The “Murder on the Orient Express” Theory of American Politics

Top Stories of the Year, #1

I have spent this week counting down the top stories of 2017. At #5 is the moral reform movement, quickly devolving into a moral panic, about sexual harassment. At #4 is the ominous new conflict between white nationalism and Communism, which worked out so well in Germany in the 1930s. At #3 is the ineffectiveness of the self-styled “Resistance” against the Trump administration, and at #2 is the conundrum posed by Trump himself, who has been better than expected in some ways, but worse in ways that might prove more important over the long run.

What surprises me is what emerged as the top story of this year. I found that I spent a lot of time this year trying to analyze the deeper cultural problems behind our immediate political conflicts, and generally trying to grab people by the lapels and shake them into some form of self-reflection. That includes just about everybody.

Since it is on the cultural radar this year, thanks to a new movie adaptation, I can best explain this by reference to the Agatha Christie story Murder on the Orient Express.

But first an important spoiler warning. Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s best stories, and its ending is so creative and interesting that you shouldn’t have it spoiled for you if you don’t already know it. That’s way more important than finishing an article on politics, especially since were in Christmas vacation already and nothing is really that urgent.

So if you don’t know the story—well, it’s in theaters right now. There are also excellent versions available for streaming. (David Suchet will always be Hercule Poirot for me, so I recommend that one.) Or read a book, for crying out loud. Then come back to this.

The genius of Agatha Christie is in the way she presented the murder-mystery plot in myriad creative variations that played against readers’ expectations. Murder on the Orient Express is a classic English country house mystery, just with a train in place of the house. The setting gives you a diverse but limited group of suspects, and the job of our detective is to winnow them down, eliminating suspects one by one until he finds the real killer.

The genius of Murder on the Orient Express—I did give a spoiler warning, didn’t I?—is that it flips this on its head. Our hero can’t winnow down the suspects because everybody did it. All of them had a hand in the killing.

I saw this referred to a while back in a scientific context, where paleontologists studying the extinction of the dinosaurs referred to one view as “the Murder on the Orient Express theory”—the idea that many different factors combined to kill the dinosaurs, so that “everybody did it.”

I have a similar theory about the awful state of politics in 2017: everybody did it. There is blame to spread around in all directions, and rather than being an occasion for partisan sniping, this should be an era of national soul-searching.

That’s basically what I spent most of the year urging people to do. And this probably means you.

In the middle of the year, I fell back on an analogy somewhat less refined than a reference to Agatha Christie. I quoted reality-TV star Tim Gunn’s advice to a fashion designer who had gone off the rails.

I have this refrain about the monkey house at the zoo. When you first enter into the monkey house at the zoo, you think, “Oh my god, this place stinks!” And then after you’re there for 20 minutes you think, “it’s not so bad,” and after you’re there for an hour it doesn’t smell at all. And anyone entering the monkey house freshly thinks, “this stinks!”

You’ve been living in the monkey house.

I hailed this as an omen.

If the dumpster fire was the signature analogy for 2016, evoking a particularly smelly and unpleasant kind of out-of-control disaster, then the monkey house should be the signature analogy of 2017—the pungent mental image most appropriate for the era in which we’ve become so used to the insanity that we no longer notice it.

This was in response to some particular new craziness from the president, but it applies to the other side, too. That was demonstrated early in the year with those who declared Trump to be “Not My President,” which “has to do with their expectation of some kind of personal relationship with the man in the nation’s highest political office.”

The need for this sense of a personal bond with the president, for the adulation of a wise leader, goes way beyond the desire to achieve any particular political goal. It is a fundamental need that is inherent in modern leftism. Their whole agenda is to give more power and authority to the government. So it is of paramount importance to them that the government is run by the right kind of people, people with the right kind of education, the proper progressive values and attitudes—in short, people like them. That’s what Obama meant to them. He was their president, which means: at last, one of their kind was given the reins of supreme executive power. And Republicans were bad because they didn’t just get out of his way and let him exercise it.

This also explains why they’re so deeply traumatized by the rise of Trump and have now suddenly discovered the virtues of faux “resistance.” They worked hard to amass all this power, only to have it fall into the hands of such a colossal boor. Funny how that works.

It also applies to some of the remnants of the #NeverTrump movement, who went from being anti-Trump to being Anti-Anti-Anti-Trump. Read more to find out what the heck that means, but the bottom line is this:

Being for or against a single person is not an ideology, and it’s not a stand on principle. It’s the opposite of ideas and principles. It’s only about personal loyalty or enmity. It is not principled, for example, to vigorously oppose the Paris Agreement—then flip-flop on it simply because Trump opposes it.

It’s certainly valid, even necessary, to arrive at an overall estimate of Trump as a leader and as a person. I recently declared him to be foolish and reckless, and I’m sure I’ve said much worse in the past. But if it’s a form of intellectual corruption to be tempted to defend him constantly just because you hate his critics, it’s also an intellectual corruption to attack him constantly, or to give his critics a free pass, just because you don’t like him.

