Stop Ignoring Justice in the Israel–Hamas War

Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza are at war. Palestinian forces have launched more than 1,500 rockets targeting Israeli towns and cities, and Israel has carried out aerial bombing raids on Gaza and deployed ground forces.

Watching news coverage of Palestinian homes destroyed, the scenes of human misery, and the mounting death toll, many people are despondent. Giving voice to that reaction, Trevor Noah argued on The Daily Show that we can gain clarity about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — if we can just “step away” from the complicated issue of “who’s good, who’s bad.” 

What should we focus on? “Power,” he says: Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world. Its sophisticated missile-defense system, Iron Dome, can destroy in mid-air (many) rockets fired from Gaza. Israel, he observes, could “crush” Gaza. This vast imbalance of power, he notes, is evident in the lopsided tally of the injured and dead.

If you are in a fight where the other person cannot beat you, Noah asks, how hard should you retaliate when they try to hurt you?  

The answer he expects us to reach is that, essentially, the stronger side should turn the other cheek, refrain from defending itself assertively, dial down its response.

But this premise is a travesty of sound moral thinking, and it can only inflame the conflict.

Noah asks us to consider an adversary who brings a knife to a gunfight. But let’s step away from foggy metaphors, and ask what this premise means in reality.

Take an actual clash between two mismatched adversaries. The underdog sent only 19 operatives into a fight armed with literally only knives, against a far stronger adversary. Presumably in this conflict, too, Noah would exhort the stronger to dial down any response, perhaps even do nothing.

But who was that underdog? The squad of jihadists who on 9/11 hijacked passenger jets and murdered three thousand Americans.

By itself, the material inequality between two adversaries cannot guide thinking about a conflict. Sometimes the weaker side is morally right: for example, the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the Islamists of Boko Haram. Or: the American revolutionaries, who were outmanned and outgunned by the English. But now consider the white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville in 2017. They were far weaker than the police forces: should they be left to run amok?

The problem with Trevor Noah’s widely shared view is that it deliberately ignores the issue of justice. To form a rational view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I argue in my book What Justice Demands, it’s necessary to start with the essential facts about the adversaries. Chiefly: the moral character of the two sides.

In keeping with their avowed ideology, the Islamists who rule Gaza have created a belligerent regime that systematically violates the rights of its own people. The animating goal of Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) is to wipe Israel from the map and subjugate whomever it can under totalitarian religious law. They use the population of Gaza, many of them willingly, as human shields and cannon fodder. And, starting at birth, they indoctrinate their followers to embrace the idea of dying in the name of Allah, for the glory of slitting an Israeli’s throat or carrying out a suicide attack.

Why should the Islamists’ status as underdogs erase the fact of their barbaric, morally corrupt regime and vicious goals?

By contrast Israel is a society governed by rule of law and a basic respect for individual rights. By virtue of those features, it has become a dynamo of human progress and innovation, particularly in high technology, with an elevated standard of living compared to its neighbors. Israel, like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, has significant flaws and shortcomings. But Israel is on moral par with these countries, because fundamentally it protects the freedom of individuals. That’s a singular achievement in a region plagued by anarchy, theocracies, dictatorship, and monarchies.

Why should Israel’s military superiority erase the fact that it is a morally good society?

Trevor Noah, like so many people and policymakers, ignores a fundamental moral difference between tyranny and freedom, and the results are predictably tragic. The fighting now under way is precisely what Noah’s advice necessarily leads to.

Since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, Hamas has repeatedly initiated wars against Israel — in 2008/9, 2012, 2014. But Israel agreed with the United States, the UN and European nations and stopped short of defeating the (weaker) Islamists in Gaza, going out of its way to avoid harming civilians, for instance, by issuing evacuation alerts and sending text messages warning of impending strikes. Instead of deploying its full might to end that threat, Israel only degraded the ability of Islamists to fight.

One Israeli official likened it to mowing a lawn. But grass grows back eventually. And eventually the Islamists dug new weapons-smuggling tunnels, adopted new tactics such as incendiary balloons, and rebuilt their cache of rockets. Then, once ready for battle, the Islamists latched on to some pretext to resume firing rockets at Israeli kindergartens, schools, shops, and homes.

Along with so many other people, Trevor Noah laments that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been ongoing for upwards of seven decades. But as I show in my book, one key factor driving the conflict has been the attitude toward moral judgment that Noah himself is now pushing. Refusing to think rationally about what justice demands has only aggravated the conflict.


Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

Why Did the Saudis Expect to Get Away with Murder?

