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 Superfluous Readers,
Albert Jay Nock was one of the great editors of all time, from a writer’s perspective. Or rather, from a good writer’s perspective.
As an editor, by his own admission he only brought two things to the table: his nose for talent and not getting in the way. “I can smell out talent as quickly and unerringly as a high-bred pointer can smell out a partridge,” he boasted. And he defined the job of an editor as “to do nothing, and [one] can’t set about it too soon or stick to it too faithfully.”
When he was running The Freeman (the first one), a young writer came to look for writing opportunities. The writer-on-the-make asked if Nock had any “sacred cows” that could not be violated in Nock’s pages. “Yes,” he recounted in his memoir, “we had three of them, as untouchable and sacred as the Ark of the Covenant.”
“‘The first one,’ I said, ‘is that you must have a point. Second, you must make it out. The third one is that you must make it out in eighteen-carat, impeccable, idiomatic English.’
“‘But is that all?’ the young man countered.
“‘Isn’t it enough for you?’
“‘Why, yes, I suppose so, but I mean, is that all the editorial policy you have?’ the young man asked incredulously.
“‘As far as I know, it is,’ I said, rising. ‘Now you run along home and write us a nice piece on the irremissibility of post-baptismal sin, and if you can put it over those three jumps, you will see it in print. Or if you would rather do something on a national policy of strangling all the girl-babies at birth, you might do that — glad to have it.’”
What Magazines Do
Now, I don’t bring this up because I think this is a great way to run a magazine — or at least most magazines. I’m not even sure the story’s true. The cape-wearing Nock was prone to theatricality and embellishment. (According to lore, the only way to reach him outside of the office was to leave a note under a specific rock in Central Park.) But let’s talk about magazines for a moment.
I suppose it would be fun if there were one magazine out there that subscribed to Nock’s Ark of the Covenant and nothing more. But as a general rule, I think magazines — intellectual magazines — should have sacred cows, by which I mean they should have commitments to things beyond simply good writing. This is certainly true for ideologically oriented opinion magazines. National Review will run opposing views on all manner of topics, but if you submit your (un-Swiftian) piece on why America should embrace Marxism–Leninism or, for that matter, why all baby girls should be strangled, you will probably be lucky to get a polite rejection.
The New Republic I grew up reading was eclectic, with in-house writers often at war with each other in its pages. But it still had some sacred cows. The publisher was very pro-Israel, so while good-faith criticism of Israeli policies often appeared in its pages, you would never find an essay — no matter how well-written — calling for the dissolution of the state of Israel. That’s not only fine with me; it’s proper. Magazines, like Churchill’s pudding, need themes.
But here is the first important distinction I’d like to make: Editors or owners should have absolute authority to control what appears in the pages of their magazines. How they exercise that authority, i.e., how much orthodoxy they want to impose or how much free-for-all they want to encourage, is a prudential question (and one I often have strong opinions about).
What editors should not have any control over is what their writers are allowed to think.
Kevin Williamson, Thought Criminal
Which brings me to my friend Kevin Williamson, who was fired from his new job at The Atlantic almost before he could figure out how to work the coffee machine. Ironically, he was hired for the same reason he was fired. He has strong opinions and he expresses them very well. Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation) courageously hired Kevin because he wants his magazine to be a public square for different points of view. Goldberg is also fascinated with “homeless conservatives” in the era of Trump. Kevin is a critic of the president — even more so than me. He is also fluent in cultural idioms that few elite journalists have the foggiest acquaintance with, by virtue of his humble origins and peripatetic career. Goldberg rightly believed Kevin’s voice would enrich and enliven the pages of The Atlantic (which, by the way, I still think is an excellent magazine, for now).
The Woke Mob thought otherwise from the get-go, as they always do in these circumstances. Indeed, before we talk about the specifics of Kevin’s situation, it must be pointed out that whenever a conservative or libertarian is hired outside the conservative ghetto, the response is like that of Dutch Dominicans watching Napoleon’s forces convert their church into a horse barn. The excuses for why this or that writer is unacceptably extreme vary with the writer. But the reaction is always the same, if not in degree then in form.
Some writers make the mob’s job easier than others, of course.
Kevin has said, sardonically, not sincerely, that women who have had abortions should be hanged. The usual gremlins of the lefty Internet took his comments out of context, which is kind of amusing because in this case you’d think his actual position would have done the trick.
As Kevin explains here, he is generally hostile to capital punishment, retroactive punishment, and lynching altogether. His point is that abortion is the taking of a life and should thus be treated under the law as such. You can agree or disagree with that position, on moral, practical, or legal grounds. I disagree with Kevin on all three grounds to some extent, even though I am what you might call mostly pro-life (I know, I know, but we can argue about all that another day). I am fairly sure that most of the people at National Review disagree — again, to varying degrees — with Kevin on this as well.
