The shocking assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 has been followed by widespread censorship and de-platforming of Americans, including President Trump, with the professed goal of preventing violence.
James Lindsay, co-author of the bestseller “Cynical Theories,” argues the Capitol breach has been used to implement a major power grab and “apply Leninism to the American context, using corporations as part of the toolset.”
This is the “woke” movement in action, Lindsay argues. The ideology involves an inverted morality, he says, allowing it to apply double standards when it comes to political violence.
In this episode, James Lindsay, founder of the New Discourses website, gives us his take on our current political moment.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Mr. Jekielek: James Lindsay, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Mr. Lindsay: Thanks, Jan. It’s great to be here again.
Mr. Jekielek: So James, on January 4—I had to check when this actually was—we had a call, a long call. You had tweeted something that caught my eye. I had been thinking about what I was seeing in the world. Something you said really took me aback. You basically said, I’m worried that we’re heading into a kind of Leninism 4.0. I thought this is obviously a very big statement to make. A lot has happened since January 4. Why don’t you start by just telling me what you were thinking and how this applies to the subsequent days.
Mr. Lindsay: It’s hard to remember exactly where my head was on January 4, since apparently an entire epoch of history has passed in the meantime and has colored my recollections, of course. But as far as the Leninism 4.0 comment, what I’ve been doing for a number of years now is studying the—what we call “woke, ” or “critical social justice,” in their words—literature and its historical and philosophical antecedents.
What I’ve boiled this down to—the way I think I explained it to you—was that, if you think, What did Lenin do differently with the ideas of Marx than other people? He created a party that had the power to shepherd the population through the revolution that Marx had predicted would come about organically, that class consciousness Marx had predicted would arise in the proletariat. They would overthrow the bourgeoisie, seize the means of production, and we would enter into the fifth stage of history for Marx, which was socialism, which would then progress to communism as the state became redundant and this became a self-sufficient program.
That wasn’t happening anywhere, so Lenin said, “Wait, technically we are high-level people. We’re technically in the bourgeoisie, but we understand that we have class consciousness. We have learned, so we’ll form a party called the Communist Party. We will take power and usher in the proletariat. We will teach them and lead them through the revolution that they’re not having organically. They must need a shepherd of some kind.”
Leninism can be boiled down to the idea that Marx’s revolutions require a party that shepherds people through them. So Lenin becomes Leninism 1.0 in this way, and then we’d get to 4.0. Then you see that Stalin took over when Lenin died. Stalin took over and had quite a different approach. It was—as brutal as Lenin was—much more brutal. I characterize Stalin as Leninism 2.0. The party that Lenin had conceived wasn’t brutal enough. It wasn’t making the revolution happen. You have to force it harder.
Even most of your Marxist analysts today put a lot of blame on Stalin. They see Stalin as having done it the wrong way. Leninism 2.0 was a bad idea. What they did, just like what you see with all of these kinds of philosophers, whether it’s Antonio Gramsci writing in Italy saying: Marx had it wrong. Let’s go back more toward Hegel, where Marx’s ideas of history came from. Let’s revamp things.
Now we have [that] Stalin did it wrong. Let’s go back to Lenin. That’s where you get Mao. Mao said we have to be very Leninist. Mao was very openly Leninist, in a Chinese context. So there you end up with Leninism 3.0, and a new attempt. At this point, the thought of Gramsci, which was cultural Marxism, has definitely come into play. You see Mao was very interested in using cultural revolution ahead of a political revolution. The cultural aspect becomes central. This was a much more refined method, and it worked much more successfully.
China is still under communist rule today, whereas the Soviet Union has collapsed. I see woke—not just because of the obvious parallels, the behaviors, the patterns, but also because its historical and philosophical antecedents are identical—coming from the same literature. They come from the same lines of thought. They come from the same attempts to apply these ideas to a different context.
Now we have the attempt to apply Leninism to the American context, using corporations as part of the toolset, for example. So we call this movement the “woke movement.” We talk about woke capital with all the corporations. I said that the woke movement is Leninism 4.0. That’s the context in which we were having our conversation. Again, the idea is that you have some enlightened party of people who are probably part of what Marx would have identified as the bourgeoisie, who understand the problem of the proletariat better than the proletariat does and is going to shepherd them through the revolution that they need to have. That’s for the greater good or in their best interest or toward the right side of history, depending on how you want to frame the wording, depending on which context you are in.
I see that parallel as very frightening. Then I see the events that have unfolded since the 4th, particularly, the event at the Capitol. We can talk as much as you want, or as little as you want about what happened at the Capitol. I don’t think we know what happened at the Capitol clearly yet. A lot of people have their opinions. But we do know how it’s being used. The most accurate description I’ve read of it was that it’s like the Reichstag fire from Germany, but reversed. It’s very likely that the Reichstag fire … was set by the Nazis.
In this case, I’m not trying to allege that this was a false flag event at the Capitol. It’s likely that people believing themselves to be patriots got out of control and stormed the Capitol. So it’s kind of reversed. But what happened in the wake of that [Reichstag] fire, was that the Nazis used that to start clamping down on their political enemies, as they had just enough political power to do so.
