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.
Normally I save the overtly gratuitous book-plugging (not to be confused with car-plugging — a very different thing) for the end. But this week, in lieu of that, I’d just rather start off by saying, Thank You.
And now, Dear Readers (would that the two groups fully overlapped!),
For over a decade, I’ve been running around like that woman in The Twilight Zone screaming, “To Serve Man! It’s a cookbook!” about the dangers of an idea: the Moral Equivalent of War.
Normally, I’d go on for several paragraphs — or pages — demonstrating how MEOW has been the central idea of American liberalism for over 100 years: from John Dewey’s “social benefits of war,” to Woodrow Wilson’s “war socialism,” to FDR’s explicit embrace of martial organization to fight the Great Depression, to the New Frontier and the War on Poverty, straight up to Barack Obama’s call for America to be more like Seal Team Six. Instead, I just asserted it in a single sentence. The idea can simply be understood as the progressive version of nationalism, minus the word “nationalism.” When you say, “We’re all in it together” or, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” you’re making a nationalist argument, even if you think, as so many liberals do, that the word itself is icky.
While many causes associated with the moral equivalent of war are well-intentioned and honorable in spirit (fighting poverty, conservation, etc.), the problem with the idea itself is that it is totalitarian — in a psychological, if not always in a political, sense.
William James, who coined the term, believed that war brought out what is best in people (men, mostly) and society in general. It causes us to lay down our petty individual pursuits to rally to a unifying cause larger than ourselves. But James also understood that war itself is horrible. What he wanted was to keep the esprit de corps and self-sacrifice of war while removing all the bloodshed and destruction. “Martial virtues must be the enduring cement” of American society: “Intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command must still remain the rock upon which states are built.”
James sincerely believed that:
The martial type of character can be bred without war. Strenuous honor and disinterestedness abound everywhere. Priests and medical men are in a fashion educated to it, and we should all feel some degree of its imperative if we were conscious of our work as an obligatory service to the state. We should be owned, as soldiers are by the army, and our pride would rise accordingly. We could be poor, then, without humiliation, as army officers now are.
All that was required to mold citizens into obligatory servants of the state was patience and the willingness of progressive leaders to make sure that they didn’t let good crises go to waste. “It is but a question of time, of skillful propagandism, and of opinion-making men seizing historic opportunities.”
If you’re a conservative, never mind a normal American, and can’t see the inherent illiberalness or at least the potential for illiberalness in the idea that “skillful propagandism” should be deployed by the state so that citizens feel “owned” by the state as soldiers feel “owned” by the army, and that “surrender of private interest” and “obedience to command” of the state must be the rock of our republic, I’m not sure what I can do to convince you.
War, What Is It Good For?
Still, William James was a brilliant philosopher and psychologist, and his insight into the power of war as an idea to transform the mind was entirely correct. In many respects, humans could be described as Homo belligerans. We rose to the top of the food chain because we learned how to cooperate as hunters and fighters.
Darwin himself recognized this. He noted that if one tribe consisted of selfish or autonomous individuals and another tribe included “courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other,” the latter tribe would “without doubt succeed best and conquer the other.” We’re all descended from killers who worked with other killers to kill less skillful or less lucky killers.
This is just one reason why martial metaphors are so sticky and enduring, particularly in politics: Air campaigns in battleground states are opening salvoes with warning shots aimed at hot-shot opponents paid for with war chests.
Martial metaphors are also all over the place in sports, particularly football. I’ve always liked George Carlin’s bit on the differences between baseball and football.
It dawns on me, however, that Carlin’s routine might be more insightful than I gave him credit for. Baseball, as Al Capone explains in The Untouchables, is a game that marries team effort with individual achievement. But the team effort is only on defense. On offense, the player stands alone. Carlin was right that baseball is 19th-century pastoral and football is 20th-century technological. I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had there.
But we’ll skip that for today, because I want to talk — rant perhaps — about something else.
War on the Right
As I suggested at the outset, the moral equivalent of war isn’t only a rationalization for expanding state power, it’s also a psychological phenomenon that can ensorcell the minds of people who are out of power and possess all sorts of movements, institutions, and organizations — from environmentalists to Antifa to prison gangs to conservative intellectuals.
Over at The Federalist, someone writing under the pseudonym “John Ericsson” has penned an essay titled “It’s Time for the Right to Realize the Left Is a Much Greater Threat Than Trumpism.” I’ve already ranted about this at the end of the latest Remnant podcast, so let me try to be more composed.
