Cowards, Conversation-Starters, and Lamarckians

by Jonah Goldberg

Dear Reader (and those of you getting this through simultaneous translation from the Chinese),

If memory serves, I believe we are coming up on the one-year anniversary of the Goldberg File.

I think this is a fine moment to reflect on the year that was.

Oh, not out loud, but on your own time.

 

Civility, My Ass

I know most of us are exhausted by the post-Tucson civility “conversation.” The problem is that it was never a conversation. The best working definition of a conversation, according to liberals, is “Shut up while I explain how awful you are.” That’s what we’ve been witnessing for the last two weeks, and there’s no reason to expect it to change.

Yesterday, Rep. Steve Cohen went on a tear comparing Republicans to Nazis. He says he has no need to apologize because his comparison was entirely fair.

A few days before that, a victim of the Tucson shooting insisted that Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers were to blame for the massacre. Subsequently, he physically threatened a Tea Partier. He eventually apologized, but as far as I can tell, the liberals who celebrated his initial indictment saw no need to rethink anything.

And that’s the point. If the Left really cared about incivility, they would have been condemning a lot of liberal speech for the last ten days. So would the bulk of the mainstream media that takes its cues from the Left.

But for the most part, the Left isn’t concerned with the lack of civility, it’s concerned with the ability of the Right to get its message out. “Civility” is simply shorthand for “Don’t object to what we’re doing in a way that anyone will notice.”

 

Conversation-Starters Anonymous

Remember Eric Holder’s speech about how we’re all “cowards” for not wanting to talk about race in America? His use of “coward” always reminded me of one of those scenes in Westerns where a gunslinger “calls out” someone in a saloon or a cabin by accusing his intended victim of being a “coward.” Come on out, ya yella-bellied coward!

The point of such taunts isn’t to talk things out. It’s to get a clean shot.

(And yes, in case any finger-sniffing left-wing blogger is secretly subscribing to this “news”letter, I am speaking metaphorically).

Whenever conservatives speak with the slightest honesty about the problems facing black America, the response isn’t “Thanks for your honesty,” it’s a press release denouncing the racism or insensitivity of such remarks.

Here’s a small example that has always stuck with me. In 2007, Newt Gingrich said that bilingual education keeps some Hispanics in the “ghetto.” Within hours, the “let’s have a frank dialogue” crowd had denounced the former House speaker, insisting that he apologize for being so frank. And Gingrich promptly complied.

Of course, it’s not just in politics. On campuses across the country, students are A) told that we need to have a “frank and honest dialogue” about race, sexuality, Islam, whatever, and B) that anyone who offers opinions that differ from the conventional wisdom is a retrograde, reactionary Christianist in dire need of reeducation.

If I asked you for your honest opinion about my $14 haircut and every time you started to offer it, I slapped you across the face with a half-rotten roadkill raccoon, after a while you might start to suspect I was less than sincere in my request for honesty.

 

Speaking of a Climate of Violence

There’s this story:

PHILADELPHIA – A doctor who provided abortions for minorities, immigrants and poor women in a “house of horrors” clinic has been charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of a patient and seven babies who were born alive and then killed with scissors, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Aside from the obvious horror of the story, there’s something else that bothers me. This doctor provided abortions to “minorities, immigrants and poor women.”

Were the minorities and immigrants rich? Were they not women? Why divvy up the victims this way? Perhaps I’m over-reading, but it’s almost as if the author needs to highlight the fact that even an abortion doctor can be a bad person – if the victims are downtrodden women who fit an ideological prism.

 

Hu’s on First

So I watched the press conference with Hu and O. I have nothing to add, except that an hour later I wanted to watch it again.

 

Something to Noodle

While working on the new book I never talk about, I’ve been reading up on Herbert Spencer. Readers of Liberal Fascism will recall that I consider him to be one of the most unfairly maligned thinkers in American history. He’s credited with inventing Social Darwinism, even though that’s a term he didn’t use and a concept he didn’t believe. Herbert Spencer was to libertarianism what Edmund Burke is to conservatism, and yet countless historians and journalists insist he was a premature Nazi and champion of eugenics.

As for “Social Darwinism,” that’s just one more in a long list of terms and theories that the Left ascribes to its opponents to make them easier to vilify.

Anyway, what’s interesting to me is that Spencer wasn’t even really a Darwinist; he was a Lamarckian. As I understand it, he modified his views on biology as Darwin’s theory was developed. But he remained what you might call a Social Lamarckian.

Lamarckianism, you might recall from 9th-grade biology, is the idea that organisms can pass on traits and characteristics acquired in their own lifetime to their offspring. A simplified version: Teach a dog to answer the phone, and her puppies just might answer the phone instinctually without being trained.

This theory is pretty much discredited among biologists, as far as I know. And I have no brief for bringing it back.

But I think in the social realm, it’s a really helpful concept. As longtime readers know, I am a big fan of defining conservatism as the idea that human nature has no history. A baby boy born in an affluent suburb today will grow up to be pretty much what you’d expect: a doctor or accountant or salesman. A baby boy born today but transported back in time to 10th-century Norway will grow up to be a Viking who rapes and pillages. And a baby Viking boy, if transported to Shaker Heights, will grow up to be a computer programmer. There’s nothing in our genes that says we have to be civilized, while there’s a lot in our genes that says we should be barbarians.

What makes the difference is our accumulated wisdom. Some of that is stored in our parents’ brains, but a lot more is embedded invisibly in our institutions, customs, habits, language, etc.

And that’s where the Lamarckian part comes in. If we change our institutions, due to necessity or folly, those changes are passed down to the next generation, who will eventually take over those institutions based upon their inherited assumptions. We are all shaped by the institutions we are raised by, and as we change them, the next generation inherits those changes.

I’m sure there are piles of books brimming with words like “mimesis” that explain – or debunk – this theory a lot more thoroughly. I just thought it was interesting and something I never really thought about.

 

Why So Glum?

I’m glad you asked, Mr. Headline Writer. I’m not glum per se, just a bit exhausted with politics, which is why it’s probably good news I’m leaving (or trying to) for Hawaii tomorrow morning.

My syndicate is nominating me for a Pulitzer again, which is cool, though I doubt I’ll ever win (for reasons both substantive and petty). As part of the process, I had to look over my columns for the last year – and I found the whole thing a bit dispiriting. I’m not sure why, but the prospect of another year of hammer-and-tong politics leaves me a bit grumpy.

I think this is a real danger for columnists. They get weary with ideological fights, and so they suddenly start looking for ways to get beyond politics. They look for proof that the stuff they don’t like is going away, or they get seduced by arguments that the stuff they don’t like can be purged at little to no cost. I could give you a long list of folks I think this has happened to. But I’ll save that for another day.

Anyway, here’s to getting my batteries recharged. I’ll let ya know if there will be a G-File next week when I know.

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg