The G-File

PC Culture

Turning Windmills into Giants

A quest gives people a reason to get out of bed, to make courageous stands, and to feel indispensable to a great cause.

Dear Reader (Including those of you who hired Michael Cohen for “accounting advice”),

The great thing about fighting windmills on the assumption that they are actually evil giants is that you get to celebrate your courage without risking very much in the process.

Thursday, on a website called “Twitter,” there was a lot of discussion of puppies so cute people couldn’t even. But that’s not important right now. Another discussion involved a young woman who stripped to her underwear to protest the “The Patriarchy.” From Reason’s inestimable Robby Soave:

A female student at Cornell University stripped down to her underwear — twice — before presenting her senior thesis to professors and other students.

The student was attempting to strike a blow against the patriarchy, repudiating her media arts professor’s advice to dress up for the presentation. . . .

The student, Letitia Chai, was practicing her presentation in class while wearing cutoff jean shorts. That outfit, The Cornell Daily Sun reports, drew a rebuke from professor Rebekah Maggor, who asked, “Is that really what you would wear?”

“I do not tell my students what to wear, nor do I define for them what constitutes appropriate dress,” Maggor later clarified in an email to the Sun. “I ask them to reflect for themselves and make their own decisions.” Indeed, the syllabus warns students to “dress appropriately for the persona” they plan to present.

Maggor apologized for the remark anyway, after Chai stormed out of the class. She eventually returned, stripped down to her underwear, and continued with the presentation.

Chai stripped again during her actual senior thesis presentation, in front of students and professors. She said she “stood in solidarity with people who have been asked to ‘question themselves’ based on others’ perception of their appearances.”

First of all, if your response to the question, “Is that really what you would wear?” is to go all Ms. Stompy Foot and storm out of a room, I can’t wait until you get a job at Chotchkie’s and they ask you, “Is that really all of the flair you want to wear?

Here There Be Giants

Now, about this “Patriarchy” thing: I’ve been hearing about it for a very long time, in part because I went to a former all-women’s college. (That’s right: Jonah Goldberg, Gender Integration Pioneer.) The school had a female president and many female administrators and faculty chairwomen. And the male administrators and faculty were extremely feminism-friendly. Oh, and the female students outnumbered the males by about 34 to one. And yet The Patriarchy was doing terrible things everywhere. Or so I was told. Often.

The funny thing is, though, I could never find The Patriarchy’s office or get invited to the meetings. It was kind of a creepy feeling: to be told constantly how the Pale Penis People of The Patriarchy were running the show but to find very little tangible evidence of their existence.

That, however, is one of the funny things about conspiracy theories: A lack of evidence is considered the greatest proof of their success. To be fair, I know I’m being tendentious.

I know that patriarchy used to be a big thing — and still is in many parts of the world. I know that there are patriarchal concepts and words lingering around that bother people. But the idea that there is this actual human institution filled with actual human beings working to advance The Patriarchy is sort of nonsense.

Less than a week after the 9/11 attacks, Eugene Volokh Stewart Baker made a really interesting observation:

If you’d asked Queen Victoria about the threats her society faced, she’d probably have worried aloud about a breakdown in sexual and other morality. Ask a Hollywood producer the same question, and he’ll cite the threat of sex-hating moralists. Every age seems to warn itself most sternly about the risks that are least likely to do it harm.

We live in the most non-patriarchal moment in all of American history, if not all of Western history, if not all of human history. And yet so profound is the need to fight this terrible foe that, across the landscape, Donna Quixotes are constantly tilting their lances at mirages of their own imaginations.

Why? Well, partly because that is what we teach them to do. Our institutions also reward it. Having a good service record in the war against patriarchy is a real comparative advantage when it comes time to apply for college.

But also: because it’s fun. I don’t mean “fun” the way one says that riding jet skis or playing Call of Duty is fun. I mean fun in the sense that the battle imbues the protagonists with meaning and fulfillment, a sense of adventure and the pride that comes with dedicating yourself to a noble quest. A quest gives people a reason to get out of bed, to make courageous stands, and to feel indispensable to a great cause.

