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Don’t Play With Fire
The spine of conservatism's humility.


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Jonah Goldberg

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a two-part Goldberg File. For part one, click here.

Something similar holds true in the realm of ideas. In most spheres of human endeavor we understand that people should start simple and work their way up. If you’re learning to shoot, an expert may start you off with a small gun. If you’re just learning German, your instructor won’t give you a stack of books by Heidegger, he’ll give you some flashcards with pictures of shoes and doggies on one side and the translation on the other. If you’re studying to be a scientist, they teach you how to use the Bunsen burner before they teach you how to split the atom. If you’re learning how to fly, you start with reading a book, not with flying a 747 through a hurricane. You get the point: There are stages and degrees of knowledge and expertise that form the basis for further understanding and skill.

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The world of ideas, alas, works on slightly different rules today. After an unprecedented campaign of psychological warfare and propaganda, America and large chunks of the developed world have been told that self-esteem is everything and external authority is at best quaint. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, nobody has the right to be judgmental, inconveniences are translated into the denial of rights, feelings trump intellect, etc. In W.H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being,” King Herod muses about the future to come in the aptly named “New Age”:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions . . . Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

Rebels who buck the system, individuals who march to their own drummers, and mavericks who tear down the system are heroes not so much because the system deserves tearing down but because we simply think people who “do their own thing” are so cool. In partisan politics, independents are touted in the media as if they have a more thoughtful approach to politics when the reality is the vast majority of independents have dedicated not a nanosecond more to the “issues” than the most committed Democrat or Republican; they just like the way it sounds when they hear themselves touting their independence.

In art, burps and splatters are often revered if the artist can claim that there was passion and personal truth involved or, better still, if these personal truths involved kicking the Catholic Church or some other still extant source of external authority. One wonders though: What will happen to art when there’s no external authority left?

In the popular culture, personal liberty is exulted over everything. Indeed, conventional notions of good guys and bad guys take a back seat to the all-important principle that the hero is the guy who won’t take crap from anyone. Perhaps it was when Nietzsche pronounced God dead that so many decided to do His job themselves. Today, we are our own priests. Our truths are own “inner truths.” Our morality is bought retail.

WHEN BAD IDEAS ESCAPE
Much of this could have been avoided if the Left had assumed some of the humility of science or conservatism. Since Isaac Newton, scientists have been using the phrase “as if” to describe the physical world. The laws of thermodynamics and electromagnetism are descriptive and, in a sense, metaphorical. The motivations of physical reality are irrelevant. Science deals with what it can observe.

Meanwhile, conservatism has always understood that life is too complicated to be easily defined — or controlled — by the human intellect. “The nature of man is intricate,” wrote Edmund Burke, “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.” Man is born in sin, God’s plan is unknowable, the known and tried, in Lincoln’s formulation, is preferable to the unknown and untried: This is the spine of conservatism’s humility.

But on the Left there was an explosion of “-isms” which were allegedly just as good as the old systems of belief which had been developed over centuries of cultural trial and error. These -isms deified ignorance and found virtue in every vice, including violence. Norman Mailer — like countless others — argued in The White Negro that criminal violence was simply political rebellion. A theme that survived through to the L.A. riots that are still called a “rebellion” by fools and poseurs.

Instead of using feminism, critical race theory, postmodernism, and Marxism as useful descriptive tools, akin to biology or chemistry in the sciences, the Left abandoned the “as if” for the “is.” There’s a great deal of useful stuff in Marxism, feminism, and the rest. The Marxist historians in particular contributed greatly to our understanding of some events. I enjoy reading a lot of postmodern analysis because it tends to provide a different perspective on established understandings. But different perspectives should not be mistaken for the physical or moral reality. I can hang upside down looking at the Mona Lisa all day. I might even learn something from it. But that doesn’t mean I will confuse this different perspective with the right or best perspective.

So if you apply Marxism like one of those blue lights cops use to illuminated hidden substances, it’s great. If you employ postmodernism as a juicer for squeezing the last few drops of meaning from a text, that’s fine. If you see feminism as a way to see events from another point of view, that’s cool. But, if you think that simply because there are a multiplicity of perspectives that there is no perspective that is better than any other; if you insist on using the blue light of Marxism even when normal a light bulb will do; if you demand that women think of themselves as women in all circumstances, even when women themselves wish to see themselves as citizens or doctors or wives or Jews or Muslims or Christians; if you think every time a black man is treated unfairly by life it is because of his race rather than because life can be unfair — if you do any of these things, then you’ve confused the hammer for the temple it is supposed to help build.

The problem is that these idolaters have sold these ideas on the cheap. Knockoffs, abbreviations, and pitiable summaries of complex ideas, ancient traditions, and esoteric disciplines have saturated the popular culture. Last I checked, Madonna and Roseanne were “studying” the Kabbalah, a branch of Jewish mysticism which traditionally most rabbis aren’t allowed to study because the ideas therein are too easily misunderstood.

There’s nothing wrong with examining heresies if you’re willing to spend the time necessary to understand why they are heretical. It is another thing entirely to wear heresies on your sleeve because a few irresponsible heretics believe all orthodoxies — other than their own — are bad. So yes, I think some ideas shouldn’t be simply thrown out there for everybody to play with as if we were dumping a toy chest full of Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, handguns, and sulfuric acid into a room of preschoolers. It is the difference between studying pedophilia among the ancient Greeks and saying on the Donahue show “Plato buggered little boys so it can’t be all bad.”

We do not live in the New Age — yet. But the New Age has descended like a cloud of smoke over much of the culture because, to make a long story short, the Left tried to use radicalism to burn down the ancien regime but couldn’t manage a controlled burn. Instead the fire swept across the landscape, burning some institutions and ideas totally, leapfrogging over others, but scorching most.

The holocaust wasn’t thorough enough to start over completely, nor was it minor enough to easily repair the damage. Instead, we are left with a society where radicalism has become a pose. Would-be rebels pierce their faces because they are too lazy or too dumb to read a book. “Feminists” denounce the patriarchy at Wednesday-night book clubs they drive to in station wagons loaded with child-safety seats. The academy overflows with arrogant experts who boast of their credentials out of one side of their mouths as they ridicule anyone who believes expertise is even possible.

And everywhere, unthinking mobs of “independent thinkers” wield tired cliches like cudgels, pummeling anyone who dares question the authenticity of the consumptive whore, judge the righteous victim, or suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, not every child is right when he says the emperor has no clothes.



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