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 anyone else who needs to disclose that they’re Michael Cohen’s client),
When I lived in Prague as a younger man — by which I mean when I was literally younger, not when I creepily went there and just lived “as a younger man” like it was some playacting thing, because that would be weird. Sort of like the time I spent three days in a Baton Rouge motel pretending I was really Martin Van Buren IV, the world’s greatest competitive hot-dog eater, after being kicked off the circuit because I was a maverick who played by my own rules.
Where was I? Oh, right. When I lived in Prague, I took a lovely young Czech lady on a date to see The Silence of the Lambs (not a Warren Zevon or Dr. Demento lyric). She was considerably horrified — and even more confused — by this “American movie.” At one point, she peeked out from behind the hands covering her eyes (her hands, not mine), and asked in her stilted English syntax, “He thinks it is good to eat people, yes?”
“Yes,” I said. “He thinks it is good to eat people.”
“Oh,” she replied and put her hands back over her eyes.
I bring this up because people believe all sorts of weird things, and not all of them involve pairing Chianti with a human liver.
For some reason, I’ve been thinking about this ever since I had a conversation with Charlie Cooke — always a pleasant experience because he sounds so charming, like a nature-documentary narrator or a Nazi general in World War II movie. We were talking about Kevin Williamson, and Charlie made a point about what happens when you engage out-of-the-box writers — and by “out-of-the-box,” I mean the terrible cliché about unconventional thinking, not a creepy reference to exhuming, say, Gore Vidal, and removing him from his coffin (“Just don’t pull out the stake!”).
Charlie observed that the same thing that gives a great writer — or, really, anybody — the ability to see things from a different perspective also probably implies that they have some unconventional views on all sorts of things.
My dad certainly had that, which explains so many strange things that came out of his mouth. When I was a kid, he used to tell me that, given my lack of marketable skills or material contributions to the family unit, I could be “replaced by a well-trained monkey.” Every Thanksgiving, he’d begin the meal by pointing out that on a planet of super-intelligent and technologically advanced turkeys, the gruesome scene before us would be a soul-shaking horror, and probably a cause for war. At the end of the meal, he’d always turn to me, gesture to the picked-over carcass of the turkey sitting between us, and ask, “Jonah, if we gathered the world’s great scientists and doctors, do you think there’s any chance we could save this bird’s life?”
And then, of course, there was my dad’s logically sound belief that if we could just shrink all humans to, say, the size of a G.I. Joe doll, concerns about overpopulation, dwindling resources, and the like would be solved.
My dad wasn’t a weirdo by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, most of this stuff was just his way of having fun with me. But, as I get older, I treasure those memories because they make me laugh and because they shaped how I see the world. Another point of all this, I guess, is that our minds can take us to stranger places than conventional society is willing to consider. I can’t imagine that anyone who has read this “news”letter over the years could disagree with that.
The Division of Meaning
The point I thought this “news”letter was getting at, however, is that we have really strange views on conformity. In my Friday column, which I will confess to writing hastily as this is a bananas time for me (“Did someone say ‘banana time’?” — Koko), I borrowed a page from G. K. Chesterton and quoted Britney Spears talking this week about how America demands conformity from people. “I feel like our society has always put such an emphasis on what’s normal,” Britney said, “and to be different is unusual or seen as strange.”
Britney’s whole “speech” seemed like the kind of thing Spock and Kirk might say to Harcourt Fenton Mudd’s android to make its head explode. First of all, the whole definition of “different” is to be unusual or strange. Second, I’m not sure there’s another country in the world that celebrates being different as much as we do. Okay, maybe Holland or Canada, but not many places. We have first-grade teachers with neck tattoos these days.
Just turn on the TV, and you’ll see commercials telling you that you’ll be a rebel if you buy this SUV or that sports car. Matthew McConaughey’s ads for Lincoln make him seem like a scary drifter on a quest to make a suit out of waitresses who work at out-of-the-way diners. BMW just launched an ad appealing to “unfollowers” to follow their lead straight to the dealership. Audi has a dude forgoing the witness-protection program because he can’t contemplate being the kind of sell-out who drives a normal car. Better to take your chances with the mob than not sit behind the wheel of an Audi.
On the other hand, I’m kind of proving Britney’s point, though not in the way she thinks — because non-conformity is one of the most conformist values we have today. Everyone is special, which as Dash famously pointed out, means no one is. In Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks observes that everything “transgressive” gets “digested by the mainstream bourgeois order, and all the cultural weapons that once were used to undermine middle-class morality . . . are drained of their subversive content.”
We still have a middle-class ideology, but the virtues, habits, and pieties have changed.
As I wrote a while ago, the idea of gay marriage went from being subversive and radical to conventional and boring in a remarkably short period of time. Will & Grace was edgy because it both depicted a relatively uptight and restrained gay dude — which ran against the stereotype — and because it depicted another gay dude who leaned all the way into the stereotype. A short time later, Modern Family depicted gay marriage as being basically indistinguishable from traditional marriage (“I can’t get the baby-seat in the car!”).
I used to think Brooks was largely correct. Now, not so much. It is certainly true that everything transgressive gets digested by the mainstream order; I’m just not sure the mainstream order is bourgeois. “Bourgeois” used to mean something different than it does today. It was a middle-class ideology rooted in certain virtues, habits, and pieties. We still have a middle-class ideology, but the virtues, habits, and pieties have changed — a few for the better, and a few for the worse.
