Inside The Idea Realm
The stuff that consequences are made of.


Jonah Goldberg

Washington is emptying out like a city about to be hit by an asteroid. I myself am packing up loose ends for an extended trip to Alaska and other potential points west. So, rather than stay up on the news today — as I have quite a bit of late — I thought I’d clear out some intellectual clutter. I’m not quite ready to do my extended “Ode to the Protestants” yet, but there are some loose ends I’d like to take care of in part because I am determined to overcome what has been a Sisyphean task: writing a book proposal (more on that later).

About a month ago, I wrote a column titled “Dangerous Ideas.” It was mostly about how postmodernists have done a lot of damage to the culture without taking any responsibility for their actions. As is the case with so many Goldberg Files, the column was supposed to be about something else. But, as I write these columns in several hours, I often find myself tugged off where the words want to go, like a weak driver pulled by determined sled dogs. I did, however, grab control of the reins long enough to get this idea out: Scientists take responsibility for the damage they do. English professors take speaking fees. Conservatism, which does not fetishize the masses, understands that even an intelligent idea can have horrific consequences if let loose upon a society. The uninformed, the lazy, the affected, the ambitious, and the dumb can adopt sharp-edged ideas and use them as blunt cudgels if we are not careful. The authors of postmodernism have not been careful.

A number of readers stubbed their toes on this assertion. Was I actually saying that the problem with postmodernism isn’t its relativism, its hostility to scientific and moral truth, its corrosiveness to traditional arrangements and institutions which have preserved and promoted civilization for centuries but, rather, the problem with postmodernism is simply that most people are too stupid or lazy to handle it? How arrogant! How elitist! How smug!

Well, I plead guilty as charged, I guess, sort of, maybe kinda.

The reason I’m being so weaselly about this is I’m not quite sure what’s so bad about saying it. It’s sort of like when you’re playing chess and you move your queen to a position you think is safe but your opponent gets all excited. You don’t quite want to take your fingers off the piece until you’re sure you see what he sees. The fear is you’ll let go of the piece too soon and his bishop will fly out of nowhere and capture your queen in a move that seems obvious only in retrospect. But let me loosen my grip and commit: I think some ideas are too dangerous to simply dump in the water supply and walk away. Let me explain.

Every age has its aristocrats, every society its elite. Even the communist countries which claimed to be ruled by the masses have their “vanguards of the proletariat,” and other fancy terms used to describe greasy-palmed bureaucrats, party thugs, or ruling clans. Pure egalitarian societies are like unicorns. Everyone knows what they look like, but nobody has ever seen one. There has never been a community without a social hierarchy nor would we ever want to live in one. At their most basic level, hierarchies are necessary because they are efficient; too many chefs and all that.

Besides, it is an inevitable fact of human nature that some people will rise to the top. The male brain, after all, is hardwired to compete for status, power, and chicks. Originally, this was often done through the acquisition of shiny trinkets and sharp rocks. The shiny trinkets are exchanged for women and sharp rocks. The sharp rocks, by the way, are typically used by men to smite other men into relinquishing their women or their sharp rocks or the whole package. The female brain — as best science has been able to discern — works along much the same lines, though often women substitute guilt or guile for the sharp rocks.

The difference between the good society and the bad one is entirely defined by the rules which determine how this natural impulse to compete for respect and happiness should take place. A bad society is one where it is acceptable for people to attain status through violence or birthright. The good society is one where status is achieved through creativity, personal industriousness, and moral self-restraint. A bad society considers some groups ineligible to compete for trivial or superficial reasons. A good society believes everyone is free to pursue happiness equally. But all societies, good and bad, will have such competition for status and success. This is a universal truth.

This obvious fact requires a certain degree of honesty from the elite and, truth be told, a little dishonesty too. You see, in a good society, the successful must be honest about the general principles and ingredients for success. For example, if I am an extremely accomplished surgeon, I should be honest about the fact that success in my profession requires years of hard work, a natural dexterity with the nitty-gritty of biology, chemistry, and medicine and that, therefore, not everyone can be a great surgeon. In a bad society many of the rules for how to become a surgeon (or a journalist, physicist, or even a bus driver) are secret or involve complicated instructions on whom you have you know or bribe.

But while in a good society honesty in general is required from elites, dishonesty in the particulars sometimes may be necessary too. If I have a photographic memory, I should not go around telling others that they don’t need to study hard simply because I don’t need to study hard. If a lawyer becomes wealthy through deceit and greed, he’s already done enough damage to the world. He need not inflict even more grievous wounds to the social fabric by bragging about it. For if he does, if he goes around telling the world that he got his expensive cars, luxurious houses, and international acclaim by cheating and back-stabbing, if in effect he claims his vices to be virtues, he then encourages others to follow suit.

In effect, a good society requires a certain level of hypocrisy from its leaders in order to remain good. Many monarchies implicitly understood this odd bargain when they proclaimed adherence to the highest virtues when in reality they were reprobates, perverts, sloths, or bullies. Certain ideologues on the left, often look at this hypocrisy and respond that such noble-sounding principles as virtue and chivalry were in fact nothing more than means of enforcing the self interests of the aristocracy. They allow no room for the possibility that maybe aristocrats understood something we’ve forgotten: If personal debauchery is not only condoned at the highest levels but actively celebrated, society will fall apart. Better your keep you vices private lest the public confuse them for virtues.

This highlights how the fear of personal hypocrisy has caused so much damage to society. Take drugs. Some libertarians often find it baffling that I can be in favor of the drug war (on everything but pot), even though I’m not a total virgin when it comes to drug use. Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason, went so far as to call my hypocrisy “the vice virtue pays to tyranny.” As I responded at the time, this suggests that gluttons should proselytize for gluttony. Any parent who has uttered some variant of “do as I say, not as I do” understands that hypocrisy can be a small and necessary sin. Indeed, I am a very sloppy guy, for example, but I am at a loss to understand why I should argue that tidiness is bad out of a fear of seeming hypocritical.

The notion that personal hypocrisy is the gravest of transgressions has probably ruined more lives than any idea put out by the likes of Jimmy Swaggart and other blatant hypocrites. Indeed, many of our biggest cultural problems today stem from the fact that an irrational fear of hypocrisy — or a national lust for being “true to oneself” — have caused so many to claim either that their vices are virtues or that there is no difference between the two.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I interrupt this column here because it’s so damned long. Please click here to read my announcement in The Corner. Tomorrow’s column will feature no nudity, but it will have more announcements. — Jonah