National Review cruise — let’s talk about the individual in the West

img_1925My post title actually has little to do with the topics raised during the 6.5 hours (!) of discussion panels NR offered yesterday (which was an at sea day). Having gotten to know fairly well the panelists’ different personalities, however, I was struck by the West’s tight focus on individual personalities. Keep that concept in mind, because I’ll get back to it after a very quick rundown of yesterday’s afternoon events and the personalities I’ve come to know on the cruise.

First, the afternoon’s seminars:

The War on Cops. John Miller moderated a discussion with David French and Sheriff David Clarke. The bottom line was simple: Yes, there is a war on cops, one so severe that in many inner city neighborhoods, police have ended proactive policing, leaving the neighborhood to the hoodlums. Oh, and BLM is a con.

Tales from the Campaign. Rich Lowry had a discussion with Eliana Johnson to see what the takeaway lessons were from this last campaign. We got a reminder that Trump won by small margins, that the down ballot Republicans often won by larger margins, that Trump targeted disaffected working class people while the down ballot Republicans targeted the generic Republican voter, that Hillary was a simply awful candidate, and that Trump may be sui generis so that it’s difficult to draw too many future conclusions about his candidacy.

Engaging voters. Jim Geraghty interviewed Heather Higgins, who runs the Independent Women’s Voice and the Independent Women’s Forum (a site I used to visit regularly, lost track of over the years, and need to check out again). Higgins is behind-the-scenes political operative who said something I found fascinating: If you can get actual facts to voters — information that the voters recognize as objective facts rather than party propaganda — you can change minds.

Because facts tend to run conservative, this is an important insight. It’s seems obvious, of course, to those of us who are news and information junkies, but most people aren’t as obsessed with facts and politics. Their factual knowledge begins and ends with an MSNBC news talking head, a screamer on Facebook, or some equally shallow Leftist fake news source (and in this category I include the New York Times.)

Give me liberty or give me debt. Deroy Murdock, using a lot of interesting and clever visuals, gave us to understand that the US government has for some time been spending like a drunken sailor — and, moreover, that this spending escalated wildly under Barack Obama, reaching heights no sailor would dare and, as is true for every good statist, leaving his own checkbook untouched. Deroy said that, disturbing as America’s inconceivable debt is (a trillion is a hard enough number to fathom without multiplying it by a factor of 20), we can address it by decreasing government spending by 1% a year and, most importantly, by unchaining the strangled US economy Obama leaves behind him.

And now to my main point about individualism. To be honest, because I’m such an information junkie, I didn’t hear much that was new on this cruise, although I did get fresh insights on stuff I already knew (insights I’ve already shared with you). Nevertheless, I was never bored and that’s because NR has assembled a team of genuinely interesting people, all with markedly different personalities.

Jonah Goldberg is an extremely funny man who sometimes wishes he weren’t that funny lest the important points he makes get lost in the laughter.

Kevin Williamson is acerbic, remarkably quick-witted, and completely uncensored.

Deroy Murdock is sophisticated; favors a straightforward, uncluttered narrative; and despite that urban sophistication has values closely aligned with everyday Americans.

James Lileks, as I’ve mentioned before, has one of the most agile minds I’ve ever come across. He’s almost like Robin Williams, but unburdened by political correctness and blessed with a remarkable fund of knowledge.

Charles Cooke is the British version of Kevin Williamson, saying in that Oxbridge drawl clever things we wish we could summon to mind, let alone with that speed, and un-PC things many of us lack the courage to say.

David French is earnest in a brilliant, Evangelical way, but couples that with a remarkable wit and a genuine humanism that Lefties so often deny that serious Christians possess.

Jay Nordlinger has a soft, gentle mien that hides a razor-sharp mind and a very pure sense of values.

Ramesh Ponnuru is such a fund of perfectly articulated knowledge that I gave up taking notes when he talked. Every sentence was so rich with information, I simply couldn’t keep up and had to rely on my porous memory if I wanted to get the gist.

Dinesh D’Souza has a sweet, ingenuous quality that should never be confused with either a lack of courage, a lack of convictions, or a lack of overarching intelligence.