We see that already with the tech companies. We see that already with the Democratic Party trying to put people on no-fly lists, trying to create something like a Patriot Act 2.0, labeling everybody involved and everybody who supported them—the people at the Capitol I mean—as domestic terrorists, calling for the resignations or removal of not just the president via impeachment, but congresspeople and senators who supported the idea that the election may have been tampered with or fraudulent.
We have this very similar pattern playing out. Historically, whatever actually happened at the Capitol, we’ve seen regimes seizing upon events of that sort to consolidate and increase their power. Regardless, again, of what happened at the Capitol, that pattern is playing out again via the tech companies and their friends in the Democratic Party.
We now also know that the tech companies are the primary financial source for many of these Democratic politicians who are pushing the policies. You can see the revolving door there between interests. That should be very concerning to everybody because our tech companies have the power to circumvent—as private industries for the moment—the First Amendment and perhaps even other amendments, depending on what they do. So it’s a concerning moment in history, I think.
With respect to what happened at the Capitol, we know some things. We know a number of people died or were killed. We know that. We know there was a mob that attacked the Capitol. We know there were Trump supporters there. We do know that there were some that were clearly not Trump supporters, as well.
Mr. Jekielek: We just published a timeline today, we’ve been trying to make sense of it. I actually haven’t even seen that work yet. But I hope our viewers will be able to take a look, once we publish this. We’ll have more information on the progression of what actually happened. The big question is, How do you read this being called an insurrection, and that the President was inciting the mob to do what they did?
Mr. Lindsay: I think that that is a stretch, at the very least, and probably a canard, to be honest with you. Maybe the people who broke into the Capitol had the intention of some kind of insurrection. But you’ll notice there’s even video footage of people inside the Capitol wandering around being interviewed by journalists who came in with them, being asked, What is the plan, and they say, We don’t know. We don’t have a plan.
This is not an insurrection. You don’t break into a building with no plan, a government building and then start taking pictures of yourself and streaming Instagram-type things in the middle of an insurrection. You do that in the middle of a demonstration, right? So calling it an insurrection, even though their intention was to try to “stop the steal.” … You even hear the interviews with people: “Why are you here?” “We’re not here to overturn an election, we’re here to demand accountability. We’re here to demand an audit of the vote. We’re here to demand. We don’t trust that the vote was honest.”
I saw an interview with a man who had been pepper-sprayed, and they’re interviewing him. He has something of an accent that to my ear sounded Latino, so calling him white—I guess we can get into those weeds if we want, but it’s not necessary. He’s saying, “We want an audit. If the audit shows that the election was sound, then the election was sound, we’re not going to overturn democracy. That’s not why we’re here.”
So to call this an insurrection—as opposed to a protest that got way out of hand—seems to be a political tool that’s being wielded as a weapon to say that the president was inciting it. I can understand how people would hear Trump’s language in his rallies, how it always works people up and so on, and make that connection. But it defies a large number of other data points, for example, Trump saying that we’re going to go over to the Capitol peacefully and patriotically.
Immediately after Trump speaks, Trump Jr. gets on the stage or maybe before Trump speaks, Trump Jr. gets on the stage and praises the crowd for how there has been no violence against people or property whatsoever. Trump goes on, not terribly long, but not quickly enough after the fact, after it begins at the Capitol, and says, “Go home, we have to have peace. Go home, we have to have peace.”
So there are a number of things that are concurrent with what’s happening that suggest that … [his] inciting that crowd to engage in that kind of violence is unlikely. Then you can add other data that’s not circumstantial. There is evidence that has already been presented that this—what are they calling it, “a storming of the Capitol”—was planned on social media, many days, possibly even more than a month before Trump spoke?
How can Trump have incited people back in time? You know, how could he have spoken on January 6, to get people to act days or weeks earlier? That is not possible if it was planned ahead of time.
I saw one person, Jack Posobiec, who is a noted but somewhat controversial figure, point out that it is true that there were bombs planted in different places in D.C. around the DNC and the RNC headquarters, if I’m not mistaken. That didn’t happen in 15 minutes. That required planning in advance, which means that the president could not possibly have been inciting that in his speech because it had already occurred before the president spoke.
So again, I see this in the light of seizing upon something that happened in order to push a narrative in order to seize control, far more than I see it in terms of the plausible arguments that you can make that Trump’s tendency toward clumsy and bombastic rhetoric would be interpreted by a small number of his followers as an incitement to violence.
Again, that violence appears, as they’ve reported, to have already been planned. So we’re seeing contradictory reports. The president incited—oh, here’s evidence that they’re planning it in advance. How can you have both?
Mr. Jekielek: To your point, the argument that I’m hearing, it’s escalated from the first day that it’s a horrible mob, and then we’re hearing that it’s an insurrection, this is an escalating rhetoric that went on day after day and started incorporating essentially anyone that would be questioning the validity of the election, in with the people that actually stormed or mobbed the Capitol.
Mr. Lindsay: Right. I’m referring to this as the building of a magic narrative—that’s my rhetoric that I’ve settled upon to describe what’s happening—that something was happening at the Capitol. It obviously gathered a ton of attention. People were very freaked out. People were staring at it in horror, some probably in amusement. I saw people on Twitter, whether they’re bots or real, I don’t know. I assume they’re real, who were like [saying], Finally, something’s happening. There were a lot of different views and messages that were being shared.
