In the eleventh episode of High Noon, Inez Stepman speaks with Michael Knowles. Knowles is the Author of Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds, as well as the satirical Reasons to Vote for Democrats. He’s the host of The Michael Knowles Show at The Daily Wire, “The Book Club” at PragerU, and the popular podcast Verdict with Ted Cruz.
Stepman and Knowles dig deeper into the specifics of our heritage, beyond some of the dueling buzzwords in our time about free speech and cancel culture. They discuss the limitations of both the libertarian conception of the United States and the anti-liberal New Right set of policy proposals.
Michael Knowles asserts that every society places some limitations on speech, and that the right’s response to “cancel culture” has collapsed into ineffectual proceduralism. They also talk about why recognizing sex differences is foundational for a truly free society.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. Inviting interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future.
Welcome to High Noon, where we discuss controversial subjects with interesting people. I’m your host, Inez Stepman. And on this 4th of July week, we are welcoming to the podcast a guest, who in his new book, asks us to dig a little deeper into the specifics of our heritage beyond some of the dueling buzzwords in our time about free speech and cancel culture. We have with us today, Michael Knowles, who is the author of Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds, which is available for purchase as we speak. Many of you may know him as the host of Michael Knowles Show over at the Daily Wire, the book club at PragerU, the popular podcast Verdict with Ted Cruz or you might know him best for his previously published weighty tome, Reasons to Vote for Democrats. But his new book provides a lot more words than that one did and a lot more to talk about. So welcome, Michael, to High Noon.
Inez, it’s so good to be with you.
So you’ve written a book about speech, but I think people looking for a rallying cry against cancel culture or a defense of an absolute notion of free speech will find what you’ve actually written in this book quite surprising. You’re really making an argument about not reasserting free speech as a free-for-all, which you say has never really existed, but restoring traditional boundaries on discourse. Could you maybe give us the quick version of that argument that you make?
Yes, I suppose I did write a polemic about cancel culture but maybe not from the perspective that many conservatives would be expecting. I did also think it would be ironic and fitting having written a book without any words to write a book that’s entirely about words. And so I really wanted to dig in on this manipulation of language, which I think is the primary instrument of the left in upending our culture. But the problem that conservatives have had, at least for the past 20-30 years that we’ve been fighting political correctness, I think it goes back much further than that, but we’ve been aware of it and fighting it for about three decades, is that we have misunderstood what political correctness is.
I think, as I outlined in my book, going back to the ’20s, I think that political correctness is a purely negative campaign to upend the traditional standards of our society, to just obliterate what we would call traditional society. And what conservatives have believed, especially in recent years, is that PC is a battle between free speech on the one hand and censorship on the other. And I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s actually a battle between competing sets of standards, the traditional standards of conservatives and the anti-standard of the left. I think contrary to conservative self-flattery, I actually believe the left understands speech and censorship much better than conservatives do and they’ve basically laid a trap for us with political correctness.
There was this strange fact I noticed which is that no matter how hard we fight against PC, we always seem to lose ground. Sometimes the harder we fight, the more ground we lose. Why is that? I think it’s because either way that we react to PC, advances political correctness. So you’ve got on one hand the squishes, let’s call them. These are the people who just go along with the new standard, they use the new language, they call men, she and whatever you understand. Obviously, they’re going to advance the left’s cause. Then you’ve got the more stalwart conservatives. They say, “I’m not going to go along with this new standard. No way. You can’t tell me what to say.”
And they’ll usually ground their arguments on a sort of free speech absolutism. They’ll abandon standards entirely, not just the left’s new standard but all standards. And you see the trap is either way you react, the traditional standards are abandoned. And because nature abhors a vacuum, the new leftwing standards enter into their place. And so I think the latter category is probably a little closer to it. They seem to think that they’re really standing against it, but really they’ve just fallen for a trick whereby they are helping their enemies aggress.
It’s never been a good thing for one’s job prospects, for example, to have a swastika tattooed on your forehead, right? There have always been boundaries to discourse, and actually, what you remind us of in this book is that actually I would not call this a broadside on small L liberalism. You may have some broadsides to make, but that’s not really what this book was. I would rather characterize it as a reminder that in fact what previous generations of what might be called the American right, perhaps not even conservatives but the American right, did see a compatibility between certain limitations on speech and the fundamental idea of free speech which of course is enshrined in the First Amendment and has long precedent in history in our culture. You’re about reminding us of the fact that there were until basically the 1960s and ’70s quite a few limitations on speech the way that, for example, libertarians would conceive of it today.
