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 the president of the United States whenever he gets to this after dealing with many important fundraisers),
If you’ve been reading my stuff over the years, you’ll find a number of common themes (“And recycled jokes. Let’s not forget those.” — The Couch). One such theme is that liberalism hides behind seemingly value-neutral or benign language in order to advance a value-laden and not necessarily benign agenda. That was the basic idea behind The Tyranny of Clichés. Conservatives argue as conservatives. Liberals tend to argue not so much as liberals, but in a variety of disguises, each of which tries to draw on authority unearned by liberalism itself. Indeed, the history of American liberalism can be understood as a series of costume changes. A new nominally non-ideological discipline emerges — political science, engineering, public health, psychology, environmentalism, neuroscience and, these days, various forms of data prestidigitation — and liberals flock to it. They don the latest fashionable version of the white smock and say — à la Bill Murray in Ghostbusters — “back off man, we’re scientists.” Or to be more fair, they claim to be speaking for the scientists, engineers, psychologists, and other experts. “We’re not ideologues, we go with the facts.” This game was old when Walter Lippmann came out with his Drift and Mastery. After all, Karl Marx, the Babe Ruth of this sport, had long before insisted that his shtick wasn’t opinion or even mere analysis, but a new science.
In 1962, John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement address at Yale. He explained that “political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solution” of today’s challenges. At a press conference the same year, he expanded on the idea. “Most of the problems . . . that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” These problems “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men” and should therefore be left to the experts to settle without subjecting them to divisive democratic debate.
Today, the political landscape is littered with earnest, well-intentioned, and often, incredibly sanctimonious liberals who insist that they are simply pursuing truth and fact regardless of ideology. This, of course, remains Obama’s favorite pose. It runs through the “scientific consensus” argle-bargle on global warming. When Chris Hughes took over what has long been considered the flagship magazine of American liberalism, he ridiculously vowed that, “the journalism in these pages will strive to be free of party ideology or partisan bias.” The same conceit is behind Vox.com and “explanatory journalism,” which everyday sinks further and further into liberal Ronburgundyism. (Coming soon at Vox: “Fifteen Reasons Why San Diego Really Does Mean ‘Whale’s Vagina’ in German — And Why That Has To Change.”)
It’s Biden’s Party
Speaking of Ron Burgundyism, remember Joe Biden’s vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan? He’d flash those teeth like a flounder that accidentally picked up a set of dentures. He’d laugh like the crazy guy on the bus who knows the driver is really following the chem trails in the sky because you can still get a Snickers bar for less than a dollar. He’d guffaw at any suggestion he or the president did anything wrong — ever — and shout “malarkey” at the idiots and knaves who thought otherwise. And, sadly, it largely worked. I’m beginning to think Biden was simply ahead of his time. So much of elite liberalism these days is little more than bluster and self-satisfied blather.
For instance, I am so disappointed in John Oliver’s HBO show, Last Week Tonight. I like Oliver’s stand-up and his stints on Community. But his approach is simply Bidenism refined. The show begins from the premise that liberal conventional wisdom is not only right but obviously so and then simply works backward to “prove it.” In Britain, populist tabloids are condemned by people of Oliver’s persuasion for simply confirming the prejudices of the working class. Last Week Tonight is a similar effort for the more upscale — and often more prejudiced — HBO demographic. He doesn’t tell his audience anything it doesn’t want to hear, he just gives them new and occasionally funny reasons to feel good about themselves. The only difference between his show and the typical MSNBC host’s is that Oliver is funny on purpose.
The Dogma Business
Anyway, I kind of wandered off from where I planned on going with all of this. For the record, I’m not saying that politicians, pundits, and other partisans should not consult the opinions of scientists and other experts. Of course they — we — should. We learn new and interesting things all of the time. What I am saying is that liberalism is constantly rebranding itself as solely an explanation of reality and it constantly needs to rebrand itself because reality keeps revealing that it isn’t.
What worries me — a lot — is that reality is coming to the rescue of liberalism. No, I don’t mean that the crooked timber of humanity has grown straight or that it now makes sense that the Pentagon hold bake sales to pay for bombers. What I mean is that progressives are quicker to seize on the political opportunities created by a changing culture.
What is commonly called “political correctness” doesn’t get the respect it deserves on the right. Sure, in the herstory of political correctness there have been womyn and cis-men who have taken their
seminal ovulal ideas too far, but we should not render ourselves visually challenged to the fact that something more fundawomyntal is at work here.
