Here’s a question we rarely explicitly ask: Who should we honor, celebrate, and remember… and why? What’s the point of it? Scores of statues to confederate soldiers, slaveowners, and other dubious but celebrated characters have been recently toppled from their pedestals. Was this a good idea? Should we worry that we’ll forget our history? This week’s guest, Jacob T. Levy, argues that the greater risk is that we won’t go far enough. We might need to topple a few more statues. We discuss Levy’s two-part essay “Honoring the Dishonorable,” one on the living and one on the dead. Both turn on an intriguing idea from Adam Smith: that we humans are saddled with a deep-seated bias toward over-praise and over-honor and over-identify with the great, powerful, and famous, even if they’re objectively vile. Levy ingeniously applies Smith’s idea to question of statue toppling, but also to the question of what to do about notable and notorious Trump administration cronies and collaborators after they return to private life. In addition, we talk about why we both stopped worrying and started to love democracy. We also dig into the question of why we should believe that old dead guys like Adam Smith could be good guides to human nature and the nature of moral truth? Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University. He is the author of “The Multiculturalism of Fear” and “Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.” He’s a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center and the Institute for Humane Studies.
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Readings: “Honoring the Dishonorable Part 1: The Dishonorable Dead” and “Honoring The Dishonorable, Part 2: The Dishonorable Living” by Jacob Levy
Will Wilkinson: Hi Jacob. Thanks for coming on.
Jacob Levy: Hi Will. Thanks for having me. I’m delighted to be your first guest.
Will Wilkinson: It’s a real honor for you. Isn’t it?
Jacob Levy: Absolutely.
Will Wilkinson: No. It’s an honor for us. One reason I think it’s apt that you’re our first guest is I was planning to start a podcast a long time ago and we recorded an episode and nothing ever happened. [crosstalk 00:03:01]. Somehow I’m making up for that by prevailing on your time, again, I don’t know. Is that how it works? But what I wanted to talk with you about today is first of all, the two part essay that you published for the Niskanen Center…
Jacob Levy: Honoring the dishonorable.
Will Wilkinson: Honoring the dishonorable. One part is about the dead and one part is about the living. So we’re talking about the extent to which we should honor or dishonor the dead and the living. But before that, I want to ask you, and this is one of the questions I’ll be asking everybody on Model Citizen. I want to ask you, what’s the biggest thing that you’ve recently been wrong about? The biggest idea or most significant thing that you judge yourself to have been mistaken about recently? And recently doesn’t have to mean yesterday.
Jacob Levy: I’m going to take a medium term sense of recently and say up until five, six, seven years ago, I probably had a more traditionally libertarian unease about democracy and lack of a sense of the moral urgency of democracy, more of an instrumentalist conception of the relationship to democracy, more of a sense that the outcomes of what governments did was really fundamentally all that we cared about. And over the course of, say from seven-ish years ago to four-ish years ago. So it’s not that this is a post-Trump development. This was an intellectual development that I was late into at the time of the 2016 election. I’ve changed my mind pretty dramatically about that. I’ve done a fair amount of writing about that, both at Niskanen and elsewhere in the time since then.
Will Wilkinson: Well, I’m right there with you. That’s one of my biggest ones as well. I think that’s a transition we’ve gone through in parallel. I was making the same mistake for a long time. So what changed your mind about that? What, in particular, was it that shifted you from a more jaded view of democracy, and for those who don’t follow this kind of thing, Jacob and I have both been some kind of libertarian since we were undergraduates, at least. I don’t call myself that anymore. Jacob, I think does-
Jacob Levy: I do.
Will Wilkinson: But it’s still near and dear to my heart. I just don’t want to confuse anybody by suggesting that I believe some things that I don’t, but I still feel libertarian-ish to myself. The standard libertarian view of democracy is pretty skeptical. I wrote a couple essays about this for Niskanen a couple of years ago on the contribution that libertarian had to what I call democracy skepticism. And there’s this general worry that democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner, that democratic processes are contrary to the idea of iron clad rights, that you shouldn’t have a system where people can just vote away people’s fundamental entitlements. And so consequently, there’s a whole scat of books by libertarians like Brian Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter and Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, very provocatively titled. So that’s the usual libertarian view and I found myself drifting away from that as well. But I want to hear why Jacob-
Jacob Levy: Let me partially disagree with you. While there is a contingent of meaningful democracy skepticism among libertarians, what I think is the traditionally standard view and not only among libertarians, but among liberals of a general sort is not democracy skepticism, but something closer to democracy agnosticism. In those works that you’re talking about, there’s a real active view that democracy gets things wrong, whereas what I think of as the traditionally liberal view, classical liberalism included, libertarianism included, is questions about the organizational government are simply to be measured instrumentally with respect to whether they get us to the normatively attractive outcomes or not, whether they deliver on justice or not. The democracy will never be treated as having significant value in its own right, independent of whether it’s getting us liberal outcomes. Judith Sklar, a liberal, but not a libertarian famously said, “Liberalism is monogamously, faithfully married to democracy, but it’s still a marriage of convenience.”
Jacob Levy: That was my view. It wasn’t active democracy skepticism. It was the marriage of convenience view. And there’s been pushback against that view in the back of my mind, probably ever since graduate school when I spent some time studying with Jeremy Waldron, and Waldron is a very strong advocate of the idea that the liberal respect for equality and disagreements that motivates, for example, freedom of association and freedom of speech and freedom of disassociation, also requires a certain ability to make coercive decisions when needed in the face of disagreement about justice. I wasn’t immediately persuaded, I pushed back against Waldron’s view in my head for a long time, but it was there. It was a serious argument and I did some intellectual work playing around with it for a while on my own trying to think about the ways in which voting and democracy could be one among several tools for free and equal persons to resolve disagreements with each other, and maybe sometimes one that has a [inaudible 00:09:22] a court of ultimate appeal.
Jacob Levy: Although I think I ultimately reject that. I think democracy is one among several means. But then one thing that moved me pretty dramatically was the publication of North, Wallis and Weingast’s Violence and Social Orders, and my starting to dig into the literature that that really remarkable book spawned, including work by each of those authors, some of which I’d read before, but I now read in a new light and it pushed me to take seriously a view that I’d read and taught in Benjamin Constant many times that the liberalism that we associated with commercial modernity, the liberalism that takes off in the late 1700s, early 1800s into the mid 1800s is very strongly and not coincidentally correlated with the birth of modern electoral democracy, that the expansion of the franchise goes hand in hand with the expansion to all adult persons of access to civil rights that liberals care about, civil rights including rights in the economy, rights to own property, rights to enter into contract.
Jacob Levy: North, Wallis and Weingast argue that access to the franchise is like access to enforceable contract, enforceable association, enforceable rights to create corporations previously held by a cartelizing elite and in order to unlock modern capitalism, it had to be significantly democratized. That’s a thought that I’d been familiar with before and was sympathetic to and that that was part of a shared historical process that makes normative sets, hangs together normatively coherently with expanding access to political participation. And in so far as it forced my attention on the question of who it is who’s wielding power when the fully enfranchised adults [inaudible 00:11:30] is not, meaning there’s going to be some rent seeking cartel that is monopolizing political power to itself, monopolizing a franchise itself, that really pushed me to see deeper connections as a matter of historical process between liberalism and modern democracy as we understand it. Not Rousseauian democracy, not Athenian democracy, but modern electoral contestatory democracy as we understand it and the liberal values and institutions that I already took seriously.
