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 (especially those of you who have finally decided to start “acting” presidential),
A guy gives an old blind man a piece of matzo.
The old blind man pauses for a moment, and then replies, “Who writes this stuff?”
I was reminded of this old joke — which I first told in this space 14 years ago — when I read this piece in The New Criterion about the very subject — bad writing — that prompted the joke 14 years ago.*
Now you might think the preceding sentence is convoluted — and you’d be right! But, like Donald Trump says about every accidental sliver of good fortune that falls his way, “I meant to do that.”
So, as Bill Clinton said when he was handing out the French-maid uniforms to the interns, “Try this on for size.”
Merging feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power, and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions.
That’s from the abstract of a recently published paper, “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.”
(I don’t know about you, but I for one have been waiting a very long time for more just and equitable human–ice interactions. It is a fact of logic that if we treated people the way we treat ice in this country, we would be rightly condemned by history as the most monstrous society to have ever lived. I mean, every time it even appears on our roads we use harsh chemicals to melt it away. Black Ice Matters!)
The Purposive Intentionality of Rejecting Heteronormative Expectations of Traditionally ‘Clear’ Writing in Favor of Lexicological Expression with the Opaqueness of Particulate Soil on a Colloidal Suspension (a.k.a. Writing as Clear as Mud on Purpose)
Now, the last time I told the matzo joke, it was to make a slightly different point from the one I have in mind today. But I might as well start there. There is a slice of the Left that really needs very bad writing. Horrid, opaque, impenetrable prose and jargon plays a dual role. First, it makes very dumb or simple ideas sound vastly more sophisticated than they are. Second, it lends an air of authority to very dumb and bad ideas that could not be earned via plain speaking.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many wonderful writers on the left. Christopher Hitchens wrote like a dream. Some of my favorite historians are (or were) liberals (though not crazy leftists): Richard Hofstadter, Alan Brinkley, Eric Goldman, etc. I’m no fan of Paul Krugman, but one of the things that makes him so influential is he is that rare economist who can write well.
Also, I understand that quantum physics and some other specialized fields sometimes require writing that is very difficult for the layman. But that is because to write about a complex and obscure specialty, you need to assume the reader already knows a lot about the subject. I can’t read many medical or chemistry text books without getting lost by the time I reach the second paragraph — or sentence. That’s because I don’t know what half the nouns and a third of the verbs mean, and that’s okay, because I’m not supposed to. In that instance, the authors aren’t trying to make the prose difficult and abstruse, it’s simply that the subject matter is difficult and abstruse.
But that’s not true of so many of the armchair social-justice warriors who write nonsensically because the last thing they want is for anyone to make sense of what they’re trying to say. It’s an act, a secret language, a pretense to gnostic status: I can’t understand what they’re saying! They must be geniuses!
I remember when I wrote that “Orwell’s Orphan’s” G-File, I got deluged with e-mail from angry lefties. (Yes, e-mail. My e-mail box used to be a combination of Twitter, a comments section, a chatroom, and fire-hose enema.) They said that that such writing was necessary for truly complex ideas and if I couldn’t follow along, it was because I lacked the mental sophistication to deal with the Really Big Ideas. I think we’re all open to the idea that I’m an idiot (“The time for debate on this issue is over!” — The Couch), but let us remind ourselves of the kind of writing we’re talking about:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Maybe there’s something worthwhile in there. But this strikes me as the white feminist academic version of this.
Socialism Isn’t about Economics
So what got me thinking about all this? Yesterday, I heard a segment on NPR puzzling out how it could be that Bernie Sanders, the Don Quixote to the windmill-dragon of income inequality, was doing better in states with less inequality and worse in states with more. The answer NPR came up with is that there’s no clear or single answer to the supposedly “counterintuitive” trend. I think that’s fair.
Socialists, and particularly Marxists, love to masquerade their essentially irrational or romantic aspirations in social-science-y gobbledygook.
But there is one factor worth considering: Bernie Sanders is tapping into a cultural, even somewhat ethnic, preference and pretending that it is an empirical argument. Socialists, and particularly Marxists, love to masquerade their essentially irrational or romantic aspirations in social-science-y gobbledygook. (Remember “scientific socialism”?)
