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 listeners even though you will never hear this “news”letter by pressing your ear to the screen, NO MATTER HOW LOUDLY I TYPE!),
If you replace the phrase “the international community” with “the Klingons” it often makes more sense. The Islamic State can only be defeated if the Klingons are resolute. America can’t do this alone — we need the Klingons. Why don’t the Klingons handle this one?
Here’s Obama at that press conference in Estonia:
. . . we know that if we are joined by the Klingons we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem. And the question is going to be making sure we’ve got the right strategy, but also making sure that we’ve got the international will to do it. This is something that is a continuation of a problem we’ve seen certainly since 9/11, but before. And it continues to metastasize in different ways.
And what we’ve got to do is make sure that we are organizing the Arab world, the Middle East, the Muslim world along with the Klingons to isolate this cancer, this particular brand of extremism that is, first and foremost, destructive to the Muslim world and the Arab world and North Africa, and the people who live there. They’re the ones who are most severely . . . [blah blah blah]
Now, I know what you’re going to say: “But the Klingons don’t exist!”
And my reply would be, “Neither does the international community!”
But, here’s the thing, if the Klingons existed they really would be useful in crushing the Islamic State, deterring Putin, etc. I mean how awesome would a giant bird-of-prey hovering over the Kremlin look? It’s entirely unclear that if the international community existed it would be of much use.
Besides, I’ve seen Klingons. I know what a Klingon looks like. I know what their language sounds like (mostly like a Hungarian choking on a chicken bone). I know a bit about their codes, customs, and beliefs. Heck, I’ve even seen pictures of a Klingon wedding. I’ve never seen an international-community wedding.
Now hold on, you say. There’s the U.N., the EU, the Apple Dumpling Gang at Davos. There’s the World Bank and the IMF, the African Union and the International House of Pancakes. Every time I turn on the NewsHour I see cookie-pushers in pinstripe suits sitting around plates of clever cheese and expensive bottled water having weighty discussions about things of International Weightiness. Isn’t that the international community? Meanwhile, those “Klingons” you see are just a bunch of actors and weirdoes playing make-believe.
To which I respond: And just what the Hell do you think the cookie-pushers are? John Kerry is the U.S. secretary of state. (He’s also a human toothache, but that’s another matter.) That is who he is. That title doesn’t come with dual citizenship in the international community. And whenever he pretends otherwise he’s doing exactly that: pretending, playing make-believe, acting every bit as much as a bat’leth wielding chiropodist from Scarsdale. The difference is that the chiropodist knows he’s just pretending. It is not at all clear that John Kerry understands that the international community is a convenient fiction.
The trouble with the phrase “international community” is that the first word negates the second. There is, of course, an international sphere or realm or space. But those words don’t imply a kind of civil society. Domestically there’s this whole ecosystem of institutions, customs, and people who interact with one another. Internationally there are nation-states, which have relations with each other, sometimes via institutions and alliances, a few non-state actors (both good and bad), and then there are animals, gravity, clouds, rainbows, and other things that are blind to the Westphalian system of nation-states. And that’s it. Domestically there’s a thick atmosphere, like an ocean teeming with life, called civil society, which is itself made up of communities. Internationally it’s a vacuum, like in space. No one would talk about interplanetary atmosphere.
(“Oh yeah,” you respond, “What about the platonic aether and solar radiation and dark matter!?” To which I reply, “Shut up.”)
Welcome to the Interregnum
Earlier this week, I was on an AEI panel on the legacy and lessons of Caesar Augustus. I know what you’re thinking: “Why?” Which is pretty much what I was thinking too (I asked Michael Auslin, who organized it, “Maybe you’re thinking of a different Jonah Goldberg?”). But it worked out okay (You can watch the whole thing here). I was in on the first discussion, which was about the problems of today. My co-panelist, Jakob Grygiel of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) gave a very interesting talk (Fun fact: He was born in Poland and raised in Rome. I told him, “I want your mother to cook for me!”). He likened the current global environment to what used to be called the Interregnum.
Historically, the Interregnum — which I choose to capitalize here not out of fidelity to grammar but for dramatic flair — was the period between kings. (“Inter” means between, regnum means reign, a burning sensation when you pee means you misbehaved on that business trip to Reno.) You don’t have to be a fan of Game of Thrones to understand why this is a dangerous period. Succession to the throne is in doubt. Ambitions manifest themselves as opportunities present themselves. Loyalties become unclear. Irons get struck when they are hot. Clichés become dramatically relevant. When a system is structured around the power and authority of a single individual, it’s wholly understandable that it will go into crisis when that individual disappears and it’s not immediately clear who will replace him.
Grygiel’s point is that the Obama administration has wittingly or unwittingly sent the signal that our reign as the enforcer of the Pax Americana is over. Or, less starkly, we have sent the signal that it might be over. This is an important distinction. When it comes to power politics, perception matters as much as reality. Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Politburo, the Islamic State, Assad, the Iranians, Solomon Grundy, the stinking Diaz Brothers, Simon Bar Sinister, and that sweet-smelling cloud that steals your hemoglobin are all going to test America and the system around it to see how much they can get away with. It’s like Gandhi’s famous advice about going to prison. “On the first day, find the biggest, meanest-looking MoFo you can and beat the crap out of him. That will send the signal no one should mess with you.” (“Um, are you sure that was Gandhi? Remember Aristotle’s warning: ‘Some quotations on the Internet are unreliable.’” — The Couch).
The reason this is such a dangerous moment is that the mere act of testing the system encourages others to test it as well. In prison, when you’re a pushover for one guy, everyone gets the idea that they can take the apple brown betty off your lunch tray. It’s also how riots and lootings start. One person smashes a window on the hunch he can get away with it. Others watch. When nothing happens to the smasher, the idea becomes contagious.
This gets us to the heart of the damage Barack Obama has done. A superpower can cruise on perception for a very long time. Perception is relatively inexpensive. Sure, you gotta float some ships around. Yeah, you might have to run some military exercises. But as long as people think you’re sustaining a Pax Americana you are, in fact, sustaining a Pax Americana. But once you let that perception waver, you’re suddenly faced with a terrible set of choices. You can’t tell the world you’re still in charge, you have to show them. If you just talk about red lines and then do nothing to enforce them, further talk becomes worse than useless, it becomes provocative. If you opt to demonstrate your power, you risk failing and confirming weakness. You also risk a horrible escalation as the bad actors respond not with surrender but with even more testing. Does anyone think Putin would be the first to blink at this point if Obama sent troops to Ukraine?
Obama could do everything right starting today (Stop laughing!) and in a sense it would still be too late. It’s always more expensive to put down a riot than to prevent it. And it’s not entirely clear to me that the American people are willing to pay that price right now. It’s much clearer that this president has no interest in asking them to.
The Indecider in Chief
Everyone mocked George W. Bush for his “I’m the decider” shtick. I never particularly liked the locution myself. But it did get to the truth of the matter. The president has to make decisions. These days, even Dianne Feinstein is willing to admit that this president has problems making decisions. That’s all fine and good. But one thing bothers me. A lot of people don’t seem to realize that not making a decision is, itself, a kind of decision. President Obama’s passive aggression (for want of a better term) has never gotten the attention it deserves. This is, after all, the guy who voted present whenever he could in the Illinois state legislature — not exactly the most high-stakes arena in the world. He’s been voting present on a global scale ever since. As John Fund wrote almost exactly a year ago:
Since then, further evidence has piled up that Obama is a dithering, indecisive leader willing to deflect making a decision because of what many see as political calculation. It’s one thing when this happens domestically, like when his administration delayed meaningful action by BP and the state of Louisiana to clear up the Gulf of Mexico oilspill in 2010. It’s another when it happens in foreign policy — especially in the Middle East. Obama stood aloof during the Iranian street protests of 2009. In Libya, he delayed a decision for weeks until choosing “to lead from behind,” in the famous words of one adviser. In Egypt, the administration was caught flat-footed not once, but twice, by uprisings.
If the brakes on your car give out and you’re barreling down the road, deciding to wait until you have better options is every bit as much of a decision as deciding to turn left or right. Postponing doesn’t get rid of the decision tree, it merely changes the available choices on it. Obama likes to avoid making decisions until events make the decisions for him.
I tried to make this point on Fox News yesterday. Everyone’s talking about what the president should say. The assumption is that saying something will reflect a policy of doing something. But that isn’t how Obama sees the situation. He wants to say something that will take the pressure off of him to do something. This has always been his M.O. When the IRS scandal looks really bad, he says it’s a big problem and an outrage. That takes the pressure off the White House and frees him up from having to do or say any more about it. Now he dismisses the whole thing as a “phony scandal.” Obama didn’t lay out those “red lines” for Syria because he really meant it. He warned of red lines because doing so liberated him from having to act. When Assad called Obama’s bluff he folded. Obama didn’t order the surge in Afghanistan to win, he ordered the surge in Afghanistan to free himself from the hassle of having to talk — or think — about Afghanistan.
Wrapping Your Car Around the Decision Tree
And what is amazing to me is how so many people mistake dithering, buck-passing, and political cowardice for sagacity and strategic genius. Just last week I mocked the ridiculous notion that Obama is a “chess master” always thinking ahead of his opponents. Just this week, Jonathan Alter proves this incandescent idiocy will not die. He writes: “Obama is what was once called a “long head” — a leader who patiently tries to think a few moves past everyone else. This is a good thing. Thinking hard before reacting is usually the wiser course.”
Will someone please provide some examples of where Obama has outthought America’s adversaries? The man cowers behind his desk and his fans hang a sign reading “Genius at Work.”
Various & Sundry
Thoughtfulness is nice and all, but does anyone else miss the days when foreign-policy liberals thought with their hearts? The Islamic State represents virtually everything liberals claim to hate– slavery, rape, religious fanaticism, war, aggression, torture — and yet they reserve their true rage for Republicans. It’s maddening and disgusting, as I wrote here.
My column from yesterday is on how the Islamic State is like a “Foreign Legion for Losers.”
Oh, and speaking of The Weekly Standard, if you watched Special Report last night, you heard about this very important piece by Steve Hayes. If you didn’t watch Special Report, (a) shame on you, and (b) here is that very important piece.
Speaking of Special Report, alas, I am only scheduled to be on once this month, on 9/23, which is the day after Commentary’s Charles Krauthammer Roast in NYC. Hopefully I won’t be too hungover.
Meanwhile, I will be on Fox’s new show Outnumbered a week from Friday. Not sure what that will mean for the production of this “news”letter, never mind life as we know it.
Oh, look people, I bought into this frick’n Dear Reader gag, but I’ll be damned if it’s not hard to come up with original ideas. Feel free to suggest some!
Just in case you missed it above, here’s the link to that Augustus panel again. (Don’t be shocked if I end up turning my comments into a piece for the magazine sometime soon.)
Zoë Update: She’s fine, except for the fact that embarrassing images of her were hacked from the cloud.
At least she didn’t eat 43 socks. I gotta say I’m a little annoyed by this story. Who doesn’t notice 43 missing socks?
“Dizzy” by Tommy Roe was the No. 1 song in America the day I was born. How do I know? Boom.
Laser-cannon breakthrough. Faster please . . . the volcanoes are coming.
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 (unless you’re the Oregon guy who drove 30 miles with his left-turn signal on. I’ve lost all faith in you),
I’m writing this barreling down I-70, which I learned earlier today is the “Main Street of Kansas.” So sayeth a billboard for all to see just across the border from Colorado. This is not a very good slogan for Kansas, in my humble opinion. I like Kansas quite a bit. I do not like I-70 at all. “Main Street” implies a certain amount of commerce, even hustle-and-bustle. To my mind, it also suggests a homespun charm. I would bet $10,000 (to borrow a locution from Mitt Romney) that “charm and commerce,” never mind “hustle” or “bustle,” do not appear in the firsthand accounts of any I-70 traveler in recorded history (though it’s not like the I-70 Oral History Project is an ongoing concern).
This isn’t the dumbest geographic marketing campaign I’ve ever seen. The last couple times I was in Anchorage, the banners hanging from the light poles downtown proclaimed “Anchorage: Clean and Safe!” This is the kind of slogan that sows doubt rather than reassures. It’s like when a chef insists that no one ever actually died eating his clams “that I know of.” It reminds of the bit from 30 Rock. “Sheinhardt Wig Company: Not Poisoning Rivers Since 1977!”
I can only imagine the town elders of Anchorage sitting around a table saying:
“Okay, now that we cleared the hobos and garbage out of downtown, what do we want our slogan to tell people?”
“That Anchorage is clean and safe?”
“That’s gold! Let’s go with that! And they said we needed to hire a marketing firm!”
A better, and more honest campaign might be “Welcome to I-70! Where even the cows are bored!” Or “Make Sure to Get Off This Highway and Stay Awhile.” Or “I-70: We Clear the Roadkill Faster than those Slackers in Nebraska!”
What I don’t get is: Whose interest does it serve to call this highway the Main Street of Kansas? It’s insulting to Kansas and generates no business I’m sure. Indeed, the last thing you want to tell people is that this is the Main Street of Kansas. Who benefits from such slander? “Cui bono?” I shout. “Cui bono!?”
To which my wife, currently behind the wheel, responds: “Shhh, Jonah. We have 700 miles to go.”
Shhh, Mr. President
Because I have been on an extended road trip, I haven’t followed the news as closely as I might “They don’t call it a multi-state killing spree for nothing” — The Couch). But from the broad brushstrokes I take it that the president is just crushing it. Everything is falling into place. He had to send Joe Biden off to Office Depot to get more notepads because he’s checking off everything on his to-do lists so quickly. (Biden came back with a ten-gallon jug of Elmer’s glue, some pink-unicorn duct tape, and an office chair he won’t stop spinning around and around and around in. “Wheeeeee!”) By this time next week, expect to have Elvis’s “Taking Care of Business — In a Flash” logo painted on the tail of Air Force One.
Oh wait, that must be the road hypnosis talking (“You’re losing it man, keep it together.” — The Couch). Suddenly Joe Biden stops swiveling in his chair and announces in his most stentorian voice: “Attention White House. Attention White House. The Chess Master has left the building. Wheeeeeeeeee!”
You remember the Chess Master right? Here’s Bob Herbert describing him back in 2009:
Mr. Obama is like a championship chess player, always several moves ahead of friend and foe alike. He’s smart, deft, elegant and subtle. While Lindsey Graham was behaving like a 6-year-old on the Senate floor and Pete Sessions was studying passages in his Taliban handbook, Mr. Obama and his aides were assessing what’s achievable in terms of stimulus legislation and how best to get there.
