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 (Unless your first name is “Reader” and you’re a woman, in which case I apologize for my sexism),
Can government spend so much money on a white elephant, even Uncle Sam can’t lift it?
Why, yes, yes it can.
You see, the omnipotence paradox doesn’t really work on government. What’s the omnipotence paradox you ask? (“Seriously, no one asked” — The Couch). It’s the old conundrum that goes back at least to Averroës, the great Islamic philosopher and champion of Aristotle who, today, would surely be beheaded by ISIS either for his advancement of secular thought, or maybe just because he liked two sugars in his coffee. ISIS’s standards for beheading are pretty lax.
Basically the omnipotence paradox asks if an omnipotent being can put limits on Himself. The most famous version of this is “Can God create a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it?” Some people think, “Can Mitt Romney have a bad hair day on purpose?” is a variant of this, but they are wrong.
I’ve never liked this question for the simple reason that it tells us very little — if anything — about the nature of God and a good deal about the limits of logic and reason. A God that is the Master of the Universe — and I’m not talking about He-Man & Co. — isn’t going to be comprehensible in totality for beings limited to a three-, or four-, dimensional understanding of reality. It’s a fun verbal game, but utterly useless, not only because it is an abstraction but because of our limited ability to abstract things outside of our conceptual horizons.
Behold, the God That Writes Checks
But you can see how this way of thinking falls apart when you apply it to government. The State is a human institution, run by humans who are all too human. The problem is that many people want it to be more. Progressives used to be much more honest about their aspirations for the State. Richard Ely, the founder of the American Economic Association and the most important and influential of the “Wisconsin school” progressives, declared that “God works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution.” It “is religious in its essence,” and “a mighty force in furthering God’s kingdom and establishing righteous relations.” For Ely, redemption wasn’t an individual religious experience, but a collective one orchestrated by the state. (See Liberal Fascism or my magazine piece “Richard Ely’s Golden Calf” for more.)
Herbert Croly, the George Washington of American progressivism, was literally — and by “literally” I don’t mean “figuratively” the way Joe Biden means “literally” — baptized into the cult of the State. From Liberal Fascism:
Croly was a quiet man who’d grown up with noisy parents. His mother was one of America’s first female syndicated columnists and a dedicated “feminist.” His father was a successful journalist and editor whose friends dubbed him “The Great Suggester.” Their home was something of a “European island in New York,” according to one historian. The most interesting thing about the senior Croly — if by “interesting” you mean really loopy — was his obsession with Auguste Comte, a semimystical French philosopher whose biggest claim to fame was his coinage of the word “sociology.” Comte argued that humanity progressed in three stages and that in the final stage mankind would throw off Christianity and replace it with a new “religion of humanity,” which married religious fervor to science and reason — even to the extent of making “saints” out of such figures as Shakespeare, Dante, and Frederick the Great. Comte believed that the age of mass industrialization and technocracy would pluck the human mind from the metaphysical realm for good, ushering in an age where pragmatic managers would improve the plight of all based upon man-made morality. He anointed himself the high priest of this atheistic, secular faith, which he called positivism. The elder Croly made his Greenwich Village home into a positivist temple where he held religious ceremonies for select guests, whom he would try to convert. In 1869 young Herbert became the first and probably last American to be christened in Comte’s religion.
Longtime readers of this “news”letter might know that my favorite quote of any Progressive Era clergyman is from Walter Rauschenbusch. This famous man of God believed socialism was an idea whose time had come. “Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life,” he insisted. “Unless the ideal social order can supply men with food, warmth, and comfort more efficiently than our present economic order, back we shall go to capitalism. . . . The God that answereth by low food prices, let him be God.”
This isn’t an argument for God, but Baal. Whichever deity delivers the material stuff we want may be called “God,” but that doesn’t make Him God. If you think God ceases to be God if circumstances require “going back to capitalism,” then you don’t really believe in God.
Rauschenbusch popped into my head last week when I heard that Al Gore said he might become a Catholic because the Pope has taken Gore’s position on global warming. That’s better than Howard Dean, who left his Church over an argument about bike paths, but theologically, it’s not much more sophisticated. Let the God who answereth with carbon taxes (or bike paths) be God!
Born at the Wrong Time
Today, liberals talk around their ambitions for the State in the same way that very ambitious people rarely state their real agenda or the way that some salesmen hold off talking about the actual price until very late in the conversation. They adorn their rhetoric with technocratic verbiage and jargony economic buzzwords like “competitiveness,” because that is the language of the new clerisy.