Ericsson argues a number of things that I have no quarrel with on the merits, though I do bristle at the idea that he thinks I need a tutorial from him on such matters, as I’ve been making many of these arguments in literally thousands of columns and in three books over the last quarter century. So, yes, I agree that the Left is the aggressor in the culture war and that leftists pee from a great height on tradition-minded Americans. As someone who’s been saying for years that the single most fascistic thing commonly said on American campuses and elsewhere is “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” this did not strike me as a thunderclap insight, even if Mr. Ericsson thinks it’s something new. Maybe it is, to him.
Regardless, Ericsson starts from this conventional conservative insight to argue, as the headline suggests, that Trumpism isn’t as bad as the Left and that the Left poses a greater threat to America than Trumpism does. For Ericsson and his admirers, this is a profound and powerful mic-drop truth. Moreover, they think that all action from conservatives should flow from this assumption. In short, this is war. Ericsson writes:
If Goldberg and [Bill] Kristol want to secure a future for individual liberty and human flourishing in American life, they’ll need to learn the lesson that allowed Elliot Ness to realize his goal in The Untouchables. Ideas and persuasion alone — the path forward Goldberg offers –are as insufficient to stem the tide of illiberalism sweeping across the country as a few liquor raids were to bringing down Al Capone. To echo the challenge made to Ness by Malone, the streetwise Chicago cop who helped him bring down the crime boss, “What are you prepared to do?”
Now, I should say that I suspect Ericsson’s real target here is Kristol, and I should also note that I don’t agree with everything Bill has done or said. Bill wears more hats than I do: He’s a writer, institution builder, and a political operator. So, for example, I would never do something like this. Now, Bill can defend himself quite ably. But on the major questions facing conservatism, I agree with him — if not with all of his tactics and techniques.
So, let me concentrate on what I find so tedious and tendentious about Ericsson’s argument, which is nothing more than a warmed-over version of Michael Anton’s “Flight 93 Election” essay — also written from the safety of a fake name. Which brings me to my first objection. Just as Anton denounced conservatives who make a fraction of what he made on Wall Street for selling out and not being willing to fight in the political arena, while hiding his identity lest he pay any price at all for his own words, Ericsson asks me what I am prepared to do as he sits at his desk in some lobbyist’s office (sorry “government affairs” office).
The commonplace insinuation that Trump-skeptical conservatives, as a group, lack courage or commitment is insultingly dumb on the merits (just ask all the writers at RedState who were let go for failing to pick up the pom-pom). It’s of a piece with the schmaltzy populism of multimillionaire Sean Hannity, who used to rail against the “Jonah Goldberg class” as he flew private from one lucrative event to another.
What are you prepared to do, Mr. Ericsson, if you’re not even willing to put your name where your mouth is?
And then there’s the larger point. Ericsson’s analogy to The Untouchables is basically a moral-equivalent-of-war argument, just like Anton’s “Flight 93” schtick. Presumably, neither of them takes the analogy to its logical conclusion. As with so many things, we are supposed to take it “seriously not literally,” since a literal reading would wholly justify violence against our political opponents. (My friend Dennis Prager struggled to thread this needle when he insisted that America is in the middle of a real “civil war” not a figurative one.)
Against the Popular Front
Still, the analogy isn’t a form of thinking; it’s a form of unthinking. Its utility lay in closing off nuance, avenues of thought, and alternative arguments in favor of the logic of the Popular Front and “No enemies on the right.” At least when Anton was writing, there was a pending election, and the “It’s a binary choice!!1!11!” yawp had some real relevance.
In the Popular Front days, liberals were told that they couldn’t criticize Stalinists because they needed to be united against the common enemy of fascism. That idea nearly destroyed American liberalism. Not long ago, many conservatives were arguing we needed a popular front with the identitarian racists of the alt-right. If more people had listened then, it might have spelled the end of American conservatism.
Erick Erickson cut to the chase of what’s wrong with this mentality in a tweet:
The problem I have with the leftism is worse than Trumpism so be a Trump Humper argument is that Nazism was worse than communism in WWII, but communism was still bad. Leftism and Trumpism are kissing cousins using mobs to bully for different cults of personality. We can do better
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) May 3, 2018
Life isn’t binary — and neither is politics. If you are adrift in the ocean, your enemy isn’t just sharks; it’s thirst, hunger, drowning, and despair itself. If you face your predicament assuming the only thing you have to worry about is being eaten by a shark, you might fend off the sharks, but you will also probably die. Indeed, by ignoring other threats, you’d probably make yourself more vulnerable to a shark attack.
I have no problem conceding that progressivism poses a greater threat to America than Trumpism. What I oppose are the conclusions people such as “John Ericsson” draw from that. Those conclusions rest on a raft of unproven assumptions, starting with the idea that if only the Kristols, Ericksons, Goldbergs, Frenches, et al. stopped pointing out the manifest flaws, lies, trade-offs, and moral compromises inherent to 100 percent Trumpism, it would make a difference in Trump’s battle with progressivism. Would that it were true. In my more cynical moments, I sometimes suspect their real goal is not to guarantee a Trump victory but rather to guarantee that any defeat will be usefully shared and that no one will be able to say, “I told you so.”
