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 (Including those of you just standing there eating Zarg nuts),
I had a bad idea. It wasn’t a terrible idea, like asking a meth addict to housesit or swimming with alligators to commune with nature (“these stoic guardians of our wetlands are so misunderstood!”). But it was a bad idea.
I thought it would be fun to ask NR readers (specifically that anointed tribe of lightworkers known as “NRPlus members” to pick the topic of this august “news”letter. Well, it’s 10:07 a.m. — and I just got the list. There are 294 requests. I have no idea whether that’s the raw junk, or if the guys in New York cut it down or stepped on it with baby powder (Sorry, I just re-watched The Wire and that’s where my head is at).
To get a sense of why this was a bad idea, let me review quickly a few entries almost at random. (Query: If there is no such thing as true randomness, can something be “almost random”? Isn’t saying “almost random” like saying “nearly infinite” or “mostly unique”?)
One reader suggested I write about “The continued baleful influence of German philosophy in American political and cultural life” — and then proceeded to offer an 800-word exploration of Santayana’s essay on German freedom. Another reader requested, “Anything about Melania, good, bad indifferent.” Another asked, “Does anyone actually like Christmas pageants?” Another asked, “The reasons NR has become the latest to succumb to Stockholm Syndrome under Trump — why is HR starting to sound like Trump’s Greek Chorus?” One person just wrote, “La Société pour L’encouragement des Autres,” while another flew this up the flagpole: “The inherent conservatism of fantasy (e.g., Star Wars) vs. the (seemingly) inherent radicalism of sci-fi (e.g., Star Trek). And where those boundaries break down (e.g., Robert Heinlein).” I was particularly intrigued by this request: “Make an argument that people of color should be oropendola to conservative thought.” And a sage named Cliff asked, “Write about how soliciting NRPlus for G-File ideas is totally not like the scene in Boogie Nights where Burt Reynolds and Heather Graham make a porno in the back of a limo with some random guy pulled off the street.”
Let me work through some of these right now so none can say I was totally unresponsive.
Better in the Original German
I am torn about the topic of German philosophy’s baleful influence on American political and cultural life. On the one hand, I think it’s absolutely true. As I have written at great length elsewhere, American progressivism represented a flowering of German ideas in America. Thousands of the academics who formed the intellectual backbone of progressivism studied in Germany or under German or German-trained academics. A generation or two later, another wave of German thought infected America. What Alan Bloom called “value relativism” crossed the Atlantic and remains the rage in many quarters. It wasn’t all bad, of course. It made it possible for Bloom to write this sentence: “The image of this astonishing Americanization of the German pathos can be seen in the smiling face of Louis Armstrong as he belts out the words of his great hit ‘Mack the Knife.’” More recently, as the reader suggests, many of the most serious and passionate defenses of nationalism can be traced directly back to Johann Fichte and Johann Herder (and presumably to some other Teutons not named Johann). Santayana’s point that the need for collective identity can masquerade as freedom has a lot of explanatory power. You can see this in the rhetoric of “national liberation” movements that use the language of liberty to defend both the sovereignty of nations and the legitimacy of nationalist regimes to claim that statism is a form of freedom when it is pushed in the name of “self-determination.” The problem is that self-determination for a nation can lead to the negation of self-determination of individual citizens. Mussolini wanted self-determination for Italy but not for individual Italians.
On the other hand, my views on how intellectual history works have been evolving of late. I think people use ideas to justify their desires more than the ideas shape their desires. But that’s a topic for another day.
I like Melania Trump, to the extent I can figure out what she’s really about. I am not afraid to admit that one of the things I like about her is that she is very nice to look at. She’s certainly the most striking first lady of my lifetime. And, I suspect that she’s the best-looking first lady ever, no offense to Abigail Filmore.
Beyond the way she pings the radar of the male gaze, I like that Melania seems to have a very low tolerance for B.S., including, one suspects, from her husband.
Two Cheers for Christmas Pageants
I can’t say I am a huge fan of Christmas pageants per se, but I love local parades and virtually any other expression of local civic engagement. So I come down on the pro-pageant side. I have no idea if that is the majority position in America, but I doubt I am a minority of one on the issue.
Hostages to Trump?
I don’t think NR is suffering from Stockholm syndrome under Trump (and I assume HR is a typo, unless I’ve missed a bunch of MAGA memos from Human Resources). I do have my disagreements with some of my colleagues on specific facets of the stygian disco ball that is the current moment, but a few specific examples notwithstanding, I think what the reader is seeing has more to do with the battles various writers at NR are picking than their actual personal views. What I mean is, this is a conservative magazine with a heterodox group of writers. Many choose to spend their time arguing with liberals and liberal positions which, after all, is one of the reasons we’re here. For those who feel very strongly that the only issues worth debating involve Trump’s shortcomings, this can often seem like a defense, and sometimes it is. But, in a sense, to write is to choose what not to write about. Last week, I wrote a G-File about climate change. I heard from a bunch of people complaining that I should have been writing about whatever the controversy of the day was about Trump. They seemed to think that not writing about Trump amounted to giving Trump a pass. That’s not how it works. We live in a moment where lots of people only want to hear Trump praise or Trump criticism. It is impossible to get it right with some people in that climate.
