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 merely pretending to be readers as part of some elaborate ruse to get more attention),
Here’s something you might not know: In Nazi Germany, very few Jews staged bogus hate crimes against themselves.
Here’s some more trivia: Very few blacks in the Jim Crow South went to great lengths to pretend that they were harassed or attacked by racists.
You know why? Because that would be incredibly stupid. What, exactly, would the German Jew who staged an assault on himself gain from it? Where would he or she go to ask for sympathy or recompense? Conjure any horror story you like, the Nazi official you brought it to would say, “Yeah, and . . . ?” The black sharecropper who took the time to make his own cross and burn it on his own property would benefit . . . how?
Why am I bringing this up? Well, for a bunch of reasons. I have more points to make than can be found at an English Setter competition.
First, people who live under real oppression have no need to fabulate oppression. To paraphrase Madge from the old Palmolive ads: They’re already soaking in it.
Second, when you live in an oppressive country, there’s no one you can take your grievances to because that is what it means to live in an oppressive country! For God’s sake, people, you’re making me use exclamation points and italics here. If you’re an inmate in the Shawshank prison, you can’t go to the guards to complain. When you live in North Korea, you can’t go to the local police and gripe about your working conditions or the sawdust in your bread.
I feel like one of the Duke Brothers explaining how you might find bacon in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. But in oppressive societies, the oppression isn’t a bug — it’s a feature. That’s why they’re called “oppressive.” Complaining about oppression in such societies is like a fish complaining that there are a lot of fish in a barrel of fish.
What a Free Society Means
Which brings me to the third point: In non-oppressive countries, there are people to take your case to. Sohrab Ahmari put it nicely in an essay a couple of years ago:
And as Pascal Bruckner wrote in his essay “The Tyranny of Guilt,” if liberal democracy does trap or jail you (politically speaking), it also invariably slips the key under your cell door. The Swedish midwives driven out of the profession over their pro-life views can take their story to the media. The Down syndrome advocacy outfit whose anti-eugenic advertising was censored in France can sue in national and then international courts. The Little Sisters of the Poor can appeal to the Supreme Court for a conscience exemption to Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate. And so on.
This is a hugely important point, and there’s an urgent need for more people to understand it. A free society is a rich ecosystem of competing institutions. Some are powerful, some weak. Some have great influence in a specific sphere of life: the American Bar Association, the military, the Catholic Church, whatever. Some only have power in a certain place: the county zoning board, the local police, your parents, etc. But none have unchecked power over the whole of the society and, thanks to the Constitution, that goes for the government itself, too.
A free society is a honeycomb of safe havens, competing authorities — legal, moral, cultural — that allow for people to find safe harbors from other institutions (“And, apparently, a safe harbor from mixed metaphors” — The Couch). The pursuit of happiness is an individual right that can only be achieved communally with the communities the individual chooses to be part of.
But, as I’ve been writing a lot lately, when statists, planners, nationalists, socialists, et al. embrace the language of crisis or war — metaphorical or otherwise — they are trying to board up these safe havens, to close off avenues of dissent or simple apathy about a given cause. Culture warriors demand that you care. They demand that you be part of the solution, and if you’re not, you’re part of the problem. When this spirit takes over, there’s no one to appeal to for your grievance, because everyone is in on the new crusade or too afraid to say they’re not. Oppressive societies are societies where you don’t have the right to exit.
A host of liberals are bleating about conservative “gloating” over the Smollett debunking. What they seem to sincerely not understand is that their instant acceptance of the story and their instant condemnation of anyone who voiced skepticism over it was an act of oppression. “You must care!” “You must believe!” There is no safe harbor. No right to skepticism or even reflection. He is our Horst Wessel, and you must grasp your complicity in evil. That this response came from Hollywood types who make a living off giving free rein to their emotions is not shocking. That mainstream journalists did it wasn’t shocking either, but it was appalling. It was appalling because they really can’t see how invested they are in this kind of narrative peddling, how convinced they are that they see the world as it is, and the people who disagree are not just fools, but evil.
And now that the truth is out, they are flummoxed, and this consternation is appalling, too.
From Kyle Smith’s piece about the widespread shock in the media that Smollett’s story was a fraud:
Ana Cabrera, CNN anchor, was equally flummoxed Saturday night: “The big question, then, is why?” she asked. “Why he would make something like this up?”
CNN’s senior entertainment reporter Lisa France was comparably engulfed by confusion. “If he actually did this, why in the world would he do this?” she asked. “Why? That’s what everyone wants to know.”
A bit later, Stelter chimed in again: “This is about why he might — and, so far, we don’t know. But why he might have made this up. It just boggles the mind.”
If you think it’s mind-boggling, then you’re part of the problem.
The Smallness of Jussie Smollett
The Jussie Smollett story is not mind-boggling, it’s not even mind-yahtzeeing. It’s normal in these abnormal times.
