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.
In Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, the famous British historian argued that civilizations get into trouble when the elites start adopting the customs and attitudes of the lower classes.
That’s a paraphrase because I’ve never managed to finish Toynbee’s whole twelve-volume opus. I stare at it like a lone seagull looking at a beached blue whale: “I’m never gonna finish this thing alone.” Also, while a brilliant guy, Toynbee had a prose style that was a bit like Finnish opera; I’m sure they’re saying something important, but I’m having a hard time following it. Here, for instance, is one of the several passages where Toynbee makes the point I referenced above:
[We] see the dominant minority began to “go native”; catch a glimpse of the two adversaries at the fleeting moment at which, in their rival masquerades in one another’s borrowed plumage, they assume the grotesque generic resemblance of the griffin to the chimera; and finally watch the ci-devant [former] dominant minority lose the last traces of its original form by sinking to meet the triumphant barbarian at a common level of unmitigated barbarism.
If you want a more digestible version of this argument, and one more relevant to the moment at hand, I heartily recommend Kevin Williamson’s brilliant essay from last month, “The White Minstrel Show.”
Anyway, I bring this up because it seems to me that it’s a good moment to point out that our elites are garbage.
This might seem like a familiar argument these days. After all, populism is the mood of the hour. The “Establishment” is everyone’s favorite nest of boogeymen.
But I am not soiling myself with Bannonism or flirting with Sandersism. I’ve not laid down the pen and picked up the pitchfork. You won’t be getting any emails from me asking you to put your credit-card number where your mouth is to show the Deep State Swamp One Percent Globalists who’s boss.
My indictment of the elites — at least for the purposes of the point I want to make here — is not that they are too snobbish, it’s that they’re not snobbish enough. It’s not that they’re too powerful, it’s that they’ve gelded themselves.
Conservatives used to mock leftists and liberals for being “prolier than thou.” Plagued with guilt over their economic privilege, lefty eggheads and politicians would pretend to be regular Joes, all in an effort to leach authenticity from the masses that they wanted to boss around for their own good.
Because we live in an age when class distinctions matter less and racial and gender distinctions matter more, the old charge of being a member of the economic ruling class (“Economic Royalists” as FDR used to say) has lost much of its bite. When, thanks to the glories of the free market, everyone from rappers to professional wrestlers to reality-show stars can be rich, simply having money is no longer proof of being a traitor to your class. Today, you don’t fake your authenticity by hiding your wealth but by “keeping it real.”
On the left at least, “white privilege” is the new “economic privilege.” Prolier than thou has morphed into “Woker than thou,” but the same insecurities are at play. Most of our economic elites are where they are because, in their private lives, they still operate on some version of bourgeois values. They wait until they are done with their education before they get married. They wait until they’re married before they have children. They save money and shower attention — perhaps too much attention — on their children. But, as Charles Murray has documented at great length, they refuse to preach what they themselves actually practice. They are terrified of being judgmental, of seeming elitist. And so the hallmark of an elitist these days is to pretend you’re not one.
That’s because in today’s hyper-egalitarian popular culture, no one is allowed to say that anything or anyone is better than anything or anyone else if there is any truth to the claim whatsoever. That would be hurtful, triggering, elitist. What matters is authenticity and solidarity with victims. We must wear the figurative dunce cap and confess our privilege.
In the Great Hierarchy of Anathematization these days, “Racist!” still has the top brick of the pyramid. But not far below are “Elitist!” and “Hypocrite!”
These trends are not unique to the Left. They afflict the whole of society and the totality of our civilization. But they play themselves out differently on either side of the ideological spectrum.
Realer ’Murican Than Y’All
On the right, a new version of prolier than thou is the new hotness. Steve Bannon is a multimillionaire former Goldman Sachs globalist who made much of his fortune in Hollywood. But his new racket — no less of a racket for being sincere — is to make himself the Joan of Arc to the Trumpen proletariat. He sells people — many no doubt decent — on the idea that there is a Great and Powerful Oz behind the curtain keeping them down, thwarting their dreams and denying them their destiny. The Republican Establishment is whatever Bannon or Sean Hannity (another multimillionaire who wears his Budweiser on his sleeve) needs it to be. It is simultaneously oppressively powerful, blocking Donald Trump’s “agenda” at every turn, and outrageously weak, full of Quislings refusing to fight the cultural Marxists and George Soros’s army of social-justice ninjas.
