When Liberalism Fails

by Jonah Goldberg
When reality stops cooperating with the Left, someone must get the blame.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (And those of you who, who, uh, I seem to be missing a page, so I’ll just have to ad lib. So what do Mark Foley and Kathleen Sebelius have in common? They’re both missing their pages. Oh, dear. I better just stop.)

So things have been a mixed bag here at Hillsdale. The people are great, the students are very sharp and almost Stepford-ly polite. They were entirely perplexed when I walked into class, snapped a pool cue over my knee and declared “We’re gonna have tryouts.” And, I must say Zoë loves Hillsdale. Loves it. She’s at a total loss why we don’t live here. More on Zoë later on.

So, like the guy who bought a bag of mixed nuts that appeared to be only Brazil nuts, you might be asking, “Where’s the mixed part?”

Well, Tuesday night I came down with a crazy fever. Lacking a thermometer I’d have to gauge its severity from the body aches and intense fever-dreams involving Helen Thomas wearing Princess Leia’s gold bikini while riding a pogo stick. Plus I had a pain in my abdomen that could easily be mistaken for an angry baby ferret who’d been sewn in there under protest. In short, I felt like a million bucks Weimar Republic Deutschmarks circa 1924. Fast-forward to yesterday; I found myself drowning my old nemesis Cordoba, the one-eyed Sardinian assassin (you may know him by his nom de guerre “The Poisoned Water Lilly”) in a toilet at the student union. But that’s not important right now. (How he ever found me here will remain a mystery buried at sea, as it were).

Anyway, Thursday morning I found myself at the health clinic and then the local hospital. The clinic thought I might have kidney stones. The good news is that I didn’t. The bad news was that I have an acute case of diverticulitis (don’t google it, not pleasant). As consolation prizes go, it was sort of like thinking you got a lump of coal for Christmas only to find out it was a lump of zinc. Better than coal, but who yells, “Yay! A lump of zinc!”? I know, I know, there’s an old saying in showbiz about turning intestinal inflammation into your muse. But personally, I found it pretty inconvenient on a day I needed to write a column and deliver a big speech.

I gave the speech, which went pretty well even though I pulled a Sebelius and got lost a few times and had to compensate by making with the yuk-yuks and magic. As for the column, it’s okay. You can judge for yourself, here.

Shut up, They Explained

The column is ostensibly about the confirmation bias of folks like Ezra Klein and Paul “facts have a liberal bias” Krugman. But what I was really going for was a unifying theme between the more effete hubris of the “reality-based community” pundits and the angry mob wing of liberalism. I write that they are both part of a “mass psychology that simply takes it for granted that liberals have sole access to the Truth. It’s like having God on your side without having to believe in God.”

When God’s Away . . . 

In my speech last night, when I wasn’t sweating like Albert Brooks in the anchor seat in Broadcast News, I talked about how liberalism is a political religion, a familiar topic to readers of this “news”letter, not to mention Liberal Fascism (“Which you just conveniently mentioned.” — The Couch). One of my favorite lines from Eric Voegelin goes “When God is invisible behind the world, the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”

Translation: When people lose sight of the proper objects of religious passion, they do not necessarily lose their religious instincts. Many will fill that hole in their soul with things of this world.

Anyway it’s a point I’ve written about quite a bit.

But while I was prepping for the speech, I read some reviews of Jody Bottum’s new book (which I’ve now ordered). In An Anxious Age: The Post Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, Bottum argues that today’s liberal elites are the same liberal elites that we’ve always had. They come from the ranks of mainline Protestants that have run this country for generations (with some fellow-travelling Jews and Catholics, to be sure). But there’s a hitch. They champion a

social gospel, without the gospel. For all of them, the sole proof of redemption is the holding of a proper sense of social ills. The only available confidence about their salvation, as something superadded to experience, is the self-esteem that comes with feeling they oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob.

This strikes me as pretty close to exactly right. They’re still elitist moralizers but without the religious doctrine. In place of religious experience, they take their spiritual sustenance from self-satisfaction, often smug self-satisfaction.

One problem with most (but not all) political religions is that they tend to convince themselves that their one true faith is simply the Truth. Marxists believed in “scientific socialism” and all that jazz. Liberalism is still convinced that it is the sole legitimate worldview of the “reality-based community.”

