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 (including exalted knights of the sword of covfefe),
I don’t want to sound disgruntled about how calling this a “news”letter is even less of a nomer than it was before. I would like it to go beknownst to the reader that I am in fact quite gruntled this morning. In fact, I am so overflowing with feck and gruntle, it is my intention to have my prose seem as choate and promptu as I, your humble correspondent, seem chalant and kempt. I know that you, dear readers, are defatigable with tiresome gimmicks and mayed by my cessant writing about my bridled support for the president. And while some of you are merely whelmed by my less than dignant criticisms and bounded optimism, many are not. So, if it doesn’t seem too petuous of me, I’d like to avoid discussing our flappable commander in chief and his peccable presidential demeanor. I went to sleep at a godly hour last night but I did not wake at one. (Apologies to Jack Winter.)
So, let’s start this again.
My Friday column is about how the new wave of iconoclasm today isn’t really about iconoclasm, and it isn’t really new. Iconoclasm — the toppling or destroying of statues and images — is merely a symptom of our underlying civilizational illness.
I wanted to write about Numantia in the column, but I got too dragged into the nitty-gritty of the controversy over Christopher Columbus, specifically the ridiculousness of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the New York City Council, wanting to pull down the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle. So, let me pick up where I left off. I concluded:
My point is not that the world ushered in by Christopher Columbus has been very good to Mark-Viverito, though it obviously has. It is that toppling some statues or even incanting some nonsense about “cultural appropriation” cannot separate the iconoclasts from the culture they live in. The mobs of students — and their enabling professors and administrators — renaming buildings and bowdlerizing the language are still products of Western civilization. Even the poseurs who think Googling a few phrases from Karl Marx and wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt make them anti-colonialists are disciples of Western thinkers. Where does Mark-Viverito think her mother’s feminism came from? The Arawaks?
For centuries, to the extent that educated Muslims talked about the Crusades at all, it was to boast about how they emerged victorious from them. But Osama bin Laden and his ilk read too much Noam Chomsky and caught the Western disease of victimization and resentment.
That is the plague sweeping the land now. And tearing down some statues and renaming some streets isn’t a cure, it’s a symptom.
I guess I should back up. What is — or was — Numantia? It was an ancient mountain town in Spain (an oppidum if you need a Word of the Day). It was also the Iberian Celtic Alamo. When the Roman Empire was consolidating power in the Mediterranean, a bunch of native tribes resisted and defeated the Romans time and again. Numantia was sort of like their Tora Bora (though it probably had a smaller porn stockpile).
Finally, in 143 b.c., Scipio Africanus Minor was made consul (for a second time) because he was known to have an impressive stockpile of canned whup-ass. The Senate believed he was the only man capable of crushing the Numantines and restoring honor to the Roman army. Scipio accepted the job, but he kept his whup-ass mostly in the tins, despite the fact that he was given some 30,000 soldiers.
Scipio, a great student of war and history, was well-versed in the classic blunders, the most famous of which at the time was: “Never get involved in a land war in Numantia.”
So, instead, he launched a legendary siege, ringing Numantia with forts, walls, and towers. He even rigged a badass thingamabob across the River Duero. He moored huge trees on either side and strung a cable across festooned with blades and spearheads that constantly spun around thanks to the current, making it impossible to swim or boat past. If you disregard the tragedy, horror, and death, the whole thing was really quite impressive, in a Game of Thrones kind of way.
Eventually, Scipio starved the Numantines out. Some Numantines killed themselves, others were captured and sold into slavery.
But like the Alamo and Masada, the story of Numantia lived on. Cervantes even wrote a tragedy, The Siege of Numantia. And to this day, Spaniards hold festivals in their honor. Yuval Harari recounts how Numantia became a symbol of Spanish nationalism and independence. In Spain, during the 1950s and 1960s, the Golden Age of Comics, the greatest Spanish superhero was El Jabato, a fictional Iberian rebel fighting off the Romans:
But here’s the point (you knew I’d get to it eventually). For all the romanticizing of Iberian resistance, Harari notes, the celebration of Numantia is really a tribute to the triumph of Rome. The Numantian language is dead. Cervantes wrote in Spanish, a derivative of Roman Latin, using Latin script. The Spanish are overwhelmingly Catholic, and Catholics tend to pray in the language of the Romans. And the head of the Church, of course, is in Rome. Harari:
Similarly, modern Spanish law derives from Roman law; Spanish politics is built on Roman foundations; and Spanish cuisine and architecture owe a far greater debt to Roman legacies than to those of the Celts of Iberia. Nothing is really left of Numantia save ruins. Even its story has reached us thanks only to the writings of Roman historians. It was tailored to the tastes of Roman audiences which relished tales of freedom-loving barbarians.
The victory of Rome over Numantia was so complete that the victors co-opted the very memory of the vanquished. [Emphasis mine]
The Confederate Exception
The fight over Confederate statues is an outlier in the larger trend of iconoclasm in part because there are good arguments on the side of taking at least some of these statues down. Many of the monuments — statues as well as street names — to the Confederacy were put up as an asinine rebuke to the Civil Rights Movement. More charitably, some saw them as a consolation prize in this, their final defeat, at the hands of Lincoln’s American Empire of Liberty. Robert E. Lee was a kind of El Jabato of the self-styled beautiful losers.
