The G-File

Politics & Policy

The Power of Symbols in Our Politics of Disgust

A Border Patrol agent opens a gate on the U.S.-Mexican border fence near El Paso, Texas, January 2017. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)
Ideological and religious considerations often determine what one faction or another is disgusted by, but the tendency to see the world through these lenses is universal.

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 (particularly those disappointed to find out that we ran out of Dear Reader gags and weird links one week before the end of the year),

I’m writing this from the Big Island. I said the Big Island, not “Big Island,” the sinister sobriquet for the cartel behind all island-related industries.

In other words, I’m in Hawaii, with my family and a big chunk of her family. I could tell you it’s not lovely, but it is. I could tell you I’d rather be back in Washington, but who would believe that?

Almost 36 hours into island living, I’ve had time to reflect. And one of the things I’ve learned is that I don’t want to work too hard at this “news”letter, but I also feel, as many Hawaiians who work at road repair do, that I should at least put in the bare minimum.

My column today is on how the most important factor driving our politics isn’t ideology or partisanship, but symbolism. Rather than repeat the whole argument again, I’ll wait while you go read it.

Okay, whether you did or not, here’s my thing. Symbols are enormous storehouses of meaning, identity, and experience. They are not trivial. We tend to talk about “interests” as being largely economic. But people can have deep interests in symbols, because symbols often represent our conception of the moral order that we want to live in. The rich Saudis who fund madrassas do not do so for profit, yet they consider it in their interest just the same.

Ever since Marx — or perhaps since Cicero, the popularizer of the phrase cui bono? — there have been people who want to reduce politics to a battle of economic interests. The fact that politics cannot be reduced to mere economic interests can drive some of these people nuts. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? was a classic example of this frustration.

“People getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about,” Frank wrote. “This species of derangement is the bedrock of our civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests.” According to Frank, working-class people should support politicians who will serve their economic interests — and that’s it. A pro-life Catholic truck driver is a fool to vote for anyone who will not be good for truck drivers. Of course, we almost never hear the reverse of this argument: A pro-choice truck driver should vote for a pro-life politician so long as the politician looks out for truck drivers.

This form of analysis is itself a kind of derangement. Nowhere in the world, at any time, in any place, in any culture, has economics been the only consideration in political life. Fighting for the “Glory of Rome” is not an economic rallying cry. The split between Sunni and Shia may have economic components, but only a fool would argue it is fundamentally about economics. Even economists increasingly understand that economics is not really the study of “homo economicus,” or at least they understand that reducing humans to this mythical creature has explanatory power for only a fraction of our lives.

The Marxist historian who feels compelled to prove that commitment to the Confederate flag was rooted solely in class interest might truffle-pig out some evidence, but the dots he connects won’t yield a picture that represents reality.

Some symbols can be rational. The oak leaves that designate the rank of major in the U.S. Army are symbolic, for the simple reason that military organizations need ranks to function. Other symbols can be rationalized — the 50 stars on the U.S. flag, for instance, one for every state — but the meaning captured by the symbol is hardly purely rational. Both flag burners and flag wavers can agree on one thing: The flag has meaning beyond the merely instrumental necessity of having a piece of cloth that identifies a legal jurisdiction.

The Politics of Disgust

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt describes how our brains are preprogrammed with the ability — the need — to categorize some things as sacred or profane. And when we encounter something truly profane, the part of our brain that activates a sense of disgust is triggered.

Without any sense of sanctity, debates about abortion and cloning would be entirely utilitarian. Absent an instinct for sanctity, environmentalists would not recoil in horror at the paving of forests and would not have lapsed into epileptic fits of disgust at the BP oil spill, and the only arguments conservationists would offer in opposition to PLT sandwiches — Panda, Lettuce, and Tomato — would be about costs and benefits.

In other words, this is not a right–left thing. Ideological and religious considerations often determine what one faction or another is disgusted by, but the tendency to see the world through these lenses is universal.

And when I say sacred, I do not mean in a theological sense, though that is obviously one of the major outlets of sacralization. In our natural environment, we did not have bright lines between magic and science, superstition and reason, individual identity and group identity, or between religious dogma and hygiene. Indeed, as Haidt notes, our intuitions about sacredness and hygiene are deeply linked. The instinct for disgust probably evolved as a way to keep us from eating tainted food such as rotting carcasses, feces, or 7-Eleven sushi. But because humans are social animals, the disgust instinct became an important tool for social cooperation.