The victim was lured to his death on a seemingly innocuous pretext, relating to paperwork for a marriage license. The killing was straight out of a horror movie. The body was butchered into pieces, with a bone saw, so it could be disposed of without a trace. This was the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and activist, employed by the Washington Post. The murder set off a global scandal. Who killed him? and why?

These are questions that a new documentary, The Dissident, helps us answer. It vividly tells the story of what happened to Khashoggi that day in October 2018 when he was put to death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The documentary prompts us to weigh a related issue that provoked so much of the outrage at the time of the scandal: why did the Saudi rulers believe they could literally get away with murder?

A Dictatorship’s M.O.

The film presents compelling evidence that indicts the Saudi regime, all the way up to the crown prince. Often referred to as MBS, Mohammed bin Salman is a millennial, self-declared “reformer,” and the country’s de facto ruler. A number of Khashoggi’s killers belonged to an elite force that reports directly to MBS, who has absolute control over the country’s security and intelligence organizations. The agents, including an autopsy doctor and a forensics expert, came to Turkey aboard a private jet with diplomatic clearances, and eight of the 15 men held diplomatic passports.

Although there has been speculation that their mission was merely to abduct him back to Saudi Arabia, The Dissident suggests otherwise. In an audio recording of the killers as they awaited Khashoggi’s arrival at the consulate, they discuss how his body would be dismembered and disposed of. We hear one of them ask if the “sacrificial animal” had arrived yet.

The documentary puts the Khashoggi scandal in the wider context of how the Saudi regime deals with dissidents and critics. We meet one of Khashoggi’s friends, Omar, a young Saudi activist self-exiled in Canada. To coerce Omar into shutting up, Saudi agents tried to lure him to a local consulate. They tried to intimidate him. Later, they rounded up and imprisoned 23 of his friends in Saudi Arabia. Then they exploited his family as leverage, detaining and severely torturing his brother. Elements of Saudi Arabia’s m.o. were evident in the Khashoggi case.

Insider-Turned-Critic

Khashoggi was lured to the consulate in Istanbul, because he needed some paperwork so he could re-marry. We hear from his bereft fiancée about the life they had planned together. To most people Khashoggi is known only from headlines about his grisly death, and the filmmakers take pains to humanize the man, although at times this aim is over-emphasized. But what we learn about Khashoggi’s views, particularly his criticisms of the regime, casts the murder in an even worse light, if that’s possible.

Khashoggi used to be an insider at the Saudi court, and at first he supported the “reform” agenda launched by Mohammed bin Salman, which promised to uproot corruption and somewhat modernize the kingdom’s society (MBS, for instance, finally granted women permission to drive a car in 2018[!]). But Khashoggi became increasingly critical of some features of MBS’s rule.

There’s no freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia, but to the extent there are voices questioning the royal family’s rule, however gently, MBS had them crushed. The regime muzzled assorted “thought leaders” active on Twitter. Moreover, in a notorious purge-cum-shakedown operation, MBS rounded up hundreds of prominent Saudis, including rivals within the royal family, and held them captive at a Ritz-Carlton, until they coughed up millions of dollars. A number were hospitalized with signs of physical abuse.

Khashoggi’s wish was to see some approximation of freedom of speech. We’re not asking for democracy, he said in an Al Jazeera TV interview, only that people be allowed to speak.

One of his friends suggests that Khashoggi was naïve, never fully grasping the evil of the regime, which views its people like slaves or serfs. We can surmise some of what this friend had in mind; there’s strong reason to believe that MBS wanted to be seen as involved in the murder, because that would intimidate other critics and dissidents.

An International Furor

When the truth about Khashoggi’s murder came out, the Western reaction was outrage. The outrage focused particularly on the brazenness of the Saudi regime, and later, on the regime’s lies about Khashoggi’s disappearance (among the lies: he suffocated accidentally; he died in a fistfight). It was as if the Saudis fully expected to kill him without consequences, much less an international furor.

Why? The Dissident provides a lead to the answer when it briefly looks at the global reactions.

In this illuminating, but underdeveloped part of the film, assorted politicians decry the Saudi regime’s conduct. An outlier was President Trump. Initially, Trump expressed doubts about the allegations of Saudi involvement, even echoing a Saudi talking point that the killing was a “rogue” operation. Trump evaded the CIA’s report implicating the regime. The Saudis were spending billions of dollars on weapons, and Trump refused to jeopardize that by facing the truth.

Trump’s approach was dismaying for another reason. In at least one respect, the Khashoggi case was different from the untold number of dissidents who languish in Saudi jails or perish in its torture chambers. Khashoggi worked for an American company, the Washington Post, and was a resident of the United States. This should have factored into the U.S. response, but it did not.  When Congress passed legislation to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump vetoed it, and refused to make the CIA’s report public.

