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 the Amy Klobuchar intern kept in a crate in the back office),
One of my favorite Twitter accounts is the official Twitter feed of the Socialist party of Great Britain. Folks often criticize me for engaging with it because it is so irrelevant, even in socialist circles. That in itself is a kind of accomplishment. It’s like the guy who attends Civil War reenactment-society meetings, but dresses in full Klingon battle regalia and screams at everyone that no one knows how to fight Romulans. “You call yourselves warriors, but none of you even knows how to swing a Bat’leth!”
Virtually every time anyone says anything critical of Maduro’s — or Stalin’s — socialism, the SPGB Twitter feed leaps into action, raining “ACKSHULLYS” down like a UFC fighter beating on a 98-pound mugger. “Actually” real socialism is collective ownership of the means of production! Real socialism has never been tried! Soviet Communism was “state capitalism!” You can almost smell the old socks and stale urine wafting up from the guy tweeting from some public-library computer, his overstuffed shopping cart full of dog-eared copies of Das Kapital and back issues of Juggs close by his side.
But that’s kinda what I like about the SPGB. At least they take their ideas seriously. They’ve constructed a wholly hypothetical alternative world that is simultaneously as plausible and impossible as Middle Earth or Westeros or a great meal at a Wolfgang Puck Express at the Newark airport. It sounds like it could be real, and it’s kind of fun to think about, but it’s not actually reality. It’s like they think they can pluck the Platonic ideal of a hamburger out of the ether and use it as a rhetorical cudgel to say a Five Guys burger “isn’t a real hamburger! Real hamburgers have never been tried!” Even the Wikipedia entry on the SPGB says: “The party’s political position has been described as a form of impossibilism.”
Impossibilists of the World Unite!
I don’t think anyone will be shocked to know that I’ve won several chicken-eating contests, but that’s not important right now. It also shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that I’m no expert on Carl Jung, rumors of my ass-tattoo notwithstanding. But I do find some of his ideas interesting, and not just his stuff on the designated hitter rule. I think there’s something to the idea of the collective unconscious. Certain ideas or concepts — archetypes according Jung — pop up in every culture.
I once listened to a great episode of Radio Lab in which they talked about a fossilized skull of a young human that had been grabbed by a giant bird and carried off (they could tell from the talon marks inside its eye sockets. Let that image sink in). In our prehistoric past, there were birds that preyed on us, and that’s why, they speculated, we get even to this day that creepy fight-or-flight feeling when a shadow passes over our heads. We’ve got some “Oh crap, run!” programming in us left over from when a shadow from above terrifying. According to Jung, people all around the world have snake dreams even though they may never have seen a snake or Michael Cohen.
This is how I mostly think about socialism now (as I recently discussed on the Tikvah podcast). At its core, it’s not an idea or even a program: It’s a feeling. The world of liberal democratic capitalism is unnatural. “Unique among species,” Robin Fox writes in The Tribal Imagination, “we created the novel environment, and the supernovel environment that followed on the Miracle, by ourselves and for ourselves.” But just because our environment is new, our programming is still very old. A pampered dog that has never known life outside a big city probably still dreams of running through the woods in a pack, and somewhere deep inside of us we dream of living in a tightknit community, a tribe or band, where we share all of our possessions and are “all in it together.”
Indeed, Marx’s vision of the glorious end of history tracked nicely with various romantic fantasies of what man’s life in a state of nature was really like. Of course, these fantasies bore little resemblance to the real world of our ancient past where giant fricking birds could pluck us from the savannahs and feed us, piecemeal, to giant baby birds.
Capitalism In the Side Pocket
I was eight when I first saw the George Burns movie Oh, God, but one line always stuck with me. God/Burns is explaining some of his big mistakes. “Ostriches were a mistake. Silly looking things. Avocados . . . Made the pit too big.” But he also said, “The reason I put everyone here naked . . . I wasn’t trying to be cute. It’s just that with clothes there’s right away pockets, and pockets, you gotta put something in ‘em.”
