George F. Will

Washington, D.C.

George Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. He is also a regular contributor to MSNBC and NBC News. "The Conservative Sensibility," his latest book, was released in June 2019. His other works include: “One Man’s America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation” (2008), “Restoration: Congress, Term Limits and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy” (1992), “Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball” (1989), “The New Season: A Spectator’s Guide to the 1988 Election” (1987) and “Statecraft as Soulcraft” (1983). Will grew up in Champaign, Ill., attended Trinity College and Oxford University, and received a PhD from Princeton University. Honors & Awards:
  • 1977 Pulitzer Prize for commentary
  • 1979 National Magazine Awards: Finalist in the essay and criticism category
  • 1978 National Headliners Award
  • 1980 Silurian Award for editorial writing
  • 1985 The Washington Journalism Review named Will best writer, any subject
  • 1997 Named among the 25 most influential Washington journalists by the National Journal
  • Books by George F. Will:
  • The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts
  • Buy on Amazon
  • The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions
  • Buy on Amazon
  • The Morning After: American Successes and Excesses 1981-1986
  • Buy on Amazon
  • Suddenly: The American Idea Abroad and at Home 1986-1990
  • Buy on Amazon
  • The Leveling Wind: Politics, the Culture, and Other News, 1990-1994
  • Buy on Amazon
  • The Woven Figure: Conservatism and America's Fabric
  • Buy on Amazon
  • With a Happy Eye, But ... America and the World, 1997-2002
  • Buy on Amazon
  • One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation
  • Buy on Amazon
  • Statecraft as Soulcraft
  • Buy on Amazon
  • The New Season: A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election
  • Buy on Amazon
  • Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball
  • Buy on Amazon
  • Restoration: Congress, Term Limits and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy
  • Buy on Amazon
  • The Conservative Sensibility
  • Buy on Amazon
Recent Articles

GEORGE F. WILL COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, April 18, 2021, and thereafter

(For Will clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The philosopher's task is to facilitate clear thinking by making clarifying distinctions. People are not always grateful for this service, as Socrates discovered. The political philosopher's task is to clarify contested concepts, such as patriotism. Regarding this, Steven B. Smith has drawn intelligent distinctions that might have some on the right and left competing for the pleasure of serving him a cup of hemlock.

Patriotism is a species of loyalty and a form of love. In "Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes," Smith, a Yale philosopher, argues that many on the right profess to love the United States but misunderstand -- or, worse, reject -- the essence of what makes this creedal nation distinctive. And, Smith says, the patriotism that many on the left profess -- on those occasions when they warily, gingerly embrace the idea -- is a cold, watery affection for an abstraction. It is loyalty to a hypothetical United States that might be worthy of their love-as-loyalty.

Some on the right mistake their compound of grievances and resentments for patriotism. This mentality -- separating "real" or "true" Americans from the rest -- is akin to the ethno-nationalism that festers in Europe. It also is a sibling of the left's identity politics of group memberships: In the right's identity politics, the nation is the only group that matters. Patriotism understood as ethnic or racial solidarity disappears into truculent nationalism. "Like any virtue," Smith writes, "loyalty has its pathologies." Of which, ethno-nationalism is one.

If patriotism is loyalty and a form of love, then a so-called patriotism that is not an expression of happiness -- if it is not professed cheerfully -- is a faux patriotism. Today, for many on the right, patriotism is a grim tabulation of regrets about things lost, and animosity toward those who supposedly caused the losses. What some on the left call patriotism is often an agenda-cum-indictment, a determination to make the United States less awful than they say it has been, and is.

"For progressives," Smith writes, "patriotism is not so much loyalty to an already established nation, but an aspiration to a country still to be accomplished." And: "Progressivism has become less concerned with improving on the past than with erasing it." Smith is being delicate.

Because applause is often the echo of a platitude, people are forever applauding the notion that "dissent is the highest form of patriotism," partly because they think Thomas Jefferson said it, although there is no evidence he did. Of course, dissent can be patriotic. But a constant curdled dissent, in the form of disdain for the nation's past that produced its present, is incompatible with patriotism.

Those who believe that the nation's real founding was the arrival of slaves in 1619, that the American Revolution was fought to defend slavery, that the nation remains saturated with "systemic racism," that the economic system has always been fundamentally exploitive, that the social order is rotten with injustice and that even the nation's most revered historical figures are unworthy of respect -- those who think like this can be credited with moral earnestness, but not with patriotism: They cannot love what they will not praise.

Smith wonders why those he calls "new age progressives" call themselves progressives "when their theory of history is often anything but." It is not an optimistic narrative of the nation's upward trajectory; it is a counternarrative of "victimization and irredeemability."

Smith says that new age progressives who prefer cosmopolitanism to patriotism "lack a core value of patriotism, a sense of loyalty to a particular tradition and way of life." Cosmopolitanism "lacks passion and intensity. It is a joyless disposition." And "even at its best, cosmopolitanism is indifferent to the actual ties of loyalty and affection that bind people to home and country."