Does Ericsson think that, if literally every conservative went Full Gorka, Republicans would attract more voters? I’m going to need him to show his work.
But it goes deeper than that. Ericsson says that “ideas and persuasion” are almost comically insufficient in this war. What is required is a Colonel Kurtz–like will to do what is necessary. Maybe that’s true. But what, specifically, does he think I should be doing? Does he want me to lie? Sign up as an assistant to Sarah Huckabee Sanders so she can more artfully spin and prevaricate? Should David French radically reinterpret his Christian faith and defend shtupping porn stars while you have a wife and newborn at home? Must I rush to defend this deranged carbuncle in his bid to send “Cocaine Mitch” packing?
What in the world did I just watch pic.twitter.com/4eudpGAxp0
— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) May 3, 2018
Does Ericsson think that, if literally every conservative went Full Gorka, Republicans would attract more voters? I’m going to need him to show his work.
More to the point, if the argument is that there’s no room on the right for people who want to stay in their lanes, make arguments, and try to persuade people, then the Right is doomed, and deservedly so. I have very little disdain for the paid GOP operatives trying to sell the main ingredients of sh** sandwiches as pâté. That’s their job, not mine. Nor do I condemn people who work in this administration trying to advance conservative policy. I applaud them, for the most part. But some people — like this guy — apparently think that everyone must mimic the worst tactics of the Left, grab the nearest club to hand, and fight for the leader of our tribe.
And let me be clear: This isn’t simply some Ivory Tower argument. I’ve been engaging in the arena for most of my adult life. I have no problem with the suggestion I should have the future of the conservative movement or even, to some limited extent, the future of the Republican party in mind. I work for a magazine that endorses politicians regularly. But another faulty assumption inherent to this binary-war jaw-jaw is that it will be better for the Republican party if everybody on the right gets on board and rows as one to the beat of Trump’s drum. This thinking assumes that Trump is the solution to the problems Ericsson lays out and that if you’re not part of Trump’s solution, you’re part of the problem. I think that’s silly and unserious.
Whatever successes the conservative movement has put on the board over the years — the rise of the Federalist Society, victory in the Cold War, the Contract with America, welfare reform, etc. — were achieved in no small part because conservatives were willing to champion ideas at the expense of blind fealty to the GOP and the demands of the election cycle.
Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the model I’ve decided I want to follow professionally. I’m no George Will, Charles Krauthammer, William F. Buckley, Tom Sowell, or Irving Kristol, but I’m happy to say they’ll always be important role models for me because they were and are the kinds of intellectuals and writers interested in the long game. This is the lane I’ve chosen, admittedly with more jokes. If there are people on the right who think that’s cowardly, illegitimate, or insufficient, they can use ideas and persuasion to try to change my mind. They’ll have less success banging war drums and telling me I have to do my part.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: So the hot weather is here in D.C. — and that means some lifestyle changes. First, the dogs are somewhat less insistent on sleeping with humans for warmth, which is a nice change of pace. Second, there’s more swimming. Pippa always goes in the water, even on freezing cold days. It’s her nature. But Zoë usually just gets her feet wet — until damnable Helios rains down her rage, and the Dingo transforms into the Crocodingo or, if you prefer, the Dingodile. Zoë, however, always takes pains to keep her tail from getting wet. The warm weather also brings out the rabbits. Unfortunately, these critters cling to residential neighborhoods — I think because the foxes don’t like the cars and dogs. Alas, Zoë can’t be off-leash in these areas for a bunch of reasons, the chief being that she doesn’t like other dogs in her territory and the second being that if she starts chasing rabbits or squirrels, her blood gets up, and she will no longer listen to reason: The next thing you know, she’s running into traffic, exploring back yards, digging holes, importing Yellowcake uranium from shady Nigerians, etc. This morning, I had to walk Zoë, on leash, to the entrance to the woods, and there were rabbits everywhere just lollygagging, in open defiance of the Dingo’s authority. Zoë put the fur in furious. Meanwhile, the Spaniel remains as spanielly as ever. I’m not going to address the controversies in my Twitter feed regarding charges that I tweet too many pictures of the dogs. Here I stand.
Starting Sunday, the crazy-travel part of the book tour begins. I don’t know for sure whether I can maintain my G-File schedule, but I’m going to try. You can go to JonahGoldberg.com for book-tour details.
ICYMI . . .
And now, the weird stuff.