The decade's most triggering comedy
The following remarks were delivered by Michael Knowles at Purdue University on March 23, 2023
Thank you so much for having me! It’s a pleasure to be here at Purdue. Thank you to YAF as always for hosting. Thank you to the Logan family for sponsoring this lecture series. And thank you to all of you for braving the angry hordes outside and making it into this lecture hall.
Speaking of those hordes, I learned earlier this week, reading the Purdue Exponent, that there were not one but two planned protests of my speech. My critics are apparently so confused, they can’t even agree on how to protest me.
What exactly are they protesting? According to the posters they put up, they are protesting my “fascism.” I never considered myself a fascist. But according to these posters, apparently I am one. Maybe they’ve come to this conclusion because I’m Italian. We’re all Mussolini, I guess, according to these bigots. It’s downright Italo-phobic, if you ask me.
Now I, unlike these excitable protesters, have actually read the seminal works of fascism: “Fascist Manifesto,” “Charter of Carnaro,” “The Doctrine of Fascism.” If any of these protesters happen to be literate, I would encourage them to read those texts, which will quickly dispel any misconception that I might be a fascist. Fascism is far too modern and progressive a political ideology for me.
So where did they get the idea that I am a fascist? It seems they got the idea from a speech I gave a few weeks ago at CPAC in which I observed that men cannot really be women. I said we should stop pretending they can and stop tolerating that nonsense as a basis for reordering our public life — that we should eradicate the ideology of transgenderism. We shouldn’t delude people who don’t know who they are. We should help and correct them. Men who think they are women are suffering from a crisis of identity, and they’re not the only ones. Our whole nation is suffering an identity crisis, of which the recent gender mania is both a cause and a symptom.
Who are we as a nation? What exactly is America in 2023? We no longer have a functional border to define our geographic territory. After 60 years of mass migration to more than three million unassimilated newcomers per year now, the U.S. cannot be said to comprise a particular people. We no longer speak the same language. Now, even self-styled conservatives have abandoned our national language, with Republicans offering a State of the Union response in Spanish just last month. (The state of the union is muy mal, by the way, if we can’t even speak the same language.)
We no longer worship the same God. As recently as the early ‘90s, around 90% of the country called itself Christian; today, that number has collapsed to 63%, with no signs of the decline slowing down. We no longer even salute the same flag: Conservatives continue to venerate the star-spangled banner, while liberals increasingly pledge their allegiance to the mitotic rainbow standard, which began with six shades of aberrance and has since festered to exhibit thirteen. We no longer have a common concept of marriage, the fundamental political institution. We no longer even agree on the definition of man and woman.
We no longer seem to have any idea who we are — personally or politically. This confusion has been caused, or at the very least exacerbated, by radicals who have exploited Americans’ traditional love of liberty, which they have perverted over time beyond recognition. The early American promise of liberation from injustice today has devolved to a temptation to liberate us from any and all constraints — political, cultural, familial, all the way to a liberation from our very selves.
We see this most extreme form of liberation in the transgender “transition,” which is a ritual suicide by which a man figuratively kills the person he has been — an identity he then refers to literally as a “deadname” — and takes on a new persona with a new name, new body, and new identity.
The confused man undertakes this ritual in the hope that it will cure his identity crisis. But the process, no matter how elaborately performed, usually does not make the practitioner feel any better. Just a few years ago, researchers using the largest dataset on so-called sex-reassignment procedures — both hormonal and surgical — showed that the procedures did not bring about any of the promised mental health benefits. In one case—the case of anxiety disorders—the “sex-reassignment procedures” actually seemed to make the problem worse.
The reason is summed up in a bit of wisdom that I gleaned from an alcoholic friend of mine, a warning he picked up at an AA meeting: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Not even the ritual psychic suicide of the transgender transition, with its attendant bodily mutilations, can really succeed at bringing about this ultimate liberation of the self from the self. Even after we have transcended all other limits — of morality, tradition, culture, the political order — we still cannot free ourselves from the limitations of ourselves in this finite world. And furthermore, all of the prohibitions we thought we had broken have not really been transcended or dismantled at all but only replaced.
Until just the past couple of years, men who think that they’re women were prohibited from using the women’s bathrooms, and women were free to use their own bathrooms without men intruding. Today, men who think they’re women are free to use the women’s bathrooms, and women are prohibited from having their own bathrooms in which men cannot intrude. Liberty has not expanded; limitations have not been vanquished. They have just changed.
In the past, foreigners were prohibited from entering our country illegally. And American citizens were free to determine who gets to immigrate and participate in our self-government. Today, foreigners are free to enter our country whenever they like. And as a consequence, American citizens are prohibited from exercising one of the most basic rights of self-government — namely, the right to determine who gets to join the political community.