Trump’s loyalty to Saudi Arabia and MBS (a “truly spectacular ally”) stood out, but with time it became a perverse norm. Although the Khashoggi murder led to some international fallout for Saudi Arabia, that soon faded. Initially, the scandal scared away investors from a major conference (likened to “Davos in the desert”) that MBS was to host in Saudi Arabia. Several major corporations withdrew from the event. But one year later, they were back. Moreover, no global sanctions or punishments were meted out against Saudi Arabia. The Dissident ends by leaving us to ponder this dismal fact.

One implication to draw from the film is that the Saudi regime believed it could count on Western regimes to compromise whatever moral principles they mouthed.

It was not wrong.

For decades, the U.S. and other countries have refused to confront the nature of the Saudi regime. They evade how the regime tyrannizes its people under the barbarous rules of Islamic religious law and how it funnels uncountable dollars to fuel and proselytize for the Islamist cause. Saudi lucre has underwritten schools, books, charities, and mosques that spread the Wahhabi strain of Islamic totalitarianism around the world.

Despite its significant responsibility for enabling the jihadist movement, after 9/11 Washington perpetuated the fiction that the Saudi regime was a friend. Although it was known that all but four of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, President George W. Bush hosted the Saudi ruler at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. The amity continued under President Barack Obama, who met the Saudi king four times (more than did Bush and Clinton combined). In a highly symbolic decision, Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president began in Saudi Arabia. And a mere six months before the Khashoggi scandal, Trump had warmly welcomed MBS to the White House, gushing that he and the crown prince had “become very good friends over a fairly short period of time.”

If past U.S. appeasement led the Saudi regime to expect impunity, since the release of The Dissident the incoming Biden administration has provided further warrant for that assumption.

The Sordid U.S.–Saudi Relationship

When running for president, Joe Biden vowed to put the ideal of rights at the forefront of his foreign policy. He criticized the Saudi regime harshly — at least, “harshly” by the precious, offend-nobody rules of diplomacy-speak. He called the regime a “pariah” with “very little social redeeming value,” promising to make it “pay the price” for the Khashoggi murder. In February, the Biden administration released a summary of the CIA’s findings that Trump had buried, implicating the crown prince in the murder.

What did the Biden administration do? Speak out boldly in defense of the ideal of individual rights? Exert real pressure on the regime to respect rights? Forbid MBS from entering the United States? Expel the Saudi ambassador to Washington?

No, none of that. Instead it decided “not to rupture the [U.S.–Saudi] relationship but to recalibrate it.” The administration announced the “Khashoggi ban”: a visa restriction “on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities.” Under this policy, 76 Saudi citizens will be banned.

Why such a pitiful response? What happened to making the regime “pay the price”? The relationship with Saudi Arabia, explained Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, “is bigger than any one individual.” 

The de facto leader of the Saudi dictatorship orchestrated the murder of a dissident, a writer with ties to the United States, and nevertheless, the United States gave MBS a free pass. Part of what’s so shameful about this outcome is that it fits the longstanding pattern of Washington’s evasion of the monstrous nature of the Saudi regime. If the Saudi regime believed it could murder and get away with it, that’s because it had long ago come to rely on the unprincipled foreign policy and cowardice of Western — and particularly American — leaders who turn a blind eye to its murderous, tyrannical rule.

Western Apathy Toward Iran’s Religious Dictatorship

Imagine being torn away from your husband and son, brutally arrested, and tossed into solitary confinement. Imagine being prevented from calling your family or even speaking to your lawyer. Imagine having to go on a hunger strike to get attention.

This was the actual experience of one Iranian woman, Shaparak Shajarizadeh. Her “crime”? Protesting the Iranian theocracy’s law mandating that women wear a headscarf in public.

With the help of noted human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, Shaparak was released on bail. Facing mounting persecution for her activism and the likelihood of a significant prison term, Shaparak decided to flee the country. She eventually found asylum in Canada.

For the New Ideal podcast, I recently interviewed Shaparak about her struggle in Iran and the plight of her fellow activists, which she describes in a recent book (currently only available in French, La liberté n’est pas un crime, or Freedom Is Not a Crime). We start with the reality of life under Iran’s theocratic regime, from the vantage of one of its victims. Ordinary Iranians “live under the shadow of fear,” she noted. Women in particular are second-class citizens who “face violence every day” and “never feel safe” in public, amid the patrols of the “morality police,” who enforce the compulsory hijab.

Having turned away from Islam, Shaparak went on to join protest movements, notably “#WhiteWednesdays,” and challenged the religious oppression of women. In one statement, she defied the authorities: “Don’t drag me to your heaven! I know what to do with my life!” As peaceful protests grew, the regime sought to crush such opposition.

