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 all of you having a constitutional crisis),
A hundred years ago, if you wanted to tell a lot of people across the United States that the people of North Dakota had secretly been replaced by enormous bipedal otters in human skin suits, it would have been extremely difficult to pull it off. There were probably a dozen, maybe two dozen, people who could possibly afford to buy ads in newspapers in every state and town to warn everyone that “North Dakota is only the beginning!” and “The Otter people are coming for you!”
There were probably another dozen people sufficiently famous or important that if they held a press conference in New York unveiling the terrible news that there was an Otter Man Empire rising up from within, the press could be relied upon to get the news out fairly quickly.
Of course, most of the coverage would be along the lines of:
Talk of Impeachment Roils Washington as President Harding Has Breakdown
Sees ‘Mammalian Conspiracy in Dakotas’
Not since former president Wilson’s stroke has official Washington been more concerned about the mental capacity of the commander in chief. At his hastily called press conference on Monday, the president warned of a “weasel menace” and “otter occupation.” “They will take the food off your table and eat it on their soft bellies while swimming in our lakes and rivers,” the president said as aides endeavored to remove him from the rostrum. “They’re here! They’re living amongst us already with their wee beady eyes!”
But at least the story would get out.
Things changed with the radio. (Fun fact: 1920 was the last year when the cutting-edge communications technology for political campaigns was recorded speeches on records you played on the gramophone.) By the 1930s, the number of people capable of warning large numbers of people across the country of the unfolding Ottergeddon probably increased to the low hundreds. Of course, it would still take work. Radio was mostly a regional communications technology where “national” shows were relayed over networks and the like.
More to the point, if a radio host tried to get the truth out, the company he worked for would probably fire him or turn off his microphone before he could rally the militias under the banner of “Hell is Otter People.”
TV expanded the number of people who could technically get away with something like this, but the institutions that owned and regulated broadcast television served as a pretty reliable check on some Howard Beale–type character telling people to go to their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take these otters anymore!” The rise of cable expanded opportunities even more. But you get the point.
But just in case you don’t, let me make it explicit: Since the dawn of mass communication until very recently, there were strong laws, norms, customs, and institutions that served as a check on the ability to be wildly irresponsible or outright deceitful when “informing” the public. None of this is to say that newspapers didn’t print a lot of garbage or that enterprising people didn’t have success sneaking past gatekeepers with graffiti, pamphlets, newsletters, faxes, videotapes, or DVDs. But such efforts remained difficult and largely confined to the periphery.
All of that is gone now. There are now thousands, even tens of thousands, of one-man–band media operations that use big platforms to belch whatever they want out their nether regions. And that doesn’t even capture the multiplier effects from retweets and other forms of signal-boosting from allied accounts and platforms. Just the other day, the president of the United States retweeted people who in a bygone era a president would never want to be associated with.
The Price of Wealth
But before we get into all of that, it’s worth highlighting something the folks shrieking about censorship and free speech tend to overlook. I’m one of those folks like Steven Pinker, Marian Tupy, Ronald Bailey, Russell Roberts, Donald Boudreaux, Matt Ridley, and other misery-deniers who feels compelled to point out how much better we have it than people in the past. By many metrics, the average middle-class person today is richer than the average billionaire a hundred years ago. Of course, your choices in real estate would be much greater as a fat cat in 1920, but your choices in cuisine, air-conditioning, transportation, medicine, communication, etc. would be far worse or simply non-existent.
Kevin Williamson points out a scene in The Count of Monte Cristo in which the count hosts a dinner at which he serves a staggering variety of fish to his guests. How many kinds of fish in this lavish repast? Two. The count describes this largess as a “millionaire’s whim.”
The point here is that in terms of the ability to communicate — both to friends and family and the broader public — we’re unimaginably wealthier today. Wealth isn’t simply about money, it’s about the ability to do things. Financial wealth manifests itself in the expanded number of choices you have to do and have stuff. The mid-market cars of today have features that were reserved for the wealthy two decades ago and that were reserved for science fiction a hundred years ago.