In the past, criminals were prohibited from committing crimes by police and prosecutors, and the people were free to live in relative safety. Today, criminals are largely free to maraud and kill and pillage and burn, and innocent citizens are prohibited from living in safety with the expectation that the law will be enforced.
The liberals’ project is not really, as they insist, one of liberation but, rather, one of resetting standards. Honest leftists have long admitted as much. Herbert Marcuse, the father of the New Left, explained it in his infamous essay, “Repressive Tolerance.” No society can tolerate everything because certain ideas and actions are mutually exclusive. Even tolerance itself cannot tolerate intolerance. In practice, “tolerance” can only ever mean some form of “intolerance.” For Marcuse and the New Left, “Liberating tolerance … would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.”
That’s what liberals have meant by “tolerance” for the past 60 years. That’s what the leftists who tried desperately to shut down this lecture tonight meant when they said that in the name of “tolerance,” a Purdue student group must be prohibited from inviting me to speak on campus. The ideas that I am espousing — even and especially the basic idea that men and women are real and different — pose a threat to the mob’s delusional and destructive way of life. If we get our way, the preposterous ideology of transgenderism will be eradicated from public life. If they get their way, the distinct categories of man and woman will be eradicated from public life. There can be no middle ground or simultaneous establishment of opposing premises. We will live according to one view, one identity, or another. One view must win; the other view must lose.
The liberals are currently winning because, as Auron McIntyre has put it, the party that wants to win will always beat the party that just wants to be left alone. Women are currently losing their bathrooms. Girls are currently losing their sports teams and trophies and scholarships. Parents and employers and ordinary citizens are currently losing their right to acknowledge publicly the difference between men and women.
The liberal notion of American identity is winning, as it has been winning for the past 60 or so years. That vision of national identity is the same vision of total liberation that we see in the claims of transgenderism: It is the claim that America can be anything because America is not really anything at all. It isn’t a people, it isn’t a religion, it isn’t a language — and it isn’t even a geographic area hemmed in by a real border. If America is anything at all, it’s just “an idea” floating somewhere in the ether. But really, according to the liberals, America isn’t even that. It is just nothing. And unfortunately, today the liberals — from the media to the bureaucracy to the corporations to the schools to the elected officials — wield most of the political power in the country.
This was not always the way America saw herself. In her earliest days, in the early seventeenth century, America saw herself as a Christian community, settled by pilgrims and later Puritans who sought to establish “a shining city on a hill” and “a model of Christian charity,” geographically apart from but politically obedient to the English crown. Twentieth-century liberals have tended to emphasize the role of religious freedom in early New England, but the Puritans practiced their own form of religious intolerance every bit as repressive as the Crown’s intolerance of them. Governor Bradford marked the first Christmas at Plymouth colony by outlawing celebrations and taking toys away from children. Bradford nearly executed his constituent Thomas Morton for the crime of composing “sundry rhymes and verses, some tending to lasciviousness.” Morton was almost executed for writing naughty poems. In the end, though, Bradford restrained himself and merely banished Morton to an island before an English ship could pick him up and take him back to Britain.
It seems a bit harsh, but it’s a typical political problem faced by every society throughout history: a conflict of identity. Morton’s freedom to publish obscene poems infringed on the colonists’ freedom to live according to standards of decency. Morton’s vision of a lascivious colony contradicted the colonists’ vision of a Christian colony. One identity had to prevail; the other had to lose.
Another group of Puritans in nearby Massachusetts founded the College at Newtowne, later renamed Harvard — not to promote tolerance and open-mindedness but, rather, to suppress the antinomian heresy promoted by Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from the colony and murdered by Indians in New York. The antinomians were free to believe whatever nonsense they wanted, but they could not do it in Massachusetts because ideas have consequences, and those consequences undermined the identity of the colony.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, American identity transformed and the colonies began to see themselves as an independent nation. They identified less as English subjects and more as a separate people endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights — rights denied by their king, against whom they rebelled as “an appeal to heaven,” a slogan they stitched on one of the earliest American flags.
The Americans of the Founding Era still viewed themselves as a Christian nation. As John Jay wrote in 1816, “Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” Contrary to the liberals’ revisionist history, the Founding Fathers did not insist upon a separation of church and state and, in fact, maintained established churches in a number of states long after the ratification of the Bill of Rights. They passed laws against blasphemy, some of which remain on the books today. They passed all manner of laws against obscenity, which remain on the books and were enforced at the federal level as recently as 2011. The suggestion that grotesque displays such as “Drag Queen Story Hour” might be “one of the blessings of liberty,” as the New York Times columnist David French once suggested, would have come as a great surprise to founding-era Americans, who doubtless would have run those disturbed men out of town on a rail.
Another modern liberal mantra that might have surprised those early citizens is the notion that America is “a nation of immigrants.” The first five immigration laws in the United States, all passed in the 1790s, established strict limits regarding which foreigners could become Americans, and they empowered the Executive Branch to deport virtually any noncitizen it pleased.