Patriotism, too, is a disposition -- a "peculiarly conservative" one. It is "akin to gratitude" and "rooted in a rudimentary, even primordial love of one's own: the customs, habits, manners, and traditions that make us who and what we are." Patriotism suggests "an extended family," which we love because it has "nurtured and sustained us through good times and bad."

"Patriotism," Smith argues, "is a learned disposition. It is not indoctrination into an ideology, but a component of an educated mind." Hence it is bad citizenship to teach American history as a litany of indictments. Although he thinks patriotism "must be taught," he also says "it is an ethos, a shared habit," something "felt," what Abraham Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory." Smith's book will help prevent patriotism from fading to something only dimly remembered.

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George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

GEORGE F. WILL COLUMN

Advance for release Thursday, April 15, 2021, and thereafter

(For Will clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Many 21st-century Americans are impressed, and distressed, by the supposed power of late-20th-century technologies, especially the Internet and social media, to shape society, and them. Two 19th-century technologies stirred somewhat similar uneasiness: The railroad and the telegraph, which were arguably as socially transformative as digital innovations are said to be, saved the nation from dismemberment, and fertilized the culture of freedom.

Ted Widmer, a historian at City University of New York, explains this in "Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington." It is a detailed record of, and meditation on, the president-elect's February 1861 railroad journey from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington.

In the 1850s, the rhythm of Abraham Lincoln's political career had been quickened to what he called the "eloquent music" of railroads that whisked him around the North and into the West. And as telegraph lines marched six miles a day toward the Pacific, the velocity of news -- and fake news about Washington burning, enslaved people rebelling, President James Buchanan resigning, Republicans sharing their wives, Lincoln being a cannibal -- increased exponentially.

Early enthusiasts thought railroads would unite the country. Actually, railroads hastened the North-South divergence, but then became sinews of the Northern strength that defeated secession.

"From the moment that railroads charged into the landscape," Widmer writes, "they offered a freedom to move that was inherently threatening to the old land-based order." "Slavery," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "does not love the whistle of the railroad." Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery by stepping aboard an already moving train heading north from Baltimore.

Fewer than one-third of the new railroad tracks built in the 1850s were in the South. The prickly Southern insistence on states' rights impeded building tracks across state borders. States had different widths of tracks; North Carolina trains could not pass into Virginia or South Carolina. While immigrants swelled the supply of Northern laborers, Southern railroads depended on slaves for construction and maintenance. Proudly preindustrial, the South had fewer mechanics, tools and schools teaching engineering. Southern railroads were built, Widmer says, "often with rails made of inferior metals -- or even of wood -- and with very few double-tracks."

What Widmer calls "the acceleration of the 1850s" was "when Americans living north of the Ohio River began to live faster lives in every way." And Americans began moving toward a shared system of time: The need to coordinate railroad operations necessitated ending chaos of local times (Wisconsin alone had 38 different ones). And, Widmer writes, Lincoln's idea of the national union gained strength:

"What had been a metaphysical concept grew stronger as it was bolted together with iron, copper, and steel. To be able to travel fluidly from one state to another weakened the notion that a state boundary was inviolate, and quietly validated a more federal sense of America."

Railroads and telegraphs facilitated the North's preparations for, and conduct of, industrialized warfare. Widmer notes that in March 1861, just before the war began, it took Lincoln's inaugural address seven days and 17 hours to reach the Pacific Coast by Pony Express. Four years later, with the war all but won, his March 4 second inaugural address was read that day in California.

In 1858, when the first transatlantic cable connected New York with London, the New York Times worried that the telegraph might make the velocity of news "too fast for the truth." Sound familiar?

Today, the Internet and social media enable instantaneous dissemination of stupidity, thereby creating the sense that there is an increasing quantity of stupidity relative to the population's size. This might be true, but blame it on animate, hence blameworthy, things -- blowhards with big megaphones, incompetent educators, etc. -- not technologies. Technologies are giving velocity to stupidity, but are not making people stupid. On Jan. 6 the Capitol was stormed by primitives wielding smartphones that, with social media, facilitated the assembling and exciting of the mob. But mobs predate mankind's mastery of electricity.

Humanity is perpetually belabored by theories that human agency is, if not a chimera, substantially attenuated by the bombardment of individuals by promptings from culture, government propaganda and other forces supposedly capable of conscripting the public's consciousnesses. A new version of such theorizing is today's postulate that digital technologies are uniquely autonomous forces in need of supervision or even rearrangement by government because they rewire the brains of their users.

Like railroads and the telegraph, today's technologies have consequences about how and what we think. They do not relieve anyone of responsibility for either.

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George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

GEORGE F. WILL COLUMN

Advance for release Sunday, April 11, 2021, and thereafter

(For Will clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

For Print Use Only.

By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Although reticent during oral arguments before the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas can be bold in written opinions bristling with strong convictions, of which he has many and about which he is forthright. Now in his 30th year on the highest bench, the most senior justice last week warned his eight colleagues that they have a coming rendezvous with a boiling controversy that implicates constitutional guarantees. It concerns the power, and the proper characterization, of social media and tech companies.