I’m really pleased that you picked up on this because there seem to be two camps of the conservative discourse today, the people who style themselves classical liberals or libertarians and I think they actually do a great injustice to both of those terms. I think I don’t know what I would call … I just call them the swishes because they seem to think that you ought to be able to say whatever you want and sleep with whoever you want and also bomb the Middle East. Whatever that ideology is I don’t know what the name for it is. But you’ve got you’ve got that group on one side and then you’ve got what might be called the post-liberals on the other who think that we ought to throw Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and George Washington over the side of the ship and that America is basically unsalvageable and it was always based on these wrong premises from the beginning.
And I’m making a much more modest argument. I’m saying, regardless of where you stand on the American right, the image of America as a place that permits all sorts of speech at all times, and gosh, darn it, that’s as American as apple pie to permit drag queen story hour or something. It’s just not true. It has never been true. From the very beginning of our country, huge swaths of speech have been off limits, threats, fraud, obscenity. As recently as a dozen years ago, we threw a pornographer in federal prison for almost four years just for obscenity, not because he possessed child pornography, not because he raped anybody, just for obscenity. We’ve had all of these sorts of restrictions. All societies will have standards. All societies will have taboos.
And it wasn’t so long ago that it was conservatives who were ostracizing, censoring, blacklisting, and even prosecuting communists in the United States. And people were defending it. William F. Buckley, Jr. launched the postwar conservative movement. The guy’s as mainstream as they get. He launched that movement with a book inveighing against academic freedom, which he referred to as a hoax. His next book was a defensive for McCarthy and he continued to defend McCarthy on national television. A dozen years later, he said he doesn’t want society to be totally open. No society can be totally open. We have to agree on certain things.
As you say, if you show up with a swastika armband at the watercooler, it’s not cancel culture when you lose your job. When to use his example, in God and Man at Yale, when a neo-Nazi wants to teach sociology at Yale, they’re probably not going to hire him nor should they. We obviously make distinctions between good and bad and right and wrong and we have certain taboos. What has changed is not that we cancel people. In the ’50s, you’d be canceled for being a communist. Today, you’ll be canceled for not being a communist. The fact that you can be canceled has not changed. It’s just the standard by which you would be canceled. And I think the sooner conservatives wake up to that fact, the sooner we can actually start pushing back against this very, very effective leftist strategy.
It seems like this is an argument really for the reintroduction of the political, right? Who’s going to decide what the boundaries of acceptable discourse and speech are going to be? First of all, I would say those are two slightly different topics, right? We might have a more or something closer to an absolute right, although as you point out, there have always been limitations even on that with regard to speech, but certainly not with regard to societal opprobrium or consequences for that speech, what people are now calling cancel culture. But you seem to be arguing that it is a political matter where those boundaries are drawn and that essentially, the left is fighting in that political sphere while the right is surrendering that political sphere and retreating to the procedural.
But it seems to me … Look, politics, writ large, has a paradoxically smaller and broader role than it used to have in our discourse, right? In other words, we are arguing about “politics” on the football field and in all kinds of things that used to be considered the personal or the private, but on the flipside, it seems like a lot of really important matters like for example the question of where life begins, right? Or any number of important political questions have been taken out of the political sphere and put either into the courts, or as you mentioned, with regard to coronavirus, these kinds of decisions that are, I would think are quintessentially matters of political judgment, right? Weighing different consequences of a virus versus economic shutdown, those are kind of quintessential political questions.
Those have been placed into essentially the bureaucratic realm or the realm of experts. How can we reclaim a space for the left and the right to actually meet in what might be called traditional political battle? Obviously metaphorically speaking here.
Right, you’re right, although increasingly it looks quite literal, so we want to make sure that it remains metaphorical and the only way to do that is to restore a serious political realm. You’ve hit on the paradox of progressivism under which everything becomes politicized, except for politics which becomes depoliticized. So your sneakers are political, your chicken sandwich is political, who does the dishes in your house is political, but politics is not, abortion is not, the death penalty is not, taxes for goodness sakes, even they’re trying to export that to genius climate bureaucrats, not even only in this country but elsewhere as well. Dr. Fauci and his minions, totally unaccountable, totally unelected, can shut down the entire world and we really have nothing to say about that.
So this was always baked into the pie of progressivism, but I don’t think the right has helped itself very much. And we’ve taken slogans a little bit too far. It’s actually just like free speech. We all like free speech, we’ve had a wonderful free speech regime in this country for a very long time, but when you turn that into a bumper sticker, all bumper stickers are false and so you’re going to get caught up in your own nonsense. This was especially true with Andrew Breitbart, the patron saint of Hollywood conservatives. His famous dictum that politics is downstream of culture, other people have made the observation too. To a degree, that’s obviously true. Of course, culture influences politics. Of course, the movies and the mainstream media and the big technology in the schools, all these things influence culture or influence politics rather. Politics influences culture too. I think right now- We’re not allowed to contradict Andrew Breitbart.