There’s a point there. Private property is divisive. It arouses envy, and envy is a hugely powerful emotion, a driver of all manner of political evils. But in a state of nature, it’s a tool of social cohesion, just like altruism and shame. Envy is one of the emotions that leads to sharing, because it causes the group to demand the haves to share with the have-nots.
The thing is, where humans are nomadic, it’s hard to accumulate too much private property when you can only keep what you can carry.
Now we can have a lot of property, but we also have a lot of baggage in the form of an inarticulate yearning to restore an imagined past. It’s an instinct for solidarity that manifests itself in different forms in different ages, grafting itself to different priestly or technocratic lingo. But you can incant all the Marxist verbiage you like, it doesn’t make the underlying idea more modern.
In Ghostbusters, when the very Jungian Gozer the Gozerian says: “Choose the form of your destructor,” the team tries to keep their minds blank. But Ray couldn’t help himself. “I couldn’t help it. It just popped in there.” And that’s all it took for a Godzilla-sized Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man to materialize.
“I tried to think of the most harmless thing,” Ray says. “Something I loved from my childhood, something that could never, ever possibly destroy us: Mr. Stay-Puft.”
Socialism works in a similar way. Whether it’s the Socialist Party of Great Britain or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the millions of young people who think they’re socialists, they think socialism is a good thing that can do no wrong, and if it does wrong it must be because it’s not really socialism. I understand why conservatives think socialism is evil — because there are so many examples of socialism being evil. But most socialists don’t think they’re evil — nor is it their greatest dream to steal our hamburgers: Socialism is just their word for fixing what’s wrong with the world. The problem is that when you give yourself over to a single idea of how things should be, you check yourself into what Chesterton called “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea” and you become “sharpened to one painful point.” You are bereft of the “healthy hesitation and healthy complexity” that lets you grasp the world as it is and understand the crooked timber of human nature.
In the fantasy world of the SPGB, we’d all share equally society’s wealth. But what this vision leaves out is the socialist with the clipboard that keeps track of who gets their “fair share” and the men with guns who protect the man with the clipboard from those who disagree with his decisions. The man who says “get in line for your share” is the new ruler of every would-be utopia. The clipboard becomes a totem of power no less ominous than the ball and scepter, the whip, the fasces, or the phone the person in power uses to make you disappear. Humans make hierarchies of status and privilege for themselves whenever the opportunity avails itself. This is why all socialist systems that do not work within the constraints of a liberal democratic framework of the rule of law inevitably descend into tyrannies. Give the state unbridled power, and the denizens of the state will use that power toward their own ends.
But socialism is just one form of destructor that can be unleashed to trample the complex ecosystem of liberty in pursuit of a single idea. Nationalism, fascism, and almost every other ism can, in service to the same cult of unity, do the same damage.
One-thingism is the enemy of all freedoms, even the one thing of freedom itself. As Peregrine Worsthorne once noted, a doctrine of total freedom pursued to its logical conclusion is a world where bullies are free to do their will. Ordered liberty is a different concept altogether because it balances the tension between the need for both order and liberty. We are free to do the things that do not harm others unjustifiably. Which brings me to . . .
The Freedom to Kill Babies
I don’t like debating abortion, but every now and then I get dragooned into it. The other day, I was on Guy Benson and Marie Harf’s radio show, and we got into it because Ben Sasse’s Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act bill had just gone down in flames. I like Marie quite a bit, and I think she tries very hard to give conservatives a fair hearing, so I don’t mean any of this as a personal criticism. But she ran through all of the usual arguments, the chief of which was the old saw about how conservatives are hypocrites because they want the government out of everything, yet they want the state to regulate women’s reproductive choices.
My problem with this argument is that it suffers from a profound category error. The first obligation of the state is to protect human life. This is what Max Weber was getting at when he said the state has a “monopoly on violence.” In a decent and free society, this monopoly has only a handful of legitimate exceptions. The most important and obvious is the right to self-defense, which is an absolute natural right that is prior to any form of government. You cannot pass a just and enforceable law barring people from fighting for their life when attacked.
