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 you feckless, sniveling crapweasels hiding under your desks at Sony),
Freedom makes a lot of things harder. It is more difficult to raise children of good character in a society that tolerates and often celebrates bad character. It is often harder to build big and important things in a society where everybody gets a vote. That’s why so many people of a “pragmatic” bent have always looked longingly at evil countries where the people are less of an impediment to “getting things done.” Fighting climate change, if that’s your thing, is much tougher when everyone has private property rights. Fighting a war is more difficult when dissenters get to have their say. Maintaining a guild and the wages that go with it is harder when you have free competition.
The true lover of liberty acknowledges these things. He doesn’t say freedom is always more efficient or always yields superior outcomes (though it usually does). The true lover of liberty acknowledges that freedom has costs — cultural costs, economic costs, political costs, national-security costs. And then, do you know what he says?
“I don’t care.”
Well, sometimes I care. At home, when arguing with other Americans, there’s a lot of room to debate how liberty should be used and how it can be abused. A government grounded in protecting liberty depends on self-government and self-government requires restraint. Remember the line from “America, the Beautiful”?
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
Just because you are free to say something is not a sufficient reason for saying it. Just because you can do what you want doesn’t mean doing what you want is a good idea. We can argue about such things. But such arguments are a privilege – and an obligation — of free people. We get to decide where the public good takes precedence over the private. We get to debate the trade-offs between order and liberty, virtue and freedom. Us. Not them.
This is particularly true when the “them” in question is a crapulent pajama-wearing psychopathic dictator who starves his own people while cramming caviar down his gullet. When the Pillsbury Doughboy from Hell tries to tell us what kind of movies we can make or see, the only honorable response is “Go f**k yourself.”
I made a similar point in my review of Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Enemy at Home years ago. D’Souza argued — plausibly! — that the Western decadence celebrated by the Left made it harder to win over socially conservative Muslims abroad. I think he’s right; I just don’t care. I think Miley Cyrus’s prime-time slatternly gyrations are an embarrassment and a sign of a real sickness in our culture. But if such behavior makes a bunch of murderous fanatics want to blow up Americans, that’s on them. As I wrote in the CRB:
. . . In short, D’Souza is right that the bawdy spectacle of Hollywood and the Left sometimes makes America’s job harder.
But here’s my primary objection: I don’t care. There’s something about The Enemy at Home that gets the Irish up, even in a guy named Goldberg. I can criticize and complain about my brother all I like, but if my brother bothers somebody outside the family, well, that’s just too bad. Similarly, Ted Kennedy may or may not be a Caligulan carbuncle, but if the jihadists want to behead him for it, they’ll have to get through me first. In short, if our debauchery fuels Islamic terrorists to kill us, the blame for that still resides entirely with the terrorists. One can wholeheartedly agree that some Americans make poor use of their freedom, and that certain behavior shouldn’t be promoted, but that’s our problem. And if it makes it harder for us to make our case to the Muslim world, then harder it must be.
The collective U.S. response to North Korea’s assault on Sony has been disgusting and dispiriting. I don’t think we should bomb North Korea over this (and not because I am against bombing North Korea per se, but because I think the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits), but the correct response is to flip Kim Jong-un the bird. What form that bird-flipping would take is open to debate. I’d like it if the TV networks all ran The Interview at the same time. I’d like Barack Obama to call the leaders of the House and Senate to a private screening of The Interview at the White House, just like Woodrow Wilson did with Birth of a Nation. Let’s play the thing on the Jumbotron in Times Square. Simply put, I want America to have some balls about this kind of thing. Instead we’re paralyzed with hoden angst.
(Quick explanation: I had a friend in college who told me about his high-school football or track coach, I can’t remember which. The coach was from Germany. He used to berate the boys about their fear of getting hit in their giggleberries. He would shout at them, “You must get over your hoden angst.” “Hoden” in German means “testicles.” Angst means fear, worry, anxiety. After we heard this term, a bunch of us would, in our best Schwarzeneggerian/SNL accents, walk around telling each other “Girly man, you must lose your hoden angst!” (Other friends of mine briefly named their band “Hoden Angst”) (“I’m losing track of all the parentheticals,” — The Couch)).