Nevertheless, America’s economic growth throughout the nineteenth century enticed more and more foreigners to attempt to enter the country. But these growing waves of immigrants did not prompt Americans to reconsider their self-conception and embrace an identity of open borders as a “nation of immigrants.” Quite the opposite in fact. On eight separate occasions from 1864 to 1924, the United States attempted to restrict the flow of immigrants. Only a labor shortage brought on by World War II prompted the U.S. to relax immigration standards to bring Mexican nationals into the states as temporary agricultural workers in 1942. Throughout the late ‘40s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s, legislators continued to relax immigration restrictions, again largely in response to the devastation of World War II.
Then, in 1965, the Hart-Cellar Act overhauled U.S. immigration policy and gave us the program of mass migration that we have today. Immigration rates more than tripled. In 1965, there were 6.9 foreign-born persons in the United States. Today, there are more than 45 million. Between 1965 and 2015, nearly 60 million people migrated into the U.S. (the largest movement of people in recorded history) and the immigration rate has grown dramatically in recent years. Last year alone, more than two million people entered the country illegally, on top of an additional million legal immigrants.
This policy of mass migration coincided with another change in American identity: the notion that America is a “liberal democracy.” Today, we hear the phrase constantly. We are told that “liberal democracy” is at the very heart of American identity. This, again, would have come as a surprise to pretty much every American until the early ‘80s. The phrase appeared virtually nowhere in English-language texts until about 1930. It didn’t really start to take off until the mid-1950s, and it only really spiked in usage around 1982. If “liberal democracy” constitutes American identity, no one seemed to know it until about forty years ago.
The phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, or the Declaration of Independence. The word “liberal” appears in the Federalist just five times, and then only in the classical sense meaning “generous”; never once is it used to refer to the political ideology. The word “democracy” and its derivations appear nowhere in the Constitution or the Declaration. It’s mentioned just 18 times in the Federalist, and in every single case with disapproval.
The word “nation,” along with its derivatives, by contrast, appears in all three founding documents. It appears in the Federalist alone 569 times, always with approval. The Federalist proposes that America “should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one federal government.” America’s body politic, according to the Founding Fathers, would be national, her soul, Christian. One might call it “Christian nationalism.”
Liberals recoil at America’s traditional identity as a Christian nation forged out of Christian colonies because such an identity implies that America is a particular people guided by a particular faith, and a faith, for that matter, that is particularly particular! A faith that is incarnational. A faith in which God becomes man and dwells among us in time and space. A faith in which salvation hinges on the flesh — on the body — in all its particularity. Liberals recoil from this identity — one, because it’s good and true and beautiful, and two, because their political project has always been revolutionary. It is a project that does not see things that are and say why but, rather, dreams things that never were and says why not — a line popularized by John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert but stolen from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who placed it in the mouth of the Serpent tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is a political project that believes the primal, serpentine lie that by transgressing the moral order, we might finally liberate ourselves and become as gods.
But it is a lie, which means the project is doomed to fail, as all who live according to lies must fail. We are seeing the consequences of such lies and failure now: plummeting trust in our political institutions, a faltering economy, rising violent crime, soaring rates of depression among not only adults but especially children — a crisis we treat by supplying them with powerful psychiatric drugs. Not just adult women, almost one in five of whom regularly take antidepressants, but even teenage girls, more than one in ten of whom are hopped up on happy pills. But the drugs haven’t brought the promised happiness either because they fail to address the underlying cause of our national despair: the crisis of identity from which we can never flee because no matter where we go there we are.
It is not surprising that angsty and confused teenagers are making a spectacle of themselves outside of this lecture hall right now. That’s what teenagers do: they try on new identities as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. What is more troubling are the angsty and confused adults making a spectacle of themselves outside this lecture hall. More troubling still are our angsty and confused political leaders who affirm the destructive self-delusions of their constituents, down to the youngest and most impressionable. Adults and those adults who would be our leaders are supposed to know better. They’re supposed to have grown up and figured out who they are. But the liberal political project has forestalled that process of maturity.
A priest friend once told me why. When God spoke to Moses in the Burning Bush, Moses asked who God was, and God responded, “I AM WHO I AM.” “I am” — that is, being itself. Christ affirmed this identity in the Gospel of John when he told his antagonizers, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” A people that grounds its identity in “I AM” will know who it is and flourish; a nation that turns away from the source and summit of all true identity will be left with only the pathetic question: “Who am I?”
Like a troubled teenager at a crossroads, we must choose who we will become. Will we continue to rebel against reality? Will we degrade ourselves further into decadence and delusion and drown out the facts of life by howling into the wind like the poor souls outside? Or will we open our ears to reason and revelation and the wisdom of the ages? Will we choose instead obedience to reality, which finds in limits, in duty, in servitude itself “the spirit of an exalted freedom”?
Thank you very much.