The G-File

Politics & Policy

The Problem of Identity

Roger Stone speaks after his appearance at Federal Court in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., January 25, 2019. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
For God’s sake — and ours — try taking people as you find them.

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 everyone who won so much from the government shutdown),

World-renowned rodent fornicator Roger Stone was arrested this morning, providing a wonderful moment to be literal, figurative, and literary all at once: for it would take a heart of Stone not to laugh. This lexicological ménage à trois should not be confused with the sort of threesome Roger solicited in Local Swing Fever.

By the time you get this “news” letter, you will probably know the details, so we won’t linger over them the way he lingers over his own pecs in the mirror or the glutes of the single dude who answered Stone’s Web ad:

Hot, insatiable lady and her handsome body builder husband, experienced swingers, seek similar couples or exceptional muscular . . . single men,

And some of Stone’s defenders call me a “cuck.”

My point is, this isn’t like the situation with Michael Flynn, a man who gave decades of courageous service to his country and ended up straying from the path (to one extent or another). Even Paul Manafort, who shares many of Stone’s ethical and moral shortcomings — going back at least to their work together defending various Third World dictators as leaders of the “Torturers’ Lobby” — is a different creature than Stone. Manafort at least maintained the pretense of decorum and decency in public. The defining attribute of Manafort is simple, swampy greed. Stone literally brags about his sleaziness. He wears it on his immaculately tailored sleeves. When a New Yorker writer asked him why he moved to Miami, he quoted a Somerset Maugham line: “It’s a sunny place for shady people. I fit right in.”

It’s funny because it’s true.

It was thanks to his contacts with the Florida sex industry that Stone successfully orchestrated the downfall of Eliot Spitzer. While I am the first to concede that there were some silver linings to seeing that thuggish Javert removed from the public stage, that doesn’t compel me to admire the man and his means (including, for instance, his threatening prank call to Spitzer’s 80-year-old father).

Similarly, the predawn raid on his home may have been over the top (time will tell if Mueller had a good reason for it), but the idea that it should arouse so much sympathy for a man who boasts of his lack of sympathy for others, his alleged threat on a man’s dog if he cooperated with Mueller, his habit of wishing death on inconvenient women and of hurling dimwitted racist taunts, not to mention his bottomless record of dirty tricks, strikes me as a moral red herring.

Speaking of bottoms, I’m more torn about the plethora of jokes on the Twitter on how he might enjoy prison given his proclivities. And I’m not referring to his back tattoo of Richard Nixon, which would make for a great visual as he worked out à la Robert De Niro in Cape Fear.

I’m torn because jokes about prison rape are justifiably condemned these days. Like any rape, it’s a heinous crime. But that’s not what I’m getting at.

You see, Stone is an avowed “libertine” who says “I’m trysexual. I’ve tried everything.” So while Stone doesn’t hesitate to say, “Die, bitch,” or express hope that his interlocutor kill herself, I am not wishing any violence on the man. Even his threat to disappear a man’s dog — which raises particular rage in me — should not cause one to stoop to his level (even though it says in the Bible, “Verily, ye may bathe in the blood of lawyers and sophisters, a man’s dog is beyond the reach of vengeance”— okay, it’s implied).

Stone often wooed the ladies by noting that, thanks to his tat, “you’ll never meet another man with a d*** in the front and a d*** in the back,” another bon mot that might become both literal and figurative — if not quite literary — should he be incarcerated.

More seriously, I understand that the party line keeps moving from “Nothing happened” to “If it happened, what’s the big deal?” to, sometime soon, “You’re damned right it happened, and thank God it did!”

But working with foreign adversaries to criminally hack the servers of an American political party would be bad, regardless of what you — or I — think of Hillary Clinton (and to be clear, Stone has not been charged with that, yet). And no amount of shrieks of “But Uranium 1!” or “But her emails!” can change that fact. If the situation were reversed, the “But her emails!” people would be the first to admit this.

