The G-File

Culture Wars All the Way Down

President Obama touts a federal minimum-wage hike at the University of Michigan, April 2, 2014. (Joshua Lott/Getty)
The sharp demarcation between cultural issues and economic ones is ultimately bogus.

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 the escort from Ipanema, who might feel ignored by this “news”letter),

As the Cartagena hooker said after getting paid up front, “Where should I begin?”

I love that even Jimmy Carter is turning on Obama. The headline from Time magazine:

Jimmy Carter: Obama Dropped the Ball on ISIS Threat

First of all, having Jimmy Carter out-hawk you is like having Joe Biden attack you for being verbally undisciplined. “He really should be more careful about what he says,” Biden advised, then added, “A great way to cool down on a hot day is to shove lime Jell-O in your pants. Be sure to remove the pants-squirrels first, though.”

Jimmy Carter is like a veterinarian who specializes in male puppies: He knows his ball drops. Just for Giggles (Giggles is a guy I know without Internet access), I googled “Jimmy Carter dropped the ball.” Among the results about how Jimmy Carter dropped the ball on Iran, the Soviet Union, the Metric system, etc., I found this Yahoo Answers page from 2011. The question:

“What did Jimmy Carter do as Chief Diplomat? Any example even if he did a horrible job at it.”

The “best answer” was: “Saying Jimmy Carter dropped the ball is a BIG understatement.”

#ad#The only other answer? “Failed miserably.”

Now, I don’t take Yahoo Answers all that seriously. I mean I’m not a policy adviser to the vice president of the United States or anything.

Moreover, Carter is right (“Sentences I thought Jonah Goldberg would never write for $1,000, Alex”). It’s obviously true that Obama ignored the Islamic State for too long. But, as I self-indulgently ranted in the Corner the other day, he didn’t ignore it until it became too big a threat, with too many victories under its belt. Okay, technically he ignored those things. But what made him change course was the popular and media reaction to the mess on the ground. He was perfectly prepared to keep ignoring the strategically significant stuff, if only the press and the public hadn’t gotten so angry about those beheadings of Americans and the ongoing slaughter, torture, rape, and crucifixions. The supposed “Chess Master” was never thinking five moves ahead. He simply reacts to the news of the moment. As I wrote:

One can debate almost every foreign-policy decision Obama has made with regard to the merits, but if you take a step back it becomes clear that the real driver of Obama’s decisions is Beltway chatter and the domestic politics that feed it. And it’s not just on foreign policy. Whenever a scandal erupts, he says whatever words he has to to make the media firestorm go away. And because the media doesn’t like to dwell on bad news for Obama, it usually works.

But here’s a different way to think about it. Let’s imagine that America’s national interest is completely disconnected from the domestic news cycle. It’s not a difficult thing to imagine, given that it is so often true. But let’s imagine that the disconnect is even more total. The press never covered the Islamic State. Never reported on the slaughter in Iraq and Syria. Never raised any concerns about what the rise of a terrorist army says about Obama’s foreign policy or our long-term interests in the region. The press focused instead on George Clooney’s wedding, events in Ferguson, Mo., and how awesome Lena Dunham is. Again, this isn’t a hugely difficult mental exercise.

In short, imagine the rise of the Islamic State over the summer presented all of the same national-security and humanitarian problems, but no political problems for Obama. Now ask yourself, would Obama have done anything about it?

Remember: The Islamic State took Fallujah and Mosul months ago and he kept calling it the “jayvee team.” As recently as August, he was telling Tom Friedman that it was ridiculous to arm the Syrian rebels. In September, he was wistfully complaining that the Islamic State made a mistake in beheading those Americans because it aroused U.S. public opinion for war. In other words, doing nothing about the Islamic State was Obama’s foreign policy until the domestic political situation made his foreign policy untenable. Chess Masters think many moves ahead, novices respond to whatever their opponent’s latest move is. Total amateurs just move pieces based on shouts from the crowd watching the game. Obama’s like a kid looking for approval every time he touches a piece.

