From the frontlines

by Jonah Goldberg

Dear Reader (and those of you who’ve fled the G-File for fear of providing a quorum of readers),

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all morbid on you. But I should clear the air.

My brother died last week. He had an accident. He fell down some stairs. He surely had too much to drink when it happened. It’s all such an awful waste. You can read how I felt — how I feel – about my brother here.

But, you know, this is uncharted territory for me. And while I have little to no morbid desire to wallow indefinitely in a public display of grieving, the G-File has always been a dispatch from the frontlines of my mind, a quasi-personal letter to the collective You. Some might even call it the mad scribbling in the virtual ink of diluted fecal matter on my imaginary jail-cell wall.

And, as you can imagine, there are few things more on my mind than this choking fog of awfulness.

I’m told by a friend that there’s a new book out, The Truth about Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, that apparently demonstrates how Elisabeth Kubler-Ross made up all that stuff about the “five stages of grief.” I have no plans to read it. But I’m fully prepared to believe that any hard-and-fast five-point definition of grief is bogus. Admittedly, my data sample set is pretty small but hugely significant; in the last six years I’ve lost my father and my brother out of a family of four people. And, already, it’s clear to me that the geography of grief cannot be so easily mapped.

Obviously there are going to be similarities to the terrain. But just as there are different kinds of happiness — say, winning the lottery versus having a kid, or beating cancer versus seeing Keith Olbermann booted off of MSNBC – there are different kinds of sadness, too. And how they play out depends on the context.

In terms of my own internal response, the most glaring continuity between my dad’s death and my brother’s is loneliness. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got lots of company. I have lots of people who care for me more than I realized. I’m richer in friends and family than I could ever possibly expect or deserve.

But there’s a kind of loneliness that comes with death that cannot be compensated for. Tolstoy’s famous line in Anna Karenina was half right. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but so are all happy ones. At least insofar as all families are ultimately unique.

Unique is a misunderstood word. Pedants like to say there’s no such thing as “very unique.” I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we say that each snowflake is unique. That’s true. No two snowflakes are alike. But that doesn’t mean that pretty much all snowflakes aren’t very similar. But, imagine if you found a snowflake that was ten feet in diameter and hot to the touch, I think it’d be fair to say it was very unique. Meanwhile, each normal snowflake has its own contours, its own one-in-a-billion-trillion characteristics, that will never be found again.

Families are similarly unique. Each has its own cultural contours and configurations. The uniqueness might be hard to discern from the outside and it certainly might seem trivial to the casual observer. Just as one platoon of Marines might look like another to a civilian or one business might seem indistinguishable from the one next door. But, we all know the reality is different. Every meaningful institution has a culture all its own. Every family has its inside jokes, its peculiar way of doing things, its habits and mores developed around a specific shared experience.

One of the things that keeps slugging me in the face is the fact that the cultural memory of our little family has been dealt a terrible blow. Sure, my mom’s around, but sons have a different memory of family life than parents. And Josh’s recall for such things was always not only better than mine, but different than mine as well. I remembered things he’d forgotten and vice versa. In what seems like the blink of an eye, whole volumes of institutional memory have simply vanished. And that is a terribly lonely thought, that no amount of company and condolence can ease or erase.

In Other News

Okay, now that I’ve addressed the 800-pound gorilla in the room first, let’s move on (“Wait, please look under my cushions, the gorilla left you a ‘present.’” –  The Couch).

As you may have noticed, there’s been some news since my last G-File, whenever that was. About a week ago, the conflict in Wisconsin was shaping up to be the Spanish Civil War of domestic policy (which is better than it shaping up to be the Spanish Fly of domestic policy, not least because I have no idea what that would mean). But I no longer see it that way. Scott Walker deserves plenty of praise and support, but it’s becoming very clear that this is an idea whose time has come. As I put it in my column this week, Americans are coming to grips with the fact that public-sector unions have been a 50-year mistake.

Anyway, at this point I’m sure everyone is sick of the familiar arguments against public-sector unions. So here’s a very quick less-familiar one. I’ve been reading Tyler Cowen’s e-book The Great Stagnation. (I’ve got some problems with his argument, but it’s still a very worthwhile read.) One of the points he makes is that two of the sectors that have been the most immune to great waves of productivity, efficiency, competition, and modernization are education and health care. I don’t think any sane person can really dispute that as a broad generalization. And while I don’t think public-sector unions are the sole or even chief problem in those realms, it strikes me as near impossible to reform these sectors without breaking the spines of public-sector unions.

And please don’t tell me that crushing the unions will mean that jobs in nursing and teaching won’t pay well any more. The domestic oil and gas industry pays twice the average national wage and it is largely non-union (which offers one more reason why the Democrats don’t care about the oil and gas industry). There will be strong demand for nurses and good teachers. But there will be less demand for padded payrolls full of deadwood. In D.C., at least until Michelle Rhee came along (and was then eaten alive by the teachers’ union), there was one education bureaucrat for every teacher in the district.

I don’t know what “winning the future” means, but I do know what bankruptcy, stagnation, and woe mean. And that means radically changing the way we do business.

Left-wing Pranks = Journalism, Right-wing Pranks = Evil Lies

I’m not sure what I make of this story about a prank caller pretending to be one of the Koch brothers. But I do have one minor observation. How is that when a left-wing blogger pretends to be someone he’s not and catches a Republican in what amounts to a “sting,” it’s a vital source of news, but when right-wing types conduct stings at Planned Parenthood or ACORN, it’s all an elaborate and dangerous fraud? I’m sure somebody at Media Matters for America will explain it to me when they’re done smelling their fingers.

Pot Pourri

At some point I need to write up my visit to Israel. It was my first trip there, and if I hadn’t gotten the news about my brother while there, it would have been a pretty profound experience. But I should at least say here that it was a great experience and the folks at the Emergency Committee for Israel did a fantastic job.

This is really cool.

Over the last month, I have traveled across about 12 time zones, and not in a straight line either. That has allowed me to catch up on Fringe (a Fox TV series). I really dig it. Look for obscure and annoying Fringe discussions in the future. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Minor announcements

I was supposed to receive the 2011 Robert J. Novak Journalist of the Year Award at CPAC a couple weeks ago. But I couldn’t make it because I was dealing with my brother’s arrangements. I was all set to make some fun jokes about how amused Bob Novak would be to learn that I was flying in from Tel Aviv to accept the award. Anyway, I want to thank Rich Lowry for subbing for me at the last minute. He did a fantastic job. And I want to thank the folks at CPAC for being so understanding.

In late March or early April, I should be speaking at UNC-Chapel Hill. More details when I’ve got ‘em.

On April 1, I will be the keynote speaker at the Philadelphia Society meeting in Dallas. I’ve never been to a Philadelphia Society meeting, but I’ve always wanted to go (for those who don’t know it’s one of the oldest and most venerable gatherings of conservative eggheads).

On Monday, I’m scheduled to be on Red Eye. I’ve never done it from in studio. I feel like I’m heading into the cantina on Tatooine.

That’s it for now. Happier days ahead.

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg