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 (Unless you’re Brian Williams, who’s busy helping the brave boys at the Alamo),
Okay, so I am not immune to piling on Brian Williams, but I have to say that I think this is being overblown.
On Thursday, I was the guest host on Bill Bennett’s radio show. When I wasn’t performing some of the greatest mime ever recorded on radio (prove me wrong!), I took a lot of calls. One of the callers was livid about Williams, insisting that we have another Dan Rather situation here. I stopped my rendition of “Man in a Box” to respond that I didn’t think so.
As I wrote at the time — and said on air on Thursday — and will look for any opportunity to say again, Dan Rather climbed up the Jackass Tree and hit every branch on the way down. Rather tried to take out a president he didn’t like with forged documents he should have known were forged. He defended the forgeries, attacked his critics, fell back on the defense that the story was fake but accurate, and in every way dragged the mess out far longer than any rational man would and, let’s be honest, more than I could ever have hoped. As I wrote in 2004:
Yes, I know: Schadenfreude — taking pleasure in another’s misfortune — is sinful in itself, and suggesting that the Almighty is in on the fun makes it doubly so. But what other explanation could there be? At every turn Dan Rather has had the opportunity to do what is both right and smart and instead he’s gone with Plan B. The metastasizing clownishness of Rather’s entire persona is one of the most glorious and enjoyable spectacles of the modern media age. If these trends continue, by the middle of October Rather will be showing up to read the news in a giant orange wig, shiny red nose and a flower that squirts seltzer whenever he mentions one of those hurricanes he loves so dearly. It is quite simply The Greatest Story Ever.
The Williams story strikes me as something far less than the Greatest Story Ever. It’s really kind of sad and pathetic. Some people embellish stories, lots and lots of people. The fish always gets bigger. The girl at the bar gets hotter. The other guy in the fight gets tougher. At some point the embellishments cover up the original, like layers of graffiti. That’s what Williams did. Don’t get me wrong. He lied and his apology minimized the size and duration of the lie. But the nature of the lie wasn’t nearly as bad as those of countless others who yoked deceit to a partisan agenda or for political gain. He was trying to praise the military and wanted a little more of their glory to rub off on him.
Compared to Richard Blumenthal using his fictitious claim of serving in Vietnam to bolster his foreign-policy bona fides; or John Kerry embellishing his own record to denigrate the U.S. military and our country; or Bill Clinton lying about so, so, so many things, Williams’s lie is just a sad case of an overpaid front man for the peacock network trying to add some brightly colored feathers to his plumage. See John Hinderaker’s take for some good speculation as to why he did this.
If Williams was a personal friend and I caught him in this lie, it wouldn’t end our friendship. I would give him a lot of grief over it, sure. “Hey, Brian, remember that time that small town sheriff wouldn’t let you spend the night and you ended up taking down his whole department with nothing but a rock and a hunting knife? Oh wait, that was Rambo. From your stories it’s hard to keep you two straight.”
Does Williams’s lie matter? Of course it does. As Hinderaker notes, Williams is wildly overpaid to do a job that is largely theatrical. In a free market, if that makes sense, so be it. But as Peter Parker learned when he didn’t stop the crook who ultimately killed his Uncle Ben, with great power (and great paychecks) comes great responsibility. Williams is paid millions of dollars to do the following:
1. Look good on camera
2. Read true things from a teleprompter about news stuff
3. Be trustworthy
4. Not spontaneously combust or become some sort of lycanthrope on camera (werewolf, werebasset, Lou Albano, etc.).
I’m sure he does other things. Some news anchors actually work hard at putting together the newscast. But the point is that Williams doesn’t have to do that. He does have to do the things listed above. If he got a face tattoo depicting a biker-gang orgy, he’d lose his job. If he suddenly came down with some strange malady that caused him to read the news in Elvish (which, by the way, is how you say “Elvis” with a mouthful of crackers), he’d lose his job.