But what happened is that the media, in particular, and the politicians—and I can’t just say the Democrats because certainly we’ve seen Arnold Schwarzenegger come out with this, we’ve seen many of the Republican congresspeople come out with this, and senators come out with this—they’ve slowly decided and built up a consensus view of what has happened.
That consensus view, as you said, continues. They continue to find the scariest elements of things that occurred, and cobble those onto this myth or narrative about what actually occurred, so that it’s gone from violent mob, out of control, insurrection, inciting, all of these, and a coup attempt.
A coup attempt! You can’t be serious. Do you know what a coup requires, what it’s asking for? I know there were some people there who are armed, but it would require lots of people with lots of guns, very intentionally with a plan attempting to by force change what’s happening in the government. This reflects nothing of what happened. So you see this escalating thing. It’s crystallized as a kind of a magic narrative, that is now a consensus view that may or may not reflect reality. You see this very frequently.
Having been at the center of a couple of controversial public events that my work has been involved with, you see this. The narrative gets away from you. Then there’s a story about you out there, or a story about an event out there that doesn’t match reality whatsoever. It takes on a life of its own. And it crystallizes, and there’s very little you can do about it.
This is the same thing that I’ve seen happening here, except that it’s constantly escalating. This is a pattern, by the way, that we’ve watched for the last five years since Trump announced that he was going to run for president. What has happened is we’ve seen this constant push, especially through the media to escalate and escalate and escalate.
I find this particular asymmetry to be very worrying. And very rarely did you ever hear anybody on CNN or in the New York Times, or in any of these big mainstream outlets, or maybe on Fox, trying to de-escalate? What’s going on? Oh, Trump talks in a clumsy way. We don’t have to freak out. Let’s see what happened. You never heard that. It was “He’s a dictator.” At every turn, it was how do we escalate this?
So the pattern of speech in the media, and increasingly in the political class around Trump has been, Let’s escalate it to this worst possible interpretation, and we’re going to build a mythology out of that. This event fits straight into that same pattern. And it is increasingly being taken as a given by large numbers of people that that paranoid and hysterical narrative, [that] magic narrative, is the thing that is going to be regarded as true. We don’t have to get really philosophical about it.
There are some very interesting commentaries by a group of philosophers that are near and dear to my heart, the postmodernists, about what happens when socially enforced magic narratives start to gain power. Their critiques of that, as bad as I think most of their work was, their critiques of that are the best in the world.
Mr. Jekielek: So tell me, now you’ve got my attention? What happened?
Mr. Lindsay: Jean-Francois Lyotard, for example, in 1979, wrote a book called “The Postmodern Condition.” One of the things that Lyotard was concerned with was what he called “legitimation by paralogy,” which is a very fancy way to say—he describes paralogy as the building of a consensus whether or not it’s connected to the truth. “Para” means next to—it’s a Greek root—and “logy” is the same as logic.
It’s a different way of understanding things. The simple way to understand paralogy is lies—it’s consensus in a lie. And “legitimation by,” of course, means that we’re going to now treat that thing as true. … The postmodernists, to be clear, were wrong. They believe that everything is being legitimized by paralogy, that there are no true narratives. There are no true understandings of the world. Everything is just one of these [paralogies].
But they were very concerned that when you start to have legitimation by paralogy or when you have people following along blindly in a politically empowered consensus, you are going to end up in states where there are going to be tyrannies, there are going to be abuses, there is going to be the inability to have freedom and authenticity. The postmodernists were—to be very generous toward the way they viewed [this]—You will lose freedom, you will lose authenticity if we’re going to have to live within a lie that’s being upheld by public consensus.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s really fascinating. Something that you talk about in [your] essay that I’ve been reading, “Psychopathy and the Origins of Totalitarianism,” which frankly, is a tough read. But for those who want a tough, heavy read, I’ll recommend it. It’s worth looking at. It’s interesting.
You tackle this idea of “pseudo-reality,” which I guess is the next step up from what you were just describing, paralogy and so forth. You’re arguing in this essay, you create these situations where people inhabit mentally a pseudo-reality, so to speak, where essentially good and evil are inverted, and they believe they’re doing good in the name of evil. This is one of the things that jumped out to me from this essay and scared … me, frankly, because I hadn’t really been thinking of it that way. Again, I think we should talk about this a little bit, but I don’t think we can do it in the language of the essay.
Mr. Lindsay: No, I’ll try to keep it simple. I do use the phrase “pseudo-reality,” which means false reality. So what I was just describing, really, it’s living within a consensus-driven lie. It’s living within a narrative that’s not true and being forced to live within it, the thing that Lyotard called paralogy. In the essay, I refer to in a more accessible way, I hope, for people, a parallel logic. In other words, a different logical structure.
So if we pick one of these various theories that we hear about, whether it’s critical race theory or whatever, you can think in critical race theory, you can learn to do critical race theory. They call it, having, adopting that theoretical lens, or they might say that you have arisen into a critical race consciousness, and so you can think within that. Thinking within that means participating in that particular false logic that describes and upholds that pseudo-real, the fake reality that this narrative— it’s a meta narrative, actually. It’s bigger than a regular narrative. Again, we’re still living in Lyotard here and his concerns.
I also said that it has its own fake, as you said, inverted morals. In fact, for those Nietzscheans out there listening, it is the slave morality that he describes in “Genealogy of Morality.” It is an inverted morality where, in a sense, up becomes down, good becomes bad, evil and good are inverted. So people do what they believe is good, but in service to something that is evil, or bad, or harmful. They use those things to bully people and keep them in.