Sorry, this is like an outage living in New York. Apparently even with your phone off, the alert from the state comes through with a warning with the power might get shut down because of the heat. Apologies. Please continue.
No, certainly. I’m sure that was just an alert that they’re soon going to name who the mayor is. It’s only going to take seven days to count the votes.
It could be me, right? It could be anybody. Anybody could be the mayor at this point, but you were talking about Andrew Breitbart’s famous maxim that politics is downstream from culture.
Yes, of course, it’s true. It’s an important call that Breitbart made. He was an extremely courageous guy and I’m glad conservatives are beginning to engage in these cultural things. Come on, though, politics influences culture too. And also, the line between them can get a little bit blurry. So I look at Germany today and what was once called East Germany is almost entirely atheistic. About 10% of East Germans describe themselves as religious. More than 50% of West Germans describe themselves as religious. Is this because of the cultural differences and the regional variations in Bratwurst? I think it might have more to do with the officially atheistic Soviet regime that dominated East Germany for the entirety of the Cold War.
And very often, I think politicians use Breitbart’s true enough maxim as an excuse not to do anything. They feel that it is somehow illegitimate to wield political power. I think that comes from their own cowardice. I think they’ve forgotten that courage is not just a virtue, but it’s the prerequisite of all of the other virtues and that it’s not only acceptable, but it’s perfectly right to exercise just political power on the happy occasions that the people give it to you. This is what we need to do. We’ve now got this very, very shallow definition of politics among the progressives and on the right. I think we need to go back to good old uncle Aristotle who says that man is the political animal, actually because we speak. If you control speech in a regime, that’s not just controlling some little aspect of the politics, it’s controlling the whole thing.
And in a self-government, we’re supposed to persuade one another. We use our speech to deliberate and to persuade and ultimately to determine how exactly we want to live. And there’s a cultural aspect, there’s a political aspect and sometimes it’s a little blurry between the two. And unfortunately, the left has been able to manipulate its perversion of the genuine authentically political space to its advantage. And we’ve bought their argument and totally given up any power we might have.
So I have two pieces of pushback I think to that. The first is a quibble and the second one, I think, is a more substantive challenge, this view of political power influencing culture. First, I think Andrew Breitbart, a lot of people and you left room in the way you just described it for this idea that I don’t think anyone would accuse Andrew Breitbart of, for example, stepping out of the political arena. I think what he was trying to do was something very similar to what you did when you spoke about occupational licensing that you got a lot of blowback on Twitter from David French and so on when you said that occupational licensing was not going to change the future of this country and that the right spent disproportionate political capital and energy on it.
Even though you and I, just to be clear that we talked about this off-air, we both support occupational licensing reform and think it’s a good thing. So I but I agree with you that it’s a misapplied priority. I think that’s what Andrew was saying with that quote is that we are focused way too much on what the marginal tax rate is and we’re not applying enough of our political capital. I didn’t see him as precluding—but actually encouraging—that kind of political exercise with a mind towards shaping the culture.
I agree and I just want to clarify. My issue is not with Andrew Breitbart at all. I think Breitbart got it and I think he was a really tough fighter. My issue is with politicians who turn his good insight into a bumper sticker and bumper stickers are always wrong. And I think that they use that as an excuse basically not to engage, but yes, in his is why I often say Breitbart’s view is true enough, but we shouldn’t take it too far. Because if we had a country full of Andrew Breitbarts, I don’t think we’d be in such a sorry state.
And your critique is also obviously true at some level that obviously big piece of legislation like the Civil Rights Act or even Supreme Court decisions, like the decision on gay marriage, obviously can and do swing political opinion and move culture, but I guess the more serious challenge would be this: In your telling in this book, which I think is largely accurate, the politically correct acquired a lot of the enormous power that they wield today only secondarily through politics. You point out that Mark Kayser ran a political party, but here in 2020 and 2021 in America, BLM doesn’t stand candidates for office, right? They are running essentially a campaign that almost exclusively focuses not on public policy, per se, there aren’t a lot other than the slogan, “Defund the police.” There’s no specific list of agenda items that they want Democrats in Congress to pass.
Instead, they’re wielding what might be termed cultural power, right? They’re wielding power through private institutions like the corporations that donate millions of dollars to them. They use the tactic that you outlined so well in your book in terms of inorganically shifting language. These might be termed if not apolitical, then at least secondarily political tactics versus just straight-up running for office with a legislative agenda that passes laws that say, “This is our vision for society.”