I’ve never heard of “La Société pour L’encouragement des Autres,” and my very weak French tells me this means, “Make room, the Germans are coming.”
But Google Translate tells me that this means “The Society for the Encouragement of Others.” This sounds like a very nice society, and barring some new information, I am for it. Indeed, I think they should hold a Christmas pageant.
[SATURDAY MORNING UPDATE: Since this came out, I’ve heard from a bunch of people explaining what this is and why I’m a dufus. Sometimes the dufus claim is related to this section, and sometimes it’s not. And I will admit: I do feel like dufus. The “society” thing threw me off. But as a bunch of folks have noted this is a reference to the Voltaire quote which, once reminded of it, makes me feel dumb for needing to be reminded of it.]
I really like the question about the conservatism of fantasy and the radicalism of sci-fi. I’m not sure the distinction is a hard and fast one. There’s a lot of conservatism in sci-fi, because there’s a lot of conservatism in fiction. I don’t mean conservatism in the political, programmatic sense. I mean in the more fundamental sense that human nature is the universal constant of all literature. It is what makes the events on the page, whether in Mordor or on Mars, relatable to the reader. The idea that human nature cannot be perfected, that the interior life of human beings is guided by the same doubts, desires, and concerns we all share (to one extent or another) is what makes literature speak to larger truths. There is a radicalism that finds purchase in some sci-fi, because the dream of the perfectibility of man is the defining feature of utopianism, and most forms of the Enlightenment-influenced radicalism. Whenever I hear Jean-Luc Picard talk as if humans had moved past the atavisms of status, money, etc., I want to say, “Oh yeah, like you wouldn’t complain if you were busted to ensign?”
Ironically, fantasy lends itself more to realism about human nature precisely because it simply plucks humans out of a familiar world and places them in a different one. Perfectibility would ruin the conceit, so it’s left for elves or whatnot.
Whither the Oropendola?
I am fascinated by this question: “Make an argument that people of color should be oropendola to conservative thought.”
At first, I assumed this was just a typo and the reader meant to say “open to.” But oropendola is an actual word. From professor Wikipedia:
The oropendolas formerly comprised two or three genera of South and Central American passerine birds in the Icteridae New World blackbird family.
All the oropendolas are large birds with pointed bills, and long tails which are always at least partially bright yellow. Males are usually larger than females.
Maybe autocorrect changed a typo to oropendola? If so, I have a strange new respect for autocorrect software.
Anyway, I do not think people of color should be passerine birds towards conservative ideas, unless that implies they should flock to conservative ideas, in which case I am all for it. Conservative ideas about race, at least in the classical-liberal tradition (which should be the only way conservatives should think about such things), are the only moral and sustainable path forward for a diverse society. As a matter of coalitional politics, there are short-term gains for various groups trying to get more from government. But in the long run, this society can only survive if we take to heart the idea that we should treat people as individuals and not representatives of different groups, especially with regard to government policy. Coalitions will always exist, but they should be coalitions of belief, tradition, and shared interests grounded in the institutions of civil society, not abstract and arbitrary characteristics. The Founders recognized this, which is why they took coalitions — a.k.a. factions — into account.
But conservatives need to take their own ideas and rhetoric into account as well. I believe passionately in assimilation, but the definition of assimilation can’t be dictated by old white people nostalgic for one version of America that didn’t actually exist the way they remember it. The Madisonian vision creates room for different groups to live as they wish so long as they don’t become a powerful faction, using the power of the state, to impose their One Way of living on others. That means conservative Christians and social-justice warriors alike should have the freedom to live according to their values, but they should also have the imagination and tolerance required to let other communities go their own way.
It seems to me that this vision should appeal to people of color as much as anyone else, and in some cases more than most. Identity politics puts people in cages of meaning, reducing them to someone else’s idea of what a black (or Asian or whatever) person should think and do. Identity, whenever put to the test, always becomes an argument about loyalty to a group identity or abstract idea.
An oropendola can never be anything more than what it is. The behavior of one essentially describes the behavior of all. Humans are animals, but we are not just animals. Identity politics, taken to its extreme, reduces humans to animals.
And finally, there’s Cliff’s Boogie Nights analogy. I thought it was really funny, in part because it’s kind of true. I don’t mean that in an insulting way. No offense to the profession, but there’s less skill to pornography than some might assume. Sure, you have prodigies like Ron Jeremy who can autofellate (a charge metaphorically leveled at this “news”letter from time to time). But basically, porn stars don’t do anything normal people can’t do. They may gild the lily with six-inch heels and trapezes or whatnot, but the main attraction is pretty universal.