The other exceptions are fairly minor and still fall under the regulatory power of the state. Boxers need licenses after all. Police have discretion about how to deal with bar room fights. Whether or not spanking is good or bad for kids, I think parents have a right to do it. But we all recognize that the state has a right to intervene when parents go much beyond that kind of thing. A swat on the backside for a misbehaving child isn’t the government’s business. A parent who beats or burns their kid should have their kid taken away.
This sliding scale has an analogue in the abortion debate — not theologically or scientifically perhaps — but culturally and politically. Most Americans favor abortion rights shortly after conception through the end of the first trimester. Even larger majorities are opposed to late-term abortions.
Again, putting aside the philosophical, scientific, and theological arguments, this simply makes sense. People can understandably debate whether a young embryo should be considered a human being. But there is simply no credible moral argument that a viable baby should not be considered a human being. A late-term fetus strikes most reasonable people as a baby, not some abstracted and euphemized thing called “uterine contents” or whatnot. And a delivered baby outside the womb or in the process of delivery is, simply, a baby. The Barbara Boxer view that a baby miraculously becomes a baby only after you bring it home from the hospital is a moral monstrosity.
And this is why conservative pro-lifers are not hypocrites when they say the state should intervene on the behalf of babies. The real hypocrisy cuts the other way. Liberal abortion rights supporters — speaking broadly — have no principled objection to the state regulating the size of our sodas, banning plastic straws or regulating free speech. But going by the statements and votes of the last month — by Ralph Northam, Andrew Cuomo, Kamala Harris, and so many others — they draw the line at regulating infanticide.
From LifeNews about Kamala Harris’ recent comments:
Harris, a 2020 hopeful who voted against Republican Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s bill, would not say if abortion was ever immoral.
“I think it’s up to a woman to make that decision, and I will always stand by that,” she told The DCNF. “I think she needs to make that decision with her doctor, with her priest, with her spouse. I would leave that decision up to them.”
Harris supports the Women’s Health Protection Act (as do Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Kristen Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders). It would eliminate nearly all limits on abortion from late-term bans to abortions based on sex-selection (one wonders how they would feel if transgender fetuses could be identified in utero).
This isn’t ordered liberty; it’s the freedom of the jungle which says you can do whatever you can get away with. It’s fine to argue that “abortions” of viable, healthy, babies are rare (putting aside all the begged questions implicit in the word “healthy.” Do otherwise healthy kids with Down Syndrome count as unhealthy?). But what we’re talking about is the principle. If I said, “Look, it’s extremely rare for women to kill left-handed dudes named Todd who think E.L.O was better than the Rolling Stones,” that would be a true statement. It would not be an argument for killing that poor unlucky Todd with terrible taste in music (Jack’s view notwithstanding).
Just as socialism represents an atavistic impulse to return to pre-modern understandings of politics, the new push for killing inconvenient babies — in principle — is a barbaric step backward to pre-civilized past. Infanticide in our natural environment was incredibly common. This is from part of my book that didn’t make publication:
With the exception of the Jews, virtually all ancient societies, Western and non- Western, routinely butchered, burned, smothered or otherwise slaughtered their own children (and the children of their enemies even more). The Svans of Ancient Georgia murdered newborn girls by filling their mouths with hot ashes. In parts of Ancient China, female babies were killed by submerging them in buckets of cold “baby water.” In feudal Japan, the practice of Makibi (a term borrowed from rice farming meaning “thinning out”) was widespread. Unwanted babies — mostly girls, but also some boys, particularly twins (which were considered unlucky or dangerous in many pre-modern societies) — were snuffed out with a wet cloth. In India infants were sometimes thrown into the Ganges as sacrifices or had their throats cut.
As the anthropologist Laila Williamson famously wrote:
Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunters and gatherers to high civilization, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule.
In pre-historic times, which were no Eden, our ancestors often killed their offspring because they were a real burden and adoption agencies were few and far between. And when I say a real burden, I mean a real burden. Mothers often didn’t have enough milk to feed two infants, which is why the killing of twins was so common. Crying babies when enemy tribes or predators are about are as inconvenient as hungry toddlers when food is scarce.