John Hillen is one of the most positive personalities I’ve ever come across. I’m not talking about whether he’s an optimist or a pessimist. I mean that he completely fills the space he occupies with his physical presence, his dynamic personality, and his intelligence and experience.

Victor Davis Hanson has a peculiarly world-weary personality under which lurks one of the most informed minds I’ve ever come across, along with an extraordinary ability to synthesize on the fly all of that information to reach simple, accessible, and highly accurate conclusions.

Bing West is a Marine with informed opinions and a glorious Northeast accent. I can’t say better than that,.

Jim Geraghty is kind of like the typical frat boy, except he would be the typical frat boy who wasn’t just funny and snarky, but was also witty, informed, and nice.

Rich Lowry was self-deprecating in a wry, almost bewildered fashion, as he came to grips with the fact that the election defied all common wisdom.

John Miller — sharp, smart, funny, and the one who had the personality I was least able to categorize.

Why these character sketches? In part to give you a sense of the reason I was never bored despite familiar material. I also want to emphasize the individualism of each of these men, because I did promise that I would write about individualism.

I’ve been reading Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, a book I highly recommend, not just for those interested in learning about all things Jewish, but also for those anxious to reconnect with Old Testament knowledge and interesting corners of world history. I especially enjoyed his Biblical discussions, because it’s been some years since I sat down and read the Torah.

What’s so striking about the Torah, of course, and what I believe has kept it the most vibrant book in the Western canon, is that it’s not a book about mass movements or ideological theories. It’s a book about people. Abraham who upends his family to follow a God, Sarah who laughs at that God, Jacob who wrestled with that God, Moses who argued with that God, David who fought for that God, and all the individually-named prophets who spoke for that God. Each person we meet in the Torah is someone we can imagine walking through our own communities today.

The same is true for the New Testament. Jesus is a vividly rendered personality, but so are the others who appear with him. Through their writings, we know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Apostles are real people grappling with the burden of a living Messiah whom they know will soon die, only to live again. And Paul — oh, my goodness! Through his letters he is one of the most vibrant people in world history.

But the West’s recognition of real people living in different times doesn’t end with the Bible. We discuss Roman history, not just in terms of battles and empire, but in terms of the personalities whose ambition, honor, greed, etc., made that history happen. When reading Christian-era Western history, names with vivid attached personalities tumble off the page: Charlemagne, William the Conquerer, Joan of Arc, Henry VIII, Cardinal Richelieu, each and every Borgia or Medici, Marie Antoinette, Lord Nelson, our Founders about whose personalities we are intensely interested, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and even Barack Obama. In all cases, we want to know who they are and what drove them to take actions that are hinge points in history.

This is a remarkably different approach to the past and the president than under statism regimes, which seek at all levels to erase the individual. And I do mean all levels. The cults of personality that totalitarian societies cultivate, as in North Korea, have nothing to do with the real person. They are slickly enameled fakes that are meant to obscure rather than reveal the individual holding such immense power.

I have a theory that this individualism is part of what propelled Trump into office (along with voters’ desperation for a candidate who, no matter how personally tawdry, didn’t have the stink of “business as usual” in Washington). Hillary, as we know, has been endlessly re-packaged and re-presented to the American people.

The reality, as Americans understand, is that with her rigid hair, botoxed face, expensive Mao suits, and prepackaged Leftist rhetoric, she’s just another statist cipher. Her years in the public eye have revealed that the personality behind the presentation is a corrupt and ugly one, but the important thing is that we’re endlessly being sold someone whose public identity is as fake, unrevealing, and poll driven as any cult leader in a totalitarian society.

And then there’s the Donald: Mercurial, defensive, grandiose, self-confident, intuitive, vulgar, quite kind (according to many who know him), unfiltered, and, above all, absolutely real. Yes, there’s definitely a “reality TV” persona, but the overlap between the public and the private Trump is apparently quite strong. With Trump, we don’t get a poll-tested, campaign-consultant-created generic politician. For better or worse, he is an individual in the historic mold.

I think, therefore, that Trump represents something unique to Western Jude-Christian culture: Starting with Abraham and going right up to Trump, individualism matters. We, The People are not movements, we’re not ciphers, we’re not symbols. We are real beings, with individual characters, and we seek that same quality in those who lead us.