The G-File

Culture

Moral Heroism without Morality

Protesting Indiana’s RFRA law in Indianapolis.
The Left’s bullying freak-out over Indiana's RFRA betrays a compulsive need to feel morally superior to others.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is this Friday’s edition of Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news” letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox.

Dear Reader (unless you’re an Evangelical Christian, devout Muslim, or Orthodox Jewish wedding photographer who has been forced by the state to take pictures at some same-sex nuptials against your will and conscience, in which case you are probably busy snapping pictures of the groom’s shoes, the ceiling tiles, and the light-blue urinal cakes at the Indianapolis Ramada. What a victory for tolerance!),

#ad#Before we get started, you should know that today is Good Friday. I don’t mean that like I’m informing you it’s Good Friday. It’s a declaration of fact, like “You should know that America is in the Northern Hemisphere,” or “You should know that you shouldn’t spend your first day in prison going around the yard asking your fellow inmates, ‘Who wants to put on a production of Cats? I call Bombalurina!’”

Anyway, since you should know that’s it’s Good Friday, you might also be interested to know that National Review’s offices are closed today. This is a classic National Review holiday, everyone has the day off — but all deadlines remain unchanged. It’s like telling the junior baker, “Oh sure you have tomorrow off, just make sure all the doughnuts get made before dawn.”

Anyway, Poor Nat Brown (that’s actually his name, “Nat” is his middle name) has trudged into the office to grease up the wheel of pain, retrieve this “news”letter from the pneumatic tube, pluck off the feathers, slap the tush, pull out the giblets, give the undercarriage a “how’s-your-father?” and do all of the other highly technical things that Internet professionals do to make this thing arrive on your digital doorstep intact. And, in my gratitude, I told him I would make it snappy (and happy, and peppy, and bursting with love).

So let’s get started.

Crush the Safe Harbors

So I guess we’re done with the RFRA fight for now and a lot of people are done with Governor Mike Pence (Here’s is an aerial view of his cave-in, by the way). For those interested, my column today is my second attempt to explain why comparing religious freedom laws to Jim Crow is so inane. I don’t have much hope that it will do any good.

Indeed, this whole ridiculous, insane, paranoid, sanctimonious, bullying, freak-out has me despairing for the country. I don’t know that I can do another stem-winder on the liberal gleichschaltung or the fact that real, meaningful, diversity must be a diversity of customs, institutions, and communities. Civil society is where life happens; we want it to be as rich an ecosystem as it can be. That means tolerating — or even celebrating — hippies and drag queens in San Francisco, but it also means tolerating — or even celebrating — religious and observant people, too. All RFRA was intended to do was to give millions of Americans a little space to be and do what their religion tells them they must. If that faith goes too far, than the common good trumps it. But short of that, let people be for God’s sake.

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No one would confuse me for a particularly pious or religious person. If properly compensated, I would happily bake a cake for a gay wedding — or write a special “news”letter for some lesbian nuptials — myself, though I don’t expect there’s a big market for that (but make me an offer!).

But I also believe that in a perfect world businesses should be able to decline service to anyone for almost any reason. I firmly believe in the right of people to exit systems and institutions they do not want to belong to. I’m much less committed to the idea that people must be able to join any institution or group they want to just because they want to. I could have sworn that even liberals believed that freedom means the freedom to create the rules you want to live by, individually and collectively. In a perfect world, campus Christian groups could have rules barring, you know, non-Christians from joining. Call me a utopian, but I think the producers of the “Vagina Monologues” should not be bullied into including performers with penises (giving a whole new meaning to “cast member”).

Selma, Now and Forever

And before you flip out, let me acknowledge that we don’t live in a perfect world (and I don’t mean the Kevin Costner movie). America made grave and profound moral errors with regard to race. Therefore it became a moral necessity to compel businesses offering public accommodation to serve black people.

Was there a better way? Maybe. Though I find such post-hoc arguments really tiresome after a while. First of all, some of the people who want to get in the WayBack machine and re-litigate the Civil Rights Act tend to be of a cranky disposition. (No really, it’s true. Wait awhile and they’ll show up in the comments section of the online version of this “news”letter.)