Here’s Barack Obama describing his favorite person:
“I think I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Obama told him. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
Yesterday at his news conference, the president said he doesn’t have a strategy yet for the Islamic State. The blowback required the White House to send out his spinners like a farmer sending out his sons in search of a wayward hog. Personally, I don’t care that the president doesn’t have a strategy for the Islamic State — yet. One of the downsides of leading from behind is that it by definition allows problems to fester and become more complex. (“In other news today, six people burned to death as firefighters watched another building burn to the ground as part of Fire Chief Obama’s ‘firefighting from behind’ initiative.”)
How to deal with the Islamic State right now is a very tough question, particularly if you’re Barack Obama. What bothers me is his decision to announce to the world he has pretty much no idea what he’s doing. Taking your time to formulate a strategy, even — especially! — a strategy necessitated by your own mistakes and inattention is entirely defensible.
But when the world already thinks you’re weak, vacillating, and overwhelmed, saying in the pithiest way possible that you’re weak, vacillating, and overwhelmed strikes me as a mistake. But hey, what do I know, I’m just a guy transporting a dingo across the continent.
Of course, if Obama was a Chess Master who sees ten moves ahead, this would all be an elaborate rope-a-dope. Like Michael Corleone, he would wait for his enemies to show themselves and reveal their motives. China is suddenly testing our resolve in the Pacific? “Excellent,” Obama says behind tented fingers. The Russians are calling our bluff? “Ahhh . . . the game is afoot.” Egypt and the U.A.E. are writing us off as a paper tiger? “Just as I expected,” quoth the Chess Master to his briefer. The Germans can’t be counted on to stay loyal? “Of course. Of course.” The Poles have made it clear they consider the U.S. an unreliable, even dangerous ally? “I am disappointed I was so right about them all along.” The Iranians pour Hezbollah into Syria? “Rouhani’s a pimp. He never could have outfought Ahmadinejad. But I didn’t know until this day that it was Khamenei all along.”
The Chess Master was testing our friends and exposing our real foes. Like the sea snake that guy in Gladiator described, Obama let his prey nip and bite at him and now, in a shockingly mixed metaphor, the Venus fly trap snaps shut for the Labor Day Massacre.
The reality, alas, is that Obama is — and has always been — out of his depth on the international stage. Given the prestige of the presidency and the incredible institutional forces behind the office, particularly when a liberal is elected, it takes time to burn through all of the political capital that comes with the job. But Obama has been throwing that political capital on an Oval Office bonfire like so much kindling on a clean and safe Anchorage night. In yet another metaphor that threatens to burn out the dilithium crystals, the credibility inferno is reaching China Syndrome proportions (“You should have said ‘literally’ a lot! Literally means ‘pay attention to how smart my metaphors are.’ Wheeeeee!” — Joe Biden). For a depressing but brilliant analysis of this meltdown, see Bret Stephens’s piece in the new Commentary coincidentally titled “The Meltdown.”
Remember the famous SNL clip where Phil Hartman plays Ronald Reagan? He’s an amiable dunce in public, but get him behind closed doors and he’s a master strategist? Well, maybe that stuff about Obama being the liberal opposite of Reagan is true. Out in public, he seems like he’s the Chess Master (though I never saw it). But get him behind closed doors and he’s in the chair next to Biden shouting “I can spin faster than you!”
Lightworkers Aren’t Funny!
Speaking of Saturday Night Live, Kyle Smith had an excellent piece in the New York Post a few days ago. I will quote at length:
At last, we know the reason why comedy writers don’t make fun of President Obama much.
It turns out the man is completely unmockable.
We learn this from Jim Downey, the longtime “Saturday Night Live” specialist in political japery. “If I had to describe Obama as a comedy project, I would say, ‘Degree of difficulty, 10 point 10,’” the writer says in the expanded new edition of the “SNL” oral history book, “Live from New York.”
“It’s like being a rock climber looking up at a thousand-foot-high face of solid obsidian, polished and oiled,” Downey says. “There’s not a single thing to grab onto — certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature. [Al] Gore had these ‘handles,’ so did Bush, and Sarah Palin, and even Hillary had them. But with Obama, it was the phenomenon — less about him and more about the effect he had on other people and the way he changed their behavior. So that’s the way I wrote him.”
Got that? The charter Choom Ganger, confessed eater of dog and snorter of coke. The doofus who thinks the language spoken by Austrians is “Austrian,” that you pronounce the p in “corpsman” and that ATMs are the reason why job growth is sluggish. The egomaniac who gave the queen of England an iPod loaded with his own speeches and said he was better at everything than the people who work for him. The empty suit with so little real-world knowledge that he referred to his brief stint working for an ordinary profit-seeking company as time “behind enemy lines.” The phony who tells everyone he’s from Chicago, though he didn’t live there until his 20s, and lets you know that he’s talking to people he believes to be stupid by droppin’ his g’s. The world-saving Kal-El from a distant solar system who told us he’d heal the planet and cause the oceans to stop rising. The guy who shared a middle name with one of the most hated dictators on earth.
Nope, nothing there to mock. No way to get a grip on this polished, oiled obsidian. So comedy writers didn’t and mostly still don’t. Jim Downey isn’t in dereliction of his comedy duty to take down the high and the mighty, or so he begs you to think. He’s just too obtuse to see Scrooge McDuck quantities of comedy gold when they’re sitting right in front of him.
I think Smith nails it. But I’d add one extra point. Comedians, musicians, actors and — yes — pundits face a similar danger: Being captured by their audiences. Once you develop a big following you unavoidably develop a big set of expectations for the kind of material you do. In the case of SNL, I suspect one additional reason they think Obama is unmockable (aside from the cranium-past-the-sphincter butt kissing) is that their audience also thinks Obama is unmockable. I don’t simply mean the viewers, though I’m sure SNL’s ratings are higher in blue states. I mean the people the actors and writers get feedback from. The phenomenon of the Beltway mentality has its analogues everywhere. For instance, I think it would be great for Jon Stewart and America if he was forced to live in Lexington, Ky., or Missoula, Mt., for a couple years and produce The Daily Show from there. Perhaps living outside the echo chamber would allow him to see politics from a less predictable angle.
The Pundit Conundrum
Wait, you’re probably not saying to yourself, did you include pundits in that list of performers? Why yes I did. I don’t have the time or space to get into all of it here, but I think this is a very real and very under-appreciated problem in our political discourse. Pundits, like politicians, comedians, and, of course, mimes can typecast themselves. It’s an entirely natural, human response to feedback not from your enemies, but from your friends. Psychologically, there is little reward for defying the expectations of your biggest fans. If you go off-reservation as it were, the haters will almost never praise you, and if they do, it will usually be a very grudging backhanded compliment. For instance, whenever I say something positive — not exactly a regular occurrence I admit — about Obama, I get at least 20 criticisms for every “attaboy.” And about half the praise amounts to this sort of thing: “Wow, for a paid shill, that was half-way decent. Maybe the Kochs forgot to pay you this month?”
(In my mime work, whenever I refuse to do the Man Walking In Windstorm, the crowd riots like the passengers in Airplane when they find out there’s no coffee.).
There are lots of pundits out there who seem to define their job as simply fulfilling the expectations of their biggest fans. This doesn’t mean they are being dishonest or even necessarily lazy. But it does make them predictable, boring, and unpersuasive. (Telling people what they want to hear almost never convinces the peoples who don’t want to hear it.)
Again, this is in no way a uniquely ideological phenomenon. It’s a human thing. When comedians try to be serious actors, it’s always a rough transition and very often fails. It’s not because the acting is bad, it’s that the expectations of the audience are very difficult to overcome. A few manage — Robin Williams for instance — but it’s a rocky process. And so it goes: When serious people try to be funny; when my Jewish relatives try to breakdance; when Roseanne Bar pole dances. There’s a reason John Gielgud went to his grave with his dream of being the front man for Black Sabbath unfulfilled. Everyone has a comfort zone, but what makes it comfortable is that so many other people expect you to be there.
That’s one of the challenges of this “news”letter. If, like Joe Biden chasing a laser-pointer dot on the wall, I go where the fun takes me, some readers complain about the self-indulgent jocularity. If I wade into the intellectual perfidy wrought by the American pragmatists, readers want to know why I didn’t ask them to pull my finger (“It’s funny because he literally makes a fart sound! Wheee!” — Joe Biden). And then if I don’t ask the really important questions like “Would ice cream be a duck if vests had sleeves?”, the lunatic-fringe crowd write me to say “Fellini didn’t just make movies about clowns!”
The Lunatic Fringe
Speaking of the lunatic-fringe crowd, last week I had to write one of those mini-column thingamabobs (sorry to hit you with the journo-jargon) on the way all of the usual suspects were pouring into Ferguson to turn it into a modern day Haymarket riot or something. I’ll leave the substance for another time (“You always do!” — The Couch). But since I invoked the phrase “lunatic fringe,” I googled it to confirm my recollection that Teddy Roosevelt had coined the term. I was right. He used it to describe the socialists, muckrakers, anarchists, and rabble rousers of the American Left. Here are examples of how to use the term, according to Dictionary.com:
Today, many would dismiss such crudely racist views as belonging to a tiny right-wing lunatic fringe.
There is a lunatic fringe out there that is confused by reality.
Climate deniers are on the lunatic fringe of science and they can find plenty of company there.
And, in the “culture” section of the same page:
Derogatory name for the extreme radical members of a group, especially in politics: “The candidate referred to the organization as being on the lunatic fringe of conservatism.” The term was coined by Theodore Roosevelt.
Spot a theme there? Why it’s almost as if the folks at Dictionary.com think political lunacy only comes from one direction. My dad called it years ago.
Various & Sundry
Zoë Update: This had been the most exciting (in a good way at least) time of the dingo’s life. As I write this she’s sleeping behind me in the back seat under my daughter’s blanket-covered legs. No, really. I don’t really have the time or the battery power to get into all of it. Suffice it to say she’s an excellent car dog. She loved Montana, the San Juan Islands, and Aspen (a.k.a. the Land of All-You-Can-Eat Mice!). But you can check out Zoë’s Twitter feed for some photos.
Last week was my 13th wedding anniversary, which despite my triskaidekaphobia, was nonetheless a reminder of what a lucky man I am that the Fair Jessica was dumb enough to marry me.
Given that this is Labor Day Weekend, and we were just talking about left-wing bias in the culture, I heartily recommend John Miller’s piece on the Haymarket Riot.
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 Reid Er (and people with less odd names),
I’m writing this “news”letter from the back patio at the Hotel Portsmouth which, not coincidentally, is in Portsmouth, N.H. If you follow me on Twitter, you’d know that. You’d also know that I’ve already had a martini (or two).
So if this “news”letter ends a bit incoherently with lots of slurred typos (“yoos sink Hayek wasn’t a Whig? Sat’s craszy talk”) or boisterous claims (“I killed the original Mr. Peanut in a duel! He had it coming, he puts Brazil nuts in everything!”), that’s probably why.
It’s been a crazy week. The Fair Jessica, the kid, and the dingo have all been out of town and things get kind of weird when I’m left alone (even the Couch felt unsafe). I had to clean the domicile for the house-sitter. I didn’t want her to open the front door and retch like a rookie cop at a horrible crime scene in bad movie. The tidying process mostly involved collecting all the dog toys strewn about (“Don’t forget all the empty bottles. You coulda started a bowling league, using them for pins.” — The Couch). Still, I thought it would be fun to mess with her a bit (actually it’s “sitters” — a very nice young lady who works at AEI and her husband). I have a lot of fake blood from Halloween (the Goldbergs were a zombie flight crew), so I figured I’d leave a bloody knife lying on the laundry room floor with a note that just read “Oh no. It happened again.”
Can’t wait to see if she texts me with any questions.
I have to confess I am very late to the Ferguson story. I tend not to follow these kinds of events too closely when they break, because they always seem to go the same way. What am I supposed to say? If the cop did something wrong, he should be punished for it. If he didn’t, he shouldn’t be.
But even if he did something wrong, rioting is almost never justified. It can be more or less understandable depending on the circumstances, even forgivable I suppose. But never justifiable, never mind permissible. Why should the crime — real or alleged — committed by person X make it okay for person Y to do harm to person(s) Z? No one has ever been able to explain that to me.
And I grew up in New York City in the 1970s, when race riots were a thing — though not as much of a thing as they were in the 1960s. And that’s part of the problem. In the 1960s, you could see the point of race riots (though less so in the North where they were quite common). But by the 1970s, liberals had incorporated race riots into their mythology as noble “happenings” even though the romance of rebellion had lost its plausibility. And by the 1980s, tragedy had been fully swamped by farce. It is an axiomatic truth going back to Socrates: Nothing can be wholly noble if Al Sharpton is involved. Nonetheless, it was amazing to watch New York liberals act like battered spouses as they tried to explain why blacks are right to loot while at the same time they shouldn’t do it.
I haven’t followed the details well enough to have an informed opinion on what actually happened. But, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the easy part. I’m wholly with my NR colleagues on this. There should be an honest investigation. If the officer unlawfully shot an unarmed man, he should face the consequences. If he didn’t, there should be no (criminal) consequences. How this is a complicated issue intellectually is a mystery to me. How this has become a complicated political problem, sadly, is not.
This Is Different
All of that said, I think the Ferguson story has become more interesting and significant than the usual spectacle of this kind. The timing coincides with the ripening of an argument on the right against the militarization of U.S. police forces (led by Radley Balko as far as I can tell). It’s funny how unaware so many liberals are that this conversation was even taking place on the right. Liberals have been mocking libertarians for years as paranoid lunatics. Oh you want to live without government? Move to Somalia! Oh wait, when did the cops get tanks? (Some wag on Twitter made this point but I can’t find it now.)
It looks like the Missouri Governor made the right call bringing in the state police and Captain Ron Johnson, an African American from Ferguson. I’m sure the guy is qualified and he seemed pretty impressive from what I’ve seen and his decision to demilitarize things as quickly as possible was inspired. But part of his success stems from the fact he’s black. And that’s okay.
I think this should be an educational data point for those who think any nods towards racial diversity are ideologically suspect. I am as against racial quotas as anyone, but the idea that police forces shouldn’t take into account the racial or ethnic make-up of their communities when it comes to hiring has always struck me as bizarre. A Chinese-American cop will probably have an easier time in Chinatown than a Norwegian-American cop. A bilingual Hispanic cop will have similar advantages in a mostly Spanish-speaking neighborhood. When my dad was a kid in the Bronx, it was not uncommon for a cop to give a teenager a well-intentioned smack as a warning and leave it at that. But forget the smack. Today, in many neighborhoods, if a white cop even talks harshly to a black kid, it might immediately be seen as a racial thing. If a black cop said the exact same things, it might be received differently.