Moreover, lying to Congress and witness tampering are bad, too. That these are the charges Mueller is leveling at Stone lends credence to the appointment of Mueller in the first place. People are correct when they say that Congress is the proper venue for such investigations. But since Congress seemed uninterested in pursuing or exposing these lies, who else but Mueller was going to do it?

Regardless, if Stone is proven guilty, he should go to prison. And if he does, Stone should enunciate clearly, for, given his reputation, some of his confrères might be forgiven for mistaking his “But her emails” rants for a casting call for buttery males.


The Suicide of America, an Allegory
I was mugged a few times as a kid. In each instance, the mugger was black or Hispanic. If I were to write that, due to these experiences, I know all I need to know about black or Hispanic people, I’d be open to all manner of charges — racism and stupidity chief among them — and rightly so.

You know what else happened to me as a kid? Someone I didn’t like smirked at me (including a couple of the muggers). Why would it be any less idiotic to suggest that I now know everything I need to know about the smirkers amongst us? And yet, this week, a lot of people did exactly that:

Of course, they weren’t offended by all smirkers, just the white male smirkers — or white male Catholic smirkers. But the point is the same.

The Covington-kids controversy exposed what lies at the very heart of what ails our society these days. I’m not referring to the very real bigotry against Christians in general or Catholics in particular. Nor do I have in mind the equally real problems with social media or the various battle lines of the culture war. These are all expressions or manifestations of the underlying problem.

I am referring to the problem of identity. In mathematics, the transitive property of equality holds that if X equals Z, and Y equals Z, then X and Y are the same. But the social concept of identity holds that if person X is white, and person Y is white, then person Y is the same as person X. The language is rarely so simple as that, but the idea is.

During the Kavanaugh brouhaha, I wrote a column arguing that the fight was so intense because it was essentially an allegory. Why was Kavanaugh so angry about being called a drunkard and rapist, I asked? My answer:

The most common explanation — the hot take so hot it melted the conventional wisdom and forged a new concrete groupthink — is that Kavanaugh was so angry because he represents White Male Entitlement.

The WME explanation is a form of allegory, not argument. In allegories, the characters aren’t real people so much as metaphors for certain ideas. For instance, in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), the main character is named Christian, and on his trek he encounters other abstractions in human form, such as Mr. Worldly Wiseman.

Kavanaugh is now Mr. White Male Entitlement, and as such, he is by definition wrong because that is his assigned role.

In the Covington spectacle, all of the players were assigned allegorical roles that stripped away any notions of true individuality. For untold thousands — or millions — of people, all you needed to know about the individuals involved was that they fit into pre-assigned roles of identity. The kids were white, they were Catholic, and some even wore MAGA hats. Nathan Phillips, the drumbeating Native American, was a Native American, he was old, and he was a veteran. Even when the truth started to trickle — and then flood — out, invested observers couldn’t let go of their original idea of how the story in their minds was cast.

The kids were harassed by a cult of bigots known as “Black Israelites.” But since they were black, countless people, from Phillips to the folks at the New York Times, struggled mightily to minimize or dismiss their pernicious role. Even when it was revealed that Phillips was at best, extremely deceptive, or more accurately, deliberately dishonest, people clung to the idea that he was the wronged party.

And, as Rich Lowry chronicles, even after it was revealed that the kids mostly behaved admirably, the witch hunters fell back on condemning them anyway because they wore those talismanically evil hats. As someone at Vox wrote: “The hats extinguished pretty much any benefit of the doubt a liberal observer might have given these kids.” David Simon declared: “Once a campaign prop, a MAGA cap now fronts for such raw evil.” Leading public intellectual Alyssa Milano declared that MAGA hats are “the new white hood.”