Obama’s Missed Opportunity
Obama’s conduct in this episode has been better than others, but not very good. This is the kind of moment great politicians seize. It’s the kind of moment they pray will fall into their lap. First of all, short of C.H.U.D.s, there’s really no better enemy than the North Korean regime. The Left can’t really shout racism about hating on the Norks, not when we’re allied with the South Koreans. There’s no “Islamophobia” here. No imperialism either. The North Korean economic model isn’t attractive even to the vast majority of hardcore Marxists. Breadlines are one thing, but eating bark and grass is too grim even for a Bryn Mawr sociology professor. Moreover, on the merits, the regime is flat-out eeeeevil. I was surprised that Dennis Rodman didn’t explode like the parents in Time Bandits when they touched pure evil when he shook Kim Jong-un’s hand. There’s no significant constituency that wouldn’t support Obama if he defied the Norks on this. The Hollywood Left would love him for it. The Right would stand with him on principle. If Obama told movie theaters they didn’t have to worry about lawsuits, everyone but the trial lawyers would cheer. Sure, trial lawyers are more popular than the North Koreans, but that’s like saying most people would prefer to have a paper cut on their eyeballs than to have their private parts slowly eaten by a badger. It’s saying something, just not very much.
The Tribe of Liberty
Anyway back to whatever point I was making. When it comes to America, I am something of a tribalist. In the Mafia, only the Mafia can kill a “made guy.” It doesn’t matter what the mobster did, he’s one of us. I feel the same way about Americans. If Iran kidnapped Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Al Sharpton, my reaction would be the same if they kidnapped Tom Sowell, Charles Krauthammer, and Tom Wolfe: Grab the can-openers and break out the whup-ass. (Okay, I admit that reaction would be delayed by a few jokes, but I’d get there pretty quickly.)
We are a tribe of liberty. We have tribal relatives — they’re called citizens of the free world and they come in all faiths and colors — and we will tolerate lectures and advice from them because they are in the family. But when dictators and totalitarians wag their fingers at us, I couldn’t care less. And when they threaten us, never mind attack us, well, then it’s go time. Will that have costs? Sure. But freedom always has costs. Millions for defense, not one penny for tribute, now and forever.
I’m more on the fence about Obama’s unilateral decision to end as much of the Cuban embargo as he can manage (most of the sanctions require Congress’s approval to dismantle). I’ve long been open to the idea that the embargo should be lifted. I don’t think the Castro regime would be able to long withstand the gales of the global economy, and it’s entirely possible we will see a “Cuban Spring” shortly after the Castros finally go to Hell. (The funny part is that it will probably take them a while to realize it’s Hell given the similar policy — and meteorological — arrangements. “Socialism only works in two places,” Ronald Reagan famously said. “Heaven where they don’t need it and hell where they already have it.”)
It’s certainly true that the embargo has failed to get rid of the Castros — a valuable and apparently un-learnable lesson for people who think that sanctions are a reliable tool for bending other countries to our will. But sometimes a policy that is implemented for one reason becomes useful for other reasons. When the Castros kick the bucket there will be an opportunity to exert leverage over the new leaders — or at least there would have been. This is Marco Rubio’s point, and I think it’s a good one.
Obama went another way. It’s pretty clear that he wanted to lift the embargo without any serious conditions at all. Obama’s motivations are not hard to fathom. Ideologically, anything that smacks of the Cold War is an embarrassment to Obama. Politically, he’s like a Black Friday shopaholic throwing any legacy items in his cart he can put his hands on. Amnesty for illegal immigrants . . . end Cuba’s isolation . . . George Foreman Grill . . . whatever will fit in the cart will do.
Obama had a political problem in that Alan Gross was rotting in a Cuban dungeon. So it’s not quite right to say that Obama traded the store for one man, it’s that that one man got in the way of him simply giving the store away no strings attached.
