When Hamas terrorists crossed over the border with Israel and murdered 1,400 innocent people, they destroyed families and entire communities. They also shattered long-held delusions in the West.
A friend of mine joked that she woke up on October 7 as a liberal and went to bed that evening as a 65-year-old conservative. But it wasn’t really a joke and she wasn’t the only one. What changed?
The best way to answer that question is with the help of Thomas Sowell, one of the most brilliant public intellectuals alive today. In 1987, Sowell published A Conflict of Visions. In this now-classic, he offers a simple and powerful explanation of why people disagree about politics. We disagree about politics, Sowell argues, because we disagree about human nature. We see the world through one of two competing visions, each of which tells a radically different story about human nature.
Those with “unconstrained vision” think that humans are malleable and can be perfected. They believe that social ills and evils can be overcome through collective action that encourages humans to behave better. To subscribers of this view, poverty, crime, inequality, and war are not inevitable. Rather, they are puzzles that can be solved. We need only to say the right things, enact the right policies, and spend enough money, and we will suffer these social ills no more. This worldview is the foundation of the progressive mindset.
By contrast, those who see the world through a “constrained vision” lens believe that human nature is a universal constant. No amount of social engineering can change the sober reality of human self-interest, or the fact that human empathy and social resources are necessarily scarce. People who see things this way believe that most political and social problems will never be “solved”; they can only be managed. This approach is the bedrock of the conservative worldview.
Hamas’s barbarism—and the explanations and celebrations throughout the West that followed their orgy of violence—have forced an overnight exodus from the “unconstrained” camp into the “constrained” one.
The Reality of Woke Ideology
Many people woke up on October 7 sympathetic to parts of woke ideology and went to bed that evening questioning how they had signed on to a worldview that had nothing to say about the mass rape and murder of innocent people by terrorists.
The reaction to the attacks—from outwardly pro-Hamas protests to the mealy-mouthed statements of college presidents, celebrities, and CEOs—has exploded the comforting stories many on the center-left have told themselves about progressive identity politics. For many years, they opted for the coping mechanism of pretending that the institutional capture of universities, corporations, and media organizations by the woke mind virus was no big deal. “Sure, students shutting down events they disagree with is annoying,” they would say, “but it’s just students doing what students do.”
October 8 was a wake-up call for those who didn’t appreciate that the ideology of the campus has spread to our cities, supercharged by social media.
We woke up on October 8 to the clamor of street protests in cities across the West condemning Israel even before any major Israeli response to the attacks. We watched celebratory crowds brandish swastikas and chant “gas the Jews” at events purporting to be about the loss of Palestinian lives. We saw Black Lives Matter chapters lionize terrorists.
In London, where I live, we watched the mayor deliver glib assurances that “London’s diversity is our greatest strength” in the midst of a wave of antisemitic attacks, and as Jewish schools were forced to close because of safety concerns.
Prior to the October 7 massacre, many students, alumni, and donors with the “unconstrained vision” trusted that the university—for all its many problems—remained the West’s best environment for civil discourse.
But then they watched university presidents who were quick to issue statements condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the killing of George Floyd fall silent, or offer the most slippery, equivocal statements carefully crafted to avoid offending anti-Israel groups. They watched an Israeli at Columbia get beaten with a stick, and heard reports about the physical intimidation of students on campuses across the country. They read about dozens of student organizations at Harvard signing a letter holding Israel “entirely responsible” for the massacre of Israelis.
The events of the last two weeks have shattered the illusion that wokeness is about protecting victims and standing up for persecuted minorities. This ideology is and has always been about the one thing many of us have told you it is about for years: power. And after the last two weeks, there can be no doubt about how these people will use any power they seize: they will seek to destroy, in any way they can, those who disagree.
This unpleasant conclusion is surprising only if you are still clinging to the unconstrained vision. But if there is any constant in human history, it is that revolutionaries always feel entitled to destroy those who stand in their way.
Just as hope about the possibility of peace with jihadists seems suicidally naive, reconciliation with citizens seized by the woke mindset seems a long way off.
Nowhere is the shift from the unconstrained to constrained vision starkest than on immigration.
For decades, both Europe and America basked in an “unconstrained vision” of immigration. In the U.S., the melting pot that could integrate the nineteenth-century Germans, Irish Catholics, or Japanese could surely absorb those crossing the southern border. And many of these new arrivals would do jobs Americans didn’t want to do. Europe needed immigration to deal with an aging population, with many European countries inviting people from their former colonies to fill labor shortages and skills gaps.
But over time, especially from the late 1990s onward, the unconstrained vision ran rampant through media and political elites, and immigration went from being a solution to specific problems to a moral good in its own right. (I am myself an immigrant. When I moved to Britain from Russia in 1996, net immigration into Britain ran at 55,000 people a year. Last year, net immigration stood at over 600,000 people.)