There’s a second problem with political religions, though. When reality stops cooperating with the faith, someone must get the blame, and it can never be the faith itself. And this is where the hunt for heretics within and without begins.

Think about what connects so many of the controversies today: Mozilla’s defenestration of Brendan Eich, Brandeis’ disinviting of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the IRS scandal, Hobby Lobby, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the notion climate skeptics should be put in cages, the obsession with the Koch brothers, not to mention the metronomic succession of assclownery on college campuses. They’re all about either the hunting of heretics and dissidents or the desire to force adherence to the One True Faith.

It’s worth noting that the increase in these sorts of incidents is not necessarily a sign of liberalism’s strength. They’re arguably the result of a crisis of confidence.

When Liberalism Fails

But don’t take this Goldberg’s word for it, here’s Michelle Goldberg (no relation) in The Nation of all places:

It’s increasingly clear that we are entering a new era of political correctness. Recently, we’ve seen the calls to#CancelColbert because of something outrageous said by Stephen Colbert’s blowhard alter ego, who has been saying outrageous things regularly for nine years. Then there’s the sudden demand for “trigger warnings” on college syllabi, meant to protect students from encountering ideas or images that may traumatize them; an Oberlin faculty document even suggests jettisoning “triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” At Wellesley, students have petitioned to have an outdoor statue of a lifelike sleepwalking man removed because it was causing them “undue stress.” As I wrote in The Nation, there’s pressure in some circles not to use the word “vagina” in connection with reproductive rights, lest it offend trans people.

Nor is this just happening here. In England’s left-wing New Statesman, Sarah Ditum wrote of the spread of no-platforming—essentially stopping people whose ideas are deemed offensive from speaking publicly. She cites the shouting down of an opponent of the BDS movement at Galway University and the threats and intimidation leveled at the radical feminist Julie Bindel, who has said cruel things about trans people. “No platform now uses the pretext of opposing hate speech to justify outrageously dehumanising language, and sets up an ideal of ‘safe spaces’ within which certain individuals can be harassed,” wrote Ditum. “A tool that was once intended to protect democracy from undemocratic movements has become a weapon used by the undemocratic against democracy.”

Call it left-wing anti-liberalism: the idea, captured by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,”  . . . 

Okay, you get the point. Of course, by the end she falls back on the only argument that is sure to appeal to all Nation readers: We’re setting a precedent that conservatives will take advantage of when they’re in power. And, as you know, conservatives only use the power of government for eeeeeeeeeeeeevil.

But that’s fine. In fact, one of my favorite features of our Constitution is that it encourages factions to think about what would happen if opposing factions got into power. If more liberals had that thought in mind, the Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson administrations wouldn’t have been nearly so bad.

I’m reminded of Alan Cranston’s comment during the Watergate hearings. “Those who tried to warn us back at the beginning of the New Deal of the dangers of one-man rule that lay ahead on the path we were taking toward strong, centralized government may not have been so wrong.” Well, like the surgeon who arrives as they’re zipping up the body bag says “Better late than never!”

Goldberg says these sorts of moments on the left tend to come

when liberalism seems to have failed but the right is not yet in charge. At such times, old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system, and it’s still possible for radicals to believe that the ideas suppressed as hateful won’t be their own.

For the record, I reject the insinuation that liberals (i.e. progressives) have a special ownership of the principles of free speech and open debate. For instance, if you look at how the Left took over academia in one university after another, they took advantage of the values of open inquiry and debate just long enough to get in the door and take power. Once they were in charge, they pulled up the gangplank behind them for anyone who disagreed. Still, kudos to her for at least acknowledging that liberalism seems to have failed, and the riot of intolerance on the left is driven by the bowel-stewing panic that sense of failure is fostering.

Noah & The Second Deli

I still haven’t seen Noah, and so I waited to say anything about it. But the controversy is going down the memory hole and I’d like to make a point I don’t think anyone has made.

I really liked Sonny Bunch’s piece about the negative reaction the movie has gotten. His main gripe is with critics who wanted a more traditional version of the Noah story and instead got an artistic interpretation. He writes:

And herein lies the unbridgeable divide. If you’re unwilling to accept that some things from the biblical account will have to be altered — if you can’t handle the introduction of conflict, if your suspension of disbelief allows you to handle the concept of an ark big enough to hold two of every animal but causes you to reject fallen angels encased in rock — then you’re probably not going to enjoy this film. Much like the comic book fan who gets annoyed at the portrayal of the Dark Phoenix in X-Men: The Last Stand or the idea that Peter Parker doesn’t build his webshooters in Spider-Man, the literalists are going to have a tough time with a Noah skilled in hand-to-hand combat and a world in which “rock monsters” aid in building a fantastical boat.