One aspect of the amazing miracle of the environment we live in now – i.e. civilization — is that killing babies is no longer a necessity, but a luxury. This move to disguise this hideous luxury as a new form of necessity is not a sign that we are advancing as a civilization, but that we are regressing, back to when killing babies was natural and normal.
Various & Sundry
As the Klobuchar staffer who accidentally hung her boss’s pant suit on a wire hanger said, “Dear God, what have I done?” By now, you probably heard that I am going to be stepping down as a senior editor of National Review in the coming months (details have yet to be worked out). I cannot begin to describe how difficult and painful this decision was, despite how excited I am about this new chapter of my professional life. I love this place. I’ve given the bulk of my adult life to it (“Your ‘adult’ life? So like, six months?” — The Couch). Some of my closest friends have been made here. This is also where I got to know you, Dear Readers, many of whom have become friends in the corporeal realm outside my email box. National Review is part of me, and always will be. I want it to succeed, and I want to stay part of the family (which is why I will stay on as a fellow at the National Review Institute). I am incalculably grateful to Rich Lowry and literally every one of my colleagues, and, again, to all of you (except for that Todd guy). There will be plenty of time for me to get weepy (again) about all of this, and I don’t want to use National Review to promote my new venture with Steve Hayes. But if you’re interested in getting updates on the project as it proceeds, you can send an email to HayesGoldberg2019@Gmail.com, and we’ll keep you in the loop. We’ll never sell your email or anything like that. And that’s enough about all that for now.
Canine Update: So there’s this new trail I’ve been taking the beasts to that Zoë particularly likes because it’s infested with deer and fat, slow squirrels. Since they both partake of our public waterways quite frequently, I didn’t think much of the fact that they went into the creek there, too. But the water didn’t seem to be right. And they both got sick. For about 24 hours, Zoë was farting to the extent that I think she would be banned under the Green New Deal. And both of them were relieving themselves in a way that suggested they had bad tummies — at times it was like a fine mist of Paul Krugman columns. Perhaps because Zoë has an iron stomach that allows her to eat stuff best left to the buzzards, or perhaps because she merely took a few sips rather than immersing herself, spaniel-style, Pippa seemed harder hit. She always had her energy out on walks. Tennis balls — and even floppy frisbees — are like anti-Kryptonite, giving her super-canine stamina. But when home, she had only Jeb-like energy levels and wouldn’t eat her dinner (though one night, the Fair Jessica managed to hand feed her a little). If she didn’t seem better this morning we would have gone to the vet. But the good news is it seems the bug is gone. Pippa’s appetite is back, and Dingo flatulence levels are back within normal parameters. Beyond that, everything is good. The Dingo is happy and frisky and demanding of attention. And Pippa is Pippa.
In other news, theirs is a fierce competition on Twitter for the best conservative dog-tweeting account. So far, we’ve been sailing through the early contests. But the tough competition is ahead. If I make it through this round, I could soon face Nikki Haley and her unfairly cute pooch Bentley (I’m tempted to demand a blood test). As of this writing, Bentley is in a fierce dog-eat-dog contest with dark dog contender Yoko (of Neontaster fame). There could be an upset, which would roil the betting markets on both sides of the Atlantic.
A surprise Yoko upset might be best — despite his indisputable game — because the Fair Jessica works for Ambassador Haley. So far, Jessica has not asked me to take a dive if it comes to a head-to-head contest. But if, somehow, the dynamic duo of Dingo & Spaniel gets past Bentley, the odds-on favorite in the finals is none other than Dana Perino and Jasper, the Hungarian-American wunderhound who inherited the undisputed title of “It Dog of the American Right” after Cosmo the Wonderdog’s demise. I love Dana and have boundless respect for Jasper’s skills. But I am hoping that there will be some reward for my steadfast dog tweeting. Only time will tell.
This week’s first Remnant, with Tim Carney on his hugely important and good book.
This week’s second Remnant, with David French in which David and I had a grand time covering everything from abortion and Michael Cohen to the EMP that prevents Westeros from developing transistors.
And now, the weird stuff.