[TSAS Special] Michael Knowles: Leftist Control and the Decline of Culture and Language in America

By Jan Jekielek
Jan Jekielek
Jan Jekielek
Senior Editor
Jan Jekielek is a senior editor with The Epoch Times and host of the show, "American Thought Leaders." Jan’s career has spanned academia, media, and international human rights work. In 2009 he joined The Epoch Times full time and has served in a variety of roles, including as website chief editor. He is the producer of the award-winning Holocaust documentary film "Finding Manny."
July 25, 2019 Updated: November 7, 2019

At Turning Point USA’s Teen Student Action Summit, we sit down with Michael Knowles, an author, conservative commentator, and host of The Michael Knowles Show at the Daily Wire. We discuss free speech on college campuses, big tech bias and censorship, the future of conservatism, and the culture war with the left.

Jan Jekielek: Michael Knowles, amazing to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Michael Knowles: Thank you so much for having me.

Mr. Jekielek: So Turning Point USA Teen Action Summit–why are you here?

Mr. Knowles: They couldn’t keep me away. These events are really inspiring. I do a college speaking tour, so I’ll go around to sometimes 20 campuses in a year. And I think I get much more out of it than the students do because sometimes conservatives, we get in our own heads. We get in our own bubbles a little bit, we get a little nostalgic and wistful. They say nostalgia is history after a few drinks, you know? Rather than pontificating about what the youths are thinking, I find it’s much better to talk to them.

And I’m totally encouraged and inspired by what, particularly, Gen Z and the crop of students who are now in high school and college are thinking. I think they’re largely anti-ideological. I think they’re very open-minded. I think they’re perceiving some of what we’ve lost as a culture. They are perceiving a little bit of the loss of national loyalty, national love of country, things that we’ve failed to conserve.

Obviously, there’s a selection bias. The kids at an organization like TPUSA are going to be more in tune to that than others. Students come here to get revved up with speakers. I come here to get revved up because I’m talking to the next generation of American leaders.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s really interesting. We were talking to a number of the students here, actually, and they mentioned how this idea of big tech giant censorship is a critical thing in their minds. We weren’t expecting that, frankly, for people to have that sophisticated level of thought. Are you coming across this sort of thing yourself?

Mr. Knowles: Yeah. This is what I mean when I say they’re anti-ideological because I think there is a little bit of an old-school sense or a conservatism that made a lot of sense decades ago and has ceased to really explain what’s going on, where you always say anything that the government does is bad. And the reason we say that is because the government screws up so much. The federal government is the least efficient institution on planet Earth.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s really easy to point a finger.

Mr. Knowles: That’s right. It’s really easy to point a finger at it. And I think it’s made conservatives blind to some of the other threats to our culture and to our country. One of those threats being these massive unaccountable tech giants who completely control the flow of information around the Internet and who are arbitrarily censoring their political opponents at their will. They are violating the law, as far as I can tell. They are not applying the rules fairly, and they are trying to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. That’s what it really boils down to.

And I find the younger generation, which was basically born with an iPad in their hands, really perceive that threat much better than some of the older generations.

Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. Did you follow these recent hearings about the tech giant bias? You saw some of those moments, right, with Dr. Epstein, for example. What did you make of this?

Mr. Knowles: Particularly, being one of the targets of big tech, I really don’t hold to these pieties that we should never interfere in any way with these wonderful capitalists doing their job. I don’t really buy that. I think it’s pretty clear that they’re violating the law. They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too. They want to receive the legal protections for tech platforms, but they want to behave as publishers behind it. They want to choose their own content and censor people they don’t like.

And this has affected my show. My show has been demonetized; it has been restricted. I did a video once about how the left controls the language to control the culture for Prager University. Guess what happened? Big tech came in and limited the reach of that video.

So I think it’s just terrific that conservatives and Republicans on Capitol Hill and elsewhere are beginning to take them to task for it. Because if we wait until after 2020, it’s going to be too late.

Mr. Jekielek: So when you’re doing these campus tours that you do, you’re not always getting the most positive response, right?