And that’s why I have no confidence that Obama will stick with his war on the Islamic State one minute longer than the polls and political expediency require.

#page#Ebola: A Clarification

Last week I offered a scenario of how the Islamic State could use Ebola to truly terrorize America. Lots of readers complained that my scenario was “gross” and “icky.” This in itself seems like an unfair new standard for this “news”letter. A smaller number of readers complained that it was unrealistic, even irresponsible. Ebola is hard to contract and even harder to weaponize. All I was doing was feeding the maw speculation and hysteria. To which I respond: “Meh.”

#ad#First of all, so what if weaponizing Ebola is impractical according to some Six-Sigma power point presentation? The larger point I was making is that it is wildly impractical for terrorists to put so much time and energy into blowing up planes. The point of terrorism isn’t rational efficiency, it’s to arouse irrational fear. Even 100 failed attempts to get Ebola into the country would be a huge win for the Islamic State in terms of sowing panic and mayhem. Look at what one moron did on a plane yesterday. (FWIW: If you shout, “I have Ebola, you are all screwed!” on a plane it should be heard as “Please taze me bros.”)

People forget that the Department of Homeland Security was created only partly because of the 9/11 attacks. What sent Washington into almost as much of a tailspin were the anthrax attacks — in part because they were aimed at politicians and journalists.

(Fun fact: A huge swath of our thank-you notes for our wedding presents were destroyed by the post office back then. It took us a year to figure out why so many people kept calling us to ask, “Hey, did you get the bread maker we gave you?”)

The Cartagena Hooker of Lady Jihadists

Oh, a reader sent me a link to this piece about Aafia Siddiqui. She’s called “The World’s Most Wanted Woman,” but they don’t mean it in the Kate Upton-playing-the-Cartagena-hooker-in-the-Cinemax-movie Secret Services: The Cartagena Story way. She’s the Pakistani neuroscientist also known as Lady al-Qaeda. She attended M.I.T. and has a Ph.D. from Brandeis. (Way to go, Brandeis!) Anyway, the Taliban wanted to trade Bowe Bergdahl for her and the Islamic State offered James Foley in exchange for her. I remembered reading about her back in August. But I didn’t know this bit:

Siddiqui was arrested in 2008 in Afghanistan carrying sodium cyanide, as well as documents describing how to make chemical weapons and dirty bombs and how to weaponize Ebola. When FBI and military officials tried to question Siddiqui, she grabbed a weapon left on the table in her interrogation room and fired upon them.

Two takeaways: 1. So they’re already thinking about it. 2. Um, who leaves a weapon on the table during the interrogation of a terrorist?

As for the charge that I was being gross, I think you people should be more grateful for my restraint. For instance, I left out my argument for how to improve screening of passengers from West Africa. I can sum it up in two words: rectal thermometers.

Wedge This

So the other day I was on Fox talking about the minimum wage, or rather I was on Fox to talk about the politics of the minimum wage. I made the point I’m about to make right now. The reason Democrats are always trying to raise the minimum wage is so they can get Republicans to vote against the minimum wage, a point others have made in the past (including, I recently learned, Kevin Williamson in this excellent primer on the issue). More broadly, the minimum wage is a wedge issue for Democrats. The fact that it is at best an insignificant and silly idea and at worst really terrible economics is entirely beside the point.

When I first started following politics in a serious way, “wedge issues” were terrible, no good, very bad things. David Broder, Tom Edsall, Eleanor Clift, and others would decry the use of wedge issues — race, abortion, patriotism, etc. — because they “divided” Americans. What this really meant was they divided the enduring Democratic coalition, separating out working-class whites and other constituencies moving rightward with Reagan. Looking through the hundreds of stories on Nexis from the late 1980s and early 1990s on the sinister exploitation of such issues is really a lot of fun. Here’s a headline from a 1989 Edsall piece in the Washington Post: “GOP Honing Wedges for Next Campaign; Party Aims for Partisan Advantage by Making Corruption, Drugs and Crime Divisive Issues.”