I think it’s a fair observation and I think the only real disagreement here or the only major disagreement is over the definition of political. Because I do think both sides now take this really desiccated view of what politics is. And I think that we need to rethink exactly what we mean by that. You know Mitch McConnell the other day had a good observation. He said that woke corporations are beginning to behave like a parallel government. The hipster Rasputin over in Silicon Valley, Jack Dorsey, and his comrades censored and de-platformed the duly elected sitting President of the United States on January 7th and 8th. Regardless of what do you think happened in the 2020 election, the man was the President and these three oligarchs booted him out of the public square. Those companies do control the discourse, and in a republic, speech is politics.
So I think that the line between private enterprise and the government and the line between these companies and these political bodies, I think it’s a little bit blurrier. I just refer to it as the blob. There are many deep ties between, for instance, the universities and research institutes and the government. We saw that especially during the coronavirus. And it’s not only that the government funds universities and the universities provide the data and the statistics for the broader administrative state, that’s where the term statistics come from, as relating to the state, but they’re also shaping policy.
And I think of it even as the way we look at deregulation, both sides have deregulated since the 1960s and ’70s. The left has deregulated on a social front, right? You can sleep with whoever you want basically. And the right has deregulated economically because occupational licensing reform is the most important issue in the country as many people have told us. And I think there are plenty of reasons for why this may have taken place, but as a result now, we don’t live in some pre-Age of Aquarius where we’re all dancing around in a utopia. That power is going to remain. The order will exist in some way or another. It’s just been exported to Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai and the other woke corporations and universities and all of these other institutions.
So yes, I agree that a lot of the power of the left, and BLM to use a good example, is through massive corporations and shaking down corporations than it is through politicians, some of that through politicians and some of that through installing DA, a little bit, but I just think the line is a little blurrier there. I contrast in the book the way Bernie Sanders has led his career with BLM to make the point that Bernie just runs in elections, he usually loses and sometimes he wins and BLM does not have a formal political party. They operate with the Democratic Party, but they’re really operating in their own sphere.
I just think that those hard distinctions really began to melt away in the latter part of the 20th century and because conservatives couldn’t recognize them, we haven’t been able to effectively wield power since, no matter how many elections we win.
I largely think that’s right and I wonder if it’s a point that some even on what might be termed the New Right are missing because the underlying, whether you think that the methods to control or to fight back on cultural issues are “capital P” political or not, right? I think a lot of people would agree that it will require some legislation, but it will also require a lot of action through private institutions. Sometimes I worry that the Trumpist right is going to make exactly the same mistake as the Reagan Revolution and exactly the mistake that Breitbart was pointing to, I think, with that quote, no matter how it might have been, mal-quoted or used for other purposes by a lot of other people. I fundamentally see the mistake of the Reagan Revolution is that we didn’t take that moment.
And Reagan himself recognized this as he left office in his farewell speech, talked about how we’ve brought patriotism back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it, right? And he talked about the influence of TV and movies and schools and how they are no longer channeling in the same direction with a similar vision of the goodness of America. I worry about some of the New Right and I’m wondering if you have the same worries that they also seem to be to me perhaps too much or exclusively focused on economic questions, right? They don’t seem as enthused about defunding the university system, which I would argue it should be a very important priority for the right. They seem much more enthused about giving out child tax credits.
Now, even if I grant the premise that, and I’m not going to go through the argument here about for or against child tax credits, but I find it similarly unreasonable or seemingly improbable would be a better word that child tax credits are going to change the future of the country in a fundamental way, as opposed to something like, in some way attacking the academy or the university system that has really been the root of so much of this political correctness, as you point out, in a long academic history.
I agree entirely and I think that there is an impulse to pander. This is or we were told … I remember when President Trump passed the First Step Act, this idea that the reason that conservatives voted for him is so that he can let a bunch of criminals out of jail. I thought, “It was not that high up on my list, all the things that you could do right now.” That was really one of his few legislative achievements. That was the First Step Act. There were more tax cuts. There you go. There’s your tax cuts. I love tax cuts as much as the next guy, but that and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee when you’re trying to really bring back your country and give it some life again.
And so the purpose of that was to have a big tent. The problem is, as Trump hit on with immigration, is that tents, even big tents need limits. A country needs a border if it’s going to be … A country without borders simply is not a country. And so I feel he had good impulses, but yes, how do you actually reinstitutionalize all of that stuff? I think we do not recognize the degree to which the left has, fairly subtly but definitively, invaded and taken over all of these institutions. And we are still laboring under it. Especially with your university example, these preposterous notions of, for instance, academic freedom.
So Buckley launches the conservative movement, making fun of academic freedom and he calls it a hoax and he says, “A neo-Nazi would not be hired by Yale to teach a sociology class, right?” nor should he be, that the fifth grade … If we’re talking about critical race theory today, a fifth grade classroom is not a free marketplace of ideas, okay? And conservatives very often contrast education with indoctrination. Those words mean the same thing. It’s just that one of them is good and one of them is bad, but of course, another line that we hear is, “We shouldn’t teach students what to think, only how to think.”