Jacob Levy: Then with those ideas in mind, then the world helped me along to take it that much more seriously year after year. But that was something of the shape of the intellectual change first.
Will Wilkinson: It’s sort of crazy to me, listening to you talk about that. Just how close the reasons for our shift are. Mine also starts with like Doug North. I ran a series of seminars or workshops for the Mercatus Center in the early mid aughts that featured Douglas North, we’re basically subsidizing the production of his book by having these manuscript workshops that would bring people together from around the country, and I don’t know, maybe we did eight of those and it was an incredible grad seminar because-
Jacob Levy: It would have to be.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, because it was Doug North and Barry Weingast and just this whole cast of incredible political scientists and economic historians. Vernon Smith would show up and just incredible stuff, and Violence and Social Orders had a big effect on me and I just became a invested Northian neo-institutionalist man. I even went to the International Society for the New Institutional Economics Meetings here for several years, met Daron Acemoglu and got into all his work, which is in the exact same line. And exactly what you’re talking about becomes really, really clear once you get a historical perspective that there are always very large, historically very large inequalities in power that correspond with inequalities and resources.
Will Wilkinson: You usually have some extractive elite who’s running the show and there’s this process by which people just want to not have their stuff and their labor stolen from them. That’s a bad deal. So the next group down the chain of status ends up agitating for more political rights and threatening the incumbents with social disorder if they don’t give it to them. So they’re like, “Ah, we don’t want to share, but if you’re going to break some things, we’ll give you a little bit more say in how things go.” And then that process just kind of keeps iterating. It’s kind of the story. Because every time you bring somebody in the [inaudible 00:14:26] circle of democratic rights and participation in the political process, you start to make people richer.
Will Wilkinson: And when people get richer, they have a little bit more power and a little bit more heft in these negotiations. So it just repeats itself. Everybody gets a little bit richer. The next group down has enough power to agitate for its rights. They end up winning them. That makes everybody a little bit richer still and so on and so on. Thinking through that process really made it clear to me that … I was trained in political philosophy, which is even more abstract than political theory and political science and for a long time had a very strong view of rights, but I hadn’t really thought very seriously about the process by which anybody gets their rights recognized or protected as a matter of fact, historically, and that work in [inaudible 00:15:23] really pushed me very strongly towards seeing democracy is a mechanism that people use to defend themselves and to get their basic rights recognized and to get them protected.
Will Wilkinson: And that’s always good because that unleashes a great deal of human potential and ingenuity and productivity. In some sense you might say that’s still an instrumentalist view of democracy, but I’m not an instrumentalist about rights really. I don’t know if something that’s instrumental to something that’s inherently valuable is just instrumental or constitutive of, I don’t know what you’d say, but yeah. Anyway, that was a very stimulating thing. It was too stimulating, but that’s a great example of a big shift in your opinion. But let’s get to these essays. The pair of essays that you wrote on dishonoring the honorable start out with these epigraphs from Adam Smith and Lord Acton, and they really do frame the entire thing. Do you want to tell us what the gist of Smith’s view here is? And maybe we can just read Acton’s because it’s short.
Jacob Levy: Do you have it up in front of you?
Will Wilkinson: I do.
Jacob Levy: Okay. Why don’t you go with that and then I’ll talk through the Smith.
Will Wilkinson: So Lord Acton says, and everybody knows this part of the quote. This is the famous part, but I didn’t actually know that there was more. So, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”
Jacob Levy: And the familiarity of power corrupts is one of the things that attracted me to using that. It puts people on relatively familiar ground, whereas the Smith passage tends to be unfamiliar even to people who think of themselves as knowing something about Adam Smith.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And they’re making two different points. For me, the thing that really hit about the Lord Acton quote is the, “Great men are almost always bad men.” I happen to agree with that, but then that raises the question about why we tend to celebrate great men, even if they’re bad and that’s what Smith has a diagnosis of, right?
Jacob Levy: That’s right. Acton’s talking about those who hold off as themselves. Smith’s talking about the rest of us. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is mostly an account of how normal people’s moral learning functions well most of the time. It’s a very egalitarian theory. It’s a theory about why knowledge of morality isn’t reserved to the elite. It isn’t reserved to the end of a teleological span of acquisition of knowledge of the good. You don’t have to be a philosopher, very prominently for Smith in order to acquire knowledge of morality. Living in society surrounded by normativity means that we learn normative thinking and we learn to do it pretty well most of the time. That said, significant parts of The Theory of Moral Sentiment are about the exceptions, what it is that sometimes distorts our ability to morally learn in the right ways. The key mechanism of moral learning for Smith is spectation, watching and imagine oneself being watched. Looking at other people’s behavior and imagining other people looking at my behavior, all of which has a process of judgment to it.
Jacob Levy: I judge what you’re doing that I can see and I imagine that you are judging what I do that I can see. Some people, and this sounds a little blunt, but I think it’s really part of the mechanism as Smith imagines it. Some people are more visible than others. The wealthy and the powerful, and the more powerful you are, the more true it is. The wealthy and the powerful are more visible than the rest of us. And that allows them to exercise a distorting gravitational pull on people’s moral judgment. Smith talks about this in other parts of the book, about the ways that the profligate habits of the rich, the tendency of the rich to engage in vices they can afford like gambling that the rest of us can’t afford or going into debt, spending a lot on frivolous luxury items, all of those things will tend to attract emulation and they will therefore distract us from engaging in proper moral thinking.
Jacob Levy: But then there’s this material particularly about the powerful and very particularly about the politically powerful. We see their lives and we imagine that their lives must be deeply more satisfied than other people’s lives. We imaginatively sympathize with them much more easily than we imaginatively sympathize with other strangers. We know a lot about them or we think we do. We read about them all the time. We read about their daily interactions. We think that we understand their personalities.
Will Wilkinson: We subscribed to Us Weekly and like to look at pictures of movie stars going to get groceries.
Jacob Levy: That’s right. And even more than movie stars, even in an era when The Royals don’t matter in any formal official way, there’s of course the interest in learning about and identifying with The Royals and there’s all the attention that we pay to people who hold public office. We see their faces, we hear their voices, we start to recognize their speech patterns in an era of recorded media. We think about them more than we think about most other people and to a substantial degree, that means we come to take them and their lives and their interests much more morally seriously than they deserve. Certainly much more morally seriously than the anonymous to us masses whose lives, interests, and rights, their actions so often harm.
Will Wilkinson: Just imagine when people have, I don’t know what to call it, crushes on powerful and famous people or they stan them as the kids say these days.
Jacob Levy: Don’t ever say that again. [inaudible 00:22:18].