Probably the most poignant, and dismaying, topic we discussed is the apathy of Western countries to the fate of Iranians seeking a modicum of freedom. One example she brought up was the 2015 agreement that the Obama administration signed with Iran over its nuclear program. Some people had hoped that U.S. diplomats would pressure the regime about its abysmal record on rights. But Obama’s landmark deal was silent about the Iranian regime’s systematic violation of individual rights. It left activists like Shaparak out in the cold.

You don’t know how much Iranian people look to the outside world for support, she told me. But the world, she said, is silent.

Or worse: Without intentional irony, the United Nations recently added Iran to a commission on women’s rights. “They come, they lie, and they go,” she said of Iranian diplomats at the UN — and the world lets them get away with it.

Determined to help change that, she has spoken out about the UN and worked to bring awareness to the struggles of Iranian activists — especially her lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh. For defending Shaparak and many other political activists, Sotoudeh has been sentenced to 38 years in jail, and 148 lashes.

For me the conversation — which you can watch or listen to below — holds a lesson for America about the absence of, and urgent need for, a principled foreign policy. Such a policy should uphold the ideal of freedom as a standard to live up to, regard its absence in other regimes as a moral failing, and lend moral support to individuals genuinely seeking freedom, in Iran and elsewhere.

Meet the Conservative Authoritarians

Donald Trump’s rise put on display an identity crisis within the conservative movement. That crisis predated the friction between #NeverTrump and die-hard loyalists. For decades “conservatism” has been a conglomeration of different, conflicting factions. Religionists stood alongside secularists, traditionalists alongside classical liberals, protectionists alongside free-marketeers — and still many other elements. With Trump leaving office, the question is which factions will exert the greatest influence on the movement’s future and, by extension, our politics.

Even if — and perhaps especially if — you are unsympathetic to “conservatism,” it’s crucial to understand one emergent faction seeking control: the crusaders for “national conservatism.”

One way to understand this crusade is to see it as an attempt to purge the broader “conservative” movement of elements it deems harmful. Advocates of “national conservatism” claim to march under a banner that will unite a fractured country, secure our freedoms. But what do they stand for? If they gain influence and power, what will their political success mean?

A Time to Purge

Listen to the crusaders for “national conservatism,” and you hear familiar themes about decadence, decline, debauchery. We’re sliding toward Gomorrah not only because of the hated “progressives,” but also, they say, because “something went terribly wrong with American conservatism” after the Cold War. In the view of Yoram Hazony, a scholar rallying the “national conservative” faction, his brethren lost sight of what matters: God, tradition, and the nation. Instead, “all that interested them was economic liberalism and the rights of the free and equal individual.” 

In Hazony’s telling, this led to almost every problem he sees in our society: decadence, endless wars, uncontrolled immigration, economic decline. Whatever the actual sources of these issues, for Hazony the solution is to reverse course. It means purging from the movement any vestigial concern with individual liberty. “We declare independence,” he announced, “from neoliberalism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism — you can give it any name you want — but that set of ideas that sees the atomic individual, the free and equal individual” as central to political thought. And it means embracing, rather than throwing out, the Bible and the Torah.

Pause for just a moment on this account, and you can see that it is at best tendentious. Notice, for instance, that religion has only grown more salient in American culture, particularly within conservatism, in the last few decades. If our present society is what it looks like to abandon faith, try to picture what Hazony means by making it a focal point. And contrary to Hazony’s cultural diagnosis, we have seen not a flowering of respect for the individual in our society, but precisely the opposite. The pull of tribalism is virulent, including within many “conservative” circles. Everywhere people are seen, not as unique individuals, but as “representatives” of racial, ethnic, gender, national, religious, and still other tribal groups.

From such unconvincing starting assumptions, what’s the direction that Hazony and his colleagues are heading in?

An Alternate-Reality Version of “America”

The advocates of this new species of “conservatism” claim to love this country, but it’s impossible to believe that the Founders would recognize their conception of America.

The United States was a child of the Age of Enlightenment. What typified Enlightenment thinking was a questioning, often an outright repudiation, of hidebound tradition and the intrusion of Church upon life and the state. America embodied a revolutionary new idea. It was predicated on the Enlightenment perspective that the value of an individual’s life is sacrosanct; that his rational mind is competent to deal with the world, and that therefore he should be left free politically.

That perspective reverberates loudly in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but that’s far from what you’d learn from Rich Lowry, the longtime editor of National Review and author of The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free. In his book, Lowry insists that the view that America was built on an “idea” is one of our “most honored national clichés.” No one “lives in an abstraction. You don’t ask someone where are you from and get a response, ‘Well, I live in Chapter 5 of Locke’s Second Treatise,”he said, provoking laughter from the audience at a “national conservatism” conference.