The reason this is important to keep in mind is that so much of the talk about “de-platforming” has individual people borrowing arguments that once applied in practical terms to a relative handful of institutions — newspapers, TV stations, etc. — and adapting them to pretty much everyone with a Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube account. I’m not saying that’s wrong. I have long argued that the First Amendment isn’t a special right for journalists and media companies. We all have the right to commit journalism.
But just imagine how weird this debate would have seemed just 30 years ago. If a newspaper dropped a popular columnist because he started writing bigoted garbage, would so many conservatives call for the government to intervene? A few folks on the right complained when Bill Buckley rightly fired Joseph Sobran for indulging his metastasizing obsessions with the Jooooz. But I don’t think anyone called for the federal government to force his reinstatement.
I get that the current — and I would bet temporary — dominance of a few Big Tech firms makes this situation categorically different, but that insight cuts both ways. We’ve never been in this kind of situation before, and that should cause thoughtful people to have a little humility before setting their hair on fire about the obvious injustice of denying, say, Laura Loomer the “right” to spread bigoted lies and conspiracy theories about staged mass shootings on a privately owned platform. And I think it’s deeply revealing that so many people can muster blind rage for the “silencing” of people like Loomer and Milo what’s-his-name but can’t rouse themselves to criticize any of the stuff these people did or said that got them in hot water in the first place. Most of the same people wrapping themselves in the First Amendment for Milo cheer every time the president talks about opening up the libel laws and taking away broadcast licenses. So forgive me for not seeing them as champions of principle here.
I have my problems with various Big Tech platforms. For instance, I’m open to various regulatory reforms such as making it easier to depart Facebook and take your data with you. I’m more sympathetic to stuff like the “right to be forgotten” than I used to be. But stuff like this?
Wave 1: Jones, Loomer, Milo, Watson, Robinson.
2: Posobiec, Kassam, Cernovich, Chamberlain, Draino, Fleccas.
3: Carlson, Hannity, Ingraham, Levin, Shapiro, Beck.
4: McConnell, McCarthy, Paul, Don Jr.
This is Big Tech’s plan to kill conservatism of all stripes.
— Raheem Kassam (@RaheemKassam) May 4, 2019
And even if this were true. Even if the heads of all these outfits were secretly meeting in the bowels of their volcano headquarters to plot how to kill “conservatism of all stripes” — right before they ban the semicolon and right after they give Steve Gutenberg’s career a boost — the notion they could succeed is sophomoric nonsense betraying a wildly perverted understanding of what conservatism is. (Hint: It’s not the unadorned right to use someone else’s platform to monetize owning the libs.)
Indeed, I sometimes suspect that the paranoia overtaking parts of the right and so-called right these days stems from a sneaking terror that certain business models aren’t sustainable anymore.
Still, the hilarious thing about the calls from the right for the government to step in is that they think that will solve the problem. Yes, by all means, let’s give government bureaucrats the power to determine what speech should be permitted, they’ll always give conservatives the benefit of the doubt. You’d think the fact that Mark Zuckerberg wants the federal government to take over the task of policing harmful content on its site would give these people pause. There’s a long history of corporate behemoths wanting the government to regulate them because it not only takes risks and costs off its balance sheets but also makes them too big to fail.
Again, times are different today. But perhaps they are not as different as the people who believe they have an unalienable right to have their jackassery boosted over someone else’s microphone think. Back before the Internet, writers and other public figures understood that certain obligations came with both the right and the privilege to use someone else’s newsprint or TV cameras. Don’t lie. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t encourage bigotry and thuggery. These rules weren’t just professional codes of conduct, they were cultural codes of conduct — codes at the heart of the best forms of small-c conservatism. Violating these codes had consequences not just professionally but socially. But now we live in a time when any consequences for our own asininity are definitionally unjust. I fail to see how that’s a trend conservatives should celebrate, never mind fuel.
