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 sitting in a tub full of Cap’n Crunch, in which case you’re too busy talking to the leader of the free world),
Look, any week where Joe Biden tells the public he prefers “deflated balls” can’t be all bad. Before you go someplace filthy with that, the quote in context is that “as a receiver” Biden likes softer balls.
(“I’m not sure you’re helping.” — the Couch).
Anyway, it was a very long week for me. I am drowning in deadlines and this solo-parenting thing is hard. (My wife is out of town for a family emergency.) Whenever I’m on my own with my kid and dog I marvel at how little time it takes for the house to look like the mob was here searching for its stolen heroin. I’m also amazed at how, when I am alone, I don’t think twice about eating all of my meals over the kitchen sink — and yet I still generate so many dirty dishes. It’s a mystery.
But I also think about how hard it must be to be an actual single parent. It seems to me that this is the ground-floor argument conservatives should build up from when talking about marriage. Raising kids is just easier with two committed parents around. Put aside the moralizing for a second (moralizing I often agree with, by the way) and just talk logistics. It’s very hard to do all the things you want to do for your kids without a wingman (or wing-gal). I’m not even talking about the financial part, which is huge. It’s simply harder to help with homework, show up at games, serve home-cooked meals, and generally participate in your kids’ life if you’re the sole breadwinner and sole parent. (Charles Murray has been making this point for a very long time.)
What drives me crazy is when rich liberal single parents think they have legs to stand on when speaking on behalf of low-income single parents. I certainly understand the defensiveness, and no doubt they have some shared experiences. But the most infuriating problem with elite culture is its refusal to understand that it can afford its sins — or if you prefer something more secular, its mistakes.
People with lots of financial and social capital can afford to make bad choices that would be devastating for others. Rich single parents can afford nannies and tutors and play groups and summer camps. And parenting is only one aspect of it. The elite can afford rehab. If they get a DUI, they can afford a good lawyer. If they lose their license, they can take Uber. In terms of social capital, they get second and third chances from judges, schools, employers, landlords, et al.
When Hillary Clinton & Co. talk about how “it takes a village to raise a child” they’re invoking wisdom from what P. J. O’Rourke called the “ancient African kingdom of Hallmarkcardia” to make the case for vast new federal bureaucracies, taxes, programs, regulations, etc. But the phrase itself contains a lot of truth. Unlike bureaucrats in Washington, neighbors, teachers, pastors, coaches, coworkers, and friends can help raise your kids, in ways large and small. Real communities involve extended networks of trust and goodwill. Fake communities have regulations, fees, subsidies, and checklists.
It is perhaps liberalism’s most grating rhetorical trick: deliberately conflating small and important truths about local community and family with large new federal initiatives. This bait-and-switch is the very heart of Obamaism. Obama talks about unity and community as if they have anything — and everything! — to do with initiatives from Washington. Remember when he explained why we need to raise taxes? Because it would be “neighborly.” The “Life of Julia” was nothing more than an argument for the federal government to replace the functions once performed by family and community. His most recent push to make community college “free” while raising taxes on college-savings plans perfectly illustrates his hostility to the idea that other institutions should take the lead instead of the federal government.
The Perils of Hypocrophobia
Anyway, my only intended point was that 1 percenters can afford their sins, for good and for ill. But what infuriates me is when, out of a fear of seeming hypocritical, they defend sin as a principle for everyone, including those who can’t afford it. Such hypocrophobia forces people to defend bad ideas on the mistaken belief that it’s better to be consistently wrong than inconsistently right. What’s even more infuriating is that most elites actually live according to pretty good values but are terrified of saying what works for them might be right for others as well. Divorce and out-of-wedlock births aren’t that much of a problem for the well-off. And marriage is a huge boon to economic prosperity. As Andrew Cherlin once said, “It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged.”
But elites won’t come out in favor of marriage as a social ideal (except for gays, of course), because as Charles Murray likes to say, they refuse to preach what they practice.
Speaking of preaching, this reminds me of something I’ve been griping about for years: Madonna. Here’s how I put it in The Tyranny of Clichés.
Or take the all-too ironically named Madonna. It’s an understatement to say Madonna was a champion of cultural libertinism. She launched her career as a peripatetic evangelist of slattern chic. She taught twelve-year-old girls to embrace their sexuality, and to throw off all those bourgeois hang-ups about sex, marriage, heterosexuality, whatever. And when it came time to settle down and have a husband and kids, she could, quite simply, afford to. But what happened to the lower-middle-class girls from Jersey City who took her advice? When on tour, Madonna has an entourage of hundreds. When not on the road her retinue drops to less than a tenth of that, but there are still enough hands on deck. “I don’t have any problems with [diapers],” she has explained, “because I have never changed one.”
When Problems Multiply
This raises a fundamental problem for democracy. When certain lifestyles multiply, they become political constituencies rather than cautionary tales. If we didn’t have so many people in prison, there’d be no movement to give felons the vote. If so many people didn’t smoke pot, the legalization movement wouldn’t be doing so well. George W. Bush lavished praise on single mothers for the simple reason that there are lots of single mothers out there. If enough people go on the dole, then we stop calling it the dole and we stop shaming able-bodied people who turn it into a lifestyle.
It doesn’t really matter what you think about the specific issues to understand the point. Everyone likes to think they’re principled, but principles can get overwhelmed when enough people violate them.
(This is why I never much liked populism, though I’ve softened a bit on it in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, populism around a good principle can be a useful and healthy thing, but what makes it healthy is the principle. This is the subtle distinction between populism and democracy. William Jennings Bryan expressed the spirit of populism perfectly: “The people of Nebraska are for free silver, and I am for free silver,” he said. “I will look up the arguments later.”)
