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 particularly the lawyer at the State Department who has been selected to pretend he gave Hillary Clinton permission to set up a secret server),
Anyway, I read the essay and lo and behold, McLaughlin was right. I haven’t fully gotten it out of my head yet, which can lead to awkwardness as I have a habit of shouting “get out of my head!” at inappropriate moments under such circumstances. So I will try get it out of my head here. Ace writes:
In a movie or book, “The MacGuffin” is the thing the hero wants.
Usually the villain wants it too, and their conflict over who will end up with The MacGuffin forms the basic spine of the story.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the MacGuffin is, of course, the Lost Ark. Indy wants it; the Nazis have it. This basic conflict over simple possession animates a two hour long movie.
Alfred Hitchcock noted — counterintuitively, when you first hear this — that the specifics of the MacGuffin don’t really matter at all to a movie. He pointed out that the audience doesn’t care at all about the MacGuffin. The hero in the movie itself cares, but the audience doesn’t.
In one Hitchcock film, the MacGuffin was some smuggled uranium hidden in vintage wine bottles. But Hitchcock noted it didn’t matter if it was uranium in wine bottles, or a fragment of a diplomatic dispatch from the Nazi high command, or a hidden murder weapon, or photographs proving a Senator’s affair.
The Lost Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark could have easily been replaced with some missing Shankara Stones from a Thuggee temple, or the Holy Grail. In fact, that’s exactly what they changed the MacGuffin to in the sequels.
No audience member really cared if the Nazis wound up with the Ark of the Covenant….But we cared about Indy. He was a character we liked, a character that sparked our imaginations; whether he was looting a South American burial mound (illegally, by the way!) or blowing off his students by sneaking out a back window during office hours (poor work ethic, incidentally), we rooted for him to win….
A quick aside. I have a longstanding grievance about exceptions to the rule of MacGuffins. Sometimes you really do care about the MacGuffin, particularly when the MacGuffin is a baby. Imagine if you replaced the golden idol in the first scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with a live infant.
“Throw me the whip!”
“Throw me the baby!”
There is a very long list of reasons why the movie Willow was awful. But near the top of the list is the fact that the MacGuffin was a human infant. No one really cares when you drop the briefcase with the nuclear codes or when you throw the smegma sample from the dead hooker’s perineum. But when you toss around a baby (or a puppy, kitten, etc.), the audience stops caring about the hero’s heroic struggle of heroism and instead worries about the baby. Interestingly, adult living MacGuffins usually aren’t as problematic. Audiences don’t care if the super-hot princess or telepath is dragged around. But the only time a baby MacGuffin didn’t ruin the movie was in Raising Arizona, as a far as I can remember.
It’s All About the Kampf
Okay back to the point. Ace goes on to apply the MacGuffin dynamic to politics. For instance:
Watching Chris Matthews interview Obama, I was struck by just how uninterested in policy questions Matthews (and his panel) were, and how almost every question seemed to be, at heart, about Obama’s emotional response to difficulties — not about policy itself, but about Obama’s Hero’s Journey in navigating the plot of President Barack Obama: The Movie.
As with a MacGuffin in the movie, only the Hero’s emotional response to the MacGuffin matters.
The coverage of the Iran deal . . . is suffused with how this is an epic struggle for Obama’s legacy. How every new Democrat who falls in line is a victory for Obama.
I think this explains a monumental amount about how Obama has been treated by the mainstream media and how he’s viewed by his biggest fans (but I repeat myself). The coverage of the Iran deal, for instance, is suffused with how this is an epic struggle for Obama’s legacy. How every new Democrat who falls in line is a victory for Obama.
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Ace does a great job discussing how the fight for Obamacare was seen through the same prism. The policy arguments were always secondary to The Struggle. The same dynamic happens on the right all the time. Ted Cruz in the government-shutdown fight didn’t have the numbers on his side when it came to votes, but lots of people didn’t care because they were invested in his epic struggle — and for understandable reasons. It should be no surprise that I think lots of people have bought into Trump the Story more than Trump the man. Similarly, Ben Carson, a deeply admirable man, isn’t selling a lot of policy ideas. He’s selling his (amazing) life story and — by extension — a story about America many of us want to believe in. That was the secret of Barack Obama’s success, too. He sold a lot of Americans on his story and to this day he never tires of invoking himself as proof that America’s not all bad.
Hillary Clinton is in trouble in no small part because she can’t sell the story she needs to tell about herself. She wants to make her candidacy into the payoff for some epic struggle of womankind. Clearly some people have bought it. But most people see her less as a generic woman and more as the conniving, controlling Clinton she is. It’s a funny irony that she’s a victim of feminism’s success. People see her as an individual — an individual they don’t like or trust — and not as a mere gender category.
This Is Your Brain on Politics
But, I think you can take all this further. I’ve written a lot over the last couple years about how I think narrative is so much more important than people realize. The human brain has hardwiring. We like fatty and sweet foods more than sour and bitter ones for reasons that go back millions of years. It’s not that we can’t acquire a taste for sour or bitter foods, but it doesn’t come as naturally to us. Ever watch videos of babies eating lemons for the first time?
The reason the babies reacted like someone told Dick Cheney he has to sit next to Pat Leahy at a state dinner simply has to do with the way we’re wired.