Who’s a Right-Winger?
Last week I wrote that I wanted to talk about the brouhaha over Louis Farrakhan being lumped into the “right-winger” category in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Politico, and elsewhere. A lot of conservatives took great umbrage over the designation, and they certainly have a very good point. Left-wing activists routinely praise or refuse to repudiate the deranged dapper bigot. Not long ago, Bill Clinton shared a stage with him. Meanwhile conservatives have denounced Farrakhan for decades. But whenever Farrakhan prattles on about the perfidious and satanic bagel mongers and conservatives call on liberals to repudiate him the way liberals are constantly calling on conservatives to repudiate David Duke, the media reverts to the “Republicans pounce” formulation.
Even if I were inclined to, I wouldn’t defend these outlets, because they are clearly guilty either of laziness or the well-known habit of believing that bad equals right-wing.
But some of the defenders of calling Farrakhan right-wing have a point. This can get a bit confusing and weedy so if you’re not interested in conservative taxonomy, feel free to skip ahead to the canine update.
“Before the Reformation,” wrote Lord Hugh Cecil, “it is impossible to distinguish conservatism in politics, not because there was none, but because there was nothing else.”
Skipping ahead, after the Reformation, we got the Enlightenment.
Friedrich Hayek, in his famous and famously abused, essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” writes:
Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character.
What we often call “classical liberalism” was originally a left-wing phenomenon — to the extent the “left” and “right” labels had any meaning outside 18th-century France. It stood opposed to the closed systems of throne, altar, and guild.
The liberals — before some of them carried their ideas to a tragic excess that transformed them from liberals into radicals — championed reason, individualism, free minds, free trade, and democracy or republicanism.
To varying degrees, and with more than a few setbacks, the liberals eventually won the argument in France but more decisively in England, the Netherlands, and Scotland. Their greatest triumph, as Hayek notes, was in America, the first nation to be founded from scratch on (heavily English-influenced) liberal ideas and ideals. Then socialism emerged, and suddenly the liberals were cast into the role of right-wingers of a sort because they were now the defenders of an existing order rather than rebels against the old one. The liberalism that both Marx and Mussolini railed against was the “Manchester liberalism” of free trade and free markets.
But back when they were still the rebels, the “right” of the “counter-enlightenment” repudiated the universalism of the early philosophes and their peers across the channel. Joseph de Maistre, a brilliant ultramontane monarchist conservative of the old type, grounded his opposition to the Enlightenment not just in religious orthodoxy and tradition but in what we would today call “identity.” “Now, there is no such thing as ‘man’ in this world. In my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on. I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare I’ve never encountered him.”
Other conservative opponents of liberalism argued that class and aristocracy were part of the natural order. People were born into a certain station in life, and each station came with a different menu of rights, responsibilities, and privileges. (With the rise of “scientific racism” — an unfortunate offshoot of the Enlightenment — these atavistic arguments were retrofitted in the name of “race science”).
Such arguments have an ancient conservative pedigree, more ancient than anything found in American-style conservatism, which is at least partly rooted in an adherence to the Founders’ animosity for titles of nobility and monarchy.
Confusing things even more was the rise of nationalism, national-socialism, and Nazism. For Communists, the operating rule was that they had a monopoly on what counted as the left. Hence socialist and nationalist movements not loyal to Moscow were dubbed “right-wing” or, at first, “right-wing socialism,” according to Stalin’s “Theory of Social Fascism.” Through the magic of Marxism, classical liberals, Manchester liberals, Monarchists, traditionalists, anti-Communist progressives, and socialists (including John Dewey, Norman Thomas, and FDR), and anyone else to the “right” of Communist fellow travelers and useful idiots were dubbed “right-wing” or “fascist.” A similar but mostly unrelated phenomenon occurred domestically in the U.S. In the 1930s, all opponents of Roosevelt were labeled “right-wing” even if the criticisms came from labor unions, free marketers, or syndicalists like Father Coughlin.