So for example, with critical race theory, I can describe the pseudo-reality in brief if you like. The typical thing is that you’ll see, as they’ll describe, something about the pseudo-reality: We live in a systemically racist society, racism is the ordinary state of affairs. The question is not, did racism take place, but how did racism manifest in that situation? These are quotes from their literature, by the way.
Those who benefit from racism have no motivation whatsoever to try to challenge racism. They’re comfortable in this status, the racial status quo, so they have no interest and are willfully ignorant of the racial realities of the situation. This is the critical race theory pseudo-reality in their own words. Then they tried to explain how that works. They say that a history of racism, hundreds of years of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining, all of these things, all leave a trace, and this is a key concept that things in a system leave a trace that never quite go away.
There’s another concept within critical race theory called “interest convergence” that says that when you try to undo racism, what you actually do is just find a way to hide it because you only act in your own interests. So if we as white individuals were to try to undo racism, we must have our selfish motive for some reason.
In the argument that Derrick Bell gave, the creator of critical race theory, we’re recreating racism in a new form that’s harder to see and doing so in a way that benefits us as well. So we’re actually making racism worse, not better. He made that argument explicitly about desegregating schools and Brown v. Board of Education, for example, from Harvard Law where Derrick Bell was the first African-American tenured professor.
So that’s the paralogic that upholds critical race theory. If you disagree with it, the paramorality steps in and says, anybody who disagrees with us must have racist intentions. They must have bad motivations, they must want to uphold white supremacy, they must be willfully ignorant, they must be blind to the realities, they lack, in the words of Robin DiAngelo, “racial stamina,” they lack racial humility. So you’ve got an inverted morality.
To just even disagree or question the thing becomes a moral infraction in this fake moral system where now everybody is a racist. So you can see, it’s not as complicated as it sounds when you break it down with an example. The essay is very difficult because I tried to stay abstract in general. … Pseudo-reality is complicated, but you have a distorted view of reality that’s being upheld by a logical system that you can understand, comprehend, and act within, but it’s messed up. That’s the paralogy or the paralogic.
Then you have, on the other hand, a set of inverted morals that bully anybody who tries to disagree, or challenge, or step out of line, or they are not participating in, by accusing them of being complicit in racism or whatever. We’ve seen this all year. We’ve seen this for the last several months on full display and we’ve seen it as a result of what happened at the Capitol.
Immediately, we heard all of the big people, speaking all the way up to Joe Biden, coming out and saying—every major journalistic outlet put this out—the president-elect came out and said it, and said, if they had been black, it would have been different.
In the implication, they don’t say exactly how it would have been different. … Some said it would have been a massacre and blah, blah, blah, and this defies reality based on what we’ve witnessed with our own eyes for the last several months. But it also defies history when, for example, in 1967, the Black Panthers marched on the Capitol with machine guns and nothing [happened], no one was mowed down, and they occupied the Capitol holding machine guns. There are photographs of this, which you should probably look up before Google decides to get rid of them.
So again, it is a distorted view of reality and you can see how it can get applied to just about everything, and we see this particular one applied in the wake at the Capitol. The people who surged must have been white supremacists because one guy had a Confederate flag, for example. I’ve seen that argument made, and there was a guy walking around with a Confederate flag.
Of course, some Southerners see that as a racist symbol and they’re proud of it. Most Southerners don’t fly the Confederate flag out of racism. They don’t like racism. They hold it out of sovereignty and the idea that some outsider shouldn’t be able to tell somebody else what to do and how to think, even though what they were defending with it was slavery. But the point isn’t, for them, [about slavery, but] it is that outsiders shouldn’t be able to tell people what to do. Nobody is willing to listen or understand these things, but they’re extremely important to try to step back from and get a clear view of.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. You know, I’m just thinking of this. I noticed, this is something that you flagged in your feed. Representative Cori Bush has said—I’m going to quote this—”Expel the Republican members of Congress who incited the white supremacist attempted coup,” which I suppose would be the next level of escalation. I haven’t heard that in the broad discussion.
Mr. Lindsay: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: Do you imagine that this is what will be the consensus view in the future?
Mr. Lindsay: The attempt will be to make it the consensus view. We currently live in a weird situation. Why is everything so fractured? Why is everything so polarized? We actually live in a world at the moment where we have two consensus views. We have in a sense, if you think of the country like a giant, we have like one foot in each of these two views. A great portion of the country wants that direction to be the consensus view. That is the view of what’s called repressive tolerance.
On the other hand, it’s also by the way, how you create power for the party in Leninism 4.0. But that’s another matter. On the other hand, we have another foot in the world, that is, what we might refer to as the older world, the one that the United States is a free and liberal country, that you are free to support whatever president that you want, you’re free to support whatever speech that you want. And you’re not free to engage in physical or political violence, but you are free to support speech, you are free to vote for whoever you want, you are free to question election results if you have reason to, or even if you don’t have reason to.
We just saw, for example, that the Democrats questioned the previous election for four straight years and even attempted to and succeeded in impeaching the president over their doubts about how the 2016 election went and subsequent to things that came from that. We have this very long, costly investigation by Bob Mueller, for example, looking into Russian interference in the previous election, and the claim that Trump had stolen that election.