Naturally, this reminded me of the fairly new Jewish “deli” in DuPont Circle in Washington DC called DGS.

For those of you who don’t know, DC doesn’t have any really good Jewish delis. There are a couple of  goodish ones in the outer suburbs, but a great pastrami sandwich with real (i.e. increasingly rare) Jewish rye has long eluded the city proper. So when DGS opened up just a few blocks from my AEI office, you’d think I’d be ecstatic. Not really. Don’t get me wrong, the food is great. But it’s clever. It’s fancy. It has Israeli and Canadian elements that make it different than the comfort food of my youth. It’s a “fresh take” on the Jewish deli. What annoys me about DGS is that it would make a fantastic deli in a city that had plenty of traditional delis it was trying to set itself apart from. In New York City, a deli that billed itself as “not your father’s kind of deli” makes a lot of sense. In DC, where my father’s kind of deli doesn’t exist, I resent having the only deli be the clever deli.

I agree entirely with what Sonny has to say about the nature of art, but it seems to me that one of the frustrations a lot of people have about Noah is that Hollywood won’t make religious movies of the “your father’s deli” variety. In other words, biblical movies are few and far between; this was the one bite from the apple and it, allegedly, strayed pretty far from the, you know, Bible. In a world where traditional biblical movies churn out as frequently as superhero movies, my hunch is people would have fewer problems with Noah.

Various & Sundry

Okay, back to Zoë (her twitter handle is @zoezoetweets, by the way). She has been having the time of her life. First of all, there are dead things all over the place. She brought me the nearly-whole carcass of a rabbit our first day here. The campus is covered in squirrels (and deer poop, which she seems to think is like the spice mélange from the Dune novels), and early in the morning, I take her to the quad where she forces the squirrels to retreat to their leafy lairs. The first time I did it though, something dismaying happened. Everything was fine until Zoë was “attacked” by the utterly immobile statue of Ronald Reagan. It took her by surprise, I guess, and she started barking at it wildly. It dawned on me to my dismay that I might have a yellow-dog Democrat on my hands. But, the good news is that she lay down by the statue of Margaret Thatcher. So I am hoping that she was barking at the Reagan statue for some lesser reason, like she was telling him “You should have gotten behind Bork’s nomination better.” In fact, it kind of sounded like she was saying “Bork! Bork!”

(“You will burn for a thousand eternities for that” — The Couch).

Speaking of Zoë, this is her admiring herself in our Cuyahoga Falls hotel room last Saturday night. (She’s so vain, I bet she thinks that tweet is about her).

This is a fun catch (again by Sonny Bunch). The media reported that Hillary Clinton — whose very name, like my own, is synonymous with “catlike reflexes” — had “dodged” a shoe thrown at her. Bunch points out that she did no such thing (nor should she be criticized for not dodging it). I don’t expect reporters to say “Hillary Clinton instinctively cowered from shoe like it was the unavoidable truth about Benghazi.” But, as the guy who was hit by a Ford pickup truck told the police, that was no Dodge.

Charles Murray’s new book has come out at a great time for me, given that I need to give my students advice. Here’s some excellent curmudgeonly wisdom. He will be having a book event at AEI on April 17, btw.

What could go wrong? The dress that turns transparent when the wearer is aroused.

Now this is a great lede. “It started when a honeybee flew up Michael Smith’s shorts and stung him in the testicles.”

Seems about right: What the ‘perfect’ man or women looks like to men and women.

The prophecy is true! Half goat, half sheep born in Ireland

Monster rat caught in China.

That country disappearing in your rearview mirror? Yeah that’s France, which just banned work email after 6:00 PM.

Speaking of hunting heretics, Florida atheist man attacks his roommate with a butter knife because he thinks he’s Jesus.

The San Francisco cow of the 21st century.

Batman’s most brutal murders!

Movies that don’t end with the credits.

The tax implications of the zombie apocalypse and other Debby links!

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