Mr. Knowles: That’s the most diplomatic understatement of the year, I think. I did one talk at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, three months ago. This was the most boring talk I could have given. Do you know what the topic was?

Mr. Jekielek: Hit me.

Mr. Knowles: The topic was “Men are not women.”

Mr. Jekielek: OK. Sounds incredibly controversial.

Mr. Knowles: I know. Almost as controversial as the sky is blue, right? The moment I opened my mouth to start giving this talk, a group of students started shrieking for about 25 minutes. Eventually they stand up. Someone opens a fire door, some masked weirdo Antifa guy busts in, sprays me with some chemical. Fortunately, I wasn’t physically harmed. Lost my suit, don’t want to know what was in the squirt gun.

Look, I don’t care. Students want to behave like idiots. That’s almost the definition of a student. Students can be very intelligent, but by definition, they’re ignorant. The trouble was, the next day, the chancellor of the university sends out a letter basically apologizing for having invited me in the first place. Smearing me as some kind of bigot, saying that my views don’t go along with the university’s views. Apparently they think men are women. They don’t think men aren’t women. Finally he paid lip service to no violence, but he was defending the students who were shrieking and preventing everyone else from hearing the talk. He was defending the heckler’s veto.

And it’s not just happening at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. It’s happening all over this country. The inmates are running the asylum, and it’s hollowing out liberal education without which a free society cannot live. Liberal education is the art of freedom. It’s learning how to earn our own freedom, and a country that lacks that is going to fall into statism and is going to lose their ability to govern themselves. And we’re seeing that happen, and that’s why I think we’re seeing the left cheer it on.

Mr. Jekielek: I guess this is another reason you’re here at Turning Point USA because Turning Point USA is attempting to turn the tide?

Mr. Knowles: Yeah. And they’re succeeding. They’re doing a very good job at it. This is a very difficult environment for young people. I didn’t graduate college very long ago. I graduated college six, seven years ago. It is significantly worse today. The Colorado State [University] just published a new inclusive language speech code.

Mr. Jekielek: OK.

Mr. Knowles: This now tells us we’re not allowed to use the words male, female, he, she, Mr., Mrs., or Ms. even. We’re not allowed to use the expression “hip hip hooray.” Apparently, that derives from some Nazi usage. News to you and news to me. We’re not allowed to use the term “rule of thumb” because of a mythical historical origin that has nothing to do with reality. We’re not allowed to use perfectly innocuous words, but what worries me is, they even say we’re not allowed to use the word “homosexual,” which used to be the politically correct term. Now we have to use the term “queer,” but three weeks ago we were told by the leftists at YouTube that we can’t use the word “queer,” that that’s a bad word. And what this really boils down to is these institutions being run by leftists telling us not [only] what to say, but making us check with them before we say it.

And for these kids, they’ll get lower grades, in some cases, they won’t have due process on campus if they’re accused of some crime. They’ll be brought in in front of the campus tribunal. They’ve got a lot on the line here. And now because the Internet is forever, they might have trouble getting a job if the campus newspaper writes them up for it. They’re exhibiting a lot of courage, and I’m really inspired that they’re able to do that.

If I can come out and help rev them up at all, I’m more than willing to because they’re the ones on the front lines, and they’re risking a lot more than just a couple pictures on social media. They really are putting their money where their mouth is and saying, “even if it hurts me in the future, I’m going to stand up for what I believe in.”

Mr. Jekielek: I just interviewed the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. She’s basically going through the process right now of trying to guarantee due process for sexual harassment cases …Title IX?

Mr. Knowles: I think that’s Title IX. There are a lot of titles.

Mr. Jekielek: Exactly. Again, the previous rules are very ambiguous, can be interpreted in different ways. So it’s almost like the whole free speech realm on campuses are an even more extreme version of that.

Mr. Knowles: It’s all about power. This is something that we need to understand when we talk about Title IX or any other sort of protection. Right now the left in this country is actively working to undo Title IX. The place that you’re seeing this is in college sports, in high school sports. There used to be a difference between men’s athletics and women’s athletics. Why? Because men are physically stronger than women and they’re faster than women, so they would compete in separate leagues.