Well, the brain was wired to take in information via stories. (It helps if they’re sung and rhyme a lot, but that’s a topic for another day.) Every important lesson of your life comes with a story. Every important precept of the Bible is embedded in a narrative. For most people, when data geeks try to convey information without the benefit of an accompanying story, our eyes glaze over. When I hear some of my AEI colleagues explain heteroskedasticity I want to smash their graphing calculators against the wall, like Bluto did to the guitar of the guy who was singing “I gave my love a cherry.”
Leviathan’s Epic Struggle
Anyway, I’ve said all this before (“Repetition is this ‘news’letter’s one constant” — The Couch). An interesting way to look at how liberals talk about government is to think of it in terms of a story. When I was on the National Review cruise this summer, MSNBC was on the TV via satellite. Unlike Fox, which could sell ad space for its international service, MSNBC had no paid commercials. Instead, the network ran those incredibly asinine “Lean Forward” ads over and over again. It was hilarious. It was like watching TV in North Korea or Stalin’s Russia. Instead of uplifting reports on how this year’s grain harvest will humiliate the running-dog capitalists, it ran Rachel Maddow’s disingenuous odes to the Hoover Dam and other public-works projects. They even had Melissa Harris-Perry’s indictment of the private ownership of children, which she ultimately had to apologize for. You know, because it was evil. But when you watch them all together (which I don’t recommend without professional supervision), you can see the bigger picture.
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Ever since Hegel or maybe Plato, statists have been telling a story about government in which government itself is the hero in an epic struggle. At least for Hegel, the state was the mechanism by which God worked out His will. For Marx, the State was an expression of cold immutable forces. For the socialists who followed, control of the state was a kind of MacGuffin but over time it became the hero itself.
When Obama talks about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, the physical manifestation of that pie-eyed treacle is always government.
When Obama talks about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, the physical manifestation of that pie-eyed treacle is always government. When liberals talk about the progress we’ve made as a society, the hero is always the state (and the heroic individuals who bent it to their will). It doesn’t matter that the market, non-state institutions, and heroic individuals tend to solve most of the problems in life; the government is always shoe-horned in as the indispensable author of beneficence.
Of course, the often unstated heroes are the people who put their faith in government. When Obama says, “Government is us,” what he’s really saying is that we can be heroic on the cheap by letting the government do what liberals want. That’s the real moral of their story. And conservatives need to get better at telling a better one.
September 11, Remembered
Today is the 14th anniversary of that awful day. I don’t have much to add to what I’ve said before, what others have said today, and to what those who lived through it already know. I’m reluctant to just go through the motions rhetorically because I think that’s the kind of thing that fossilizes and calcifies what should in fact be a very living moment in most of our lives. But I do feel compelled to say that I don’t think America has become a better place since then. There have been good moments and bad, of course. But the moral or cultural arc of America has not bent upward. The fact that the most celebrated writer in America right now can in effect boast that he felt no sympathy or empathy for the cops and firemen who ran to their deaths that day is not a good sign. Nor is the almost universal critical applause he received for writing it. Ward Churchill was a marginal buffoon made famous by his “Little Eichmanns” outburst. Ta-Nehisi Coates is, I’m told, one of the world’s most important intellectuals.
I’m still an optimist about America, but that optimism doesn’t come nearly as naturally to me as it once did. Maybe it’s just the moment that we are in. Fourteen years ago today I wrote:
America is up to the task. Indeed, as the echoes of partisan shrieking over the budget and the absurdities of the Social Security lockbox fade quickly in the face of a real challenge, I’m reminded of the observation (by Eugene McCarthy, I think), that “America can choke on a gnat, but it can swallow tigers whole.” We’ve been choking on gnats for the last few months. It’s time to devour some tigers, and without apology.
As ISIS runs largely unchecked in the Middle East and as we close a deal to guarantee the Iranians a nuclear bomb, even as they continue to foment terror around the world, those words seem Pollyannaish to me now. Maybe we’re just one election from changing course. That’s a story I’d like to believe in.
Various & Sundry
I’ll be on Special Report tonight (again, if you’re reading this on Friday or if you DVR’d it and are watching it Saturday night).
My column today is on the refugee crisis that is actually a migrant crisis.
My column earlier this week was on Hillary’s umpteenth reinvention (comes with bonus Lanny Davis mockery).
I should have posted this last week. I did a video for Prager University on the “Wrong Side of History” which seems apt given today’s “news”letter.
If the subject interests you, here’s some bonus reading.
Dingo Update: Not much to report. Zoë ate a whole chipmunk right after last week’s G-File was sent out. I think she must have the most powerful digestive system in the world, because she never even burped and we’ve seen no evidence of any other gastrointestinal difficulties. Oh, one other thing. This is my kid’s first week at a new school and she’s pretty upset about it. No need to get into the details. But one funny upside is that my dog is almost a real super-villain. She literally thinks my daughter’s tears are delicious. Fortunately, it makes my kid laugh.
Last week’s G-File was the subject of a lot of praise and a lot of anger. The anger was much louder than the praise. I do want to respond to at least some of the reactions, but I figured we could all use a largely Trump-free G-File. So I’ll try to get something on the site today or tomorrow.
In other news, we have an oddly phallocentric list of odd links. Make of that what you will.