One last thought. While some uncharitable folks might find a way to blame Obama somehow for the chaos in Missouri, I don’t think that would be fair. This sounds like a local issue. But it has become nationalized by the media, and that’s not good for Obama. Chaos at the border, tear gas in the streets, crucifixions in the Middle East, ebola scandals, a “booming” economy where no one feels the boom: These all contribute mightily to the sense the planet is going ass over tea kettle and are not the sorts of things that incline people to be happy with the status quo.
Libertarians in the Mist
My column today (well, tomorrow from where I am sitting) is on Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine piece on the alleged “libertarian moment.” Before I go on, I will confess to a bit of embarrassing vanity here. I look fantastic in my Star Trek uniform. But that’s not important. I will admit I wish Draper had talked to me. I’ve been debating and writing about libertarians and conservatives for almost 20 years. I’ve debated Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch — among others — on the subject, and I’m at a loss to count how many times I’ve written about it. All I know is that whatever the number is, it passed the minimum threshold for my wife to make fun of me about my obsession about a decade ago.
Random morning circa 2002:
Me: What should I write my column about?
The Fair Jessica: Hey, why don’t you write about fusionism again while I eat a bowl of broken glass?
There are so many things I couldn’t get into in my column. So let me just rant about them bullet-point style (it helps if you say “bullet-point style” like a badly dubbed Shaolin monk in a Kung Fu movie — “Oh, your bullet-point style is good, but mine is bettah!”).
Libertarianism is popular now because it is cool to say you’re libertarian even if — indeed, especially if — you are not libertarian. I’ve spoken at about 100 college campuses and I’ve made this point almost every time. Libertarianism is a bigger threat to conservatism among young people than liberalism is because given the culture today libertarianism is easier than conservatism. To be a conservative you not only have to judge people, you have to judge people out loud. And making judgments about right and wrong is a sin in today’s secular culture. A libertarian can argue with his poli-sci and economics professors by day and be a party guy by night. “Socialism is stupid” in the classroom and “Who’s up for getting high?” in the dorm.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about libertarianism is its blind spot about the importance of community. Ayn Rand and Barack Obama share the view that there are only two important institutions: the individual and the state. The difference is Rand thought the state is evil and Barack Obama thinks it is awesome. The truth is closer to the middle. Well, let me modify that. The state in the Bismarckian/Wilsonian sense sucks. But government is not evil. Oh, it can be. But it needn’t be. Sure, semantically you can make the case that it is a necessary evil, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Nothing truly necessary can be evil. Gravity is not evil. Food and shelter are not evil. There are things we need to do collectively. That’s why the Founders wrote the Constitution. Its genius lay in the fact that it understood that government is necessary but not sufficient for a good life.
Let’s talk foreign policy. Rand Paul’s foreign policy isn’t libertarian because there is no such thing as libertarian foreign policy. Oh, sure, the majority of libertarians are either non-interventionist or isolationist (more the former than the latter), but the reason we call those ideas libertarian isn’t because the internal logic of the philosophy requires non-interventionism or isolationism. It’s because that’s where non-interventionists and isolationists have found a home. This understandably will offend many libertarians who are sincere non-interventionists. But the fact is that there is a very clear demarcation between the international realm and the national realm. How we order our internal arrangements must be different than how we order our external ones. Inside the fortress we can believe in maximalist notions of individual liberty. But the Constitution (libertarian-ly understood) by definition doesn’t apply to individuals or nation-states outside our borders. Contrary to the claims of many hawks and neoconservatives (not the same thing!) as a matter of fact and logic no libertarian is an isolationist. Isolationists do not believe in free trade or open borders. Q.E.D.
Non-interventionism’s moment is probably starting to wind down. I’m pretty sure it cannot withstand sustained news cycles of jihadists burying children alive and crucifying Christians. Non-interventionism seems brilliant when intervention is — or seems to be — a bad idea. Rand Paul has benefitted enormously from the relative calm we’ve been living under for the last several years. As Seth Mandel explains in a really insightful post, “A stable global order is a great time to be a noninterventionist.”
Oh, for you constitutionalist libertarians, you might ponder the fact that the reason we swapped out the Articles of Confederation for the Constitution was that the Barbary pirates were getting all up in our business and we needed to pay for a navy to open a can of whup-ass on them.
When it comes to the federal government in the domestic sphere, I’m pretty damned libertarian. But I am also damn near a hippy communitarian when it comes to everything else. The libertarians in Draper’s essay talk a great game about individual liberty and there’s no end of sneering at social conservatives. But in a truly free society individuals would be free to live conservatively. Far more important: They would be free to live conservatively in groups. We call these groups “communities.” That means in a free society some communities would be free to establish rules that other people would find too constraining. What breaks my heart about Draper’s essay is that it buys into Obama’s view of society: Individuals versus the state. Bollocks. In such a denuded society the federal government will inexorably take charge of things it has no business taking charge of. Too many liberals and libertarians share the view that the government in Washington is the only government in the game. I agree entirely with libertarians that the feds shouldn’t be in the business of telling anybody how to live. But local communities should have enormous — though not unlimited — latitude to organize around principles that some libertarians, conservatives, and liberals don’t like.
Another point (which I’ve made 8 trillion times). Liberals aren’t libertarian about social issues! Libertarians don’t believe in speech codes. They don’t believe in racial quotas. They don’t believe in cigarette bans. They don’t believe private citizens should be forced to do business with people they don’t want to do business with. They don’t believe in socialized medicine or limits on soda sizes. I have contempt for both liberals who claim they are libertarians and for libertarians who find common cause with liberals who refuse to acknowledge this fact. Claiming to be socially liberal but fiscally conservative is one of the great dodges in American politics. But it pales in comparison to claiming that you’re socially libertarian when you’re in fact socially authoritarian.
One last point. Let’s assume that Draper is right. This is the libertarians’ moment. Well, I’ve got bad news for my libertarian friends. That moment will last exactly as long as, and no longer than, it takes for libertarians to actually take power. The instant there is a libertarian president or a libertarian majority in Congress, liberals will immediately and passionately denounce libertarianism as evil, cruel, sexist, and racist. This is the story of progressivism and it will never change. Any non-progressive movement that gains power becomes The Enemy. If Rand Paul is the nominee, I guarantee you people will look back on Draper’s piece as a set up. Liberals do this all the time. They designate out-of-power factions as the good conservatives or good right-wingers, because that makes them sound open-minded (“I don’t hate all conservatives, just the ones in charge.”). But then once they have a chance of seeing their ideas implemented, the fearmongering begins. If Rand Paul’s the nominee, the New York Times will be bludgeoning us with bones from his father’s closet until Paul is a Klansman. Remember, this is the crowd that told us Mitt Romney gave some woman cancer. People forget that liberals loved neoconservatism in the 1990s when it was out of power. Once it was in power (or perceived to be) under George W. Bush, it became foreign and scary and “Straussian.” Today green-eyeshade Republicanism of the Nixon-(Poppa) Bush variety is all the rage. But when Nixon and Bush were president, liberals shrieked “Fascism!” Liberal nostalgia for Reagan or Goldwater is remarkably hard to reconcile with the way liberals treated Reagan and Goldwater when they were in power.
Progressivism, stripped of its philosophical flare is ultimately and irreducibly about power. Any idea, movement, or politician that threatens the power of progressives and the(ir) administrative state will be cast as the greatest evil in the land. Libertarians who think otherwise are betraying their own anti-utopian creed.
Various & Sundry
Zoë Update: As of this writing she is wending her way with the Fair Jessica to Spokane. She had a wonderful couple days in Montana. I can’t wait to see her. Once I am out in Washington State with her, expect more Zoë tweets.
In case you missed it, here is my case for why the Pope needs ninjas.
Here’s my cheery column on the long war coming.
A decent society would ban this now before it starts happening here. Seriously, you can’t unsee what is at the other end of this link (and it’s safe for work).
If liquor bottles had brutally realistic captions.
It’s begun. Cat holds owners hostage in bedroom.
New Japanese man-bra helps owners with “moobs.”
Dog does not want to share her toy with a fox — and rightly so!
Okay, that’s it. I can’t tell you how giddy I am to reunite the whole family. (“You just did” — The Couch.)
Dear Reader (and the millionth monkey who randomly typed out an identical “news”letter on his own — except for typing “Darth Rayburn” instead of “Dear Reader” and for that weird 5,000-word stretch that just says “Banana, Banana, Banana” over and over again),
Now lest you take me for the sort of person who follows Mike Barnicle on Twitter, let me explain that I saw the tweet because Paul Begala thought it was sufficiently perspicacious to warrant retweeting. Now, lest you think I am the sort of person who follows Paul Begala on Twitter, let me say in my defense that I find it useful to monitor some enemy broadcasts, as it were.
Anyway, the tweet was simply part of a whole plague of prattle from an army of argle-barglers that seem to think they’re taking a bold moral stance by aiming all of their attention on people with no power to make any decisions. Trapped on a mountaintop by savages who make the Thuggees seem civilized, watching their children die of thirst, presented with the choice of renouncing their faith (and being condemned to Hell by doing so) or execution (for the men; slavery for the women), no doubt the Yazidis were deeply gratified when they got word that Mike Barnicle had taken to Twitter to hold accountable a man who can do nothing for them. Nothing takes the pain out of slow death, genocide, and seeing your wives and daughters carried off into slavery more than the firm knowledge that fingers are being pointed thousands of miles away at men who’ve been in retirement for five years.
Heaven forbid Barnicle tweet “Make Barack Obama read this” or even “Make Joe Biden read this” (which would require his drawing in the margins of the Washington Post article pictures of flying saucers shooting each other. “Pew-pew! Boom! Good article.”). After all, Obama is the actual president of the United States. He could actually do something to help the Yazidis.
Let us stipulate — at least for the sake of argument — that the First Cause of Iraq’s unraveling was the Iraq War. That doesn’t change the fact that the second, third, fourth, fifth, and nth causes of the chaos are the result, directly or indirectly, of President Obama’s decisions (or indecisions). Obama chose to pull troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible. Obama chose to dismiss ISIS as the “jayvee squad” this year. Obama chose to issue a “red line” ultimatum, then chose to say “never mind.” The guy has been president for five years. And yet to listen to him and his defenders he’s been utterly powerless to undo his predecessors’ mistakes, real or alleged. It’s like these people think the twice-elected president of the United States is still new to the job.
Life, the Movie
But all of that is irrelevant, too, at least when it comes to the question of what to do now. And bear in mind, Barnicle was tweeting this hairball when Obama had done and said nothing to indicate that the U.S. would actually do anything to help the Yazidis (just as Obama has done little to nothing to help the slaughtered Shiites and Christians of Iraq, the rebels in Syria, the sovereign government in Ukraine, et al). The vital priority for Barnicle (and Begala) was to unleash the full gale of Barnicle’s moral authority and righteous indignation (which is like talking about the raging tempest let loose upon the land by a mouse fart) against a retired guy in Wyoming. Never mind that the retired guy in Wyoming wanted to keep U.S. forces in Iraq so as to prevent anything like what we’re seeing from happening!
Now that events in Iraq have descended from “urgent” to “Hieronymus Bosch,” Obama has finally acted, and I am glad for it. Let us send as much aid as we can to the Yazidis; if in the process, we kill a lot of ISIS fighters, that’ll be a nice bonus.
But there’s a common theme to Obama’s foreign policy and Barnicle’s rodent flatulence. They both work on the assumption that global events are things that happen out there. “The world stage” used to be a platform for U.S. leadership. For Obama, the world stage is more like, well, a stage where other nations put on a show for our benefit. There are plenty of good arguments for America to be more circumspect internationally (and plenty of bad ones). But I don’t think Obama and his supporters fully recognize that when the lead actor on the world stage decides to walk off and sit in the audience, it changes the performance and the roles of the other performers.
Box-Checking as Leadership
I will confess I never really appreciated the perfidy of the phrase “leading from behind” until Wednesday’s presidential press conference.
Earlier that day, the secretary of defense, who has been kept away from the press lest the cameras remove all doubt about his incompetence, announced that 20,000 Russians were massing on the Ukrainian border in what seemed like preparation for an invasion.
(I often hear this would be the first instance of a European nation invading another since 1939. I’m not sure that’s exactly true from, say, the Georgian or Hungarian perspective. But that’s quibbling. Such a crime would be, in the parlance of international-relations scholars, a huge frick’n deal.)
At the press conference, the president made no mention of this in his prepared remarks about the Africa summit, which he read aloud with all of the passion of a DMV bureaucrat explaining the different methods of payment for a parking ticket. He then took questions. Chris Jansing of NBC asked whether the sanctions against Russia were working. With his customary logic-chopping defensiveness, the president responded that the sanctions were doing what they were intended to do, but it was unclear whether they were actually working. This is like explaining that the pepper spray did everything it was supposed to do but the bear is eating your face anyway.
It’s also perfectly Obamaesque. I did exactly what I set out to do. If it’s not working, it’s only because someone else isn’t responding the way they’re supposed to. I gave a speech telling the oceans to stop rising, damn it! I even said “let me be clear.”
The point of the sanctions isn’t to prove that sanctions can cause “economic pain.” The point is to deter Vladimir Putin. And on that score, they clearly aren’t working at all. It’s amazing to me how much Obama thinks and talks like a bureaucrat. I’ve checked my box! I did my job! I’ve fulfilled my responsibilities. If the bear is eating your face, it must be the fault of Jones in accounting. Hate that guy.
This has been Obama’s standard response to problems around the globe. He did what he was “supposed to do,” and whenever the consequences of his actions create problems, it’s because others didn’t do what they were supposed to do. I pulled troops out of Iraq. I reneged on missile defense in Eastern Europe. I “reset” with Russia. I intervened in Libya. I didn’t intervene in Syria. I told Leon Panetta to deal with Benghazi. I took the blue pill. The fact that the Iraqi pullout was destabilizing, that Putin saw his moves as weakness, that Islamists took over Libya, that Assad stayed in power, that the Matrix revealed itself anyway: These all reflect someone else’s failures.
He was then asked if the 20,000 troops massed on the Ukrainian border might lead him to “reconsider” sending lethal military aid to the Ukrainians. After prattling on about how Ukraine doesn’t need aid to beat the separatists, Obama added, “Now if you start seeing an invasion by Russia, that’s obviously a different set of questions. We’re not there yet.”
Now, I don’t want to go to war to defend Ukraine. I don’t want Obama to say we would go to war to defend Ukraine — and not because I think that such a statement would necessarily be irresponsible if it came from a different president. But I don’t think Barack Obama would go to war to defend Ukraine even if he said he would. As with his “red line” debacle, the worst thing a president can do is vow to take a hardline and then not take it. But would it be too much to ask the president of the United States to characterize a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine as outrageous?