But here’s the thing: He never made that argument for National Review. I suppose I could find out if he tried and was turned down, but that’s beside the point. The point is that Rich Lowry, or, more relevant, Jeffrey Goldberg, would be entirely within his rights to reject any attempt by Kevin to make that argument in the pages of National Review or The Atlantic (and Kevin would be in his rights to quit over it, though I doubt he would). But there was no chance to test this because Kevin was fired for what he thinks. There were writers at the old New Republic who had unacceptably harsh views of Israel, but they weren’t fired for it. There are writers at National Review who are pro-choice, but they aren’t fired for it. They just don’t typically make that case in our pages. There are writers at every magazine out there who believe things they wouldn’t pitch to their editors. And that’s not merely normal; it’s fine.
Everyone has opinions, but opinion writers are paid to have them. As far as I can tell, most opinion writers don’t have very interesting opinions. They see their job as articulating what their audience already believes or what their editors want to hear. That’s not Kevin.
And that brings me back to Albert Jay Nock. He was second only to H.L. Mencken in the pantheon of America’s “superfluous men,” a Russian literary term Nock adopted to describe himself. The superfluous men were a diverse bunch intellectually — that was one of the reasons they were superfluous. What united them was their refusal to cave in to the rise of mass politics and mass society in the early decades of the 20th century. They stood athwart history, to borrow a phrase from Nock protégé William F. Buckley, objecting to both the petty and profound tyrannies of mind, body, and society of the elites as well as the entitled demands of the masses (or, as Mencken called them, the “booboisie.”).
My favorite of their number, other than Nock himself, isn’t usually counted among them (because he wasn’t American): Julien Benda. Benda articulated the underlying philosophical problems of the age better than any of them, decrying the rise of nationalism, populism, and the corruption of the intellectual classes who saw it as their job to cater to the passions of the masses.
“Our age,” Julien Benda wrote in The Treason of the Intellectuals, “is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.” He continued: “Those who for centuries had exhorted men, at least theoretically, to deaden the feeling of their differences. . . have now come to praise them. . . be it ‘fidelity to the French soul,’ ‘the immutability of their German consciousness,’ [or] for the ‘fervor of their Italian hearts.’” The Christianity which proclaimed in Galatians, “there is neither Greek nor Jew nor Barbarian, but Christ is in all things,” gave way to the Aryans and Socialists alike who proclaimed Jesus their blue-eyed savior or the “first socialist.”
Many on the right are surrendering to the logic of the mob because they are sick of double standards.
We live in such a moment today, for reasons I explain at length here. Many smart and thoughtful liberals — and I count Jeffrey Goldberg, Yascha Mounk, and many others in their number — are quite adept at seeing half this picture. Where they struggle is in seeing it on their own side. To pick one relevant example, I think The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is a brilliant and talented writer, but it’s difficult for me not to see him as part of the “intellectual organization of political hatreds.”
More to the point, as I tried to explain here recently, our culture’s problems are dialectical. For instance, the other day, EJ Dionne praised a piece by Ramesh and me on the need to criticize Trump. I responded:
That’s fine and I agree (and have been). But I think liberals should also think about how they invited the backlash that Trump rode. There’s plenty of blame across the ideological spectrum. https://t.co/XtcYlUU1UI
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahDispatch) April 3, 2018
My tweet elicited a torrent of question-begging, self-righteous bilge from liberals who couldn’t imagine that liberals have any role in the mess that we are in. Assaults on free speech, the constant mockery and condescension from the commanding heights of Blue America, the refusal to consider any reasonable reforms to immigration, Hillary Clinton’s dynastic entitlement and contempt for “deplorables,” and the pushing of identity politics seem always to be noble do-goodery without a smidgen of overreach.
Michael Anton, who penned “The Flight 93 Election” back when he was hiding behind a pen-name, articulated very well in an exchange with me what millions of conservatives believe to be true:
The old American ideal of judging individuals and not groups, content-of-character-not-color-of-skin, is dead, dead, dead. Dead as a matter of politics, policy and culture. The left plays by new rules. The right still plays by the old rules. The left laughs at us for it — but also demands that we keep to that rulebook. They don’t even bother to cheat. They proclaim outright that “these rules don’t apply to our side.”
I disagree with Anton’s prescription — to surrender to identity politics and cheat the way our “enemies” do — but I cannot argue much with this description of a widespread mindset. Many on the right are surrendering to the logic of the mob because they are sick of double standards. Again, I disagree with the decision to surrender, but I certainly empathize with the temptation. The Left and the mainstream media can’t even see how they don’t want to simply win, they want to force people to celebrate their victories (“You will be made to care!”). It isn’t forced conversion at the tip of a sword, but at the blunt edge of a virtual mob.