Second, there’s virtually no political upside to such debates. (It’s like Ron Paul explaining on Meet the Press there was a better way to end slavery than the Civil War — that’s news we can use!)

And third, substantively saying the Civil Rights acts were unnecessary is sort of like saying to someone who escaped a burning building: “You, know, you really didn’t have to throw that chair through the plate-glass window to get out.” In other words, it treats an extremely exigent moment in American history as if it were amenable to solutions spit-balled in an endless college seminar.

I’m Sorry Sir, You’re Not Black

What I do think is far more relevant and timely is the fact that so many people want to glom onto the moral stature of the civil-rights movement and reenact it for every single American with a grievance (save for conservatives who, like the Civil War re-enactor who’s always forced to play a Confederate, must always be cast as the bad guys). If you take all the people idiotically, reflexively, and sanctimoniously invoking Jim Crow at face value, it’s hard not to conclude they’re reflexive and sanctimonious idiots — or simply dishonest. And while that’s probably true of some, it’s clearly not true of many. Instead, I think you need to see this tendency as a Freudian slip, a statement of yearning, a kind of self-branding or what you (well, probably not you) might call moral megalothymia.

Take Out Your Dictionaries

Megalothymia is a term coined by Francis Fukuyama. It’s a common mistake to think Fukuyama simply took Plato’s concept of “thumos” or “thymos” and put a “mega” in front of it because we all know from the Transformers and Toho Productions that “mega” makes everything more cool.

But that’s not the case. Megalothymia is a neologism of megalomania (an obsession with power and the ability to dominate others) and thymos, which Plato defined as the part of the soul concerned with spiritedness, passion, and a desire for recognition and respect.

Fukuyama defined megalothymia as a compulsive need to feel superior to others.

And boy howdy, do we have a problem with megalothymia in America today. Everywhere you look there are moral bullies utterly uninterested in conversation, introspection, or persuasion who are instead hell-bent on grinding down people they don’t like to make themselves feel good. If you took the megalothymia out of Twitter, millions of trolls would throw their smartphones into the ocean.

Make no mistake: This is a problem across the ideological spectrum, because it is a problem of human nature in general and modernity in particular. But in this context, it’s a special malady of elite liberalism.

Moral Heroism without Morality

We teach young people they should be morally heroic, and that is good.

The problem is we lack the ability to think about morality seriously, never mind talk about it seriously. In a world where Harvard — once a Christian seminary! — is now a place where its “safe spaces” aren’t safe enough because the poetry is too offensive, we should not expect a lot of serious conversation.

This is one of the reasons why our moral categories are so content-less. Tolerance and sympathy become moral imperatives without reference to what is being tolerated and sympathized with. All week people on Twitter have been telling me that all discrimination is bad, no matter what. That’s awful news, because I really don’t want to invite pedophiles, Nazis, or complete strangers from the 7-11 parking lot to my Passover seder. Now I’m told such discrimination is wrong, no matter what.

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Indeed, for some, the more immoral or offensive something becomes, the more heroic it is to find a reason to defend it (Hence the old chestnut about how a liberal is someone so open-minded he won’t even take his own side in an argument). Internationally, our own worst enemies have to be on to something because, gosh darn it, we must have something to apologize for. The whole world is covered in a steaming pile of sh*t and the the left-wing optimist is the guy who thinks he will find a pony — to explain how it’s really all America’s fault.

And at home, rebellion against the traditional, the existing, the old-and-tried is its own reward. Everything is Chesterton’s fence, and nobody cares or bothers to ask where the fences came from or what they’re for. As I keep saying, America has an autoimmune disease.

So is it any wonder that today’s liberals have “Selma envy”? Is it a surprise they see Jim Crow laws everywhere? If your only frame of reference for moral heroism is the struggle for civil rights half a century ago, it’s no shock that you will do everything you can to bend the world today into your sepia-toned viewfinder of the past. Teach enough kids that they have to reenact Selma to be heroic, they’ll start seeing Selma in the weirdest places. Worse, the real issue won’t be the alleged injustice, the real issue will be their heroism — like kids who dig latrines in the third world so they can explain what heroes they are to the admissions counselor at Vassar.