None of this would be news to Eric Voegelin. “When God is invisible behind the world,” he wrote, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”
I would love it if one day it was revealed that the whole Journolist/Vox crowd were members of a secret religion, like the Osiris cultists in Young Sherlock Holmes. In the movie, the fanatics are all elite, foppish technocrats, financiers, and statesmen by day but behind closed doors they wear robes and sacrifice young girls to the Egyptian god of the afterlife. I’ve never bought the idea that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, but I could totally see him being a secret member of Comte’s Religion of Humanity.
Among the reasons the elite Left will never talk about its real agenda, alas, is that it would require a level of self-awareness today’s liberals are incapable of. My friend, the brilliant teacher Peter Schramm, once wrote a beautiful essay about his father and their emigration from Hungary to America. He writes:
My mother tells me, though I don’t remember saying this, that I told my father I would follow him to hell if he asked it of me. Fortunately for my eager spirit, hell was exactly what we were trying to escape and the opposite of what my father sought.
“But where are we going?” I asked.
“We are going to America,” my father said.
“Why America?” I prodded.
“Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place,” he replied.
Today’s liberals were born progressives, but in the wrong time. We live in a secular age, where technical language and scientific concepts have invaded the space traditionally reserved for religion. It’s not that science no longer exists, it’s that people have put it on pedestal claiming it is something it isn’t. One need only follow the vapid Twitter fatwas of people like Neil de Grasse Tyson to see what I mean.
If you pay attention, today’s liberals talk around their faith in a way that discloses its location in their internal cosmography. It’s sort of like the way scientists figure out where black holes are by studying how other objects move around them. You can’t see the black hole because, well, it’s a black hole. But you can tell it’s there by how all sorts of things get sucked into its maw. Similarly, you can see how the trajectory of liberal rhetoric and ideas are bent toward this unspoken, unacknowledged, un-fillable void at the center of their universes. (It can’t be filled, because utopias cannot exist in this life, no matter how much money we spend on them.)
As Kevin Williamson recently wrote, Paul Krugman talks as if he has oracular knowledge of the “science” of economics, and yet he lets slip the fact that “conscience” — not facts — is his lodestar. “There are some very hot disagreements in the sciences, such as the dispute over the question of measurement in quantum mechanics,” Kevin writes. “However that gets sorted out, it seems likely that conscience will play at most a minor role in it.”
I for one have spent precious few sleepless nights agonizing about whether to view quarks as particles or waves but, hey, that’s just me.
Hillary Clinton has argued that the government must work to redefine what it means to be a human being. Barack Obama has proclaimed we can create a Kingdom of Heaven here on earth (once the rallying cry of progressives like Ely). He defined sin as being out of alignment with his values.
As I’ve written many times, this phenomenon is most obvious in the realm of environmentalism, where some acolytes are occasionally willing to testify to their faith. Prominent environmental lawyer Joseph Sax describes environmentalists as “secular prophets, preaching a message of secular salvation.”
In 2008, Al Gore was on NPR. He mocked — rightly — Joseph Hagee’s claim that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for New Orleans’s sexual depravity. But then, almost in the same breath, he cast Katrina as Gaia’s punishment for our environmental depravity. It’s the same theodical impulse under a different flag.
God’s Passenger Rail
What got me going on all this was a nice piece by the great Mollie Hemingway on the Amtrak crash. She writes:
The theodicy of federal government requires an explanation that defends the goodness of government control or subsidies into the given sphere. So just as some religious groups might blame a weather event on insufficient fealty to the relevant god, some progressives blame — before the National Transportation Safety Board has even shown up on site to investigate the cause of a crash — insufficient fealty, sacrifice and offerings to the relevant god of federal government.
Yes, it’s annoying how some progressives politicize everything. But if it’s understood as a sort of primitive religious reaction to confusion about holy government’s many failures, it at least helps explain why they do it.
Republicans Are Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
From the moment I saw the craven response to the calamity on Morning Joe, I was furious about the way the disaster was instantaneously exploited without the benefit of relevant facts about the crash or knowledge about the issues. (Here’s my early-morning rant about it in the Corner. And here’s my afternoon rant on Neil Cavuto’s show.) If I was at all unfair to the Morning Joe crew, it was to the extent I singled them out. It turns out that they were simply moving with the Beltway herd. I listened to a Diane Rehm Show discussion about the crash and it was arguably even worse. But at least they had the saving grace of having Representative Andy Harris (R., Md.) on to throw cold water on the bonfire of indignation that we don’t have high-speed rail and “Positive Train Control” — a technology almost none of the indignant liberals had heard of five minutes before the crash.