I want to move beyond the Covington thing to stay on my larger point, but it’s worth addressing one last example. My colleague Nicholas Frankovich penned a blog post that joined in the pile-on, because he made the understandable mistake of believing the initial video and the press coverage of it. His post wasn’t National Review’s editorial position any more than this “news” letter is.  When the truth was revealed, we deleted the post, and he and the magazine apologized. Since then, we’ve run some of the most thoughtful pieces condemning the pile-on. But because transitive-property thinking is so powerful, there are still hordes of people out there who simply refuse to let go of their anger at National Review and all its writers. They know the facts, they just don’t care because they are committed to a larger manifestation of this mindset. Despite numerous pro-Trump or Trump-sympathetic writers at National Review, despite all we’ve published about the Covington controversy that aligns with their views, we are seen as traitors to the cause among those who’ve invested themselves totally in Trump, Trumpism, and their fantasies of the glorious world Trump will deliver — or would deliver, if their allegorical hero had not been stabbed in the back. We are an evil “Them” now, and there’s no desire to rewrite the script to fit reality.

Me, Us, Them
“Identity,” Leon Wieseltier once suggested, might be thought of as “the solution to the problem of individuality.”

Wiseltier also argued that “individuality is ancient, identity is modern.” I understand what he meant, but I think he was wrong. Both are ancient concepts — timeless, actually — in the sense that both ideas lie at the heart of what it means to be a human. We all, to one extent or another, think of ourselves as unique, if for no other reason than the fact that we have access to our own minds and emotions, but not to other peoples’ — at least not in the same way. We don’t experience life through anybody else’s senses. The motivations of others may be knowable from time to time — and even shared — but they aren’t felt the way we feel our own wants and desires. (I should probably note that Wieseltier had some difficulty controlling his wants and desires when they conflicted with those of some women he worked with.)

What is true is that the idea of individuality, how we think about the rights and privileges we attach to the individual person, have changed across time and locale. But the individual conscience, the idea that “I am me,” has always been there because it is an emanation of the instinct to survive, which we all have.

Meanwhile, identity, the notion that the Me shares something important with others like Me, is eternal as well. We are a cooperative species that has managed to survive this long only because we figured out how to work together. For most of human history, tribes invested huge importance in the equivalent of MAGA hats. It was important — vital — to distinguish Us versus Them. So how one group wore their hair, painted their faces, or whatever else was a signal to distinguish friend from foe and was every bit as vital as the different uniforms of opposing armies. In a state of war, which is man’s natural state, the transitive property is a survival mechanism. One enemy warrior — or, for that matter, a bear or tiger — is no different than another, and not just because they look (or dress) alike.

In a modern, liberal democratic civilization, this form of thinking is dangerous. But because the tide of prosperity is sweeping away the traditional warrens of meaning and belonging, people are searching for off-the-shelf individuality, which is really a form of conformity to some flavor of identity. A certain amount of identity is inevitable — and often healthy — because we all belong to abstract categories that have meaning for us (though it’s always better to find meaning in more-substantial sources of identity). But the drive to replace individuality is often a sign of shallow and cheap individuality.

If one fears to be judged on your own merits because you know, deep in your soul, you’ll be found wanting, you’ll attach yourself to some abstract identity that gives you meaning you did not earn. The man who never served who claims to be a veteran, the veteran who never saw battle who claims to have fought bravely, the loser who falls back on his white skin to claim to be better than others, the minority who blames his failures or bad luck on the innate evil of the majority, the young activist who insists she must be listened to solely because she was born more recently than her more-informed elders: These and so many others are types of people who want to buy status on the cheap. And it is the very cheapness of the identity that causes us to cling to it ever more angrily. Women are more liberated than ever before, but they grow louder about their oppression. White supremacy has been erased from most hearts and from the law books alike, but we are told that this has only freed the menace to grow.

“An affiliation is not an experience,” Wieseltier writes. “It is, in fact, a surrogate for experience. Where the faith in God is wanting, there is still religious identity. Where the bed is cold and empty, there is still sexual identity. Where the words of the fathers are forgotten, there is still ethnic identity. The thinner the identity, the louder.”

Our system cannot work if we don’t honor the moral obligation to take people as we find them. And yet everywhere you look, you hear or read supposed intellectuals and moral influencers reducing vast swathes of people to abstract categories. From Black Lives Matter activists who only see skin color — or police uniforms — to supposed deep thinkers who make sweeping statements about Christians or the products of Christian education. Ta-Nehisi Coates is an intellectual rock star for reducing millions of people to their skin color. Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and their allies see “billionaires” as evildoers to be punished or eradicated solely for their membership in a class of people. Blacks rightly complain about the phenomenon of being singled out for the crime of “driving while black.” For the new levelers, the wealthy are guilty of the crime of existing while rich.