Well, in order to know how to think you need to know at least some basics of what to think. In order for me to know how to think about complex mathematics, I need to at least know that two plus two equals four. In order to know about America, I need to know the significance of 1776, 1620, 1860. These are important things. And by the way, if you ask me on a test, “When did the Civil War start?” and I say, “1752,” I’m going to be punished for that in a class or should be at least, right? Education is a coercive act where something’s right and something’s wrong and some things are true and some things are false.
The problem is that free speech doesn’t mean anything to people who have nothing to say. My real fear with why we haven’t been able to institutionalize anything, beyond just the cowardice of not wanting to actually risk ourselves, is I don’t know that we can quite agree on what that substantive vision is. The left’s substantive vision is clear, “Tear it down. America bad. Rip it to the …” In Marx’s term, he wrote in a letter to Arnold Ruge to engage in the ruthless criticism of all that exists and now we have whole theories devoted to that kind of criticism.
What does the right really stand for? In the Cold War, we at least had the Soviet Union to link together the traditional conservatives and libertarians and the war hawk Democrats and later the neoconservatives and the populists and whoever. But after the Berlin Wall came down, what really links us together? I suppose this is what’s really fatally rendered us speechless is that we don’t really have anything to say. We’re not putting forward a substantive moral vision. So we just get caught up on these ridiculous procedural bumper stickers. The reason the right won’t defund the university is because it has convinced itself that it would somehow be wrong to boot Marxists out of not just the university, but to boot them out of the fifth grade classroom that we let the left run roughshod. They’ve got a substantive vision and we’ve got nothing other than some mild criticism of it.
So one of the substantive visions, it’s hard to imagine anything more basic that was once considered so obvious in terms of substance and true substance to advance, as the difference between male and female, right? That fundamental building block of life is now incredibly controversial and I know you’ve been traditionally cancel cultured, right? In terms of screaming students, the protest, I think you got bleach thrown on you …
Someone threw some yucky substance on my blazer.
… all the rest for simply stating that reality, that men and women are different. Why does that building block reality seem to bring out particular rage in the left? There’s all kinds of things that you or I could say that will enrage the left, but why is it that on this subject, you get it seemingly the most vigorous pushback both from tech companies banning accounts and on the campuses, in corporations, all of the institutions on which the left holds power, they cannot tolerate this bare simple scientific fact of male-female difference?
The ex-communist Whittaker Chambers famously described communism not as a recent ideology, but as the great alternative faith of mankind that began in the Garden of Eden when the serpent told Eve, “Ye shall be as gods.” It’s fitting I guess that we’re talking about this during Pride Month, right? Pride, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, the sin that caused Adam to fall from the garden. The purpose of political correctness very basically is to redefine reality. By redefining all the terms, you can redefine reality and there are whole schools of academic thought that will say this. Especially in the ’60s and ’70s, you would have people effectively saying that there is nothing but words. It’s just all socially constructed words. “Words, words, words,” to quote Hamlet when he’s pretending to be insane.
Now, insane people quoted today as though it were true. If you can, not just redefine and reframe, to use the words of the 1619 project, American history, not just redefine political arrangements, not just redefine how the citizen associates with his government, not even just redefine marriage, the fundamental political institution, but if you can redefine nature itself, if you can redefine what it means to be a man or be a woman and you can get everybody else to go along with it, to not believe they’re lying eyes but to believe the fantasy that you’re telling them, then you have amassed as much political power as you possibly can.
When the squishy conservative types ask me, “Oh, Michael, who cares about the pronouns?” I always think the left seems to care. They seem to be spending a lot of time and energy and money trying to get us all to call Bruce Jenner she. Why is that? Is it just a lark, it’s just a strange Caprice that they have? No, I think they know that language smuggles in whole premises. In the case of the transgender ideology, it’s smuggling in an ancient heresy called gnostic dualism, the idea that, “My body has nothing to do with who I am. I’ve got the Adam’s apple, I’ve got the deep voice, God, I don’t know, various appendages, you can just take my word for it, but somehow, if I think I’m a woman, then it’s not even complex. It’s not even that I’m 50/50. I simply am a woman.”
And what’s ironic about them pushing this ideology is they’re simultaneously pushing the materialist heresy which is totally the opposite heresy, the idea that, “I have no soul, I have no mind really, I’m just my flesh, I’m a meat puppet, all of my joys and hopes and loves and fears are just illusions, just synapses firing off in my head, and so therefore, I don’t have any moral culpability or responsibility in the world.” And they’re pushing these contradictory ideas at the same time because both of them oppose the traditional view of mankind where body, soul, and spirit all joined together in one inextricable on this Earth.
