The G-File

Culture

The Definition of Dogma

Ralph Northam speaks to supporters in Norfolk, Va., November 6, 2017. (Julia Rendleman/Reuters)
Moral progress, or the story of civilization, is a scavenger hunt for categorical imperatives, a search for truths that are -- or should be -- true everywhere.

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 those looking to pounce on this “news”letter),

One of my three favorite essays by George Orwell begins:

Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longeur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion.

Well, I have need of a word, not for a thing so much as for a kind of word.

I need a word for the kinds of words that people think are universal and objective but are used by those same people only selectively and subjectively.

For example, for years I’ve written about how almost everybody believes in censorship, but they only use the word censorship to describe censorship they don’t like. There are people who genuflect to “Banned Book Week” but also insist that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be pulled from libraries because it uses the N-word. But they don’t call that censorship. There are people who are totally for free speech, but if you ask them if it should be legal to broadcast hardcore porn on Saturday morning broadcast TV, they suddenly start replacing the word “censorship” with things like “reasonable regulation” and “community standards.”

One of my favorites is “hate.” Decrying hate has been a thing for a long time. JFK was visiting what became the “City of Hate” when he went to Dallas (unfortunately for the narrative-mongers, he was killed by a different kind of hater: a Communist). And I’m sure people paid lip-service to hating hate long before that. But the volume really got amped up with the gay-rights movement in the 1980s. Somebody made bank on those “Hate Is Not a Family Value” bumper stickers.

But the thing is hate is a family value. By a show of hands, who thinks I’d be a great dad if I said to my daughter, “I don’t hate Nazis” or “You shouldn’t hate racism”? Yeah, I know Christians have that whole “Hate the sin, not the sinner” thing, but the point stands. You’re supposed to hate what is hateful. As Proverbs says, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.”

Once you start looking around, you see these kinds of words all over the place — fair, pragmatic, realist, et al. — that claim to be universally true but are really used selectively. They’re not euphemisms, per se, because the people using them think that they’re using them sincerely.

Consider certainty. The late Times man Anthony Lewis insisted that one of the two great lessons he learned over the course of his career was that “certainty” is a great evil: “[C]ertainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.”

How I wish I could have asked him if he was certain about that.

But more to the point, this is ridiculous. Was Martin Luther King Jr. the enemy of decency and humanity because he was certain that black people had a right to be treated with decency and humanity? As they say on Twitter: big if true.

Of course, part of what I am talking about is simply the plague of double standards. But that’s not exactly it, either. First, because behind every double standard usually resides a hidden single standard someone is afraid to admit. But also because there are some words that are supposed to evoke a single standard. Wealth isn’t that kind of word because everyone understands that wealth is relative. Tall, short, fat, hot, cold, and a thousand other adjectives all assume a context. Hot compared to what? Tall compared to whom? Phoenix in July is hot, but it’s downright frigid compared to the surface of the sun. Andre the Giant was tall, but not next to a redwood.

Meanwhile, the words I have in mind are categorical. Rape and murder are wrong. Everywhere, always. If you’re in a situation where you think a rape or murder might not be wrong, it’s probably either because there was doubt about whether it was really a murder or rape or because you’re a terrible person.

This is what Kant meant by a categorical imperative — something that is true regardless of context. For Kant, the one clear categorical imperative was essentially the Golden Rule: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” We should all “act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end, and never as only a means.” I’ll be the first to admit that’s a tall order.

Moral progress, or the story of civilization, is a scavenger hunt for categorical imperatives, a search for truths that are — or should be — true everywhere. And that process is best understood as dogma formation.

If I should ever accomplish enough that people try to find a theme in the great swirling pudding of my collective writings, they could do worse than to say I sought to restore the good name of dogma.

Dogma, Now and Forever

Whenever I hear someone opine how dogma is dangerous or bad or a sign of closed minds, I always wonder whether they realize how dogmatic they sound.