And so, up until, I don’t know, 15 minutes ago, we lived in a country where you were free to ask those kinds of questions and pursue those kinds of investigations. Then the rules snapped very quickly in the other direction. We live in a situation right now, where we have a large portion of the country that wishes to live in this repressive tolerance, and we have a large portion of the country that still wants to live in this open tolerance, which are two different views on the matter.
Just parenthetically, by the way, the legislation—speaking of Cori Bush, she’s newly elected from Missouri, if I’m not mistaken—that is going to be primarily used to change how things work now, as a result of what happened at the Capitol on the 6th was submitted by Cori Bush on the 5th. So many interesting things are happening. Many of these players, Cori Bush, if I’m not mistaken, is often billed as the newest member of the squad, referring to AOC, and Omar and Talib, and Pressley—I think this is the other squad member, if I’m not mistaken.
These are the very radical young women who were freshmen congresswomen, and now some of them aren’t. They are a very coordinated group. They’re called the squad, mostly because they’re a coordinated group working with Justice Democrats, who are probably directed by Justice Democrats. So it’s very interesting that she proposed the legislation that’s going to do most of the changes the day before the event happened. Maybe she’s just pressured?
Mr. Jekielek: You’re making the case here that the Capitol event, as horrific as it is, is being used as a pretext to push through the kinds of things we were talking about the day before the 5th, on the 4th , on the phone.
Mr. Lindsay: Yes, we were talking about the ability to push through what we saw, for example, in the Patriot Act—I think we talked about the Patriot Act following 9/11—lots of surveillance of people. So we have social media now surveilling what people are saying. We have people acting on social media to turn even their parents and their loved ones in for their participation.
They’re now allegedly scouring data to find out who was at the Capitol. Those people are being threatened with being branded domestic terrorists. The goal will be—and what we were talking about, I think—to largely disenfranchise people who have the wrong political opinions that don’t suit the growing regime.
If this is Leninism 4.0, that should scare people rather profoundly. We see the legislative pieces being put into motion as a result of what took place at the Capitol. And the mechanism is getting broad public support, whether that’s majority public support. I don’t think it is, but there’s still broad public support for these measures [because of] the magic narrative around what happened at the Capitol: that it wasn’t a protest that got out of hand, it wasn’t a demonstration that got out of hand, it wasn’t just a riot, it wasn’t a band of people who deserve to be held to account by the law to the degree that they participated in illegal activities; [but that] it was an attempted coup of the United States. It was an insurrection. It was sedition. It was domestic terrorism of the highest order.
It was incited by the president who now has to be silenced off of social media, and has to be removed from everything, and he’s been canceled by his bank. We started talking about the possible directions of all these private companies. Twitter can moderate whoever it wants? Well, can your bank moderate whoever it wants? Can PayPal decide it’s no longer going to process your transactions? Can MasterCard and Visa [do the same]? Deutsche Bank said that they won’t hold Trump as a client anymore. That should be a very concerning thing.
I’m not even particularly a fan of Trump. I’m a reticent fan. I told somebody last night that I’m becoming more of a fan of him for left-wing reasons—that he’s been turned into a massive underdog. That is so peculiar, but it’s true. I’m not even particularly a huge fan of him.
But I am a huge fan of the idea that every American citizen, even the president, should be given full due process of law, should be given absolutely no more punishment than they should have, and should not be excluded from the basic faculties that allow them to participate in modern life, whether that’s access to the public square, if that’s social media, but more importantly, access to banking, access to free travel. I see this pretext because they’re literally talking about no-fly lists for people who participated at the Capitol.
But we’ll also see this coming out of the magic narrative around the virus. We’ll see if you’re not properly vaccinated—they have this in California already—that if you’re not properly vaccinated, you can’t travel more than 120 miles or something like that from your home. That will shrink. It’s shrunk into very small radii in other places, some places as few as 5 kilometers.
It’s very concerning. These basic liberties upon which our nation was founded are at risk under these kinds of policies, and these magic narratives are being used as the pretext for our own good or for public safety, which was, of course, also the justification for the terror in the French Revolution—it was [for] public safety.
Mr. Jekielek: Public safety seems to be the excuse for almost every curtailment of civil liberties that happens that I’m aware of. Of course, I don’t have an exhaustive list in my mind here, but that seems to be the trade-off.
Mr. Lindsay: This was a big enough deal—what’s going on right now—especially with the social media companies and the precedent that it sets. This is a big enough deal where foreign governments that do not have things like the First Amendment—Merkel and Germany, for example—were appalled and taken quite aback. The ACLU, which everybody for many months has recognized has fallen to the woke ideology more or less completely, is stepping back and saying, Wait a minute, if this could be applied to Trump, it could be applied to—and then of course, they have to put it in woke language—but it could also be applied to LGBT, black and brown, indigenous people.
So even the woke ACLU is like, Wait a minute! It snapped the ACLU, which has been completely backward on almost every issue for at least a year, halfway back awake. So this is a serious potential curtailment. You’re seeing not only right-wing figures. Everybody thinks, Oh, well, maybe we do need to get all the Pepes off of Twitter and whatever it is.