The problem is no economic doctrine has been more thoroughly debunked, disproved, and delegitimized than socialism — at least among people who can see the light beyond their anal cavities. That’s because it’s not really an economic doctrine. For understandable reasons, lots of people think socialism is a real branch of economics. It’s not, and if it ever was, it’s because it took time for the guys with the calculators to prove what should have been obvious.
It’s Religion, Not Math
Indeed, “socialism” was an answer to what 19th-century intellectuals and religious leaders called “the social question.” As traditional societies succumbed to the creative destruction of the market, people started asking, “How shall we live now?” Socialism was one such answer (National Socialism, another, very similar answer), but it was only partly and not even mostly, an economic answer. It was a cultural one.
The Romantics wanted to recreate the civic structures of some imagined past — Rousseau’s two favorites were the tribal life of the noble savage and the totalitarian life of Ancient Sparta. (Oh the General Will, is there anything it can’t do?)
Gracchus Babeuf, arguably the first “socialist” to earn the label, wanted a “conspiracy of equals,” which would “remove from every individual the hope of ever becoming richer, or more powerful, or more distinguished by his intelligence.” In his Manifesto of the Equals, he called for the “disappearance of boundary-marks, hedges, walls, door locks, disputes, trials, thefts, murders, all crimes . . . courts, prisons, gallows, penalties . . . envy, jealousy, insatiability, pride, deception, duplicity, in short, all vices.” To fill that void, “the great principle of equality, or universal fraternity, would become the sole religion of the peoples.”
I know some very smart economists, but I doubt any of them could run that crap-storm word-cloud through some regression analysis and arrive at a recognizable economic theory. The simple fact is that socialism was always intended to be a new religion that mixed nostalgia for a past that never existed with a utopian future that never could (“Come on, you know you want to say ‘immanentize the eschaton’ here” — The Couch).
To borrow a phrase from the Marxists (since it’s Lenin’s birthday today), it is no coincidence that Bernie Sanders sees as his lodestar a bunch of Scandinavian countries. The fact that they are not the socialist utopias he imagines them to be is irrelevant. To the extent they ever were real, live, socialist societies, it was back when they were ethnically homogeneous (and poor). Socialism can “work” for a while in small, ethnic mono-cultures, because the economic inefficiencies can be papered over by nationalistic or tribal sentiments. That’s why the kibbutzim lasted as long as they did. Diversity, individualism, technology, domestic and international competition — i.e., the market, or freedom — eventually make social-ism (Tony Blair’s phrase) untenable.
Sanders isn’t motivated by racism or anything like it. He’s motivated by nostalgia and bad metaphors. And so are his mostly lily-white, affluent, fans. “We’ll always have Sweden” is no less a fantasy than Rousseau’s “We’ll always have Sparta.”
It’s Not About the Supporters
So last week I tried to explain why I will never bend the knee to Donald Trump. The response from Trump fans was . . . instructive.
One longtime friendly reader who has turned into a rather unfriendly Trump fanatic wrote me to complain. Here’s the relevant passage:
I get it that you and people like Kevin D. Williamson have a visceral loathing for the white working class and think they are getting what they deserve. There is no point in arguing that point. You are not going to change your minds. The point is that, whether they deserve it or not, you can’t have a healthy Republic that tells 30 percent of its population that they are garbage and need to die and will have no say in the political system.
This is, quite simply nonsense. But it is popular nonsense. Don Surber makes a similar case here. And Hugh Hewitt made a somewhat related argument on the radio yesterday (more on that in a moment).
Kevin has ably defended himself from the tsunami of bile that has crashed down upon him, and I don’t want to speak for him. Though I will say I think people misinterpreted his point. He wasn’t writing from a position of loathing and hatred for the white working class (from which he came). He was arguing that if you are stuck in a community or family that is holding you back, you should do what you can to liberate yourself from those shackles rather than demand the federal government fix problems it cannot fix. That’s not hatred, that’s closer to good, tough-love, advice. It is also so squarely in the American conservative tradition, I am shocked by how many conservatives refuse to see it.