Will Wilkinson: Hey, I’m not … Hello fellow kids. But I’m not pretending to not be a very 40 something year old man. Like LeBron James can be an incredibly important person in somebody’s life, even if they will never ever meet LeBron James and it’s because these people are so physical. We see them so often that they seem real to us in a way that other people don’t. And by affiliating ourselves with them, their triumphs become our triumphs, but then their trials become our trials as well. Here, let me just read a bit of what Smith says because it’s so lovely in its own way. He says, “When we consider the…”
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:23:04]
Will Wilkinson: Because it’s so lovely in its own way. He says when we consider the condition of the great and those delusive colors in which the imagination is apt to paint it, it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state. We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it. We favor all their inclinations and forward all their wishes. What pity, we think, that anything should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation, every calamity that befalls them, every injury that is done to them, excites in the breast of the spectator 10 times more compassion and resentment than he would have felt had the same things happen to other men.
Jacob Levy: Now, this is relatively harmless when it means that we are over identified with the marriages of Hollywood celebrities.
Will Wilkinson: Right.
Jacob Levy: Maybe only relatively harmless, but relatively harmless. It is really pernicious when it means that we over identify with the self image, the moral standing, the civil and social standing of some public official who might be called to account subject to criticism, subject to shaming or dishonor for their actions in office. The marriage of the Hollywood celebrity mostly isn’t built on backs of anonymous other people but the misdeeds of public actors are. And if we are prone to sympathize too much with the public actor, the public official, then we’re going to be prone to resist when they’re called to account, when they are subject to any kind of social reprimand. And see Lord Acton, a great many of them, a great deal of the time ought to be subject to reprimand, to social sanction.
Jacob Levy: A great many of them, a great deal of the time, shouldn’t be praised. And the counterpart to the bit from Smith that you read, is not just that we resent it when they’re criticized, we want to praise them and we want to see them praised. And that’s the tendency. The tendency is to let the office sanctify the man in Acton’s terms. To assume that everyone who served in public office somehow is worthy of it. It takes a great deal for us to give up on that thought. We almost never as a whole population, as a whole society, entirely give up on it for anyone.
Will Wilkinson: Well, that partially explains the very significant advantages of incumbency, doesn’t it? If this is a true fact about our psychology, it suggests that you would really have to screw up for your public notability to not give you an overwhelming boost.
Jacob Levy: That’s right. Now, of course, that’s declining because of a separate mechanism about partisanship. But the old joke about the incumbent running for reelection to the House of Representatives is, they’ll be fine as long as they’re not caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl from an era of different sexual mores than ours. It takes that level of scandal to dislodge the tendency to say, given how prominent you are, it must be the case that you are basically a person of good standing. It must be the case that you’re basically admirable, after all look how many people admire you. To convince people that someone who is widely admired isn’t admirable and therefore that they ought to stop admiring them is hard. It’s always rowing upstream.
Will Wilkinson: Now, I think listeners might not be able to predict that all of this Scottish sentimentalist psychology is in the service of an argument about why it’s great to tear down statues of dead politicians and generals. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about that. This has been a big controversy lately. We’ve seen a bunch of public statues of Confederate generals, Confederate statesman, but not only Confederates, also early colonial figures who owned slaves before it was outlawed in the northern colonies. Just lots of figures who have some kind of dodgy past, especially with respect to race. That people are tearing down statues because they don’t think those people deserve to be commemorated, memorialized, but that’s incredibly controversial.
Will Wilkinson: No doubt for some of the reasons that you mentioned, a lot of conservatives are like, yeah, okay. Maybe Robert E. Lee, he might not be great, but where does it end? Who’s next? Are we going to just tear down statues of Washington and Jefferson. They owned slaves but you’re making a subtler point about why we should be skeptical of honoring all of these men in the first place. We should be thinking harder about whether they really deserve it.
Jacob Levy: We should, though I also offer reasons for drawing distinctions. What people say about Robert E. Lee really isn’t … well, maybe he was bad. There’s this now century plus a longstanding urge to celebrate the man. Celebrate not only his tactical and strategic brilliance, but the depth of his thinking about the hard choice he faced between joining the union and joining the Confederacy, something about his personal decency, all of which are taken to override the meaning of his public career, treason, and defense of slavery. One thing that I want to do is allow us to think about the difference between honoring people in spite of, and honoring people because of their public misdeeds. When we honor people for precisely their public misdeeds, when we honor them for their bad acts and fighting for the Confederacy, or serving the Confederacy as elected leader, these are bad acts.
Jacob Levy: When we honor them, we continue to communicate a message about what it is, is honorable and admirable. It’s probably inevitable that human societies are going to go on honoring their powerful people. I think that the point of reading Smith on these pieces of human psychology and social psychology isn’t to say, well, let’s stop doing any of that. It’s to understand what’s working with the grain and what was working against the grain of human psychology. So I’m not worried about things going radically too far, I’m worried that we have a basic tendency to not go far enough. One way in which we can distinguish between going too far and not going far enough is to say, at the very least, we should be able to seriously, morally, evaluate the deeds for which you’re being honored. Now that allows us to distinguish between the case of those who served the Confederacy and are celebrated for serving the Confederacy. Celebrated in fact by statues put up during the Jim Crow era that are expressly there, perfectly openly, when they’re being dedicated to celebrate the triumph of the white race after reconstruction. It’s one thing to honor those people, it’s something else to honor people in spite of their misdeeds. If their public contributions are things that the society wishes to still celebrate, then there’s a more complicated conversation one can have about-
Will Wilkinson: So like Washington or Jefferson say-
Jacob Levy: Washington or Jefferson.
Will Wilkinson: … who worry they held slaves. That’s just bad. They knew that it was bad. Jefferson’s very articulate about it, so like …
Jacob Levy: And we can go ahead and be more explicit than that. Jefferson very nearly certainly had sex with one of his slaves, a woman who could not refuse him consent, therefore in a morally significant way, committed rape on one of the slaves over and over again. Washington, we have documentary evidence, was a violent and cruel slave master, not just someone who owned slaves. Neither of them has a spectacular record though washington’s is somewhat better than Jefferson’s with respect to what happened to the people they had enslaved at the end of their life and so on. We should really confront the force of the wickedness of what they did on their plantations. But it’s also true that what it is they are celebrated for? What it is there are monuments, and memorials, and paintings, and holidays, and cities, named for them at all? Is not for their actions on their plantations, it’s for their actions in public office.
Jacob Levy: Whereas Robert E. Lee is being celebrated for his actions as a leader of the Confederacy in the service of slavery. Washington and Jefferson are not celebrated for their service to slavery. They’re celebrated for genuine contributions to the American Republic. I’m really very happy to say there’s almost certainly too much. There’s almost certainly too much hagiography even now, even after the better part of two generations worth of moving away from the traditional idolatry of the American founders, there is still probably something too close to idolatry of the American founders. But if we were to get things about morally right, there would still, I think be celebrations, qualified celebrations, but celebrations of Washington, and Jefferson, and Madison, another slave owner. And there would not be of those who served in the Confederacy.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. One implication of the view that you’re expressing, one implication of Smith’s view is that because of this bias that he thinks we’re prone to, and it really does just fall out of his moral theory about the way we … the spectator theory and our sensitivity to what we think other people are going to think about us and it’s really deeply a part of that. One implication is that we’re just going to be prone to teach history in a systematically distorted way. It seems to me that he’s saying, and you’re saying, that it cuts against our grain to portray the powerful with the John [Desty 00:33:57] that they really deserve, or to tell the story of our history with the idea that power corrupts and that powerful men are always bad men right in the forefront of our mind. Do you think that that is in fact a real problem that we will almost always have a difficulty in telling the story of where we came from accurately because we will not be able to accurately judge the honor and the esteem that the great figures of history really merit?