Having inflicted grievous bodily harm on a strawman, Lowry describes an America that exists only in some alternate reality. In his book, he piles one anecdote upon another to assure the reader that what’s special about America, what deserves our loyalty, is emphatically not a set of universal, founding principles. It’s not the tradition-flouting independence of the Founders, who created a secular system of government. The Enlightenment is conspicuous by its understated role in Lowry’s account; the word hardly comes up. In the Declaration of Independence he sees the American “people” asserting nationhood — but, oddly, not the document’s most distinctive, profound emphasis on the moral sovereignty of the individual in the pursuit of his life, liberty, and happiness.

Instead, Lowry insists that to see America’s distinctive character we must look to the King James Bible and tradition. We must look not to the political ideals and principles that defined our system of government, but to language, land, the flag, traditions, and ties to England (notably, the area of East Anglia). It’s as if America’s fundamental character was set long before 1776, and the intellectual ferment of the Founding was non-essential.

Lowry pushes a brand of conservatism focused on the nation (“nationalism”), though he claims to repudiate the murderous “nationalism” that devastated the twentieth century. But his attempt to redeem the idea of “nationalism” is unsuccessful. What he advocates is not simply a warranted love of country, an appreciation of the country’s objective virtues (the idea of patriotism); rather, it’s a national loyalty emptied of intellectual substance.

Bowing to Authority

The elevation of the collective is a theme among thinkers aligned with “national conservatism.” David Brog is the executive director of the Edmund Burke Foundation, the organization spearheading “national conservatism.” In welcoming remarks at a conference, Brog called “individual liberty” a major achievement, before proceeding to repudiate its importance: “we just never saw our liberty as the singular objective of centuries of conservative political thought.” We’ve “aspired to something greater than being left alone . . . . We don’t want to be left alone. We want to be connected, connected to one another, to our ancestors, kin, to our descendants.” Christopher DeMuth, a Reagan official and former leader of the American Enterprise Institute, explains that “national conservatism” is set against the idea of “atomized free-floating individual autonomy.”

The frequent railing against the notion of “atomic” individualism is revealing. It relies on a deliberately misrepresented picture of individualism, one calling to mind an impoverished existence without meaningful human contact. By conjuring up this strawman, advocates of “national conservatism” make it seem as if our only choices are a life devoid of human connection, or else embracing the collective.

This campaign against a distorted notion of individualism has definite political significance. It means upending the relationship between the individual and society, according to Patrick Deneen, a professor at Notre Dame. The appropriate political unit, he believes, is not the individual, but the group, the family, the community.

In other words, “national conservatism” seeks to subjugate the “I” to the authority of the “we.”

And above such collectives there is an even higher authority before which we must kneel. Hazony and other advocates of “national conservatism” exhort us to turn not only to the nation but also to faith, if we hope to put America on a firm foundation. But, again, theirs is a conception of “America” the Founders would have struggled to recognize.

Religion was the subject of ridicule, even hostility, for leading figures of the Enlightenment. They recoiled from the command to accept truths on faith, rather than facts; to submit to an authority, rather than one’s own rational judgment. Thomas Jefferson gave voice to this orientation in an imperishable letter to Peter Carr in 1787: “fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

Politically, it is religion’s power, which had led to so much bloodshed, that the Founders worked to fence off. A major thrust of the Enlightenment — reflected in the Founding of America — was the appreciation of the power of reason to guide life and gain knowledge. Flowing from that perspective was a rejection of the view that the individual was duty-bound to kneel before any authority.

A major thrust of Hazony’s book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is the rejection of the idea that each of us, using reason, can attain truths about the world. No, Hazony believes: “no human being, and no group of human beings, possesses the necessary powers of reason and the necessary knowledge to dictate the political constitution that is appropriate for all mankind.” If individuals cannot use reason to identify universal political principles by which to live and prosper, how useful is it in a social-political context? And, if we take this view a step further, how much can the individual possibly matter, relative to the collective? For Hazony the tribe, the nation, is paramount.

For Enlightenment thinkers, the embrace of reason meant shrugging off authority. For Hazony, by contrast, the embrace of faith means bowing to authority. What do these contrasting views mean for political thought? It was Jefferson, immersed as he was in Enlightenment thinking, who penned the Declaration of Independence, a reasoned revolt against royal authority. We can glimpse where “national conservatism” leads: embracing authoritarianism.