About 20 minutes into the show, guest host Frank Sesno — a normally sensible guy, I think — had to bring up the other side of the argument. Here’s how he tried to ask Ed Rendell (D., Porkbarreltopia) about the charge that Amtrak is poorly run and wastes lots of money.
Governor Rendell, let me ask you this question, and I’m going to bring in, in a moment, Congressman Andy Harris, who is a Republican, who voted against this appropriations measure yesterday. But before I do, there are those who say, with some justification — and let me point out, by the way, that I was on Amtrak the day before this accident took place, going up to New York, getting jostled and bounced around as you do when you take one of these trains because the tracks are not in great shape, not going at the speeds that we should be going if we had a proper high-speed rail system in this country, as virtually every other industrialized country has.
It is an embarrassment, okay. And then when something like this happens, it is a tragic reminder, whether it’s human error or whatever, of where we are in our train travel and what that says about our larger infrastructure. But there are those in the Congress, Governor Rendell, as you well know, who says wait a minute, Amtrak is poorly run, poorly managed, and the investments and the billions that we’ve put in in the past have been poorly spent. What do you say to taxpayers and to that?
Words on a page can’t quite capture Sesno’s angst over having to suggest that Amtrak is a s*** show. He first had to get it in how embarrassed he is by our rail system. He asserts that “virtually every other industrialized country” has high-speed rail, which is both (a) untrue and (b) irrelevant.
Meanwhile, Rendell swats away this unraveled softball by saying, “Well, first of all, I’m not sure that’s true, but if it is true, the congressional oversight has been lacking, severely lacking.” You know what you call a national spokesman on boosting infrastructure — who considers himself an expert on the issue — who says he’s not sure it’s true that Amtrak is poorly run? Well, you have three choices: A liar, a fool, or both. (See Ian’s piece for edification on this point.)
What rankles about this liberal bout of St. Vitus Dance over the “underfunding” of Amtrak is, well, everything. It’s almost like they were waiting for it, with their charts and talking points and pre-booked talking heads; as if a super-villain had sabotaged the train only when he already had everything else in place. If this had been a terrorist attack and the “neocons” responded with such coordinated alacrity, we’d be reading about “inside job” and “false flag” conspiracy theories for years. Obviously I don’t think it was a conspiracy, it was almost certainly human error — a fact that serves as only the shallowest of speed bumps in the rush to open the fiscal granaries and let the money pour forth. “Let the God who answereth with high-speed rail be God.”
Various & Sundry
This was a crazy busy week. Two highlights were events I hosted at AEI.
On Monday, we had a panel for The Dadly Virtues. It was a rollicking good time. Steve Hayes, James Lileks, P. J. O’rourke, Jonathan Last, Tucker Carlson, and yours truly — under the expert moderating of Rob Long — revealed our greatest failures as fathers. Well, we almost all did. Like James Kirk with the Kobiashi Maru scenario, Tucker rejected the premise, arguing that he was utterly blameless as a father. It was a hard group to steal the show from, but Tucker managed to. You can watch it all here.
Still the highlight came after a boozy dinner with those guys — plus Chris Caldwell, Matt Continetti, Matt Labash, and Christine Rosen — when a few of us repaired to the offices of The Weekly Standard and drank bourbon while talking about our favorite funny authors, the beatniks, and life (rumors that I rummaged through Bill Kristol’s desk are unfounded). Listening to P. J. talk about his days with Hunter S. Thompson was a really bucket-list opportunity.
Zoë Update: Her progress continues apace. On our predawn peregrination she dug up a mole (I think) and dropped it and abandoned it when I ordered her to. You could call me the Dingo whisperer, though I must confess I did a lot of shouting.
My column from yesterday is on how Obama has always behaved boorishly, but the Democrats are only noticing now. Oddly, they aren’t being called racist for pointing it out.
I was actually going to write this “news”letter on a similar angle on this point, keyed to Obama’s behavior at the poverty summit this week at Georgetown. But I got waylaid by Amtrakgotterdamerung. Suffice it to say he reached new lows in bad faith. Meanwhile, I think Arthur Brooks got under his skin simply by pointing it out. More anon.
The British Is Coming! Charlie Cooke is heading to Raleigh to rally the people.
Harvey Mansfield explains Straussianism (or explains what he wants you to think that Straussianism is!)
Disturbing evidence girls are evil