Jacob Levy: Now, I think that’s certainly right and there are factors that post date Smith that have multiplied it. Particularly the shift to thinking almost everywhere in terms of national histories to the degree that the powerful who are studied are the powerful of one’s own country, of the particular political society that is supporting the schools of the particular political society from which the students and teachers are both coming.
Jacob Levy: Nationalism encourages a collective self regard that’s going to multiply this. We really want to think that our founders were these demigod like figures striding the earth, and it’s really going to be hard. If it weren’t hard to step back from it altogether, then you would have thought that we were 50 years, at least, into the era represented by new left historians criticizing the American founding in a variety of ways, criticizing traditional historiography of the American founding for decades after the excessive popularity of a people’s history of the United States, you would think there’d be nothing left. But of course there is, of course there’s this really deep reservoir, this desire in schooling and in public culture not to go too far.
Will Wilkinson: Well, and there’s a big economic incentive too. If you have ever contemplated writing public affairs, nonfiction books, the books that are perennially on top of the bestseller lists are these, hagiographical biographies of generals and presidents and I call them dad books because, dads love to read these books, but because of the biases that Smith posits. People don’t want a story about how George Washington was a cruel and violent slave master, right? That’s not what they’re in the market for. They’re in the market for a story about Washington stoic rectitude and incorruptibility. They want something that they can take inspiration from and that’s going to make them somehow feel proud of their country.
Jacob Levy: That’s right. And with all of that in the background, with that urge to have that excessively glorified history of great men, and an excessively glorified national history. Now we reach the piece of Smith that you read from. Yes, the piece of Smith that you read from. When someone loses honor, when someone loses esteem, when someone is subject to criticism, even though they’re long debt, we have an excess of sympathy and identification with them and we can’t bear the offense to them. We personalize it, we really care. We care on someone’s behalf that their statue has come down.
Jacob Levy: This isn’t anything like we care that their grave was desecrated. We care that one of hundreds of statues of them in places they never set foot have been taken down. Even if taken down by the most official, lawful, peaceful, legitimate of procedures. The sense that some insult is being dealt to someone with whom we have this sense of vicarious identification makes it that much harder to confront the past honestly. And therefore, even after decades of criticism of the Jim Crow era kitsch statues, the South. Even after decades in which, not only the African-American citizens of the places where [crosstalk 00:15:30].
Will Wilkinson: I think that’s important, they’re also bad art.
Jacob Levy: Yes. They’re terrible. Now this isn’t going to be true for everything that we’re talking about. In the case of the Jim Crow era Confederate statues, they are mass produced kitsch. They were there for an ideological purpose that was best served by getting as many of them up as possible. And to the degree that we run into some that are of either historical or artistic significance, really genuinely distinctive historical or artistic significance. Then we know perfectly well how to relocate things into museums, how to surround them with curatorial context and narration, something that talks about their significance. But the normal case is a statue in the public square that just communicates the message. This career was admirable. This history is admirable. And there’s no way that having that message in the public square for Confederate generals, for those who fought and died to defend and extend slavery can’t send the message that African-Americans are second class citizens, that white supremacy is an official ideology of this society and this polity. Sending that message perpetuates it, sending that message continues to make it true.
Will Wilkinson: I forget who it was. Maybe Brian Stevenson, but I remember the story about having to go as a African-American teen to Robert E. Lee high school or whatever it is. And just the fact that your school’s named that feels like a very, very, pointed insult to you. And it just chips away at you, which is why the people whose ancestors were oppressed by these people are the people who are like, Goddamn it. We got to tear this crap down. As opposed to those of us who might identify with these great men but they identify with their crimes. They identify with the pain that they inflicted-
Jacob Levy: With the victims of their crimes.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, with the victims of their crimes. With the pain that they’ve inflicted on others. And so you get this radically, a very polarized view if some people are just blyfully giving in to the Smithian temptation to overestimate the moral qualities of the famous dead, but then the ancestors of their victims that still sore within them. And especially the fact that persistence of the monument seems to send the message that there’s nothing wrong with what they did, that in fact, it’s something that we should honor. I’m here in Robert E. Lee high school and the fact that it’s named after him seems to say that this is somebody that we should look to as an example for emulation. And so if you’re in this like mixed race school and it’s called Robert Lee high school, you’re like, the powers that be who named this high school are telling the white kids, who should you be looking to for moral lessons? Robert E. Lee. And just imagine. I mean, just imagine how that feels if you’re a black student at that school. Now-
Jacob Levy: One thing that I do think we should take seriously is the degree to which, for the white kids, it becomes normalized and invisible. The decades worth of putting up the statues, and naming the schools, and naming the cities, and naming the streets. That was overtly done for pointed ideological reasons, the people who were doing it were intending to send a message about racial supremacy. But after decades of just growing up knowing that, quote, unquote, knowing. That you’re supposed to look to Robert E. Lee’s courage and brilliance as being worthy of emulation. That you’re supposed to feel the stir of those who fought to defend their homeland against Northern aggression even when it was a losing cause. After decades of learning those distorted moral lessons, it’s normalized and naturalized to the people whose ancestors were on the winning. The local winning side of it. So the insult that is rightly understood by the African-Americans in a context like that, isn’t directly mirrored by an insult that is consciously intended to be given by the living white people around them.
Jacob Levy: And when people absolutely rightly say, take that name down, take that statue down, take the Confederate battle flag out of public flags, and off of public buildings. When they absolutely, rightly, say that. The people who’ve spent decades soaking up a lesson of moral innocence about all this and coming to morally identify with the figures who are being named and celebrated, they feel genuine resentment. They don’t understand themselves to have been walking around delivering racist insult every day. They were doing so, and that they don’t understand themselves [inaudible 00:43:59] as doing so, doesn’t mean that we don’t proceed to take down the statues and take down the names. But I do think Smith also helps us understand some of the really venomous reaction to trying to make progress on these questions. A reaction that is not only, though it is in part, about conscious racism on the part of those doing the reacting. It is also the aftereffect of learning this process of bad moral identification with bad people.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I want to pause for just a second as a thematic element of the show. I’m sold on Adam Smith’s hypothesis here, but some of us might be thinking, okay. This is a guy, some dude from Scotland, hundreds of years ago, in his study, just introspectively deciding what human nature is like. Why should we believe him? I think that’s a really hard question to answer generally when it comes, and this is important for somebody like you who is a political theorist, not like so much of an empirical political scientist who’s measuring stuff, but somebody who’s going through the history of ideas, trying to understand the nature of political life, trying to understand theories of justice, trying to understand the idea of legitimate authority, or things like that. And we always prepare to these books by great thinkers, but why should we credit them? Why should they get more credence than something that somebody said yesterday?