The vast majority of questions I got were from basically normal people, and they were good questions. I am going to save the list for column and podcast topics down the line. Journalism, including opinion journalism, is a bit like pornography. It’s a specialty but not a science. The constitutional right to commit journalism isn’t a special right for a select few (despite what some in the guild might tell you), it’s a right we all have, just as the right to bear arms isn’t reserved solely for police. Over the years, I’ve learned more from NR readers than I have from any single professional expert. Indeed, my readers are in fact experts, some on a specific subject, but all of them are experts on their own views and concerns. Asking them for suggestions doesn’t feel debasing at all. It feels like a privilege.
So why was this a bad idea? Because there was no way to deal with all of these questions. I feel like Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson shopping for coffee.
But I also feel like I’m talking to a madman. I don’t mean this as an insult to anybody. It’s a problem I’ve had for years. From the earliest days of the G-File, I’ve had a tendency to lump all of my readers into a singular entity, like I’m writing to a single person. This is one reason why this “news”letter is so unpredictable and oropendola.
This also explains why every now and then I get persnickety with some reader who doesn’t deserve my persnicketiness (Persnickitude? Persnickitality?). I can get 20 emails complaining about something, and the 21st complaint triggers that defense mechanism that goes off when you feel like someone won’t leave a topic alone; “You keep saying that! Shut up already!”
The thing is the 21st emailer only said it once, but it feels like the 21st time to me. I had this problem on the recent NR cruise. A whole bunch of great people wanted to talk to me about the guy in the Oval Office. Individually they were all perfectly polite and sincere, but when you get the same question — or the same assertions — over and over again, it can be a drag. I really love the cruisers — and they love NR, if not always me — but it was a struggle for me to wait patiently as I heard the same arguments over and over.
I’ll close with a bit of an epiphany I had on the cruise. Over dinner, a lovely woman complained that many of the panels seemed to be avoiding the elephant in the room — i.e., Trump. I’m not sure I agreed with the complaint, in part because she also told me she walked out of a panel that was almost entirely about Trump. Regardless, I explained that even on a NR cruise, Trump is a divisive and polarizing figure. What I hadn’t really realized is how divisive and polarizing he is, not just among people but within them. The woman who walked out of a panel because someone had been too critical of Trump went on to explain how much she hates Trump’s behavior. A man at the table began a conversation about how the country will be ruined if Trump isn’t reelected in 2020 (prompting me to gird my loins for a lengthy argument about Flight 93ism). But over the course of dinner, he vented about how much he wished Melania or Jared could get him to stop being so crude, particularly on Twitter. In other words, there’s a huge amount of cognitive dissonance even among Trump’s biggest supporters.
Many of the most articulate Trump defenders will often use a rhetorical tactic of conceding Trump’s shortcomings, usually in compact “to be sure” asides (“Obviously, Trump’s tweeting isn’t always helpful,” “It would be better if Trump could articulate his position more artfully,” etc.). Once they’ve checked that box, they proceed to go hammer and tongs against any critics on the right or left who are less dismissive of Trump’s foibles. In other words, they concede the critique — but they just consider it less important than others do. I get the reverse criticism. I’ll praise his judicial appointments or offer support for regulatory reform, but I won’t ignore or minimize his defects or attribute to him nobility or genius his defenders claim to see behind his superficial shortcomings.
What I find simultaneously maddening and reassuring in all of this is the fact that what a lot of conservatives really want is way to reconcile these conflicting realities. It’s not that they all disagree with me about the man’s character, it’s that they wish I didn’t remind them of it. But I could stop writing tomorrow and the underlying problem would endure. Conservatism is being wracked by the collision of different tectonic plates. The need to celebrate the leader of the tribe is smashing into the need to defend not just ideological commitments but traditional notions of leadership and decency. The desire to push back on the left is crashing into the need to remain intellectually consistent. The subsequent earthquakes aren’t just on display on screens but in our own heads. And sitting motionless in the hope that will all be over soon, like Mike Pence in the Oval Office, won’t get anyone through. The process is just going to have to play itself out. My only hope is that we’ll have more than rubble to build on when it’s all over.
Various & Sundry
Me Update: I can’t tell you how delighted I am to be winding down my crazy travel schedule. Since Thanksgiving alone, I’ve been to New York City twice, Ithaca, Syracuse, Chicago, the Caribbean, and Concord, NH. I haven’t had a full week at home since September. I do have a bunch of travel coming up, but it’s all for and with family (minus quadrupeds, alas), and I’m so giddy about it I feel like Morgan Freeman should be narrating my walk on a beach. Still, I shouldn’t complain. It’s a good problem to have, given the givens.
Canine Update: The beasts are good but getting needier by the day. It’s probably because I’m a sucker for them after being on the road so much. But they’re keeping their priorities straight. One strange development: I think Zoë knows that my phone takes her picture and she’s increasingly reluctant to hold still for photos like this (though if I bribe her with scritches, she’ll put up with it). She clearly has a much richer interior life than Pippa. Though sometimes she does seem to be thinking something other than “Ball.” Sometimes she’s thinking “one more hour until Ball.” Pippa’s eye seems to be completely on the mend, which is great. And, since people keep asking me, Zoë has stopped expressing interest in tennis balls.
ICYMI . . .
And now, the weird stuff.