Celebrating Authoritarianism

At a conference on “national conservatism” in Rome, the organizers hosted as guest of honor Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Part of his appeal to them can be seen in his stress on Christianity’s necessary role in society and on what American conservatives call “family values.” For example, the BBC reports that in 2019 Orbán announced a plan that would give any Hungarian woman with four or more children a lifetime exemption from paying income tax, while “young couples will be offered interest free loans, . . . to be cancelled once they have children.” But Orbán’s rule should alarm anyone who values freedom. He has pushed Hungary toward authoritarianism.

After his party came back to power in 2010, it changed the constitution to its advantage and “replaced key officials in every politically relevant institution,” observe two scholars, erasing checks and balances, and appointing loyalists to the constitutional court. More recently, the government oversaw the merger of some 400 media outlets — about 85 percent of all Hungarian media outlets — into one conglomerate, which has aligned itself with the ruling party’s agenda. The government directs spending on advertising toward friendly media outlets, thus incentivizing them to become organs of propaganda. “The upshot is a ‘government-organized media’ — some of it state-owned and some private, but all under the control of [Orbán’s Fidesz party] and its allied oligarchs.”

Hungary’s trend toward authoritarianism had been manifest for years when, in early 2020, Orbán took the stage at the “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations—A National Conservatism Conference.” Throughout the hour-long interview, however, the topic was glossed over. The interviewer, DeMuth, fed Orbán one softball question after another. There was no pushback or challenging of Orbán’s stifling of freedom of speech, nor the broader authoritarian drift.

The interview squarely presents Orbán as embodying the ideas of “national conservatism.” The uncomfortable conclusion is that leaders of this faction endorse Orbán’s anti-freedom approach as a path for America to follow.

If they lionize Orbán, how do advocates of “national conservatism” view President Donald Trump, who relies on both conservative and nationalist slogans? Some, like Hazony, viewed his election in 2016 as creating an opportunity for advancing “national conservatism.” Lowry, whose National Review pointedly rejected Trump in 2016, has come to view him in a somewhat favorable light. Lowry’s book portrays him as right to emphasize the importance of the nation. Even if views on Trump may differ among proponents of “national conservatism,” a troubling fact remains. It’s that Trump’s own authoritarian impulses — the bullying of CEOs, the antitrust threats against media organizations, his threat to punish companies that move their operations overseas, his admiration of murderous dictators such as Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin — has been insufficient to put them off. Perhaps instead it is part of the appeal.  

Betraying America

The emergence of “national conservatism” is an ominous trend for American political life. Its advocates often stress the themes of patriotism and love of country and even political freedom. But the substance of their views is a betrayal of America’s founding ideals.

Three threads stand out. First, the life and judgment and freedom of the individual must be subordinated to some group: the family, tribe, community, and, ultimately, the nation. Second, reason is overrated. What should steer our own lives? Not our rational judgment, but tradition and faith. Third, despite the rhetoric about providing a foundation for American freedom, there’s an alarming comfort with, and even glamorization of, authoritarianism.

The “conservative” movement in America lacks a defined, coherent set of ideas. This was a pre-existing condition, vividly evident well before Trump’s ascent. The movement has been a collection of disparate factions, with significant inner contradictions. The aim of “national conservatism” is to steer the broader movement toward collectivism, faith, and force. Politically, the more “national conservatism” succeeds in reshaping our society, the more we’ll find ourselves moving further away from truly American ideals.


Originally published on New Ideal


Photo by Ed Hinchliffe on Unsplash

It’s past time for a pandemic testing strategy

By Onkar Ghate and Elan Journo

Months of statewide lockdowns across the country were meant, in part, to buy time to ramp up testing and contact tracing with regard to the spread of COVID-19. Now, amid an upsurge of cases in Florida, Texas, Arizona and elsewhere, we still have nothing like a strategic approach to testing and tracing. 

“Test, isolate and track” should be the government’s mantra in a pandemic. To protect individual rights, its basic task is to detect carriers of severe infectious pathogens, to neutralize their ability to transmit the pathogen to others, and to identify people to whom the carrier might have exposed the virus. 

Continue reading at The Hill


Photo by Tai’s Captures on Unsplash

When Tribal Journalists Try to ‘Cancel’ Ayn Rand (Part 2)

The New Republic article about Rand, which we looked at in Part 1, stood out not primarily because of what it said about her, but in how it conveyed its message. The article put a tribal prejudice toward Rand above facts and logic. That same mindset is on display, even more starkly, in Amanda Marcotte’s Salon article, “Right-wingers finally got their Ayn Rand hero as president — and it’s this guy.”