Keep in mind that “outrageous” is safer than “unacceptable.” The problem is that his use of “unacceptable” is almost entirely ironic. He uses it like a theater critic saying a cast change is “unacceptable” when it is obvious the critics’ acceptance is irrelevant. His use of “unacceptable” has been more promiscuous than Vizzini’s use of “inconceivable” in The Princess Bride. (How long has it been since Putin’s annexation of the Crimea was “unacceptable”?)
Leading from the Sidelines
In the best sense, “leading from behind” sounds like something a football coach does. He can’t be out on the field, but he coordinates, instructs, and inspires from the sidelines. Among the myriad problems with this analogy is the simple fact that international affairs isn’t like a football game, where the coach can bench players for failing to follow instructions or execute the plays. In Obama’s version of leading from behind, he’s more like a football handicapper who has no control of events and merely watches from the virtual sidelines as events transpire, adjusting the odds as they unfold. This analogy fails, too, of course because the president of the United States isn’t an observer. Obama is open to sending lethal aid — it seems — only if Ukraine is invaded. But refusing to send lethal aid makes invasion all the more likely. I understand that the president thinks he’s very clever by seeing the guiding principle of his foreign policy as “don’t do stupid sh*t.” But the real-world consequence of that principle is to let events unfold and then whine about being neck-deep in sh*t you think you can blame on others. It’s not leading from behind, it’s failing from behind.
Cuomo vs. Christie
I’ve been getting into fights with people about the discrepancy between media coverage of Andrew Cuomo’s troubles and coverage of Chris Christie’s “bridgegate.” Let me see if I can lay out the case briefly here. Back during the feeding frenzy, I never said that the Christie story wasn’t legitimate news, just that it was being overdone by the national media. In response, hysterical liberals insisted that I just didn’t get it. Christie was an important governor with presidential ambitions from an important state. Some more sophisticated types pointed out that New Jersey is also very close to New York media centers. The allegations supported the narrative that Christie is a bully.
Um, okay. Which of those doesn’t apply to Cuomo? I’ll take my answer off the air.
Now more serious people will make some valid analytical points. Christie had become a presidential front-runner because of his Abbot and Costello routine with Obama. The allegations were easy to understand and infuriating to normal people (i.e., He messed with traffic!). These are all points with some merit. But they don’t provide a rationale for why the media should have gone crazy about the story. A bunch of people (including MSM journalists) have e-mailed or tweeted at me that the media was right to get its dress over its head because Christie was a potential Republican front-runner who could beat Hillary. And they think this is a defense against the charge of media bias! I didn’t go to J-School, but I’m pretty sure “taking the Republican down a peg,” is not a journalistic principle. And if being the front-runner — the run-away front-runner at that — is grounds for heightened journalistic scrutiny, then I am eager to see the coming media tsunami crash down on Hillary Clinton. I am also eager to see a caveman fight a ninja. I’m not holding my breath for either.
But fine. Let’s say that Christie deserved more coverage than Cuomo. I’m open to that. But how much more coverage? Twice as much? Three times? One hundred times? I’m sure if I made the effort to count hours of network time, word counts in newspapers etc., the ratio would be a lot closer to 100–1 than 2–1, and such metrics can’t account for the poorly hidden passion of the reporters. And yet, no one seems willing to at least admit that the Christie feeding frenzy was excessive.
Bullseyes for Me, But Not for Thee
Speaking of frenzies, there was a time when people who are supposed to be America’s top “thought-leaders” took seriously the idea that former Representative Gabby Giffords was shot because of a map on Sarah Palin’s Facebook showing targets on various competitive congressional districts. It was a time worth remembering because it gave at least a glimpse of what logic-bending, fact-free hysteria looks like. The notion that our elites are immune to such hysteria is an obvious fiction that serves the interests of elites. They get to decide what constitute real scandals and outrages and what are merely paranoid delusions and ginned-up panics. If word got out that the people making such decisions were just as susceptible to the mirages of the mob and the spirit of the witch-hunt, that would do them no good at all. They need to maintain the exclusive right to charge others with exhibiting the paranoid style in American politics.
It’s difficult for me to express how much contempt I had for the entire elite media-industrial complex back then (though I tried here). Anyway, I bring it up because here’s the Daily Beast — if memory serves, a torch-carrier of the old mob against martial metaphors and images — putting Rand Paul in the center of a bull’s eye. I don’t for a moment think this actually puts Rand Paul’s life in danger. But it does help illuminate the double standard.
Goodbye to All That
Honestly, I set out to write the G-File this morning on World War I. I wrote a piece earlier this week on the horrendous consequences of that vile and stupid war and I’ve gotten a lot of interesting feedback (the comments section has some excellent suggested reading).
For space reasons, I couldn’t provide any examples for this line: “In the West, the war opened a Pandora’s box, unleashing innumerable cultural and intellectual demons that we have decided to make peace with rather than defeat.”
I thought it would be a fun G-File to do a roll call of those demons. Unfortunately the morning got away from me. Maybe another time. Until then, you’ll have to make do with this worthwhile column by Peggy Noonan.
Various & Sundry
Zoë update: Her first cross-country adventure begins Sunday. The Fair Jessica and Zoë the Underdog (Still working toward Wonderdog status) will commence their drive to Washington State this Sunday. Next Friday, I will retrieve my daughter from sleep-away camp and we will fly out to meet them. At the end of August, we’ll all drive back from Friday Harbor, WA (What this means for next week’s “news”letter is unclear).
Recommendation Time: Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes. Some people say that bowling alleys all look the same. Some people say that references to Camper van Beethoven make no sense at all. But none of that matters right now. A while back I said I would start making recommendations in this “news”letter and then proceeded to not make recommendations. Well, here are a couple:
Hello, Portsmouth! A couple weeks ago, the Fair Jessica and I spent a couple nights in Portsmouth, N.H. I was stunned by what a great town it is, with truly excellent restaurants. We ate about as well there as we had in Napa on our gustatory adventure.
Speaking of gustation, these Rocco & Roxie dog treats are ridiculously expensive, but they actually do seem to be the best dog treats ever. Once word gets out at the dog park that I’m carrying them, the dogs react like convicts upon hearing that the new accountant-embezzler walking across the prison yard is carrying a brick of uncut heroin.
I really like the new album from Old Crow Medicine Show.
I found this piece on the Yazidis very informative.
Finally: Go see Guardians of the Galaxy.
And speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy. I am Groot. (Note: This podcast was entirely inspired by the G-File!)
Welcome aboard to the lovely and talented Katherine Timpf, our latest hire at NRO and the scourge of racist and xenophobic gardening.
In other news, the great thing about the Internet is it never ceases to provide cats that look like Hitler.
Sadder: Voldemort Cat in 2011
Awesomer: Cats That Look Like Ron Swanson.
Now for equal time: Cliché newborn photo shoot (with dog)
‘Sorry to email you late on a Friday, but I need your urgent support,” Nancy Pelosi wrote me.
The House minority leader went on to explain that “for the first time in history, Congress voted to sue a sitting president.” And, “Today: the White House alerted us that they believe ‘Speaker Boehner . . . has opened the door to impeachment.’
“What Republicans are doing to President Obama is historic — and offensive,” she wrote. And then, in a bright bold red text that can’t be done justice in black and white, she chided me, “With everything happening right now, I’m a little disappointed to see that you haven’t had a chance to chip in to defend President Obama.
“Jonah — we could use your support today.”
Nancy (apparently we’re on a first-name basis) went on to promise that ALL GIFTS ARE TRIPLE MATCHED!
This was only one of a bushel of such e-mails from the Democratic party. I particularly like the ones from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee referring to the “red alert impeachment deadline,” complete with a scoreboard slowly ticking upward toward $2 million. “We now have a shot at hitting our $2,000,000 goal to defend the President — and defeat Boehner’s Republican House.”
No doubt as karmic payback for grave sins I committed in a past life, I am on all of the Democratic fundraising lists. In terms of whipped-up urgency aimed at low-information voters, there’s nothing special about these importuning missives. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told that if I don’t chip in $5 — right now! — the Koch brothers will throw another puppy into the furnace of their land-raping dynamo.
But what is interesting about these e-mails is the transparent glee. Far more than Republicans, Democrats love talking about impeachment. Not just Pelosi and the DCCC, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest, Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer, and first lady Michelle Obama all chummed the waters with the I-word, igniting a frenzy among reporters who pretend that this is a real thing.
Ostensibly the hook for all of this is John Boehner’s decision to sue Obama for abusing presidential authority. Pfeiffer said Friday that the suit “opened the door to impeachment.” But pretty much everyone in Washington knows that the political motivation for the lawsuit is to close, not open, those doors.
The president constantly talks about the evils of cynicism as if denouncing the alleged dishonesty of others demonstrates his own honesty. In 2008, he said cynicism was his real opponent. Last week at an L.A. fundraiser, he returned to the theme, calling Republicans liars and bamboozlers.
The cynicism of Obama’s war on cynicism is breathtaking. He’s wasted so much of his presidency demonizing political opponents as deranged radicals who need to shut up and get in line. Even now he is thumping the podium about “economic patriotism,” as if loyalty to his views on taxation is the only proof of 100 percent Americanism.
Last fall, Obama did nearly everything he could to be thrown into the briar patch of a government shutdown in order to denounce the Republicans for shutting down the government. When it went into effect, the administration endeavored to make the shutdown as painful as possible — a replay of a similar scheme with the sequester — so he could arouse the public against his political foes.
Given Obama’s famously low regard for the Clinton presidency, it’s ironic that he keeps stealing from its playbook. Bill Clinton benefited from a government shutdown and impeachment and from the general perception that his enemies were worse than his sins. The difference is that while Clinton was hardly immune to the charge of cynicism, he wasn’t trying to shut down the government or get impeached for narrow political advantage.
Now Obama is reportedly considering a unilateral amnesty of millions of immigrants here illegally, knowing full well it will spark a fierce political backlash and heighten impeachment talk. No doubt he thinks it’s the right thing to do on the merits, with his famous pen and phone. What’s less clear is if the merits are his top priority.
— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC
Dear Reader (including the many new anti-Semitic and just plain bat-guano crazy people who’ve wandered into my life in recent days),
Last night I said on Twitter:
Forgetting may not be the right word. Though if this was the Soviet Union, teams of fat-fingered bureaucrats would be airbrushing his likeness from all official records.
In case you’re not up to speed, let’s recap. It’s really a wonderful, feel-good story for the whole family. In the Halbig decision this week, the court ruled that according to a plain reading of the law, only state exchanges are eligible for premium subsidies under Obamacare. As a political and policy matter, this would be the equivalent of throwing a very large mackerel on a house of cards. It wouldn’t necessarily destroy Obamacare, but that would be the way to bet.
Anyway, the liberal response to the decision was really quite fun. They shrieked about how this was a mere “typo” or “drafting error” (which is just not true) and tried to make it seem like suggesting otherwise was dishonest madness of the sort reserved for the likes of Dr. Evil’s father and his claims to have invented the question mark. But what I really liked was the panic over “judicial activism.” E.J. Dionne — who has no problem with liberal judicial activism that simply invents new rights out of thin air — called this decision “anti-democratic sabotage.” This is funhouse logic. As NR put it in an editorial, “It’s an odd world in which judges are accused of usurping the role of Congress for ruling that the executive branch must follow the text of a law Congress wrote.” Seriously, who knows what will happen if the courts start adhering to the law as written? That’s like saying the IRS should be politically neutral. Madness!
Moreover, liberals insisted that nobody in their right mind ever believed Congress intended to withhold subsidies on the federal exchange in order to encourage states to create state exchanges.
A couple days ago E.J. Dionne said on the Dianne Rehm Show that “There is absolutely not a shred of evidence, not a bit, that this was intended as any sort of incentive.” He goes on to say that this rationale was “invented out of whole cloth.”
And on MSNBC Jonathan Gruber told Chris Matthews, “Chris, it is unambiguous this is a typo. Literally every single person involved in the crafting of this law has said that it`s a typo, that they had no intention of excluding the federal states. And why would they?”
No, really: “It’s just simply a typo, and it’s really criminal that this has even made it as far as it has.”
If this were a Godzilla movie, it would be around this moment that the government scientist said “A giant reptile from the bottom of the ocean? Please. There’s no such th . . .” at which point a giant scaly foot squishes him.
Because here’s Gruber giving a presentation in 2012:
Gruber: In the law, it says if the states don’t provide them, the federal backstop will. The federal government has been sort of slow in putting out its backstop, I think partly because they want to sort of squeeze the states to do it. I think what’s important to remember politically about this, is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits. But your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying to your citizens, you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country. I hope that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these exchanges, and that they’ll do it. But you know, once again, the politics can get ugly around this.
Now Michael Cannon — a heroic opponent of Obamacare and one of the architects of the Halbig suit – has some kind words for Gruber. And maybe Gruber has an explanation. That wasn’t me! That was my terrorist twin brother Hans! And Cannon is certainly right that this alone doesn’t prove congressional intent, though a quick Nexis search shows that Gruber was called “the architect” of Obamacare hundreds of times in the mainstream media and no one disputes that he and Zeke Emanuel were intellectual guiding lights of Obamacare. He even wrote a graphic novel on the subject.
In the world of health-care wonk debates, the emergence of this video reminds me a lot of this classic scene with Samuel L. Jackson.
As I’ve said before, “You’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the unraveling of Obamacare.”
Update: Since I wrote the above mere minutes ago and since I have no desire to rewrite it lest I diminish the mediocrity of the prose, I’ll just announce that Gruber has an explanation. It was a “speak-o” — you know, like a typo but with speech.
Who among us can’t sympathize with that? I’m often paid thousands of dollars to give highly technical presentations based upon my internationally renowned expertise on nuclear power. But then, out of nowhere, I will give a long and detailed explanation about how Trieste belongs to the Italians and basset hounds, not nuclear fission, are the real source of nuclear power. I think everyone can just say “never mind” and go back to saying conservatives are crazy.
At least John Walsh put a little effort into his explanation.
In Vampire News
If you took great offense of the recent episode of HBO’s True Blood in which two vampires crashed a Ted Cruz fundraiser — at the Bush Library no less — and said some bad words about Republicans, I have some advice: Lighten up.
The other week I wrote about how the standard conservative critique of the popular culture is just a bit too tightly wound. This minor kerfuffle strikes me as a good illustration of my point. For those who don’t watch the show — i.e. somewhat more than 300 million out of America’s 314 million residents — True Blood is about a world in which vampires finally “come out of the coffin” thanks largely to the invention of a synthetic blood substitute “True Blood.”