I warned about how this sort of thing was feeding anti-intellectualism on the left and encouraging them to view all politics through the lens of children’s fairy tales.

The irony is that in my lifetime, I’ve gone from seeing stories like “Star Wars” sneered at by cultural elites for their childishly simplistic narrative of good versus evil—back in the 1980s, Robin Williams did a stand-up bit where he lampooned President Reagan as “Obi-Ron Kenobi”—to seeing those same stories embraced by the elites because a childishly simplistic narrative of good versus evil is precisely what they’re looking for.

The double irony is that, as a fan of Ayn Rand’s ideas and fiction, I’ve had many people dismiss her work as adolescent, unsophisticated, and unworthy of being included in a serious discussion of important political issues. A lot of those same people have now adopted Harry Potter, Star Wars, and cartoon superheroes as their go-to political analogies. Say what you will about Ayn Rand’s novels, but at the very least they addressed adult political themes head-on, and they included actual philosophical speeches about human nature and the role of government—ideas a lot more sophisticated than “may the Force be with you.” Yet here we are today, when the novel with long philosophical speeches is considered too “adolescent,” but the stuff with wizards and dragons and ray guns is the height of sophisticated discourse.

I have to confess, though, that I was not above using a Star Wars analogy as a hook to describe how certain disreputable conservative provocateurs illustrate Master Yoda’s warning that hatred is the path to the Dark Side.

[T]he lure of hatred led many on the right to place the need for emotional venting above ideas, principles, standards, and morality. Those who succumbed to this temptation ended up placing their faith in some obviously shady characters and transparent hucksters….

By “hate,” by the way, I do not mean what the left means by that word. For them, it has been reduced to a single, very narrow meaning: “disapproval of homosexuality.” What I mean by “hatred” is what the little green guy means in the movie: the actual emotion of hating someone, of wanting to lash out or strike back at them, even when it’s justified. More broadly, I mean the disastrous error of defining yourself by who you’re against instead of what you’re for. The hate may be well earned, and the left has certainly given whole sections of the general public good reason to despise them. But allowing yourself to be driven by emotion, and particularly by a negative emotion, is ultimately destructive.

How destructive this can be was illustrated by Hollywood director and prominent “Progressive” activist Joss Whedon, whose treatment of actual individuals turned out to be less than compassionate.

“Political Correctness” is just a symptom or manifestation of a larger problem, which is that politics has grown to swallow up life itself. Political virtues have become the only virtues, and mouthing the right platitudes offers you a special dispensation that excuses whatever moral or intellectual sins you might happen to commit….

I’ve been making a point recently about the evils of socialism, and the chief evil isn’t simply material. It’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual. By placing the collective good of “society” over the good of the individual, it provides an all-purpose excuse for every horrible thing done to actual, individual human beings. And more: it hollows out the personal character of its own adherents, making them more obsessed with the cause and the “right message” than they are with their own lives, brains, and souls.

That indicates why this is something of an unavoidable impulse for the left, because it is inherent in their ideology.

What has been running through my mind over the past few weeks is an essay written in 1894 by a long-forgotten defender of liberty named Auberon Herbert: “The Ethics of Dynamite.” Dynamite was a new technology then, the first modern high explosive, and Herbert was specifically referring to a European craze of mad bombers who adopted this new weapon as their tool for lashing out at the rest of society and trying to terrorize people into adopting their half-baked political programs. Basically, it was Ted Kaczynski, The Early Years.

The good citizens of the world were quite scandalized by this trend of dynamite bombers, but what Herbert pointed out was that the dynamiter was simply the most consistent form, the reductio ad aburdum, of the increasingly influential new theory of government. Dynamite, he wrote, “is a purer essence of government, more concentrated and intensified, than has ever yet been employed. It is government in a nutshell.” In other words: do what I say, or die. He hailed it as the ultimate product of the “doctrine of deified force.”

We are living now in this new world of dynamite. No wonder our political rhetoric is so explosive.

All of our politics today is a threat to coerce, or resentment against coercion, or a plan to coerce people in a different and supposedly better way. If the end goal is coercion, no wonder people fantasize about using force or violence as the means.

This impulse, encouraged and unleashed in the name of opposition to Trump, is leading the left in an ominously totalitarian direction. We saw that with Lena Dunham informing to the authorities on the private conversations of her fellow citizens.

If the proper response for Lena Dunham was to converse with those flight attendants directly (or maybe just to mind her own business), then the proper response of American Airlines was to tell Dunham that it is not in the business of policing the private conversations of its employees. But that’s another way we’re being prepared for the police state. While the left blusters about how they don’t want big corporations to tell us what we can think, their actions say otherwise. They absolutely do want employers to be responsible for the private views and political activity of their employees—so long as the views they are enforcing are Politically Correct.