The problem is that to compare any other group’s experience to the black experience in America must of necessity be a poetic or metaphorical enterprise. The facts don’t line up for women and gays. The transgendered weren’t carted over here in the galleys of ships. (You could look it up.) This isn’t to say blacks are the only people to have suffered from historic injustices (or to say that constant dwelling on those injustices is necessarily constructive). It is to say that the constant unending desire to leach moral standing from their experience to give your own claims underserved grandeur is pathetic and shameful. And the know-nothing, often fundamentally anti-American, desire to constantly cast this country as an oppressive, evil-intentioned society, is an indication of how the Left’s intellectual gas tank is empty, and is now running simply on the fumes of megalothymic passion.

I take real offense when people insist I am a bigot just to make themselves feel good. It’s literally quixotic. Don Quixote was sure windmills were dragons because he was sure he was a chivalric knight. But Quixote’s certainty didn’t transmogrify the windmills into dragons — his certainty proved he was crazy. I watch the preening jack wagons of MSNBC picking heroic fights with straw-men and I see the same lunatic alchemy at work. Scream loud enough at imaginary demons in America today, and someone will salute your courage as a demon slayer. But it won’t be me.

For the Time Being

Sometimes I think W.H. Auden really was a prophet. From, the Herod section of For the Time Being:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions . . . Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

Noah, Après Flood

I don’t think Trevor Noah, the newly designated host of The Daily Show, is an anti-Semite. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think his incredibly lame and groan-inducing jokes about Jews are sufficient evidence to earn him that label. As Katherine Timpf noted, comedians should get a pass for such things, even when they bomb. Though sometimes they can bomb so spectacularly, it’s difficult to see them the same way at the bottom of the smoky crater. (See Richards, Michael.) But I do think Katherine is a bit too broad in granting blanket immunity for such things. The French “comedian” Dieudonné M’bala M’bala is certainly an anti-Semite even if people — mostly anti-Semites — laugh at his jokes.

In other words, getting a laugh doesn’t automatically exonerate you from the charge of bigotry. You may be surprised to learn I’m not a close student of the comedy circuit in neo-Nazi and Klan circles, but I can imagine that after a long week of cross-burnings and graveyard desecrations, even that crowd might like to unwind to the comedic stylings of, say, a Shecky Odinshield or Lynchy McBigNose the self-hating Jewish prop-comic (that’s a stage name by the way).

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Indeed, one needn’t invoke Rule 43 (if you look hard enough you can find anything on the Internet) to be unsurprised that the Internet is full of websites that cater to people in search of racist jokes. Why, there’s even a website called racist-jokes.info brimming with all of the hateful classics. And while it doesn’t follow that everyone who laughs at the crap on display there is a bigot, it doesn’t take feats of logic (not to be confused with “Feets of Logic,” the University of Chicago Aristotelian dance troupe) to conclude that the heartiest guffaws and most frequent visitors will be drawn disproportionately from the ranks of racists, idiots, steak heads, and comment trolls of white-power websites. Nor does it strain credulity to imagine that the kind of person who wants to spend his or her days curating such fare might be more likely to be a bigot as well.

Imagine you’re on a blind date or conducting a job interview. You ask, “Do you have any hobbies?”

“Well, in my spare time I like to collect hummels, stage Civil War reenactments with toy soldiers and, oh yeah — how could I forget? — I run a website that collects the best jokes about blacks and Jews. Let me tell you a few . . .”

Call me Mr. Judgmental, I’m going to draw some conclusions about that guy. But, hey, that’s me.

Still, I find the whole topic kind of fascinating. I listen to a lot of comedy on satellite radio when I’m driving in my car. There’s an amazing amount of incredibly raunchy and racist stuff on stations like Comedy Central and Rawdog. Some of it is really funny. Some of it really isn’t (“I’ve heard the same said about this ‘news’letter minus the ‘really funny’ part.” — The Couch). What the comedians themselves believe in their hearts isn’t very interesting to me, though it’s obvious to me that the racism is 99 percent fake and the hatred of religion is 98 percent real.