Large swathes of the Right are equally guilty, and not just the poltroons of the alt-right. In Texas, some Republicans wanted to defenestrate a Muslim Republican solely because he was a Muslim. Many on the right reflexively behave like the mirror image of Black Lives Matter, instantly crediting anyone who wears a police uniform, regardless of what they did.

When President Trump announced his candidacy he said:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Since then, the argument has changed somewhat. To his credit, he emphasizes the distinction between illegal and legal immigration more, but he also talks less and less about any “good people” coming here illegally. Instead, illegal immigrants are increasingly an undifferentiated mass of criminals, rapists, drug dealers, and sex traffickers. Of course, some are. And we have every right to fight illegal immigration, even when the illegal immigrants are good people.

But utterly lost in Trump’s increasingly desperate attempts to paint all illegal immigrants as an undifferentiated blob of danger is any attempt to recognize the humanity of the individuals involved. With the help of his enablers, every evil illegal immigrant is held up as X and every illegal immigrant, we are led to believe, equals X. And it’s a lie.

The transitive property is what makes identity politics and allegorical thinking possible, and it is incredibly dangerous to what this country is supposed to be about. I know a**holes who wear MAGA hats and I know great people who wear MAGA hats. I know wonderful, compassionate people steeped in a Christian education, and I know people who use their Christian credentials as a racket. There are illegal immigrants who should get the chair or rot in prison, and there are illegal immigrants who live honorable lives making wonderful contributions. Reducing millions of people to abstractions, indicted by collective guilt, because of the actions of a specific individual is the habit of mind that has led to more deaths — by which I mean murders — and systemic cruelties than any other in human history.

For God’s sake — and ours — try taking people as you find them.

Various & Sundry
My apologies for the epically long “news” letter today. As often happens, I planned to write about one thing and then the gods of the news cycle intervened. And I felt like I couldn’t let the Stone thing go, if for the only reason that I think it’s so funny to say “But her emails” five times fast and have it turn into “Buttery males.”

Canine Update: The girls are prospering — perhaps a bit too much. We’re increasingly worried that Zoë is getting too Rubenesque. The thing is, we really don’t overfeed her, and she gets plenty of exercise. Also, any diet that she interprets as favoritism toward Pippa could be a problem, not least because Zoë has no problem with eating Pippa’s food when she feels entitled. Any suggestions about how to deal with this are welcome. In the meantime, they’re loving life in the cold weather — and in the warm confines of our home. Though Zoë sometimes finds the mid-morning wait for adventure a melancholy affair, there are remedies for that. But Pippa is really enjoying her ability to show off her camouflage skills, and the ice doesn’t last long. Even the denial of mud service imposed by Old Man Winter can’t take the waggle out of Pippa’s caboose. And few things are more exciting than the return of the mater familias.

And now the other stuff

This week’s first Remnant, with Charles Lane, was a fun one. And hopefully by the time this reaches you the second Remnant will be up, on missile defense with Tom Karako. You can look here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Last week’s G-File

Last week’s G-File . . . B-side?

Will Trump get a primary challenge?

America doesn’t need a helicopter-mom-in-chief

Missing details

The mess we’re in

Good news for Suicide of the West (the book)

What might have been

Congressional Republicans and shutdown blame

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Thursday links

Debby’s Friday links

Last words

Drunks for hire

Dog bites man, then . . . dog’s owner bites man

Nature’s revolt

Nature is revolting

Always wondered why no one ever did this

The world’s largest airport terminal

I bless the rains

“Bohemian Rhapsody” on a carnival organ

Reporter rescues drowning jogger

The Seventh Seal has been broken

Behold: the blood moon

Beware the EMPs

Tanning-salon Godfather

Staying safe on ice

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