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Angry Young Men with Guns: An American Crisis

May 31, 2022

When an 18-year-old misfit stormed into Robb Elementary School in the sleepy town of Uvalde, Texas, barricaded himself in a fourth-grade classroom and started shooting his young captives, his bloodcurdling act was simply the latest in a long line of bloodcurdling acts by American males armed with guns and a grudge.

Of course, a few factors made this outburst even more bloodcurdling than most: the number of fatalities (21) and the age of the victims (mostly 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds, along with two of their teachers).

This unprovoked mass shooting followed the racially motivated massacre of ten black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, NY, by a mere ten days. So far this year, we’ve already endured 213 mass shootings (of four or more victims), 27 of which were classified as school shootings. In 2021, mass shootings took 703 lives and injured 2842.

When it comes to gun violence, America is off the charts compared to other high-income nations. And the mass shooting of random victims seems to be an almost uniquely American pastime. Yes, it happens occasionally in other countries, but not with the numbing regularity of mass murder in our beleaguered republic.

Are Americans really that much angrier, crazier and more violent than, say, Scandinavians, Poles, Greeks or Japanese? Well, yes and no. Every nation has its share of loonies, but we seem to produce an instantly recognizable looniness in the form of bitter, socially rejected young men with a penchant for powerful firearms.  

Why? We Americans, more than most of our fellow humans, tend to draw a sharp distinction between winners and losers. We value the former and reward them with adulation, generally accompanied by unimaginable wealth. Meanwhile, we can be merciless toward the losers. We taunt them, devalue them and essentially cull them from the herd. The losers sense that they’re being culled, and they must explode inwardly with rage until they can no longer contain it.

Equipped with powerful weapons, the rejected ones recover some measure of masculine pride and potency. They’re still full of rage, but now that rage can explode outwardly. They might stalk individuals who have wronged them in the past. Or they lash out at members of another tribe (like the Buffalo shooter’s black victims). More perplexingly, they turn their rage against random members of our species – individuals no longer viewed as individuals, but as interchangeable targets in some grotesque video game. The difference is that the blood is real.

The Texas shooter fits the pattern almost perfectly. Teased and isolated throughout childhood on account of a severe speech impediment, he eventually grew angry, cut his own face, got into fights, made threats on the Internet, and missed so many days of school in his senior year that he wouldn’t have graduated with his class.

We still have no idea why he shot his grandmother before heading over to the elementary school. I’ve read no reference to either his mother or his father. And why did he take out his rage on young children instead of his own peers? Is it because his lifelong misery was initially inflicted by young children… or that, as a friend of mine suggested, he felt a perverse need to spare them from the kind of misery he had endured? Did he simply choose the nearest available school… or a school with relatively defenseless humans who made easy targets? We’ll probably never know. We just know that he was angry and marginalized.

Why the surge in American mass shootings over the last 40 years? Let me count the reasons, both verifiable and speculative.

First, the sheer number of guns in circulation — some 390 million by current estimates – is greater than the U.S. population. Despite a shrinking percentage of American families owning guns, the number of guns per capita is roughly twice what it was in 1968. That means more guns stockpiled in fewer homes.

Of course, there’s the polarization factor. The wave of well-publicized mass shootings using high-capacity semi-automatic guns has split the country into two angry factions: as more Americans have decried the use of “assault weapons,” gun lovers have hunkered down and grown more assertive about their Second Amendment rights. (I have to wonder if they’ve read the part about “well regulated” militias.) When asked why they want military-grade weapons in their homes, Second Amendment diehards typically claim they need them to defend against a tyrannical government that might come for their guns. (And good luck with that.) But of course, semi-automatic weapons are also useful for mowing down a maximum number of victims in a minimum of time.

The Internet has been a boon for angry misfits as well as for the more sociable among us. Anyone with a gnawing quirk can find kindred spirits out there, ready to cheer them on and encourage the most extreme behavior. Feeling thwarted, rejected, full of rage? Just go online and commune with like-minded souls who feel inclined to commit mayhem.

And of course, the image of the lone, freedom-loving cowboy-pioneer-warrior has always loomed large in the American imagination. Has the macho Marlboro Man impressed himself into the souls of our boys even beyond the death of cigarette advertising? Probably not, but his like has given way to superheroes with fabulous unearthly powers. We’re not talking about good-natured Boy Scout superheroes like Superman; there’s an unmistakable aura of darkness surrounding today’s brooding comic book archetypes.

There’s a fifth, less obvious and more disturbing reason for the mass shooting epidemic: more American males are feeling aimless, hopeless and devalued. “Toxic masculinity” and “patriarchy” loom large in public conversations. Relatively fewer teenage males are opting for college: the gender split is nearing 60-40 in favor of women. Our culture celebrates blacks, gays, women and just about everyone except garden-variety men.

It used to be that society’s heroes, geniuses, politicians, authority figures and creators were overwhelmingly male. Today, women have muscled their way into that territory – and far too many young men skulk in their parents’ basements, wrapped in a stifling cocoon of violent video games, bad music and sick humor.

Young men need to go mainstream again – not reclaiming sole possession of their old leadership roles, but eager to shine, to build their character, to make a difference. Character is one of those archaic virtues that seem to have been discarded along with humility, temperance and chastity. America needs men of character, and we need them now more than ever.

But first, Americans need to agree on sensible gun laws. The majority of NRA members actually favor them, along with two-thirds of the American public; we simply need to convince the politicians who benefit from the NRA’s generous financial “gifts.”

I like the idea of regulating gun ownership the way we regulate driving: prospective gun owners would be required to take a course, pass a test, earn a license, and risk having that license revoked for serious infractions. Impose the same discipline on current gun owners as well.

Should we ban semi-automatic weapons the way we’ve banned machine guns and other tools of mass murder? After all, countries with strict gun ownership laws have seen sharp reductions in gun crimes. We actually banned many semi-automatic guns between 1994 and 2004, although there were too many loopholes for the ban to make a major difference. Still, gun deaths rose predictably after the ban was lifted.

It’s probably too late to ban semi-automatic guns from the American landscape; the government would have to confiscate the weapons already in circulation (and risk a mass armed uprising). 

How about restricting the types of ammunition used by these weapons? Now we might be on to something. Most of us would agree that nobody except a mass murderer needs high-capacity clips and magazines that can fire 40, 60 or more rounds in as many seconds.

What’s a sensible limit, then? Even a 10-round clip can inflict mass murder if the shooter brings several of them to the scene of his crime and keeps loading them one after another.

My preferred model would be the classic Western six-shooter: each bullet must be loaded individually, but the gunman would have enough ammo to dispatch murderous intruders with minimal effort.

Of course, there’s no going back to 19th-century gun technology at this point, so we might have to be satisfied with low-capacity semi-automatic clips: just make it a six-round maximum and call it a high-tech six-shooter.