We’re seeing this, but we’re also seeing left-wing, anti-establishment podcasters being removed from Twitter, people who are outright postmodernists. They’re very left-wing. They’re not Antifa types—we’re certainly not seeing Antifa removed. But they [the left-wing podcasters] are very anti-establishment. They’re very, very skeptical of what the Democratic Party and the Big Tech players and the big corporations are up to, and their podcasts are vanishing. Their platforming is getting taken away.
It’s a very concerning circumstance that voices outside or sufficiently outside of the magic narrative are being silenced. Those are predominantly right-wing. I understand that QAnon was itself a conspiracy theory that began on 4chan and grew largely out of control.
I believe some properly frightening things probably shook people up to scary degrees and maybe played a central role in the violence that took place at the Capitol. But nevertheless, you don’t fix those problems by stamping them underground because you don’t silence them in that way. You just stamp them underground where you don’t know what they’re saying.
For example, I saw Brian Stelter, or one of these CNN journalists, saying the other day, “We would have the angry Trump tweet about this in three, two, one—but he’s not here anymore.”
I was like, Yes, now you don’t know what he’s doing. And then boom! Pompeo’s coming out the next day, just hammering China, hammering Cuba, hammering—I forget all of the list. Then he even explicitly says, “We need to put wokeism to sleep.” Like, yes, now you don’t know what he’s doing. Every minute Trump’s not tweeting is a minute [that] Trump’s got free time. You aren’t thinking this through, guys.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. I wanted to take a little bit of an interval. We need to talk about the dramatic change of how Big Tech is using its incredible power, which of course it’s had for a while. But the way it’s using it, I would argue, has changed quite a bit. I want to talk about that. But before we do that, there’s probably a bunch of people who would like to understand what this “repressive tolerance” is. It’s something that a lot of people have maybe never heard of, but incredibly important to understanding this whole ideological bent that you’ve been describing right now and how it differs from “open tolerance.”
Mr. Lindsay: “Repressive Tolerance” is an essay. It’s the title of an essay that was written by a philosopher in the neo-Marxist school, the Frankfurt School. His name was Herbert Marcuse; he wrote it in 1965. It’s worth pointing out—I don’t want to pull a correlation, a causation mistake—but it’s worth pointing out that Marcuse at the time was a rock star among leftist intellectuals and radicals already. He was already a rock star, a philosophical rock star, in those circles.
He wrote this essay in 1965. Then in 1967, 1968, and 1969, we saw riots break out across the country that are the nearest historical precedent to what we saw through 2020 in the U.S. This is probably not a coincidence, in my opinion, I suppose that’s debatable. Repressive tolerance is an argument that he made, I don’t know how deep we should go.
In the 40s, you had Karl Popper, a very famous philosopher, who wrote different things about the Nazis. He wrote what he called the “paradox of tolerance.” Many people have heard of this because there is a very deceptive infographic that went around and taught people this for years because the Left seized upon this and made use of it very effectively.
The “paradox of tolerance” from Popper argues that if we are tolerant of intolerance, eventually the intolerance can become fascistic and destroy us, so we must retain the right to be intolerant of intolerance. That’s the simplistic version of Popper’s paradox of tolerance. You can see it’s a paradox because you can’t be forever tolerant because the tolerant will be destroyed by the intolerant. So you must be intolerant to preserve tolerance. That’s your paradox.
Popper’s actual argument was that you can’t start applying the right to repress a view until it’s absolutely unamenable to rational argument or discussion, at the point where it can no longer be discussed, and it’s sufficiently intolerant. It has to have both of those characteristics. Then you have to keep in mind the right that you may have to repress this.
Herbert Marcuse took this in a much more radical direction. It’s very difficult without actually reading some of this to convey to you how explicitly he wrote. Marcuse wrote, “That which is a revolutionary idea, that which is left-wing, even when it is violent, must be tolerated, because it is setting people free. It’s liberating people. That which is right-wing that would preserve the status quo, that which is connected to the power absolutely cannot be tolerated. In fact, it should be censored.” It should even, in his own words, be pre-censored. It should be silenced before it has a chance to speak, so that it cannot generate fascism.
It’s again almost impossible to understand what he really meant very, very simply: Left-wing should always be tolerated even if it gets violent, which is what we’ve just seen all year. Right-wing should never be tolerated even if it has to be repressed by violence, and even if it’s completely non-violent.
I may actually have it open on my laptop and can read you a short section from it to not exaggerate what he says. This is near the middle of the essay. He says, “In terms of historical function, there is a difference between revolutionary and reactionary violence between violence practiced by the oppressed, and by the oppressors. In terms of ethics, both forms of violence are inhuman and evil. But since when is history made in accordance with ethical standards? To start applying them at the point where the oppressed rebel against the oppressors, and the have-nots against the haves is serving the cause of actual violence by weakening the protest against it.”
His point is quite explicitly, that which is seen by the Left—they get to choose—as being on the side of good must be tolerated, even if it’s violent. That which is against that is serving violence. So if you say Black Lives Matter shouldn’t burn down buildings, they can argue you are actually serving violence by trying to uphold the status quo.
This is the logic of the essay of repressive tolerance. It’s one of the most totalitarian documents in history, not least, because it masquerades as being the opposite. I contend, and I think examples are copious, absolutely copious, that we are living in the logic of that essay today.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s incredible. You made it actually quite clear right now. And I think that what you described is something that most people that practice this would agree with.
Mr. Lindsay: Yes. That’s what’s really frightening. We see in the wake of—I think it’s called something like the Gravel Institute tweeted something like they got called on the hypocrisy of having right-wing people finally lose their temper, or engage in civil unrest that became actually violent at the Capitol. We’re having “domestic terrorists” thrown around, we’re having no-fly lists thrown around. We’re having hugely sharp prison sentences threatened on these people.
We’re having people hunting them down, trying to dox them and trying to find them, trying to make them unemployable, trying to get people who even talked about, not the thing itself, but the energy around it—[people] like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawle—removed from their government positions. You see Cori Bush calling for them to be removed.
Then we compare that to what we saw with Kamala Harris saying, Here’s the link to bail people out of jail for the riots in June. We see AOC saying repeatedly, The riots are necessary, and they have to make people uncomfortable to get social change. [She was] all through the last several months defending this. We see Colin Kaepernick calling openly for revolt, and saying that it’s necessary and OK, and what does he get? He gets a huge deal with Disney, right, out of this deal.
So you see all of this happening. Then you see this very different thing happening on the Right. And so there is a Gravel Institute tweet: “The people on the Left did Black Lives Matter riots. They were doing it for a good cause. These [other] people were doing it for a bad cause.” Right-wing and left-wing. The logic of repressive tolerance has become the ethical standard for a very wide proportion of people left of center in this country.
This creates a situation. Again, I don’t think there should be any leniency for people who broke the law at the Capitol. I also don’t think there should be any leniency for people who broke the law at the Black Lives Matter riots. I think that everybody should be held to account the way that they deserve, as the law prescribes, and not drop more in all of these kinds of events. So I’m not trying to make an excuse, but there is a dramatic asymmetry here.
It breeds a second asymmetry, which is that people who operate within this logic will defend the left-side misbehavior to the hilt, and they will criticize the smallest infraction on the right, even up to very extreme standards. Whereas people on the right who don’t occupy this standard, who don’t live in this, who don’t have their foot in this world, do the exact opposite.
You see most right-wing people calling for the punishment of people who acted out at the Capitol. You see most right-wing people calling for the president to be held to account or something or for everybody involved to be held to account. You see them saying that the president was inciting.
So you have a second asymmetry that’s born out of participating in this asymmetry, asymmetrically. Then it’s like inception of asymmetries, but what it means is that you have an increasing asymmetry, so that the asymmetry becomes more and more of the story, and less and less the thing people are actually paying attention to.
It’s a very scary thing because it becomes at that point an accelerating movement, and you just heard the logic. In fact, what did Marcuse say in “Repressive Tolerance”: “Since when has ethics ever been relevant to making history?” So it doesn’t matter. The ethics here don’t matter. We’re on the right side of history, so we’re going to do this, and everybody has to participate. That’s the thesis of repressive tolerance.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s incredible. Basically, the thesis of repressive tolerance is—Left is right, right is wrong.
Mr. Lindsay: That’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: The end.
Mr. Lindsay: So violence is OK for the side that’s right and not OK for the other side—and having things that nobody would consider violent, like giving a deflated speech and then saying peacefully and patriotically go over to the Capitol and make noise, be called incitement and be called violent.
You had a tweet of a CNN chyron that was essentially repressive tolerance in play: “Antifa leftist movement seeks peace through violence.”
Yes, that’s exactly the essay. That’s exactly the snippet I just read to you. That was the CNN chyron that was beneath Adam Schiff while he spoke. I don’t think he was saying that, of course, that’s not how chyrons work. But CNN has put out the logic of repressive tolerance—Antifa seeks peace through violence.
Mr. Jekielek: How is it that so many different American institutions are engaged in this woke ideology?
Mr. Lindsay: Most of them, overwhelmingly most of them, most corporations, almost all of our schools, virtually all of our universities outside of a handful of either religious or conservative ones. … When I say religious or conservative, it’s not automatic; many of the religious ones are into this ideology as well. I don’t know that there are a ton of conservative universities. So in most of them, significant inroads have been made even into the political—obviously, the Democratic Party, but also into the wings of the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party, so most of our major institutions.
But as I noted, even the ACLU got shocked back to a little bit of awakeness by this step, which to me is one of the more encouraging signs because they’ve been completely wrong, as far as I can tell on virtually everything for a while. Then for them, even though their motive, their logic isn’t clear, they’re still hitting the right side of the issue all of a sudden [with], Wait a minute, if you can silence somebody, you can silence anybody. This isn’t going to stay fair for everybody always.
So there is a new level of awakening that’s happening, and it is early in the progression. The party has not fully seized power, we still have a Constitution in place. Granted, they could pack the court, but we still have a Supreme Court, that is right now tipped six-three conservative. There are reasons to believe that the system itself can still survive this attack, but it is going to require people to see what’s going on and understand what’s going on and to speak up in intelligent and, of course, nonviolent ways.
Mr. Jekielek: The way you’re speaking right now, James, makes me wonder whether you’re suddenly a conservative, because I’ve never known that to be the case.
Mr. Lindsay: I’m not [conservative] in the normal sense of the word. Most of my values would—if you were to use the test that was applicable five years ago, I still fall somewhere left of center in terms of my values and most of my prescriptions. I’ve always been quite libertarian-minded in that regard, though. Liberty goes first, above these political differences. I’ve never been a leftist in that sense. But I still probably hold values that would, in the way that we normally think of these things, tip me left to center.
