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The Tribe’s Useful Idiots

Palestinian protesters at the Israeli-Gaza border, May 18, 2018. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)
Useful idiots take an event and remove all the facts that don’t fit their desired final product.

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 the subhuman animals who hear Yanny),

I’m writing this with a pretty stiff cold-medicine-and-Irish-whiskey hangover, married to some dismayingly early cigar smoking chased down with coffee. Don’t judge, I need the nicotine and caffeine because I am beyond exhausted: In the last ten days, I’ve given talks or interviews in New York, Chicago, Austin, Dallas, D.C., San Francisco, Yorba Linda, and Los Angeles, half of it with a head cold and the other half with the head of Alfredo Garcia in a duffel bag. (Sorry, that’s the hallucinatory cocktail of cold medicine speaking.) But I am also your humble servant, and I want to hold up my end of the bargain with you, my Dear Readers. So let’s see what I can come up with.

I’ve always been fascinated by useful idiots — and I don’t mean interns who are good at fetching coffee or pumicing my feet. I mean “useful idiots” in the Leninist sense (even if Lenin may not have in fact coined the term). Useful idiots, according to lore, were the Western intellectuals who could be counted on to defend or apologize for Bolshevik or Soviet barbarisms and other crimes.

The Soviet effort to cultivate, feed, and support useful idiots is an absorbing tale in its own right. But the fascinating part is how the real heavy-lifting was done by the Western intellectuals themselves.

I’m reminded of Randolph Bourne’s famous line about the receptivity of progressive intellectuals to the First World War. Describing a “peculiar congeniality between the war and these men,” Bourne said that it was “as if the war and they had been waiting for each other.”

As I took in snippets of the coverage from the Gaza–Israel border this week, it was as if the bloodshed and the usual suspects had been waiting for each other. It wasn’t so much a case of the facts on the ground not mattering as it was a case of only certain facts mattering a great deal — and others not at all. Israelis were shooting Palestinians; the rest was commentary.

Another apocryphal quote, which I first heard ascribed to Rodin — that’s with an “I” for the artist not an “A” for the daikaiju monster — goes like this:

Q: How do you sculpt an elephant?

A: Simple. Take a block of marble and remove everything that isn’t an elephant.

This is how so much coverage of Israel seems to work: Take an event and remove all the facts that don’t fit the desired final product. By now, the examples of what I’m talking about should be familiar enough: the Palestinian cripple who could suddenly walk; the confession — from Hamas itself — that nearly all of the “innocent victims” of Israeli “murder” were in fact terrorists; the admissions from the Hamas cannon fodder that their intentions were violent. But none of that mattered. Nor did it catch the media’s attention that there was no rioting in the Fatah-controlled West Bank, but only in Hamas-controlled Gaza. That Hamas has been fomenting this macabre publicity stunt for weeks didn’t seem to matter either.

The articles hadn’t been written but the plot had already been agreed upon.

The far more plausible explanation that this was all a barbarically cynical effort — sponsored by Hamas’s patrons in Iran — to foment outrage against Israel on the backs of Palestinian human sacrifices was too plausible to contemplate. Instead, the same tired story of authentic and spontaneous rage against oppressors by indigenous victims just had to be unfolding in front of our eyes.

As I write this, news has broken of a school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. I checked Twitter to see if the familiar mad rush to pan the river of events for golden nuggets to adorn a preferred narrative is unfolding once again. It took seconds to see that it was:

On another front, the great fight to prove that either President Trump colluded with Russia to steal the election or that the “Deep State” conspired to in effect frame the president is really just an ugly contest of two groups of storytellers desperate to definitively print the legend — their legend.

This effort is a subplot of a larger story in which supporters or opponents of Trump believe that the master plot will culminate in a climax of vindication for one side or another. The idea that Trump — and by extension his supporters or opponents — will be proven neither heroic nor villainous is too terrible for some to contemplate.

Every Tribe Is a Story, Every Story Has a Tribe

Reason as a distinct mode of thinking is a fairly new thing in human history. This is not to say we didn’t have the faculty to reason for hundreds of thousands of years. But the teasing out of reason as a stand-alone system of thinking is quite recent and actually much harder to sustain than we moderns assume. For most of our existence, we thought in terms of stories. Story-telling is how we learned to hunt cooperatively. Stories were — and are — how we understand ourselves, our history, and our place in the universe. Every great religion is encased in a series of tales about prophets, tyrants, and redeemers. The idea that there is a right side to history boils down to the faith that, in the long run, the great novel of man will end on terms we like.

Robert Wright has an interesting essay on the stubbornness of tribal thinking (and Sam Harris’s belief that he can transcend it). According to Wright,

We all need role models, and I’m not opposed in principle to Harris’s being mine. But I think his view of himself as someone who can transcend tribalism — and can know for sure that he’s transcending it — may reflect a crude conception of what tribalism is. The psychology of tribalism doesn’t consist just of rage and contempt and comparably conspicuous things. If it did, then many of humankind’s messes — including the mess American politics is in right now — would be easier to clean up.

What makes the psychology of tribalism so stubbornly powerful is that it consists mainly of cognitive biases that easily evade our awareness. Indeed, evading our awareness is something cognitive biases are precision-engineered by natural selection to do. They are designed to convince us that we’re seeing clearly, and thinking rationally, when we’re not. And Harris’s work features plenty of examples of his cognitive biases working as designed, warping his thought without his awareness. He is a case study in the difficulty of transcending tribal psychology, the importance of trying to, and the folly of ever feeling sure we’ve succeeded.