I’m tempted to say my own response to the charge that my opposition to Trump is motivated by hatred of the white working class is “f*** you.” But I’ll go more highbrow. First, it’s untrue. Second, there’s exactly zero evidence that I have written or said anything of the sort. Third, the notion that my dislike of a politician should be taken as hatred for his supporters, is more than a little cultish and creepy. If Donald Trump is the avatar of your identity and if you mistake him for some kind of secular savior, that’s on you. The misplacement of your self-esteem ain’t my baggage.
No, my objection to Donald Trump is . . . Donald Trump. I think he’s a vain ignoramus and bully who mocks the disabled with a long history of exploiting and abusing the little guy. His instincts are nationalistic and authoritarian, not patriotic and liberty-loving.
It is revealing that very often when opponents of Donald Trump make the issue Donald Trump, the response from his defenders is to change the subject to the “issues” he’s raising or the anger “he’s tapped into” or the shortcomings of his critics or the failures of Barack Obama.
You know what it means when defenders of Donald Trump refuse to defend the actual man Donald Trump? It means he’s indefensible.
You know what it means when defenders of Donald Trump refuse to defend the actual man Donald Trump? It means he’s indefensible.
The same people who’ve mocked Barack Obama — rightly! — for years because he mispronounced corpsmen “corpse-men,” blithely whistle past the graveyard of Donald Trump’s lifeless intellect. The same people who mocked Barack Obama — rightly — for his vanity and arrogance, shiver with school-girl glee at Trump’s Brobdingnagian ego. The same people who’ve denounced Barack Obama’s unilateral statism — rightly — take it on faith that Donald Trump through his own force of will shall set the country aright with Stakhanovite strength. The double standard is so huge, I’d be shocked if you couldn’t see it from space.
So yesterday my friend Hugh Hewitt had my very close friend Tevi Troy on to talk about Tevi’s must-read piece in Politico on conservative intellectuals and the GOP. It was somewhat perplexing to me that Hugh, a very smart man and a much better reader than I, couldn’t quite grasp the distinction Tevi was making between intellectuals, Beltway operators, politicians, and pundits. But we’ll leave that aside.
Hugh had a theory about what’s really driving the opposition to Trump. He doesn’t believe that rank-and-file conservatives and Republicans have abandoned conservative principles (and I hope he’s right). He thinks the entire #NeverTrump movement boils down to the border wall. “The one thing that conservative intellectuals will not embrace is a border fence,” Hugh said. “They will not do it. They have refused to do it for ten years.” And later, “They’re not connected to voters. Or they would have built the fence years ago.”
In short: The inside-the-Beltway #NeverTrumpers hate the wall. The base loves it and thinks the intellectuals (again, very broadly defined according to Hugh) have been lying to them when they — we — say we support it. If we meant it, the wall would have been built.
My first question is, is it really up to me to build the wall? Should George Will and I put on our overalls and get the lumber?
More fairly, there are at least two claims here. The first is that the rank-and-file are angry about the failure of elites to build the wall. I agree with Hugh about that (though I’m skeptical about how much importance he invests in it). The second is that the elites hate the rank and file for wanting the wall. Within the context of Hugh’s own terms, this is high-proof nonsense.
First of all, I talk to a lot of #NeverTrump folks — a lot. And I’ve never heard one of them offer the slightest support of this theory.
Second, I have been in favor of the wall for a decade. Charles Krauthammer — counted as one of those Beltway elites by Hugh – has favored the wall and has talked about it endlessly. And National Review – my God, National Review, the epicenter of #NeverTrump-ism — has been ringing the warning bell about mass immigration for decades. Just ask Mark Krikorian. I don’t know Hugh’s position on immigration going back 30 years, but I will bet we’ve been well to his right on the issue all of his professional life. More important, we are still well to the right of Donald Trump! And, given his new pivot to the center, I will also bet that the distance between Trump and National Review on the subject will increase very soon.
Now, I can anticipate one response to this already. “Yeah, but what good did it do!?” And the answer is “Not enough.” Which is different from nothing. We were in the vanguard of the fight against Bush’s amnesty, for example.