Over the past decade, more and more people in America and Europe have quietly shifted toward the “constrained” view of immigration. The Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump were early warning signs of this ongoing transformation. Today, we see New York, where nearly 60,000 newly arrived migrants are putting tremendous strain on shelters and city services like healthcare, education, and public transport. The city has already spent over $1 billion to address this crisis, and projections indicate that housing costs alone could exceed $4.3 billion by next summer. Lifelong Democrats in Manhattan tell The New York Times that “we have too many people coming in,” and that “Biden could do something more about putting our borders up a little stronger. I mean, we’re not here to take in the whole world. We can only do so much.”
Europeans have learned similar lessons from their own migrant crisis. In Britain, we spend approximately $10 million a day on hotels for people who have come here illegally. We refuse to deport foreign criminals over “human rights” concerns. Readers may recall seeing recent media reports about the small Italian island of Lampedusa, whose population quadrupled in a day as large numbers of illegal immigrants arrived. We have now learned that a man who shot two Swedish soccer fans dead in a terror attack in Brussels last week arrived there illegally via the island in 2011. The man was known to the authorities as a security risk due to his jihadi links, but when his asylum application was rejected in 2020, he was not deported. How many such people are allowed to come and stay in Europe is impossible to say, as hundreds of thousands of people make illegal crossings into Europe every year.
But despite these shocking statistics, the issue of illegal immigration has been impossible to discuss in polite company for decades. No matter how bad the problem became, to raise concerns about it would almost always lead to accusations of bigotry and xenophobia.
What we have witnessed over the last two weeks—with enormous pro-Hamas rallies in cities like London, Paris, and Washington, D.C.—has the potential to change the immigration debate in a decisive way. It is much harder to pretend that allowing people to enter our country illegally is a moral good when you watch some of them celebrate mass murder in the streets of your capital cities.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has recently announced the intention to deport illegal immigrants “on a large scale” as his coalition hemorrhages votes to anti-immigration parties. France has banned pro-Palestine protests and warned that foreign nationals who take part will be removed from the country. Britain has also threatened to revoke the visas of foreigners who praise Hamas. Whether this represents a permanent realignment toward a more constrained view of immigration or merely a temporary blip on the path to progressive dystopia remains to be seen.
To express concern about border security has for many years been coded as “right-wing.” But how many people, after the horrors of October 7, believe that a secure border is anything other than the most basic test of national security?
I have just returned from a week in Los Angeles where, on recognizing my name, every single Armenian Lyft driver struck up a conversation in Russian. Once the inevitable complaints about the rising cost of living were out of the way, several shared with me their own journeys into the U.S. and those of their families. I was struck by the fact that those who came in the 1990s and 2000s had usually come legally, but more recent arrivals had made their way through Mexico. One man told me about smuggling his two brothers and 80-year-old father through the southern border: “It’s easy,” he told me.
I have no doubt he is correct: 2023 saw the highest number of illegal crossings since records began. And polling shows that the American people, who are otherwise uniquely welcoming of new arrivals, aren’t happy about it. The problem with illegal immigration isn’t just its scale; it’s that we have no idea whether the people coming are 80-year-old Armenian retirees or jihadi terrorists plotting another 9/11.
It is clearer now than ever before that borders aren’t about bigotry, they’re about security. In a sign of the times, Joe Biden is now continuing work on the border wall that Democrats spent years criticizing Donald Trump for erecting.
The reason the readjustment is necessary and, in my view, highly likely, is that proponents of the unconstrained vision have been allowed to ride roughshod over the concerns of ordinary citizens. They have used this window of opportunity to implement extraordinarily impractical and outright harmful ideas because they take the unbelievable levels of safety, plenty, and freedom we enjoy in the West for granted. The one form of privilege you will never hear them address is the first-world privilege that we all benefit from every day.
They have done this because the fundamental flaw in the unconstrained model of the world is a failure to understand Thomas Sowell’s greatest maxim: there are no solutions, only trade-offs. When you let your institutions be captured by an ideology of intolerance and illiberalism masquerading as progress, that has consequences. When you sow division at home and signal weakness abroad, that has consequences. When you debase the public’s faith in what they are told by the media and their government, that has consequences too.
Western civilization has produced some of the most stunning scientific, technological, social, and cultural breakthroughs in human history. If you consider yourself “liberal” or even “progressive,” it must surely be clear by now that America and her allies are the only places in the world where your values are even considered values. If our civilization is allowed to collapse, it will not be replaced by a progressive utopia. It will be replaced by chaos and barbarism.
Will this waking-up moment persist? It depends, in large part, on our courage to look reality in the face.
As Sowell explained, “When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear.”
And the truth is that we have indulged in magical thinking for too long, choosing comforting myths over harsh realities. About terrorism. About immigration. And about a host of other issues. In our hunger for progress, we have forgotten that not all change is for the better. Now the world is paying the price for that self-indulgence. Let’s hope recent events are the wake-up call we so desperately need.
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