Gun advocates will insist, not entirely without reason, that the most determined killers will find a way to skirt restrictive gun laws and carry out their bloody vendettas. It’s true that restrictions on semi-automatic weapons won’t prevent mass shootings, but they’ll be more difficult to carry out and therefore less common. By making them less common, we’ll be saving innumerable lives. And saving lives is always a good thing.

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate. His three collections of dark-humored essays are available for the absurdly low price of $2.99 each on Amazon and wherever else e-books are sold. 

Muskmania: the Twitter Takeover and the Consequences of Free Speech

April 30, 2022

“Everyone is entitled to be wrong about their opinions, but no one has the right to be wrong about their facts.” – Bernard Baruch

As the world’s richest human swooped in to take control of the world’s loudest opinion forum, he triggered a wave of hand-wringing among our sober intellectual elite. “He’s making the world safe for racists, homophobes, transphobes, neo-Nazis, misogynists and Texans,” the progressives moaned.

Others, of a more conservative bent, responded that Twitter had overstepped its bounds in policing speech on its site – not just the ravings of Trump and his alt-right minions, but even reasonable suggestions that the Covid-19 pandemic was the result of a Wuhan lab leak. (After all, sometimes there are actual conspiracies behind those wild conspiracy theories.)

Elon Musk, the South African-born mastermind behind Tesla, SpaceX and other cutting-edge enterprises, describes himself as a First Amendment “absolutist.” That makes him a throwback to the 18th-century Classical Liberal believers in “the free marketplace of ideas.” This noble relic of the Enlightenment promoted the uncensored exchange of opinions, based on the assumption that the literate public would have the good sense to reject unsound ideas and embrace sound ones. At least that was the plan.

Of course, we don’t live in sensible times. To the left of us stand the wokesters, endlessly preaching collective guilt, automatic white complicity in systemic racism, perpetual black victimhood, toxic masculinity, heteronormative oppression of sexual minorities, and (via the Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project) the addled notion that we fought the American Revolution primarily to preserve the institution of slavery.

To the right of us gathers an angry tribe of mostly white Trumpsters, Evangelicals, chronic Fox viewers, conspiracy theorists and working-class residents of flyover country – many of them fitting all of the above categories. Are they all irredeemable racists? Of course not, but we’ll find plenty of racial anxiety within their ranks. They tend to live in fear of the great demographic “replacement” – along with an abiding distrust of the so-called Deep State, international bankers, mainstream media, state election officials, scientific authorities, vaccination and mask mandates, climate change activists, and anyone who makes them feel like dummies. The late William F. Buckley would hardly recognize these latter-day conservatives as kindred spirits, and respectable contemporary conservatives like George Will have distanced themselves from their tribe.

How do the extremists promote their brand of extremism? The woke left has spread its influence through the conduits of academia, the old-guard media and corporate mission statements. Wherever you see the ubiquitous catchphrase “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” you know the wokesters have left their calling card. They’ve used social media like Twitter primarily to promote agenda-driven “hashtag” movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

The New Right, on the other hand, tends to use social media as a freewheeling alternative to the reviled left-leaning news outlets and websites that never give them a voice. Here, beyond the watchful eye of Big Brother, they felt free to swap resentments and conspiracy theories with their like-minded brethren.

But Big Brother did start watching them – especially after their unhinged reaction to the dumping of Trump in the 2020 election. Twitter permanently banned Trump for his inflammatory rhetoric, and other right-wingers have felt the tightening grip of censorship. They’ve already been censored throughout the academic world; muffling their voices in the social media would effectively silence them as a movement.

In steps Mr. Musk with his quarter of a trillion net worth. He outmaneuvered the honchos at Twitter by offering stockholders a hefty premium over the current share price, and Twitter had no choice but to capitulate.

At this point it’s still uncertain how much “absolute” free speech Twitter will be allowing under the Musk regime. After all, it’s illegal to promote acts of violence against individuals and groups, and European codes are more restrictive than ours. But it’s safe to predict that the Trumpsters and their ilk will be tweeting loud and often.

Is there anything wrong with that? Well, yes and no. (What other response would you expect from The New Moderate?) I’ve been appalled by the forced groupthink in left-leaning environments ranging from college campuses to the editorial pages of vintage newspapers. Nobody should have to risk career destruction and personal defamation for voicing an opinion.

On the other hand, the New Right’s knee-jerk opposition to vaccinations and mask mandates helped prolong the pandemic and indirectly contributed to countless thousands of needless deaths – mostly among their anti-vax peers. Should anti-factual conspiracy theories be given a free pass despite the damage they can inflict on believers and nonbelievers alike? What about hate-mongering toward blacks, Jews, Muslims, gays and Latinos – or, for that matter, whites, Christians and men?

I confess that I don’t entirely trust the wisdom of the public to weed out bad ideas and embrace the good ones. In fact, our politically polarized social media have raised the loudest and most extreme opinions well above the more rational centrist voices. After all, drama sells; reason doesn’t. In the end, hysteria wins out.

You want to believe that the moon landings were staged… that Trump was a Russian puppet… that the 2020 election was stolen… that the Sandy Hook grade school massacre was fake news… that police are conducting a genocidal campaign against “black bodies”… that Washington liberals are patronizing a pedophile ring through a local pizzeria? Go ahead – you’ll find plenty of company online.

But should Twitter and other online forums tolerate the spreading of flaky disinformation? Granted, some of it (like the moon landing skepticism) is relatively harmless, while other disinformation (the stolen election, for example) can lead us to the brink of civil war. When does free speech become an imminent menace? When it makes up its own facts in an attempt to incite violence. As Bernard Baruch said, we’re entitled to wrong opinions but not wrong facts.

The Biden administration has created a Disinformation Governance Board in the wake of Musk’s Twitter takeover. Voices on the right are already comparing the new “ministry of truth” to Orwell’s Big Brother – even to Hitler’s propaganda machine headed by the infamous hatemonger Joseph Goebbels.

That reaction is to be expected. The larger questions we need to ask are 1) whether the new Disinformation Governance Board will be an equal-opportunity censor — or simply a tool for the left to muzzle the right; and 2) whether it will try to censor wayward opinions along with wayward facts.

Even those of us who aren’t First Amendment “absolutists” should be on guard against attempts to discredit opinions that the people in power don’t like. We’ve already seen the damaging effects of intolerant ideological zeal at colleges and in the mainstream media.

On the other hand, it’s vital for the future of our stressed-out republic that we check the kinds of overwrought disinformation that, coupled with seething anger, can propel us toward open civil conflict. It takes a wise and balanced mind to separate controversial ideas from actual threats. Let’s hope that both our social media and our government are up to the task of protecting the former and blocking the latter.