(As I discuss in my new book), last summer, Amy Wax and Larry Alexander penned an op-ed praising the old bourgeois values — and by “old” I don’t mean the 18th century. The bourgeois culture of the 1940s to 1960s, Wax and Alexander wrote, laid out “the script we all were supposed to follow”:
Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.
A coalition of students and alumni responded to the essay in predictable fashion. Wax and Alexander were peddling the “malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today. These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability . . .”
Now, I know, when most normal people read this they find an uncontrollable urge to pantomime an onanistic gesture:
Still, if bourgeois culture means something other than “whatever everyone considers normal,” you can’t keep redefining what’s “normal” and still glibly call it “bourgeois” without some follow-up explanation.
As Charles Murray has pointed out repeatedly, our elites still practice something very close to bourgeois lifestyles (though formal religion plays less of a role today). Members of our new upper-middle class tend to wait until they’re finished with their education before they get married, and they wait until they’re married before they have kids. They save money and work hard, and they teach their children to do the same. What they don’t do is teach other people to do likewise — because that would be judgmental. As Charles puts it, they don’t preach what they practice, which is a worse form of hypocrisy than the reverse, because the education-marriage-kids “success sequence” is literally one of the only, and certainly one of the best, ways for poor people to get out of poverty.
I didn’t realize until writing this sentence that Kevin Williamson actually makes a similar point in the Wall Street Journal today. Feminists and various other identity-politics activists claim to be fighting an entrenched power structure. But, in reality, they’re closer to the rebels who have to drive an Audi. Kevin writes:
Which brings us back to that event at South by Southwest, where the Atlantic was sponsoring a panel about marginalized points of view and diversity in journalism. The panelists, all Atlantic writers and editors, argued that the cultural and economic decks are stacked against feminists and advocates of minority interests. They made this argument under the prestigious, high-profile auspices of South by Southwest and their own magazine, hosted by a feminist group called the Female Quotient, which enjoys the patronage of Google, PepsiCo, AT&T, NBCUniversal, Facebook, UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Deloitte. We should all be so marginalized. If you want to know who actually has the power in our society and who is actually marginalized, ask which ideas get you sponsorships from Google and Pepsi and which get you fired.
I don’t want to go all Gabriel Kolko on people (in part because no one remembers him anymore), but when Starbucks closes 8,000 stores for diversity-sensitivity training — virtue-signaling on a continental scale — perhaps the ideology of the corporate power structure isn’t what you think it is.
My objection isn’t to Starbucks’s decision per se. Nor is it with the arguments made by various progressive warriors sponsored by the RAMJAC corporation — it’s with the claim that they’re rebels rather than props. Our colleges teach kids that being liberal or left-wing is rebellious, but there’s nothing rebellious about it. Rather, the claims of rebelliousness are the coating that makes the pill of conformity easier to swallow. The examples that demonstrate this are all too familiar — from the Google memo to, well, Kevin Williamson.
Rebellion is the fashion, and claims of oppression and persecution are the cultural currency.
There’s still room in our culture to be different, though the irony is that wearing a gray flannel suit today is more rebellious than wearing, well, almost anything. Being an atheist on a college campus isn’t rebellious; it’s one of the most tedious forms of conformity. A real rebel talks out loud in an Ivy League classroom about how Jesus Christ is his or her personal savior. For today’s kids, it’s okay to have weird, eccentric, or oddball ideas, so long as they don’t rub against the grain of what Everyone Is Supposed to Believe. I mean, we live in an age where Satanists don the mantle of rebellion but are quick to clarify they’re not crazy like — you know — those whacky Christians.
I’d have so much more respect for the progressives who control the commanding heights of our culture if they had the courage to admit that they control the commanding heights of the culture and that they’re in the business of imposing orthodoxy. But they can’t do that because, in America, rebellion is the fashion, and claims of oppression and persecution are the cultural currency.
Oh, and by the way, many conservatives today have much the same problem. Right-wingers want to get people who say mean things fired, too. Republicans control the government in Washington (and most of the state governments, as well), but all the usual suspects make it sound like they’re a persecuted political sect.
There are differences between the two groups of course. But the pose is the same: Everyone’s gotta be a victim and a rebel — because everyone’s doing it.
Various & Sundry
I am severely pressed for time today, so I have to keep this short.
The book goes on sale April 24, but of course you can preorder it and keep me from cutting myself any further.
I’m doing an enormous amount of media starting next week. You can go to JonahGoldberg.com to get the details. But do watch out for my appearance on EconTalk and Conversations with Bill Kristol. I also recorded an appearance on Matt Lewis’s terrific podcast, available here.
Canine Update: Everything is good in doggo world, though I am dreading what the beasts will do to the house when I’m off doing book stuff (last week, someone pooped in the house in protest while I was gone). I will say, though, that Pippa has had more trouble of late finding her tennis ball than she normally does. I’m not sure what that’s about. Maybe if she spent less time perfecting her butt wiggles, she’d be better off. They also seem to be plotting something.
ICYMI . . .
And now, the weird stuff.