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 (Of whatever degrees of feck),
One of the great advantages of being more than 4,000 miles from home is that the local D.C. police will never think of looking for me here in Alaska. Another, more relevant, advantage is that politics seems really far away, and the distance offers a little perspective. (Attending the funeral of a great man puts things in even greater perspective, but we’ll get to that below.)
Maybe it’s just my mood or the nitrogen bubbles in my brain, but as I checked in periodically to the Twitter spats and cable-news fights this last week, it seemed pretty obvious that maybe we should just nuke the whole thing from orbit and let the bees have a shot.
More seriously, I haven’t felt this kind of alienation from politics in a very long time. It’s not disgust so much as a kind of exhaustion. I think it’s partly because I don’t think the Offended Wars are primarily about people being offended. Yeah, of course, it’s easy — and correct — to denounce Roseanne Barr’s racism (and all around nuttery) or Samantha Bee’s righteous grotesquery. But it seems pretty obvious that the issue for most people — at least for the partisans — isn’t the issue itself. Indeed, the Offended Wars are a kind of Potemkin conflict for the true battle over double standards.
“Why does Roseanne get fired but Samantha Bee doesn’t!?” is just the latest iteration of this recurring grievance. And, let me be clear, I’m largely in the conservative camp on the merits of the question. There is much more tolerance for liberals to be asinine, grotesque, bigoted, and even wildly anti-democratic in their rhetoric and “comedy.”
There are many reasons for this. Charlie Cooke got at one of them in the latest episode of The Editors. When someone tweeted a picture of little illegal-immigrant kids in what were essentially jail cells or kennels, the Left instantaneously went into overdrive denouncing the dystopian horror that is Trump’s America. When it was revealed that the picture was from 2014 and that the warehousing of these kids was on Obama’s watch, a storm of “well, actually” rained down across the Internet. Suddenly, immigration policy became complicated and Obama was dealing with a difficult situation (David French has a good rundown).
The assumption is that liberals’ hearts are in the right place, thus, when they stray off the path rhetorically or in some other way, it’s not seen as revelatory of something darker or more sinister. Of course, conservatives do the same thing. We assume the best of our own tribe and can dismiss a joke or errant tweet quite easily from one of our own.
The key difference is that liberals dominate the commanding heights of the culture. When Tom Friedman heaps praise on an evil and authoritarian regime, it’s seen as a thoughtful exercise in creative thinking and analysis. Joy Ann Reid can be guilty of precisely the kind of rhetoric that serves as proof of bigotry when it comes from conservatives, because she’s on the side of social justice. Ta-Nehisi Coates can write sweeping denunciations of white people — and it’s speaking truth to power or some such. They can get away with it not because their arguments are less radical or their jokes less offensive but because the gatekeeping institutions of our culture are largely on their side.
Do I find it frustrating? Of course. Does the double standard vex me? Yes, I’m terribly vexed. But here’s the thing: If you’re only willing to hold your principles on the condition that people you hate hold them too, they’re not really principles.
The Era of Meme Looting
What we’re seeing these days looks a lot like looting to me. Under normal circumstances, we all believe theft is wrong. But when disaster strikes and order breaks down, all bets are off. When we see everyone else grabbing what they can, we do it too. There’s some homunculus in our heads that screams: “Don’t be a sucker! Get yours!”
Right now, Twitter and cable TV overflow with arguments that boil down to “Our a**holes are okay because look at what your a**holes got away with.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think social norms and standards are worthwhile on utilitarian grounds. Consider traffic lights. There’s no compelling moral reason for green to mean “go” and for red to mean “stop.” But there is a compelling moral argument for the existence of traffic lights and the need for everyone to obey them. If progressives decide that traffic lights are only for conservatives, it won’t be long before no one obeys them. Why be a sucker? (And if the state only gives tickets to conservative drivers, one can hardly blame conservatives for thinking the system is unfairly rigged.) Of course, the end result is that lots of people, conservative and liberal alike, will end up in smoldering wrecks.
My record on the excesses of the Trumpian Right is pretty clear. But I think one of the reasons we got here is that liberals were truly blind to the double standard they benefit from and the norms they were happy to see violated when the people violating them were “the good guys.” I do not consider conservatives blameless in all this either. It’s a catalytic process that goes back a long way, with little tit-for-tat violations stretching back decades, some of which I discussed last week.
In other words, I think we have a cultural collective-action problem. One possible solution is to simply let the process play out until sheer exhaustion causes protagonists on all sides to recognize the futility of endless culture war. As I’ve written before, the principle of religious tolerance was a last resort, an utterly utilitarian practical compromise, after the combatants in Europe’s religious wars recognized what C. V. Wedgwood called “the essential futility of putting the beliefs of the mind to the judgment of the sword.”
My Three-Point Plan
Hopefully, the judgment of the sword will remain purely figurative in our context. But simply waiting out the storm strikes me as too defeatist. On my book tour, people keep asking me what to do. I can think of lots of good public-policy ideas, but those are means. I think we need some clarity about ends. Here are three I have in mind. First, we need to return to the idea of ideological and theological pluralism but moral consensus. People are free to believe whatever they like, and they are free to act on those beliefs so long as they don’t harm others. Second, we need a lot less nationalism (for want of a better term). What I mean by that is that the federal government and various national elites need to stop thinking that the whole country needs to think and act in one way.
These are not contradictory propositions. Fox News likes to do stories that boil down to “Can you believe someone in San Francisco believes X!?” MSNBC likes stories that boil down to “We have troubling reports that someone in Wyoming believes Y!” The underlying assumption is that in America everyone is supposed to think alike. Well, unless someone is actually being harmed — and I don’t mean in the terminally asinine construction, “words hurt” — who gives a rat’s a**?