Rules about food preparation, sex, and bathing, and rules about moral hygiene, are, historically, tightly bound together in virtually every society. Hindus and Hebrews aren’t just overrepresented at Ivy League universities, they also share a rich history of merging notions of moral and religious hygiene with notions about food, sex, and cleanliness.

The rules manifest themselves differently in different places, of course. You can tell me that the people who freak out about genetically modified foods are dispassionate slaves to the facts, but you’ll have to work pretty hard to persuade me that their passion isn’t fueled by pre-rational associations of sacredness and hygiene. The fights over gender-neutral public bathrooms touch on a lot of different concerns, but it’s hard to deny that at least some of the outrage over the issue isn’t driven by these instincts (pretty much every family has gender-neutral bathrooms at home).

The Body Politic

Michael Burleigh has written several books exploring all of this from a very different angle. He argues that all of the supposedly secular ideologies that replaced the world of the divine right of kings were at root religious projects by another name. Nazism and Leninism were political religions, moving the lines between the sacred and profane in revolutionary ways, but ultimately keeping the lines themselves (Burleigh’s The Third Reich was a big influence on my first book).

The “body politic” — the idea that society is akin to a living organism — can be traced back to antiquity. But with the advent of the scientific revolution and, later, Darwinism, the metaphor was plucked from the realms of theology and mysticism and grounded in science. Nations were like living things, and all of the people and institutions within them were supposed to function like organs of the body. This meant that dissenting or wayward institutions or populations were seen as tumors or intrusions of foreign objects. The first German nationalists talked of foreign languages and customs as poisons and contaminates. Jews were parasites, an invasive species leaching the purity of the German essence. They often sounded like 18th-century versions of Colonel Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, who fretted over the purity of our precious bodily fluids.

The Nazis were obsessed with different notions of hygiene, most famously racial hygiene. The first victims of Nazi slaughter were “defective” Germans themselves, who were seen as a cancer on the body politic. The American progressives pursued the same line of thinking, albeit with less horrific results. But “less horrific” than the Holocaust leaves a lot room for horror, and the forced sterilizations, the persecution of “hyphenated Americans,” and other atrocities committed by American progressives are not absolved simply because they fell short of Hitler’s standard.

When I hear President Trump or his defenders argue for a wall in order to keep out diseases and to keep the country from becoming “dirtier,” I don’t hear Hitler or even Woodrow Wilson, but I do hear appeals to hygiene and sanctity far removed from strict public policy arguments.

My Year in Review

I hadn’t planned on writing this “news”letter this week because I’m on vacation. But since I can’t write one next week because of travel hassles, I figured I should grind this one out. It’s not a great hardship to sit by the pool smoking a cigar, my wife’s dirty looks notwithstanding. (Somehow they do not abate when I tell her it’s just the moral hygiene center of her brain talking.)

All in all, it’s been a better year than I feared it would be, but perhaps not as great as I might have hoped, had I not embraced the fact that hope is simply the word we use for the false confidence that comes between kicks to the groin.

Still, I have a lot to be grateful for. I’ll skip being overly sentimental about family and friends, while stipulating they are the sources of my deepest gratitude. I’ll stick to the professional stuff.

My book did well. It lingered on the bestseller lists for a respectable period of time, sorta like the creepy dude at the newsstand perusing the cooking and business magazines before “stumbling” on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. And it’s still selling nicely enough that should I ever be drunk enough to agree to write another one, it won’t be huge financial risk.

I don’t mean to make light of the work I put into Suicide of the West (the book, not the phenomenon). I think it had some real impact and moved the debate to some modest degree. Yes, it would be nice if the impact were more of a crater and less of a dent, but even moving the needle a little is a victory to be proud of (and, please don’t harangue me about mixed metaphors. I mix metaphors like a blender beating a dead horse).

Nor do I want to give the impression that I only care about the filthy lucre. I know there are people who write books — or put their names on books somebody else wrote — just for the money. But that’s not me — at all. If it were, you can be sure I’d have had fewer pages and footnotes.

