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 (But not Allegra Budenmayer, may she rot in Hell),
Some of you may recall that my favorite essay by the late Tom Wolfe is “The Great Relearning.” The essay was about the Summer of Love and how it was followed by what you might call “the Autumn of Gonorrhea” (a chapter title in an early draft of Bill Clinton’s memoirs, I’m told). Wolfe writes:
1968, in San Francisco, I came across a curious footnote to the psychedelic movement. At the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic there were doctors who were treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. And how was it that they had now returned? It had to do with the fact that thousands of young men and women had migrated to San Francisco to live communally in what I think history will record as one of the most extraordinary religious experiments of all time.
We need not delve too deeply into all of this, but Wolfe’s argument in brief was that “the hippies, as they became known, sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero.”
This meant abandoning all sorts of old-fashioned norms about hygiene, most glaringly about sex, but also everything from shared toothbrushes and sheets to food preparation. Unbeknownst to the hippies, they’d grown up benefitting from rules they took for granted and therefore assumed could be ignored. Without those guardrails, nature came rushing back in.
At times, I wonder if this was the initial inspiration for my book. Not to sound grandiose, but I can eat a lot of cheese. Sorry, that’s not important right now. But this idea — that civilizations sail against the current of nature — has been a theme of my writing for a long time.
Civilization isn’t the opposite of nature, any more than a boat is the opposite of a river. Sailors harness the wind and adapt to the currents to make their progress forward. But if you ignore maintaining the vessel, if you let the sails tear, if you ignore rot in the wood, nature will reclaim the boat, and you will be pulled backward in a direction not of your choosing. Healthy fish swim against the current; the dead float downstream.
The most famous Year Zero-ers were the French Revolutionaries. They wanted to sweep aside everything and reinvent humanity from the ground up. They wanted to throw away the book of history and the grammar of human nature to invent something wholly new. As both the Jacobins and the hippies learned, when you clear-cut the entire ecosystem of human institutions, you will invariably uproot the oaks and elms whose roots hold the soil in place and the grasses that store the water and sustain the creatures we rely on for our own sustenance. When you do such things, you do not chase out nature; you remove the bulwarks that kept the more brutal aspects of nature at bay. An English garden looks very natural, but it is actually a triumph of holding the totality of nature at bay so that only the things you want to grow can thrive. Culture and cultivation — both words are derivatives of the Latin cultura — require human will.
Every apocalyptic story is based the premise that the mostly invisible institutions of society — the oaks of the human ecosystem — fall apart. The reasons vary: nuclear war, zombies, whatever. But the story is the same: Nature — human nature — comes rushing back in.
Three Cheers for NATO
If you’re getting a little sick of all the metaphors and abstractions, let me get to a more concrete point. People are losing their minds.
Look, I get that NATO has its problems. For years, we’ve been subsidizing European welfare states by picking up a chunk of their defense costs. Arguably worse, European elites have acted as if the peace and prosperity that they’ve enjoyed over the last 70 years were invented around fancy conference tables in Geneva and Paris. I remember in 2002 reading a quote from Karl Kaiser, of the German Society for Foreign Affairs. “Europeans have done something that no one has ever done before: create a zone of peace where war is ruled out, absolutely out,” Kaiser wrote. “Europeans are convinced that this model is valid for other parts of the world.”
It’s not that Kaiser was entirely wrong; it’s that he left out the fact that this miracle would have been impossible without NATO and, by extension, the protection of the United States of America. Europe was allowed to cultivate its garden because we kept the totality of nature at bay. NATO was effectively a wall, and Uncle Sam was Colonel Jessup. The Europeans needed us on that wall.
And they still do. But here’s the thing: We need that wall, too.
I have no problem with the argument that NATO has become too big. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it is a reasonable argument. And so is the argument that the alliance shouldn’t get bigger still.
But all the loose talk about how maybe we shouldn’t honor Article Five, which requires mutual defense if a NATO member is attacked, is insane. This bloody-shirt rhetoric about “Why should my son die for Montenegro?” is just a rehash of the pre–Second World War “Why die for Danzig?” trope. It also, however, misses the crucial point. If it came to war, the fight wouldn’t be for Montenegro, but for NATO. And that’s worth fighting for.
The point of NATO is twofold: to remove uncertainty about what would happen if someone attacked one of our allies and to raise the expected price of screwing with us to something unbearable. Weaken the first, and you lower the second. This week on Tucker Carlson’s show, President Trump made it sound as if honoring Article Five was a problem. In fairness to the president, he didn’t outright say we wouldn’t come to the defense of our allies. But that’s not good enough. Ask any bank president whether his bank could promise that it wouldn’t default on its depositors. The immediate response is unequivocal and unambiguous. Why? Because the surest way to guarantee a run on a bank is to suggest that the bank couldn’t handle one.
When Trump spouts off about changing libel laws, forcing military officers to commit war crimes, threatening domestic businesses, or getting rid of the Senate filibuster, it’s often bad and reckless, but we have laws, procedures, and institutions to hold such bad ideas at bay. The international arena is different. Despite what you may think, the international realm is still much closer to a state of a nature than our domestic politics. Sure, we have this thing called international law, but it’s ultimately non-enforceable if actual nation-states choose not to enforce it. The U.N. has no armies, thank God. The logic of the world outside our borders is far closer to the logic of the prison yard than it is to anything within our borders.