Most of the series takes place in the Louisiana town of Bon Temps, a town infested not only with improbably important vampires and mystical deities, but a small army of nasty southern caricatures living alongside sexually liberated Bohemians that would make Brooklyn hipsters blush. The utterly ridiculous plot lines aren’t important for the purposes of this discussion — or pretty much for any other purpose. But suffice it to say pretty much every episode involves lots of sex — often including the homosexual variety — drugs, profanity, tedious and logically inconsistent speeches about the evils of bigotry, and a hodgepodge of mossy clichés about, again, sex, politics, culture, history, and religion wrapped in the candy coating of pretty naked people. Gilligan’s Island was vastly more plausible than True Blood (even accounting for the fact the Howell’s had an extensive wardrobe for a three-hour tour, yet the people who lived on the boat had only one set of clothes apiece).
For instance, in the offending Ted Cruz episode, the people who shot up the Bush library weren’t the vampires, but Yakuza gangsters with submachine guns (last seen beheading a post-coital yoga swami). My biggest complaint is that none of the vampires have decamped for New York to slaughter the cast of Girls (“I can’t die! I just landed an internship at the Utne Reader!”).
I find the show moderately (probably not the right word) entertaining, but then again I have a soft spot for the vampire genre, not to mention gratuitous sex and violence. That’s just me. I’m not proud of it. But I certainly don’t take the show too seriously, and anyone who does probably isn’t worth taking seriously.
Gays Are What Now?
And that goes far more for its fans than its foes. The show was intended from the outset to provide running commentary on gay issues. It was never subtle about this. The opening credit sequence shows a sign like you might see outside a small town church or fire station that reads “God Hates Fangs.”
Now the problem with analogizing homosexuals to vampires is really quite simple: It’s a terribly bigoted analogy! Whenever the show dives into extended comparisons of vampires and gays — which is often — I always wonder if the writers realize what they’re saying. If you made the show from an even remotely right-of-center perspective, it would be boycotted by LBGT groups immediately.
According to True Blood’s own storyline, vampires have been evil, bigoted, cruel, and murderous for millennia. They have their own secret, manipulative agenda. They control events from dark corners. They quite literally have the power to brainwash people. Not surprisingly, the comparison to vampires is a classic staple of anti-Semitism. Indeed, some argue that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was one extended anti-Semitic caricature (a rich, manipulative, blood-sucking rootless cosmopolitan from Eastern Europe with a “hooked” nose at a time of high Jewish immigration? Pure coincidence!). A fan of the show might say, “Only some vampires are evil, bigoted, cruel and murderous. There are nice vampires too.”
Okay, well. First the whole original storyline is about how Bill Compton is different than other vampires because he’s noble and decent, suggesting the other vamps aren’t. Second, try to make that kind of “it’s not all gays” or “it’s not all blacks” or (outside of the Middle East, U.N. or, increasingly, MSNBC) “it’s not all Jews” argument without sounding bigoted. Hey, I can’t be anti-vampire, some of my best friends are vampires! And, third, let me explain something else: Shut up.
It reminds me of when 28 Weeks Later came out and everyone went gaga about how it was an extended anti-war metaphor of the Iraq invasion and the “green zone.” Few dwelled on the fact that in that metaphor the enemy — the zombies — must be shown no mercy and ruthlessly exterminated. They just thought it was cool that a zombie movie was making such an obvious reference to the war, or something.
Cool Is King
And that I think is the source of the real problem here. By any objective or commonsense measure, the uptight Republicans slaughtered at the Ted Cruz fundraiser are happier and more productive members of society than virtually every other character in the show. From the sympathetic white-trash werewolves to the corrupt human rabble-rousers, from the vampire aristocrats to the endless string of slatternly young women and men who come and go with regularity, the show focuses on creatures who are, variously, decent-but-doomed, evil, stupid, or morally, spiritually, or intellectually lost.
The one thing these people have going for them? They are cool — at least by the glandular, knee-jerk liberal, fashion-forward, standards of the show’s producers and its niche pay-cable audience. In other words, to the extent the show is politically appealing, it is an irrational hot mess (much like the goo vampires turn into when struck with a wooden stake). It’s like it was written for Bill Maher’s studio audience, a group that doesn’t care about real facts or arguments — they just want to hear how they’re awesome and the people they hate aren’t.
To them, rich Republican men in bolo ties and rich Republican women in prim pantsuits aren’t cool. And you know what? That’s fine. Indeed, in real life, those Republicans would look at most of the motley characters inhabiting True Blood and see a gaggle of losers. And for the most part, they’d be right.
Conservatives need to get over their insecurities about not being cool in the eyes of liberals (and American adults generally could stand to worry about this sort of thing a lot less than they do). Once you start looking for it, it’s amazing how much liberal commentary — particularly about sex and religion — boils down to a kind of sneering self-satisfaction that liberals are hip and conservatives are squares (just think about how much “analysis” of Obama has been rooted in the assumption he’s cool).
This has long been a bugaboo of mine. I wrote about the phenomenon in 1996 for the Wall Street Journal (reprinted here):
It’s hardly surprising that conservatives want to shed the liberal stereotype that we’re nerds. But in Washington, where public policy is a varsity sport, the nerd gene doesn’t discriminate along ideological lines.
I mean, who really thinks Michael Kinsley showed the other kids how to smoke cigarettes out in back of school? Does anyone look at Ira Magaziner and say, “Now, that guy gets picked first for softball”? And yet for some reason the New York Times gets away with calling Washington conservatives the “C-Span and galoshes” crowd.
No better recent example of the vogueing of liberalness can be found than the ascension of Michael Lind, a former assistant to William F. Buckley, Heritage Foundation policy gnome, and executive editor of The National Interest. Mr. Lind deserted the Right and subsequently became a darling of the Left for sinking his teeth into the conservative hands that fed him.
Rolling Stone christened him “what’s hot” after his conversion. Mr. Lind scorned Washington in the pages of The New Yorker as full of “Dweeby White Guys.” True enough. But this from the kind of guy who irons his argyle socks while listening to B-sides of Alfred North Whitehead books-on-tape? So what does The New Yorker call him? “A Recovering Dweeby White Guy.”
Recovering! They don’t offer this prognosis because he’s canceled his subscription to National Journal in favor of Spin, or because he turned from Brian Lamb to Beavis and Butthead. They say he’s recovering from Dweeby-White-Guyhood simply because he switched his politics.
Moreover, the simple fact is that the popular culture has lots of archetypes that are essentially conservative and cool. Very few male action stars fit the model of how Salon thinks men should behave, what with all the gunplay, mansplaining, and refusal to get the required signatures on the necessary sexual-consent forms. The men of Lone Survivor are certainly cool. Even better, they are cool and have a code of honor. The same goes for the female protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty.
The point is that cool isn’t monolithic in a diverse and rich culture. For some, Southern Gothic sybaritic crapulence is cool; for others, self-sacrifice and patriotism are cool. And for lots of us, both have their places.
Various & Sundry
My trip to San Francisco and Napa Valley was really great. I have some longer stories to tell about it, but I’ll save them for another time. But here’s a shorter boastful one. First, the Fair Jessica bet me $50 no one would recognize me in San Francisco. Two minutes later, the guy sitting next to her at the bar said “Are you Jonah Goldberg?” But the best was when a nurse or medical tech walked past us when we were sitting outside a taco joint. “I loved Liberal Fascism!” She meant the book, not the phenomenon. An easy mistake in that town.
Zoë/Goldberg Update: She’s great. She ultimately really took to the cageless prison yard atmosphere. She’s going back this weekend (now equipped with a shiv and a lone teardrop tattoo under her left eye) because the Fair Jessica and I are visiting our daughter at sleepaway camp. And, in three weeks, when she’s done we’re all going on a cross-country adventure again. This will be Zoë’s first trip to the Pacific Northwest.
So I’ll confess, I haven’t really liked the last few G-Files too much (and I get the sense that many of you agree). Sometimes the muse is with you and sometimes it’s just the Couch hurling epithets at you. But I still think a lot of folks misunderstood my point in last week’s G-File. I responded to some representative criticism here.
Here are some of my thoughts on the movie Snowpiercer (warning, SPOILERS).
The Horror of “Progressive Comedy.”
Equal time: Why Cats Are Better Than Dogs (Stop Laughing).
Cobra Guardians for Human Babies. What could go wrong?
Dog Happy to the Point of Exhaustion.
The Onion grasps the moral heart of the Obama Doctrine.
Dear Reader (and those readers who are not dear and those who are dear but who do not read),
The last time I went to the movies to see an adult film . . . er, I should say the last time I was in the theater to see a film for adults. As far as I can tell, they haven’t had adult theaters since On Golden Blonde was on the big screen.
Anyway, the last time I saw a non-animated movie in the theater, I saw True Grit. The Fair Jessica and I had a matinee movie date.
Before the movie started, there was a preview for a movie coming out later this year. At first it seemed to be like a big-budget film on the Moon Landing (I am choosing to capitalize that, like it or not), mixing archival footage with new stuff. The words “Our Nation’s Proudest Moment” flash on the screen. So far so good. Then, when Neil Armstrong lands on the moon, a new phrase appears: “A Secret Hidden for Forty Years.”
Uh-oh. What’s this? I thought. Intriguing. Exciting. Maybe someone in Hollywood has read one of my weekly letters and is finally making the movie The Trial of Capricorn One, an awesome sequel to the forgotten O. J. Simpson classic.
Then, we see real footage of Walter Cronkite telling viewers that the crew is on the “far side of the moon” and thus out of radio contact. Then the boss at Mission Control (more questionable capitalization!) tells Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin that “the mission is a go.” They have 21 minutes to check out something cool.
Oh, man, this looks great.
Suspense builds like a Sim City metropolis called “Suspense” created by an introverted South Korean kid with asthma, a broken leg, and rich parents. The astronauts moon-trot over a lunar ridge to find the massive wreck of a spaceship. Coolness! They start exploring it. More drama! Excitement!
Self, this is a movie I’m going to see, I said to myself.
My wife looks over to see me nodding as if a waiter just asked me if I like cold beer and ribs.
Then: Four of the most disheartening words in all of cinema appeared on the screen. You know of what I speak.
“From Director Michael Bay.”
Suddenly, the bowels stew like a forgotten fondue pot left too long over a lit can of Sterno.
Oh dear Lord, I know where this is going, I say as I look for the eject button on the arm rest.
It’s a preview for Transformers III.
I See Dread People
Why do I bring this up?
I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m looking for an excuse to plug the Grammy-robbed classic “Pearl Harbor Sucked . . . And I Miss You.” But you would be wrong.
No, I bring this up because that’s sort of how I feel about the presidential field taking shape these days. For the last 18 months or so, the previews for the presidential contest have been really encouraging. Obama has bled support among independents. The Tea Parties have succeeded in framing the debate in ways that make E. J. Dionne want to punch a clown. Nancy Pelosi had her gavel taken away. Some of the states Obama needs to win the Electoral College have been drifting away.
Everything was looking great.
But then, when I look at the field of candidates, I get that “Directed by Michael Bay” feeling. It’s not as bad as I felt in 1996 when it was clear that Bob Dole was going to be the nominee. That was like watching Stephen Hawking heading out to sea on a surfboard. You didn’t know exactly what would happen, but you knew it would end badly.
This time around, you just get the sense that this isn’t the A-Team. In fact, if this were an action movie, these guys would be the team that gets wiped out in the first ten minutes to establish that what’s really needed is the A-Team.
I wrote a column earlier this week about the funk on the right, and it was interesting to read the feedback. Everyone agrees!
That’s not a great sign either.
I’m not saying all is lost or anything of the sort. But I feel a bit like a dog who suddenly realizes the car is heading to the vet, not the park.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m imagining things. Maybe that Exxon Tiger Mart on Route 1 wasn’t the best place to order linguine with clams. But that’s the feeling I have.
Last week, I wrote about the “word” “yotch.” I wrote in part: “This is a slang word I picked up from my wife. She acquired it during her time at Marquette University. As I gather, it’s used vaguely like ‘shmuck’ among Midwesterners. I await further guidance on usage, etymology, and spelling from readers.”
Interestingly, I got virtually no such guidance. A bunch of you thought it was a byproduct of bee-yotch. As in, Warren Christopher says to his aide, “Bee-yotch, get me a Dr. Pepper.” The problem with this is that my wife learned the word in Milwaukee well before Christopher and other gangstas – George Plimpton, former Massachusetts governor William Weld, that whole crew – popularized the term. Weirder still, I’ve heard other folks in the Midwest use it. But I got no support from the hundreds of thousands of G-File readers in the Great Lakes region.
Anyway, I wish I could spend the day lollygagging with you folks. I also wish I knew what a lollygag really is. But I can’t and I don’t. I’m here in L.A. for a Liberty Fund conference on interpreting the New Deal and the Great Depression, and things kick off soon.
So I’ll have to save all of the quality stuff I was going to use in today’s G-File for next week.
Dear Reader (but not including those of you who merely pretend to read this “news”letter. Like the president, I’m not interested in photo-ops.),
I think I’ve stumbled onto a handy heuristic — or, if that word makes you want to smash my guitar on the Delta House wall, rule of thumb — for listening to Obama. Whenever he talks about himself, immediately flip it around so he’s saying the opposite. Think about it. “I’m not interested in photo-ops.” Boom. Translation: “I think photo-ops are really, really important. And that’s why I’m not going to have my picture taken with a bunch kids at the border.”
Now, sometimes, a literal reversal of meaning doesn’t work. But the key is to look at any statement he offers about others as an insight into his own mental state.
When Obama denounces cynicism, he’s actually being cynical. What he’s doing is expressing his frustration with people who are justifiably cynical about him. Why can’t you people fall for what I am saying!?
When he says he doesn’t care about “politics,” just problem-solving, what he’s really saying is he wants his political agenda to go unchallenged by other political agendas.
And — as I wrote about at great length here — whenever he says ideology and ideologues are a problem, what he’s actually saying is that competing ideologues and ideologies are the problem. That is, unless, you’re the sort of person who actually thinks Obama isn’t an ideologue, which is just adorable.
It’s not so much that he’s lying. Though if he were a Game of Thrones character, “Obama the Deceiver, First of His Name” would be a pretty apt formal title. No, he’s projecting. It’s an ego thing. I am fond of pointing out Obama’s insufficiently famous confession, “I actually believe my own bullsh*t.” What I like about it is that’s it’s like a verbal Escher drawing. He believes his own b.s. but by calling it b.s. he acknowledges it’s not believable. It’s like sarcastically insisting that you’re being serious. It’s earnest irony or ironic earnestness. If you take the statement too seriously, you could end up like android #1 in “I, Mudd.”