I don’t mean to sound superior, because the truth is, most of the people in my line of work aren’t in it for the money. Certainly no one at National Review chose this career because they thought it would be the fastest or most surefire route to a segment on MTV Cribs. Ramesh Ponnuru, for instance, could have used his Vulcan brain on Wall Street quite easily. Or he could have gone to medical school like pretty much every other Ponnuru in Kansas. Heck, David French and Andy McCarthy actually went to law school and worked as fancy-pants lawyers. They could have monetized their expertise and experience on a grand scale. With that accent of his, Charlie Cooke could be making bank narrating nature documentaries or starring in commercials asking the guy in the next Bentley if he has any Grey Poupon. Instead, once every two weeks, we all line up in front of Rich Lowry’s office to be paid in chickens, because this is the life we’ve chosen.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a set up for a National Review Institute fundraising pitch (but if you’re so inclined, helping out would be great). It’s simply to say that I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing and being able to provide for my family in the process.

Oh sure, I still have my grievances. Indeed, I initially thought I might air them here, for grievances are among the greatest of all muses for a writer, particularly for “news”letter writers such as yours truly. And I won’t pretend that if sufficiently prodded I couldn’t give voice to my desire to visit the sort of wrath most associated with the God of the Hebrew Bible on various people. But that’s because writing a book is like having a kid in all sorts of ways. The people closest to you are very happy for you — at least after the first one — but no one really cares as much as you do. The small slights seem negligible to observers at a distance and like grievous and unforgivable wounds to the parent. But after a while, you come to understand it’s just part of life.

But back to the year that was. I’m enjoying hosting a podcast far more than I thought I would. And with the exception of Episode Eleven, I find that the physical toll it takes to be negligible.

My biggest concern, again professionally, remains the same as it was at the end of 2017, and 2016. And it should be utterly familiar to readers of this “news”letter or listeners of the aptly named Remnant. At a time when I’ve lost my taste for tribal, partisan fan service, the market for tribal, partisan fan service is raging — across the ideological spectrum. It causes me to worry for the country and the conservative movement — which are far more important considerations than my own prospects, of course. But since I’m talking about me (“Gosh, that’s a refreshing change of pace for this ‘news’letter” — The Couch), it’s also profoundly disorienting. Even if I could keep it from being personal — which I struggle to do, not always successfully — the fact is it is personal for others. Indeed, the whole reason politics have grown so ugly is that everywhere you look “the personal is political” — a phrase once the rallying cry for feminists and post-modernists. The personalization of politics is now the animating spirit of our age.

Earlier this week, I wrote a column about Donald Trump’s bad character, and, as I predicted, hordes of people took it personally. Many thought the smartest rebuttal was to attack me personally, as if proving I am a bad person would somehow disprove my argument. I understand the reaction. But the reaction doesn’t change the facts or how I see them. I’ve been writing against the psychology of populism for 20 years, I don’t see why I should cave to the spirit of populism at the precise moment I’m being proven right.

But the fact remains the times are changing, and I’m not inclined to change with them, at least not on the important things. That makes navigating the new landscape challenging in ways it’s never been before. So I just want to say thank you to you, dear readers, who have stuck it out with me as I’ve groped my way through it all, like Bill Clinton playing pin the tail on the donkey at the Playboy mansion.

Here’s to 2019, when we’ll all look back nostalgically on the sobriety and reasonableness of 2018.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: We’ve left the beasts behind. It’s for the best given that I don’t think either of them are well-suited to air travel. But I must say the dogs would love it here, particularly Zoë. The house we’re staying in is up in the hills of the big island on a nice plot of land. There are wild turkeys wandering the property, not to mention mongooses (mongeese?), and the occasional wild pig. I don’t know how Zoë would fare against either (though I definitely suspect the pigs would be too big a bite, as it were). But man would she love the challenge. There are also enough lesser rodents to keep her self-esteem high. It’s funny though, both my wife and I like hiking (she more than me, to be honest), but we both feel like hiking without dogs defeats some of the purpose. We were in Utah before Hawaii, and it took a huge amount of effort not to keep talking about how much Zoë and Pippa (and occasionally Gracie and Ralph — the good cat and my wife’s cat respectively) “would love it here.” Somehow, Gary is no substitute for the Dingo & The Spaniel.

We’ve left Zoë and Pippa in the best possible hands (sorry Jack Butler). Kirsten our dog walker is house-sitting, and the girls love Kirsten at least as much as they love us (of course, she’s like the fun aunt who feeds the kids ice cream and lets them stay up late). She is sending regularproof of lifeupdates from home, which I’ve been posting on Twitter. It’s amazing how much easier it is to enjoy yourself when you know your dogs aren’t miserable — or trying to tunnel out of a kennel. Though we do feel bad for Kirsten sometimes, since she has to deal with this sort of thing.

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