Lastly, we need to get as much power out of Washington as conceivably possible. As long as we think that the federal government, especially the executive branch, has monarchical power to impose a vision on the whole country, we will turn political contests into cultural warfare. The Whigs couldn’t abide a Catholic on the throne because they believed the king would impose his vision on all of England. The Catholics felt the same way about the prospect of a Protestant crown. The solution is to restrain the power of the crown — so that the faith of the monarch doesn’t matter.
Vladimir Paul Gavora, RIP
I called him “Vlad” for nearly a year before someone finally told me that his wife was the only person who still got to call him that. To everyone else he was “Mr. Gavora,” “Paul,” “the Old Man,” or simply, “Dad.”
Since my father-in-law intimidated the hell out of me, I opted for “Paul.”
We buried Paul yesterday next to his beloved wife, Donna, and their cherished daughter, Pauli. (You can read his obituary here.) It felt like an end of an era, like a great king being dispatched to history.
I don’t mean to be grandiose, but that’s how it felt. Paul was not a big talker, and it had nothing to do with the fact he never lost his thick Slovakian accent. The man had argued with his academic mentor, Milton Friedman, when English was still relatively new to him. He could be a talker, but he preferred to be a doer.
In many ways, my own father and Paul could not be more different. My dad was one of the great indoorsmen of the ages. To say my dad wasn’t handy would be a gross understatement. As someone once said of Allan Bloom, “things were not his friend.” Meanwhile, Paul loved to hunt and fish and work in his garden, preferably while giving orders to his army of grandkids. Paul was rarely happier than when he was getting his hands dirty. He built an elaborate contraption because he was determined to grow corn in soil a couple hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle.
But Paul and my dad had more important things in common, and I don’t just mean their shared hatred of Communism. They were both deeply grounded.
“Grounded” is a word that doesn’t get its due. But it’s a great word, a conservative word in every sense. Great oaks have deep roots. They hold the soil in place during storms and floods. Reefs defy the waves and tides and serve as shelter for the life that grows around them. Institutions that are grounded in a community are landmarks and safe havens in confusing turbulent times. That was Paul. He was as reliable as True North.
My wife often tells the story of how, when he would bring home ducks he shot himself for dinner, he would make it a contest for the kids to see who could “win” by biting down on some buckshot first. “The boys fell for it every time,” she explained with an eye roll. When his kids would talk about their career plans or business ideas, the first question Paul would ask was, “Yeah, but can you eat it?”
Paul knew his economic theory, and he was a passionate defender of the free market, but he jettisoned abstractions like so much ballast when he swam the Danube in the dead of night to escape the Communists. That question — “can you eat it?” — was grounded in a profound understanding of how theories — Nazi theories, Communist theories, even capitalist theories — can come and go, but people will always need what humans need: food, clothing, shelter. He knew this because he’d seen what happens when people are denied it.
They also need family and a sense of community, which is why he invested so much of himself in both.
When a flood ravaged Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1967, he simply gave out the food on the shelves of his grocery stores and turned his house into a refuge for people left homeless. Paul built and supported one institution after another in his community because this was where he chose to sink his roots deep into the ground. His son Rudy, who worked by his father’s side for four decades, told how people would regularly come to their office to repay loans that Paul had long forgotten making. Strangers would come to see the Old Man for life advice, simply because they knew Paul had seen so much of it.
His oldest son, Danny, told the story of how the influx of national supermarket chains into Fairbanks made Paul’s life work untenable as a business proposition. Danny was the one who had to explain the direness of the situation to his father. Paul simply replied that the grocery stores he had built served their most important function: allowing he and Donna to raise nine children and send them to college, and that was good enough. We’ll find another business, he explained.
My wife, who is no fan of public-speaking, was understandably fearful of being overcome with emotion (something I can understand all too well, having publicly sobbed through eulogies for my father and my brother). But she did a wonderful job, explaining how the thing Paul disliked most was phoniness. “He’s a phony” was just about the worst thing Paul could say about someone. Jessica noted that in Washington, where people routinely talk a great game about the importance of family and of personal integrity, it was hard not to see so many of them as phonies when comparing their words to their deeds, never mind those of her parents, who worked so hard to model decency, honesty, and dedication rather than just talk about such things.
At the end of Saving Private Ryan, there’s that powerful scene where a now-aged James Ryan looks at the tombstone of his comrade and weeps with panic that he might not have been the good man he needed to be to earn his sacrifice. It gets me every time. When I watched men lower Paul’s casket into the ground next to Donna, I looked at his tombstone and choked up with the hope that I might be a fraction of the great man he was.
We have a tendency to think of Great Men as the cast of some grand historical narrative. But the truth is many of those men were not so much great as glorious or simply glory-seeking. They sought out fame and a place in history. That wasn’t Paul, though he made his share of history where it mattered to him, and he’d seen more than his share of history as well. Paul was a truly great man because he was truly good man, grounded to the things that mattered the most to him and the things that simply matter most.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: They’re doing great. We had some quality time last weekend, as the Fair Jessica was out of town. And they’re doing just fine with their best friend, Kirsten. Though there was some anxiety about all the thunder. Meanwhile, I was met at the airport in Fairbanks by my brother-in-law Steven and his goodwill ambassador, Nick.
I’m scheduled to be on Media Buzz on Sunday and on NPR on Monday morning.
Also CSPAN will be airing my conversation with John Podhoretz and his sweater this weekend.
By the time this comes out on NRO a new Remnant podcast will be up.
And now, the weird stuff.