And because so many people believe this tripe, everyone in the Establishment pretends they are against it. They are like aristocrats of the old order donning workman’s clothes to avoid the revolutionary mobs. All of this only makes Bannon’s life easier and the Establishment more pathetic. When no one will defend or deny the existence of your strawman, it’s easy to win a debate. Nothing proves the need for intensifying the witch hunt more than the witches’ ability to evade capture.
When no one will defend or deny the existence of your strawman, it’s easy to win a debate.
Oh, and spare me Bill Buckley’s Boston-phonebook quip. It doesn’t do the work you think it does. Bill was among the most cultured men I’ve ever met. He spoke French, Spanish, and Latin. He played the harpsichord and could converse intelligently about art, music, and literature. He lamented the Catholic Church’s decision to abandon the Latin Mass in the name of appealing to the common man. His point about the Harvard faculty wasn’t an endorsement of populism — it was an indictment of a specific elite. He detested rabble rousers and carnival barkers every bit as much as he despised the hubris of progressive technocrats and social engineers. He understood that there were good elites and bad elites, good common people and bad. In this he was a true classical liberal: He took people as he found them. He loved to talk to people, all people, and he treated them with respect, which is the soul of good manners. He was comfortable in his own skin, which allowed him to recognize what was good and bad about both high culture and low. He owned yachts and called caviar “cav.” He also served peanut-butter crackers with bacon as an hors d’oeuvre (they were delicious).
In short, he was not simply a man of distinction. He was a man who made distinctions, which is the very definition of serious thinking.
Less is Moore
But serious thinking is a thing in short supply these days. When I called for conservatives to disassociate themselves from Judge Roy Moore, the response from so many Bannonistas was depressing in its vacuity. But he’s a True Conservative®! No, he’s not. But he loves the Constitution! No, he doesn’t. He’s a real Christian! Really? He’ll fight for the Trump agenda! He will? Trump supported his more conservative opponent, and Moore didn’t even know what DACA was and he opposed Obamacare repeal. And, of course, Shut up, you anti-Christian bigot!
All of this was hogwash then, and it’s hogwash now. What mattered is that people invested in Moore a meaning and symbolism he doesn’t deserve: He is one of us and he is against them. He’s not a person, he’s a talisman, a dashboard saint to a cause. I’m pretty sure Luther Strange is a conservative, a Christian, and a Constitutionalist. What he’s not is a thumb in the eye.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve written about the unfolding corruption of conservatism these last few years, but the events of the last 24 hours have shocked me about how deep the rot goes. Forget the people who refuse to even give the heavily sourced and corroborated Washington Post account a fair reading on the tired and predictable pretense that inconvenient facts are simply proof of the conspiracy against them. What galls and astounds me are the supposedly conservative public figures arguing that even if it’s true that Moore molested a 14-year-old girl, it doesn’t matter because, well, because the Bible said it was okay or Democrats are eeeeevil or it was a long time ago. At least Roy Moore admits that the allegation is serious and has denied it.
Bless my heart, I assumed that people who are so much more sanctimonious and preachy than I am would be able to draw a line at plying 14-year-old girls with booze and molesting them, particularly when the guy they’re defending won’t even defend the behavior himself. You’d think this would be the Colonel Nicholson moment where, like Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai, they would mutter to themselves, “My God, what have I done?” and collapse to the ground.
But no. They’d rather be more pro-kid-touching than the alleged kid-toucher himself.
This is the unavoidable consequence of a movement that is in the process of replacing conservative principles and arguments with the new lodestars of “fighting” and “winning.” Fighting and winning are amoral concepts, embraced equally by freedom fighters and totalitarians alike. Serious thinking begins with asking, “What are we fighting for?” “What are we trying to win?” But the distinctions don’t end there. “What are we willing to do for the sake of winning?” “What means will we tolerate to achieve our ends?”
But even raising such questions is the stuff of cucks and swamp-dwellers. We are becoming the Party of Wales, and the “butthurt” of those we hate is its own reward.
The premise Bannon and Co. are working on is in the great tradition of vital lies, like the Myth of the General Strike.
And, I should say, I would have more respect for this Nietzschean codswallop if I thought it would work. But the premise Bannon and Co. are working on is in the great tradition of vital lies, like the Myth of the General Strike. Yes, it helps organize your troops, but it also paves the way to defeat. I have no doubt that many of the people clinging to Moore are not only decent in their own lives but sincere in their belief that they are fighting a good fight. Colonel Nicholson was a good man, too. But he was enslaved by a rationalization that was not rational. Roy Moore is a poison pill for the Republican party. Even if you think he’s misunderstood, the cold, hard fact is that a large majority of Americans share that misunderstanding (which I think is actually the correct understanding of the man).