 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate. His three collections of appealingly dark-humored essays are available on Amazon (or wherever else e-books are sold) for the absurdly low price of $2.99 each. That’s less than a mocha java at Starbucks, and even more fortifying.

All material in The New Moderate is copyright 2007-2022 by Rick Bayan, but feel free to quote from this blog as long as you credit me as the author.

Surreal Times, Real Anger

March 31, 2022

Nobody expected, back in March of 2020, that we’d now be entering the third year of our wretched coronavirus pandemic. It’s been a hard and unforgiving life: the constant masking, the avoidance of friends and strangers alike, the ritual cleansing of groceries with disinfectant wipes, the abandonment of indoor public amusements, and the ongoing war between the pro- and anti-vax tribes.

Yes, cases are sharply down as I write this, but we know the routine by now. It’s just a matter of time before the virus cleverly assumes another shape and packs another wallop. (Amazing how such brainless, infinitesimally microscopic cells can be more adaptable than the average human; the gods must love them.)

Even if we’ve survived the pandemic unscathed by the evil bug, Covid has been almost as hard on our minds and souls as it has on the millions of bodies afflicted by it. We’ve grown snappish and impatient. Crime has soared while our social lives have shrunk. We’re tired of watching yet another damned variant pop up to taunt us just when we thought we were in the clear. We despise anyone who disagrees with our politics, of course. And the world around us has come to look increasingly surreal.

For example, we’re just supposed to accept, without blinking or snickering, that a broad-shouldered biological male swimmer who identifies as female must be allowed to compete in women’s swimming events. No matter that the swimmer in question wins nearly every race, often by whopping margins, or that even the swimmer’s teammates have objected (anonymously, of course) to his/her presence on the team. Anyone failing to pretend that the transgender swimmer is a bona fide woman earns a prompt rebuke – condemned as transphobic (read “heretical,” “unclean,” or “unfit for polite society”). Funny, isn’t it, that women’s rights have suddenly slipped below trans rights on the intersectional totem pole.

And how about that surreal moment at the 94th Academy Awards? When Oscar nominee (and eventual winner) Will Smith marched up to the podium and whacked Chris Rock upside the head, the world let out a collective gasp. Some of us realized at that moment that we had finally entered the Twilight Zone, and it still seems unreal. Imagine Jimmy Stewart slapping Cary Grant. Or even Mel Gibson spewing profanities at Tom Hanks. It just wouldn’t happen except in an alternate universe.

We’re living in that alternate universe now. While the pandemic has uprooted our lives, we’ve watched in disbelief as one outrage tops another, just when we thought the world couldn’t possibly keep coming up with new ways to shock us.

Of course, one multimillionaire celebrity smacking another in public can’t compare to a Russian despot smacking 40 million of his neighbors with bombs, destruction, and premature death. And yet there was something emblematic about the slap heard ‘round the world.

In half a minute or less, we witnessed rage that could no longer be contained… rage so far out of proportion to the provocation that it seemed to encapsulate all the over-the-top reactions we’ve seen during the past few years: senseless mass shootings… lifelong friends unfriending each other over politics… the nationwide riots and looting in response to the occasional unwarranted police killings of black criminal suspects… a U.S. president attempting to overturn an election he clearly lost… an angry mob storming the Capitol to help overturn that election on behalf of their idol… obsessive identity politics stemming from built-up grievances, whether legitimate or imagined… mandatory groupthink conquering the “enlightened” segments of American society, with dissenters publicly dissed, shamed and tossed onto the scrap heap. And of course, the brutal invasion of Ukraine – the ultimate over-the-top angry response to minor provocations.

All of the above are extreme reactions. Of course, we live in an era that promotes extremism in all its forms, so we probably shouldn’t be surprised when it smacks us in the face. That’s the lesson we’ve been learning from Ukraine, Oscar night, Trumpism, identity politics, and all the rest of the unholy, surreal pageant of life in the twenty-first century. If we’re moderate in our politics and behavior, our faces are pretty sore by now.

Because extremism is more dramatic than moderation, it tends to win more huzzahs from a drama-craving public. It sells… it’s a conduit for stifled anger… it plays to a receptive tribal audience. But I have to wonder if the twin shocks of Putin’s Ukraine invasion and Will Smith’s unprecedented face-slap might have signaled a turning of the tide. The almost universal revulsion spawned by both events was remarkable for uniting people who agree about almost nothing else.

Yes, both Putin and Will Smith have their diehard defenders. (Putin was fighting a Neo-Nazi regime! Smith was defending a black woman’s honor!) But my inner optimist is hoping that those two gentlemen might have revealed the ugliness of extreme behavior once and for all. If, by chance, they’ve shocked some of our extremists into becoming less angry, less tribal and more inclined to forgive, America will be a better and stronger nation.

 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate. His three brilliant (but inexplicably overlooked) collections of darkly humorous essays are available on Amazon and wherever else e-books are sold. Choose your favorite title or buy all three. They’re selling for the ridiculously low price of $2.99 each – less than a latte at Starbucks, and much more fortifying.

All content at The New Moderate is copyright 2007-2022 by Rick Bayan. Feel free to quote from this site as long as you credit Rick Bayan as the author.

Putin Pushes His Luck

February 28, 2022

When Russian supreme boss Vladimir Putin launched his all-out war this past month, trouble had been brewing in Ukraine for at least eight years. Back in 2014, Ukrainians ousted their pro-Russian government and replaced it with one better suited to a sovereign republic. Meanwhile, ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea itched to rejoin their mother country, and Putin was eager to lend a hand. 

Finally, on February 24, as talk swirled of Ukraine joining NATO (and by doing so, pushing the Western alliance deep into former Soviet territory), Putin had all he could stand: he launched an attack on Russia’s sister nation with the intention of subduing it, crippling it, and reducing it to a puppet state. Half the world was aghast, and Western pundits wondered if the former KGB agent was about to follow suit with all the former Soviet republics.