But there’s a second reply to this objection: You’re missing the point. According to Hugh’s magic-bullet theory of #NeverTrump-ism, National Review never meant it, and we secretly hate Trump because he will practice what we’ve been preaching. That’s crazy.
My real problem with Hugh’s theory is that it is a variant of what I discussed above. Rather than take me, George Will, Pete Wehner, Bill Kristol, Steve Hayes, Rick Wilson, Ben Shapiro, Erick Erickson, Brad Thor, Guy Benson(!), Dennis Prager, Ed Meese, Yuval Levin, National Review, The Weekly Standard — or even the open-borders Wall Street Journal — at our word for why we oppose Trump, the real reason must be some unstated ulterior motive. Hugh is among the most honest and straight-shooting guys in the business, but this argument boils down to bad faith. (As does Rush’s argument, which Rich Lowry ably rebutted earlier in the week). I don’t think Hugh’s being dishonest, I just think he’s mystifyingly wrong.
Various & Sundry
* (If you scroll up, you’ll see an asterisk near the top. This is the footnote for it.) In one of my favorite scenes in The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon and Leonard are negotiating with Stuart, the comic-book-store owner. They’re haggling over the price of a replica Game of Thrones sword. Sheldon, like Barack Obama at a negotiating table in Tehran, just wants to cave into Stuart’s demands. Meanwhile, Leonard wants to drive a hard bargain. I’ll pick it up mid scene:
Stuart: Tell you what, I’ll go $235.
Leonard: Nope. Maybe another time.
Stuart: Okay, $225, my final offer.
Sheldon: Take it, take it.
Stuart: Man, you’re killing me!
Sheldon: Killing you? I can’t breathe.
Stuart: $210, and I’m losing money.
Sheldon: Oh, now, we can’t let him lose money, Leonard. I’m so sorry.
Leonard: $210 and you throw in the Iron Man helmet.
Stuart: Are you crazy? That helmet’s signed by Robert Downey Jr.
Stuart: Okay, if you’re going to question the importance of an actor’s signature on a plastic helmet from a movie based on a comic book, then all of our lives have no meaning!
I bring this up because if you’re going to question my ability to recycle old jokes in this “news”letter, then our lives have no meaning.
Canine Update: The beasts are well and have generally stayed out of mischief, save for Zoë’s determination to catch a deer, though I don’t think she would know what to do with it if she did. The other morning I drove into the park at dawn and there was a whole herd of them. I gave a little honk hoping they would scatter before I literally released the hounds. But they wouldn’t go. Meanwhile, Zoë was chuffing at me like she was my partner and we were on a stakeout. “What are you doing, you’re tipping them off! I’m filing a report with Internal Affairs!” I parked as far from the deer as possible, so they would at least have a head start. I don’t want Zoë catching one, because I think that would end badly for all concerned. I opened the car door and she shot out like a crazy lady opening the exit door on a 747 at 40,000 feet. I don’t think her paws touched dirt for 20 yards. The deer scattered, and the dingo focused on the thickest part of the herd. Pippa followed behind. They both disappeared until it dawned on the spaniel that every second spent chasing an ungulate was a second not spent chasing a tennis ball. So she soon returned. The dingo, however, spent the next few minutes crashing through underbrush, her dingo-y tail punctuating the green along like a bouncing ball over the lyrics of “It’s a Small World.” She finally lost them and met up with us on the trail, smiling at her small victory over the herbivores. Queen of the park.
Oh one last, actually important thing. The National Review webathon is well under way. I’ll have a more formal pitch next week on the homepage. But Jack Fowler would sulk all weekend if I didn’t rattle the cup here as well. As anyone who has read this “news”letter over the last few months surely knows, this is an ugly moment on the right. The divide over Donald Trump is straining friendships and alliances everywhere. I couldn’t be more proud of the principled stand National Review has taken. If you feel differently, there’s probably nothing I could say that would garner your support. But if you agree, if you find what we’re doing valuable and important, please do what you can. Thank you.
My column from yesterday is on the real purpose of political conventions.
My first column of the week was on the tax on low-wage earners we call the “minimum wage.”
The new GLoP Podcast is out and, by popular demand, we talked zombies.
Oh, and this might be fun. I’ll be on Hugh’s show Monday morning.