(Speaking of earnestness and deceit, am I the only one to find the White House press secretary’s name mildly amusing? Josh Earnest? “To josh” means to playfully kid with someone, “I’m just joshing ya!” Earnest means to be overly sincere and deadpan serious. The official voice of the White House is living up to both the verb and the adjective; he’s saying humorously unbelievable things in an overly serious way. He’s a poor man’s Steven Wright. Or maybe I’m overthinking things again. As Steven Wright himself said, a “conclusion is just the place where you get tired of thinking.”).
Anyway, I don’t take psychoanalysis, too seriously (“If you did, what would happen to me?” — The Couch). But I think Obama’s penchant for deriding his opponents as cynics and opportunists stems from the fact that he sees the world through precisely those sorts of prisms. But he tells himself he’s different because he does it for good purposes and besides, he’s so awesome his b.s. is true. No one knows if God can make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it, but Obama can sling such exquisite b.s. even he can believe. And because he believes it, he can’t tolerate the idea that others don’t.
Where Hysterics Fear to Go
Speaking of b.s., I think the rape scare raging across the country is mostly a feminist fraud. That’s not to say that there are no sexual assaults or that rape isn’t a very serious crime (I would be open to making some rapes a capital offense). But the simple fact is forcible rape is declining in the United States, while the definition of rape is expanding. And before you tell me that women are afraid to come forward so the official statistics don’t capture the full scope of the problem, let me cut you off and say, “I agree.” I am sure there are women who don’t come forward and tell the truth, and that is terrible (I am also sure there are women who come forward who aren’t telling the truth, and that is terrible too). But I am also pretty confident that the share of victims who don’t come forward is lower today than at pretty much any other time in the past. It’s un-provable, of course. But surely the stigma against rape victims is nothing like what it was a generation ago, never mind three or four generations ago. There has never been a more supportive climate for disclosure about such things — particularly on elite campuses where the panic is most acute — and there has never been a time when blaming the victim was less socially acceptable. And yet, the notion that “rape is as American as apple pie” gains more and more traction among feminists eager to update “The Crucible” (See this excellent summary by my intrepid research assistant at AEI Caroline Kitchens).
Anyway, I bring this up because I think it’s rather fascinating how there’s so much irrationality — or, if you prefer, passion — about the issue and yet it cannot break through the Clinton force-field. Todd Akin said something stupid about “legitimate rape” a few years ago, and Democrats still talk about it the way Russians talk about World War II; like it happened yesterday. Harvard has announced it will abandon the reasonable-doubt standard in favor of a “preponderance of the evidence.” A whole new New Class subspecialty has been created to find jobs for Rape Inquisitors.
And yet the news that Hillary Clinton attacked a twelve-year-old rape victim — whom Clinton knew had been raped! – as a deranged liar sits out in plain view and the hysterics and inquisitors simply, albeit awkwardly, glide around it like zombies making room for Brad Pitt at the end of World War Z.
Yes, yes, I understand that Hillary Clinton had an obligation to provide a vigorous defense of her client. I disagree somewhat with my friend Jonathan Adler when he says that Hillary Clinton was engaged in a “noble endeavor.” But I certainly think his prudential defense is logical, consistent, and entirely defensible. We are a nation of laws and we need procedural due process.
But the purveyors of the “rape culture” and “rape epidemic” talk explicitly reject prudence, logic, and due process! It’s like a mob that destroys everything in its path that suddenly becomes an Etonian debating society when Hillary Clinton is in its sight. They go from “Burn the witch!” to “Tut tut, she was just doing her job” in three seconds flat.
Hillary Clinton submitted an affidavit to the court saying “I have been informed that the complainant is emotionally unstable with a tendency to seek out older men and engage in fantasizing” and that “she has in the past made false accusations about persons, claiming they had attacked her body. Also that she exhibits an unusual stubbornness and temper when she does not get her way.”
Setting aside the almost literary irony that this is exactly the kind of thing Clinton said about Monica Lewinsky, the victim insists this was an outright lie and she never did anything of the sort (Adler concedes, with undue understatement, that if Clinton did lie to the court, it would cross “an ethical line”). I have no idea what the truth is but, again, going by the standards of the “rape culture” mob, this allegation should have them lighting a fire under a pot of oil.
And this leaves out the fact that her husband was credibly accused of sexual assault himself. Now you can say that Kathleen Willey* lied — I don’t believe she did — but if you’re going to say that, I’d like it if you first got down off the soapbox and stopped shouting about how women don’t lie about rape.
You would think that after all of these years, I would cease to marvel at the Clintons’ uncanny ability to morally corrupt their supporters.
Here’s my problem with Adler’s argument:
What should we make of this story? Perhaps nothing more than that Hillary Clinton represented someone in need and fulfilled her duty as a member of the bar to provide a zealous defense of her client. This is not something for which she should be attacked. We are all the worse off if the message sent to young lawyers is that representing guilty or unpopular clients is likely to be a political liability down the road. Ably and effectively representing a criminal defendant — even one you believe to be guilty — is not “scummy” or inappropriate. Forcing the state to prove its case before it deprives an individual of their life, liberty or property is a noble endeavor. So while I think the story is newsworthy, I think most of the attacks on Clinton for this episode are misplaced, and a bit opportunistic
Let’s take Clinton out of the equation for a moment. I think Jon — a brilliant lawyer — doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that while defending child-rapists is a necessary evil, it’s still a kind of, you know, evil. The protections we afford the guilty are necessary to protect the innocent. If we had a machine that could, with absolute metaphysical, ontological, and scientific certainty determine guilt or innocence, there would be no reason to have trials, save perhaps for purposes of sentencing. In previous eras, some people believed God could serve such a purpose, making the truth available to us through various Monty Pythonesque mechanisms. Remember the SNL skit with Steve Martin as Theodrick of York?
Theodoric of York: Okay. Let’s see . . . Befoulment of wells . . . Boar pouching . . . Consorting with dames . . . Consorting with yourself . . . Aha! Consorting with the devil. All right, this is very clear in here. It’s in Latin, so I’ll put it to you in layman’s English — we’re going to have to throw you in the trough of justice!
[Two GUARDS tie the witch’s hands in rope. ]
Theodoric of York: And if you’re guilty, you’ll float on water. And if you’re innocent, you’ll sink. So you have nothing to fear!
[The guards hoist the witch up and carry her to a hot water-filled trough. Theodoric follows them.]
Theodoric of York: If the accused floats, that means the water has rejected her body. Of course, if the accused here sinks, that means the water has accepted her body . . . therefore she’s innocent.
Needless to say, such techniques leave much to be desired, which is why we’ve developed — through generations of Hayekian trial-and-error — systems that err on the side of the accused.
We can all agree that the presumption of innocence and the reasonable-doubt standard are huge advances in human civilization and that is therefore worthwhile to have defense attorneys doing the ugly work of zealously defending the guilty. But the necessity of due process can’t scrub all of the ugliness away.
Yes, they are fighting for the integrity of the system — a noble endeavor — but they are also doing their very best to ensure that their clients escape justice (not procedural justice but capital-J Justice). It’s a complicated and necessary tension.
I understand there’s a debate over whether or not Hillary is really laughing in that interview where she recounts how she got her child-rapist off with essentially a rap on the knuckles. But I think it’s fair to say she seems awfully glib and guilt-free about her role in it. For most normal people, I think that’s terribly off-putting. Moreover, you’d think someone who seeks to be the Joan of Arc of womanhood would have a good deal more sorrow about her role in a necessary evil.
Tales from the Homefront
I’ve been doing weather updates on Twitter lately. You know, stuff like “Today’s DC heat-humidity index is: Saigon brothel early in the morning, warming up to Alabama chain gang hot box this afternoon.” Or, “DC heat humidity index: Cool Hand Luke with a chance of Barton Fink.”
Now, you might think this is all about the jocularity, but it’s not. You can’t really get a sense of my rage in these tweets. I hate DC in the summer. Hate. Yes, yes, as a Goldberg I am descended from a desert people, but we like a dry heat. This place is so hot, fetid and humid — actually moist is a better word — that it feels like I’m a homunculus walking around the crotchal region of Al Sharpton’s tracksuit circa 1989 (Yes, you’ll have that image to carry around for the rest of your life. You’re welcome).
Unfortunately, if I were to express my real feelings about the weather on Twitter, it would read like Alistair Cooke walking into a backyard full of garden rakes; just one ear-shattering obscenity after another. Right now I could f-bomb Dresden.
Because both my wife and daughter are out of town, my only companion in all of this misery is my wing-dingo, Zoë. There’s just one hitch, she’s a swamp dog. Every time we go outside into the cloying miasma of aerosolized muck, the look on her face reminds me of the special crossover issue where Godzilla goes back in time to meet Devil Dinosaur. For the tiny number of you who didn’t immediately get the reference, Godzilla really dug the hot sulfuric climate in Dinosaur World. And Zoë loves this climate. It’s like she gets extra energy from it. The deer poop stays fresh longer, the squirrels are more likely to lose a step as they flee her wrath.
I went on Amazon and bought at least a dozen dog toys just to keep her occupied when I am trying to work or sleep. How’d that work out? Well, you know that cliché in the movies where the rookie cop visits his first gruesome crime scene and barfs at the horror? Well, if I were from a planet of sentient plush toys, I would be that rookie cop pretty much every morning. I come downstairs in the grey light of dawn every day to find a “living” room that looks like Charles Manson’s clan declared Helter Skelter on plush toys. It’s a dog-toy abattoir in here; Faux-felt moose and pigs are splayed across furniture in unnatural positions, their viscera scattered about.
I’m constantly trying to come up with new challenges and time-killers for her. She likes to chew ice cubes and my socks. So, last night, in what I thought was a brilliant move, I froze one of my sweat socks in a block of ice, just so I would have a little extra time to write this morning. So far so good.
Various & Sundry
My column from yesterday is on how Obama created the mess at the border. The lede is a little clever, I think.
My first column of the week was on how the pop culture contains more conservatism than many conservatives are willing to see. It got a lot of interesting reactions. I want to write about this more fully for the magazine, but let me make one point here. I think it’s a useful exercise to think about how you would make some real-life events into a movie. If you have to change the facts to fit the storyline, that should tell you something important about the morality of the event. For instance, in The People Vs. Larry Flynt, they had to make his brand of pornography incredibly tame. Don’t even get me started on movies like Reds or JFK. If they depicted the facts accurately, Flynt wouldn’t be believable as a free-speech martyr. Why? Because he’s a scumbag. Interesting question: How easy would it be to make a heroic movie about Hillary Clinton without bending the truth about her work defending a child rapist?
Earlier this week I was on a panel at the Heritage Foundation on the question of whether or not we need another Ronald Reagan. Video here.
This “news”letter was originally going to be about my disagreement with Charles Murray over the differences between liberals and progressives. But I went a different way. I’m sure the topic will come again. His op-ed is here. My response in the Corner is here. Charles and I discussed the topic with Steve Hayward, who was sitting in for Bill Bennett. Here’s the audio:
Speaking of Bill Bennett, I have to say I’m becoming a pretty loyal listener of his radio show. I don’t listen to a lot of conservative talk radio. I’m not against it, but it’s very hard to do what I do with that stuff in the background. Also, I like listening to NPR because (1) It’s useful to listen to enemy broadcasts and (2) the news reporting is often quite good, particularly if you don’t take it as gospel. That said, Bill really does a fantastic job of lining up serious and thoughtful analysts. When NPR does one of its extended profiles of a some World Music impresario, I find myself switching over to Bill’s show more and more and staying there longer and longer.
A reproductive-justice reporter (stop laughing) attacked me last week. My response is here.
You also might find this map of Godzilla’s geographic migrations in the Marvel universe helpful.
Bill Deblasio’s mess, complete with fantastic pictogram.
Thorstein Veblen is alive and well and living in Japan.
If reporters tweeted what they really do at work.
Robert Downey Jr Portrayed as Pinup Girls.
A lion cub gets his head stuck in a buffalo’s butt.
Ah, government. 14,000 draft notices were sent to men born in the 1800s.
Taking spiting your face to a whole new level: Man is growing a nose on his back after doctors implanted nose tissue into his spine during a surgery.
The IRS needs to recruit this guy as agency spokesman.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: The newsletter version of this article mistakenly misspelled Kathleen Willey’s last name. We regret the error.
Dear Reader (and non-readers who can prove they never read this e-mail “news”letter by letting Lois Lerner “save” it),
It’s been a very busy time. It’s been something of a study in contrasts. A week ago today, I was still in London, having attended a fantastic conference hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies (you know it’s classy because of the way they misspell “Centre.”). Speakers included Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul, General David Petraeus, Polish foreign minister (and former National Review correspondent) Radek Sikorski, economists Deirdre McCloskey and Luigi Zingales, philosopher Roger Scruton, historian Niall Ferguson, U.K. education minister Michael Gove, former Australian prime minister John Howard and, well, me. It’s like an egghead version of the placemat game: “What’s wrong with this picture?”
Then, on Tuesday, I flew to another cosmopolitan hotspot: Cleveland. I’ve long wanted to flee to the Cleve. Alas, things didn’t work out as I’d hoped. I would give you all the highlights of my trip to Cleveland, but there were none. Oh the speech went fine and the crowd hosted by the Buckeye Institute, the Ashbrook Center, and the folks at NRI was great. But my flight was like visiting a proctologist who accidentally brought his carpentry toolbox to work by accident. Suffice it to say the flight was five hours late. But United in its wisdom felt that the passengers couldn’t handle a five-hour delay all at once, so the delays were parceled out in small increments so as to drag out hope and frustration for as long as possible. During that time I had been sent back and forth to different gates at different terminals at Dulles. And when I got to Cleveland, there was a huge accident on the 480 due to an overturned UPS truck. Packages were strewn about everywhere (I hope no one in Ohio is expecting a crystal candelabra from grandma anytime soon). My cabdriver, Samir, couldn’t have been more obvious about the fact that he was pissed about my destination. The cabs work on a fixed rate on airport runs and because of the traffic it was going to be an hour or more for what should have been a 20-minute trip.
And then I told Samir I would be taking off my pants.
Sweating like a fat man at an all-you-can-eat pasta bar, I had to change into my suit en route to the venue. So, yeah, I can scratch “getting undressed in a Cleveland cab with a guy named Samir” off my bucket list. My biggest worry while disrobing was that he’d look back at me in the rearview mirror and shriek “My eyes! My eyes!” and veer into an embankment. My second-biggest worry was that his eyes would linger longingly in the rear view mirror until he said, hopefully, “I will pull over.” Either way, I couldn’t help but think: “I bet this kind of thing never happens to George Will.”