Who are the Ukrainians, exactly? They’re a Slavic people, closely related to the Russians by ethnicity and language, and intimately tied to Russia throughout both their histories. “The Ukraine,” as it used to be called, won a brief independence after the Bolshevik Revolution but was soon absorbed into the USSR as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

When the USSR drew the boundaries of its constituent republics, several million Russians ended up inside the Ukrainian border. It didn’t matter much at the time, because they were all part of the same vast multi-ethnic nation. But when Ukraine, like all the other Soviet republics, declared independence in the early 1990s, it suddenly mattered. Ukraine probably should have held a referendum that would have allowed those ethnic Russians to join their brethren by shifting the border. They didn’t, and trouble ensued

Of course, it wasn’t simply a matter of nationalist pride or stubbornness; there were grudges. Ukrainians remembered how Stalin starved nearly four million of them to death during his forced collectivization of the region’s farms. They remembered the attempts to eradicate the Ukrainian language and church. You can understand their reluctance to forfeit any of their territory, and why they might turn their eyes to the West

Enter Vladimir Putin. The Russian strongman with the disturbingly soulless face… the very model of a modern autocrat, admired by Donald Trump and other would-be autocrats around the world… the latter-day tsar whose political enemies had a mysterious way of disappearing while he piled up his rubles like a Silicon Valley technomogul – this macho-posturing heir to Stalin and Khrushchev decided to start a war. Not a mere series of skirmishes, but the most massive invasion of a European country since World War II. With his limitless military resources and bravado, he’d thrash Ukraine from east to west and make the other former Soviet republics quake at the thought of defying him

What he didn’t anticipate was the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people and their president, former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. The lone Jewish head of state outside of Israel, Zelensky refused offers of asylum so that he could stay with his people and go down fighting if necessary. By doing so, the amiable 44-year-old father of two was following in the footsteps of Britain’s beloved World War II king, George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father. And he immediately won a place for himself in the annals of heroic leadership.

The rest of the world responded swiftly. Around the globe, buildings, bridges and monuments were illuminated in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. NATO reinforced its presence in the Baltic states and Poland. Denizens of Facebook posted pictures of sunflowers – Ukraine’s national flower – on their personal pages, along with heartfelt tributes to a nation they had known little about just weeks before. It was a groundswell of moral support for an embattled people. Putin’s invasion even provoked angry Russians to protest in the streets, and thousands have been arrested.

Meanwhile, President Biden and other leaders imposed severe economic sanctions on Russian banks and oligarchs with the intention of crippling the country’s economy. These actions wouldn’t be enough to halt Putin’s invasion, but they’d cause long-term pain. Maybe they’d cause enough pain for exasperated Russians to overthrow the smug S.O.B. and ship him off to Hades.

How did The New Moderate respond? Immoderately, I’m proud to say. My first impulse was to encourage the U.S. military to drop a well-aimed drone on Putin’s head. I scoffed at the notion that assassinations of enemy leaders are “illegal” according to international conventions. Is it more acceptable to send thousands of innocent young men to kill thousands of other innocent young men and sacrifice their own lives — while the actual warmonger remains untouchable? 

No, sometimes we just need to stop a war where it started. Imagine how many lives could have been saved if some intrepid soul had the gumption to knock off Hitler back in the late 1930s. Then I thought about the potential consequences: how the Russian military might be displeased by our assassination of their leader and, by way of retribution, drop a few well-aimed nuclear bombs on key American cities

It would have to be a covert operation: the CIA and NATO could conspire with Russian insiders to take out Putin. Surely the man must have enemies inside his ranks – even within his own military. They wouldn’t shed a tear over the loss of their master, and neither would most of the world. Best of all, nobody would have to know that we were complicit.

I was shocked that several of my conservative friends – people who generally stand for personal freedom and the American Way – initially rushed to the defense of the Russian warlord. He was just trying to settle an internal dispute among his own people, they argued. (No, Ukraine is a sovereign nation and Putin invaded it.) The current Ukrainian government came to power through a US-orchestrated coup, they informed me. (Nope, it was a popular uprising by Ukrainians who wanted greater independence from Russia.) But it’s a Neo-Nazi regime, they insisted. (With a Jewish president? Sure, tell me another one.) It’s Biden’s fault, they shouted. (Sorry, Biden didn’t start the war. Putin did, and it’s entirely on his head.)

That they were fixating more on Biden than Putin seemed weirdly myopic, even unpatriotic. I suspect that their much-lamented president-in-exile, the Orange Menace himself, was still wafting his warped brainwaves into their heads. Trump had actually praised Putin’s Ukraine campaign as “genius” – although he backpedaled a bit once it became clear that his Russian mentor was waging an all-out war.

Meanwhile, Russian troops and hardware are poised outside Kiev. The Ukrainians have given the Russians more of a fight than they bargained for, but it’s probably just a matter of time before Putin’s boys deploy the heavy armaments. And if they do — if they rain destruction on Kiev and target Zelensky and his family – Russia will be a pariah among nations for at least the next generation. Putin’s victory would be an empty and extremely costly one.

The nuclear threat remains troubling. Putin has put his country’s nuclear “deterrence” force on “high alert.” Is he crazy enough to go atomic? The man has lived in virtual isolation since the start of the pandemic, and some pundits fear that his mind may be unraveling.

I doubt if Putin is demented enough to start a nuclear war. He has to know that his action would immediately trigger a reciprocal response from the US and other Western nuclear powers. Moscow, St. Petersburg and Russia’s industrial areas would lie in ruins, and the terrible onus would be on Putin alone.

Russia is a great but perpetually troubled land that freed itself from communist bondage only to fall prey to another autocrat. But here’s the upside to this whole tragic saga: Putin might push his people’s tolerance to the limit. His megalomania and repressive leadership, coupled with the heavy sanctions imposed by the West, might finally provoke a popular uprising that results in his abrupt removal from power, dead or alive.

But here’s our best hope: Putin’s downfall could spark rebellions against the spreading worldwide wave of autocratic leadership – the kind of leadership that always starts with populist appeal and culminates in tyranny. Let’s look forward to the day that the wiser nations wake up and discover that their strutting emperor has no clothes.

 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate. His three brilliant but inexplicably overlooked collections of darkly humorous essays are available on Amazon (or wherever else e-books are sold) for the ridiculously low price of $2.99 each – less than a latte at Starbucks, and considerably more fortifying.

All material in The New Moderate is copyright 2007-2022, but feel free to post material from the site as long as you credit Rick Bayan as the author.

Where Do We Go from Here?

January 31, 2022

When I vaulted into the blogosphere nearly fifteen years ago, I was brimming with naïve middle-aged bravado. I’d fire the shot that would rouse America’s moderates from their slumber. I’d inflame them with righteous rhetoric like some latter-day Patrick Henry. I’d exhort them to do battle with the extremists to the left and right of us. Finally (and most importantly), we moderates would build a movement that would clear the way for common sense and fairness to dominate our politics. We might even win the more reasonable liberals and conservatives to our cause.

After some initial press coverage and supportive gestures from fellow moderate bloggers, The New Moderate flourished for a while, generated plenty of heat in the comments section, and satisfied my urge to spread moderation across the land. I was finally doing what I had expected to do after earning my master’s in journalism all those decades ago: writing my own brand of incisive, colorful, sometimes over-the-top political and cultural commentary in the shadow of my long-dead idol, H. L. Mencken.

Well, we all know how that turned out. Moderates are more marginalized and intimidated than ever, bullied into near-silence by sniffish wokesters and hard-boiled right-wingers alike. I’ve found it impossible to generate anything resembling a moderate consensus; we’re just too independent a breed to travel in a herd. No amen corners for us… no worshipful huzzahs for our standard-bearers. My readers can’t even agree on whether I’m too far left or too far right to qualify as a bona fide moderate.

