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 of you not cursed to endure the sweatpant-fog climate of Washington, D.C.),
Sometimes we use certain words only to describe the forms of that word we do not like.
Let me explain: Let’s imagine that my daughter says, “French food is awful.”
I respond: “What do you mean?”
She replies, “Snails, Daddy. They eat snails.”
To which I retort, “Oh, I agree. We never should have let them talk us out of those toasted cheese sandwiches, that time. But you love duck confit and croissants. That’s French food, too.”
Daughter: “That’s different.”
The same dynamic plays itself out in many political and policy debates.
My go-to example of this is the word “censorship.” Over my many years of debating with intense libertarians of the left and the right, I’ve heard many times that “all censorship is wrong” or “I am 100 percent against censorship.”
“Oh really?” I ask. “So riddle me this: The FCC prohibits hardcore child pornography on Saturday-morning TV. Are you against that?”
The answers tend to vary, but one very common retort is something like, “Oh come on. That’s not censorship; that just reasonable regulation. Besides, no one is proposing doing that.”
To which I reply — and I’m going to stop using quotation marks because this is getting silly — of course it’s censorship. You just approve of it, so you don’t call it censorship. As for the fact that nobody is proposing running kiddie porn in the cartoon hour doesn’t mean much. If someone did propose it, you’ve conceded that it would be reasonable to proscribe it. Ergo (an incredibly douchey word to use in debate over beers, by the way) you’ve conceded that you’re not 100 percent against censorship. Censorship, in other words, is the word we use for censorship we don’t like.
Now, I’m being unfair to people who have better or more interesting responses to my case, but that’s okay because a) that’s very rare and b) I’m not here to discuss censorship.
There are all sorts of words that work this way in our politics. Every day I hear people say that one shouldn’t be “dogmatic,” or that their political opponents are dogmatists, or some such. But as I have written many times, everyone subscribes to all manner of dogmatic convictions — and they should. People not dogmatically opposed to genocide, premeditated murder, rape, etc. aren’t brave and pragmatic free-thinkers. They’re sociopaths.
The accumulation of dogma — good dogma, duck-confit dogma, not-snail dogma — is the process by which civilizations advance. In a state of nature, man is open to all possibilities if he can be convinced he will gain an advantage in a bid to survive. With no controlling moral authority beyond the basic programming of our genes, we were free to take the shortest route between any two points, so long as we believed it would work out well for us. Even after the Agricultural Revolution, civilizations defined morality largely according to what benefitted the rulers. Child sacrifice — common around the globe for millennia — seemed like a plausible way to get better crop yields, so why not go for it?
Over time, through the process of trial and error informed by reason and faith, we accumulated some conclusions about how society should operate. These conclusions became dogmas. Dogma is simply the word we use for settled questions we no longer want to reopen. Not all dogmas are good. Some are evil, to be sure: child sacrifice, slavery, etc. But the process of refining our dogmas is what makes us, if not human, then certainly humane. Conversely, the process by which we unthinkingly smash dogmas without understanding their function is the fastest route to barbarism. The Bolsheviks rejected the dogma of universal human dignity and slaughtered people with an abandon more closely resembling the Aztecs than anything resembling secular humanism.
Here’s how Chesterton put it:
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.
When I was flying over the North Slope of Alaska with a bush pilot nearly 20 years ago, the pilot told me how he once discovered a field of dead moose, almost entirely intact, save for the fact that they had their bellies ripped open. He explained that a grizzly bear or bears had killed all the females just to eat the unborn calves out of their bellies — because that was the tastiest part. Rather than eat just one whole moose, the bear was simply guided by the turnip-like dogma of its instincts. The history of humanity is full of stories where people, likewise, lived with such undogmatic cruelty. Of course, it’s unfair to describe the bears as cruel, because they have no concept of cruelty. They think it is good to eat your face, because that is their nature. We do have a concept of cruelty, and we have dogma to thank for it.
So when I hear people say that they don’t like dogma, what I hear is that they don’t like the dogma of people who disagree with them.
The same goes for ideology.
A Tale of Two Ideologies
In the last 48 hours, amidst the flop-sweat panic over Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, I’ve heard one abortion activist after another — including many who play objective journalists on TV — insist that abortion opponents are crazed ideologues who want to impose their ideology on others. I have no doubt that these talking points test very well in focus groups. I also have no doubt that these talking points are sincerely held.
Last night, I saw a tweet from the president of NARAL and responded to it:
All positions on abortion are ideological. https://t.co/geE1H0Z12V
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahNRO) June 29, 2018
The replies are instructive.
Ideology is the first draft of dogma. The good kind is merely a set of preferences, grounded in conviction, evidence, experience, or reason, that helps guide us when we think through an idea or when we encounter new problems or facts. Progressives have an ideology. Conservatives have an ideology. Libertarians, socialists, and, yes, pragmatists have ideologies, too.
Part of my ideology is the idea that we should err on the side of protecting individual liberty. I am not categorically opposed to restrictions on individual liberty, however. I favor a military draft when it’s necessary (and I am ideologically opposed to one when it is unnecessary). I believe in putting rapists in jail and executing the most heinous murderers. But part of my ideology holds that we should only do so after providing due process. My concern isn’t that we might be unfair to a rapist or murderer, however. My concern is that without such systems in place, there’s too much potential to be unfair to someone falsely accused of murder or rape. The mob hates due process.
