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 all the depressed Sex and the City fans),
As Tonto said when the Lone Ranger wanted to shoot his favorite grizzly, bear with me.
You may not have noticed, but a lot of prominent people have conducted themselves poorly in our public discourse lately. One need only dip a spoon into the bubbling caldron of asininity, crudity, and viciousness to illustrate the point.
The president of the United States alone has a greatest-hits album that we are all familiar with at this point, so I need not move on that subject like a b****.
His former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, not long ago made a mocking “wah wah” sad-trombone sound while someone described a child with Down syndrome being distraught over being separated from her mother and put in a cage. His former campaign chairman, Steve Bannon, told a crowd full of nativists, xenophobes, and racists, “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.” On the same tour, the man who wanted his former website to be the “platform for the alt-right” and who made a defender of “ephebophilia” one of its early stars, praised the virility and fashion sense of Mussolini.
More recently, would-be Spartacus of the Senate Cory Booker said that anyone supporting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh was “complicit in evil.” Last week, to cheers of many in the media, protesters relentlessly beclowned themselves in a Senate hearing, offering barbaric yawps to punctuate the more refined smearing and character-assassination perpetrated by elected officials. The same week, a senior official in the White House anonymously confessed to being part of a secret cabal working against an “amoral” president.
The other day, Hillary Clinton peddled a lie just to sow paranoia and rage. Supposedly serious commentators invoke polls of an uninformed electorate to argue that constitutional procedures should be ignored. Others argue for court packing, while less serious people ask, “Where’s John Wilkes Booth when you need him?” Others brandish a replica of the severed head of the president, apologize for it, and then apologize for the apology.
Once you start thinking about it, trying to come up with these kinds of examples becomes like trying to take a sip from fire hose.
Pastors have defended a child predator on the grounds that King David did something or other. Conspiracy theories now count as “Breaking News” on cable-news shows, and commentators float the idea that the people want a “dictator.” When the president behaved churlishly in response to the death of a war-hero senator, his defenders insist that the dead man started it.
Behold, My Decadence
I bring all of this up to explain why, when I read the opening sentence of R. R. Reno’s “review” of my book, you may have heard a guffaw from me so loud and sudden that it frightened pigeons from their perches and caused dogs to bark at an unseen threat: “Jonah Goldberg exemplifies the decadence and dysfunction of today’s public discourse.”
Now I will admit, I do have a tendency to wallow in my own crapulence. Indeed, I have a hangover right now, and I’m treating it with a cigar.
But that’s not what Reno has in mind.
The editor of First Things thinks my effort to defend the Miracle of Western civilization and the glorious principles of the Founding and to imbue people with a sense of gratitude for this nation is a sign of civilizational and moral rot.
I won’t go line by line through Reno’s typing, not least because I feel little need to respond to every distortion and dishonesty in a review written by someone who gives little sign that he actually read (or, at least, comprehended) the book. There have been a few of these sorts of reviews by people who are more interested in demonstrating their courage by slaughtering strawmen. But I will say that it’s an at-times truly shabby effort in which Reno takes words and phrases out of their context, rips away the explicit meaning I give to those words and phrases, and then slaps on different meaning in order to make a more convenient target. He’s a bit like a man who takes a bear out of its environment, sedates it, and then, after having it tied to a stake, shoots it from a great distance and declares himself a mighty hunter.
The only concession I will make is that I made it a bit too easy for some to indulge their instinct to be triggered. The book begins with the sentence, “There is no God in this book.” Alas, for some people, the first bite of an appetizer is enough for them to render an opinion on every course of the meal.
As I’ve explained many times now, including in the book itself, what I tried to do is offer an argument that can break through to people who do not believe in God or who cannot be appealed to through arguments derived from His divine authority.
In short, I tried to cut through the “decadence and dysfunction of today’s public discourse” and engage in good old-fashioned persuasion and argument. I admit that I’m not the twinned feminine reincarnation of Cicero that is Diamond and Silk, but I did my best.
But back to the rot. Contra Reno’s best efforts to insinuate otherwise, I write at considerable length about how many of our gravest problems stem from the shrinking of organized religion and the declining centrality of God in our lives. Indeed, I argue that most of our woes are caused by the fact that civil society — family, faith, community — is crumbling, and, as a result, we are looking to the government and politics for meaning in our lives.