Dogma derives in part from the Greek dokein, meaning that which seems good. “Seems” is an important word here, because sometimes what seems to be true isn’t. And therefore, responsible thinkers should question dogma from time to time. But intellectually serious questioning isn’t synonymous with undermining, dismissing, or destroying. It’s like an inspection of a machine or a barracks or a business model. Sometimes you discover everything is working the way it should. If I check to make sure my daughter is sleeping safe and sound, I don’t wake her up if I find her as expected and hoped. I leave her be.

Since at least Rousseau and Nietzsche, and straight through the American pragmatists, questioning dogma has come to mean dismantling dogma. And this, in itself, has become a kind of dogma.

We teach people that they should reject everything from the conventional wisdom to the teachings of organized religion. Be a maverick. Be true to yourself. Don’t be a conformist. It’s gotten to the point where a superficial nonconformity is the new conformity. Herds of independent minds think that they are rebels by rebelling in great ravenous packs against anyone who disagrees with them. Like flocks of starlings they move in awesome tandem, thinking they are soaring independently when they are in fact swarming together to the beat of their own dogma.

This gets to the heart of why I am a conservative. Civilization is a verb. In our natural environment, murder wasn’t defined as the unwarranted or unjust taking of a human life, but of the unjust or unwarranted killing of a member of my tribe. And even then, the definition of “unjust and unwarranted” was unjust and, often, unwarranted. Rape of the enemy’s women wasn’t evil — it was a right, a just dessert. It was only through thousands of years of trial and error, of religious discovery and cultivation, that the definition of good and evil got closer to the categorical.

In short, we learned some lessons. Even today, among the supposed anti-dogmatic free-thinkers, the majority of their most strongly held moral convictions are dogmatic ones. Are you dogmatically opposed to racism, or do you like to take such questions on a case-by-case basis? What are your views on rape? Murder? Genocide? Do you have an open mind on these things? Do you need to hear both sides?

Abraham Lincoln was right when he said the following in 1861:

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.

Shall we — in the name of open-mindedness — revisit the “dogmas of the quiet past” and treat slavery as an open question, or shall we all agree, dogmatically agree, that the question of slavery is settled?

The notion that conservatives are the dogmatists and progressives are the free-thinkers is one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the intellectual marketing of bullsh**. Conservatives simply acknowledge that we have dogma, that some questions are settled, and that while they can be questioned or revisited, the amount of new evidence required to overturn them should be monumental and decisive, not faddish and rationalized in the emotions of the moment.

If anything, progressives are the more dogmatic precisely because they think that they are free of dogma, free to fly from one conclusion to another as the crow flies, with no concern for the trial and error that came before. Social justice is not a philosophy. If it were, its practitioners would not struggle in vain to come up with a definition for it. It is priestcraft. It is a self-justifying writ for the power of a mob that is sure it is right. Because they think that they are free of dogma, whatever feels right at any given moment must be right.

As Chesterton said, “In truth there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don’t know it.” Conservatives have been wrong and will be wrong again. But at least conservatives wait for the truth to fully reveal itself, because we recognize the danger of overturning dogma without a good reason.

This is the main point of my book(s). Declaring war on your own civilization because it’s not changing at the pace you want it to be is a kind of autoimmune disorder, an intellectualized childishness. Children think they are ready — to drive, to cross the street alone, to drink alcohol, whatever, before they are. They say, with frustration, “I know how” when they do not.

The importance of family; the value of “bourgeois norms”; the right to be free to speak, pray, defend yourself, reap the fruits of your labors; the dangers of centralized planning, arbitrary power, faction, and the mob: All of these things are part of my dogma. I know this. I celebrate it. And I am happy to debate it all, because I know what my dogma is, and I know that it was learned at a cost paid for with the blood of billions of humans over thousands of generations.

The reason I get into so many fights with my fellow conservatives these days is that many of them have grown contemptuous of their own dogma. The free market is now just a tool, the Brain Trusters of the New Deal were right after all: If you put the right people in charge, they can plan your life better than you can. Meanwhile the pagans of the alt-right call constitutionalists “paper worshippers,” “vellum supremacists,” and “parchment fetishists.”