The debate over abortion revolves around a question of fact — or interpretation of fact — that then determines the ideological course of action like the first choice in a “choose your own adventure” book. If you conclude that the unborn, either at conception or at some later point of the pregnancy, acquires moral status and rights, you go down one path of thought. If you believe, like Barbara Boxer does, that it’s not really a baby until you bring it home from the hospital, that sets you down another path.
Both sides in this dispute share some dogmatic and ideological convictions. They just apply them differently. The hardcore pro-abortion crowd uses the language of individual liberty about the mother: How dare the state tell me what to do with my body!? In order to make this argument, however, they must define away that other life as nothing more than uterine contents, a glob of cells, or some other euphemism. The hardcore anti-abortion crowd starts from the premise that the fetus is an individual human being and as such deserves protection from harm. And it is the state’s first obligation to police or regulate violence.
Both of these positions are ideological. One common response to this claim, peppering the replies to my tweet, is that abortion isn’t ideological for the pregnant woman. There’s some truth to this, in the sense that we often shed our abstract commitments when pressed with real-life choices or difficult circumstances. That’s why we have the saying, “There are no atheists in fox holes.”
The progressive who pounds the table in defense of public schools but sends his own kids to a private school is one example. The conservative CEO who talks a great game about the free market and the evils of crony capitalism but barely hesitates to accept a subsidy is another. This hypocrisy is entirely human, and our capacity to rationalize such things is often infinite.
And one of the most common ways we grease the skids for our retreat is by simply switching one ready-made ideology for another.
Bad ideology, like bad dogma, is a very real thing as well. Bad ideologies confuse is and ought. They hitch themselves to an unproven or unfalsifiable conviction about the way things should be. The worst ideologies assume humans are clay, dispensable when insufficiently pliable. They heap scorn on the hard-learned lessons of civilization in favor of glorious castles built in the air. Opposition to their agenda is seen as an evil desire to deprive people of happiness not attainable in this life.
Other ideologies are just silly — not in the desirability of their aims necessarily, but in the belief that they would work. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her congressional primary contest in New York this week by championing one such ideology. It basically boils down to what someone called “open-borders socialism.” It is grounded in an ancient romantic notion that economics — the science of competing choices amidst finite resources — is a con. We can do all the good things simultaneously. Everyone can become an American, and every American is entitled to free housing, free school, guaranteed work, and every other good thing. It is the ideology of the child or the aristocrat — often the same thing — that holds we can of course have our cakes and eat them too. And as with the more evil forms of ideology, its advocates assume that those opposed are motivated by a desire to deprive the deserving of something they could easily give them.
In a world of infinite resources, it would indeed be a crime to deprive others of their fair share of the infinite. But we don’t live in that world. Part of the job of parents is to explain to children that “We are not made of money” and even if we were, we could not or would not satisfy our children’s every whim.
But we live in a time of epidemic childishness, working on the assumptions that we can borrow money forever and that the government is made of money. “Example is the school of mankind, and he will learn at no other,” says Edmund Burke. What he meant by that is people must learn from actual events: They must be shown, not told. This doesn’t mean that every generation must relearn first-hand the mistakes of the past. It means they must be taught about the mistakes of the past. That’s what parents do with their kids. And it’s what grown-ups do in politics.
But there’s a marked shortage of grown-ups these days, which is a real calamity when childishness runs free.
Various & Sundry
I know the G-File has been lacking of late in the jocularity some folks look for in this “news”letter. My apologies. Between the grueling travel, the death of Charles Krauthammer (so fast on the heels of my father-in-law’s passing), and a slew of hopefully minor health issues, I’ve been in a remarkably dyspeptic mindset of late. I’m going to the beach next week, so hopefully I will come back refreshed with a full tank of pull-my-finger jokes.
Canine Update: A few months ago, Megan McArdle and I briefly discussed dog economics on the Remnant podcast. I don’t mean the canine-care or dog-food industry. I mean the actual economic calculations of dogs themselves. Without consulting Thorstein Veblen’s work on conspicuous consumption or Fred Hirsch’s concept of positional goods, dogs nonetheless model it very well. Here’s a good explainer from Big Bang Theory.
If you’ve ever spent time in a dog park, you know that there are enough sticks for everybody. But the dogs tend to focus on a single stick — the one possessed by one of the dogs. That stick is a positional good. And all the dogs chase the one who has it. Our dogwalker Kirsten (back from vacation, thank God) has several fetching-machines in her pack. She used to ban balls from the hikes on the grounds that once the fetching protocol was activated it couldn’t be stopped and the dogs wouldn’t play with each other. But recently she has surrendered to populist demand. One day this week she brought enough tennis balls for all three fetching machines (Zoë is famously uninterested in such things). But very quickly, the dogs concentrated on a single tennis ball, which Samson possessed, filling Obi and Pippa with a fierce determination to get it back.
They want the ball. pic.twitter.com/9F9snRedOR
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahNRO) June 28, 2018
Anyway, everything else is good with the doggers. The vengeful in-house pooping has stopped. Pippa is spanieling with spanielly abandon (though she does make time to chill). And Zoë is giving full flower to her sense of entitlement.
ICYMI . . .
And now, the weird stuff.