nation consumed by politics but as the premier “anti-liberal” legal and political theorist of the early twentieth century.

Nevertheless, for some observers, those wedded to the notion that liberalism is the end/ideal state of man’s political development, Schmitt is “dangerous” for his anti-liberalism alone.  The presumption among these observers is that Schmitt’s anti-liberalism was the prejudicial starting point in his schema, not an observed phenomenon.  They believe the totality of Schmitt’s observations about liberalism is PREscriptive, which is to say that he started from the premise that liberalism was flawed and then proceeded to explain how to undermine it.  Consider, for example, the following from The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman:

Achieving fame as the “crown jurist of the Third Reich” does not sound like a good way of endearing yourself to posterity. Indeed, for decades after the defeat of Nazism, the ideas of Carl Schmitt were widely regarded as beyond the pale….

Schmitt’s hostility to parliamentary democracy, and his support for the power of an authoritarian leader to decide the law, led him down some very dark paths….

He scorned ideas such as the separation of powers and universal human rights and argued that the distinction between “friend” and “enemy” is fundamental to politics: “Tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are.” To Schmitt, liberal talk of the brotherhood of man was simply hypocrisy.

While liberals are concerned with the establishment of the rule of law, Schmitt was more interested in how the rule of law can be suspended through the declaration of a state of emergency….

Richard Spencer, an American white supremacist who coined the term, “alt-right”, has cited Schmitt, along with Nietzsche, as an inspiration. And some on the European radical left have also been attracted by Schmitt’s rejection of liberal attempts to take politics out of the operation of the law or the conduct of economic policy.

For our money, it’s this last line that gives Rachman’s game away.  Here, he objects to what he claims is Schmitt’s “rejection” of the liberal ideal.  What he misses – or simply doesn’t acknowledge – is that Schmitt’s rejection was not of the ideal but of the results of the ideal IN PRACTICE.  He objected to the “liberal attempts to take politics out of the operation of the law or the conduct of economic policy” not because he wanted them to be politicized but because he saw that they already were politicized, because he saw that the purported attempts at depoliticization were biased and doomed from the start.  They were high-minded failures that actually resulted in the OPPOSITE of the ideal, the additional politicization of the law and policy, and, furthermore, the pretense that this politicization was “rational” and therefore inarguably legitimate.  Schmitt didn’t object to liberalism in theory.  He objected to it in practice.  Or, again from The Dictatorship of Woke Capital:

Like Max Weber, who was twenty-five years his senior, Schmitt intended his observations to be understood as descriptive, not prescrip­tive, which is to say that he believed he was describing how politics is or how it functions in practice, rather than explaining what he thought politics should be or how it should function.

The difference between our reading of Schmitt on liberalism and Rachman’s reading of him runs parallel to the differences between the liberal order of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries – from Rousseau to Robespierre; from the utopian socialists to Ely, Wilson, and Dewey; from Mill to Croly to the Bloomsburies – and the conservative order over the same span (i.e. Burke, John Adams, Tocqueville, etc.)  It also runs parallel to the differences between the combatants in today’s culture wars.

In brief, if you believe that Schmitt was an advocate of the Total State as the means to producing the end of a Totalitarian state, then you also believe that the liberal order today is just fine and perfectly functional and that conservatives are responsible for starting the culture wars.  You agree with Barack Obama that what’s happening in Virginia is controversial not because a schoolboard covered up TWO rapes in order to protect its transgender bathroom policy, but because the Republicans have created a “phony” cultural crisis as red meat for their voters.  Or you agree with Jake Tapper that a Republican who thinks that Trump should have the opportunity to mock the troubles of a man who spent the last six years mocking Trump’s troubles is “playing politics.”  Or you think that chanting “Let’s Go Brandon” is somehow more antagonistic and viler than spending four years wearing pink hats designed to look link female genitalia.

If by contrast, you think that Schmitt was describing the Total State and warning of its consequences, then you probably think that shaming school boards for promoting Critical Race Theory is reasonable and appropriate.  You probably also believe that using capital markets to achieve non-pecuniary political and social ends is both a violation of fiduciary duties and an excellent way to destroy the greatest engine of economic development the world has ever known.  You probably even agree with Schlichter that “It doesn’t matter what we want. We do live in [an overtly politicized] world, in large part due to the likes of Alec Baldwin.”  They started it, in short.  They changed the rules.  They politicized EVERYTHING.   

