MONDAY, JUNE 12, 2023
Wilhoit's Law in the modern world: The formulation known as Wilhoit's Law was promulgated in 2018, in a comment to a Crooked Timber blog post.
It wasn't promulgated by the American political scientist Francis M. "Frank" Wilhoit, who died in 2010.
In fact, the formulation was promulgated by a different, unrelated Frank Wilhoit—by the Frank Wilhoit who was a 59-year-old Ohio composer at that point in time.
The formulation has moved from the realm of blog comments into a realm of its own—even though, as this essay at Slate explained last year, it's routinely attributed to the wrong Frank Wilhoit.
Thanks to the so-called democratization of media, our modern discourse is often driven by such examples of human error. At any rate the formulation known as Wilhoit's Law goes exactly like this:
Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be ingroups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside outgroups whom the law binds but does not protect.
It's a definition of what is now routinely described as tribalism. It says there is only one basic idea behind "conservatism"—the idea that the law must protect our conservative tribe while binding and restraining all others.
Just a guess:
This promulgation describes a very basic human impulse, one which leads back in time to the age of unfettered monarchs. Essentially, the basic human takes this form:
Our tribe will unite behind the greatness of our monarch. We will try to "bind"—we will try to subjugate—all other human tribes, described herein as the outgroups.
Does Wilhoit's Law describe the mindset of Trump-era conservative politics? Sadly, we'd say that it largely does, at least as applied to tribal leaders,
We'd quickly add that it also seems to describe the impulse behind much of modern-day liberalism, in which our tribunes only speak to assemblies of "our favorite reporters and friends." In the venues to which we now repair, no other ideas need apply!
Our red and blue tribes have split far apart. We'd say that Wilhoit's Law captures the ancient, hard-wired tribal impulse which defines much of the history of our war-inclined human race.
You can't run a modern nation in the face of such an aggressive tribal separation! It isn't clear that there's a way to "win" a dispute between two such aggressively segregated ingroups.
Wilhoit's Law comes into play today because of another comment to a blog post by the composer Frank Wilhoit. Wilhoit offered his comment in response to a Sunday post by Kevin Drum, who we've often described as our favorite blogger.
Drum had sone some superlative work down through the ages. The new post to which Wilhoit commented is not, in our view, an example of such work.
In his post, Drum was asking why Donald J. Trump does the weird things he endlessly does. Drum ended with this formulation, making the analysts tear their hair and cry:
DRUM (6/11/23): My wife says she knows the answer: Trump is a wackadoodle and he just does weird, unexplainable stuff. Maybe that's all it is.
We scrolled through 58 comments to that post in search of an intelligent rejoinder. Finally, near the very end of the pile, Ohio's Frank Wilhoit said this:
WILHOIT (6/11/23): Mental illness is the last taboo. We can still use dismissive, reductive words like "whackadoodle", "batshit", etc. The problem with these words is not that they are offensive—the presumption is that their targets are too severely compromised to even take offense—but that, by putting mental illness in a box, and a cute, little box at that, they foreclose any real effort to understand the problem. The problem is quite a large one, arguably the largest that we face, but general understanding of it is essentially nil.
We're not going to solve that one here today, so call Trump a "whackadoodle" all you like—but don't allow the connotation that he is an outlier, because he is not. Half the country thinks like him, and possibly much more than half. Try to think of remedies; build, along the way, a case for medicalizing it, or even build a case for criminalizing it—but don't minimize it, don't brush it off.
We don't believe that "half the country thinks like [Trump]." We aren't even inclined to believe that Trump's atavistic impulses should be regarded or described as a form of "thinking."
We do agree with Wilhoit's general view concerning the role of "mental illness" / mental health / (severe) personality disorder. To wit:
According to modern psychiatry, something like 6 percent of adult men can be diagnosed as (so-called) "sociopaths." It's astounding to us that Drum still prefers to use terms like "wackadoodle" in place of the (admittedly challenging) terms which were and are a basic part of 20th and 21st century medical science.
We had to go very deep into comments to find a commenter pushing back against Drum's formulation. That's especially odd in face of modern tribal history, in which blue tribe commenters were already eager to apply psychiatric analyses to the behavior of President George W. Bush.
Today, we seem to have a genuine "sociopath" out on the hustings, and yet we still play around in the manner of Kevin's blog post. It's also true that we saw Trump speaking this weekend at one of his campaign events, and even as he offered delusional accounts of what he will miraculously accomplish if he gets in the White House again. it occurred to us—for the first time, very strongly—that he really could get elected again next year.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we humans are not "the rational animal." Our technological skills can't be denied, but we're deeply atavistic tribal beings in other realms of inquiry and assessment.
In our view, Wilhoit's Law applies to modern liberalism too. We'd rewrite the law the following way in search of our own tribe's current impulses:
Wilhoit's Law, extended:
Liberalism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be ingroups whom the law protects, alongside outgroups who liberal ingroups will aggressively name-call.
We humans aren't especially sharp, even here within our own tribe. That post by Kevin is one example—and then, Dear God! Those comments!
Tomorrow: Donald Trump goes for the win