Yes, part of my reluctance stems from spite. I hate Fidel Castro and all he represents. Doing this the day after Castro went down for the dirt nap would have been emotionally more acceptable to me. Giving the Castro the sense that he won bothers me. But more important than even my own sense of spite, waiting until the Castros moved on would have struck a terrible blow to Castroism. And that actually matters, not just in Cuba but beyond. Castro is loved by dictators and the like because he’s a symbol of defiance to the U.S. By blinking first, we not only lend power to the cult of Castro, we send the signal that we can be waited out. No doubt Iran is finding some encouragement here.
Personally, I think there are a lot of problems with the comparisons people on the left and the right are making between Cuba and China. The Left says if we could open to China, we should be able to open to Cuba. But Nixon didn’t go to China to help democratize it. He went to China to create a wedge with the Soviets. The Right says all of the arguments against engaging dictatorial Cuba should also apply to China. After all, China hasn’t democratized. Well, yes and no. I do think China has grown more free, and obviously more prosperous, since it opened to the West. But it’s still an authoritarian regime and the rulers are in many ways more powerful than ever. This argument is true enough (and a useful counter-example for those who think lifting the embargo will make Cuba free). My only objection is that Cuba and China are very different entities and any serious foreign policy has to be able to make distinctions between a huge nuclear power and a crappy Caribbean backwater.
But, hey, let’s say it all works out. Let’s say that the policy of constructive engagement — so vilified by the Left when applied to South Africa — succeeds beyond our wildest dreams in Cuba. Let’s say the place becomes rich, technologically advanced, and bourgeois in the blink of an eye. The people get their modern cars and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. Moreover, let’s assume that, post-Castro, the country becomes democratic, or at least democratizing. In short, let’s say everything Democrats (and some more committed leftists) say they want to happen in Cuba actually happens. What then? Well, here’s my prediction: Then the Left will start to hate Cuba.
In no time, we will start seeing wistful stories in the New York Times about the “lost” Cuba, when things were simpler and life’s pleasures were attained outside of grubby commerce and filthy lucre. Suddenly we will hear about the persistent problem of Cuban racism — long on display, but ignored, in the lily-white upper echelons of the Cuban Communist Party. Nostalgia for a new “Old Havana,” where the lines were long, but the hearts were full, will erupt across Park Slope and Takoma Park. The Nation will run mournful memoirs and polemics from Naomi Klein or Naomi Wolf or some other person named Naomi, about the brutal alienation that capitalism brings. And I will laugh at them.
Oh, Don’t Forget
You do know that Castro is a fascist, right? Well, maybe not explicitly in his doctrine. But in nearly everything else, he fits the bill. Militarist? The guy uses the army to rule the country and has worn the same dingy army uniform for half a century. Nationalist? Check. Cult of Personality? Double check! Rhetorical defiance of the “international system”? That’s his bag, baby (just as it was Mussolini’s). It’s worth remembering that Castro loved Francisco Franco. When Franco died, Castro declared a national day of mourning (actually, it might have been three days of mourning). Whenever leftists try to tell me what a fascist dictator looks like, I always like to ask, “How does that differ from Castro?” It’s rare that I get a good answer.
Some of you might remember Herbert Matthews. You know National Review’s long running joke about Castro “getting his job through the New York Times”? That was based on Herbert Matthews’s reporting. Matthews was a sucker for Castro and he let himself be played for one. Funnily enough, 30 years earlier, he was a sucker for Mussolini too.
Various & Sundry
Sorry, I’ve got to keep the V&S short today. My kid has a solo at the Christmas pageant at her school and we’ve got to get there early. So I apologize if my haste has contributed to a less than acceptable “news”letter. It’s particularly vexing to think this thing is no good since I don’t know if there will be another in 2014. So if I don’t get a chance, thanks for reading, thanks for writing, and thanks for being so awesome. I hope you have a stellar Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year.
Also, today is my annual “Boys Lunch” as the missus calls it. I get together with many of my oldest friends in D.C. (not oldest in age, but in the length of friendship). We drink and eat too much and tell dirty jokes. We also bring nominations for the person we consider to be the “D-Bag of the Year.” If you have suggestions, send them my way.
So here’s the only Zoë update you’ll get. Her paw is healed and she’s a badass again.
Here’s my column on Captain America and the Norks.
Here’s a great piece by Sonny Bunch on the same.
I’ll have some exciting news, whenever I return, about my next book.