Acknowledging your dogma is like acknowledging your biases; it’s a necessary step to thinking seriously. Chesterton said it best: “Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human.” He continues:

When [man] drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

On Infanticide

What put me in this frame of mind is the latest debate over abortion (which I write about here). I have complicated views on abortion that don’t line up perfectly with most pro-lifers. But my views on infanticide are not complicated. It’s murder. And until very recently, it was normal. “Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunter-gatherers to high civilizations, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule,” writes anthropologist Laila Williamson.

I am perfectly willing to concede that the number of women who seek to “abort” fully viable, born, or near-born babies is small as a statistical matter. But so what? It’s not zero. (If it were, Kermit Gosnell wouldn’t be in jail.) The number of truly innocent people put to death via capital punishment is smaller. That doesn’t make killing an innocent person any less outrageous. Barbara Boxer famously suggested that it’s not a baby until you bring it home from the hospital. That is grotesque. It’s like a magical incantation that rewinds the clock of human progress by millennia, made no less barbaric because it was said on the Senate floor. Indeed, saying it on the Senate floor made it more barbaric. When barbarians hacked and cleaved one another in the Black Forest, their barbarism seems natural. When they sacked Rome, the backdrop sets off the barbarism.

When we talk about capital punishment, opponents and supporters alike pay tribute to the importance of safeguards and due process. When supporters of abortion on demand talk about abortion, they make it sound like any talk of safeguards is an outrage and any outrage over the murder of a baby is religious extremism and — shudder — dogmatism.

Various & Sundry

It’s on! The National Review Institute’s Ideas Summit is coming to Washington, D.C., on March 28 and 29! This year’s conference, “The Case for the American Experiment,” will bring together the conservative movement’s most influential thinkers and policy makers to debate our dogma. Space is limited, so please register today!

And since we’re on the subject of grand conservative confabs, on March 30, ISI will announce the Conservative Book of the Year. And, I’m proud to say, I’m in the running. Details here.

Canine Update: The quadrupeds are doing better with the weather than the bipeds. Some #TeamPippa loyalists were concerned that Zoë was being too rough on Pippa this week. Fear not. They roughhouse all the time, and Zoë knows that if Pippa uses her safe word (it’s very hard to spell given it’s a high pitched squeal), the Dingo will back off. This doesn’t mean they don’t have their arguments. And that’s understandable because Zoë and Pip just have different priorities. Even if they share certain passions.

The worst part of my week was when Pippa squealed even worse at me. On Sunday night, while I was trying to unfurl a poop bag to pick up the Paul Krugman column Pippa left on a neighbor’s lawn, Pippa was barking at me to kick her tennis ball. I kicked it hard, and it beaned Pippa right in the eye. She squealed and ran in a circle. Given her previous eye problem, I was consumed with guilt and worry. It turned out okay. It was a little swollen for a day, but now she’s fine.

Oh, one last dog-related thing. On the latest episode of The Remnant, Kristen Soltis Anderson came on to talk about politics, polling, etc. But more importantly, we spent the first fifteen minutes talking about dogs and her new beau Wally, a Turkish Golden Retriever imported to America to do jobs American dogs won’t do.

ICYMI…
Last week’s G-File

(The B-side)

The Trump/AOC double standard

Me on Glass

The latest GLoP

The new gridlock

Feelings vs. facts

Poor John

The left takes the low ground on abortion

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Tuesday links

Debby’s Friday links

Robot loses job

Avalanche dog training

Confused dog

Hero dog

The bear necessities?

[Citation needed]

What Alec Guinness thought of Star Wars during its production  

Florida Man doesn’t disappoint 

Unexpected whimsy

No, you’re not high

Sled dog

Frankenfood

A good decision

Foiled again!

Awww…

Oldest animal ever discovered by scientists

Newfound Distant Space Rock May Be Missing Link of Planet Formation

Scientists Prepare for Mission to Jupiter’s Icy Moon Europa

There’s a snowman in space

Stranger Holds Umbrella for Deputy Paying Tribute in the Rain to Fallen Comrade

Man bites croc

The World’s First Smart Toilet for Dogs Has Arrived

Ancient Egyptian wine cellar containing coins and ceramics discovered by archaeologists

Giant Teddy Bears Are Taking Over Paris

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