Good lord! Will those Republicans stop at nothing to win elections? To be fair, the reporting in the piece wasn’t bad (I have my problems with Edsall, but he’s a good reporter). But what I love about the (utterly typical) headline is the underlying assumption that making major controversies and policies “divisive” is somehow wrong.

Sure, sometimes Republicans went too far on some issues. But at the end of the day, division is what democracy is about. It’s about disagreement not agreement. Arguments are democratic. Unity for its own sake is fascistic.

#page#The Democrats were on the wrong side of a bunch of corruption scandals (For those old enough to remember: Jim Wright, check-kiting, the White House post office, etc.). They were also on the losing side of the arguments about crime and drugs. And — shockingly! — Republicans exploited that fact. What seemed to offend vast swaths of the political establishment was the fact that Republicans were trying to win over segments of the Democratic base. And that goes for lots of Republicans who simply got used to the idea that the Democrats were the majority party.

Seriously, I know people today think that the GOP is overrun with RINOs and squishes eager to sell out like a Cartagena hooker during fleet week. But it’s nothing like it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Former House minority leader Bob Michel, used to tell new GOP freshmen:

“Every day I wake up and look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘Today, you’re going to be a loser.’” He continued: “And after you’re here a while, you’ll start to feel the same way. But don’t let it bother you. You’ll get used to it.”

#ad#For decades, the best working definition of an evil wedge issue was any issue that is politically disadvantageous for Democrats to talk about. It’s of a piece with the mindset that exalted the phrase “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” under Bush and immediately downgraded dissent to the lowest form of racism under Obama.

And so, as I’ve argued before, under Obama wedge issues are fan-fricking-tastic, they just don’t call them wedge issues anymore. Obama’s whole approach to politics has been to whip up issues — real and fake — that divide the American people. And, as a matter of principle that’s okay. Not the fakery, of course, but the division.

Culture Wars All the Way Down

Anyway, here’s the point I intended to get to much earlier. I’m coming to the position that every issue is a cultural issue. According to the Thomas Frank view, there are two kinds of issues: real issues and cultural (or social) issues. And, if he had his way, all elections would hinge on “real issues.” He writes in What’s the Matter with Kansas: “People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about. This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.”

This is of course, warmed-over Marxist twaddle. Frank thinks his view of economic interests is the only defensible view and everything else is boob bait for bubbas (Pat Moynihan’s orthodox liberal ad hominem for Clinton’s push for welfare reform) or what the Marxists call “false consciousness.” Much like Lena Dunham’s sex scenes, the list of things that are wrong with this is very long. People vote on the kind of community or country they want to live in, period. That means that taxes are a legitimate issue, but it also means that guns and abortion and free speech are just as legitimate. Liberals implicitly understand this, even if they lie about it routinely in their rhetoric. They are the first to invoke the language of values and right-and-wrong on the issues they care about, whether it is gay marriage or immigration or civil rights. And they are entirely right to do so. Where they are wrong is when they employ the language of “real issues” to dismiss any value-laden arguments that help conservatives win elections.

(For example, most of the priorities associated with repelling the “war on women” amount to boob bait for Julias. They reflect zero concern for the real problems facing the majority of Americans and the majority of women, but the rhetoric works to keep relatively affluent single white women in the Democratic column. But don’t you dare say Democrats should drop that nonsense and talk about “real issues.” No, it’s only right and good to talk about real issues when Republicans talk about the war on the traditional family, the war on the Second Amendment, or the pledge of allegiance.)

Remember when John Kerry insisted that his religion compelled him to tackle virtually every public-policy issue under the sun — except for abortion? Same deal. Democrats have no problem talking about religion when they feel it works for them. Heck, a couple of weeks ago, Kerry said that the Islamic State was an “order of Satan.”