My own attitude toward those monuments is somewhere between agnostic and pragmatically against them. If this controversy were an isolated event, unconnected from the larger war on the past, I’d say get rid of them for the most part. If all they represent is an irritable mental gesture against the Civil Rights Acts, then who needs them? And if the past-eating langoliers of today could be satiated with a few busts of Nathan Bedford Forrest, I’d be happy to feed them.
You Lost, and That’s Okay
But something else is going on. Many liberals love to mock “the War on Christmas” as so much talk-radio filler. And they often have a point. But many of these liberals are the first to argue that we need to replace Christmas with “Winter Break” or bore me to death with pseudo-sophisticated lectures about pagan solstices. As I mentioned in the column, “crusade” is now a triggering-word. So is “assimilation.” People take offense at saying, “America is the land of opportunity” or a “melting pot.” Yale and Silicon Valley think the word “master” is a hate crime, even when applied to liberal administrators and hard drives. I’ve been writing for years that America is suffering from a kind of autoimmune disorder where we’ve become allergic to our own civilization.
The universities infested by entitled little Jacobins are Western institutions, but every day the rabble take sledgehammers to the soapboxes they stand on.
The fascinating part is that this disease — one I chronicle at book-length in my forthcoming book — is a product of the West, too, particularly in America. Our congenital distrust of authority and suspicion of history were born in the Enlightenment and it informs us all, progressives and conservatives alike. It is what makes America great and exceptional, but in too big of a dose, it becomes lethal. Letting go of the past is the great American curative for all manner of European social and political pathologies. But letting go is not the same thing as forgetting, and forgetting is not the same thing as hating. The progressive push to erase the past has gone from being a remedy for social resentment to a cause of social resentment. The cure has become iatrogenic (iatrogenic ailments are conditions caused by the effort to cure other maladies).
When I listen to modern-day know-nothings of the Left and the “Right” curse modernity and capitalism, while hearkening back to some pre-Columbian Shangri-La that never was; or when ridiculous alt-righters prattle on about their Teutonic heritage and Viking vigor, you know what I see: a kind of Numantian cult.
They want to order off the Chinese menu of modernity, picking and choosing the dishes they like, while at the same time cursing the cuisine and the culture that created it. It’s like Hollywood lefties who crap on America, the only society in the world that could have ever made them incredibly wealthy for making movies about fart jokes. The universities infested by entitled little Jacobins are Western institutions, but every day the rabble take sledgehammers to the soapboxes they stand on. They take for granted their rights and privileges that derive entirely from the tradition they denounce. They think they are heroes in the real world, never realizing they are playing a game only made possible by the tradition they ignorantly claim to hate. And if they took the goals of the game and successfully applied them to the real world, they’d be the first to whine about how backward, unfair, and hard the world they created was.
They have no real tradition to draw upon save the one they claim is oppressive and cruel. They literally speak its language, use its laws, and benefit from its institutions, while claiming to be part of something more authentic.
We need the past like drivers need rearview mirrors. Get rid of the mirrors and, eventually, something terrible will happen. Similarly, if you concentrate on them too much, you’re sure to crash as well. Progress depends on knowing where you’ve been.
Various & Sundry
Simian Update: This is my second-to-last full day out west. It’s been a fun trip. We drove from Jackson Hole to Bend, Ore., and from Bend to Depoe Bay and from Depoe Bay to Portland. We then bade farewell to the Fair Jessica, who had to get back to work. Then my daughter and I launched our daddy-daughter adventure. We went indoor skydiving in Portland, which was really cool (I’d show you the video, but we’re still having trouble downloading it). Then we flew to Southern California. I’m typing this right now from poolside. My daughter just finished lunch and before that she had her first surfing lesson. Tomorrow we go to Universal Studios, where I expect to hemorrhage even more cash I don’t have.
Somewhere in there, we saw the eclipse (my daughter snapped some great pics and I broke new ground in eyewear fashion). It wasn’t cool the way I expected, but it was as cool as I had hoped. I was under the impression that a total eclipse meant the sunlight went away completely, like nighttime. It didn’t, at least not where we were. Instead, it was this fairly surreal twilight. It wasn’t quite a religious experience for me. Listening to some of the “experts” in advance of the event, I half expected petrified dragon eggs to hatch or the 2016 presidential race to be revealed as a dream. Instead, it was just nifty — and a great, memorable family experience. One thing I learned: In all of the movies and TV shows featuring eclipses, what you see on the screen isn’t what anybody sees with the naked eye. Even when the sun was 95 percent blocked, you really couldn’t see it without the special glasses. It turns out that cinematic eclipses are like loud explosions in space or good flan: kinda fake.
Oh and today is my 16th wedding anniversary. It kinda stinks that we’re apart for it. But after 16 years, delaying the celebration by a few days is not exactly a heavy lift, considering all the other stuff the Fair Jessica has to put up with. I remain, as ever, astonishingly lucky.
It also stinks that we had to leave the quadrupedal Goldbergs at home. We drove through hundreds of miles of doggie nirvana and spent hours pointing out things our beasts would like to jump into, run through, roll in, or chase. It never really feels like a full vacation when the beasts aren’t with us. The Fair Jessica says they freaked out appropriately upon her return. Normal canine updates to resume next week.
And now, the weird stuff.