As for being trustworthy, the question remains whether this is a big enough of a breach to justify losing his job. That probably depends on what we learn in the days ahead about other statements Williams has made and how he handles himself. Should he lose his job over what we know already? Maybe. I don’t know. On the one hand, if he was really counseled to stop telling the story and kept doing it, then he’s got real problems. On the other hand, I don’t take NBC News seriously, and having damaged goods in the anchor chair might be a good thing.
Rarely am I so torn about an issue that matters so little.
Obama, the Show
I sometimes think Obama thinks he’s in an episode of The West Wing or some other Aaron Sorkin version of reality where the facts always line up to preconceived liberal narratives. In most “sophisticated” Hollywood movies and TV shows about politics, the enemy is usually us. The real threat isn’t some external foe, but the fearsome spirit of Joseph McCarthy that the external enemy might arouse in us. The heroic statesman is the figure who steps forward and points out our own hypocrisy and ignorance; the one who tells us to come to our senses. In The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet always stepped in to settle the arguments by pointing out our own sins, or what the Bible really says, or what the Constitution really means. HBO’s The Newsroom, a show set two years in the past just so Sorkin has enough time to come up with clever comebacks to today’s events, begins with Will McAvoy, a news anchor, going on a tear about how America is not the greatest country in the world.
It all sounds very smart. It’s like Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” in that it often sounds true. But one could also call it “smartyness” because the real goal is to sound smart. One of the reasons I cannot stand Sorkin’s oeuvre is that it is all written so smugly. Every argument ends as if the liberal should simply drop the microphone and proclaim, “Bartlet out.” But it only really works if you either assume great ignorance on the part of the audience or if the audience already agrees with whatever is being said.
It’s amazing to me how much Obama’s speeches depend on, and benefit from, the same things. The solipsism of the liberal egghead press is partly to blame. Obama goes out there and literally persuades no one about anything, but since he says exactly what a liberal president is supposed to say, they think it’s all brilliant soaring oratory and bold statesmanship.
What Obama shares with the collective authors of the liberal narrative is a deep and abiding suspicion that the American people are bigots, that they don’t understand their self-interest as well as liberal elites do, that America/Americans has/have no right to judge others given our own sins, and that we should never overreact to anything that makes liberals feel uncomfortable. Oh, you can overreact as much as you want to whatever liberals are overreacting to. In fact, that is encouraged. But if you get excited about something the folks at MSNBC think is weird or scary or could lead to the McCarthy poltergeist will-o’-the-wisping through the Upper West Side of Manhattan or Park Slope, then it’s a scary time here in America. As I wrote in this space just a couple weeks ago, the Eloi must be ever vigilant not to arouse the Morlocks.
Which brings me to the crusades, the Inquisition, and slavery. My column from yesterday touches on a lot of this. And if you read The Tyranny of Clichés, you know I’ve dedicated a lot of pages to the Inquisition(s), the Crusades, and the Catholic Church, so I won’t rehash it here. (You can read an excerpt of my crusades chapter here.)
But I simply find it amazing — and amazingly pathetic — that the president felt the need to chide a room full of religiously literate people about how they shouldn’t get too judgey about what the Islamic State is doing right now because Christians did bad things almost 1,000 years ago.
Every single thing about this is ridiculous, and it would still be ridiculous if all of Obama’s assumptions about the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, and Christianity were accurate (they’re not). I feel like Obama went out and talked at length about a ten-horned unicorn and I’m forced to explain that (1) unicorns only have one horn, what you’re talking about would be a decicorn and (2) unicorns don’t frick’n exist either.
The Islamic State is crucifying people right now. Romans crucified people over 2,000 years ago. Does this mean that Italians can’t criticize them? How is it that the sins of Christianity are eternal but the sins of Muslim fanatics right now aren’t even Muslim? The Islamic State is enslaving people right now. America had slaves 150 years ago. And, speaking of non-sequiturs, vests have no sleeves.