The Corruption of Power and the Power of Corruption
This was the real point I was trying to get at in my column earlier this week. We make all sorts of allowances for Islamic extremism because we are cowed by its numbers (and its willpower), not its arguments. If there were 1.6 million, not 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, there wouldn’t be nearly so much fumfering and fooferall about Muslim sensibilities. This observation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t concern ourselves with how we are perceived by the world’s Muslims. But we also shouldn’t kid ourselves about what’s going on here either.
There’s power in numbers and power corrupts. We tend to forget that when Lord Acton coined the phrase “power corrupts,” he was not referring to the corruption of the powerful, he was talking about the corruption of people — specifically historians — who write about the powerful. Just look at how many people make allowances for the Kennedys they’d never make for their neighbors or employees. By any objective standard of morality, JFK and Teddy were scummy dudes. But countless liberal writers give them pass because . . . Camelot! Or something.
It’s not just writers, though. It’s all of us. And that’s not always wrong (though it often is). Principled people can deploy cost-benefit analysis too. For instance, I’ve long argued that if we could do it cheap and without losing any American or allied lives, we would be right to topple the North Korean regime. I believe that. I also believe that we should have wiped out the Soviets once we were done with Hitler provided doing so wouldn’t have meant a long and bloody third world war. But those options aren’t and weren’t on the table. The trick is to uphold the principle while allowing for the fact that reality often doesn’t let us fully implement our principles without cost (a useful thing for Republicans to remember in their internal squabbles as well). And when those costs negatively impact other principles, you have to make a decision about how to proceed. The Soviet Union had power. North Korea has power. And power demands respect.
But respect for power is not an argument for abandoning your principles. For instance, I believe in my right to self-defense. But if three guys have much bigger guns aimed at me and they demand I drop my gun, I will drop it out of respect for their great firepower. That doesn’t mean I’m dropping my support for the Second Amendment with it.
What sickens me about so much of the West’s response to Islamism is how eager so many are to drop not only their guard and their guns, but their principles as well. There’s a corruption of the soul at work when you can bleat and whine about the “Taliban wing of the Republican party” while effectively making apologies for the actual Taliban. For much of the last decade, liberals have been gnashing their teeth about “theocracy” with regard to non-theocratic and non-violent American Christians while making apologies — or at least allowances — for violent and theocratic Muslims.
Rather than admit their principles are at stake, we define the problem away. In his State of the Union address, Obama spoke of the “bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.” The thing is “violent extremism” simply isn’t an ideology. And the ideology we’re at war with isn’t bankrupt. It’s sick and twisted, sure, but it’s actually quite rich with meaning and doctrine for lots of people. You can always tell when someone won’t stand up to a bully if they can’t even look the bully in the eye.
Various & Sundry
I want to say thanks to everyone who turned out for the Beacon Center/NRI event in Chattanooga this week. What a great bunch of people. I plan on coming back to Chattanooga sooner rather than later. Seems like a great town. Also, I have to go back to Burns Tobacconist, what a great shop.
Zoë Update: She has been a very, very, good girl lately. I think my wife being gone makes her nervous about her status. But she’s been listening much more. She still likes to get filthy, but I fear that is the way of the Dingo. And with me running solo around here, her filth sticks out less.
My column today is on the State of the Union address and how Obama just talks too much. An excerpt:
His admirers see his speeches as ornate cathedrals of rhetoric when they are more like the kitsch from a TGI Friday’s, recycling old license plates and “gone fishin’” signs for that “authentic” feel. And just as every TGI Friday’s pretends it’s unique by adding a few bits of “flair” to the servers’ suspenders, what they dish out is always the same warmed-over swill drenched in cheesiness. So it is with Obama’s speeches.
The other night I posted this in the Corner about Ben Rhodes’s tip to the New York Times that he reads To Kill a Mocking Bird to his four-week-old daughter.
I thought the mixture of intellectual insecurity and moral preening was just hilarious. I mean where’s Will Smith to come out and say, “Those books are way too advanced for her!” Anyway, nine minutes after my post, Jon Favreau, — not the actor but Obama’s first wildly overrated speechwriter — came to Rhodes’s defense on Twitter:
.@JonahNRO it's so sad that a father reading to his newborn actually aggravated you enough to write all those silly words.
— Jon Favreau (@jonfavs) January 20, 2015
I loved this response because it displays the Obama crowd’s eagerness to defend lies about their moral superiority by denigrating others as morally inferior. I mean, obviously, my objection is to fathers reading to their daughters.
I haven’t seen American Sniper yet but I thought this e-mail made a good point. From a reader:
Subject: Liberals Being Aggressors in the Culture War
You’ve made this argument for years, but I wonder if there has been a better example than the Left’s reaction to American Sniper. It seems as if those that do not like the movie are basically making the point that the movie did not do enough to show Bush and Cheney in a poor light. The fact that the movie instead chose to focus on Chris Kyle, and not the politics of the war, is driving some on the left crazy. And the popularity of the movie is making them even more upset.
In last week’s “news”letter I somehow managed to say that Richard Nixon had been governor of California (it was fixed for the web version). I never actually thought that in my head, my lying fingers managed to type it. Still, I regret it.
Tom Brady has strong feelings about his balls!
You know that picture of Joe Biden looking out the window? I finally found out what’s going on in his head.
And this would be the proper response.
And of course Debby’s Friday Links.