And that appears to be what Reno — and many other conservatives are doing — too. Last year, Reno wrote:
Our political struggles over nations and nationalisms are best understood as referenda on the West’s meta-politics over the last three generations, which has been one of disenchantment. The rising populism we’re seeing throughout the West reflects a desire for a return of the strong gods to public life.
I agree with this. The only difference between us on this point is that I, the weakly observant Jew, lament it while Reno, the devout Catholic, welcomes the return of the old, strong gods. He welcomes the end of the “neoliberal” order in favor of something more “substantial,” specifically nationalism: “It is not good for man to be alone, and it is a sign of health that our societies wish to reclaim, however haltingly, the nation, which is an important form of solidarity.”
I find it amusing that Reno denounces me for saying that turning away from the Miracle of liberal democratic capitalism — toward socialism or nationalism — is “reactionary” when that is not only precisely what it is but also precisely what Reno is.
I won’t recount my arguments about nationalism here, save to repeat that I think a little nationalism is healthy, while too much is poisonous. It is worth pointing out, however, that the “strong god” of nationalism is a jealous god that demands fealty. Nationalist movements are every bit as capable as capitalism — and very often more so — of waging war on competing sources of authority. From Bismarck’s Kulturkampf to Hitler’s Gleichshaltung, German nationalists opposed particularity, pluralism, and, of course, liberty (a concept Reno puts remarkably little value upon).
Reno argues that we should look to Augustine’s concept of a “community of love,” which sounds fine by me. But nationalism’s record of fostering such communities is mixed at best, particularly when yoked to the power of a centralized state.
Which brings me to the most shocking and telling passage in Reno’s outburst.
Condemning every political challenge as a threat to “the liberal order” shirks responsibility.
In Goldberg, the habit of denunciation reaches absurd heights. He rehearses the tiresome conservative trope that Democrats are not true liberals but illiberal progressives. According to Goldberg, Trump voters are ingrates, moral hypocrites, and tribalistic “reactionaries.” So are Clinton and Sanders voters. He believes that ever since Woodrow Wilson, what goes by the name “liberal” in America has in fact been an anti-liberal form of reactionary regression from the Miracle. Anyone who defines Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt as enemies of the liberal order is a political propagandist, not a thinker concerned with understanding our populist-driven challenges.
Leave aside the irony of an author who opens with a denunciation decrying the “habit of denunciation.” Also, ignore the fact I do not consider every political challenge a threat to the liberal order or characterize voters the way he claims. That Reno is tired of hearing that modern liberals are not in fact classical liberals doesn’t make it untrue, and why an ostensible conservative would be racing to claim otherwise is astonishing.
Consider Woodrow Wilson, a figure I will never tire of denouncing. Wilson denounced the Bill of Rights and the classically liberal structure of the Constitution. In office, he created the first modern propaganda ministry in Western civilization. He unleashed undercover propagandists to whip-up nationalist war-frenzy. He jailed thousands of political prisoners, many for simply committing thought crimes. He shut down newspapers. He oversaw a wave of anti-German sentiment that makes even the most hysterical visions of an anti-Muslim backlash seem restrained and sober. He considered “hyphenated Americans” to be enemies of the people: “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.” He lent aid and comfort to violent, jingoistic vigilantism. He lamented that the South lost the Civil War, and he re-segregated the federal government. He admired Lincoln’s tyrannical means but detested the ends he sought. That sounds like an assault on the liberal order to me. It certainly doesn’t sound like a “community of love” either.
But since none of that seems to count for the editor of a Catholic organ, Wilson also had some choice words for the Catholic Church, calling it “an organization which, whenever and wherever it dares, prefers and enforces obedience to its own laws rather than to those of the state.”
FDR wasn’t the monster Wilson was — but the president-for-life who militarized the economy, tried to pack the courts, called for supplanting the Bill of Rights with a new “economic bill of rights,” who argued in the same speech that returning to the democratic “normalcy” of the prosperous 1920s would amount to a domestic surrender to “fascism,” and who in word and deed sought to transcend the order of liberty in the name of “bold, persistent, experimentation” was in no way shape or form a liberal under the old understanding of the word. Indeed, it was FDR more than anyone else who is responsible for the progressive hijacking of the word “liberal.” Progressives had so poisoned the label “progressive” with the American people that they needed to rebrand, leaving the word to be picked up and further soiled by Communists for the next few decades.