Another way to put it: Tribal thinking is commitment to a story about how the world works. Steven Pinker has a story. I have a story. We all have stories that we believe are correct, and we look for facts that support them. This is unavoidable, because if we did not generalize or streamline our understanding of the world to a set of facts that we believe to be the most important, we wouldn’t be able to think at all. There’s just too much data out there. Without the craft of editing and sifting through the data, we’d be left with what William James called a “blooming buzzing confusion.”

The prerequisite for useful idiocy isn’t malice or villainy: The apologists for the Soviet Union were not knowing traitors for the most part (though some were). Rather, they simply became too invested in the story they want to tell, like Colonel Nicholson in Bridge over the River Kwai, at least until he has his epiphany and says, “What have I done?

When the story fully takes over, reason takes itself out of the game. All that matters is the ultimate resolution of the narrative. For Hamas, the story of national liberation is all that matters. Marxism is not a system of thinking but a romantic story (in all the different meanings of “romantic”) about the progress of humanity that ends with all contradictions being eradicated in the last chapter, titled “The End of History.”

The problem with this sort of thinking is that it is dehumanizing — because it assumes that individual human beings are simply acting out some foreordained narrative. One of the great clichés of writing is that you have to be willing to “kill your children”: Erase, cut, yank out anything that does not advance the story. The same process of killing your children — for the greater good — all too often applies to the self-anointed authors of human affairs, sometimes literally, but more often figuratively.

Which brings me back to where we started. The people who insist that the Palestinians are unalloyed victims remove human agency from them. According to this thinking, they are not making choices; they are playing their parts. How dare you ask why someone would bring a (very sick) baby to a riot? How dare you suggest that there is subtext to the story of Palestinian righteousness? If you point out that the real villain in a shooting isn’t the inanimate object but the person wielding it, you are muddying the plot. Populists always tell a story about the righteousness of “the people,” but they invariably mean only “the right people”; the rest are barely people at all.

To a lesser extent, such thinking can also dehumanize the people employing it. George Orwell saw this clearly. In “Politics and the English Language,” he pointed out how the language of the stories we tell can take over like an auto-piloted algorithm and do our thinking for us.

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

You cannot eliminate the drive to craft stories. The best you can do is have some humility and some openness to the possibility that there are facts and experiences contradictory to your own. I’ve written at length about how I think one of the defining features of conservatism is “comfort with contradiction”:

At the very core of conservatism lies comfort with contradiction, acceptance of the fact that life is not fair; that ideals must forever be goals, not destinations; that the perfect is not the enemy of the good but one standard by which we understand what is good in the first place –though not the only standard.

The best story of America isn’t the one where America is always right. The best story of America is the one where Americans collectively and as individuals have the freedom to make mistakes and then learn from them and then improve. This is the best story not because it casts us in the best light. It’s the best story because it is true.

Various & Sundry

I don’t have much firsthand stuff to report on Canine Squadron Alpha One. But a trend seems to be developing. Even before I left, Zoë seemed to be losing a little of her mojo. We don’t think she’s sick. We think she might be — gulp — growing up. At some point, most dogs shed their silliness. Zoë seemed different because, well, the dingo factor. But she’s less likely to play with her friends in the dog pack the way she used to, and she’s much more reluctant to even go outside than she was (Sammie had to taunt Zoë to get a rise out of her). Maybe it’s all because she’s realized she won’t see her boyfriend Ben anymore and she’s just heartsick. But I don’t think that’s the case. It may also just be a phase. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile both of the dogs are developing more acute thunderphobia. The other morning, the Fair Jessica kept calling for the doggers to go on the morning walk, and Pippa didn’t come. It was because she had hidden under our bed and, well, she doesn’t fit under our bed, and she got herself stuck. Anyway, that’s all I really have, save for some fun proof-of-life pics from home, including this Peak Spaniel shot.

The book continues to sell quite well — so THANK YOU — but it fell off next week’s NYT list because there were four big new books that came out. I think and hope it will pop back on down the road. Fingers crossed (which makes typing hard).

My sincere thanks to all the great folks who came out to see me in California under the banners of NRI and AEI. I want to give a particular shout-out to my gracious hosts at the Nixon Library. I got a great tour there. I also recorded an episode of Ben Shapiro’s “Sunday Special” show and finally got asked some fun questions — about religion and the enlightenment — you don’t get at normal media outlets. That should be out in the next week or two. But our recording of The Remnant went out today. I was so unbelievably groggy I completely forgot to ask him about the ONE THING I went in planning to discuss with him — this Intellectual Dark Web thing. Oh well, maybe next time.

I’m off to the Weekly Standard shindig at the Broadmoor and then home for a day or two (my Phoenix gig was cancelled; bad for book, big relief for me to be honest).

Here’s other stuff:

Last week’s G-File

The week’s first Remnant, a Jet Lag Q&A

The latest Ricochet GLoP Culture podcast, sans P

Conservatives and young voters

My appearance on the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s podcast

This week’s second Remnant, with Ben Shapiro

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

British World War II bomber radio chatter, classy as Hell

Each state’s favorite ’90s sitcom

Dog jumps over high wall

Why do we have butts?

Psychedelic salt mines

The largest wave ever

Violinist imitates animal sounds

Dog enjoys ball pit

History of the Universe in 13,799 Dominoes

Psychedelic octopus

I’d like to race, in outer space, in an octopus’s spaceship . . .

Cannonball GoPro

Dog rescues dog

The lexicon of Tom Wolfe

The creation of the sounds of sex scenes in movies

Snail memory transfer?

Volcano golfing

Adopt a Chernobyl puppy

Metaphor alert

Mankind and its teeth

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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