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 under quarantine),
Well, this “news”letter usually begins one of two ways: serious or jocular. How about, just for a change of pace, we start off scary and see how that works out?
If I were in charge of overseas contingency operations at the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, I would send as many suicide-bomber types back to America (and France and Britain) with a new weapon: Ebola. Airport scanners don’t pick it up. The incubation period is long enough to get the human biological weapons past screeners without detection. I’d tell them: Take as many connections as you can on the flight home. Help people with their luggage whenever possible. Leave a mess in the plane bathroom and a paper trail of your travels that will foment panic when ultimately revealed.
And, if you do get stopped by security officials en route, so be it. There’s lots of gloveless manhandling of suspected jihadis, which brings ample opportunities to infect interrogators, guards, FBI agents, etc. And every one of those infected Americans or Westerners furthers the cause.
But assuming you make it to Cleveland or Spokane or Washington, D.C., the only order of the day is: Have fun for as long as you can and maybe share your spit, sweat, and other stuff in as many creative ways as you can. See a show. Go to a water park and just hang out in the lazy river all day. Eat at a nice restaurant, leave a messy napkin. Don’t bother to wash your hands — and never flush (or if you do, make sure the toilet overflows!). Why, we’ll even give you all the fatwas and cash you need to hit the strip clubs and see a hooker or two. It’s all for the greater good. And when, alas, you start to feel really, really sick and you are at your most infectious, it’d be great if you could blow yourself up at a mall, or at least pass out at a McDonald’s or maybe in the middle of the F-train. If you opt for blowing yourself up, great. If not, try to tell the EMS team that you have something other than Ebola. The aim here is to keep the responders from treating you and the scene as a biohazard for as long as possible. And if you blow yourself up, don’t worry too much about killing a lot of bystanders, just make sure it’s really messy and there’s a lot of splatter.
Now, I don’t think this is a likely scenario, but I don’t think it’s an impossible one either. Regardless, that would be real terrorism, far more terrifying than blowing up a plane. Even one remotely successful effort along these lines would send America into a tailspin.
In a perverse way, America has been very lucky that our enemies have a childlike obsession with planes. There are lots of reasons why al-Qaeda likes blowing up aircraft. Planes inhabit a special place in the Western psyche. Stopping air traffic has huge economic ripple effects. Blowing up a plane demonstrates an ability to get past our best security efforts. Etc. On the flipside, blowing up planes is hard, as we’ve seen. But, if you send enough Ebola (or some other disease) through the friendly skies, that would shut down the airlines even more effectively than any bomb.
I hope and pray that our enemies remain uncreative. But it’d be foolish to plan on it.
Dukakis in a Pantsuit?
For those of you old enough to remember, George H. W. Bush wanted to be president in 1988. Despite Reagan’s popularity, this was still a heavy lift. No sitting vice president had been elected straight to the Oval Office since Martin Van Buren. So, away from the cameras off at Kennebunkport, he sacrificed over 1,000 oxen, bulls, and gnus to Zeus, Crom, Baal, Thor, Moloch, M. C. Hammer and any other deity he could think of. The gods were well-pleased. As a reward for his sacrifice they delivered unto him a golem-homunculus named Michael Dukakis. (Dukakis in Greek means “Please give me a wedgie.”) Dukakis proved to be exactly the kind of opponent Bush needed.
For instance, in the very first question of a presidential debate, CNN’s Bernie Shaw asked Dukakis a hypothetical question: Would he favor the death penalty for the man who brutally raped and murdered his wife, Kitty? The golem-homunculus responded with all of the passion, empathy, and humanity you’d expect from a tiny little fake human or maybe — when he really got worked up — a Speak-&-Spell. And then he rode a tank while wearing a helmet that made him look like a really, really, serious Playmobil action figure.
But that’s all ancient history. I bring up Michael Dukakis because Hillary Clinton seems to think he was on to something. I’m not referring to the fact that Dukakis famously got his nutrition from lichens, certain mosses, and by eating about 35 pounds of Skittles every day. (Fun fact: Michael Dukakis never went to the bathroom. Ever.) Rather, I’m referring to his declaration that “this election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.”
Now normally, I would use this moment to pound my spoon on my highchair about the bogusness (“bogiosity”?) of liberalism’s non-ideological pretensions so I could once again flog my book. Let’s just assume we did that already. Clinton seems to be crafting a campaign message that is straight out of the Dukakis playbook.
From a Wall Street Journal story about Clinton’s new messaging strategy of focusing on the issues and “data, data, data” (Which sounds like something a disappointed Noonian Soong would say after catching the future Lt. Commander in the recharging bay with a stack of Popular Mechanics):
That isn’t a phrase that lends itself to a campaign slogan, but these days it captures the unsentimental approach Mrs. Clinton is bringing to policy debates ahead of the 2016 presidential contest. . .
. . . If the material is distinctly dry and unsexy, Mrs. Clinton doesn’t seem to mind. Mr. Obama defeated her in the 2008 Democratic primary in part because voters found his message and life story inspiring. But Mrs. Clinton doesn’t seem to be betting that charisma will decide things in 2016. She is bemoaning what she calls the “evidence-free zone” in American politics while celebrating “data” as the indispensable tool in choosing the best options.
“Data, data, data,” she said at a Clinton Global Initiative panel discussion—another phrase not likely to find its way onto a bumper sticker.
She talked about brain “hardware” and “neural connections” during one panel about childhood development and mused about new ways to measure gross domestic product during another appearance. “We obsess over metrics, get excited about data,” Mrs. Clinton said in a closing speech at the conference.