Then again, George Will shall never have what Samir and I have.
Have you noticed that basically the only way this White House can get out from under one scandal or controversy is by getting crushed by another? The White House was reeling from the VA scandal, which is why they rolled out the Bergdahl news. They didn’t expect that the Bergdahl story would become so controversial; fortunately they were rescued by the June 6 news of thousands of immigrant children showing up at the border. Hey, quick question: I can’t get my kid out of an airport without her getting messy. Isn’t it strange that all of these kids seem to show up, after a 1,000-mile journey looking so spiffy? Anyway, the immigrant-kid story was pretty brutal for the White House; fortunately they were rescued three days later by the news that ISIS had taken Mosul. The “Who Lost Iraq?” narrative isn’t great for the White House either, which is why it might have been a relief when the IRS announced on June 13 that they lost Lois Lerner’s e-mails.
Elizabeth Warren: A Clarification
So the other night before Special Report Charles Krauthammer sang “Rapper’s Delight” perfectly. He did say that while he loves the old-school hip hop, his real passion is for GWAR. But none of that is important right now, and besides, what happens in the green room stays in the green room.
That same night, I went on a bit of a rant about Hillary Clinton and how she’s a pretty awful politician. I then concluded by saying something I wish I could re-phrase. I said: “And if I were Elizabeth Warren, I would jump in the race today because she is an authentic, truth-telling kind of politician and it would cause utter panic in the Clinton camp.”
In response to this my Twitter feed exploded. At the Cleveland talk, the last question was a dyspeptic inquiry into why on earth I would compliment someone like Warren. Michael Graham drove all night from Boston just so he could set fire to a bag of Tom Friedman columns on China (if you know what I mean) on my doorstep.
So look. Here’s the deal. I stand by what I said, but I wish I’d said it better. Yes, Liz Warren speaks with a forked tongue about her noble Indian heritage. Yes, I have huge problems with her. But my point is that she would create more problems for Hillary — and that would be awesome. Indeed, that’s what my Friday column is about.
If Warren jumped into the race, it would mess up the Clinton’s delicate plans like a drunk orangutan with irritable bowel syndrome in a wedding-gown shop. The whole feminist argument behind Hillary’s campaign would come apart like something that comes apart in a really funny way (“Dude, how hungover are you?” — The Couch). She would get all kinds of money from left-wing fat cats and the hardcore grassroots crowd. An early Warren candidacy would force Hillary to get in the race earlier than planned if she’s going to run. Hillary couldn’t stay a “private citizen” above the fray and simultaneously criticize Warren. If she criticizes Warren, she gets into a mess similar to the one she got into when she tried to criticize Obama in 2008. The base loves Warren — perhaps not as much as they loved Obama, but enough so that Hillary attacks their hero at her peril. Criticizing Warren also exposes Hillary for what she really is. And the sooner Hillary is seen as what she is — a (bad) politician — the sooner her poll numbers go down. Moreover, according to game theory (or maybe not, I just think that sounds cool), a Warren candidacy will have the added incentive of encouraging other Democrats to enter into the race. The moment Warren gives her announcement speech on C-SPAN, aides to Joe Biden will run into his office and shout “Mr. Vice President, I think you should put down your crayons and see this.” Andrew Cuomo will stop midway through cutting off the head of Bill de Blasio’s favorite horse and have to decide if he’s going to get in. Every candidate who gets in encourages more candidates and soon what was supposed to be a Hillary coronation ceremony becomes the Democratic-party equivalent of the fight scene from Anchorman. It’s ragnarok, baby!
Now, it’s true, I’m being a bit Leninist here. I want to heighten the contradictions, and I do think worse is better when it comes to the Democrats. But that doesn’t mean my column or my comments are, in the words of one Twitter follower, a “false-flag operation.” I do think Warren taps into a very real populist trend. And while she’s probably to the left of Clinton on many issues, I have to say in my gut, I’d rather Warren as president than Clinton. The good news, however, is that I think Warren would be a bad candidate and would lose handily in the general election. So, where’s the downside?
Operation Weak-Sphinctered Orangutan Commence!
While I was in London, I had some really interesting conversations with some British conservatives. It was a disparate bunch, but there was a consistency to a lot of what they had to say. Nearly all the Brits I talked to think their country has lost its cultural confidence. They also think that the U.S. is in the process of doing likewise. That’s a worthy topic for discussion, and I think both contentions are largely true. But I want to talk about something else. When talking about politics, many of the same Brits would cavalierly mention that they don’t care about “social issues” or that social issues aren’t relevant in British politics. As an analytical matter, that seems right. But I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s a connection there.
Now of course, it depends what you mean by social issues. But it seems to me that as a broad generalization, social issues revolve around the role and authority of the family. Arguments about abortion, gay marriage, obscenity, sex ed, etc. all connect to the family directly or indirectly. Even gun rights have a lot to do with the family, and not just because “gun culture” is primarily learned in the home. Guns fit neatly into the conception of the autonomous family and the role of parents as primary protectors of their children.
But the key word is culture. No institution transmits culture more effectively than the family. We learn language, dialect, and accents in the home (we learn grammar at school). We get most of our religion and morality at home. We learn from our parents how citizens behave in a society and what they should expect from society and government. It’s important to keep in mind that while parents teach their kids by telling them things, the real learning comes from watching what parents do — or don’t do. Kids are wired to emulate their parents. They see how we divide our time. The habits of the heart are formed in the home.
And this is why progressives of all labels have had their eye on the family. It is the state’s greatest competition. As I’ve written a bunch of times around here, if you listen to Barack Obama’s vision of America, it’s one where there’s the state and the individual and pretty much nothing in between. Civil society, mediating institutions, and other “islands of separateness” are problems in Obama’s eyes. Well, the family is the truest island of separateness. In the Life of Julia, the state is her family.
I’m reminded of a passage from Liberal Fascism where I am discussing “children’s rights” — a concept developed precisely to get the state into the home as quickly as possible:
Since Plato’s Republic, politicians, intellectuals, and priests have been fascinated with the idea of “capturing” children for social-engineering purposes. This is why Robespierre advocated that children be raised by the state. Hitler — who understood as well as any the importance of winning the hearts and minds of youth — once remarked, “When an opponent says ‘I will not come over to your side,’ I calmly say, ‘Your child belongs to us already . . . You will pass on. Your descendants, however, now stand in the new camp. In a short time they will know nothing but this new community.’” Woodrow Wilson candidly observed that the primary mission of the educator was to make children as unlike their parents as possible. Charlotte Perkins Gilman stated it more starkly. “There is no more brilliant hope on earth to-day,” the feminist icon proclaimed, “than this new thought about the child . . . the recognition of ‘the child,’ children as a class, children as citizens with rights to be guaranteed only by the state; instead of our previous attitude toward them of absolute personal [that is, parental] ownership — the unchecked tyranny . . . of the private home.”
James Pethokoukis cites a fascinating passage from George Weigel’s biography of Pope John Paul II:
Perhaps the hardest-fought battle between Church and [Poland's] regime involved family life, for the Communists understood that men and women secure in the love of their families were a danger. Housing, work schedules, and school hours were all organized by the state to separate parents from their children as frequently as possible. Apartments were constructed to accommodate only small families, so that children would be regarded as a problem. Work was organized in four shifts and families were rarely together. The workday began at 6 or 7 a.m., so children had to be consigned to state-run child-care centers before school. The schools themselves were consolidated, and children were moved out of their local communities for schooling.
Marriage Is Great for Straight People, Too
Now I don’t think today’s progressives (at least not most of them) are consciously at war with the traditional family. But they are certainly not its biggest fans, either. Perhaps the most depressing thing about the Democratic party is that its electoral success hinges on the continuing unraveling of the traditional family. The more Julias, the better. Democrats have a huge advantage among single women. Married women recognize that the government can never be a family.
Getting married was once a celebrated life goal. It still is for millions of people, of course, but it’s less and less celebrated as a cultural priority — at least not for heterosexuals. One of my biggest peeves is that 99 percent of the time you hear a liberal saying anything positive about marriage, it’s about gay marriage. And now that we’re getting gay marriage, some activists don’t feel the need to saying anything nice about it at all.
Think about how often you hear politicians, economists, educators, and journalists talk about the importance of going to college. Now consider that getting married is about as beneficial to your lifetime economic prospects as going to college. And let’s be clear: It is far better for children to grow up with married parents (even if they didn’t go to college!) than it is for them to grow up with a single parent with a degree in gender studies from Princeton.
Charles Murray exposed the ugly secret of the American elite in his book Coming Apart: The rich and successful are closeted traditionalists when it comes to how they raise their own children. They’re just horrible hypocrites when it comes to everyone else’s children. “It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, told the New York Times.
As Charles puts it, the biggest problem with today’s elite is that they refuse to preach what they practice.
Anyway, I guess my point is that when I hear people say they don’t care about social issues but they worry about a loss of “civilizational confidence,” creeping socialism, and the rest, I just wonder if they’re not part of the problem. I’m not saying that there’s a direct link between, say, being pro-life and supporting laissez-faire capitalism. But I do think that much of what passes for laissez-faire capitalism is an artifact of our cultural heritage, and that cultural heritage is formed and transmitted by cultural institutions. Change those institutions, subvert them to the state by making them dependent on the state, and the culture goes with them.
Not All “Social Engineering” Is the Same
Opponents of child tax credits and the like are shouting “social engineering!” I like and respect some of these critics, but I think that this is an asinine criticism.
Think of it this way. I love artificial reefs. They provide new habitat for all kinds of wildlife. Over time a pile of concrete or a sunken oilrig can turn into a whole vibrant ecosystem. But it is absolutely true that building artificial reefs is a kind of meddling with the natural order. I have no problem with meddling with the natural order if the meddling helps the natural order heal from other negative meddling we do all of the time. The oceans are overfished and too polluted. Why not help counteract that?
As Brad Wilcox, Ramesh Ponnuru, Robert Stein, and other champions of a conservative family policy will tell you, their proposals are aimed at counterbalancing the burdens liberal social policy has put on families. It’s a bit like Bill Buckley’s famous line about moral equivalence. If one man pushes old ladies in front of oncoming buses and another man pushes old ladies out of the way of oncoming buses, you simply cannot describe both men as the sort who push old ladies around.
If one political party wants to engineer family formation and another political party is invested in engineering the destruction of families, you simply can’t denounce both approaches as “social engineering.” Or I guess you can, but doing so is dumb.
Various & Sundry
If it seems like my heart wasn’t in today’s G-File, that’s only natural since my heart is in my chest. If it was in the G-File, I’d be dead. But figuratively speaking, I guess that’s the case. I’m finishing this “news”letter on the flight from D.C. to Boston. We’re taking my daughter to Maine today for seven weeks (SEVEN!) of sleep-away camp. I’m very excited for my daughter, but it’s pretty brutal on the Fair Jessica and me.
Zoë Update: The dingo is doing just fine. I brought her to the office yesterday where she immediately turned the cave under my desk into a den.
The real bad news is that the person we’ve relied on for boarding Zoë (and Cosmo before her) is getting out of the business. We hate sending Zoë to doggie Gitmo (a.k.a. the kennel). But we don’t have many better options for when we travel.
Piketty Palooza!: As I warned you, I’ve written a very long review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century for the July-August issue of Commentary (It’s a double-sized review for a double issue!). The feedback so far has been very flattering, though I am sure the criticisms will be coming shortly.
In honor of fed employees: EPA Employees Asked To Stop Pooping In The Hallway (since they are the EPA perhaps they were trying to fertilize the carpeting?).
In honor of your airline troubles: Man Sues British Airways After He’s Sent To Grenada Instead Of Granada.
In honor of traffic: Road-Rage Driver Sets Car Afire with Flare Gun: Police.
In honor of sleepaway camp: 5 Things to Expect When You Send Your Kids to Overnight Camp.
In honor of Ohio: Edwin Tobergta Accused Of Sex With Pool Raft YET AGAIN.
In honor of Thomas Piketty and the French: Eiffel Tower made out of chairs created in 125th birthday tribute.
In honor of the World Cup: Chileans asked to stop World Cup barbecues as pollution rises.
In honor of Hillary’s book: Hillary’s Book Sales Fall Sharply, May Not Sell Enough to Repay $14 Mil Advance.
In honor of the IRS hearings: Inside the World’s Largest Gathering of Snakes.
In honor of PETA: Horrifying scene as dead whale is butchered in front of schoolkids.
In honor of inappropriate selfies and e-mails that are DEFINITELY not lost: Man Emails Picture Of His Privates With Resume For Job Application.
And of course, a nice dog story: Dog found nearly two years after going missing in California forest.
Dear Reader (including those of you with a sense of entitlement when it comes to these parenthetical gags),
The big news of the day doesn’t lend itself to excessive jocularity. Nor should it lend itself to partisan gloating. This is awful, awful, stuff.
I supported the Iraq war. But for at least the last half decade or so, I’ve said it looks like it was a mistake. I’ve said “looks like” not to weasel out of anything, but to simply acknowledge that things change. If after a wobbly start Iraq got its act together and turned into a stabilizing, democratizing force in the region, then it wouldn’t be a mistake. If it continued to slide into Iran’s orbit, possibly breaking apart en route, then the war would have been for naught. Sometimes you can’t get to a good place without going through a bad place first. That’s true in our own lives and it’s true of nations.
I truly believe that the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Revolution were aftershocks of the Iraq war and that we could have advanced the cause of liberty if we’d taken advantage of those opportunities. I’m not saying it would have been easy or that more chaos wouldn’t have come with such efforts; I am saying that it was worth trying.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, believed the Iraq war was a mistake from day one and that conviction informed every foreign-policy decision he has made since. He has said, insinuated, implied, hinted, and shouted as much almost every day of his presidency. So invested in the Iraq war being a mistake — and so invested in received opinion celebrating his foresight — he has not merely acted on the reasonable view it was a mistake, he appears to have done everything he can to make sure it is remembered as a mistake for all time. The Left wanted the Iraq war to be Vietnam, and Barack Obama has given them what they wanted. All that’s missing now are the images of Americans clinging to helicopters.
Let’s Get the Spin Right and Everything Else Will Follow
The president deliberately let negotiations over the status of American forces in Iraq deteriorate until there was nothing to do but lament that we couldn’t work things out. Indeed (as I wrote in my column yesterday), his entire Iraq policy — his entire foreign policy — has been driven by a need to make it conform to his political talking points, rather than the other way around. There’s nothing wrong with presidents keeping their promises, but presidents have an obligation to do so with the stipulation that the national interest might diverge from what Jen Psaki can vomit up on Crossfire.
