America Eats Itself

by Jonah Goldberg
The body politic’s overactive racism antibodies.

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 (Including those of you who came here expecting a good ‘Dear Reader’ gag),

I’m sitting here in the lobby of the Williamstown Inn waiting for the restaurant to open. The décor is a mix between New England traditional and cat-lady Grandma’s House (though the staff is very nice). The Muzak playing at 5:30 in the morning seems oddly reminiscent of a long time-lapse scene from A Man Called Horse or maybe the soundtrack when William Holden found that nice pacific village in Bridge on the River Kwai.

Now that I got the important stuff out of the way, I gave a talk here at Williams College last night. The paperwork from my speakers’ bureau said I was being brought in by the Young Republicans. But, as the guy caught with a tranny hooker said to the cops, either there was some mistake or this was a clever ruse. I was in fact brought in by a group of impressive kids called simply “Uncomfortable Learning.”

I gather that the group is called this because, at Williams, if your group sounds conservative or libertarian, then lots of students will simply tune out, shun, or dismiss you. I get it, but I can’t say I love this sort of thing in principle. Indeed, it’s a bit ironic given that I was there to give my Tyranny of Clichés talk, which puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of owning labels and not hiding behind clever euphemisms.

Hail Zorp!

This reminds me of one of my favorite episodes of Parks and Recreation. Fortunately, I’ve been reminded of this episode before. From the December 13, G-File:

I’m reminded of an episode of Parks and Recreation — back when it was reliably funny — in which we learn the town of Pawnee, Indiana, is not only “The First in Friendship and Fourth in Obesity,” but also the home of a bizarre cult that worships an alien-beast God known as Zorp. In the 1970s the cult briefly controlled the city, but these days the aging cultists in their Dockers and flannel shirts aren’t much of a threat. Every now and then they gather in the city’s main park to await the arrival of Zorp, who they are sure will — this time! — destroy the planet and leave it a slag heap. (At these gatherings, Ron Swanson (who is awesome) sells the cultists handcrafted flutes at wildly exorbitant prices. The cultists think it’s hilarious and that Swanson is a sucker because he accepts checks. After all, Zorp is coming and he’s going to melt the whole planet tonight.)

Anyway, I’m reminded of it because the cultists had one brilliant insight. They called themselves the “Reasonablists.” Their thinking was that this would immunize them from criticism, because nobody wants to seem unreasonable or against reason.

“Uncomfortable learning” appears to be working because while kids find it easy to be closed-minded about conservatism, they are intrigued by “uncomfortable learning.” It sounds so subversive. It’s like when Chief Wiggum won’t let his kid Ralph play in his gun storage room. When little Ralph tries to get in, egged on by Bart, Wiggum exclaims, “What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?”

The room was pretty much full, which was good given the terrible date and time of the speech (5:00 P.M. on Spring Fling night) but better than that, there was a much higher proportion of liberal college kids than I often get of late (when not debating a liberal). For instance, when I recently went to Boulder — a far more left-wing school than Williams — I had very few actual students, never mind left-wing students there. I go to a lot of campuses, but the administrations are usually loath to promote the event and professors often tell their students outright not to attend, so as to avoid the, you know, uncomfortable learning. I gather the administration at Williams isn’t much help to the Uncomfortable Learning kids, but somehow the group got liberal kids to come and endure all the discomfort. Aside from the eye rolls, intellectually insecure giggles and smug knowing looks a few gave each other from time to time, they were admirably polite and engaged, even during the Q&A. I even got a few laughs out of them (“Yeah, but then they all yelled ‘Put your pants back on!’” — The Couch).

That Klavern in Williamstown

All of this was against the backdrop of an outbreak of peak collegiate stupidity here at Williams. The school invited Michael Bloomberg to be a commencement speaker. This is hugely controversial on the left. A bunch of students and faculty are furious because Bloomberg supported stop-and-frisk policies in New York. Hence, these kids are passing around flyers comparing Bloomberg to a slave-holder or some such. One professor told me that perhaps as many as 150 members of the faculty might turn their back on Bloomberg on graduation day. And everywhere there is a lot of talk about how Williams is a “white supremacist” institution. Gotta love a thoroughly liberal liberal-arts college being called white supremacist by the very same black kids it admitted for an excellent four-year education. Dumbest. White. Supremacists. Ever.