So what is to be done, as Lenin famously asked during the birth of a different revolutionary era. My advice, for what it’s worth: de-escalate. The only way to deal with a dangerously politicized culture is to stop obsessing about politics and encourage others to do the same.

I’m sorry, but viruses, vaccines, guns, women’s bodies, perfectionism, grammar, the Oscars – even race and gender – have to stop splitting us along political lines. There’s nothing inherently political about any of the aforesaid issues.

I can remember when a “community” was simply a geographical place populated by neighbors from all walks of life. Today the word has come to mean a tribe of virtually interchangeable individuals “who look and think like us.” That has to stop. And we stop it by 1) shedding our tribal labels and 2) being neighborly enough to engage with people who DON’T look and think like us.

Just talk to them as one human to another: ordinary people with families, dreams, hardships, passions, regrets, humor, pet peeves and common interests. No labels, no clinging to “identity.” Simply talk, share your experiences, listen, and understand. Eventually the heat will dissipate, and just maybe we can be neighbors again.

Easier said than done? Most likely, but we simply can’t afford not to give it a try. 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate. His brilliant, dark-humored (and inexplicably overlooked) essays are available in three e-books for the ridiculously low price of $2.99 each. They’re available on Amazon and wherever else e-books are sold. 

Another Divisive Year Bites the Dust

December 31, 2021

As 2020 was wheezing to its close a year ago, most of us were looking forward to a fresh start in 2021. You can hardly blame us. Between the killer coronavirus plague and the often-rancorous “racial reckoning” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder-by-cop, we were emerging from just possibly the most hellacious year in recent American memory.

The prospects looked promising: a new, relatively normal presidential administration headed by an empathetic soul with a reputation for working across the aisle… the retirement of the most divisive and verbally reckless president in U.S. history… Covid vaccines rolling out to spare us from death, lockdowns and a perpetually masked way of life. What could go wrong?

American tribalism – that’s the simplest answer. On the right, three-quarters of Republicans believed (and still believe) that Trump was robbed of a second term, despite all evidence to the contrary. On January 6, hundreds of Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the official vote count — while Trump himself reportedly enjoyed the spectacle on TV even after multiple conservative pundits privately begged him to stop the madness.

On the left, self-righteous wokesters turned positively Orwellian in their crusade to eradicate “wrongthink” from academia and the media alike. Dissenting renegades were reported to authorities, doxxed, disciplined and frequently expelled. Even corporations hopped on the bandwagon with compulsory “antiracism” training, comparable to the forced loyalty oaths of the McCarthy era.

Worst of all, the pandemic became politicized. Not only politicized, but tribalized. The personal freedom tribe went to war with the social responsibility tribe: refusing to get vaccinated… bristling at imposed lockdowns and safety mandates… screaming at baristas and flight attendants who asked them to mask up… clinging to wild theories that the Deep State was somehow conspiring to control their lives and (via the vaccine) their DNA.

Did The New Moderate stay moderate through all this insanity? Yes and no — I spent much of the year heaping infamy on the wretched excesses of the Trumpsters and wokesters alike. Like the dying (but still feisty) Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, I felt like yelling “A plague on both your houses!” But I usually tried to temper my rage with reason.

For example, I’ll freely admit that Joe Biden hasn’t exactly wowed us during his first year in office. He’s been strangely invisible, at least compared to his predecessor. He botched our exit from Afghanistan, and his “Build Back Better” initiatives were far too sweeping to gain approval from both parties. But even the most astute president wouldn’t have been able to prevent the explosive crime waves in our cities, the creeping inflation, the surge of illegal immigrants at the southern border, and the prolonged, ever-evolving pandemic.

When several of my friends in the anti-Biden tribe started mocking the president’s mental faculties and calling for him to resign or be impeached, I politely reminded them who would succeed Biden if he stepped aside. (They might still revile the man, but I think they’ll be pulling for him to serve the rest of his term.)

I did battle with the wokesters, too. When my state rep announced on Facebook that he introduced a bill proclaiming Thanksgiving as “a day of mourning” for the native tribes who suffered at the hands of white colonists, I told him he was doing his best to drain the joy from one of America’s most beloved holidays. Again, I tried to restrain my outrage – although I did refer to the bill as “wokeness on steroids.”

What about my position on the pandemic? I had no choice but to cast my lot with the “social responsibility” tribe. I’d try to convince my anti-vaxxer friends that their personal freedom ends where it puts others in harm’s way. After all, the exercise of freedom can’t include the right to murder, steal, or – by refusing to take the necessary precautions — infect our fellow-humans with a deadly virus.

Did I convince those anti-vaxxer friends? Nope. They had to maintain their tribal solidarity above all else. Even if they caught the virus themselves or watched loved ones suffer and possibly die from it, I suspect they’d be hard-pressed to change their views.

That’s the raw power of tribalism in America today: like orthodox religions, our contemporary brand of tribalism is a matter of faith, emotion and collective loyalty. Reason, facts and individualism have no home in these tribes, and wayward thinkers must be excommunicated.

That rigid intolerance can work in our favor, believe it or not. As the extremists grow ever more extreme, they’ll be driving most of the remaining rational thinkers out of their ranks. Liberals like Bill Maher and John McWhorter have been denouncing the excesses of wokery, while sensible conservatives like George Will have distanced themselves from the Trump cult.

We moderates need to follow their lead and be fearless in disputing the irrational beliefs of wokesters and Trumpsters alike. (Retired renegades like me have nothing to lose; we can’t be dragged before the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee or canceled by GOP power brokers.) We have to stop the extremists from dominating the conversation. We have to stop them from bullying freethinkers. And we stop them by talking back to them without fear of the consequences.

Will we be called transphobic for insisting that biological males shouldn’t be allowed to compete in women’s sports? Sure. Will we be dubbed racist for criticizing rioters who loot and burn businesses? Of course. Will conservative friends call us socialists for defending the environment, supporting subsidized healthcare, or knocking CEOs who earn 500 times more than their secretaries? Most likely. Will they turn on us when we blame anti-vaxxers for prolonging the pandemic? Possibly, but not our best friends.

During crazy times, the standard derogatory epithets have lost their punch. We independent thinkers need to see through the craziness and be unafraid to speak up. That doesn’t mean we oppose wokeness by turning racist, or that we clobber Republicans simply because they might have voted for Trump. It means we plant our feet in the center and aggressively defend our ground.

We won’t win any converts by mocking the people who hold extremist beliefs; that strategy only raises their hackles and reinforces their tribal bond. Besides, it’s dehumanizing. I still believe we should treat our ideological opponents with respect. We just don’t have to respect their ideas.