Cervantes describes a wonderful exchange between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza:

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those 30 or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”

“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”

“Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”

The fact that the adventure is closer to playacting than anything that could be objectively described as a true struggle doesn’t matter because the people doing it aren’t in on the joke. For the most part, the witch-hunters know in their hearts that there be witches out there, and any mockery or evidence to the contrary is merely proof of how insidious the rule of witches really is. The few who know, or least suspect, that the facts are not on their side do not care, for the cause of witch-hunting gives the witch hunters great power.

That’s one reason that hate-crime hoaxes proliferate on college campuses. As Michael Brendan Dougherty argues in a recent issue of National Review, being a victim confers great authority today. There is an aristocracy of victimhood forming all around us. And aristocracy is one of the most ancient forms of power politics. The hoaxer knows he’s extorting others for social currency; the throngs of woke students and faculty around him don’t. When people want to be knights in the great adventure, they are willing to do all of the work of turning windmills into giants.

One of my favorite examples was at Oberlin a few years back. A young lady wrapped herself in a blanket on a cold day as she walked across campus. Some young Don Quixote saw the flowing white cloth in the distance and immediately assumed the windmill in front of him was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The school went into a full panic and cancelled all classes that day, as everyone grabbed their lances and went off in search of the terrible giant (or gathered together in group hugs to ride out the attack). What an adventure!

Between Calhoun and Coates

I won’t rehash all of David French’s points about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on Kanye West in The Atlantic, I will simply endorse them in their entirety. I thought Coates’s essay was grotesque. Yes, yes, we must all genuflect to his prose and his infectiously controlled outrage. I will therefore concede that it was well-written. Although, given that he goes to the same argument over and over and over again, I think the more apt compliment would be that it was well-rewritten.

I will also say that I thought Kanye West was a musically talented huckster and controversy merchant before he had some kind words for Donald Trump and Candace Owens — and I still think he’s a musically talented huckster and controversy merchant. What I don’t think he is, however, is a race traitor. Indeed, I think the whole idea of race-treason today is a form of racism. It is one thing to think that black collaborators with slavery were traitors. It is quite another to say that, in 2018, all black people must be loyal to a single person’s — or even a group of people’s — idea of what authentic blackness is.

Coates (re)writes often that white people want to deny the humanity or agency of black people. Well, if you subscribe to the notion that it’s evil for black people to violate some party line, you are doing exactly that. Or at the very least, you are doing it far more than the average white person is in 2018. Similarly, if you sweepingly lump together all white people as participants in some evil conspiracy, you are denying the individuality of white people.

In George Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism,” one of the greatest essays ever written in the English language, Orwell struggles to come up with a word for identity politics — or really the emotional state that makes identity politics so seductive. Because he couldn’t come up with a better term, he uses the word “nationalism” to describe

the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”

Coates argues for simultaneously making racial essentialness both a permanent abstraction and concretized reality. He is ensorcelled by a comment from John Calhoun, the famous defender of slavery and racism.

“With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.”

As I write in my book, one of the greatest things the Founders did — wildly radical at the time — was to get rid of titles of nobility.

As Helen Andrews notes in a brilliant essay, this is “precisely Coates’s own game” [emphasis hers]. Coates has a distinctly Marxist vision — he just replaces the proletariat or the workers with blacks. In the Marxist vision, the ruling classes plunder and exploit the workers, denying their humanity. In the Coatesian vision, “whites” do the same thing to “blacks.” A rich black man, according to Coates, is still unhuman compared to a poor white one, denied agency by the abstraction of white supremacy.

As I write in my book, one of the greatest things the Founders did — wildly radical at the time — was to get rid of titles of nobility. The idea of “noble blood” is one of the oldest and most enduring forms of identity politics because it says that whole categories of people are better or more deserving than other categories of people because of an accident of birth.