Consider the White House’s claim of “decimating” “core al-Qaeada.”
This is a metric designed to conform to talking points, it’s not an actual foreign-policy objective. Whenever someone points out that al-Qaeda has “metastasized” and controls more territory than ever, the White House falls back on the claim that we’ve taken the fight to those who actually attacked us on 9/11. That’s great, or at least it sounds great. But how is that a strategic objective? What does that do to further America’s interests?
If the U.S. had wiped out most of the Japanese generals who plotted the Pearl Harbor attacks, but Japan was still at war with us, would anyone say “Well, we can wrap things up now”?
As for the word “decimated,” I often wondered if they’re hiding behind the popular meaning of decimated — i.e. “crushed” or “destroyed” — while keeping its traditional and literal meaning — kill 1 out of 10 — in their back pocket in case they need it to defend against the fact-checkers. Something like:
Carney: We’ve decimated core al-Qaeda.
Reporter: Jay, we’ve checked and most of the original al-Qaeda members are still alive.
Carney: I refer you to Webster’s dictionary. “Decimated” means to kill every tenth member of an army. We are well ahead of that standard. Frankly I think you should salute our rhetorical restraint.
We Change the Past
There’s a staple of physics — and life — that the present can’t change the past. What’s done is done. Don’t cry over spilt milk. The horse has left the barn. We already emailed the pictures of you with the hooker. Etc. Given the riot of unknowns that is physics today, I’m not sure that will always be true. And, in a very real sense, I’m not sure it’s true about life either.
No, you cannot change the facts of the past. But you can change the significance of those facts. I’m not talking about Orwellian lying or Soviet airbrushing or the shoving of innocents down the memory hole. When new events take us by surprise the events that led up to it suddenly take on greater meaning.
From an old-school G-File:
In 2002, Adam Garfinkle, then of The National Interest, wrote a wonderful essay about Saudi Arabia. He quoted R. G. Collingwood’s observation that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way,” and proceeded to argue that at least part of what Collingwood meant by this “is that what interests us about the past is at least partly a function of what bothers us or makes us curious in the present.”
For example, for the French and British, when war broke out in 1939, the years 1918-19 became less significant and the years 1870-1871 loomed large. Or, when the Berlin Wall fell, 1917 — the year of the Russian Revolution — suddenly became much less interesting, but 1914 — the dawn of imperial implosion and nationalist explosion — became much more important. This is all a lesson in the obvious for my beloved bride, who studied U.S.-Soviet relations in graduate school. By the time the ink was dry on her diploma, there was no Soviet Union.
The point of all this for Garfinkle was that, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a whole new narrative of the 20th century was written. While on September 10, the years 1914, 1945, and 1989 seemed of paramount importance to historians, on September 12, the year 1924 suddenly leapt onto the stage — that was the year the House of Saud emerged as the dominant power on the Arabian continent. Before that, 1924 was the answer to a few trivia questions and little more (e.g., In what year was the People’s Republic of Mongolia established? When was Frank Lautenberg born?).
Right now, the most important thing about 2011, according to conventional wisdom, is that Barack Obama authorized the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was certainly a good day, and a glorious one for the White House communications team which immediately turned it into a Caesarian argument for his domestic political authority. But what if ISIS succeeds in holding onto Mosul and Nineveh? Or even goes on to grab Baghdad? What if Iran is fully drawn into the conflict, rendering vast swaths of the Middle East a literal battleground — and not just a figurative one — for a bloody Sunni–Shia civil war? Suddenly, the most momentous thing about 2011 wouldn’t be the killing of one aging terrorist hermited away with his “Girls Gone Wild” DVDs. It would be the White House’s passive-aggressive acquiescence to the abandonment of Iraq. Again, as it stands, the Iraq war was a mistake. What we’re seeing now are the fruits of a policy aimed at making sure it stays that way.
I’m already exhausted by all of the commentary about Eric Cantor’s defeat by David Brat. I would have said three days ago that its significance can’t be exaggerated. But I would have been wrong. The Democrats’ glee is certainly overblown. I heard Nancy Pelosi say yesterday “I can’t close my eyes! I can’t close my eyes! Can someone get me some eye drops!?”
Just kidding. I just always expect her to say such things given that she has the eyes of a Moloid caught off-guard by a camera flash. She said yesterday that Cantor’s defeat means the midterms are “a whole new ballgame.” She continued:
“Eric Cantor has long been the face of House Republicans’ extreme policies, debilitating dysfunction and manufactured crises. Tonight is a major victory for the Tea Party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right,” she said in a statement.
Bless her heart.
The thinking seems to be that the GOP will be pulled further to the right in future primaries, or something. Meh. There aren’t that many primaries left, never mind ones in districts where Democrats could win. Regardless of whether it made sense to fire Eric Cantor — the guy had an ACU rating of 95 — and putting aside any questions about David Brat, I think his victory is a positive sign for the midterms. Base elections are about intensity and turnout. Can anyone dispute that the results in VA-7 demonstrate that the GOP base is energized?
Anyway, I’m exhausted by all the winners and losers talk.
Frank Meyer and Fusionism
But I’m never too tired to talk fusionism!
Brian Doherty has a very good post on the limits of libertarianism during this so-called “libertarian moment.” Doherty observes that Brat is very libertarian on many issues dear to libertarian hearts, but he is not a Reason magazine libertarian. That’s right. He’s a mainstream conservative, at least in his ordering of principles (though he may be more intense about those principles than your average conservative). He’s for limited government, traditional morality, individual liberty, and free markets. In short, he’s a fusionist.
Just in case you didn’t know, the unofficial official philosophical position of National Review is fusionism (except on Cinco de Mayo when it’s “Two for One All You Can Drink Margaritas!”). It’s also worth noting that the unofficial official position of modern conservatism itself is fusionism. Ronald Reagan all but declared it so in his famous speech to CPAC in 1981, delivered shortly after his inauguration:
It was Frank Meyer who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace.
Frank Meyer was the long-time literary editor of National Review. The basic idea of fusionism is really easy to understand. A virtuous society must be a free society because virtue not freely chosen isn’t virtuous (if I hold a gun to your head and say “Mend that bird’s broken wing,” you don’t get a lot of credit for being kind to animals). Of course, the fuller idea is more complicated. As Daniel McCarthy notes, fusionism is often described as a political rationalization for constructing a coalition of libertarians and traditionalists. McCarthy even gently — and largely correctly — criticizes me for using the term that way from time to time. More on that in a moment, first I have to clean his blood and viscera from my halberd.
I’m kidding, I’m kidding. McCarthy is absolutely right that Meyer’s argument was more sophisticated than the shorthand. Fusionism was a metaphysical argument, not merely an organizing principle. Meyer believed that the tradition of Western Civilization is liberty and that our cultural institutions are valuable and glorious and worth preserving precisely for the role they play in protecting liberty. For Meyer, “the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man” was what conservatives were trying to conserve and that the best way to do that was for the libertarians and the traditionalists to embrace the fact that the core idea of Western Civilization was the glory of “reason operating within tradition.” And reason pointed to the glory and necessity of individualism.
Abstract principles were everything for Meyer (this mindset might explain his early betrothal to Communism) and the highest principle was “the freedom of the person.” This sometimes led him into some ridiculous ideological cul-de-sacs. Writing about the need to stop the spread of Communism, even if it meant using nuclear weapons, Meyer wrote:
[E]ven granted the most horrendous estimates of the effects of their use, the preservation of human life as a biological phenomenon is an end far lower than the defense of freedom and right and truth. These the victory of Communism would destroy. These it is our duty to defend at all costs.
Now I am a pretty proud anti-Communist, but this is where I say, “Uh, maybe you should sit out the next couple plays and think this over.” The preservation of the “biological phenomena” called “human life” strikes me as pretty high priority, not least because without it, only the cockroaches’ definition of freedom, right, and truth will prevail. Life is hope. Without it there’s no one to do the hoping.
So where was I? Oh right, fusionism. I think one of the reasons why the definition of fusionism has drifted from a philosophical approach to an organizational one is that, philosophically, fusionism doesn’t work that well. Oh, I certainly believe that the fusionist goals of a free society, limited government, and individual liberty are sound and coherent approaches. But the actual case that Meyer laid out for fusionism is simply too dismissive of the importance of community, tradition, order etc. Not every moral choice should be made from a bill of fare that contains every conceivable immoral choice. A healthy society takes some things — pedophilia and incest come to mind — off the menu, even if that means denying individuals the added virtue of voluntarily refusing such options. In a world where everything is permitted, virtue has a very hard time poking up from the weeds. The challenge for conservatives is how to balance the cherished principle of individual liberty with other cherished principles that are just as essential to the preservation of the Western tradition Meyer holds so dear.
But, as an organizing principle, as the locomotion that keeps the bicycle of conservatism from falling over, fusionism is extremely useful and very, very widely held. The vast majority of libertarians in this country don’t call themselves libertarians, they call themselves conservatives, and rightly so. Because they — we! — are fusionists.
Professor Brat, Fusionist
And that goes for Dr. Brat. Here’s an excerpt from an essay he wrote in 2011, which grapples with the tradeoffs between order and liberty:
Let me add one more definition to the picture to heighten this tension. In economics and political science, it is common to define the government as the entity that holds a monopoly on violence. This definition goes back to Max Weber, but it is used by recent Nobel laureates in economics as well. It does not mean that the State alone uses violence, but it does mean that when push comes to shove, the State will win in a battle of wills. If you refuse to pay your taxes, you will lose. You will go to jail, and if you fight, you will lose. The government holds a monopoly on violence. Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military. Do we trust institutions of the government to ensure justice? Is that what history teaches us about the State? Or do we live in particularly lucky and fortunate times where the State can be trusted to do minimal justice? The State’s budget is currently about $3 trillion a year. Do you trust that power to the political Right? Do you trust it to the Left? If you answered “no” to either question, you may have a major problem in the future. See Plato on the regime that follows democracy.
So now, I hope you are feeling even a bit more ill-at-ease. The logic above is inescapable for a Christian. If we Christians vote for what we consider to be good policies, we are ultimately voting to ensure that our will is carried out by the most powerful force on earth, aside from God. The U.S. government has a monopoly on violence, and that force underlies the law of the land.
Do we have the right to coerce our fellow citizens to act in ways that follow our Christian ethical beliefs?
He goes on to discuss usury — the topic of his essay — but that there is how a fusionist wrestles with trade-offs.
A Monopoly on Ignorance
I bring this up because the other day I caught Rich Lowry (Praise be upon him) and Alan Colmes discussing the Brat victory on Fox. Colmes tried to make the case that Brat is going to be an embarrassment because of his allegedly crazy statements. Exhibit A was that Brat thinks that Hitler’s rise could happen again. Now I think Brat’s not quite right about this, but it’s hardly like he’s endorsing the return of Hitler. Rather he’s repeating an utterly commonplace, bipartisan, and healthy concern that is usually summed up in the phrase “never again.”
Then there was exhibit B. Colmes noted that Brat had written that the State has a “monopoly on violence” as if this is crazy talk. Rich quickly noted as the conversation was being cut off that this is pretty much the standard definition of the function of the state. Charles Cooke goes on quite a tear defending Brat on this point. They’re both right. My only complaint is that — as Brat notes in the original essay but Charlie doesn’t — “monopoly on violence” isn’t even Brat’s phrase, it’s Max Weber’s. His claim of Gewaltmonopol des Staates is nearly a century old.
All of these people getting bent out of shape about Brat saying such a thing are betraying their own ignorance of a really uncontroversial — even boring — staple of political philosophy and political science. Charlie is right that Brat’s claim is a neutral and non-partisan one. But the irony here is that liberals want the most expansive definition of Gewaltmonopol des Staates. Under Weber, the State isn’t the only entity that can employ violence, but it is the only entity that can regulate it. The State, and the State alone, determines which violence is legitimate and which isn’t. In effect it licenses individuals to commit or threaten violence in very specific circumstances.
Liberals want the state to cancel many of those licenses. That’s what gun control is largely about, the rescinding of permission or ability to use violence (or effective violence. You’ll always be free to slap and scratch your robber, assassin, or rapist). Almost everyday someone on MSNBC wets himself over the fact a free citizen somewhere is carrying a gun. Their proposed solution: the State should better enforce its monopoly on violence.
Various & Sundry
Happy Father’s Day everybody. I thought about running through a lot of the social science on fathers but it can all be summed up by saying “Dads matter.” The rest is commentary. Still, for those interested, here’s my eulogy to my Dad. Every year I hear from a dozen people who write to tell me that they read it every Father’s Day. So do I.
Zoë Update: She’s in jail. Our dog-sitter(s) fell through at the last minute, and so she’s at a lavish kennel that bills itself as a dog resort. It remains to be seen whether she sees it that way. What was it William Blake said, “A Robin Redbreast in a cage puts all Heaven in a Rage, but a Dingo on a chain, isn’t such a pain.” Anyway, she’s just there for the weekend. I tried to teach her how to sharpen a chew toy into a shiv for when she’s out in the yard. But she didn’t seem interested.
London Calling: I will be at the Center for Policy Studies’ big conference in London next week (the National Review Institute is a co-sponsor). I’m really looking forward to it, though how I ended up on the “New Media and Liberty” panel is a bit of a mystery to me. If you have any suggestions for in-flight reading on this topic, please send them along: “New Media and Liberty: Why is the US pre-eminent in digital innovation? And what are the lessons for policymakers in the UK/Europe in areas such as regulation and freedom of speech?”
People say I’m too obsessed with dogs. I say, it could be worse: Woman who cares for 100,000 cockroaches in home: ‘These are all my children’.
A Father’s Day Story (Language warning)
Stanley Kubrick was overrated as a director, IMHO, but he knew how to write a letter.
Though he might have ended with “May your genitals sprout wings and fly away” or one of these other literary insults.
Though none of these were Great Moments in Punctuation!
For the Liberal Fascism file: Employees sue company claiming they were forced to say “I love you”.
Um, doctor could you pay more attention to my spleen? Doctor’s license suspended after allegedly sexting during surgeries and sending semi-nude selfies.
What was I saying about the state having a monopoly on legitimate violence? At least this guy wasn’t waiting for Uncle Sam to get off its rear and nuke the moon.
And they said Rick Santorum was crazy! Amphibians Wed in India.
Five great books crazies love. (Waiting for someone to say, “If banning Catcher in the Rye saves just one life, it’s worth it.”)
Reminder: I’m coming to the Cleve!