I do want to, however, if we have to be this way, conserve the system that we live in. And I had an argument I gave earlier in the year about this, that the system that the United States has had for the past 250 years is one that’s inherently made not to have a status quo. They’re all very angry; the people who want to preserve the status quo are the ones who are the problem.
We’ve never had the status quo. The status quo in the United States has been a moving object from the very beginning, from the very moment that the Declaration of Independence was written. We lay down that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We’re going to go with the consent of the governed, and a few years later, we pop out a constitution with a bill of rights. We’ve had a constantly moving status quo.
Slavery was the thing, then slavery wasn’t the thing. Segregation was a thing, then segregation wasn’t the thing. We’ve had a constantly moving status quo in this country, we’ve had a constantly growing country. So it’s a bit preposterous. If I have to be conservative to say that I want to conserve the ability to have a system that generates legitimate beneficial progress, human flourishing, and prosperity for people, not just within the country, but around the world, then I guess that makes me conservative. But I don’t think it does because it doesn’t line up with any of my other values. But the words don’t mean what they used to mean, in that sense. I like our system, though.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s very interesting because for me, the spectrum has become not so much left, right, but more authoritarian [or] free. or something like that. That’s how I think about it.
Mr. Lindsay: Yes, it’s freedom versus control now. If it makes me right-wing to be on the side of freedom in that, then OK. It’s never bothered me, whether I’m right-wing or left-wing. I don’t care. I know what my principles and values are. I think people should also spend some time getting to know what their principles and values are, and not worry where that sticks them on any political spectrum or compass.
I would urge people to say that control can produce results, but we have to be very wary of it because it tends to have the ability to increase itself. Liberty, on the other hand, does not have the tendency to increase itself. It has the tendency to screw up and cause people to want to exert control. So there’s an asymmetry there as well, that we have to defend liberty with more concerted effort than we do the impulse to try to control the world that feels like it’s out of control around us.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s finish up with that. How are you thinking to do this? Right now, clearly, there are a lot of disenfranchised people. There are a lot of people out there feeling hopeless, conservative or not, and wondering where all this is going to go. Frankly, for people like myself, looking in as a Canadian, a bit from the outside, I’ve said this in another interview, seeing America as the bulwark of freedom and liberty, as you’ve described—I still think that’s the case, but lots of question marks. So, where to go from here? What can be done? What are you thinking?
Mr. Lindsay: Well, liberty lasts as long as you can keep it. The system is set up in a way where violence is the absolute last resort. There’s no ethical argument that’s possible within broadly liberal systems. Unlike what Marcuse wrote, there is no ethical argument that calls for preemptive violence. … I’m saying we should not use violence until it has been an absolute last resort, and I do not think we’re there because we still have the legal system that we can appeal to. We still have lawfare.
So legal challenges, like when these attorneys general have filed trust lawsuits against the big companies, those things should be encouraged. We should be trying to figure out ways to bring those same kinds of civil rights lawsuits to our schools. We need to start actually also, learning to see—this is a very important point—we need to learn to see the pseudo-reality for what it is, and this is in a particular way because it’s one thing to see it, and it’s another thing to see and act.
What do I mean by act? Well, there’s a good chance that many people who watched this donate money to their university, when they realized—I loved my universities, but they’re not the places I graduated from; they’re not the same. So when you realize that the place that you love is not what that thing is now, you don’t have to keep giving it money. If the donors to all of these big things all of a sudden start drying up, all of a sudden you start to see pressures that can arise that might start to wake things up. So financial pressure and legal pressure are going to be the two biggest incentives.
We’re up against people who are in some sense on a holy crusade to change the world the way that they think is the best. So those pressures are going to have to be significant. If you become aware that pseudo-realities, if you want, or these magic narratives, and the impulse for control over making the decisions, that what you do to contribute to them should probably stop. That what you do to support them should probably reverse. So where you may have defended them before, perhaps you should sue them now while that is still possible.
People speaking up now, people learning to see it and calling it for what it is—I will tell you, as academic as it sounds, this has been the most shocking thing in my entire writing and professional career. The fact is that phrase, as academic as it sounds, “pseudo-reality” has stuck so well. I see people calling things pseudo-reality so often now. It’s only been a couple of weeks, it’s absolutely shocking to me.
So learn to recognize what that is and call a spade, a spade, and then act accordingly. Would you support something that’s indoctrinating your children? Probably not. Would you support something that has given into a control-based mechanism, or that’s supporting and pushing and legitimizing a false narrative about reality that diverges from what we understand to be America? Probably not. So learn to see it and start acting accordingly. We still have time. Time is getting very short, but we still have time to change the world through very liberal methods.
We don’t have to become the monsters in a sense that we fight, even though we do meet the qualifications that Popper laid out in the 40s, about the paradox of tolerance. They are absolutely unamenable to argument; you argue back, they call you racist. They don’t listen to the argument, even though we still have the ability to try to use other means, like not funding people, coming to understand what we’re up against, and telling other people what that is, and where appropriate, being willing to take the step to file lawsuits or whatever it takes to start pushing back against this in ways that can work.
Mr. Jekielek: James Lindsay, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you again.
Mr. Lindsay: Thank you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.