Note: this is an alternate version of the original blog post, edited to remove a long discussion of extremely unpleasant topics like rape and abuse. Click here to read the original.
Chapter 31 opens with Noah and Arthur facing off in Arthur’s office. Noah tries to apologize for his subterfuge, but Arthur is suspiciously laid-back about the whole thing, saying that there's no way Noah could have seen through Molly's seductive wiles.
“I should have known better.”
“Nonsense. Wiser men than you have fallen, and to far less able enemies. Monarchs, captains of industry, senators, sitting presidents, very nearly.”
Ooooh, I wonder who that's referring to. Is Monica Lewinsky an agent of the deep state?
Arthur explains that something big is about to happen, then veers off to diss the constitution some more. In the course of this he makes several extremely good points, but since he's a villain we're meant to dismiss them all.
“But I came to understand at an early age that Thomas Jefferson himself couldn’t really have believed what he’d written in his Declaration. No slave owner could.
He was preparing to do battle with an empire, making his case against the divine right of kings, so he brazenly invoked the Creator on his own behalf.
“That these rights were granted by God, it wasn’t the truth, you see, it was what Jefferson needed to say to give his revolution the moral authority to proceed.
He does say one thing that I want to quibble with, though.
But he also must have known he was putting far more faith in the common people than they’ve ever shown the courage to deserve.”
We're obviously meant to disagree vehemently with this. Molly's position (and therefore Beck's) is that the American people can be trusted with democracy and freedom, if only some brave hero will pull the wool from their eyes and let them see the truth. I'd like to believe that's the case, but, well...
Recent events would suggest otherwise.
“You think Jefferson was wrong, then.”
“Oh, I think he was right to try. There’s a tale from those days, at the close of the Constitutional Convention, in which someone asked Benjamin Franklin what form of government the people would be given, a republic or a monarchy. Do you remember what Franklin replied?”
“ ‘A republic,’” Noah said, “‘if you can keep it.’”
The old man nodded. “If they could keep it, yes.
This is a sleight of hand that the book has pulled several times before, and I think it's really the central point of the story. Arthur brings up valid criticisms of the very foundational structures of the United States, but Beck and his fellow conservatives don't want people to even consider that they could have merit, so he re-positions the issue away from the question of if America in its current form should exist at all and into the issue of whether it's worth defending. He's hoping that even his critics will fall for this, and thus implicitly concede that the previous topic has been settled, without actually needing to debate it.
This is a strategy that gets used by conservatives a lot, and it's one that liberals are extremely likely to fall for because they tend to want to appear rational, lest their supporters turn on them. Conservatives, on the other hand, know that their fanbase will support them no matter what as long as they say the right buzz-words, so they'll just keep blathering on with their original point no matter how irrational or false it is. This means that the conservative gets to appear as though they're confident and unshakeable, while the liberal appears wishy-washy and flimsy.
(There's a Youtube series called the Alt-Right Playbook that covers this and other strategies)
Even most radical leftists would agree that the United States as it currently exists should be defended from existential threats, if only because things like terrorist attacks or invasions will tend to bring suffering mostly to the powerless people who they identify with (violent revolution that targets the wealthy and powerful is another matter). But agreeing with conservatives about that doesn't mean that they're also agreeing that the US is a glorious freedom paradise.
Beck believes, or is trying to make other people believe, that the two are one and the same. If you don't love America, then you don't want to defend your country and you think we should sit back and let The Terrorists win. People who claim to want to protect America, but who criticize the country in any way (like, say, Democratic political candidates) are lying liars and you should dismiss them instantly.
More under-handed debate tricks get wheeled out when Arthur asks whether Noah thinks people are basically good or bad.
Do you believe that people, human beings, are basically good? That—as your loyal friend Molly would no doubt preach to us—all they must do is awaken and embrace liberty and the highest potentials of mankind will be realized?”
“I want to believe that.”
“I didn’t ask you what you wanted,” the old man said, his words carrying a sharp enunciation that made it clear he would accept no such avoidance. “I asked what you believe.”
“Then yes. I do believe that people are basically good.”
And then Arthur attempts to disprove him by wheeling out some examples of human depravity.
We're clearly mixing some of Beck's theology in here. Arthur asks a black and white question, and he demands a black or white answer: people are either inherently good or bad at their core. The Catholic answer to this question is that people are definitely bad and that only the blood of Jesus Christ (or submitting to his earthly representatives) can redeem them, but I'm not sure what the Mormon position is.
Noah took the newspaper, expecting to see a run-of-the-mill story of a faraway genocide or massacre, widespread child abuse by some august religious institution, or maybe a retrospective of Nazi atrocities or the horrors of the killing fields.
Funny how none of those examples are of stuff that happened in America. I can think of a few salient choices from literally this week.
Instead, Arthur gives him a newspaper article (which I guess he just keeps on hand for some reason) about a sixteen year old Turkish girl being buried alive in an honour killing for talking to boys. This, he says, is the essence of humanity.
And yeah, that is atrocious. But here's the thing: Beck isn't bringing this up as an isolated point about attitudes to women in parts of the Muslim world. He chose this specifically to draw attention away from America's crimes. This fictional Turkish girl is a hockey puck in a political game.
Noah tries to say that there are "extremists" everywhere (dog whistle) and this doesn't mean all of humanity is evil, but Arthur is having none of that, insisting that “people are made of the same stuff everywhere”.