Or maybe not. As everyone knows only the really racist, super-clever-Klanny-type schools invite Angela Davis to speak on campus (with none of the controversy Michael Bloomberg elicits). Nothing says White Power more than fêting a radical champion of Black Power.

On Aggressions, Micro and Macro

Last night, after my talk, a student made a great point about all of this insanity. An ethnic minority himself, he explained how exasperated he is with a handful of mostly black kids going around screaming how anyone who disagrees with them are “racists,” “white supremacists,” etc. That’s bad enough, but what really bugged him was the double standard these kids want.

Let me explain. The leftwingers — racial, gender, feminist whatever — all subscribe to this “micro-aggression” claptrap. This is the latest term of art for the same political-correctness spiel we’ve been hearing for decades. A “micro-aggression” is when you unintentionally say something (allegedly) insulting or insensitive that only an incredibly sensitive and politically programmed person would immediately take as a sign of oppression. Wikipedia tells me that “microinvalidations” are “communications that subtly exclude negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person and their social identities.” It offers an example of such a microtravesty: “White people ask Latinos where they are from.”

This of course raises the question of whether Sonia Sotomayor is a Wikipedia user or author. As Rich Lowry (Praise Be Upon Him) notes in his column, she makes a great deal of hay about these horrible affronts to human dignity, on the strange assumption that they had anything to do with the legal question before the court.

So here’s the double standard. According to the doctrine of microaggression, if I innocently ask a Latino, “Where are you from?” I am committing some grave, bigoted, thought crime that the Latino has every right to be furious about. But when some lefty screams at me that I am a white supremacist racist blankety blank based on nothing other than some conjured offense drawn from Marcusian hogwash and hooey, I am not only supposed to stand there, take it, and feel guilty about it — I’m also supposed to repent of my evil ways. Asking a Latino “Where are you from?” might be a faux pas — or it might be a friendly way to start a conversation! But as far as aggressions go, it seems awfully micro, even nano, compared with being called a racist because you asked the question.

Funny story: Recently, the Dalai Lama visited AEI (Big hitter, the Lama). I was out of town for it, but Ramesh Ponnuru attended his talk. At one point, His Holiness turned to Ramesh and said something like “You’re from India, you know what I mean” (not exact quote). Ramesh replied, “Actually, I’m from Kansas.” Then Arthur Brooks apparently quipped something like, “Don’t worry your holiness, everyone in Kansas looks like Ramesh.”

Now, I think that’s all hilarious and utterly harmless. But apparently, what Ramesh should have done is stand up, point his bony finger of condemnation at the Dalai Lama, and scream in his best Cotton Mather voice “Microaggressor! Burn him!”

America Eats Itself

I think it was Eugene Volokh who once wrote that sometimes societies panic over the things they have the fewest reasons to worry about. In Victorian England, there was widespread concern about the loosening of sexual mores at a time of widespread chastity. I’ve long believed that America is suffering from a similar panic about bigotry and racism. Yes, yes, bigotry and racism still exist (See, Bundy, Cliven). But they are arguably at the lowest ebb in American history.

And yet, there’s a sense of almost witch-hunty panic over “white supremacy” in our culture. I think there are lots of reasons for this. One explanation: When you have a black president and then discover that the presidency isn’t nearly as powerful as you thought or hoped it would be (or that the specific black president isn’t that great at the job) the cognitive dissonance pushes you to develop conspiratorial theories about the “real” reason for his failures.

Another reason is that liberalism hasn’t figured out a moral vocabulary that doesn’t depend on the fight against slavery and Jim Crow. I am amazed how, on every campus I go to, no matter what the subject, liberal kids — not to mention their professors and my debate partners — can only internalize and conceptualize arguments about political morality and action in relation to the black civil-rights narrative. That’s a hugely important narrative. But it is not a tesseract providing an infinite and invincible moral power to every claim under the sun. Take for example, Chris Hayes’s argument in The Nation that the fight against fossil fuels is an analogue to the fight to end slavery. To my mind, this is quite simply crazy talk, as Tim Cavanaugh brilliantly explains here. But I have no doubt Hayes sincerely believes it, which in a way is far more troubling.