Mr. Jekielek: Of course.

Mr. Knowles: Now, because of the movement for gender ideology and protections for gender identity, they are trying to have the same legal protections. The trouble is, you can’t protect gender identity, meaning whatever sex I think I am, even if it’s not true, without undermining protections for sex itself. To protect sex self itself, you say the female athlete can run in her own track meet. To protect gender identity, you say the woman can’t run in her own track meet. You have to compete against men, which means you’re going to lose your scholarships, you’re going to lose your competitions, you’re going to lose your trophies. The left is ditching women’s rights and feminism and Title IX because it’s no longer politically useful for them. And now they’re moving onto this new aspect of gender identity.

Same thing with the campus tribunals. We have seen dozens of rape hoaxes on campuses in the last 15 years. Some of the biggest ones, the Duke lacrosse hoax, the UVA hoax, “mattress girl,” on and on. And, yet, we’re still told that we have to believe all women, as though because they have two X chromosomes, they’re no longer capable of telling a lie. Rape is a very serious crime. Sexual assault is a serious crime. We have a criminal justice system to deal with that.

The left doesn’t care about justice, they just want power. And so they’ll take it through speech codes, they’ll take it through campus tribunals. And I hope, that as Secretary DeVos and the Trump administration and all of the right-minded people who are in politics, will take a serious look at that. Because what happens at the universities is a crystal ball. It’s a preview of what’s going to happen to your country 20 years later. And if we don’t stop those injustices now, we’re not going to have a terribly recognizable country in a generation.

Mr. Jekielek: What are your hopes for the outcomes of this conference? What would you like to see happen?

Mr. Knowles: What I really want to see happen is for the broad range of conservative ideas to be articulated clearly, precisely. The left wants to win by by changing language. We need to use precise language. Reminds me of this scene in “Alice in Wonderland.” Humpty Dumpty and Alice are arguing. Humpty Dumpty says, “in my language, words can mean whatever I want them to mean.” Alice says, “are you sure that words can really mean all those things?” He says, “the real question is, which is to be mastered. That is all.” The left masters language by perverting. We master language by using it precisely.

And so I think here you’ve got a lot of different conservative ideas, you’ve got people articulating them clearly, and you’ve got students who are engaging with them. And if they can bring those arguments back to their campuses–maybe they’re really good on one topic, but they don’t know a whole lot about another. If they can bring those arguments back, they’re going to be the ones who are winning the culture, and they’re going to be changing minds, not on television necessarily, not from a big podium somewhere, but they’re going to be changing minds at the bar or at the dorm party, or over a conversation in a seminar. And there are a lot of bright people at this conference, and I hope that if one or two ideas strike them the right way, I think that will have a huge effect on the culture.

Mr. Jekielek: What’s an example of something that hasn’t been articulated very clearly, but maybe you have an idea of how to deliver it.

Mr. Knowles: Sure. One thing that sometimes conservatives miss out on is the importance of the culture. Because we’re very practical people. We don’t get involved in all of the craziness of Hollywood or New York, even the publishing houses or the mainstream media. We focus all of our attention, all of our money on this election or this nonprofit or this think tank.

But the culture is what changes everything. Saint Andrew Breitbart, the patron saint of Hollywood conservatives, famously said, “politics is downstream of culture.” Conservatives are waking up to this. It’s why we elected a cultural key figure, Donald Trump, to be the president. Network TV star for 15 years.

But it was said—I forget who said it, it’s been attributed to a lot of people—that at the bottom all political disagreements are theological disagreements. Because politics is down from culture and culture is down from religion. Cult and culture are related words. What the culture worships defines that culture, and I think we need to articulate a clear vision.

The left has their religion. They’ve got the vision of the anointed. Their religion is progressivism, and they are progressing toward their utopia, which, if they ever got it, would be hell on earth.

