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 (Especially the RedState Diaspora),
One of my great peeves is people who perform magic tricks on dogs. The beasts don’t think, “Wow! How did he do that?” They think, “Nummy treat vanish! Why? I was good.” But we can talk about that another time.
Another, lesser peeve is the term “science fiction.” The term makes it sound like the emphasis is on science — the gadgets, technology, etc. And there’s obviously some truth to that. For a long time, the preferred term was “scientific romance” — but I don’t think that’s much better, even though it made more sense at the time. The genre we call “science fiction” began, by most accounts, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Science was still this relatively new and bewildering thing, which had only recently — and still only partially — split off from magic in the Western mind.
If you’ve read my new book (or to be fair, many other books, beginning with Shelley’s), you know that the full original title was “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” When it was written, electricity was seen as an almost mystically world-changing phenomenon (which is why Kant coined the phrase “Modern Prometheus” to describe Benjamin Franklin after news of his experiments with electricity reached the Old World).
Today, if you read Frankenstein the book — or even if you watch the countless movie versions of it — the least interesting thing about the story is the technological stuff (indeed, many have come to believe that the monster of the story is the creature, not the human who created it). I read somewhere that the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation would simply insert something like “science babble TK” in the parts of the script that needed some filler about warp coils or quantum states. Some science geek would drop that stuff in later.
That’s as it should be (TV shows such as The Expanse perhaps notwithstanding). I like lasers and light-speed ships and all that stuff as much as the next guy, particularly if the next guy is pretty nerdy. But, ultimately, what makes most science fiction great is how un-futuristic or anti-futuristic it is. That’s because, while technologies advance and science explains more and more about the universe, the one constant is human nature.
The same holds true for literature that goes back in time or to alternative worlds. Part of the appeal of Game of Thrones is, of course, the dragons, the violence, the gratuitous sex, etc. But the part that makes it accessible and gripping for us is the humanity and the way the different settings expose the eternal constant of human nature (or one facet of it).
The Great Divide
There is something profoundly conservative about this, though not in any neatly partisan sense. One of the great intellectual and philosophical divides — a chasm really — is between those who believe in the “perfectibility of man” and those who side with Kant’s observation that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” The perfectibility of man comes with a lot of associated intellectual baggage. It tends to rely on the idea that we are “blank slates.” How could it be otherwise? If we come preloaded with software that cannot be erased, we cannot be perfected. Rousseau, one of the great advocates of the perfectibility of man, got around this by arguing that, in our natural state, we were perfect: “noble savages,” as John Dryden put it. According to this theory, what makes us sinful isn’t our nature but the oppressiveness of our civilization. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” is the way that Rousseau put it, arguing that civilization was unnatural and soul-warping.
But, since we couldn’t go back to our blissful state of nature, the only choice was to go forward and create a new perfect society — an idea that is only possible if you believe that the crooked timber of the people can be shaped.
The Founders rejected this view, believing that human nature is a constant, like a river. It can be shaped and, more often, channeled — but it cannot be erased. It’s better, therefore, to create systems that check our worst instincts and encourage our best ones.
I’ve come to think that these sorts of ideas are preloaded into us as well. Indeed, they are two sides of the human heart, even if one side or the other is dominant in most people. Today, we tend to argue that secular or progressive people are intellectually descended from one lineage and that religious or conservative people are descended from another. We play connect-the-dots from Locke or Rousseau straight through the present day and chalk it all up to the powerful consequences of ideas. I have no doubt that there is much truth to this. But I also think humans have a natural tendency to veer into one kind of thinking or another. In Medieval Europe, virtually everyone — minus the ghettoed Jews — was a Christian. And yet these divides manifested themselves quite often even then. Gnosticism often took the form — a decidedly theological form — of a belief in the perfectibility of man. The fights between some kinds of Protestantism and the worldly practices of Catholicism had similar echoes.
When God was dethroned by many intellectuals, the language changed but the impulses endured.