But it's telling that Arthur steers well clear of the nebulously-defined "West" in his examples to prove that humanity is evil. In the text of the book, the point he's supposed to be making is that all humans are depraved and violent; the point he's actually making, and the one the book's readers are meant to pick up on, is that America and the countries within its sphere of influence are a shining beacon of light in the middle of a dark ocean of human suffering.
This ties into the conservative worldview of history and culture, which is that all of humanity lived in darkness and ignorance until God created the United States and divinely bestowed upon it the concepts of freedom, justice and tolerance, which were ideas that no one else had ever thought of at any point in human history (except for Jesus, whose teachings only saw their proper realization with the founding of the USA). In the modern world, only the US and countries that have accepted its benevolent custodianship like western Europe, Japan and Israel are worth anything at all; the rest of the planet is a miasma of ignorance, poverty and violence.
And no, I'm not exaggerating, this is literally what tons of Americans believe. It used to be a commonly-held view even among liberals, albeit minus the religious angle, but the aftermath of 9/11 and the middle eastern wars changed that somewhat. There are conservative think-tanks and policy organizations dedicated to making this fantasy a reality by getting the US to basically take over the world.
Arthur continues to lay out his ideology, which gets more and more incoherent the longer he talks about it. First he says that all of humanity is completely evil, then he says that the world is divided into lemmings and visionaries and the lemmings outnumber the worthwhile people (this is basically Ayn Rand's belief system) and then the argument takes a Malthusian twist when he says that over-population is going to destroy humanity.
I think the problem here is that Beck is attempting to imagine how people he disagrees with think, and since he's never honestly considered the weaknesses of his own beliefs, he comes out with a lot of trite, muddled cliches. It's similar to how Christian stories will have stock atheists who are angry at God because their parents died or they didn't like going to church when they were kids. Beck is so certain of his position that the USA is a shining symbol of hope and progress that he can't imagine any reason why someone wouldn't think that, unless they're just misanthropes who hate all of humanity.
It’s getting worse, Noah, not better.
There's a lot of (justifiable) reasons to be pessimistic lately, so let me take a moment to point out that this isn't actually true.
Worldwide poverty levels are falling steadily. Medical science continues to progress, reducing mortality rates of even deadly diseases like cancer. Globally, we're probably living in the most stable, peaceful time in thousands of years, if not all of human history since the dawn of the agricultural age. Major efforts are underway to slow our destruction of natural environments and save endangered species from extinction. Fundamentally helpful ideals like equality and basic human rights continue to be embraced worldwide.
The one really big downer is that we're probably fucked due to global warming. The last few years have seen an alarming shift in global weather patterns, trending towards devastating storms and heatwaves that surpass any seen in recorded history. A recent report estimated that parts of China may become literally uninhabitable by the end of the century due to heat-waves that humans couldn't survive (worryingly, these areas also form the country's agricultural heartland, where a large chunk of Earth's staple crops are produced). Droughts and food loss from global warming are likely to produce refugee crises and political instability on a scale not seen since the second world war.
(Note that the above paragraph was originally written several months ago, before the recent alarming new reports concluding that we probably have less than a decade to save ourselves).
Barring some miraculous technological or scientific breakthrough, the only way we can reverse this is through massive, co-ordinated, worldwide action that would involve drastic changes to how people in developed countries live. This is extremely unlikely to happen, especially when one of the most important countries in the process still refuses to acknowledge that the problem is real.
But hey, we'll all be dead by the time the really nasty shit comes around. Enjoy living on a planet that can no longer sustain you, kids!
Arthur goes on to make the extremely original and not at all trite proposal that the world needs intelligent, capable people in charge, and that means no longer placing political power in the hands of ignorant rubes.
So, here's the deal.
From a purely theoretical position, I don't actually disagree with this argument. Democracy, as a concept, is susceptible to the flaw that if The People are hateful jackasses, they'll elect hateful jackasses into office (see photo above). And majority rule almost inevitably leads to majority tyranny, where the will of the people is used to oppress vulnerable populations. Remember, the advent of democracy in America didn't stop slavery, nor did its arrival in Britain stop the injustices of the Empire.
So on paper, I'm not actually opposed to this idea that "pure" democracy should be supplanted by something that ensures capable, rational and empathetic people in positions of power. The problem comes when you start to work out how to actually implement such a thing.
Requiring voters to pass civics tests or demonstrate political understanding would definitely lead to minorities and the poor being disenfranchised (this exact measure was used in the American south to stop black people from voting after the Civil Rights Act was passed). If you throw around ideas like only scientists and academics getting to vote, you'll end up with an oligarchy of the wealthy and privileged—because remember, education isn't a luxury everyone can afford. These ideas might have merit in a country with free, well-funded education through third level for all citizens, but we're talking about America here, which... doesn't, to put it mildly.
So that leaves us with abandoning democracy completely. But what do we replace it with?
Maybe the answer is that there is no perfect way to govern large numbers of people. Maybe the real problem is that our population and our civilizations grew too large, and we need to revert back to small communities that don't need centralized authorities to keep everyone playing nice with each other. In which case great, because that whole global warming thing should bring about that scenario in a few generations.
But maybe we're taking the wrong approach here. Maybe instead of changing the political system so that it can't be hijacked by ignorant bigots, we should change the people so they're not ignorant bigots anymore. That's bound to happen eventually, right?
Anyway, we’re only partway through the chapter, but this has gotten long enough, so let’s cut it off here. Next time, Arthur keeps talking. Boy, does he keep talking for a long time.