We probably won’t change the extremists’ hardwired biases. But if enough of us raise our voices fearlessly without resorting to ridicule, we might help the extremists see just how extreme they are. Better yet, we might be able to engage them in a rational conversation and talk them back down to earth with the rest of us. That can only be a good thing — and besides, we moderates could use the company. At the end of another crazy year, it feels lonelier than ever in the middle. 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate. His three brilliant (but inexplicably overlooked) collections of dark-humored essays are available in e-book form on Amazon and elsewhere for the ridiculously low price of $2.99 each.

 

The New Moderate Gives Thanks

November 24, 2021

Even George Orwell couldn’t have concocted a more dystopian society than the America we’ve known for the past few years – and he was the acknowledged master at concocting dystopian societies.

Instead of a passive populace dominated by the ever-watchful eye of “Big Brother,” we’re greeted by the spectacle of a once-proud nation split into two squabbling tribes. Each tribe comes equipped with its own sacred narratives, brazen politicians, propaganda outlets, online amen corners and torrents of self-righteous rhetoric whipping the faithful into frenzies of irrational anger and mutual loathing.

The left continues to spread its myopic race-obsessed dogma through the conduits of academia, journalism and corporate America. They’ve conveniently redefined racism and white supremacy so that the majority of us must plead guilty. (Correct grammar? Objective reasoning? Merit? Math? Individualism? Mea culpa! Please don’t hate me!)

Meanwhile, the militant right slips farther into a dark bog of conspiracy theories, anti-Democrat hysteria, gun fetishes, knee-jerk resistance to science, and an unhealthy fixation on their ousted orange-skinned leader, who’s still pushing the buttons of his followers and pulling the strings of Republican politicians who’d like to stay in office.

Of course, virtually nobody listens to the sensible voices that still emanate from the center. And if the extremists do listen to them, they go out of their way to silence them. Leftist social justice warriors cancel anyone whose wayward opinions depart from woke scripture (even if they’ve been dead two hundred years), while right-wing Republicans threaten their more reasonable colleagues who dare to cooperate with the Democrats – even for the good of the country. Both tribes come complete with inquisitors whose job it is to purify the ranks by expelling the heretics.

What else? How about the statue topplers, white vigilantes, black segregationists, Trump insurrectionists, The 1619 Project, hoarders of assault weapons, and the woke editors of the AP Stylebook who decided to capitalize “Black” but leave “white” in lower case? Oh, and let’s not forget our beloved social media outlets for turning former friends into screeching adversaries. (Keep it up, America, especially if you’re itching for a second Civil War.)

To top it off, this madness is taking place within the context of the worst pandemic since Woodrow Wilson was president – a pandemic that keeps reinventing itself with new strains of the abominable bug, thanks partly to the hordes of obstinate anti-vaxxers who help keep it in circulation. The rest of us take our shots in the arm, wear our masks at the supermarket and hope we don’t get sneezed upon at point-blank range by a clueless covid carrier.

So, you might ask, what exactly does The New Moderate have to be thankful about? Well, I’m still alive – and if you’re reading this, so are you. Where there’s life, after all, there’s hope – and mirth, love, passion, creativity, sympathy and kindness, not to mention cynicism, chagrin, spleen, vexation and all the other colorful responses to life that prove we’re not ready to become coffin fodder. I prefer being a curmudgeon to being dead, don’t you? Possessing a live body comes in handy for all manner of amusing earthly pursuits, even as we approach terminal geezerhood.

What else moves me to give thanks? Food — especially turkey and cranberry sauce this time of year – but even granola, spinach and legumes. Where would we be without the nourishment that keeps our bodies from sputtering out and decaying prematurely? I give thanks for tap water, too. What a miracle it is that I can simply turn a spigot and guzzle pure H2O without having to dig a well in my yard or pay $1.50 a pop for commercial spring water in flimsy plastic bottles.

Friends and relatives come in handy, too – especially when we grow tired of talking to ourselves. Pets give us affection when almost nobody else will. Books, movies and TV take us to interesting places without getting us mugged, kidnapped or thrown into a river wearing cement shoes. Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, even if the latter-day descendants of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Scott Joplin sound relatively savage themselves.

And how about the natural world? Trees, meadows, wooded trails, mountains, beaches, pristine lakes and cascading brooks, birdsongs and wildflowers, fall foliage, snowflakes and spring rain – all wholesome and good and worthy of our gratitude. 

Manmade monuments deserve our thanks, too: the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, the Great Wall of China, the surviving splendors of Greece and Rome, the Gothic cathedrals of Western Europe, Independence Hall, the Empire State Building – tangible reminders that we’re heirs to civilizations greater and more lasting than our petty tribal identities of the moment.

I have to thank my readers, too – the contrarians as well as the cheerleaders, and everyone in between. Without you, I’d essentially be playing tennis with myself. It always helps to have someone across the net to keep our reflexes sharp and supple.

I’m even tempted to thank the architects of our current social, cultural and political divide. Why? For engineering such a godawful mess that only dedicated moderates like us can patch it up and create some semblance of domestic tranquility. I’m confident that the extremists will have to listen to us eventually or be marginalized into insignificance. They’ve made us indispensable, and for that small favor The New Moderate is eternally grateful.

 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate. His three brilliant (but inexplicably overlooked) collections of dark-humored essays are available as e-books for just $2.99 each on Amazon or wherever else e-books are sold. 

All material in The New Moderate copyright 2007-2021 by Rick Bayan — but feel free to quote from this site as long as you credit me as the author.

Confessions of an Embattled Moderate

October 7, 2021

Let’s face it: being an outspoken moderate is a thankless and even hazardous job. I’ve tussled online with warriors from the left and right, and I have to wonder if I’ve ever changed a single wayward opinion. Worse yet, the warriors use moderates like me for target practice.

I’ll never forget the time I defended Kate Smith in a Facebook forum. The late Southern songstress was being “canceled” here in Philadelphia because, in the high recklessness of her youth 90 years ago, she recorded a plaintive song called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” No matter that black singer/actor/far-left activist Paul Robeson recorded the same song. That one recording — out of three thousand songs Kate Smith recorded over her long career — proved to be her posthumous undoing. Her statue was promptly shrouded under a burqa-like tarp (lest sensitive souls feel offended by her presence) and finally hauled off to oblivion

When I voiced my dismay in that online forum, I was ambushed by a “woke” business professor (apparently not an oxymoron) from a local university. Not content merely to take issue with my defense of Ms. Smith, he checked my Facebook profile and proceeded to taunt me for being divorced, narcissistic, and whatever else he could throw in my direction to delegitimize me as a valid human. (These days, it’s not enough to disagree; you have to go for the kill.)

I’ve taken heat from black friends who slam me for criticizing BLM tactics and call me “patronizing” when I sympathize with innocent black murder victims. (And when I defend myself, they throw the “white fragility” label in my face.) There’s no winning against such watertight double-binds, so I’ve given up trying to move any hardened minds in that sphere.

