David French is the Problem
In the 1830s, British merchants with trade routes from India had forced open an enormous market for opium in China, and were pouring the product into the country, producing a lucrative addiction crisis. (Queen Victoria, the first Sackler.) But the Qing Dynasty had run China with a firm hand since the first half of the 17th century, and the emperors of the dynasty had long regarded themselves as, to use an academic term from the field of political science, The Shit. In 1839, Commissioner Lin Zexu sent a huffy letter to the British monarch, warning her that her tedious little pissant country over there in Nowhereville was trifling with a vast and dangerous power:
Our celestial empire rules over ten thousand kingdoms! Most surely do we possess a measure of godlike majesty which ye cannot fathom! Still we cannot bear to slay or exterminate without previous warning…
The British responded with naval artillery, and the limits of the Qing Dynasty’s power were revealed with the greatest possible clarity. Commissioner Lin had an image of himself, an understanding of his place in the world and the meaning of his nation’s power, that couldn’t survive an encounter with reality.
So: David French. In his own version of Commissioner Lin’s letter, French warns this week that American institutions most surely do possess a measure of godlike majesty which ye cannot fathom, yet ye weak and depraved subjects of these potent institutions offer not thine gratitude. It’s insane. He doesn’t see the world he’s describing, so his description doesn’t have anything to do with the people he’s talking to, and he has no idea.
Before I say anything else, though, I have to point out that I recently described the American crisis like this: “We’re healthy from the bottom up, and sick from the top down.” French does the opposite, describing institutions that are undermined by the dreadful human material beneath them: “Our government is imperfect, but if this republic fractures, its people will be to blame.” Wreckers and saboteurs have undermined the otherwise successful five year plan, you see. The problem is bottom-up.
This is exactly the same beat patrolled by “real conservatives” like Max Boot and Tom Nichols, who endlessly warn that the fat dumb peasants lack the sense to lick the hands of their capable superiors. These are very strange men.
Here, watch French do his thing:
The people disproportionately driving polarization in the United States are not oppressed minorities, but rather some of the most powerful, most privileged, wealthiest people who’ve ever lived. They enjoy more freedom and opportunity than virtually any prior generation of humans, all while living under the protective umbrella of the most powerful military in the history of the planet.
It’s simply an astonishing level of discontent in the midst of astonishing wealth and power.
Tell me the comparison to Commissioner Lin isn’t perfect. Does not our wealth and power astonish you!?!?
As French writes about the privileged creatures who live “under the protective umbrella of the most powerful military in the history of the planet,” the Taliban rules Afghanistan. A reminder: The Taliban controlled about half of that country in September of 2001; then the most powerful military in the history of the planet invaded, and fought the Taliban for two full decades, at the cost of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, the result of which is that the Taliban now controls…all of the country. The implosion of the American effort in Afghanistan happened last fucking year, and we’ve somehow already taken care to forget the details of that goat rodeo. What was the plan?
So how do you look at that and then type the sentence about “the most powerful military in the history of the planet” without noticing what you’re doing? Consistent with my view that we’re healthy from the bottom up and sick from the top down, I saw the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a bunch of tactically and technically competent people working hard and making enormous sacrifices for leadership that had no real plan and pursued no coherent strategy; one war strengthened Iran, and the other one was a bigger gift to the Taliban than anything they ever got from anyone who counts as their friend. Or consider Libya, where the American military fought a little semi-war alongside French and British allies, producing the destruction of the existing Libyan government, which resulted in…what?
Meanwhile, the Russian invasion of Ukraine suggests a limited American ability to deter wars with the threat of military power, which is the point of having a powerful military. If we have “the most powerful military in the history of the planet,” maybe David French could walk us through the top ten American strategic victories of the last twenty years. If you had the greatest baseball team in the history of the world, you’d probably score some runs. Show us the scoreboard.
As for Americans being “some of the most powerful, most privileged, wealthiest people who’ve ever lived,” let’s go to the tape, with a spike at the start of the top chart caused by helicopter money:
It’s printed and borrowed. The federal budget was $2 trillion a year when Barack Obama took office; the Biden administration has introduced a $5.8 trillion budget for the coming fiscal year. It’s a sugar high. We create lots of new money from thin air, and we have lots of stuff — is that wealth?
Here’s French again, not noticing things:
But here’s the difference—unlike the days when we could point to a specific source of government oppression, such as slavery or Jim Crow, the American government (though highly imperfect) currently protects individual liberty and associational freedoms to a degree we’ve never seen in American history. The First Amendment has never been more robust, for example.
The First Amendment has never been more robust, he says. So here’s some footage of a school board president screaming “You’re done!” to end comments from people who criticize the board:
Here’s a school board president in Minnesota telling citizens that their ability to speak is limited by her guidelines, which prohibit criticism of school officials, because “it is not a meeting that belongs to the public”:
Here’s footage of a parent in Loudoun County, Virginia, being wrestled to the ground and arrested after trying to speak to his local school board about the sexual assault of his own daughter on a school campus:
Here’s a letter from a United States Senator to the country’s largest book seller, demanding that they limit the marketing of books she disagrees with:
Here’s a news story about a powerful member of the House of Representatives sending letters to social media companies demanding that they limit what they allow people to write and to read about Covid-19.
Clearly, the First Amendment has never been more robust, and the related culture of open discourse in America is completely uncontested.
The problem isn’t a self-proclaimed elite that has different principles and opinions than the rest of the country. The problem is that they live in an invented narrative that has no discernible attachment to quotidian reality. David French is standing in your kitchen, pointing at the bananas on the counter and saying, “apples.” His routine madness is bizarre, disconcerting, and a marker of his high social status.
This will end. “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.” Like Commissioner Lin, you can only live in your false perceptions until the British Navy shows up and starts shelling your coastline, whatever the next version of that turns out to be.