According to the Journal story, Clinton says what America needs is “evidence-based optimism.” This line cost me 20 bucks — I bet that nobody could ever come up with a less stirring cri de coeur than Al Gore’s “practical idealism.”
Anyway, I have no doubt that Clinton likes data. When she was working on Hillarycare in the early 1990s she assembled hundreds of wonks collecting literally millions of pieces of data, filling filing cabinets like the warehouse in Indiana Jones. When a journalist asked her if she needed anything else, Clinton replied something like “just a little more data.” As if her entire Rube Goldberg machine would click into place and hum with perfection if she just got a few more columns of numbers on heart-bypass rates in Missoula.
But just because Clinton likes data doesn’t mean this isn’t a crock. Oh, it’s savvy. But if her husband taught us anything, it’s that bullsh*tters can be savvy. First, all of this data talk is a brilliant way to exploit the “Big Data” fad in elite circles these days and subtly play lip-service to the liberal conceit that “facts have a liberal bias.” If she were running in the late 19th century she’d be talking about canals on Mars. If she were running in the 1920s, she’d be saying “Engineering, Engineering, Engineering.” In the 1960s, she’d be saying “Plastics, Plastics, Plastics.” If she were running in 50,000 B.C. she’d be going around saying “Fire, Fire, Fire.” I talked about this a bit in my review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century:
Marx tapped into the language and concepts of Darwinian evolution and the Industrial Revolution to give his idea of dialectical materialism a plausibility it didn’t deserve. Similarly, Croly drew from the turn-of-the-century vogue for (heavily German-influenced) social science and the cult of the expert (in Croly’s day “social engineer” wasn’t a pejorative term, but an exciting career). In much the same way, Piketty’s argument taps into the current cultural and intellectual fad for “big data.” The idea that all the answers to all our problems can be solved with enough data is deeply seductive and wildly popular among journalists and intellectuals. (Just consider the popularity of the Freakonomics franchise or the cult-like popularity of the self-taught statistician Nate Silver.) Indeed, Piketty himself insists that what sets his work apart from that of Marx, Ricardo, Keynes, and others is that he has the data to settle questions previous generations of economists could only guess at. Data is the Way and the Light to the eternal verities long entombed in cant ideology and darkness. (This reminds me of the philosopher Eric Voegelin’s quip that, under Marxism, “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”)
But the more important point is that Clinton’s messaging gambit is an entirely obvious indictment of Barack Obama. The need for “evidence-based optimism” isn’t a shot at Republicans. It’s a shot at the guy who beat her out for the nomination in 2008 by running as the Pope of Hope. Back then, she and Obama had an argument about the nature of political progress — MLK vs. LBJ, inspiration vs. perspiration. Clinton lost that argument in 2008. But Obama went on to prove her right. It is only thanks to his failures that “evidence-based optimism” could be a winning slogan.
She is betting — rightly — that after eight years of ideologically driven incompetence, Democrats cannot win without assuring voters that we won’t get a replay if we reelect a Democrat. Like Roy Scheider in Jaws 2 telling the town council, “As God is my witness, I’m not going through that Hell again,” voters are already clear that they don’t want another eight years of this.
Incompetence Is Supposed to Be a Bug, Not a Feature
My column today is on this very point (“Funny how that happened” — The Couch). Obama wanted to be a transformative president who restored faith in government. But in his naïveté and hubris it never dawned on him that such an effort requires making government work better. Or maybe it dawned on him, but he lacked the courage or the skill to take on his own party. Or maybe he was so ideologically blinkered he believed that the only problems with government stem from a lack of funding. Or maybe, he thought if he gave just one more speech — just a little more cowbell — everyone would fall in line and march in step. Whatever the answer, he went another way.
I understand how ridiculous it sounds to expect Barack Obama to streamline government and make it more effective. And that’s why I never expected it. But it is an interesting thing to ponder: If Mitt Romney had been elected in 2012, given his skillsets, he probably would have done vastly more to restore faith in government than Obama ever could. And that would have been a loss for the Democratic party but arguably a win for liberalism. And maybe — just maybe — vice versa for the Republican party and conservatism.
I’m not entirely sure I agree with that. But it’s worth noodling.
Various & Sundry
Zoë Update: Here she is this morning.
Here she is, still looking for Lois Lerner’s e-mails.
Speaking Gig: I will be speaking at Penn State on Tuesday, October 14. Mark it down! Details to come, but should be open to the public.
My next scheduled appearance on Special Report will be next Thursday, October 9. If you could somehow orchestrate a massive spike in ratings when that happens, I’d appreciate it. I’ll do my part by cutting off one of my fingers, Yakuza-style on air. Maybe.
NR put my essay from the magazine up on the site yesterday. I got a great response from lots of folks (“Well, it’s certainly a lot better than this ‘news’letter,” — The Couch). I think Bill Bennett said yesterday when I was on his radio show that it was his favorite thing I’d written. Or something like that. I was pretty deep in my cups by then. Regardless, as this reflects one of the themes I’m pondering for my next book, I was glad for the positive reaction.
Here’s Charlie Cooke on Neil deGrasse Tyson. Last night on Twitter I said it was perfect. After sleeping on it, I think it’s merely outstanding.
Flashback: Maybe this should be updated to “Normally I wear protection, but I figured ‘When’s the next time I’ll be back in Liberia?’”
I’m no Christian theologian, but I think I can spot a few flaws here. Body-building Christian swingers from Florida start a spouse-swapping website.
Speaking of Christians, here is a ridiculous piece over at Slate. As I said last night on Twitter, Slate’s gotta Slate.
(It helps if you say it like Brian Fantana in Anchorman) “Shark fight!”
Caffeinated underpants won’t shrink your butt. I say we need more data.