Originally, the American defense of slavery borrowed from the Roman tradition, which said that slaves were not born, they were made — from conquest, debt, etc. The child of a slave did not inherit that status. The first American slaves were conscripted into slavery with similar justification. But over time, as Michael Munger argues, the slaveholders realized that this rationalization for the evil of slavery was problematic. So they reached back to the Greek, Aristotelian argument that slaves were born less than fully human: They were slaves “by nature.” Americans — mostly white Americans — fought a brutal war to overthrow that evil idea. We then amended the Constitution and launched a century-long struggle to purge the last vestiges of such notions from our society. Is that work completely done? Of course not. But that is a heroic story. And Coates seems bent on rewriting it to the point where we are supposed to believe that Calhoun won the argument and that, simply by some accident of birth, “whites” — including immigrants and the descendants of abolitionists and Union soldiers — are complicit in an evil committed by other white people generations ago. It is an argument for inherited ignobility.

Coates sees white windmills on the horizon and sees the arms of evil giants:

I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body. And I began to see these two arms in relation — those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society could say, “He should have stayed in school,” and then wash its hands of him.

Kanye West’s sin was to act as if Coates’s vision of America is not true. That an individual black man — a spectacularly rich individual black man — has human agency outside of an all-encompassing abstraction grounded in historical grievance and an accident of birth. This is Coates’s great power: to herd people into what Orwell misnamed “nationalism.” The irony, of course, is that Coates derives that power from his own individual talent. I just wish he’d try using it for something else.

Various & Sundry

Thanks to everyone I saw on the road this week — five cities in five days! I could not be more exhausted. Check to stay up to speed on the book and the tour and all that.

Canine Update: Since I’ve been gone all week, I don’t have many first-hand stories to tell (other than that the Spaniel continues to find ways to make herself filthy). But there is something very dramatic and interesting going on. I’ve noticed it myself over recent months, but our dog-whispering dog-walker Kirsten has been reporting all week that Zoë and Pippa are now cooperating in their critter hunting. The Spaniel’s innate ability to flush quarry and the Dingo’s innate drive to catch it have started to come together. On more than one occasion now, Pippa has driven chipmunks and squirrels toward Zoë. I’m not aware of any confirmed kills, but the coordination is becoming more and more, uh, professional.

Once this week, Pippa chased a chipmunk straight to Zoë. Seeing the means of its destruction ahead of it, the chipmunk did a quick 180 and almost literally jumped into Pippa’s mouth. Pippa is no killer, so she almost instantly spit it out, causing Zoë to be utterly disgusted with her partner. Other than that, all is apparently well with them, and they are enjoying the warm weather greatly, although Zoë is a bit concerned about the proliferation of snakes. Fortunately, Carolina swamp dogs apparently have an innate respect for the danger they pose. Meanwhile, my sister-in-law’s puppy Ollie is apparently a little scared of car rides. Fortunately, she has an emotional-support human.

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File

Father Coughlin, then and now

Politics as entertainment

What is the “Intellectual Dark Web”?

The Mueller morass

Remnant: EconTalked — Part I

Concentrated power invites political backlash

Remnant: EconTalked — Part II

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Saint’s bone discovered in garage

Science: Puppies cure disease

What would happen if the Moon suddenly disappeared?

The glow-worm tunnel

Herman Melville’s lost classic

Dumb college freshmen attempt to understand European history

Harbor seal that made mostly wrong Super Bowl picks dies

The secret cities that created the atomic bomb

Nature is scary

Gallons of chocolate spill on road

States ranked by drinking

Organ-regeneration progress continues apace

Wild boars retake Japan as population sinks

When alligators roamed the earth . . . oh wait, it’s today

A hangover pill???

Editor’s Note: Stewart Baker, not Eugene Volokh, made the observation regarding Queen Victoria and the threats her society faced. Additionally, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s first name was misspelled when this article was originally published. We regret the errors.


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