I’ve gotten a lot of criticism about my column yesterday, nearly all of it whiny nonsense. But there is one fair jab. Obama did go on to criticize the Islamic State and Islamic extremism, even if he refused to call it Islamic. I didn’t mention that in my column.
True enough. But that also misses the point. Obama can’t help himself. He just can’t give a full-throated denunciation of Islamic extremism, or even a tepid one, without doing his creased-pants Niehbur schtick. But look: This isn’t complicated. It’s really not. If you have to clear your throat for five minutes about the skeletons in our closet before you can feel comfortable denouncing barbarians who bury little boys alive and then go on to rape their little sisters, that’s is your hang-up, man. I’ve got my faults, all reasonable people can agree, but I don’t feel compelled to list them before I denounce rapists and murderers; “Hey man, I know, I drink too much scotch and I’m sometimes needlessly sarcastic, but you really shouldn’t rape little girls or set people on fire.”
That would be only half as crazy as what Obama is claiming here. Because in the above analogy, they’re my faults. Meanwhile, Obama is checking-off crimes from nearly 1,000 years ago to make it clear he’s not on a high horse. The more apposite analogy would be “Hey man, I know, my great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather was a real prick, so I’m not being preachy. But you really shouldn’t crucify people.”
Which brings me to Christianity. Again as I say, Christianity, or rather Christians over the course of history, aren’t without sin. I know this from many sources, but one of the biggest ones is from Christians themselves. They know they’re sinners and they say so, quite a bit actually. And I’ve never met a serious or informed Christian who’s denied that Christians have made mistakes, sometimes grave mistakes, in the past. Indeed, this isn’t even a remotely hard admission for any Christian I have ever met.
But what really drives me crazy is how people get the causation all wrong. Here’s how I put it in the Tyranny of Clichés:
As a fairly secular Jew I cannot and will not speak to the theological questions, in part because I do not want to. But mostly because I do not have to. The core problem with those who glibly invoke one cliché after another about the evils of organized religion and Catholicism is that they betray the progressive tendency to look back on the last two thousand years and see the Catholic Church — and Christianity generally — as holding back humanity from progress, reason, and enlightenment. They fault the Church for not knowing what could not have been known yet and for being too slow to accept new discoveries that only seem obvious to us with the benefit of hindsight. It’s an odd attack from people who boast of their skepticism and yet condemn the Church for being rationally skeptical about scientific breakthroughs.
In short, they look at the tide of secularism and modernity as proof that the Church was an anchor. I put it to you that it was more of sail. Nearly everything we revere about modernity and progress — education, the rule of law, charity, decency, the notion of the universal rights of man, and reason were advanced by the Church for most of the last two thousand years.
Yes, compared to the ideal imagined by atheists and secularists this sounds like madness.
But isn’t the greater madness to make a real force for good the enemy because the forces of self-anointed perfection claim to have some glorious blueprint for a flawless world sitting on a desk somewhere? It is a Whiggish and childish luxury to compare the past — or even the present — to a utopian standard. Of course there was corruption, cruelty, and hypocrisy within the Church — because the Church is a human institution. Its dark hypocrisies are the backdrop that allow us to see the luminance of the standard they have, on occasion, fallen short of. The Catholic Church was a spiritual beacon lighting the way forward compared to the world lit only by fire outside the Church doors.
Anglo-American Exceptionalism & Slavery
Forget the Inquisition and the Crusades for a moment. Take slavery. It was an evil institution. It will always remain a stain on America’s honor.
But here’s the thing. America put an end to it at an enormous price. Moreover, slavery was a constant on every continent for thousands of years. Looking at America in the context of the great tide of human events, the remarkable thing isn’t that we had slaves, it’s that we ended slavery. We ended slavery because deep in the founding principles of this country were deeply Christian — or, if you prefer, Judeo-Christian — principles that eventually couldn’t be reconciled with slavery.