Google showed us that this is precisely how some corporations view their role.

That’s what “Silicon Valley progressivism” means: be the left’s enforcers against heretics and infidels in the culture wars, in exchange for (temporary) dispensation for your sins against the left in the realm of economics.

On both sides, people erected fictions to keep them from facing up to their own roles in our ongoing political disaster. They complained about “fake news,” which was always defined as false stories that people on the other side believe—when, in fact, it is universal.

It usually begins with some small basis in fact, which is then distorted by a sloppy reading of those facts, blown out of proportion with a clickbait headline, and then repeated by a crowd on social media who are eager to promote anything that confirms their ideological prejudices…. So it doesn’t really have much to do with algorithms or Mark Zuckerberg after all. It has to do with us.

Or they injected conspiracy theories into every aspect of our politics.

I am not arguing that there is no corruption in government. My point is that the biggest corruption is a lot more prosaic and is conducted out in the open: buying our votes by promising us free stuff, or pandering to voters by flattering their biases and preconceptions. Facing up to that kind of corruption mean asking whether we’re allowing ourselves to be lied to because a politician is telling us what we want to hear. It involves serious examination of the rational basis of our own beliefs.

Conspiratorial thinking is a defense mechanism to help us dodge the difficult and important questions about government’s role and limits. More to the point, it helps us dodge the much harder task of talking to people we disagree with and convincing them of our views (or, gasp, being convinced). It is motivated by a profound anti-intellectualism that can be found on both sides: an unwillingness to engage in a debate over basic ideas. It’s a lot easier to indulge the idea that it’s all corruption or a giant conspiracy and everybody who doesn’t agree with you must be in on it.

Or they tried to enforce the idea that Trump is “abnormal” and not just a reflection of old vices inherent in politics.

Those who insist on viewing Trump as a totally unprecedented politician are trying to talk themselves into is the notion that this giant juggernaut of government power we’ve built would be just fine, would be no threat at all, would work beautifully to improve everyone’s lives—if only the right, decent, “normal” people were in charge. They want to evade the fact that dishonesty and pandering and ambition and vanity are built into the DNA of politics and politicians.

The reason these evasions are so dangerous is that we’re going to need to be able to think clearly, communicate with each other honestly, and refer back to first principles.

Bethany Mandel recently quoted Roy Moore back to himself: “Our peace and happiness as well as our prosperity depend not on any political party or any great leader, but rather upon our return as a nation to faith in Almighty God.” I don’t agree with the specifics of Moore’s worldview, but I do agree that our personal values and virtues are far more important for our long-run success and happiness than the outcome of specific political contests.

That’s particularly true because we are headed toward national crises that are likely to be of far greater import than whether the other side scores partisan points against us in the next news cycle.

We’re also going to need to strengthen the structures and institutions that were created to protect us.

I’m not concerned that we are in imminent danger of dictatorship, because Trump seems to lack the focus and discipline (and the public support) to do the active work of creating an authoritarian system. I’m more concerned about the widespread ignorance about how our system is supposed to work, which puts it in danger of steady erosion over multiple administrations—which is why this is going to have to be the era of the civics lesson.

In fact, the more I reflect on this year, the more it seems that we’ve already had a big test of how we will deal with a crisis. It happened right in my back yard, in Charlottesville, Virginia—and we didn’t do well.

The ominous implication of this weekend’s riots is that we are letting our politics descend into a brutal, unprincipled, physical brawl between two illiberal caricatures—which serves to drown out real debates over opposing ideas and marginalize any unifying principles that we might draw on as reasons not to just kill each other.

The left has been doing this by styling themselves as revolutionaries and “the Resistance,” and by indulging its young “antifa” anarchists—Communist “anti-fascists” who behave a lot like fascists, employing rioting and street battles as their main form of political activism. On the right, the problems are summed up in President Trump’s lame statement on Charlottesville. Claims that Trump was somehow excusing white nationalism are overblown, given that he also condemned “bigotry.” But his only answer was a series of vague bromides about national unity and loving each other—a solution he has never managed to practice and for which he cannot be a credible advocate.

Donald Trump was chosen precisely because he does not have any of the governing virtues of normal politicians, such as the ability to be gracious and inclusive to the opposition, to understand and defuse the objections of political opponents, and to make unifying gestures that unite Americans around shared values and ideas. His supporters argued that he could accomplish more by dispensing with this kind of prissy concern for civility. They did not imagine—because they didn’t really think about it at all—that we might find ourselves in a situation where those virtues would be not only desirable but absolutely necessary.

That gives us our big message from the year, our big warning, and our big task for 2018. We will need to focus more effort, all of us, into shoring up the ideological, moral, and cultural foundations of our society—particularly as we head into a vicious election cycle that will really put them to the test.

Everybody did it, so everybody has to help.

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