This classification system eventually broke down a good deal after World War II, but there are vestigial bits and pieces all over the place. For decades, American progressives have wanted to see in their domestic conservative opponents aspects of “right-wingness” borrowed from these old classifications. Capitalism, which depends on classically liberal notions (and a force for the liberation of women and minorities), is still “right-wing,” we’re told, because it’s a tool of the white man to keep rich white men rich and everyone else poor.
Another confusing variable is that as the Left embraced identity politics and popular-front thinking, opponents of “the system” were operationally part of the Left if they were “oppressed” in some way. This is why knobs like Jeremy Corbyn see no contradiction between their socialism and their support for Islamic terrorists, various Communist insurrections, and other supposed freedom fighters against the hegemonic power of America, the capitalists, or the Jews (though that’s all redundant in Corbynist eyes). Tribal loyalties of “outgroups” trump ideological commitments almost every time. Tell me who your enemies are, and I’ll tell you who you are.
Enter Louis Farrakhan. The Nation of Islam — which isn’t really Muslim — is a bizarre ethno-nationalist cult. Like neo-Nazis and alt-righters, they see the world as divided between good races and evil ones (“6,600 years ago” an evil scientist named Yakub invented evil white people in a lab, according to the NOI. Among the problems with this theory: The number of years since this horrible crime has never changed in nearly a century of Nation of Islam teaching). If Farrakhan’s goofball, Otter-insurrection level stupid theories of black racial supremacy were trotted out by white people for white people, today’s progressives would have no problem denouncing him in heartbeat. The Nation of Islam under Malcolm X ridiculed the essentially classical-liberal arguments of Martin Luther King Jr. Heck, the Nation of Islam tried to form an alliance with the American Nazi Party in the 1960s because they had so much in common.
What makes everything such a hot mess now is the emergence of the alt-right from the swamps it has lurked in for decades. Thanks to the signal-boosting of social media and a mainstream media eager to give them greater prominence, as well as boneheaded right-wing defenders suffering from their own tribal popular-frontism, we now have a visible faction of so-called conservatives who subscribe to views that would be perfectly welcome within the Linda Sarsour coalition if they came out of the mouths of racial-minority crackpots like Farrakhan.
So in a sense, I have no problem with calling Farrakhan a right-winger so long as the person doing it actually applies such distinctions rigorously. Of course, that’s not what is happening. If classical liberalism and traditionalism in the Anglo-American tradition are right-wing, then Farrakhan is not a right-winger. If racial essentialism and hatred for classical liberalism and Anglo-American traditionalism are right-wing, then I’m not a right-winger and neither are most American conservatives.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: Zoë’s been a little under the weather lately, and we’re not sure why. We think she might have hay fever or something like it. She occasionally makes these weird wheezing noises that are bit disconcerting and she’s been a bit Jeb-like in her energy levels. We’re keeping a close eye on it. Pippa also seems to be getting a bit stiffer after big workouts, so we have to moderate a bit more than she’d like when in the heat of things (not that kind of heat). But both of them are still having a lovely spring. But with spring hijinks comes heightened expectations. They want to be outside constantly and do not have a full appreciation that I have other demands on my time. I am heartened that some people are rising up to demand more time for Zoë in my Twitter feed. Even Zoë seems to realize the mismatch. The thing is, Zoë has not only mellowed, she really is hard to manage for video purposes. When all a dog wants to do is play ball and play in mud or water and ideally do all three, it’s pretty easy to get good video. Meanwhile when Zoë only wants to sniff, chew flowers and grass, hunt varmints or rough house with someone her own size, quality footage is elusive unless you luck into it. But she did get to play with Sammie this week. And they both have plenty of energy for the truly important stuff.
Last week’s G-File
And now, the weird stuff.
Debby’s Wednesday links