Jacob Levy: So there’s why they command interest and why they command credence. Why they command interest has to do with something, not only about their historical importance, but about their actual intellectual contribution that you can’t get at from just a thought that someone had on Twitter yes-
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:46:04]
Jacob Levy: From just a thought that someone had on Twitter yesterday. But giving them credence is something different. And we don’t, we can’t give all of them equal credence. The claim is not every traditional, canonical book on the university curriculum of Western universities is right. Because they can’t all be right because they disagree with each other very, very deeply about fundamental questions. So I’m not at all trying to invoke Smith’s authority other than, well, no one-
Will Wilkinson: I didn’t mean to suggest that either because I for instance, knew that you’ve got a great well of hatred for Rousseau. And so you think that he’s dangerously wrong about lots of things. Which means that you think you have some access to some truths about these tough political question about whether there is a general will or about the way that individuals in society do or don’t aggregate into a social hole, or what do you think the nature of that kind of knowledge is?
Jacob Levy: You’re probably pushing for a kind of answer that I’m not going to be able to come up with off the top of my head. Part of my answer is a matter of reconciliation with other things, what a Rawlsian would call reflective equilibrium. There are some really discrete moral facts that I feel pretty sure about there. Some really discrete social facts that I feel pretty sure of. And then I encounter a big theory and I ask the question, “How do I find the fit between things I’m very sure of and this big argument?” But something I think is more interesting is using what we’ll call the great books as hypotheses, as discovery procedures. What is it that reading this book helps me understand about the world? There’s no doubt that Rousseau helps people understand something really fundamental about competitive pride. What Rousseau calls amour propre and this is a great deal of why Rousseau has been such an enduring important thinker because-
Will Wilkinson: And he’s also a great read because he’s hilarious and weird.
Jacob Levy: Yeah. But that won’t do the work.
Will Wilkinson: No, no, no. I mean, I’m just saying like some of the attraction to some of the great thinkers has to do with-
Jacob Levy: [Ultear 00:02:51] is shallow, Rousseau-
Will Wilkinson: Rousseau’s deep, he’s deep, but he’s also… he’s penetrating, but you can… There’s personality in it. You can feel a human behind this and there’s a kind of strangeness in it as well. It’s just kind of fun to read and like Nietzsche is fun to read. This is a crazy dude who really has an insanely accurate bead on certain aspects of what people are like. And so you feel like you’re really learning from it, even though a few pages later you’re just like, “What the hell dude?”
Jacob Levy: So, my interest here is in the accuracy of that bead. There are ways that you see the world after having read Rousseau that let you think, “He opened my eyes to something.” I find Smith to be pervasively rich that way. I think Smith helped me understand these things that I’m talking through here. I don’t use the Smithian epigraphs just as epigraphs. They’re genuine, they’re a part of my discovery procedure on big fundamental political questions. He points my eyes in a direction and sometimes it doesn’t pan out. I’m seeing for myself, I’m not just seeing through Smith’s eyes, but when he points me in a direction and I then see what he saw, then I can say he helped me understand the world more clearly. I think Smith does that a lot more often than Rousseau does. I think Rousseau ends up misleading people about the shape of the world quite a lot of the time.
Jacob Levy: At the same time I really genuinely think that Rousseau’s a genius. Rousseau is one of the most important social and psychological thinkers that we’ve ever had. I deeply dislike him, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think he is a tremendously important thinker. But I think that Smith is as sophisticated a thinker and is far more right, far more often, by which I mean, when I look at the things that Smith’s taught me to look at, I far more often think he’s pointed me at something real and having had the thought in the direction Smith encouraged me to, I can then tease the thought out for myself further and keep seeing things that fit with the theory that’s described there. That’s not a way of saying the old books are intrinsically right. It’s a way of saying they’re really deep and enduring resources for finding out the beginnings of thoughts.
Will Wilkinson: I think those are good answers, Jacob. Like one thing that occurs to me when you’re talking about using the thoughts of the great thinkers as hypotheses is the fact that… I did a lot of philosophy of science in grad school, and it really becomes clear that the hardest part of scientific discovery is hypothesis generation, because there’s no mechanical procedure for hypothesis generation, right? Like there’s no, and Peirce is really good on this, he called it abductive reasoning, which that also has a different meaning and logic. But just coming up with this is a promising possibility for the way things might be. And a lot of people just lack imagination. So they basically never really come up with any interesting hypothesis even if they may be brilliant at testing them. And then it takes a kind of sensibility that isn’t scientific in the narrow sense to just intuit that this thing that you’re thinking really might be right.
Will Wilkinson: One of my favorite genres of writing is hearing mathematicians talk about when it was that they solved a proof that had been outstanding for decades and decades and decades. And it’s always like, “I was brushing my teeth.” Or “I was taking a walk in the woods.” And there’s always these crazy metaphors like, “And then I felt like I saw a door that was slightly ajar, and then I opened it, and then I knew that I had it.” You knew that you had it, but they were like they had another calcula… They didn’t do the calculation, but they knew that it was the answer, and then they proved it. And that is a crazy kind of intuition that is profoundly valuable because nobody gets anywhere without it. But not that many people have it. And I think some of the greatest thinkers are people who have that-
Jacob Levy: In order to have it in a productive way. There’s a whole lot of just sheer learning in the background in order to understand the shape of that door in order for your brain to already be wired in the way to know, “Here’s the bit of the problem that hasn’t been solved yet. And to have the apparatus around it, here’s what solutions could be like.” That’s not… That part isn’t about inborn genius. That’s about all of the years and decades of study as a mathematician. And there’s something correspondingly true with respect to the kind of just social thinkers about the human condition we’re talking about.
Jacob Levy: Not everyone who puts in the years of study also has the insight, but the years of study are a precondition for the insights to be available as a way to synthesize the right material. To understand enough about enough different human societies, to understand enough about history, to understand enough about human psychology, that when you have that flash it’s organizing material that’s already there in your head. So I would worry about only emphasizing the moment of intuitive brilliance, that’s only productive against a certain kind of background and not many people have that much background.
Will Wilkinson: No. That’s why you have to rely on experts. I mean, that’s why we can’t ever do all of it on our own, right? I have to trust historians because I’m never going to be a historian, but I don’t know how to check their work, other than listen to other historians say that that was wrong or right. And it’s hard to know who’s right in a dispute, but I… And I think your first answer is ultimately the correct one. It’s okay to accept, as I do, Smith’s view about this bit of our psychology when it’s in wide reflective equilibrium with the rest of the set of your beliefs, that it fits into your web of belief. I know a ton of empirical stuff about human psychology-
Jacob Levy: You still got enough of an inner Rawlsian in you that I just could’ve thrown reflective equilibrium, and you would have picked on it. And we would have moved on.
Will Wilkinson: He’s not responsible for the idea. It was Nelson Goodman, and I’m not a [Goodmanite 00:56:01] But it’s an important idea of reflective equilibrium. And it fits, it is important that it fits into what I know about psychology. And I think in general, actual work in psychology tends to validate the general thrust of the Scottish sentimentalist the Smith, Hume, Ferguson that we are really status conscious, we’re dominated by instincts for emulation, that we’re acquisitive and love praise are hungry for acceptance and esteem. Like all of that stuff that they see as our primary motives and also the things that we’re most inclined to trip over. They just seem to be pretty well empirically validated.