But it is remarkable that they get away with it given the culture we live in today. If you only listened to stand-up comedy, you’d have almost no idea that so much of elite America have become delicate little flowers terrified of mildly unpleasant ideas, never mind offensive ones. On college campuses professors would lose their job if they made light of rape or racism, but Amy Schumer (who I think is hilarious) ascends with nary a hitch to her career. And that’s as it should be when it comes to Schumer, but it is outrageous and somewhat terrifying with respect to the professors.

#related#I have no doubt that the humorless ass-aches at Salon will read me as saying “Let’s have more racists and rape apologists in the classroom!” But that’s not what I’m saying at all. What I am saying is that is that comedy, particularly stand-up comedy, is one of the last places in American life — outside private conversations with friends — where people get the benefit of the doubt. That’s a remarkable fact, both in terms of the immunity of comedians but also of the soft-totalitarian politicized ethos of almost everywhere else.

As for Noah, I honestly think he will not do well. It’s not because I think he’s a bad comedian, but because I think he’s a cosmopolitan. Jon Stewart is arguably the most pop-culture fluent performer in American life. That was the real secret to his success — not his liberalism. Stewart’s liberalism was really important, obviously. But it seems to me Comedy Central is focusing far too much on it. Which partly explains why they went with Noah, I think. Noah is the kind of comic you want when you want to take criticism of America to the next level. Having an outsider explain why Americans should be embarrassed by America is exhilarating — why just look at how audiences gush at John Oliver. Anyway, I think I’ll stop there because I think I can get a real column out of this and, besides, Nat Brown is waiting with the ball-peen hammer and the cargo net at the other end of the pneumatic tube.

Various & Sundry

So I had planned on writing about the Iran “deal” today but I got into rant mode and forgot until it was too late. My short take: 1) There is no deal. I understand why people refer to “this deal” but it’s worth remembering that these talks failed to actually come up with a deal. They came up with an outline of how to continue to talk about a deal for months past the deadline. 2) I think if these parameters are implemented as discussed, it proves Netanyahu correct: It puts Iran on a glide path to a bomb and quite obviously so. 3) But I don’t think Iran will ever adhere even to these terms for more than a year or two, and they will race for a bomb. More, alas, on this in the future. But I agree with this, this, and this.

I’ll be on Neil Cavuto’s show today around 4:30 E.T.

Here’s me ranting about RFRA on Special Report on Monday. (And yes, the rivers are turning to blood, because I just linked to Media Matters, a clear sign of the apocalypse.)

Oh, and here’s something interesting: I’m hiring a fulltime research assistant — or rather the American Enterprise Institute is hiring one for me (thanks Arthur!). I’m working on a new book that I am very excited about (more on that later, of course), and between that, my column, the magazine, and my amateur chiropody and fusilli-art, I could use some help. Here’s the listing over at AEI.

Zoë Update: The dingo is doing well. We still haven’t committed to a shock collar, but have started working with a trainer and I’ve actually been doing clicker training with her. So far so good. And she maintains her royal carriage when I drive her around. But we can talk about all of that another day. I think we need to talk about Oakley, who for the moment is the cutest dog in the NR universe. How Charlie Cooke found a lab-cow mix is beyond me, but he definitely seems like a calf to me. Look at those eyes! Anyway, we’ll see how Oakley compares aesthetically to Zoë when he’s older (puppies always win everything), but right now he’s one handsome boy. Welcome to the club Charlie. Note: Zoë was a pretty puppy too (can you tell I’m defensive?).

Oh hey, for those of you who don’t know, this “news”letter is now posted on the homepage every Saturday. There seems to be a lot of confusion about that. There’s also a lot of confusion in the comments section to the G-File. Every week at least one commenter gets all haughty about the childish, self-indulgent, or sophomoric tone of this “news”letter. I get it. I know about it. But as I’ve been saying all along: That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. Also: Pull my finger.

Oh speaking of Trevor Noah, I forgot to mention I like Patton Oswalt’s response to the controversy.

What was it Jacques Cousteau said after he got his new video equipment? “Time-lapse coral, bitches!

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Debby’s Links!

And Happy Passover and Easter, everybody!

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