Conservatives don’t have that. We have a traditional religious view. We inherit the views of our fathers, we think through our religion, and we worship God. At the basis, we are worshiping our God. President Trump said that the other day, the left worships government, but conservatives, we worship God here in America. And if we can align those things, and we realize that tax policy isn’t just about tax policy, it’s about the culture that we have, it’s about our liberties, it’s about the political traditions that we draw on to protect those liberties, and what that comes from is our Creator, the guy who created the natural law, that big Jewish guy up in the sky, namely, God.

If we understand that our politics comes from our culture, which comes from our religion, I think that we won’t be quibbling over libertarianism versus traditionalism versus neoconservatism versus populism, all of these differences on the right. I think we’ll have a more coherent politics. And I’m seeing that discussed more and more.

Mr. Jekielek: Not all conservatives necessarily believe in the Judeo-Christian God or so forth.

Mr. Knowles: Yeah, not all conservatives make sense, I guess. I don’t mean that to be glib. Obviously, there are plenty of people who are agnostic or atheist–

Mr. Jekielek: Or Buddhist.

Mr. Knowles: Or Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim. And they have two eyes and they realize that the left is wrong and conservatives are right. I myself was an atheist for 10 years and I was agnostic before that, too, so I don’t mean any disrespect. But one thing I notice about conservative atheists or agnostics, even, is they’re not anti-theists. They don’t hate religion. It tends to be the left hates religion, conservative atheists and agnostics don’t. I suspect, and I hope and I pray, that eventually they’ll come around and I’ll see them up at the big party in the sky someday.

But even just that respect, that deference for religion, the understanding that in this country to have any kind of coherent nation, you must have something that is sacred. You must have consecration, a sense of something greater that unites you. I think that will bring us all together. And that is a religious concept.

Mr. Jekielek: It sounds to me like you’re saying there’s a profound culture war in play here. Would you agree with that statement?

Mr. Knowles: There is, and it’s so funny to look at it, because if you saw the conservative landscape, even five, six years ago there was a big movement to downplay cultural issues. No more culture wars. Let’s have a truce.

Mr. Jekielek: Really?

Mr. Knowles: I noticed it at least. What I think we’re waking up to is that the culture is everything. Nobody wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night and says, “Gosh, I wish the highest marginal tax rate were 0.2 percent lower. Oh, then the world would be great.” Of course not. Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservative thought, he complained, he lamented. He said, “The age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded it, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

This idea that conservatives are eggheads, that we’re just concerned about bean-counting is ridiculous. The left, they’re the eggheads, they’re the rationalists. Conservatives have a sense of romance. Edmund Burke was an aesthetic philosopher. We’re much more romantic than the leftists who want to boil down every great love affair on earth, whether it’s between individuals or a man and his country, they want to boil it down into some clinical, individualist relationship.

We reject that, and we understand that there is something greater and that outside of the culture, outside of what the culture is worshiping, outside of all the things that are metaphysical, that we care about, everything else is just accounting.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. We’re going to finish up in a moment, and any final words?

Mr. Knowles: My only final word is I love reading your outlet. I’m a big fan. Longtime fan, first-time caller. So I’m very glad to be able to be here. Thanks for having me.

Mr. Jekielek: Wonderful to hear that. But tell me, what is it that you come to us for? Anything in particular?

Mr. Knowles: I read you almost every day. I do. I guess it would be a cliche at this point to say I don’t really trust the mainstream media. I can’t say I trust The Washington Post and CNN. So I take in a whole host of alternative media, new media, and I always make sure to see you guys.

Mr. Jekielek: Fantastic. Such a pleasure to have you, Michael.

Mr. Knowles: Thank you so much for having me.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

American Thought Leaders is an Epoch Times show available on Facebook and YouTube.

Jan Jekielek
Senior Editor
Jan Jekielek is a senior editor with The Epoch Times and host of the show, "American Thought Leaders." Jan’s career has spanned academia, media, and international human rights work. In 2009 he joined The Epoch Times full time and has served in a variety of roles, including as website chief editor. He is the producer of the award-winning Holocaust documentary film "Finding Manny."