Let me stress, again, that my goal is not to change your mind about Rand and her ideas, nor primarily to correct the many errors and misrepresentations in these articles (though I’ll point out some of them along the way). Instead, the point is to explain how the two articles are fundamentally uninterested in convincing any active-minded reader. Their aim, rather, is to affirm a preset narrative about Rand. These are worse than mere smears, because their tribal mindset represents the abandonment of rational persuasion as the goal of intellectual discussion.

Marcotte’s point is captured in the subtitle: “Conservatives finally have a leader who lives by Ayn Rand’s selfish philosophy, and he’s an embarrassing clown,” the clown being Donald Trump. But whatever you might think of Rand or of Trump, this is a claim that’s far from self-evident. It requires a real argument. Marcotte’s article offers no argument. It’s written for an audience that already partly or fully shares Marcotte’s preconceptions.

Continue reading


Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

When Tribal Journalists Try to “Cancel” Ayn Rand (Part 1)

Inaccurate, misrepresented, and even willfully distorted reporting on Ayn Rand’s ideas has been common in the media since she first gained public prominence. That fact came up in a conversation she had with the editor of The Ayn Rand Lexicon, a kind of mini encyclopedia of her philosophy, Objectivism. The editor, Harry Binswanger, relates that Rand became increasingly enthusiastic about the Lexicon project, in part because it could serve as a corrective and eliminate any excuse for the continual misrepresentation of her philosophy. Rand quipped to him, “People will be able to look up BREAKFAST and see that I did not advocate eating babies for breakfast.”

But articles that misrepresent, or outright distort, Rand’s ideas continually find their way into print. Rarely are they worth a response. Two recent articles about Rand — one in Salon, the other in the New Republic — are different. It’s not because of what these articles say about her, but in how they say it.

Both articles raise worthwhile questions — at least, nominally. One asks about the appeal of Rand’s ideas among young people; the other is on the relation between Rand’s moral ideal of selfishness and President Trump. Both articles, moreover, cite sources, name facts, and even include some actual reporting — all in support of their highly unfavorable conclusions. Which is putting it mildly.

What’s remarkable about these essays is not that they’re sloppy, error-filled, slanted, or smears. They are. (And I’ll indicate a few, though by no means all, of their errors and misrepresentations.) Rather: what marks these essays out is that they exemplify a pernicious mindset, a mindset that’s wreaking havoc on our cultural-political life. It’s a phenomenon wider than how people engage with Ayn Rand — but when she’s the subject, that mindset is often starkly apparent.

Continue reading


Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

The Curious Attacks on Bill Gates

In a widely viewed 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates warned of the risk of a global pandemic for which we were unprepared. Now that we’re actually in the midst of a global pandemic for which we are woefully unprepared, Gates has spoken out against the US government’s inadequate response, and his philanthropic foundation has pledged $250 million to help with the manufacture of promising vaccines for the novel coronavirus.

For his foresight and willingness to help combat the pandemic, Gates deserves admiration. Instead he faces suspicion, attacks and vilification. Why?

Continue reading in Areo Magazine

Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic: Scientists

Which teams played in the last Super Bowl? Can you name one character from the Star Wars movies? Who is Kim Kardashian’s husband? Likely you answered at least one of those questions correctly. But the following may well stump you: Who developed the X-ray? Who performed the first organ transplant? Who developed the vaccine for smallpox? or whooping cough? or measles?

It’s a curious fact that most of us know way more about sports and pop culture, than about the pioneers of scientific research. But the benefits we’ve all reaped from their work is incalculable, and it’s clear that our way out of this global pandemic will depend crucially on scientists working to understand, track, and combat the novel coronavirus.

One inspiring story, from the pandemic’s early days, has stuck with me. The story of Dr. Helen Chu and her colleagues in Seattle is the stuff of a Hollywood thriller, except it actually happened. They are among the unsung heroes in our midst.

Chu and her colleagues were in the middle of a flu study in the Seattle area, when they learned about the first confirmed American case of coronavirus infection, in Washington state. They quickly realized that they could help assess the spread of the virus. For their flu research, they had been collecting nasal swabs from patients in the Puget Sound area. By running a new test on those samples, they could figure out how widely the novel coronavirus had spread.

With incredible speed, they managed to devise a new test. Because of government regulations, however, they were not approved to run it. So, they petitioned federal regulators to get approval. Days, weeks went by. When they did get an answer it was No.

But they decided to run the test anyway. Turns out the virus had established itself on American soil, undetected. In Dr. Chu’s words: “It’s just everywhere already.”

Chu and her colleagues were caught in a potentially career-ending dilemma: if they disclosed their findings, they would run afoul of regulators, but if they withheld their findings, people might well die. “What we were allowed to do was to keep it to ourselves,” Dr. Chu told the New York Times. “But what we felt like we needed to do was to tell public health.”