Before the 2020 election, President Donald Trump blocked some critics from his Twitter feed. They sued. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that, because he used Twitter to communicate with the public, and because the comment threads are a public forum, blocking individuals violated the First Amendment free speech guarantee.

Two days after his Jan. 6 incitement of a mob of his supporters who attacked the U.S. Capitol, Twitter suspended his account. Last Monday, the Supreme Court declared the case moot and vacated the Second Circuit's judgment. Thomas, while concurring, wrote, "We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms."

Thomas notes the "stark" disparity between the control exercised by Trump, who blocked a few critics, and that exercised by Twitter, which under its terms of service (it can remove anyone from its platform "at any time for any or no reason") barred Trump from his then about 89 million followers. But what of the Second Circuit's "intuition" (Thomas's word) that part of Trump's Twitter account was a "public forum"?

Public forums have generally been understood by courts to be "government-controlled spaces." But Thomas notes that "unbridled control" of Trump's account was "in the hands of a private party." There are, however, doctrines that limit the right of private companies to exclude. "Common carriers" that hold themselves open to the public -- in transportation (e.g., railroads) and communications (e.g., telegraph companies) have been generally required to serve all comers. Also, government can limit the right to exclude companies that are "public accommodations," although courts disagree about whether this term applies to other than "physical" locations. It is, Thomas believes, "a fair argument" that some digital platforms are sufficiently like common carriers or places of public accommodation to have restricted rights to exclude.

Thomas thinks the common carrier analogy is especially apt with digital platforms that dominate markets -- e.g., Facebook with roughly 3 billion users, Google with about 90% market share. He is perhaps too certain that the network effects constitute barriers to entry that "entrench" such companies against competitors. As with a "communications utility," Thomas writes, such concentration "gives some digital platforms enormous control over speech." He adds: "Amazon can impose cataclysmic consequences on authors by, among other things, blocking a listing." (Thomas's judicious reticence precludes his mentioning Amazon's unexplained and presumptively political and disreputable recent decision to end its streaming of the documentary "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.") [Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, is founder and chief executive of Amazon.]

Thomas's concurrence did not mention, but the court might soon have occasion to remember, a 1946 case from Chickasaw, Ala., a company town owned and operated by the Gulf Shipbuilding Corp. In 1943, Grace Marsh was arrested (by a sheriff's deputy paid by the company) for handing out Jehovah's Witnesses literature, in violation of company policy. Marsh was being silenced, not by state action -- by government -- but by a private company not obligated to respect individual rights.

But in a startling Supreme Court ruling for Marsh, Justice Hugo Black, an Alabamian, writing for the majority, said that "the more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general," the more the owner must respect the constitutional rights of members of the public. This decision, likening Gulf Shipbuilding to a government (of Chickasaw), had no serious consequences limiting corporations' prerogatives. Seventy-five years later, however, it might reverberate.

People with a wholesome devotion to liberty have a healthy wariness about government compelling private companies to behave as appendages of government. Such people should be hesitant about identifying private entities whose services are so impactful that the entities are of such "public interest" or "public concern" (the Supreme Court has used both terms) that government can treat them as quasi-public entities. Nevertheless, Thomas is surely correct that the court must eventually make distinctions and referee disputes about the new communications infrastructure. What consequential economic development, from the development of corporations to the advent of organized labor, has not come under the court's scrutiny?

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George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

About
George Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977. He is also a regular contributor to MSNBC and NBC News. "The Conservative Sensibility," his latest book, was released in June 2019. His other works include: “One Man’s America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation” (2008), “Restoration: Congress, Term Limits and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy” (1992), “Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball” (1989), “The New Season: A Spectator’s Guide to the 1988 Election” (1987) and “Statecraft as Soulcraft” (1983). Will grew up in Champaign, Ill., attended Trinity College and Oxford University, and received a PhD from Princeton University.
Books
  • The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts
  • The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions
  • The Morning After: American Successes and Excesses 1981-1986
  • Suddenly: The American Idea Abroad and at Home 1986-1990
  • The Leveling Wind: Politics, the Culture, and Other News, 1990-1994
  • The Woven Figure: Conservatism and America's Fabric
  • With a Happy Eye, But ... America and the World, 1997-2002
  • One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation
  • Statecraft as Soulcraft
  • The New Season: A Spectator's Guide to the 1988 Election
  • Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball
  • Restoration: Congress, Term Limits and the Recovery of Deliberative Democracy
  • The Conservative Sensibility
Awards
  • 1977 Pulitzer Prize for commentary
  • 1979 National Magazine Awards: Finalist in the essay and criticism category
  • 1978 National Headliners Award
  • 1980 Silurian Award for editorial writing
  • 1985 The Washington Journalism Review named Will best writer, any subject
  • 1997 Named among the 25 most influential Washington journalists by the National Journal
Links