As I wrote last night, Moore is a negative ad made flesh. He’s an albatross — a “Jonah” as sailors might put it. If you really believe that winning, fighting, or fulfilling the “Trump agenda” are the most important things, you should throw him overboard and let him wander his southern Nineveh like a prophet. Sending him to Washington and embracing him as a representative of what the GOP stands for would be the greatest Hanukkah present you could give to Chuck Schumer.
The Selective Liberalism of ‘Liberalism’
One last thing on a slightly different subject. Last night, I tweeted that as the father of a 14-year-old girl, I was enraged by all the talk of Moore’s alleged behavior being no big deal.
I was inundated with virtue-signaling asininity from liberals boasting how they don’t need a 14-year-old daughter to be appalled. Others accused me of saying that I would be okay with Moore’s behavior if I didn’t have 14-year-old daughter.
Countless other blue-checkmark bandersnatches put the sophist in sophisticated by progsplaining to me that one shouldn’t need any particular attachment or allegiance to condemn such behavior. To which I say, borrowing from Sophocles, “No duh.” But the idea that having a daughter the same age that one of Moore’s accusers was at the time of the crime doesn’t give me access to some particular — not unique or monopolized, just particular — moral or emotional revulsion strikes me as plainly idiotic.
But it is fascinatingly hypocritical. The essence of today’s identity politics is that being a member of some category — black, white, female, cisgendered this or that — gives one particular insights into society and all of its structures of oppression. The same people who — I assume — have no problem with a Supreme Court justice saying that a “wise Latina” can come to better decisions than a run-of-the-mill Pale Penis Person suddenly want to tell me that having a 14-year-old daughter has no weight whatsoever in how I might respond to a lecherous 31-year-old plying a 14-year-old girl with booze and molesting her. I despise racism and identity politics, but I am capable of also understanding that a black person’s response to racism is more personal and less abstract than my own.
By all means, I think everyone should be appalled. But what I find fascinating is how the people making this argument in the wake of the wave of sexual-assault revelations are implicitly jettisoning their identity-politics dogma. I will gladly stop prefacing any statement with “As the father of a 14-year-old daughter . . . ” if everyone else will stop saying “As a gay man . . . ” or “As a woman . . . ” But I doubt anyone will take me up on it, because for a lot of people today, that’s the only kind of argument they know how to make.
Various & Sundry
The Commentary Roast was a grand time for everyone, except maybe me. As I explain on the latest episode of The Remnant podcast, I didn’t mind all of the vile lies and baseless insults. What I had a much harder time with were the compliments (flattery, even when sincere, feels like someone saying, “Nice doggy,” until they can find a rock). Still, I know I will look back on it as one of the great moments of both my professional and personal life. I care more about my friends than politics, but this reminded me how unbelievably lucky I am that my friendships and my politics live easily with each other. Thank you to everyone.
Speaking of The Remnant, this week’s guest was Ramesh Ponnuru, who was gracious enough to stop calculating Pi to the millionth place on short notice and fill-in. I was supposed to record it in NYC at NR’s new HQ, but Lowry was so late for the recording of The Editors (my first appearance) that there was no time to record an episode with him and Charlie Cooke. We’ll have to save my planned debate over nationalism and the drug war for another day. In this episode, I talk to Ramesh about tax reform, immigration, being microagressed by the Dalai Lama, and the role that spouses play in the life of a pundit. Also, afterwards, I went on a bit of a tear about neoconservatism and recapped the Roast a bit.
Canine Update: The fall weather is making Pippa crazy. I think I mentioned before that Pippa knows how to open the door to the backyard. It has a handle instead of a knob. What she does is just wig-out on her hind legs swatting at it like she’s in a Three Stooges slap fight until it opens. She lacks the grace of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, but she gets the job done.
Anyway, these days, any time I get out of a chair, she assumes it’s because I desperately want to spend the next hour throwing a tennis ball in the backyard. She starts barking and running for the door like John Belushi trying to get his Delta House brothers to run for the exit and take down Faber College. “Let’s do it!” Meanwhile ever-needy Zoë now thinks that throwing the tennis ball for Pippa is my way of playing favorites, so she is increasingly determined to play the Sheriff Clarke of the fun police. She keeps a close eye on Pippa at all times. But they’re both very happy beasts. As I might have mentioned last week, Zoë’s got a new boyfriend, Ben. The only downside of the weather is it’s getting too cold for outside baths.
And now, the weird stuff.