Jacob Levy: I would want to emphasize that Smith, especially of the people that you named, but to a lesser degree Hume and some of the others, they align all of those basic human flaws and foibles that you identified with the capacity for genuine moral knowledge and genuine moral growth. For Smith, that we’re status conscious that we are prideful, that we seek admiration, that is compatible with it’s the basic mechanism of eventually learning to care about actually being worthy of admiration and coming to care about whether others we admire are worthy of admiration. That’s the big gulf that separates them from Rousseau. Everything you just said would have been true of Rousseau’s psychology as well. But for Rousseau, that points us in the opposite direction from moral truth. Whereas for Smith and to a lesser extent for the others, it orients us roughly in a direction that allows us to get somewhere better.
Will Wilkinson: But it also does suggest that individual moral rectitude is going to be very, very difficult in a society whose economy of esteem is sort of systematically distorted. Because we can’t not care about the way our society distributes honor. We can’t not care about the criteria that our society uses to assign people with a certain kind of social status. And so if you’ve got a society doing that in a screwed up way, you’re going to get a bunch of screwed up people.
Jacob Levy: That’s right. And all societies are going to be, to some extent screwed up that way.
Will Wilkinson: But that speaks to… An important question that I had for you about these pieces is, why does it matter? Clearly you care a lot about our society’s economy of esteem, that it’s a real problem if we’re honoring Robert E. Lee, or we’re just forgiving Stephen Miller, his crimes-
Jacob Levy: Us forgiving, but giving him Kennedy’s school fellowships and honorary degrees and honored sites as an interesting intellectual on the paid public ideas circuit. Forgiveness is one thing. And forgiveness requires atonement normally as a precondition and I don’t anticipate any atonement from… By the way, for listeners, we’re now moving more or less smoothly into the second essay which is about honoring the dishonorable living particularly focused on the question of the post public office careers of people who abuse public office, and very particularly on how it is we should think about what’s in store for people after the Trump administration.
Will Wilkinson: Who was it that got, I’m just trying to remember the story, like went to the restaurant, the restaurant owner said-
Jacob Levy: Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. There was, well, the Red Hen or something. But there was a lot of people that just said like, “This is so uncivil.” So the claim was that the restaurant owner was guilty of a certain kind of breach of norms. But your view is that she was upholding critically important norms by denying this person who’s been complicit in real crimes of the consideration that just an ordinary person would get.
Jacob Levy: That’s right. And by being willing to say, “You’ve acted shamefully, and that affects how you stand in public.” Now, one thing about the Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the Red Hen story that I think quickly and predictably fell out, was the owner of the restaurant was called in by the staff. A staff that unsurprisingly in the food service industry, included a fair number of first-generation immigrants. And people said, “We are not comfortable, not happy being put in a position where we have to put on our service face to someone who has stood out there and repeatedly lied in the service of racist anti-immigrant policy.” This wasn’t a spur of the moment vengefulness on the part of the owner, this was an owner partly responding to the genuine moral complaint of their employees.
Will Wilkinson: So I didn’t know that. And that’s important.
Jacob Levy: Yeah. We think that we know Sarah Huckabee Sanders. We can imagine her face, we can imagine her voice. They’re strong in our memory. And for a great many people that means there’s a degree of identification. Can you imagine being her and being asked to leave a restaurant? Well, can you imagine being the waiters and the waitresses and the cooks in this restaurant and being asked to put on your deferential service face to someone who has now famously lied, after lied, after lied in the service of racism and the persecution of immigrants. We don’t imagine it. We don’t know them, we don’t know their faces and that’s a source of distortion, and that allows the story of Sarah Huckabee Sanders once quietly politely being asked to leave a family owned restaurant, not being thrown out, not being laughed at, being quietly asked to leave by the owner. That allows it for a great many people to occupy this really consequential place as a sign of social incivility and deep offense, because they can imagine identifying with Sarah Huckabee Sanders and they can’t imagine identifying with the service workers.
Will Wilkinson: That’s it. That’s a perfect illustration of Smith’s point. That our sympathy is so easily extended to the famous person who’s very powerful and wealthy and that we just forget to even think about the immigrant who works in the restaurant, whose uncle might’ve been deported by the Trump administration. It doesn’t even occur to us. Clearly that person has-
Jacob Levy: Has a moral complaint. Has a genuinely normatively important thing to say.
Will Wilkinson: But we don’t see it because of the distortion in our thought.
Jacob Levy: Yes. I think that even though the Sanders case isn’t one about what someone being publicly honored. I introduced it because of what it does for that part of the asymmetry, the degree of over identification with the powerful person because they’re familiar over the person who… Over the many people who were on the wrong end of their power. Now, if that’s true for this one relatively minor in the scheme of things event, it’s going to continue to be true in a much more public and controversial way as people leave public office, whether it be in four months or four years and four months or whenever. Most of the people in the Trump administration who are not Donald Trump himself, they’re going to be with us for decades. They are going to be part of our public life and the question of how they are received and how their time in office is remembered, is a problem that a lot of institutions are going to have to face one by one institutionally.
Jacob Levy: And the institutional attraction to people who have or used to have power, is very strong. This is above and beyond the Smithian psychology. This isn’t just a matter of identification. There are lots of elite institutions that really run on an economy of prestige. It’s very important that they have access to famous names. It’s that important that they be able to provide their students, their donors, their audiences, their dinner guests with prestige, and it’s important for their institutional standing, that they have a sense of ongoing connection to the corridors of power. And so the normal habit among American elite institutions, is to think that everyone who was in office is honorable. Honorable in the literal sense of being worthy of being honored such that we can have their time and attention, such that their presence among us can confer some of the halo of their time in office-
Will Wilkinson: And so some of the things you have in mind are like a visiting fellowship at a prestigious university or-
Jacob Levy: Sean Spicer famously- [crosstalk 01:06:05]
Will Wilkinson: Institute of politics [crosstalk 01:06:07] and things like being asked to give a public address. Some people might not understand how much the speakers on these, most big universities will have some speakers series and they choose people who are supposed to be important or interesting or whatever. And they often pay like $20,000 for a pop, right? It’s like, okay, you’re going to invite Kaylee McEnany to give a sub talk in your speaking series or a commencement address, or giving them an honorary degree or inviting them on to your TV panel on CNN, because they’re an important commentator from one side of the political divide. But we’re just going to forget that this person lied every single day to protect a program that was putting immigrants in camps and stripping children from their parents.
Jacob Levy: Right. I’m not concerned with denying people the ability to make a living for the rest of their lives. And so I don’t want to put the fact that they’re getting remunerated front and center. There’s an asterisk to that, I’m going to come back to that. But the message that’s sent by honoring, the message that’s sent by treating someone’s time, having served in this administration, as worthy of their continued fame, worthy of being celebrated, I would rather someone get a $20,000 speaking fee, then they get an honorary degree. Those send different messages.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, the honor is being invited to give this address in a prestigious series that the university promotes relentlessly to its students and community.