Strangle the Newborns
I could go on for another 2,000 words about all of the double standards I have in mind. But let’s stick with the subject at hand: Kevin Williamson’s views on abortion put him outside the mainstream. And he was fired from The Atlantic merely for refusing to recant them.
Meanwhile, extreme views on the left are simply hot takes or even signs of genius. Take the philosopher Peter Singer. He has at least as extreme views on a host of issues, and he is feted and celebrated for them. He is the author of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on “Ethics.” He holds an endowed chair at Princeton. He writes regularly for leading publications. And he argues that sometimes it’s okay to kill babies, as in his essay “Killing Babies Isn’t Always Wrong.” “Newborn human babies,” he writes, “have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.” He cutely asks whether people should cease to exist. (He ultimately and grudgingly answers “No.”) Oh, he also argues in favor of bestiality.
And he’s been profiled favorably in the pages of The Atlantic.
And that’s okay. I can’t stand his utilitarian logic-chopping and nihilistic view of humanity, but at least going by Nock’s Ark of the Covenant rules, he should be free to make his arguments anywhere willing editors want to publish them. We have a right to be wrong.
But that’s not the point: Singer’s work does not render him anathema in elite circles, it earns awards, praise, and celebration for its ruthless consistency and edgy provocation. He is not fired for what he writes never mind what he thinks. I have no doubt some people don’t think this is a perfect example of a double standard, and I could come up with some objections to it myself. But if you can’t see why some people — fellow American citizens — see it as a glaring double standard, you are part of the problem.
Kevin was hired by The Atlantic because he is among the best of the homeless conservatives in the Trump Era. That’s why Bret Stephens went to the New York Times, and it’s probably why I’ve gotten my share of strange new respect from some liberals. But what Goldberg — or his boss — and countless others fail to appreciate, I think, is that the Trump Era is merely one facet of the larger age of tribalism that we live in. In an age when evangelical Christians and constitutional conservatives can overlook the sins of a Roy Moore, it’s easy to see how people could mistake a Trump critic as a useful voice in their chorus. But Kevin isn’t one of them. He sings from his own hymnal and he stands athwart the tribalisms of Trumpism and the tribalisms that gave us Trump. He is in The Remnant (which Nock described in, of all places, The Atlantic). And I am honored to be a happy warrior by his side, hopefully at National Review once again.
Various & Sundry
We are less than three weeks away from publication of Suicide of the West. Technically, reviews aren’t supposed to be out yet, but Marian Tupy jumped the gun, which is fine by me.
I will be at Denison University this Wednesday, April 11. Please come on by if you can. If you’re reading this today, I will be on Special Report tonight.
Two new Remnant podcasts are out. I had a really interesting and wide-ranging discussion with Ben Sasse, and then I talked to Ross Douthat about his very interesting and theologically wide-ranging book, To Change the Church.
Canine Update: Earlier in the week Zoë developed a limp. I always overreact to dog limps and other injuries in part because the late, great Cosmo the Wonderdog had so many joint problems. He was a handsome and heroic beast, but he was built like an East German car. Before he died, we were probably two surgeries shy of having a fully bionic dog. Zoë is different, knock on wood. She’s about as indestructible as her digestive system. But you never know, so we had her on restricted activity.
That meant that on Tuesday, when it was time for her usual adventure with our dog-whispering dog-walker Kirsten, she couldn’t go. I arranged to leave the house with Zoë on a leash before Kirsten got there so Zoë wouldn’t freak out with jealousy when Pippa left without her. So we walked around the neighborhood with her limping along. I know lots of dogs catch critters too. But many more don’t, even when physically they could. I think that’s because a lot of dogs have a split second of hesitation, which is all fast prey need to get away. Zoë doesn’t hesitate. The second there’s something in striking range, she goes. But I figured a hobbled dingo wouldn’t be much to worry about. I was wrong. One of the main reasons Zoë doesn’t catch squirrels under normal circumstances is that sweet Pippa thinks it’s her job to flush birds and other things out of the bushes. It drives Zoë nuts.
Well, Pippa was away, and I wasn’t paying attention. A squirrel was sitting by a bush, no doubt trying to figure out how to buy fissile material from the North Koreans. Zoë instantly made her move when she was in range, despite being on a leash and having a bum leg. The squirrel tried to escape into its shrubbery-lair and Zoë leapt with it. She caught the critter by the tail, and in that split second when she was flipping the poor thing up to get a better mouth-hold I yanked Zoë away and the squirrel tumbled down Zoë’s chest like a fumbled football and got away.
Zoë. Was. Pissed.
Anyway, the grudge appears to be forgotten, and Zoë is in fine fettle once again. Pippa is chasing tennis balls, and Zoë is flirting with her boyfriend Ben and demanding obscene amounts of attention from me. As is Pippa in her own spaniel-y way. Oh, and my nephew Ollie is doing just fine too.
And now, the weird stuff