If you can redefine that very nature, it is just like the end of 1984. I know it is a tired comparison. I know conservatives never shut up about 1984, but there’s a reason for that. I think there are a lot of similarities. It is the moment when the big brother regime is forcing Winston to say two plus two equals five and to believe that two plus … If you really believe, I don’t think how many people do, but if you really believe that Bruce Jenner is a woman, you have lost your faculties of reason. You have lost your ability to make any moral judgments and you’ve lost your capacity for self-government.
One more thing that I did very much agree with in your book is that Huxley was, in many ways, the more prophetic of the two, but obviously that metaphor and the usage of the two plus two equals five indoors, not just in our politics, but for example, in absurdist movements in Poland, for example, who were pushing back against the communists because exposing that kind of absurdity is in itself, can be a political act to go to your broad sense of politics. But to drill down a little bit further on the sex question, you have linked … Because there are a lot of people both on the center-left and on the right who have argued this trans phenomenon is very much at odds with the interests of women, and therefore, it’s at odds with feminism. You say the opposite in this book. You say that, in fact, this trans ideology is very much derivative of the premises of feminism. Could you flesh out that argument a little bit more, not to make a pun about flesh?
Yes, that’s all we’re doing these days, is fleshing things out. Yes, it is and it’s where a lot of conservatives get confused because they’ll say, obviously, there’s this contradiction between transgenderism which says, “There’s no such thing as sex and men can be women and vice versa,” and feminism which says, “Women are a distinct category and I’m a woman, hear me roar. And don’t you, patriarchy, tell me what I am and what I think.” There’s also an apparent contradiction with the homosexual rights movement, right? The argument of homosexual rights was, “We’re born this way. No one would choose to be born this way and you ought to be tolerant and accepting of various things we want to do.”
I understand that argument as far as it goes, but you can’t both say, “We’re born this way. Sexual orientation is immutable. You have to tolerate my very self-definition is that I am a man and I’m attracted to other men,” and then at the same time say, “Sex itself is changeable and forget about sexual orientation and there’s really no such thing as men and women. And there’s actually 70 other genders and we can all just change everything.” Those seem mutually exclusive, but they all derive from the same lie, the same false anthropology that the feminists really pushed in the 1970s, namely that there’s no difference between men and women. That’s what they were saying, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Women can do anything in any realm that men can do. There’s really … All of the differences between men and women are superficial and they have no bearing on the real world.”
Well, if that’s true, then I guess you have to redefine marriage, don’t you? Because marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Well, if there’s no difference between men and women, then of course, you’re going to redefine it to include two men and two women, but wait a minute, if there’s no difference between men and women, then men can simply become women and women can become men because there’s no difference. Frankly, they already are, but how are they? They look a little different. Well, I guess it just has to be in their own mind, which I cannot argue with. I could argue with that no more than I could argue with your preference of chocolate or vanilla ice cream. This is now totally outside the realm of reason.
Again, as part of this Gnosticism, the secret knowledge that contradicts the reality before our very eyes, which is that, obviously men and women are different. And the traditional standard holds that men and women are complementary rather than identical and indiscernible, but very few people are willing to defend that. Even conservatives these days are not often willing to stand up for that fundamental distinction in human nature between men who are from Mars and women who are from Venus.
I think that your larger issue in the book about whether or not we have an actual vision on the right to advance to match the left’s vision rather than escaping into a sort of proceduralism. I think it’s very much true here as well, right? What we might term conservative feminism or Christina Hoff Sommers calls an opportunity feminism and I love Christina’s work. Actually, she’s coming on the podcast in a couple weeks. And I speak with Dr. Debra Soh about this as well in my very first episode of this podcast. So I really respect these people and their work and I think they’re doing important things in terms of restoring some semblance of what I might call a statistical reality.
But I think ultimately their vision suffers from the same problem that you point out, “The right does more broadly,” which is to say, “It doesn’t give a vision of what it is really to be a woman or a man,” right? Because that would imply something that we ought to be which is just something that our current politics on left and right just don’t want to grapple with. And as you point out in this book and in the beginning, when we started talking, that doesn’t necessarily actually mean a move away from small L liberalism in terms of, for example, the law or coercion from the state. But it does imply that there might actually be a judgment, there might be a good way to be a woman and a bad way to be a woman or there might be a good way to be a man and a bad way to be a man and that is something, I think, we are just not ready for that conversation almost anywhere on the political spectrum.
I’ll give you an example. When I’m sitting with my wife, it’s Friday night. Well, since we’ve had a kid, we’ve never leave the house at all. But before we had our sweet little bundle of joy, we would often go out to dinner. We’d say, “Okay, where should we go?” “I don’t know, maybe Chinese. I don’t know, maybe the Italian place. I don’t know, maybe this. I don’t know, where do you want? Where do you want? Where do you want?” and eventually, my wife will turn to me. She’ll say, “Hey, Hubby, man up. Genesis 3, buddy. Make a decision. I’m sick of doing this.” And she’ll say, “Head of household, right?” It’s somewhat ironic, but also not ironic.