Then there’s another explanation: America’s elite culture is in the painful throes of an ongoing autoimmune crisis. I wrote about this theory last year:

The “hygiene hypothesis” is the scientific theory that the rise in asthma and other autoimmune maladies stems from the fact that babies are born into environments that are too clean. Our immune systems need to be properly educated by being exposed early to germs, dirt, whatever. When you consider that for most of human evolutionary history, we were born under shady trees or, if we were lucky, in caves or huts, you can understand how unnatural Lysol-soaked hospitals and microbially baby-proofed homes are. The point is that growing up in a sanitary environment might cause our immune systems to freak out about things that under normal circumstances we’d just shrug off . . . 

If you think of bigotry as a germ or some other infectious-disease vector, we live in an amazingly sanitized society. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, of course. And we can all debate how prevalent it is later.

My point is that the institutions — the organs of the body politic — that are the most obsessed with eradicating bigotry (as liberals define it) tend to be the places that have to worry about it the least. The Democratic party is consumed with institutionalized angst about prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry in America. But the odds are that relatively few of these people (particularly those under the age of 50) have been exposed to much real racism or intolerance.

The same goes for the mainstream media. In fact, many major media outlets have explicit policies dedicated to hiring and promoting minorities, women, gays, etc. Like the Democratic party, some have very strict hiring quotas in this regard. The well-paid executives and managers of these institutions come from social backgrounds where the tolerance for anything smacking of overt bigotry is not just zero, but in the negative range; they bend over backwards to celebrate members of the officially recognized coalition of the oppressed. (Of course, this coalition doesn’t include traditional-minded Christians, but that’s a subject for another column.)

The war on microaggressions tells the tale. We live in a society where racial macro aggressions are appreciably rare, particularly at places like Williams. In response, the molehills of alleged micro-aggressions are treated like the macro-aggressive mountains of yore. An alternative response is to fake instances of real old-timey racism, a very common occurrence at schools across the country (including, I’m told, at Williams), so as to heighten “awareness” of a kind of racism that is not actually present at the school. Williams isn’t a hotbed of racism, it’s an organ of the body politic under attack from self-declared white blood cells. Of course, calling them white blood cells is just another white supremacist microaggression . . . 

Various & Sundry

I had a great time at Hillsdale, though I was definitely ready to come home. I want to thank John Miller and the whole gang for being such gracious hosts. Zoë in particular is bummed to be back (though she did miss my wife and daughter).

Here is my column on Obama’s search for a Plan B foreign policy.

I thought this latest installment by Byron York on the State Department’s ongoing effort to figure out what, exactly, Hillary Clinton did for four years was pretty funny.

In my column earlier this week, I included the problem of ocean acidification as an environmental issue that is not getting enough attention because of climate-change mania. Some liberals have criticized this as a ridiculous statement since ocean acidification is largely caused by increasing CO2 emissions. I actually tried to address this in the column, but had to cut it for space reasons. There’s no contradiction. Even so-called “climate deniers” do not deny that we are putting more CO2 into the atmosphere. The argument about climate change is about the effect on global temperatures. You can be a “climate denier” — I’m not, by the way — and still think there can be other negative consequences from greenhouse-gas emissions. You can also believe that the Hayesian abolition of fossil fuels is the wrong solution to the problem. For instance, dropping large quantities of limestone into the oceans might do the trick. The idea needs more study, but I’d rather give Gaia some Tums than throw billions into poverty.

While we’re on the topic of geoengineering, I thought this piece by Robert Zubrin was great and inspiring.

Kurt Russell was on Gilligan’s Island, Jack Nicholson was on the Andy Griffith Show, and Batman saved King Joffrey.

Oh and, Ricky Gervais used to be a New Wave pop guy and Vin Diesel was a D&D geek.

Oh dear lord. Spider-Man and Planned Parenthood Team Up.

20 Things you might not know about E.T.

How to entertain people, 1904 edition.

Spuds MacKenzie, R.I.P

Behold the Drone Orchestra.

I wanted to like this Funniest cities in America  thing, but it kinda strikes me as stupid.

At least George H. W. Bush didn’t bow to that supermarket scanner!

Best airline-safety speech ever?

Um, well, uh the “dicktionary.” (Note: Some may not need to know all the different names for Anthony Weiner’s favorite intern.)

Leading opponent of truth in labeling wants his “murder” tattoo removed before he goes on trial for murder.

Finally! A place where Rich Lowry can get some work done!

Nothing says romance better than a chicken corsage.

But the makers of the Sex Clothes of 1977 gave it their best shot.

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