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The Debate That Wasn’t

Matt Pegas

The Debate That Wasn’t

Matt Pegas is one half of the New Write Podcast.

I was ready for Dr. Hanania to make me a believer. I mean, come on: how long can the online neo-reactionary pose last? If I’m not going to truly commit to monarchism then I should just make my peace with the establishment and move on with my life, right? Not that Richard Hanania’s views are those of the Establishment exactly. But if Curtis Yarvin’s views represent a speculative “other way of doing things” that remains conceptually radioactive to most Americans, then Hanania spits at least a bit more with the wind, rather than into it. Hanania’s recent Substack article “How I learned to Love the American Empire” is a case in point.

So I was ready to be converted to the gospel of this small-l liberalism—this optimistic view of the American Empire and the basic structure of its civic life, this belief that even if things aren’t perfect the alternatives are much worse. This after years of sampling every flavor of neo-reaction available on the online-right, expounded so often, as Hanania points out, by the unhappy and ill-adjusted projecting their resentments and maladaptive daydreams onto society.

But the debate never quite got started. This is not all Hanania’s fault. I have interviewed Curtis Yarvin before and I don’t envy anyone in the position of debating him or moderating his tendency to steamroll. But too often Hanania sang the praises of the luxuries of American life and America as a positive force in the world rather than arguing for democracy proper, and Yarvin quickly picked up on this and called it out. Even one of Yarvin’s very first arguments—that American democracy is not democracy at all, but oligarchy in disguise, and that such dissembling is damning for any sincere defense of it, went more or less unaddressed. In the chit-chat after the show and online there was a general sense that Yarvin had “mopped the floor” with Hanania. I don’t think this is entirely fair. Rather, the nucleus of where precisely the two men disagreed was never located. The premises under debate were never established.

I was struck much more by the points on which the two men agreed. Their most surprising point of agreement was an attitude of American exceptionalism. For Hanania, this manifests itself in a newfound appreciation for the stability and success of the American Project in the wake of the pandemic, as America’s chief rivals, China and Russia, have failed to regain steam. Though we may counter that GDP isn’t an adequate measure of American prosperity when anyone can travel to flyover country and witness embarrassingly high levels of cultural and economic despair—Yarvin countered Hanania with exactly this point—the basic stability of America is something anyone imagining a better world must come to terms with, and perhaps try to work with rather than against.

Yarvin’s views drift much more in the direction of those of us convinced America still has a crisis on its hands. His resignation to a certain American exceptionalism, unlike Hanania’s recent conversion, happened long ago, as evidenced by his well-established conviction that American elites are a group to be converted rather than hostilely extirpated or replaced. Whatever this monarchy he has in mind is, Yarvin tells us, it’s going to have to happen within the American context. His most recent historical examples of monarchs? Not Hitler, Stalin, and Putin—whose unsavory characteristics he blames, crucially, not on their dictatorial status but on their being, in so many words, belligerents against the superior American Project. Rather: Washington, Lincoln, FDR. No, these were not monarchs per se, but can we really claim that their success as Presidents wasn’t precisely because of their relatively far-reaching power? And wouldn’t an even more powerful executive be even more effective?

On the topic of what it is that makes America great, Yarvin was uncharacteristically brief: “We got really lucky with our land and our people.” In response to this, Hanania offered one of the evening’s greatest moments of dialectical clarity: “Curtis thinks it’s just the land and the people, I actually think the ideas do matter and that’s sort of what our debate is about”. Unfortunately, this impasse was identified during the audience Q&A, and so it did not go on to provide the structure for more proper sniping back and forth or cross-examination. I have no doubt that Hanania can develop and sustain good arguments for why liberal ideas are substantially if not singularly responsible for the triumphs of Americanism, but such arguments were hard to come by that Friday night.

Perhaps what we needed, though, was less a debate and something more like what we got: a collaborative conversation. What in the American Project is redeemable and worthy of being carried forward? How can the red-state / blue-state divide be overcome? How can “wokeness” be done away with and what could it be replaced by? I believe both Hanania and Yarvin have excellent thoughts on these questions, and delving into the works of both can help us all with the difficult personal and political work of making peace with the functioning of the world as it is, while simultaneously delineating better, future horizons.

“Don’t be so negative”, Hanania said as he commenced his closing remarks, “you all have good lives.” Anybody who has spent time on the online right but actually grown and achieved some measure of deeper understanding will probably agree with those words. It’s easy to grow tired of the doomers and fedposters. Yet one needn’t swing so hard in the other direction. Yarvin, too, is mellow and positive in his outlook, and at one point commented on how cool it was that everyone on stage was a parent. Gaining a stake in the world as it is, sufficiently, at least, to value order over chaos, should perhaps be a precursor for full involvement in political life. Yet the untimely truths—once dubbed “red pills” by Yarvin, and to which Hanania is obviously no stranger either—remain important, and worthy of exploration. On this point too, when all was said and done, there was general agreement.

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