She’s saying that, “You have a specific role here, you have certain obligations, you don’t need to be a knuckle-dragging tyrant, but let’s go, let’s end this frivolous debate.” And I’m not suggesting that I’ve never washed a dish and I’m not suggesting that she’s never made a buck. I’ve washed more dishes than I would like to and she’s probably made more dollars than she would like to, but we recognize that there are some differences here. Every happy couple I’ve ever seen recognizes that there were just roles for people that they’re better suited to. If I had to watch my son alone for a week, I hope he would survive. I know that I wouldn’t survive. It would be very difficult.
There is a tee loss to use the really technical term, that things actually do have a purpose. We’re here in a political society for a purpose. We’re here on Earth for a purpose. Physical things have a purpose, right? Natural things have a purpose. And so you have to have a coherent view of the world and in our society that that we just live in such a cynical and decadent time that nobody is willing to admit that sort of thing. And I don’t just mean to say I could snap my fingers and solve all of this in a moment. I don’t think that I could. There are people who are say Catholic integralists who say, “I’ve got the answer. Here’s the answer. Follow Catholic teaching to a tee. Get rid of the United States. Call it the empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe and submit to the pontifex and you’re all set.”
Well, I’m a mackerel-snapping papist myself and so I guess in some ways this would appeal to me, although people have some quibbles with the current pontiff, but that’s just not going to happen. So then what are you going to do? How are you going to corral all these sorts of people that have some common understanding what our purposes, what we’re doing here, the basic things we can agree on hopefully that men are men and women are women? My modest suggestion for this is prudence. This is a virtue we’re no longer allowed to talk about because it doesn’t fit well on too little ideological manifestos. Prudence is a very neglected virtue, but it’s a conservative one.
I think we ought to look at our political tradition and see what has worked well, what has led people to flourish. We need to look certainly to the natural law as well, what things are for and we need to come to some understanding of those standards and then be willing to enforce them and recognize that on the squishy right, right now, the drag queen story hour defenders let’s say. They will sometimes say the drag queen story hour is one of the blessings of liberty, which, if you can hear that, that’s James Madison rolling in his grave at that very suggestion. And first of all, it also shows you that liberty is instrumental in the American project, right? We pursue the blessings of liberty, that there is an end, which is justice, as James Madison writes, in the Federalist.
But if you really believe, as the argument goes, that we can’t ban drag queen story hour, because if we do that, then if we tell perverts they can’t work for toddlers, then they’ll tell us we can’t go to church on Sunday. As a practical matter, they’ve already been doing that for quite some time. But also what you’re saying is you do not possess moral conscience, you do not possess a reliable faculties of reason, that you actually can’t distinguish between true and false and right and wrong and good and bad. And the problem with that is, it’s The Big Lebowski problem. Whenever you make a political or moral observation, you’ll say, “Well, that’s just like your opinion, man.”
Well, sure, but opinions are statements of fact from one’s perspective. Opinions are not preferences, right? They’re not purely subjective. You’re saying, “This is what I’m seeing and let’s all deliberate and persuade one another.” If you can’t do that, if you say, “I don’t have reason or moral conscience,” you’re abandoning the entire project of self-government, which I think we have done. I think we’ve unfortunately done that and so now we’re ruled by a different kind of pontifex. He doesn’t wear a cassock, he wears a lab coat. He doesn’t wear a pectoral cross, he wears a stethoscope and his name, of course, is Dr. Fauci and the rest of the faceless bureaucrats who run our lives for us and exclude us from political deliberation and I think they’ve run the place off the rails.
I really like the insertion of prudence here because it seems to me there has to be, especially in the United States, where we do have a tradition of liberalism. There has to be some balance between still recognizing that there is such thing as an objective good and an objective bad, an objective common good even. But having a little humility about, as you say, different people have different opinions, but they’re not just preferences, they have to be the result of a process of reason or if you’re religious, of revelation, there has to be some boundaries upon those different opinions if we’re going to have any kind of coherent society.
This episode is going to be released right after. We’re right now going into the July 4th weekend, but this episode will come out after the July 4th weekend. Let’s close with this given the holiday. It seems like we don’t have that agreement and that is not only necessary in order to not be speechless, as you say. It’s also necessary for a country to have citizens, particularly citizens who aren’t bound by race or ethnicity or religion, don’t have similarities to fall back on in that way. It’s necessary for citizenship, it seems to me, for us to have some body of commitments that perhaps are not completely coercively universal, but nevertheless sweeping the vast majority of people in the society.