Political correctness can actually be seen as an example of Hayekian spontaneous order. Society has changed, because society always changes. But modern American society has changed a lot. In a relatively short period of time, legal and cultural equality has expanded — albeit not uniformly or perfectly — to blacks, women, and gays. We are a more heterodox society in almost every way. As a result, many of our customs, norms, and terms no longer line up neatly with lived-reality. Remember customs emerge as intangible tools to solve real needs. When the real needs change, the customs must either adapt or die.
Many conservatives think political correctness forced Christianity and traditional morality to recede from public life. That is surely part of the story. But another part of the story is that political correctness emerged because Christianity and traditional morality receded. Something had to fill the void.
I wish more conservatives recognized that at least some of what passes for political correctness is an attempt to create new manners and mores for the places in life where the old ones no longer work too well. You can call it “political correctness” that Americans stopped calling black people “negroes.” But that wouldn’t make the change wrong or even objectionable. You might think it’s regrettable that homosexuality has become mainstreamed and largely de-stigmatized. But your regret doesn’t change the fact that it has happened. And well-mannered people still need to know how to show respect to people.
Identity politics is only part of the story, and not even the most important part. Medical, technological, and economic changes are almost surely far more important than changing demographics alone. A society where individuals are vastly more autonomous than they were a century ago is simply going to have different codes of conduct and manners. The telephone, television, and the car did more to liberate young people from the moral cocoon of their families and communities than any libertine intellectual fad (you can be sure that driverless cars, for instance, will change society in unimaginable ways). Democrats recognize this, which is why they’ve cynically exploited changes in family structure, female labor participation, and reproductive technology and declared that Republicans have declared war on women. It’s not remotely true, but it is effective.
Now, I don’t actually think Christianity is necessarily inadequate to the task of keeping up with the changes of contemporary society. (The pagan Roman civilization Christianity emerged from was certainly less hospitable to Christianity than America today is. You could look it up.) But Christianity, like other religions, still needs to adapt to changing times and the evolving expectations of the people. I’m nothing like an expert on such things, but it seems to me that most churches and denominations understand this. Some respond more successfully than others. But it’s hardly as if they are oblivious to the challenge of “relevance.”
My concern here is more about mainstream conservatism. I think much of what the Left offers in terms of culture creation is utter crap. But they are at least in the business of culture creation.
The New Manners
And that brings me back to where I started. I began this “news”letter talking about how liberalism hides behind seemingly non-ideological language in order to advance an ideological cause. Think of political correctness in those terms. Progressives are steadily dismantling the beautiful cathedrals of traditional manners and customs, arguing that they’re too Baroque, too antiquated. They use the sledgehammer of liberation rhetoric to destroy the old edifices, but their fidelity to liberty is purely rhetorical. In place of the old cathedrals they build supposedly functional, modern, and utilitarian codes of conduct. But these Brutalist codes are not only unlovely, they are often more prudish than traditional approaches. Like some Six Sigma seminar participants holed up in a Holiday Inn conference room, Harvard is currently gathering its finest minds to draw up the procedures for sexual conduct and consent. The end result will surely be a clipboard check-list to rival that of any Jiffy Lube manager’s in both romantic appeal and sexiness.
What I would like to see from conservatives is recognition that some of the cathedrals are outdated. But instead of arguing that they should be razed and replaced with Jacobin Temples of Reason with rites and rituals grounded in abstraction, why not argue for some long overdue updating and retrofitting? I guarantee you more women prefer a modified version of the traditional process of wooing, courting, and dating before sex than the “modern” schizophrenic system of getting drunk enough for a same-day hook up but not so inebriated to forget to get a signature on the consent form. Traditional notions of romance and respect are far better tools than the mumbo-jumbo campus feminists have to offer. The problem is that the mumbo-jumbo feminists are fighting largely uncontested.
Various & Sundry
You may have noticed that there’s very little discussion — by which I mean none at all — of the headlines in the news today. That’s in part because I don’t think the downing of a passenger airliner or the fighting in Gaza lend themselves to a lot of jocularity. But it’s also because I’m in San Francisco with the missus on a mini-vacation, and I haven’t read up on the Malaysian flight enough. As for Israel, I wrote about that earlier in the week. You wouldn’t believe the vile and vacuous stupidity of some the responses. Or maybe you would. Either way, I’ve had my say on that stuff this week.
As for Zoë updates, there isn’t much of one to give. She’s in the big house, the stony lonesome, up the river, the clink, the slammer. The good news is we found a cage-free kennel that lets all of the dogs run around, like so many prison gangs out in the yard. She seems to dig it a lot. I’m hoping she doesn’t come back with too many tattoos.