Can conservatives find their voice?

A review of "Speechless" by Michael Knowles

"It is ironic that the author of a bestselling blank book should choose for his next subject language itself,” writes Michael Knowles in the Preface to his book Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds. The blank book, of course, was his Reasons to Vote for Democrats, which hit #1 on the Amazon bestseller list in May 2017, in spite of its having no content.

Fast forward four years, and the irony has not diminished. After Speechless was released, it quickly hit number one at both Amazon and Publishers Weekly. The New York Times Bestseller list, on the other hand, said the book did not meet its “standards for inclusion.” Apparently, it’s not enough to have words. You must have the right words. That’s what Speechless is all about.

Full disclosure: Before reading Speechless, my primary awareness of Michael Knowles was via my teenage son, who is a fan. I knew Knowles was a young conservative with a talk show at The Daily Wire, but I had never watched the show beyond clips shared by others. So Speechless is my first “deep dive” into the world of Michael Knowles. I hate that phrase, “deep dive.” It’s everywhere these days. But in this case, it works. Reading Speechless is a very deep dive into some complex, murky and ominous waters.

The first few chapters of the book are a history of the phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Knowles writes in the Preface that some historians trace the term to a front-page story in New York Magazine in the early 1990s, others to the “campus curriculum debates of the 1980s or the radical revolts of the 1960s.” The use of language to deceive and manipulate is, of course, as old as language itself. (See Genesis 3.) The dishonest use of language to achieve political ends is almost as old. But Knowles argues that the specific animal known as “political correctness” was born, sometime in the last 200 years, as,

“an insidious and influential political strategy developed by sophisticated thinkers and propagated ... by revolutionaries seeking to subvert our culture as well as by dupes who know not what they do. ... Resistance against this hostile takeover of our language and culture ... requires an accurate history of the movement and a coherent political philosophy to rebuff it.”

Speechless is Knowles’ challenges to conservatives to develop such a philosophy (he minces no words in asserting that, up to now, they have failed miserably to do so).

It is impossible, in a brief review, to summarize all the ground Knowles covers in this book. Only 31 years of age, he writes about the events of the last two centuries with authority as though he witnessed them firsthand. The book is packed with names, dates and facts, along with the citations to back them up (the Works Cited section is 100 pages long). There’s even a glossary of PC jargon. Knowles knows a lot.

That said, the book feels rushed in its writing and editing. Published on June 22 of this year, it refers to events that happened only a few months earlier. I can’t help wondering if much of the material was taken from Knowles’ monologues. There is nothing wrong with that, but such an approach would call for careful editing to translate speech-based content into print. More than once in Speechless, the same material is discussed in multiple locations — not with apparent intent, with an implicit acknowledgement that previously addressed material is being returned to, but seemingly by accident, as though both Knowles and his editors overlooked that he had already written about that topic somewhere else. The book could benefit from some tightening of language and focus. But that doesn't disqualify all it has to offer.

One of those offerings is an abundance of pithy summations that capture and distill the troubling truth about the situation in which we find ourselves. Here are a few examples:

“The radicals think they understand the little guy better than he understands himself, and they intend to convince him of his own misery.” (Chapter 7, “Nothing Personal”)

“Contrary to the popular and meaningless mantra that educators ought to ‘teach students how to think, not what to think,’ education necessarily teaches certain facts to the exclusion or outright contradiction of others.” (Chapter 8, “The School of Resentment”)

“The American mind had become so open that its brain had fallen out.” (Chapter 9, “Campus Codes and Coercion”)

“When opponents of political correctness protest the new standards by behaving in impolite, unreasonable, and uncivilized ways, they give the radicals precisely what they want.” (Chapter 10, “The New Cold War”)

“Pride insists on our own perfection just the way we are. … It comes as no surprise, then, that adherents of [communism] should make pride, the original sin of mankind, their paramount virtue.” (Chapter 11, “Trading Taboos”)