An Ode to Montenegro
I think letting Montenegro into NATO was a good idea. The fact that the Russians worked so hard to prevent it — they almost toppled the government in a coup d’état to stop the country’s accession to the NATO — suggests that they understood the stakes better than many Americans. Among other things, it goes a long way toward denying Russian access to the Mediterranean — at very low cost to us. As John Podhoretz notes on the Commentary podcast, if it is in our strategic interest to block Russian ambitions in that direction, including Montenegro in NATO is a lot cheaper than positioning U.S. aircraft carriers and troops in the region.
You often hear the argument that Montenegro only has a couple thousand troops, as if the idea were to rely on the “very aggressive” Montenegrins to defend us. That misses the point entirely. Think of it this way. When a Mafia family enlists some penny-ante crew on the outskirts of its turf, the revenue from the crew is relatively inconsequential. The main advantage from the arrangement is that it prevents a rival family from encroaching on its territory. And in exchange, the Corleones agree to make the crew’s enemies the Corleones’ enemies.
There are reasonable arguments against including Montenegro in NATO. There are literally no reasonable arguments for even hinting that we might not hold up our end of the bargain once they’re already in NATO. This is why Vito Corleone chewed out Sonny for hinting to Sollozzo that he might be hot for the drug deal: “I think your brain is going soft.”
A New World Disorder
I’m worried that we are entering a very dangerous chapter in world history. The idea that international institutions, built on the blood-stained rubble of two world wars, must give way to some glorious new era of nationalism is inflaming the minds of people across the West. It’s a very weird epidemic of Year Zero thinking on a global level. As a Burkean, I’m open to reform: gradual, thoughtful, incremental reform that improves on what we have already built. But the recent blunderbuss rhetoric isn’t about that. It’s a nearest-weapon-to-hand defense of a president who doesn’t understand how NATO even works.
When the Jacobins clear-cut everything in the name of Year Zero, what followed wasn’t some utopian society of perfect reason. What followed was an explosion of the worst aspects of human nature, including the Terror, wars of aggression, and, ultimately, Napoleon and even more wars of aggression. Without Napoleon, Germany would probably never have unified (all of the original German nationalists were rebels against French political and cultural dominance). And without a unified Germany enflamed by notions Teutonic exceptionalism, all sorts of obvious calamities — including both world wars and the birth of the Soviet Union — might have been averted. Of course, other bad things might have — would have — happened. But those things did happen. We wisely responded by setting up institutions to prevent those calamities from happening again — and it worked, in Europe.
There is this bizarre unstated assumption in so much of this nationalism talk that these U.S.-founded international institutions haven’t served our interests. That’s dangerous nonsense. Could they have served our interests better? Sure. There’s always room for better. But were we suckers for creating them? Of course not. To paraphrase the president, a prosperous and peaceful Europe is a good thing, not a bad thing.
There is zero evidence that wiping away these institutions would be a step forward to some utopian New World Order. It would more likely be a return to Old World Disorder of wars, protectionism, and the logic of a global prison yard.
I’m not saying that everyone rushing to come up with arguments to defend Trump’s cavalier blather about these issues is a utopian or a nihilist. Nor am I saying that every critic of NATO is wrong in every regard. I am saying this is a serious conversation that should be conducted seriously, because even having such conversations is dangerous. And if we’re not careful, this will get out of hand, and we’ll have an enormous amount of relearning to do.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: I leave in a couple hours for New England. I’m going to visit my daughter at camp, and I’m Daddily giddy about it. While I’m gone, our devoted dog-walker and house-sitter Kirsten will be minding the beasts. She’s the one who takes them on their mid-work–day adventures, so they’ll be in good hands.
They’re doing just fine, though a shortage of tennis balls in the house has Pippa a little grumpy (don’t worry, another bulk purchase is on its way). Speaking of balls — get your mind out of the gutter — a lot of folks are surprised whenever I post video of Zoë chasing a soccer ball. She does it from time to time, but if Pippa’s tennis-ball addiction is a ten, Zoë’s interest rarely surpasses a three or four. There’s something, however, about the larger ball size that triggers her prey drive, which is why she usually just tries to kill the ball. But even then, she doesn’t get too into it. She usually only shows interest when she gets jealous of the attention I give Pippa. Sometimes it gets so bad she’ll actually chase Pippa’s ball and just take it just to deprive her of fun. But that’s rare; she usually just doesn’t care. She’d much rather try to psychically will a squirrel to fall out of a tree. Still, they do love each other, in their way.
Meanwhile, in exciting news, my buddy (and occasional NR contributor) Shannen Coffin has a new puppy coming soon. His wonderful dog, Snickers, recently passed away. Snickers was almost a cliché of a golden retriever, walking around saying, “Hello, I think I love you!” and, “Are you going to finish that hamburger? Because I love you.” No dog can be replaced, but the only partial remedy for the loss is a new one. Enter Bucky!
ICYMI . . .
And now, the weird stuff.