Jacob Levy: I’d rather they be lucratively paid sitting on the board of directors of some defense contractor than they get the presidential medal of freedom. There’s a publicly distorting moral message that’s sent by honoring and celebrating, that’s separate from the question of their wealth. Doesn’t mean I’m particularly eager to see them get rich from bulk royalties or board of directors service or anything else like that. But that’s the public esteem is what I’m trying to focus attention on. Now, here’s the asterisk. When as I hope, some of the people we’re talking about find their chances to speak, protested or removed when they find themselves disinvited or when they go and give speeches and people turn their back or don’t come into the audience. The key…
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:09:04]
Jacob Levy: People turn their back or don’t come into the audience. The character of American debate right now is such that there’s going to be a lot of calls of all of that, of incivility, of intolerance, of censorship, of “canceling.” There’s a moment where I think we should talk about the money, because there are very well-paid speaking ways to make a living. There’s an ideas circuit. There are lucrative opportunities to make a living, writing an occasional book, being a regular paid contributor on cable news, and going and giving after-dinner speeches, going and giving speeches at the Aspen Institute, speeches at The New Yorker, Arts & Ideas festival. It was The New Yorker festival from which Steve Bannon was uninvited triggering one route of my thinking about this.
Jacob Levy: Steve Bannon isn’t being censored. He’s being denied a lucrative speaking engagement that he only gets because people say, “He must be interesting. He was famous.” And why was he famous? He was famous because he helped get Donald Trump elected. Well, let’s not go out of our way to celebrate him and pay him for his history of having helped to get Donald Trump elected. If he has something to say, then he can go on saying it, but that doesn’t mean any particular institution ought to give its most prestigious and most lucrative speaking engagements to him. It means institutions shouldn’t put themselves in a position of giving big, gracious introductions to people who committed serious atrocities or lied in the service of committing serious atrocities.
Jacob Levy: It means they shouldn’t give winking introductions. “Well, after a complicated term of service as chief of staff, John Kelly …” If you have to give winks, if you have to euphemize, well, maybe you shouldn’t have put that person on that stage in particular. It doesn’t mean John Kelly can’t write a book. It means your institution doesn’t have to put itself in a position of treating his service which made him famous as intrinsically making what he has to say more interesting than other people’s.
Will Wilkinson: I think what an interesting implication of your position, which again, falls out of this sort of Smithian idea that we’re likely to overpraise and over honor people who are famous just because they were famous or visible. One implication to that view is that as far as the famous and powerful go, there’s very little chance that we’re going to have a cancel culture, right? It’s the opposite. There are a bunch of people who in some sense ought to be canceled, who we will just be unable to cancel because we’re prone to this bias of esteeming people who don’t merit it simply because they had power or because we saw them every day. And so it seems like that just isn’t something we ought to worry about that much. I mean, I think it’s different when it comes to people who … You don’t want to ruin somebody’s life, some random person’s life, because they said something stupid on Twitter.
Will Wilkinson: But the deck is stacked in favor of Sean Spicer or Stephen Miller or the Kushners. You can try to cancel them, but they’ll get uncanceled because somebody is going to end up inviting them to speak at Harvard. They’ll get on uncanceled because somebody’s going to put them on their cable news panel. They won’t be able to resist. The hard part is resisting. And you make that point that universities in particular have to make a conscious, positive commitment to not honoring people for having done bad things in effect.
Jacob Levy: Think tanks too.
Will Wilkinson: Think tanks too. If a lot of people get these plum think tank gigs after they leave an administration, because it adds prestige to the institution-
Jacob Levy: They’re [crosstalk 01:13:11], exactly.
Will Wilkinson: And they probably can bring some donor along or something. But your point is that we’re so prone to making this error that we have to very consciously make a commitment not to make it or else we will.
Jacob Levy: Yeah. It’s a moral cognitive bias. It’s the direction that we tend to slip in, even as individuals, and then all the more so institutions that have this gravitational pull toward prestige and power. It really will take an active, conscious commitment not to retroactively normalize having been in office in the Trump administration. And it won’t happen. It won’t happen that enough institutions successfully resist this. Doesn’t mean that we can’t try to get a few more people than otherwise would have thought about it to think about it.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. So one thing that occurs to me that I think complicates this idea is that one, especially when it comes to politics and people coming out of an administration, more polarized culture, there’s rabid disagreement about what … We’re very forgiving of people on our team, and we’re not that forgiving of people that aren’t on our team. So just people are going to completely disagree with each other about whether what people who served in the Trump administration did was praiseworthy or deserves our scorn and contempt. If you voted for Donald Trump twice, you’re not going to think that the people who worked for him deserve to be treated with … They shouldn’t be run out of polite society. You think they were good people, they were doing the right thing. So how do we deal with that?
Jacob Levy: A couple of answers. One is it is going to be interesting, just [inaudible 01:15:14] political scientists, I think is going to be interesting to see what the afterlife of the Trump administration is relative to the afterlife of the Nixon administration. While people who weren’t directly, and I mean directly involved in Watergate, mostly went on to long careers as Republican public servants and fixtures in conservative institutions and remained in polite society, it wasn’t the case that people engaged in that particular bit of retroactive hagiography about Watergate. They didn’t say, “Well, Watergate was all a hoax and a fraud.” There was an understanding there was something disreputable there. Nixon in particular had to labor for decades in order to re-burnish his reputation as the elder statesman who went to China, and it never entirely worked. The first thing for which Richard Nixon will always be remembered is Watergate and resigning in disgrace.
Jacob Levy: It might be that party politics and ideological conflict in the United States is now so much more negatively polarized than it was in 1974, that we can no longer get anything like cross-party agreement on the concept of disgrace. It might also be that it’s harder now because everyone who views anything the Trump administration does as disgraceful is immediately run out of Republican polite society. And so when in two years they say, “That was disgraceful,” they will be heard as if being a never-Trumper is the same as having been a Democrat all along, or having been a late to the cause anti-Trumper was the same as having been a Democrat all along. And so there won’t be a perception of cross-party agreement on disgrace because the people who perceive disgrace didn’t get to remain Republicans in good standing.
Jacob Levy: I don’t think that’s going to be pervasively true at the elite level. What I do think is there’s going to be pervasive apology for everyone who is not an immediate member of the family. And we know the line because people have been trying it out in their anonymous op-eds. They’ve been trying it out in their off-the-record quotes year after year. They’ve been trying it out, even in their own on-the-record memoirs like John Bolton’s. “I thought that if I stayed there, I could mitigate the damage. I thought that it was my duty to do my best to make the administration go as well as possible.” We get this really strongly from the people with military backgrounds who treat serving in a partisan administration as somehow continuous with serving the public in a military capacity. But we’re getting it all over the place. There’s going to be a strong desire on the part of conservative elites in particular to allow that excuse as widely as possible, even though the people who use it don’t give it to each other.
Jacob Levy: It’s always individually self-serving. “Well, given how much of a disaster everyone else was, I had to be in the room.” Well, all of you together making that decision contributed to the stabilization and the normalization of the administration. It contributed to sending a message to Republican voters, who then sent a message to Republican office holders that they weren’t allowed to challenge the Trump administration. They weren’t allowed to hold it to account. They weren’t allowed to support investigations. They weren’t allowed to support impeachment. They weren’t allowed to support subpoenas, and so on. That is remaining there, even remaining there, telling yourself a story that what you were doing was mitigating the damage, made you a part of the damage.
Jacob Levy: That’s not the same as saying, “Well, the elites are just going to say the Trump administration was great.” I think after the Trump administration ends, there’s going to be something like a scramble of those deserting the ship and saying, “Well, I was never on the side anyway.” The question, if that’s true, how do those people then regard people who served in the office? And I think that concepts like shamefulness and disgrace need to be part of the vocabulary.