The New Statists, Same as the Old Statists
Reno is just one soldier in a larger rearguard assault from segments of the Right, who denounced phrases like “economic patriotism” when it passed Barack Obama’s lips but nod and cheer when similar phrases come out of the mouths of “nationalists.” They see the state as the key to fostering a new social solidarity because it alone speaks for their new idol — or “strong god” — of the Nation. Passionate nationalists, like passionate socialists, ultimately believe that the State can love you, and if the right people take it over, the divisions that are inevitable in a free society will be knitted together by some government initiative. But that is not love, it is lust. It is a lust for power and victory for your vision over all others.
And it’s not new. These same claims about capitalism or (classical) liberalism being a spent force or outdated or bankrupt have accompanied every attempt — failed and successful — to expand government or yoke it to the interests of some group that claims to have found a “third way.”
Their reactionary statolatry renders them deaf and blind to an idea obvious to the Founders and once obvious to conservatives committed to conserving the liberal order: You will not always have your hands on the reins, for you will not always be in the saddle.
Even now, you can hear the growing clamor for the government to take control of Facebook or Google because the libruls there don’t like us. I’m open to sensible regulation, and if more is needed, fine. But if the idea that bringing these businesses under the control of the state — make them utilities! — is merely economically and philosophically blinkered if Republicans are in office, it becomes an incandescent bonfire of insipidity when you realize that one day — perhaps one day soon — progressives will take charge. Thinking that the same people who favor silencing speech, spiking politically incorrect science, and using the government to punish institutions that are non-compliant with the progressive agenda (I’m looking at you wedding-cake bakers, birth-control-eschewing octogenarian nuns, and Catholic adoption agencies) would shirk from using these shiny toys for their own ends is absurd.
Moreover, as we learned — or should have learned — under Wilson and FDR, when the government “reins in” business, businesses often grab the reins of government. U.S. Steel, AT&T, and other corporate behemoths welcomed regulation precisely because they understood that the government was uniquely equipped to protect them from competition. Cartelized social media wouldn’t become friendlier to conservatives; social media would then have men with badges and guns to enforce their hostility to conservatives.
The liberal order depends on impersonal rules that do not change when the factions controlling the execution of those rules change. As I wrote earlier this week, this simple, glorious idea that as much as any other helped create the Miracle is melting away in partisan heat. We are weaponizing norms, using them as a battle shield when they can protect us and as a sword when they can hurt our enemies, but never honoring them when wielded by others. We want to simultaneously fight fire with fire and denounce our opponents for using fire. The only solution in a free society isn’t some final and eternal victory, but to use the torches not as weapons but illumination for the eternal threats to the Miracle: the unconstrained tribalism that denies others the right to be wrong.
I’ll close with my favorite scene from A Man for All Seasons:
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: Last night at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual dinner, it was heartening, if a little weird, to have so many strangers come up to me and ask about Zoë and Pippa. I’d pass along all the kind words, but one of the great things about dogs is that they just don’t care. If I told Pippa that her fans on Twitter have a ball watching her adventures, all she would hear is “BALL!” Anyway, the beasts are good. I had the midday walk yesterday, and Pippa got to do her favorite thing in the world: “accidentally” drop a tennis ball in a muddy creek and then retrieve it. She’s also very fond of sticks lately. She likes to bring her favorite stick into the car with her, even if she has a little trouble sometimes. Both of them are fully adjusted from the cross-country adventure, even if that comes with the usual sense of entitlement and impatience or making due with more bourgeois pastimes. Zoe even got to harass her oldest friend, Sammi.
If you’re seeing this on Friday, I’ll be on Special Report tonight. If you’re seeing this Saturday, I was on Special Report last night.
I had a great conversation with Ben Sasse on the latest episode of The Remnant. Where else can you hear a sitting senator ask, “Do you think the cat thinks I have nipples on my back?”
On Tuesday, another essay adapted from the Apocrypha of my book will appear in Commentary as the lead article. Here’s the cover.
ICYMI . . .
And now, the weird stuff.