These are the basic contours of our society today.  Either you believe that the basic, liberal order is fundamentally sound and provides liberty, freedom, and justice in the greatest amount possible to the greatest number possible and that all cultural clashes are precipitated by former in-groups seeking to preserve their power, status, and privilege; or you believe that the liberal order – dating to its origins in the Enlightenment – is fundamentally flawed; that it favors capricious “values” over objective moral truths; that it, therefore, functions haphazardly, yielding to emotive fits and spurts; and that the culture wars are liberal in origin and designed to break the cultural hegemony of the remnants of the pre-Enlightenment order.

Either you believe that Schmitt was PREscriptive and that opposition to the liberal order is politically oriented and motivated by a desire for totalitarianism; or you believe that Schmitt was DEscriptive and that the Total State and its politicization of everything is the result of the hubris and essential closed-mindedness of the Enlightenment and its heirs.

Either you demand civility from conservatives while considering liberals’ incivility to be morally justified revulsion to privilege and power; or you believe that calls for civility are phony and that the only way to survive in this cultural war that the other side started is by fighting fire with fire.

Either you’re Jake Tapper, or you’re Kurt Schlichter.

Or, perhaps, you’re Rod Dreher, in which case you offer the outlines of an escape plan, but not an especially appealing one.

You see, the problem that BOTH the Tappers and Schlichters of the world run up against is that everyone agrees on how Carl Schmitt’s story ends.  Dreadfully.  And if our society becomes one version of Schmitt’s Total State or the other, it still ends the same way.  Once more, from The Dictatorship of Woke Capital:

There is a profound irony here and a profound warning. Carl Schmitt understood that this value development and self-identification would create political disorder. He also explained how order might be restored in such a society, where multiple friend-enemy factions had developed.

Democratic sovereignty necessarily elevates one faction over another. This, in turn, eliminates substantive equality, exacerbates disorder, and calls into question the legitimacy of the sovereign. The only way to remedy all of this, Schmitt argued, and thus to restore order, is to trade sovereign democracy for a sovereign dictator….

By pledging his fidelity to the Nazis, Schmitt both fulfilled his pre-Nazi philosophical theories and, at the same time, sacrificed his personal credibility. He became a significant part of the problem he identified and professed to find intolerable.

All of which is to say that the Left naturally assumes that the Right wants totalitarianism, and it intends, therefore, to get there first, in the name of “liberalism.”  Meanwhile the Right – in our estimation, correct in considering itself under siege and wanting to defend itself – has heretofore found no solution to the problems of society other than to escalate the politicization, to, as we said, fight fire with fire.

That leaves Dreher and his option – The Benedict Option, one might call it – which involves consciously choosing to forsake contemporary society and create “new forms of community.”  Some of you may recall that a version of this option – writ large – is what we have advocated as well, the creation of new forms of community.

The problem with this option is that it is, in many ways, emotionally, spiritually, and effectively unsatisfying.  Dreher himself engages in overtly politicized battles against the Left’s culture warriors, on Twitter and in his essays.  We do as well.  And while we agree with our friend Ben Hunt – another modern communitarian – that the current system is so politically corrupt that it should be burned the ‘F’ down, we’re pretty sure that would be cathartic but would leave us worse off.  If we opt out of our radically politicized capital markets, then what happens to American business?  What happens to the free enterprise system (or what’s left of it)?  Does ceding the field to those who would politicize EVERYTHING ensure their victory and the permanent corruption of the system or even the collapse of the system?

What these unanswered and unanswerable questions tell us is that we ALL have a great deal of thinking to do about how to treat our current predicament.  We can fight fire with fire and, indeed, MUST do so at times, but we can’t ever lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that de-politicization is the only way to avoid repeating Schmitt’s mistake/strategy (depending on one’s perspective, natch).

So, what do we owe Alec Baldwin?

We’ll be damned if we know.  But it’s worth contemplating, even if he is just a stupid, aging pretty boy with a loud mouth.


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