I’ve been exhausted with the Smollett case since the story of his brave search for a Subway sandwich deep in the heart of MAGA country first made headlines. Like most conservatives I know, I greeted the story skeptically from the outset. The idea that the upscale streets of Streeterville are like a modern Mogadishu with roving bands of MAGA hat-wearing, Empire-watching, bleach-and-noose carrying hooligans just waiting to pounce on gay black dudes in the wee hours of the morning on literally one of the coldest Chicago nights in decades struck me as implausible.
MAGA Thug: “I know it’s cold. But just wait. We know those gay black guys need to eat, and they can’t resist the gray translucent turkey product at Subway . . . Wait! There he is! Grab the bleach!”
But I just couldn’t muster the energy to follow every detail, which is why I’m grateful to our Kyle Smith for all his due diligence.
I’m not trying to sound superior. I wish I’d called bulls*** on the story the way Kyle did from the get-go (and the way I did on the UVA rape story). But I’ve been trying not to join Twitter mobs, even when I suspect the mob is right. That’s the danger of trying to follow a policy of not rushing to judgment; you sometimes end up forgoing the satisfaction of saying, “I told you so!”
But there’s another reason I was reluctant: Smollett’s hoax isn’t that unusual. I’m already running long, so I’ll spare you the data, but hoaxes happen all the time — and so do actual hate crimes. They’ve happened under Trump, and they were happening for decades before Trump. That’s why it’s particularly galling to see Al Sharpton opine on the Smollett case given that his entire career stemmed from the Tawana Brawley hoax and his role in a real hate crime that killed seven people.
I’ve been following this stuff ever since I witnessed such hoaxes as a college student. I think the first book I ever reviewed professionally was about student activism. The author, Paul Rogat Loeb, had a whole chapter about racism on college campuses. He focused on a hate crime at Emory. It was only after dozens of pages about all the wonderful consciousness-raising — and shakedowns of administrators — that resulted from the response to the atrocity that he acknowledged that the victim orchestrated the whole thing. But that was irrelevant, according to Loeb, because “other racial harassment has unquestionably occurred again and again, at colleges nationwide.” And besides, so much consciousness was raised! I wrote at the time, “When students are taught that the coin of the realm is race and rage, invariably some will spend that currency on self-aggrandizement and controversy.”
And that gets me to my next point.
We’re Asking For It
A truism of economics is that you get more of what you subsidize and less of what you tax. I have no quarrel with that. But it seems to me we don’t think enough about how this principle applies to areas we see as outside of economics.
For instance, contrary to what one hears in the left-wing punditsphere, there’s a high cultural penalty — a tax, if you will — on open racism, which is one reason there is so much less of it today. Already, I can hear throats clearing to say “Oh yeah, what price has Donald Trump paid!!!?!?!” Well, leaving aside the merits of the cases for and against the claim that Donald Trump is a racist, it’s transparently obvious that he’s paid a political price for the perception that he is one. The reflexive opposition to Trump by many of the media outlets from which he craves approval is driven in no small part by the widespread liberal assumption that he’s a bigot of one kind or another. Similarly, he’s almost surely paid a price among many independent and moderate voters, including the millions who voted for both Trump and Obama, because of how he’s perceived, fairly or not.
But my point here isn’t to talk about Trump, but to check the box so I don’t have to talk about him further.
In our culture, as with any culture, we reward certain behaviors and penalize others. Think of the young women who made sex tapes as a stepping stone to celebrity. In a different culture, this would not be a wise career strategy. But in our current click-baity climate (which has been this way since long before we had the term clickbait), controversy, attention, etc. are their own reward. Positive attention may be better than negative attention, but negative attention is superior to no attention at all (an insight exploited to great extent by an increasing number of politicians).
Well, slattern chic is just one shining facet of the disco ball of asininity that our culture has become.
The sort of racism Smollett manufactured has never been lower in the United States, but rather than celebrate or express gratitude for this incontestable fact, people look for proof it’s worse than ever. Bereft of giants to slay, they construct windmills and pretend they are heroes for levelling their lances at them. Like the elders of Salem, they mistake their quiet hysteria for sober reality and believe every tale of witches beyond the tree line. On the principle that some things have to be believed to be seen, wearing a blanket at Oberlin is all the proof one needs for a moral panic over the invading armies of the Klan, just as the splash of a dolphin’s tale was proof of mermaids for horny sailors centuries ago.
This, too, is just a facet of the larger tapestry, just one rhinestone glistening off a Liberace cape of self-indulgence.
H. Auden’s prophetic poem “For the Time Being,” keeps coming to mind. Auden predicted that in the “New Age”:
Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions & 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.