Lately I’ve had more online run-ins with right-wing friends who subscribe to the usual conspiracy theories regarding the 2020 election, climate change, the Deep State, the dreaded covid vaccine, mask mandates and the malignant senility of Joe Biden. Like the ideologues at the opposite end of the spectrum, they’ve formed a protective shell around their beliefs and won’t be moved by any rational arguments to the contrary. They simply hunker down and take potshots at me from their foxholes.

Even here at The New Moderate, nearly every column I write tends to elicit protests of one sort or another. I’m too far left… no, I’m too far right. (No amen corner for me, even on my home turf.)

Granted, I wouldn’t expect (or even want) my fellow moderates to agree with my every pronouncement. We’re not ideologues, after all, so we’re not inclined to march in lockstep. But it doesn’t bode well for the future of our hyper-polarized republic if we moderates can’t speak with a strong and reasonably coherent voice – a voice that can influence the more reasonable liberals and conservatives to join us in opposition to the raging extremists.

 I’ve been plugging away at The New Moderate for fourteen years now, and here’s the sorry fruit of my labors: aside from the fact that my readership would barely populate a small town in Mongolia, moderates today are more marginalized in American politics than before I launched this site. The diehard wokesters and MAGA-maniacs garner all the attention, stir the blood, and fuel the opposing tribe’s outrage, which only energizes them to spout yet more borderline-insane demands and proclamations. In short, both tribes thrive on anger.

Meanwhile, the sensible middle withers from neglect and indifference. We lack the loud and strident voices, the blustering self-assurance (OK, I admit I enjoy blustering now and then), the sympathetic media outlets and amen corners that keep the extremists in business. We moderates can’t even seem to decide who we are. We’re not ideologues, after all, and we have no dogma to define our tribe. We dwell under a large and accommodating tent.

Think about the fanatical fervor of the extremists. For the left, wokeness has filled the place of historically intolerant orthodox religions like Islam, medieval Catholicism and Puritanism: the same humorless zeal, the shared myths and delusions, the hostility toward outsiders and the persecution of heretics within their ranks. They use shibboleths like “Hate has no home here,” “diversity, equity and inclusion,” “intersectionality,” “cultural appropriation,” “decolonizing,” and “Defund the police” to recognize one another in a crowd… to cement their cohesion… to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The far right, for the most part, still embraces orthodox religion: a Republican brand of evangelical Christianity that favors the individualistic “be saved or be damned” preaching of St. Paul over the more compassionate teachings of Jesus, who probably would have been a Democrat today. But like their left-wing counterparts, the far right dabbles in secular shibboleths, too. Uttering terms like “Second Amendment rights,” “illegals,” “Deep State,” and “Stop the steal” will automatically ingratiate them with their like-minded peers.

How can moderates hope to compete with fanatics? Do we need our own set of shibboleths to build tribal cohesion? (“Stay centered”… “Hold the middle ground”… “Yes, but…”?)

No, I’ve concluded that building a moderate movement is a noble but ultimately futile enterprise, as long as so many Americans respond to naked emotion, overheated rhetoric and sacred narratives over the exercise of reason and fairness – and as long as moderates can’t agree on what to agree on.

Am I ready to quit my fourteen-year experiment, then? Not just yet, although I’ll probably want to ditch the vexations of politics sooner rather than later. My remaining time on this mysterious planet is growing shorter every day. I’d prefer to spend those days romping in nature, exploring backwaters of history, finding lasting love, reading at least ten percent of the unread books on my shelves, writing one or two more under my own name, seeing my teenage son graduate to fulfilling manhood, and being of service to my fellow humans. Can you blame me?

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate. His three brilliant (but inexplicably overlooked) collections of dark-humored essays are available on Amazon (and wherever else e-books are sold) for the ridiculously low price of $2.99 each. That’s less than a latte at Starbucks, and considerably more fortifying.

Exit from Afghanistan: the Good, the Bad and the Predictable

August 31, 2021

What can you say about a twenty-year war that ended with a messy, embarrassing and totally demoralizing exit?

That it was unwinnable? Sure, at least for the U.S. We should have learned from our hard experience in Vietnam that you can’t beat a ragtag army of fanatical guerrillas. Why not? Number one, you can’t declare victory by capturing their capital. The warriors simply disperse into the countryside and wait – five, ten, twenty or more years if necessary. Number two, they never surrender like the conventional nation-states of yore. You’d have to hunt the warriors down and kill every last one of them – an impossible task for even the best-equipped army.

No, even the most optimistic military brass should have known that our “liberation” of Afghanistan from its medieval Taliban overlords, coming soon after our invasion in 2001, was just a temporary blip in the history of that remote and inscrutable land. Less of a nation than a motley collection of mountain tribes, Afghanistan has long enjoyed a reputation as “the graveyard of empires” – somehow mustering the ability to foil the three greatest world powers of the past two centuries: first the British, then the Soviets, and finally us.

That much was predictable. What shocked everyone was the suddenness of the collapse… the breathtaking speed of the Taliban resurgence… the sorry capitulation of the U.S.-trained Afghan army… the capture of Kabul while thousands of Americans and Afghan allies still waited to escape… the desperate scenes at the airport… and finally the suicide bombing that killed 13 Americans and some 170 Afghans before they could make their getaway. Biden’s defiant “We will hunt you down” and our successful drone attacks on the authors of the suicide bombing were too little, too late.

In short, the optics were terrible, and in a world dominated by pictures and sound bites, optics matter. The U.S. looked like a hapless dog that had just been soundly thrashed, whimpering as it skulked away with its tail between its legs. International pundits were proclaiming the end of the American “empire.” Partisan Americans (and nearly every American with an opinion seems to be partisan these days) either heaped infamy on President Biden for bungling our exit – or they blamed Trump for having negotiated with the Taliban in the first place. Guess who took the brunt of the abuse.

Both sides of the argument have merit. Biden was foolish to announce our departure date in advance; he might as well have told the Taliban, “It’s all yours – come and get it!” Meanwhile, how were we supposed to evacuate all those U.S. troops and Afghan allies – not to mention the billions of dollars in military hardware – before the enemy closed in and made evacuation impossible? That we managed to rush nearly 150,000 fellow humans out of the hellhole was a minor miracle, but by holding firm to our pre-announced August 31 departure date, we left up to 200 Americans and countless desperate Afghans stranded. Will they ever escape? We’d do what we could to aid their eventual exit, but essentially we were telling the world, “Not our problem.”

That damnable departure date – after twenty years of war, what difference would a few extra weeks have made? When the Taliban threatened “dire consequences” if we overstayed our self-imposed deadline, Biden should have promptly responded with an upraised middle finger and a show of military strength. We needed to stay in Afghanistan until everyone who wanted to get out got out – simple as that. We don’t answer to medieval fanatics – or anyone else, for that matter – especially after we’ve spent two decades and $2 trillion trying to rescue a downtrodden people from the grip of religious tyrants.

So yes, Biden bungled our exit and let us look like losers in the eyes of the world despite a mostly successful airlift out of Afghanistan. Even the left-leaning mainstream media were critical. And yet Trump’s base gave their hero a pass for 1) having negotiated directly with the Taliban without consulting the Afghan government, 2) authorizing the release of some 5,000 (count ‘em) Taliban prisoners to commit mayhem across the country, and 3) announcing a May 2021 departure date for U.S. personnel. (Biden wasn’t the only president who invited the Taliban to “Come and get it.”)

Why the double standard? For one, Trump was already out of office when his exit strategy came to its sour fruition. And of course, Trump’s diehard base would give him a pass on anything short of dancing on the grave of JFK. (On second thought, maybe he’d have to dance on Ronald Reagan’s grave to incur their displeasure.)

So we’ve finally bailed out of an unwinnable war after twenty years. It was something we needed to do, although it should have been done more expertly. But did anything good emerge from our Asiatic adventure – anything that justified the deaths of 2,400 U.S. troops, nearly 4,000 contractors, and over 120,000 Afghans?

Well, nothing could have justified the loss of that many lives. But for twenty years, we gave the people of Afghanistan a taste of life free from the dictates of radical Islam. An entire generation of Afghan women grew up with the knowledge that they could shed their burqas, go to school, work alongside men, and walk freely on the streets without shame or fear. Meanwhile, the men were liberated from their compulsory patriarchal beards. They were even free to fly their beloved kites, which the Taliban had banned when they took power back in the ‘90s.

It won’t be easy to return to Taliban-enforced regulations – even the “kinder, gentler” Taliban that its spokesmen have been relentlessly promoting. Freedom is a heady potion, and now that the Afghans have tasted it, they won’t be as willing to submit to theocratic despots.

As for the U.S., we’ve learned that we can’t build a nation to our specifications, but we can use our influence to promote a culture that embraces individual freedom. Amid all the hand-wringing over our public humiliation, that’s one thing we can still celebrate.

 

Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate. His three collections of dark-humored essays are available as Kindle-compatible e-books for the ridiculously low price of $2.99 each. (Just go to Amazon and search under Rick Bayan.)

Freedom vs. Selfishness: What’s the Difference?

July 31, 2021

I’m a man of generally moderate inclinations, and not only in my politics. Slow to anger, I tend to lose my temper mainly when dealing with uncooperative inanimate objects or computer programs whose sole purpose is to drive me to terminal exasperation. (Oh, and reckless drivers, too. And those rare people who have crossed me just once too often.)

But lately I’ve felt a powerful urge to bump some heads together, and that urge isn’t going away. We’ve spent the past year-and-a-half in the throes of a brutal pandemic. We have the tools we need to end it. And yet the same people who rebelled against the masks-and-distancing mandates are rebelling against the vaccine that would lift those restrictions once and for all. And guess what: now the damned virus is on the rebound.

It’s all about freedom of choice, the rebels insist. Their cocksure contrariness in the face of a cure must send an exhilarating rush of endorphins coursing through their bodies. How liberating to sneer at the (mostly liberal) elites who place their faith in the vaccine! Yet how ironic when the anti-vaxxers end up hospitalized! Die they might (and the unvaccinated currently account for well over 99% of Covid deaths), but they’ve stood their ground and fired a salvo for personal freedom!

A few weeks ago I had an online run-in with a former columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. A smart, charming and generally reasonable conservative who attaches selfies to 90% of her Facebook posts, she confessed to having been vaccinated but insisted that the decision should be a personal one. And fie on the judgmental do-gooders who shame the unvaccinated!

I had to speak up. As tactfully as possible, I wrote that it’s no longer a personal choice when it potentially affects the health of others and perpetuates the pandemic. We stop at red lights to keep ourselves and others safe, don’t we? Yes, it’s a temporary infringement on our freedom, but we accept that personal restriction for the public good. Same with the vaccine: those who refuse it are putting their own interests above those of their neighbors and society as a whole. In other words, they’re being selfish.

Within minutes, I took heat for “shaming” the anti-vaxxers. I was no different than those self-righteous elitists, she scolded me. But it’s not as if I called the anti-vaxxers stupid or even ignorant. One can’t help being stupid, and ignorance is tough to overcome. But it’s easy to avoid being selfish. We simply need to think about how our choices affect others.

Note that I’ve always shunned the collectivist mindset; after all, it’s responsible for some of the most horrendous revolutions and genocides in history. Why? Because the collectivists’ obsession with class denies our individuality. Like the Old Testament God on a bad day, they punish the good along with the evil without regard for personal merit.

I’m an individualist in the sense that I cultivate my own garden and bow to none of the mandatory groupthink that’s intimidating free thought these days. As the great Samuel Johnson put it, “I hope I shall never be deterr’d from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.” Our minds are the last refuge of our individual selves. Surrender them to the self-appointed intellectual tyrants and we’re no freer than slaves.

But I’m also aware that individualism has its limits. Unless we’re living as solitary woodland savages, we’re members of society. As such, we agree to surrender some freedoms in exchange for a civilized life: we’re not allowed to steal, murder, vandalize, exploit, assault, or ignore those red lights, and neither are our neighbors. It makes for social harmony, even if Ayn Rand would be twirling in her grave at the thought of all that abject cooperation.

Think of baseball, that most American sport: the players are free to compile individual stats that inflate (or ruin) their reputations, but at the same time they play their hearts out for the success of the team. Baseball provides the perfect balance between individualism and responsibility, and we could look to it as a model for life in a civil society.

The extreme individualists who oppose the Covid vaccine have less in common than we might suspect. Yes, many of them are diehard Trumpsters, but their numbers also include honest skeptics, conspiracy theorists, poor blacks, poor whites, and (of course) cranky libertarians who refuse to go along with the masses. What they have in common is this: they’re prioritizing their personal agenda over the health of society. By refusing to get vaccinated, they’re allowing the virus to keep spreading and mutating until it could resist all attempts to rein it in. Their personal freedom has crossed the boundary into selfishness.

Individual freedom is sacred, but some crises call on us to sacrifice a little of that freedom and pull together for the public good: a just war, a major depression, an alien invasion – and a once-in-a-century pandemic that we should have been able to vanquish with the jab of a needle. You’d think any reasonable person would see the logic of getting vaccinated, but we’re just not an especially reasonable country these days.

 

Rick Bayan is founder/editor of The New Moderate. His three volumes of darkly humorous essays are available as e-books on Amazon for the ridiculously low price of $2.99 each.

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