Will Wilkinson: You know what? One thing that occurs to me, which is sort of disheartening, is in some ways it feels like the excuse that people are most likely to get excused for is to say, “Hey, look, I was never for any of it, but I just wanted to use it as a springboard for my career. Just like anybody, I’m trying to get ahead.”
Jacob Levy: People don’t say that out loud. People [crosstalk 01:19:54].
Will Wilkinson: But I actually think that people forgive that, in a weird way, because that is the temptation to which people are prone. Like, “Hey, here’s my chance to move to the next level.” And I think people are actually pretty willing to be like, “Yeah, well, that makes sense. They’re human.”
Will Wilkinson: There’s something that, at least to me, that’s so obviously self-serving about the like, “Oh, I was there so that I could be the responsible one in the room to reign in the president’s worst excesses. You’re just like, “Oh, that’s bullshit.” If you come out and say, “Hey, I’m just a climber. I used it to get myself onto the board of a couple of companies so that I can make $500,000 a year sitting on my ass. It worked awesome.” I think a lot of people would just be like, “What a jerk,” but then not actually feel that much sense of condemnation, even though they should.
Jacob Levy: I think there would be indulgence for it at pretty junior levels. You know, “I was a conservative policy analyst in a think tank and my career path was always going to go through being a low-level political appointee in a cabinet agency. And finally, there’s a Republican administration. And there’s a Republican administration that has particularly a lot of vacancies because a lot of the elite people in my field, this is true in [crosstalk 01:21:14]-
Will Wilkinson: Here’s my chance.
Jacob Levy: Here’s my chance. I was going to get an appointment. And this is what paying your dues looks like, is serving for a couple of years in public office.” I think there will be a level of understanding for that at very junior levels. It’s pretty different if you say, “Well, I was a replacement level media personality at Fox, and I knew that if I went over to the White House and became a communications director or press secretary, that I would go way above that level. I would catapult above the other replacement level TV personalities at Fox, and I would have a career as a big time media personality at Fox the rest of my career,” I don’t see any reason to think that people will just smile and nod at that.
Will Wilkinson: And you’re right. If they were willing to lie about everything for two years, they’re probably not going to just suddenly become frank truth-tellers about themselves. I wanted to just underscore the point about the deep-seatedness of this bias toward overpraising the powerful and famous. Clearly, lots of Trump administration cronies are going to do just fine. They’re going to get gigs at Fox. They’re going to get cush jobs at right-wing think tanks. There’s just not a question of that. The question is whether they get on the CNN panel or they get invited to the Institute of Politics at Harvard or whatever. And I think it’s important to emphasize that despite the fact that we are polarized on those things, that the impulse is so strong that even really liberal people who hold the Trump administration in utter contempt are still going to be tempted to dangle these things out, these rewards and honors, out to these people if it does in fact confer some prestige on their institution.
Jacob Levy: Yeah, that’s right. It’s also the case that what we could think of as the elite center-left institutions that don’t conceive of themselves as ideological in the way that Fox News conceives of itself as ideological, they don’t think of themselves as left-wing but they are generally populated by, or generally to overwhelmingly populated by, left-leaning, central left members of the elite establishment.
Will Wilkinson: The New York Times.
Jacob Levy: Yes.
Will Wilkinson: Like CNN, just that kind of … even the Brookings or something like that. [crosstalk 01:23:43]. They don’t see themselves as being partisan, even though almost everybody who works for them is a Democrat.
Jacob Levy: That’s right. And therefore the urge to even-handedness, an urge to say, “We’re not taking a side,” is a possible obstacle to clear thinking for them, on top of the temptation that, well, famous and powerful people are famous and powerful and we really like having them around. Then you can tell yourself the story. That’s a sign of our open mindedness, a sign of our openness to debate. The question that they have to ask themselves is, “Well, why are you picking this famous and powerful conservative?” The question is not, “Why do you have an advocate of a conservative point of view?” And if the answer to the question, “Why this person?” is, “Well, they got famous in the Trump administration,” there’s one thing I would like people to take away from our essay is, when you hear that being the answer that you’re giving, stop.
Jacob Levy: Don’t count their time in the Trump administration or their time helping to elect Donald Trump as a reason for including them as the conservative voice that you’re looking for. There’s a separate question. Are you including enough conservative voices? I’m happy to say the answer is routinely not, but your picking one confers prestige and honor on them. And you can find more honorable ones than the ones who are now going to occur to you because they’ve been on our television screen every day for four years.
Will Wilkinson: So wrapping it up, I just wanted to ask you this. We’re agreed that there are a huge number of people that are over-honored, over-praised, who are given too much status and don’t deserve it. Who are some people in your mind that don’t have nearly the status and recognition that they merit? Because part of the issue here is that there is only so much space in our attention. There can only be so many famous people at a given time, right? There’s a reason there’s a B list and a C list and a D list. It has to do with their centrality in our attention. And that basically means that there’s only going to be so many people in any of those groups. And some of these people who don’t deserve it are crowding out people who really do have merit and deserve to be praised and honored. So do you have any ideas who some of those people might be who we’re not recognizing because we’re watching Sean Spicer on Dancing with the Stars?
Jacob Levy: So there’s a trip over oneself problem here. In order for someone to be the kind of person I can think of, they have to be someone who can readily be called to mind. And the people who are most under-honored, most underappreciated, more or less by definition I’m not going to be able to call them to mind. And so it’s like a partial cheat of an answer.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, that’s fine. Because it is in some ways a trick question. The question implies that it’s going to be hard to think of the person. Yeah.
Jacob Levy: So while right now maybe this isn’t true because there’s been appropriate public honoring right now in the last several months, for most of the last several decades, your answer would have been John Lewis, someone who to white America was substantially invisible as a public servant and as someone who was still active in the present. Someone who continued to be in office doing the work for which he’d fought in the civil rights movement for decades. But because they put him on the left of the Democratic Party, and put him in the left of the Democratic Party during the years of Reagan, Bush, and the second Bush, made him marginalized.
Jacob Levy: One of the ways that race and ideology interact in the US is if you are black and being seen as on the left, your leftness gets doubled or tripled. The degree to which you are seen as out there gets accentuated. And so Lewis wasn’t treated as one of the giants of American liberalism. Lewis wasn’t treated as a giant of the Democratic Party, say nothing of having been treated as a continuing giant of contributions to American democracy. The actual living John Lewis, rather than the figure in old reel footage on PBS about the March on Washington, was really insufficiently, honored, really gravely insufficiently honored for decades worth of his lifetime.
Will Wilkinson: That’s a great answer. That’s better than anything I would’ve come up with. I don’t think I have a good answer. One thing I do know is that McGill University political theorist Jacob T. Levy is under-recognized and under-honored. And I’m honored that you came on Model Citizen. Thanks so much, Jacob.
Jacob Levy: Thanks, Will.
Will Wilkinson: Model Citizen is brought to you by the Niskanen Center. To learn more about the Niskanen Center, visit NiskanenCenter.org. That’s N-I-S-K-A-N-E-N Center.org. To support this podcast or any of our programs go to NiskanenCenter.org/donate.
PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [01:29:17]