Not all of his examples fit, but he was onto something. If there was a commodities market for pity when Auden was writing, he would have been wise to take a large position because the pity bubble has been expanding for decades now. The New Aristocracy also includes both women with biological penises and those who want to abort their babies in the delivery room — but not the babies themselves. Gay men who travel cross country to buy cakes from pious bakers are heroes and even old Jewish socialists are villains for the crime of Having a Penis While White (and not thinking that should disqualify them to be president).
But pity is a soft emotion that needs something hard to brace against. And that’s why hate belongs in every bullish portfolio, too. We prove our virtue by pitying the right victims and hating the right victimizers. And in any booming market, the incentives for counterfeiting skyrocket. And so people give in to the temptation to manufacture reasons to be pitied, and the buyers can’t resist the pitch because it comes with the opportunity to hate included.
Hoaxes and hysteria-fueled misinterpretations are common on the left because a certain kind of pity and hate has become institutionalized, monetized, and sacralized. But while pity and hate take a certain recognizable, custom-made form on the left — call it bespoke woke — the left doesn’t have a monopoly on the larger phenomenon. Donald Trump demands pity almost daily, and he gets it. And the pitiers get their opportunities for hatred, too. Christopher Hasson is an exceptional case, but only because he took the rhetoric of pity and hate duopoly to an extreme conclusion.
But the rhetoric itself is all over the place — and it’s getting worse. The amount of self-pity on the right is staggering, and it produces an enormous amount of hatred — not so much racist hate, as various liberal elites would have us believe, but hatred at the liberals because they believe it. We’re victims because they hate us, so we must hate them. Pity and hate, hate and pity, for as far as the eye can see, like a snake eating itself.
So I’ll leave with this depressing prediction. Obviously more Smollett-style hoaxes are coming. If the negative attention heaped on mass shooters is enough to inspire other losers to commit that kind of evil, it’s easy to imagine that the attention Smollett has gotten will inspire losers to do likewise. But that’s not my prediction. There will be a hoax involving MAGA hats, but the fake victims will be those wearing them. We already saw the hunger for this kind of thing in the Covington case — but those kids were in fact victims. President Trump invited that kid named Trump to the State of the Union precisely because he wanted to exploit this great reservoir of pity. And the coverage of this legitimate outrage will no doubt encourage others to get a piece of that on the cheap.
So mark my words, some loser, desperate to be lionized by Candace Owens or applauded at CPAC, will manufacture some story of victimhood that will ignite a bonfire of outrage on the right and a riot of sympathy about MAGA persecution. The mainstream media will suddenly remember the professional integrity it forgot in the Smollett case and debunk it. But before then, the pitiables of the right will claim victimhood by proxy and denounce the insensitivity of an uncaring media that hates them. The roles will be reversed, but the script will be the same, and the actors will all yell just a little bit louder, as the snake ups the tempo of its own repast.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: So Pippa has been extra spanielly this last week or so. The cold weather, the mud, the snow, the ice, and in particular, the combination of all four have brought out the true essence of Pippa and provided the content people seem to crave. This video has over 123K views. And this one has been viewed 141 thousand times (though I suspect a lot of that is from repeat viewers). The problem is that when Pippa is truly joyous, the constraints of civilized society vanish, and because she is truly joyous when she gets in muddy water, that behavior also leads her to do very bad things, like roll in fetid foulness. Worse, all of these things lead to baths, which in turn make her all the more desperate to erase the bourgeois scents of modern society, making these cycles repeat themselves.
But that’s my problem. Both girls are having a really good time these days. They were a little too needy when the Fair Jessica was out of town. Zoë is even willing to be captured in action on video. Here she is with her bestest friend Sammie. People keep asking me about the cameos from other dogs that Zoë and Pippa know. Sammie is Zoë’s buddy from her midday pack. They have a very close and special relationship. They’ve been playing like this since they were puppies. And it’s always great when they get reunited. But fear not, Zoë still makes time for Pip.
I hope that continues, but we’ve decided that Zoë needs to go on even more of diet, which is hard because we only really feed her once a day as it is, and it’s not like she doesn’t get a lot of exercise. If anybody has any good advice, please send it my way.
In other news, I can’t begin to tell you how stunned and flattered I was when I heard the news that my appearance on EconTalk was selected as the audience favorite for 2018. I consider Econtalk the gold standard in egghead podcasts. I learned so much from it, I mentioned it in the acknowledgements of my book. So it was particularly awesome that my talk about the book beat out some really amazing competition. Thanks very much to everyone.
On another note, there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on in my life; I’ll hopefully fill you all in when the smoke clears. But there may be a hiatus in G-Filing in the next few weeks, in part because I’ll be travelling for much of March. I’ll be in Spain — when I turn 50! — but, don’t worry, you can save on international postage by sending your pallets of cash, scotch, and cigars to my office at AEI.
And now, the weird stuff.