“There will never be a firm ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ pace Jefferson, because all laws invoke a moral order, and any moral order relies upon religious tenets.” (Chapter 12, “The War on Christmas”)

But even more than a history lesson or a cataloguing of PC's offenses, the heart of Speechless is its call to arms for conservatives, whom Knowles holds to account for allowing and even facilitating the current state of affairs. In his view, the PC foot soldiers would not have been able to take so much territory had not their opponents so completely surrendered. The argument is compelling. Knowles provides, as a case study, the events following Jan. 6. To see it all in one place, even though we lived it only a few months ago, is breathtaking: the banning of a sitting U.S. President from social media, the takedown of competing outlets, the widespread censorship of conservative voices and purge of social media accounts, and the double standards that allowed (and continue to allow) for those with the right political affiliation to say, with no compunction and certainly no censure, whatever they want. Knowles ultimately blames not the Left, but the Right:

“For years, many self-styled conservatives defended Big Tech censorship on putatively libertarian grounds. They may have considered the technological tyranny foolish or even un-American, but they insisted that ‘private companies’ had the right to censor whomever they pleased. Never mind that Google, Apple, Facebook, and other publicly traded tech giants are some of the largest and most powerful companies in the history of the world. The real threat, insisted conservative defenders of Big Tech, came from the government. It would be foolish, they argued, to wield political power to combat actual leftist censorship of conservatives today because then leftists might theoretically wield that same state power to censor conservatives tomorrow. In the long run it would benefit the cause of free speech, they advised, to leave the tech oligarchs to censor as they pleased. If conservatives objected to the way Jack Dorsey ran his company, they ought to build their own Twitter.

“But when conservatives did build their own Twitter, Big Tech banned it—twice.” (Chapter 15, “The Purge”)

Knowles’ Jan. 11 Daily Wire show includes a detailed analysis of these events and “the myth of free speech”:

Knowles says that conservatives have failed to stop PC, cancel culture and their associated abominations because of the mistaken view of these things as manifestations of censorship “rather than a contest between two competing standards of speech and behavior.” In the final chapter of Speechless, Knowles offers some broad principles for the mounting of an effective counter-offensive (he hints at another book that will more substantively explore them). Chief among those principles, he says, is the need for conservatives to return to defending the concept of virtue and the superiority of some ideas over others:

“Vague harangues against ‘cancel culture’ miss the mark because they fail to acknowledge the justice of ostracizing certain people and marginalizing certain ideas. All cultures ‘cancel.’ In the 1950s, American society ‘canceled’ Communists; in the 2020s, it ‘cancels’ anti-Communists. If conservatives hope to recover anything akin to traditional standards, they must not only articulate a moral and political vision but also suppress ideologies and organizations that would subvert that vision.”

Not content to leave conservatives with that right hook, he follows with a left and knocks them to the canvas:

“One wonders whether conservatives’ reluctance to articulate and enforce a political vision of the good derives from their lack of interest in practicing what they would preach. People who do not go to church have little credibility in encouraging others to practice formal religion. People who have never cracked the spine of The Iliad or The Aeneid cannot persuasively recommend a return to the classics. As political thinkers from Aristotle to the Founding Fathers well understood, virtue is a habit, and no conservative can hope to conserve what he does not himself practice.” (Conclusion, “Back to Methuselah”)

Ouch. Will the conservative movement remain down for the count, or will it get up off the mat, find its legs and keep fighting? Coach Knowles has some strategies for how to do the latter, and I hope he explores them in a future book.

Watch Mike Huckabee’s recent interview of Knowles for a good overview of Speechless:

is managing editor of Reporter, the official newspaper of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. She has written for a variety of publications, including The Federalist, Touchstone and The Lutheran Witness, and is a contributor to the book He Restores My Soul from Emmanuel Press. She has degrees in English and music and enjoys playing piano in her spare time.

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