The sharp demarcation between cultural issues and economic ones is ultimately bogus. It should be no surprise that Obama goes around prattling about inequality as a values issue. It is! Even if he gets the economics wrong. My values say that tolerating a certain amount of income inequality is necessary if we are going to live in a society that rewards merit, liberty, etc. His value system downgrades those concerns and elevates others. The economics all comes second (a view many economists will agree with).

Obama does the same thing on the minimum wage, immigration etc. Sure, you can apply strict economic analysis to these topics, and sometimes that is helpful. But that’s like setting aside all of the ingredients of a cake before you mix them together. People don’t eat the eggs, the milk, the sugar, etc. separately. They eat the cake.

And sometimes — quite often, in fact — economic analysis is utterly beside the point. And when it is, that doesn’t make the issue at hand any less legitimate. Indeed, most of the really important issues aren’t strictly speaking economic. Spout off regression analysis and cost-benefit hootenanny all you like, I will still hold that murder must be punished, slavery is wretched, rape is evil, liberty is a blessing, and honor has value; the numbers be damned.

I want to be paid more than I am and work less than I do (“Just like a Cartagena hooker!” — The Couch). Economics matters to me. But it is instrumental. Tell me that I could make more and work less if I abandoned my family or if I killed the competition and I will respond, “So what?” (Besides, it’s really hard to get at the brake lines in George Will’s car.)

Aristotle says that man is a political animal and politics is the means by which we decide how we should live. And the question of how we should live is only, at best, partially about economics.

#page#Various & Sundry

So, as the White House counsel probably asked during her thorough “investigation,” what’s the deal with Cartagena hookers? Well, as I write today (and said last night on the panel), I find the term mellifluous and euphonious (which sounds a bit like a detective duo from ancient Rome or maybe Pompeii: SVU). It is my hope that “Cartagena hooker” enters the political lexicon permanently and, as the Cartagena hooker said at the orgy, I’m going to do my part.

#ad#Zoë Update: She was a bad girl this week. On Sunday, she nearly got taken out by a stag in the park she couldn’t leave alone. On Tuesday, she once again pulled a Gore Vidal and rolled in deer poop. And on Wednesday, well on Wednesday we had a first. We use a great dog-walker for the midday walk a couple days of the week (the Fair Jessica works too, you know). The dog-walker is a great gal who walks a whole pack of dogs that Zoë adores. Anyway, the other day the dog-walker drove into the park with an SUV full of Zoë’s friends. And what did the dingo do? She ran up and jumped in the driver’s side window. Zoë’s jumped out of car windows before, even moving ones when she couldn’t wait for the parking to end. But this was new.

Cosmo Update: I intended to write something in the Corner last week on the one-year anniversary of Cosmo the Wonderdog’s passing. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. He still looms large in our hearts. We miss him so.

By the time you read this, I will be in Florida. I’m taking my daughter on a surprise Daddy-Daughter trip. In fact, I have to go wake her and give her the news in about 5 minutes (it is 6:00 A.M. as I write this sentence).

But this Tuesday, I will be at Penn State for something called Truth Week. Apparently, I’m talking about Liberal Fascism. Come on by if you can.

As many of you know, the GLoP podcast usually has some great Photoshop picture of me, Rob Long, and John Podhoretz. This week they just went with some candid nude photos.

This was going to be the inspiration for today’s column.

The truth about Harry Reid!

Five words that are spelled wrong because of a mistake.

Woman gets “How much is that doggie in the window” stuck in her head for four years.

15 things you might not know about Rhode Island. (Also acceptable: fifteen more reasons not to care about Rhode Island.)

Meet Garfi, the angriest cat on the Internet

Dogs with human hands in hoodies

55 most offensive Halloween costumes of all-time

Detroit homeowner wants to trade his house for an iPhone 6

World’s most expensive burger

$1,000 pizza

Haunted-house reactions caught on camera

Zoo spends years trying to mate two male hyenas

Cat drinks beer with four paws

A guy tickling a camel

Japanese company creates hugging chair to cure loneliness

Boxing kangaroos brawl

Alligator vs. tiny crab

“She had a little on the side.”

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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