The morally right thing to do, they concluded, was to share their discovery with local authorities, and they did so. The next morning, public health officials were able to identify an infected teenager, with mild symptoms, just as he was walking in to school.

Despite having brought to light such critical information, Chu and her colleagues were told by regulators to stop testing. Keep in mind that all this unfolded even as the Federal government’s own tests were found to be defective and testing generally was severely constrained, greatly delaying the rollout of wide-scale testing necessary for tackling the virus.

What I admire about Dr. Chu and her colleagues is not only their ingenuity in creating their own test, but also their courageous willingness to defy irrational man-made obstacles. The ordeal they went through, simply to share essential information about the virus, is a damning indictment of regulators. It’s much to the credit of Chu and her colleagues that they put facts and truth above all else, in the name of protecting human life and advancing our knowledge of this virus. 

They’re not alone. Scientists around the world have pushed aside other projects to focus on this virus. On an unprecedented scale, they’re collaborating across borders and time zones to identify this virus’s characteristics, its behavior within the body, its spread within communities, its Achilles’ heel — so that it can be stopped.

The global race to develop a vaccine for this coronavirus is itself inspiring. Some projects are running multiple trials in parallel, rather than one after the other, to accelerate the process. From the one hundred or so vaccine projects underway, the one based at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University stands out for its size. That effort grew out of the research of Dr. Adrian Hill, who directs the Jenner Institute. Thanks in part to an emergency approval from the UK government, the project will begin scheduling a trial with more than six thousand people in May.

It remains to be seen whether this approach (or one of the many others in development) will prove effective, and if so, for what patient profile. Developing vaccines is a slow process, with a low success rate, at the best of times. But it’s heartening to see so many bright minds focusing with such vigor on tackling the coronavirus.

When it is finally overcome, how will we look upon the scientists who contributed to that victory?

In the last century, after developing a vaccine for polio, Dr. Jonas Salk became a household name. New York offered to hold a ticker tape parade in his honor. But in gaining that widespread recognition for his scientific accomplishment, Salk has been something of an outlier.

Let’s change that. It will be a sign of moral progress when — instead of overlooking or taking them for granted — we fully appreciate the many unsung scientific heroes of this pandemic.


Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic: Creators of Our Digital Age

Emergency rooms are jammed with COVID-19 patients, fighting for their lives. Doctors, nurses, and front-line healthcare workers are receiving much-deserved praise and appreciation, even though (as I argued in earlier article) they’re still under-valued.

Reflecting on this crisis, I’ve come to have a deeper appreciation for another group of heroic individuals. We rely on their tireless work and achievements every day, but all the more so as millions of us are subjected to stay-at-home orders. But they are unsung.

Call them the builders of our digital age. Thanks to them, the lockdowns are more tolerable than they otherwise would have been.

Thanks to Gmail and Dropbox and Slack and Microsoft Teams, many people are able to keep their work moving forward. Thanks to Zoom, businesses can stay connected, students can attend classes, countless families and friends can socialize, and children can goof around with friends that they used to meet on the school playground. Thanks to Netflix and YouTube and Disney Plus and Hulu and Spotify and Apple Music, there’s an abundance of entertainment on hand. Thanks to Amazon and Instacart and the multitude of local app-based food delivery services, you can have household supplies and groceries and takeout left outside your door.

These apps and online services rely on a technological foundation built decades ago. Bill Gates envisioned a future with a desktop computer in every home. We’ve long surpassed that. In many homes, the computers, smartphones, and tablets outnumber the human occupants. Getting online used to mean connecting a computer to a phone line using a slow, screechy modem and dialing up an internet service provider; now broadband internet is pervasive and we stream movies to our iPhones.

Try to imagine being stuck at home during a pandemic like this one — in the pre-digital age, with none of the tools and apps and services we rely on. To contemplate that is to begin to appreciate the enormous value created by the builders of our digital age.

Who are they? Among them are industry-shaping leaders such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Serge Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their startups, now globe-spanning corporations, were made possible by the foresight and risk-taking of investors and venture capital firms. Innumerable coders and computer scientists and network engineers go to work every day to grow these businesses and keep their systems running.

Keeping these apps and networks and platforms operational under ordinary circumstances is an achievement. Doing so amid the pandemic, with surging demand from millions more people self-isolating at home, is an even more impressive feat. Comcast, one of the nation’s largest broadband providers, reported that use of voice and video conferencing traffic on its network was up 212% in March. For Zoom, the number of daily active users has surged since December, up 340%.

We’re leaning more heavily than ever before on the achievements of the creators of the digital age. Let’s take a moment to recognize the benefits we’ve reaped so far and express our appreciation.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash