The Rise of the Rabble-Rousers and the Assault on Reason
It’s one of the great ironies that in an era where communication has never been easier, it feels as if our politics has never been more unpleasant.
This is a consequence of us ceding the responsibility of defining our political culture to obstreperous rabble-rousers and victim-hustlers.
Being respectable in this environment doesn’t lie in how persuasive you can be; rather, it lies in how much you can rile up your team. The social approval you can get from your emotional appeals—even if you’re wrong—bestows upon you a reputation of someone whose wisdom we all should heed. Trying to convince your opponents isn’t worth the labour, so the only recourse is to deploy your allies to delegitimize them with smear campaigns. Mobbing and public shaming aren’t novelties. Our technological advancements have only made them more convenient as tactics, and more salient features of public life.
Since this has become a quotidian occurrence, demagogues have emerged and are now a dominant force. Demagogy is also a bipartisan phenomenon that transcends ideological lines.
The most conspicuous culprit on the left as of late has been Matthew Sears. Sears is the professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of New Brunswick who has cultivated a fascinating Twitter persona. He has cast himself as a tough, confrontational fighter who is tireless in his efforts to advance the cause of social justice.
He is a perfect simulacrum of the personality that’s common in the social justice faction: a boisterous moralist who reinforces their superiority complex with the curious mixture of narcissism and self-loathing.
An erstwhile classical liberal, Sears submitted to the social justice clergy after “acknowledging his privilege.” In a Globe and Mail article, he wrote regretfully about how he used to agree with those who believe that “competition and individuality allow the cream to rise to the top.” He then had a change of heart and decided that classical liberalism was “cruel and self-serving to those already advantaged.” Of course, the first step in bringing about true progress is recognizing your privilege and wallowing in it.
Sears beseeches others to “check their privilege” and live up to the moral standards that only he can set. Yet there is scant evidence that he’s doing anything meaningful for the oppressed. He just reminds them that they’re victims and identifies those they can blame.
With alacrity, Sears routinely unleashes a round of epithets against his opponents and then frames it as substantive critique.
Sears has been peddling his idea that the MAGA hat is a “symbol of hate” in a way that’s akin to the Ku Klux Klan hood. What’s more, he has averred that those who wear it are advocating for policies that lead to human tragedies like the Holocaust.
The smearing of an entire group of people because they wear a hat he dislikes is a classic example of the intellectual sloth that he frequently exhibits. In his collectivist mind, every single person who adorns their head with it holds the same exact beliefs on every question.
I suspect there’d be a moment of cognitive dissonance if he were asked to apply this logic to those who wear Che Guevara T-shirts. Would this evince their liking for firing squads and imprisoning and torturing their political opponents? I expect him to cavil at such a question. Professors like Jordan Goldstein of Wilfrid Laurier have rightly taken him to task for his specious reasoning.
Nuance is a foreign concept to him. Seeing how much time he spends proselytizing his fallacies, he also seems to relish that fact. Jonathan Kay summarizes his regimen of nonsense as saying something ridiculous, getting called out for it, then making more bizarre arguments to back up his point during a cycle that can last hours.
Sears has also targeted the academics behind the Grievance Studies hoax in an essay wherein he contended that there was a “racial aspect” to their project as it undermined the “legitimacy of modern approaches to race and racism.” He accused James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose of “co-opting and decontextualizing” Martin Luther King Jr. with their assertion that he’d stand against identity politics, but offered no information that contradicts their claims.
In fact, Lindsay and Pluckrose have it right. MLK was a proponent of the American Constitution and its Enlightenment individualism. His beef was that America had reneged upon the document’s promises and judged Blacks based on their identity instead of as individuals. He dreamed of a day when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” The thought that MLK would approve of the militant “white fragility” theories being propounded in 2019 is simply delusional.
Nevertheless, Sears laments the intellectual veneration of the Enlightenment since “Enlightenment-era values” were used to “justify scientific slavery.” Views on race were obviously morbid in the 18th century but that’s not because of the Enlightenment. Slavery is also not a sin that’s unique to white Europeans; some Europeans were even captured as slaves by the Barbary pirates, and the Islamic Empire. The fixation on the crimes of the West is quite bemusing and myopic.
Especially since embracing those pesky “Enlightenment-era values” also helped abolitionists like Frederick Douglass bring about the end of the depraved practice. But then again, don’t expect a demagogue of this magnitude to show a morsel of intellectual honesty when it comes to these matters.
Portraying herself as a warrior for conservatism while doing all she can to sabotage it, Candace Owens is the right’s answer to people like Sears on the left. Her brand can be summarized as one of uninformed statements, unabashed hypocrisy, and opportunism. It’s still uncertain if she’s actually a conservative, or only riding the coattails of the pushback against leftism. Cathy Young put it best in her Quillette piece: “Whether Candace Owens has any ideas at all besides the advancement of Candace Owens is very much in question.”
Based on her performances thus far, Owens is really a leftist in conservative clothing. In 2015, she wrote that the American Constitution “belongs in a museum” and doesn’t deserve celebration because the Founders weren’t “morally sound individuals.” People change (my 2015 self would be aghast at who I am today), but Owens has failed to convince me that she’s changed much at all. She argues in a similar fashion from her position on the right and is too preoccupied with her own notoriety.
Suspending her critical faculties, Owens resolutely toes the party line on every issue. To the point where one thinks she’s petrified to deviate in case a fellow traveller asks for something beyond bromidic catchphrases. She’s perfectly happy regurgitating Trumpian talking points if it means it will make her persona non grata to the left.
She’s also perfectly willing to resort to identity politics to disparage her critics. When Chris Evans criticized Kanye West’s support of Trump, Owens erroneously accused Evans of “suggesting” that black people who disagreed with him were “stupid.” She refers to white liberals as “oppressors who NEED us to accept our status as less than them” in a self-defeating refutation of the easily debunked notion of white privilege.
For someone who apparently challenges groupthink, Owens isn’t above encouraging it amongst her followers. Watching members of the Blexit movement announce their departure from the Democratic Plantation feels like watching a cult initiation. Followers are also enjoined to not be skeptical of those who also pledge allegiance to the conservative cause. Because reassessing the company you keep isn’t conducive to a movement’s success in Owens’ strange world.
Then there’s the serious lack in judgment she showcased recently when she claimed that the real problem with Hitler was that he “wanted to globalize,” and wasn’t “about putting Germans first.” Is she an acolyte of Hitler? No. Are there intellectuals who have made a similar case with more perceptiveness? Yes. But it doesn’t matter; Owens’ noticeable ignorance of history and politics should give people pause, particularly those so inclined to sing the praises of her ostensible brilliance.
She’s nothing more than a demagogue. What’s more disheartening is that stalwart defenders of liberty—Ben Shapiro and Douglas Murray, for example—see nothing amiss with having someone like Owens hailed as one of its key exponents. Owens’ antics take the attention away from young commentators like Josephine Mathias and Coleman Hughes, who without trepidation challenge racial orthodoxies with refreshing erudition.
We should unquestionably oppose the nihilism being pushed by the radical left. With that said, our efforts mustn’t be at the expense of our integrity. Some internecine battles are worth fighting to help our values triumph. If we let the rabble-rousers on our side take the reins as a temporary expedient, defending the Enlightenment from radical forces who seek to obliterate it will be that much more arduous a task.