What is the future of the 4th of July in that regard? Will it survive as a celebration of 1776 of this country, of those common good or those common goods that our founding has committed us to? Or are we too far gone? I always kind of asked this optimism-pessimism question and this is a safe space for rapid pessimism is what I always say. So don’t feel like you have to give the positive answer, but what do you see as the future the 4th of July and what do you see as the future of this country given how little we seem to be able to come together on any kind of vision of the common good?
Well, on the pessimism-optimism thing, a friend of mine describes a conservative pessimist as someone who says, “Things can’t get any worse,” and a conservative optimist as someone who says, “Oh, yes, they can.” And so I don’t know exactly which way will fall down on. The 4th of July, Independence Day is facing its most significant challenge ever and it has within the past few weeks from our new National Independence Day, Juneteenth. The Juneteenth was a local tradition from Galveston, Texas that represented the arrival of ranger who told Texans that the slaves had been freed years prior. This was after the Emancipation Proclamation before the 13th Amendment.
As Barack Obama said last year, “Juneteenth is not about victory. It’s about all the work that has to be done,” and this was said many times by the legislators who passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. I think that language is very important if you see that the purpose of this now becoming a federal holiday is not to celebrate Lincoln or the Civil War. We already have a holiday for that, which is Memorial Day. It’s not to celebrate American freedom and independence. We already have a holiday for that, it’s the 4th of July. It’s to create a new Independence Day, to reframe the country and to put slavery at the center of it as the 1619 project explicitly sets out to do.
As you point out, we don’t have a common ethnicity in the country. We don’t have a common creed and less so every day. We don’t have a common language even as the subject of my book. I’m not even discussing the difference between English and Spanish or anything, I’m saying the difference between English and woke English. But this is a problem that Abraham Lincoln saw in his Lyceum address. And he said, “As the Founding Era passes away, then it’s going to be hard to keep the nation together and so we need to construct basically a civil religion, a civic religion, about all that binds us together and all of the glories of the revolution and all the glories of the founders and we’re going to have to keep that alive.”
This is why you have a Greco-Roman temple housing our Zeus, Abraham Lincoln in Washington, DC. It’s why you have these huge religious monuments to the founding and to the great men in our history. And that is now explicitly under attack. Statues are being torn down all over the country. People laughed at Trump when they said that tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee was going to lead to tearing down Lincoln and Washington and Jefferson. It happened within a couple of years and they’re moving to do that now. And you’re seeing this challenge for the 4th of July when we express our gratitude to the great men who gave us our country versus Juneteenth when we express grievance and resentment and impatience at the work that still needs to be done.
So as you can tell, I’m not totally rosy about the state of things right now. The one thing that gives me hope, however, is that there’s a disparity between what our self-appointed ruling elite are pushing and pushing through not just the government, but through the institutions, through BLM, through activist groups, and the people, the ordinary people of America. These parents showing up to school boards to yell about critical race theory gives me so much hope. These parents showing up to school board saying, “Hey, stop transing my kid. Stop telling my four-year-old that he’s actually a little girl and no one can tell him otherwise,” which is happening in preschools in Brooklyn.
Those parents give me great hope. And they come in all colors and all sorts of stripes. And they’re saying, “We will not go along with this.” And, actually going all the way back to Antonio Gramsci, one of the really brilliant Marxist philosophers who I consider him the Mack Daddy of political correctness, he observed that the reason radical revolutions had failed before him was that the revolutionaries never got hold of the common sense that they had all sorts of theories as to how to liberate the oppressed working classes, but the oppressed masses didn’t like the theories. They actually liked their country and their traditions and their families and their communities.
And you are seeing that happen today. I do think time is of the essence. Hemingway describes going bankrupt is happening gradually than suddenly and I think we’re in the suddenly phase. We went from having one definition of marriage or a general definition for all of human history until to random radically redefining that and then to transing the kids in about six or seven years. So things are happening very quickly. We’re tearing down the statues, we’re creating a new Independence Day. So we do need to empower those common ordinary people to push back against the ruling elite and that’s becoming increasingly difficult because conservatives don’t have that courage.
If they reawaken that one virtue, even if they have just a hazy sense of what we’re after, even if they just use their prudence, I think there is still hope, but tick-tock-tick-tock.
Well on that both pessimistic and optimistic note, Michael Knowles, thank you so much for joining a High Noon today. You can pick up Michael’s book from the publisher, which I believe is Regnery, right?
As well as buying it on all of the tech oligarch websites like Amazon and you can access more of his speeches and his work in the Daily Wire or the podcast that I listed at the beginning of the episode. And thank you to our listeners. As always, you can send comments and questions [email protected] Please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcasts, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, or iwf.org. Be brave and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.