Obviously, the better example is Britain. The British had slaves, as did countless other societies and civilizations stretching off to the dawn of man. What is remarkable is that, thanks to a Christian renaissance, they decided to not only abolish slavery in their own lands, but to impose their values on others. The British got on a very high horse, thank God, and they had the courage to act on their sense of moral superiority.
As should we. It’s entirely fair to argue that we shouldn’t get on a high horse with regard to how the French or the Canadians do things, no matter how much fun it may be. But the Islamic State? The Mullahs of Iran? Boko Haram? Please, we’re so much better than them by any objective moral or intellectual standard it’s insulting to be asked to make the case. That doesn’t mean we don’t have faults, but it does mean our faults are entirely irrelevant and one should not bring up such irrelevancies for fear that reasonable people will hear false equivalencies.
Unless, of course, you’re the kind of person who isn’t comfortable with the idea that America or the West can be wholly, completely, unapologetically on the right side of a major question of human affairs, particularly when that conviction gives you license to kill evil people. Such confidence makes some people very uncomfortable and so they start scanning the horizon for a topic they can drag into their comfort zone. “Enough about how bad they are,” they seem to be saying, “can’t we get back to how bad we are? Where’s Joe McCarthy when we need him!?”
The Horse Equivocator
One last thing about this high horse. There’s a kind of Escher drawing pas de deux of asininity here because Obama is telling people not to get on a high horse from the saddle of a much higher horse. I mean is there a man in public life who preaches from a higher equine altitude than this guy? This is the guy who explained that Hillary Clinton’s supporters in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania were backward yokels bitterly clinging to their sky god and boom sticks.
What offends Obama isn’t sanctimony, judgmentalism, or arrogance; it’s competition. What rankles him is when people refuse to genuflect to the trite pieties he unspools as if they were spun from gold.
Various & Sundry
The great news is my wife, The Fair Jessica, came home on Monday. The bad news is that I had to leave town on Tuesday. I was in New York talking to my new editor for my next book. I also appeared on Outnumbered, which is always a weird/fun experience. On Thursday, as I said, I guest-hosted Bill Bennett’s radio show, which was a blast but exhausting. (My sincere thanks to the gang there for all their help.) All the while, I had to finish a chapter for the sequel to The Seven Deadly Virtues, write four columns (two syndicated, one for USA Today, and one for the new issue of NR), and of course this 3,000-plus word “news”letter.
I was on Special Report last night with Kirsten Powers and Charles Krauthammer, which is good because I promised to return Krauthammer’s beer bong before the weekend. (For the record, Charles sees many of these jokes and has a very good sense of humor about them — and pretty much everything else.).
In my first column of the week I referred to Scott Walker as the “vanilla candidate.” But nowhere in the column did I actually say that the term “vanilla” had anything to do with his personality. My point was all about how he’s the most acceptable candidate to the most Republicans — sort of like vanilla ice cream is the most popular ice cream even though it’s not most people’s favorite. I was a very pro-Walker column, but lots of his fans got tripped up over the word “vanilla.” I guess that’s on me.
It sounds like my speech in Ann Arbor might be a little contentious. Friendly faces always welcome!
Almost every week, when I wake up extra early to write this “news”letter, I tweet “Time to make the doughnuts.” This is a reference to this once ubiquitous ad campaign of my youth. Some mornings I spell doughnut “donut” and some mornings I spell donut “doughnut.” I do not put a lot of thought into the issue, but many of you do. Well, here’s an article on what the correct spelling is. I haven’t read it because, frankly, on this point I like the inherent tension.
Another criticism of my column was my use of Medieval as synonymous with “cruel” and “violent.” I agree it was too much of a shorthand, but there’s only so much room in a 750 word column. Anyway, here’s a good antidote from Prager University.
Fascinating map of most common job in every state.
Aw, look at how adorable little Rexilkwan743 is! You can now pay a company $31,000 to give your baby a unique name