I’m not going to get into the weeds on all of that; I just bring it up to make the point that these ideas — orientations really — can manifest themselves in societies where the secular–religious and liberal–conservative prisms have little to no explanatory power. When the primary language of humanity was religious, these ideas were expressed theologically. The perfectibility of man or society was still there, but we talked about the perfectibility of the soul and the ability to create a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
When God was dethroned by many intellectuals, the language changed but the impulses endured. The Jacobins threw away the wrapper of religion and picked up the concept of the Nation, but the underlying passion remained. The Bolsheviks, at least at first, threw away religion and nation, but they still claimed they were ushering in a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. The American Progressives went a different way: They kept much of the religion, but they bent it to the new social sciences, insisting that Jesus was the first socialist or the first eugenicist.
The Immortal on Our Shoulders
There’s a stock character in a lot of science fiction and fantasy: the immortal. There are lots of different versions, but one of my favorite types is the man who witnesses the ages of man go by and feels like he has seen it all before. Things change around him, but the people really don’t (it’s this spirit that makes Albert Jay Nock’s writing so compelling).
Increasingly, that’s how I view many of the ideas we ascribe to this or that thinker: incorporeal immortals that manifest themselves in different people at different times. They take on the fashions of the age, but underneath the costumes and the jargon, it’s the same old ideas manifesting themselves in novel forms. The actual humans making these arguments often insist that “this time is different” or “my idea really is brand new.” But if you look long and hard enough, you can see the immortal grinning behind the mask.
In politics, at least in the West, among the most persistent and dedicated of the immortals is the one who says this life is unnatural and alienating. What we must do is abandon our selfish individual pursuits and all join together. That immortal is the strongest, or at least the loudest, in the West because the West came up with a new idea: that we all have the right to pursue happiness — not attain it, but pursue it — and that therefore we have a right to be wrong, at least in another person’s eyes.
That is not how we evolved. It is not what our brains were wired for. And that is why the immortal on our shoulders is constantly coming up with “new” arguments for the old idea that we must retreat to the tribe and embrace that sense of belonging we get from the group, where all meaning is bound together. The group is our religion and our family and our politics and our entertainment. The details and rationales change with the times, as do the supposedly sacred units — nationalism, the moral equivalent of war, racism, socialism, Communism — but the underlying idea is always the same. And it will be forever thus. Because human nature doesn’t change.
Various & Sundry
My apologies for the extra thumb-sucky “news”letter. It was so thumb-sucky that I’m not sure I can get into my iPhone now without manually entering the code, as I think I sucked my thumbprint right off. But, as you may have heard, I’m in book-tour mode, which puts me in a double-bind. First, all I do is spend my day talking about the book to whomever will listen — even the dogs are bored — but I also have very little time to follow the news. Even today’s sci-fi angle stemmed from the fact that it was all I could come up with for my column yesterday. I promise that it won’t last forever and that this “news”letter will get back to the inane jocularity soon enough.
Still, I do want to say how grateful I am to everyone who’s bought the book. As a business proposition, I rationalize a lot of what I do — this free “news”letter, the free podcast, the oxen sacrifice — on the leap of faith that it will help when I come out with a book (although I can’t imagine writing another one for a while). So I’m deeply grateful for the support, particularly given how much of me went into this one.
Canine Update: I haven’t seen my beasts much this week. I was in NYC for most of it (but I did give them extra attention before I left). But it was good to come home to my girls, biped and quadruped alike. The biggest and saddest news is that Zoë won’t be seeing her boyfriend Ben anymore. For complicated reasons, he will no longer be part of the midday pack anymore. We haven’t told Zoë yet.
ICYMI . . .
There’s no point in me apologizing for the self-promotion stuff at this point, but I am particularly jazzed and proud about Yuval Levin’s review of Suicide of the West in the latest issue of National Review. Money line: “More than any book published so far in this century, it deserves to be called a conservative classic.”
And now, the weird stuff.