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 you’re Suge Knight, who apparently has bigger problems),
So Jonathan Chait stirred up a lot of sturm und drang this week when he complained aboutpolitical correctness on the left. I read somewhere that he says it’s the most debated thing he’s ever written. That’s probably right, at least on the left, which has gotten its cis-normative panties in a bunch about it.
I am not always a fan of “protest too much” arguments. Sometimes people protest too much because an accusation is so wrong, not because it strikes so close to home. If I publicly call you an incestuous pedophile or the founder of a Michael Bolton fan club and you make a big stink about it, maybe it’s because I hit a nerve, but more likely it’s because it’s not true.
But this isn’t one of those cases, I don’t think. Chait scores some direct hits. Lefties can quibble with some of his examples. And conservatives -- such as our own Kevin Williamson and the Federalist’s Sean Davis -- are absolutely right to complain that Chait is only now complaining after the problem has become inconvenient for him and his liberal friends. Davis writes:
I’m glad Chait has suddenly decided that speech policing is a terrible idea. He’s only a couple hundred years behind the times, but better late than never, I suppose. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s all that sincere about it. In fact, I think he just opposes speech codes when they’re used against him or his fellow travelers. And the reason I think that is because I’ve actually read what Jonathan Chait has written about people on the right who disagree with him. It’s one thing for Jonathan Chait to oppose the practice of using speech codes against Jonathan Chait and his friends, and another thing entirely for Chait to oppose speech codes used against his political opponents.
Yes, yep, yup, you betcha.
But as I wrote in the Corner, I don’t think conservatives should respond solely by beating the dickens out of Chait for his hypocrisy, real or perceived. First, we should all say, “See? We were right. This cancer of ass-hattery is now spreading to all of liberalism.”
Also, we should at least in part be like a good teacher bringing a student along to the Big Conclusion. In other words, we should be saying to Chait, “You’re getting warmer! Keep thinking it through. And if this PC shoot-the-messenger stuff is wrong when they do it to you, maybe it’s also wrong when you do it to us?”
You know, sort of like Hannibal Lecter leading Clarice to the realization of what Buffalo Bill’s really up to.
Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature? What do they do, these left-wing ass-hats you critique?
Clarice Starling: They shout down fellow liberals simply for disagreeing.
Hannibal Lecter: No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing they do?
Clarice Starling: Congratulate themselves? Abuse language? Replace words like “seminar” with “ovular”?
Hannibal Lecter: No! They bully. They bully with guilt. That is their nature. And how do we begin to guilt trip, Clarice? Do we seek out things to abuse? Make an effort to answer now.
Clarice Starling: No. We just . . .
Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by morally bullying those close to us, people who will cave in to our cloying hectoring and claims of victimization.
Or something like that.
#page#Checking Karl’s White Privilege
Anyway, I am kind of excited, or at least entertained, by the spectacle of watching the Left eat itself. It’s like a terrible virus escaped from a lab at Brown University and is now spreading across the country, island hopping from campus to campus and beyond (I don’t merely mix metaphors, I put them in a salad spinner). My buddy James Lileks writes about how left-wing students at Berkeley (sort of redundant, I know) are starting to turn on Marx, not because of his potted theories of the dialectic, his crude reductionism of man to homo economicus, or even the fact that he set the foundation for turning the 20th century into an abattoir. No, Marx is bad because he’s just another dead white guy. The students write in the school paper:#ad#
We are calling for an occupation of syllabi in the social sciences and humanities. This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings. The course syllabus employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men. The syllabus did not include a single woman or person of color.
First let me interject by noting that the moment anyone says to you “We are calling for an occupation of syllabi,” you can put your headphones back on and finish watching the latest episode of Gotham, because nothing that follows will be worth your time.
Anyway, they go on to gripe that Marx worked from the assumption that there are -- or were -- differences between men and women. The madman! The professor’s statement in defense of Marx, that “women give birth while men do not,” was enough to make some students flee the room, no doubt in search of a gender-neutral fainting couch. (“Don’t look at me! I’m all man” -- The Couch).
This is like watching Godzilla stomp across Tokyo and your only complaint is he’s not wearing pants.
And then there was this item from The Week(The National Review feature, not the magazine):
Mount Holyoke College is for women only, but they’re not super strict about the gender thing. According to official guidelines, you don’t need to have the usual anatomical features to be considered female; a student can apply for admission if he or she is “biologically born male; identifies as woman” or even “biologically born male; identifies as other/they/ze and when ‘other/they’ identity includes woman.” So basically, if you’ve ever thought about getting a mani-pedi, you’re in. This pro-transsexual policy is intended to make Mount Holyoke hospitable to all women, no matter how tenuous their gender identity, and now it has resulted in the additional benefit of getting The Vagina Monologues removed from campus. This pudendum-positive theater piece, solemnly recited at colleges nationwide every Valentine’s Day like the Haggadah at Passover, will no longer be performed at Mount Holyoke . . . because it is demeaning to “women” who have penises. The play is demeaning, all right, and so is this campus debate.
This reminds me: Since I brought up The Silence of the Lambs and Buffalo Bill, aren’t we overdue for a reassessment of that film? I mean isn’t Bill really the victim here, forced by an intolerant society to take it into his/her hands to become the woman s/he/ze was meant to be?
More to the point, when you think about it, the really funny part is that we’re still hearing how we conservatives need to get control of ournutjobs and extremists before average Americans will take us seriously. I’ll tell you what: “What.” I’ll also tell you that the typical Joe on the street will find gun rights and the Tenth Amendment reasonable and mainstream long before he gets his head around the idea that The Vagina Monologues is sexist because it lacks wangs in the cast -- and I don’t mean Asians.
China Syndrome Liberalism
Liberalism has been making these sorts of problems for itself for over a hundred years. I won’t bore you with another long rant about liberalism’s Faustian bargain with philosophical pragmatism, but I will bore you with another short rant about it. Progressives adopted pragmatism as a technique designed to delegitimize all competing ideologies. All philosophical opposition to progressivism, the pragmatists argued, was really grounded in naked self-interest. You don’t like the free market because you think it’s empirically superior or because you value freedom. You like the free market, quoth the progressives, because you benefit from it. This was Charles Beard’s wildly influential (and thoroughly debunked) claim about the Founding Fathers: They were just a bunch of rich white Christians protecting their economic privilege. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, the Progressives claimed that they were just empiricists and problem-solvers using science and the “experimental method” to find the best policies. Everyone else was a dogmatist or an ideologue. You can boil down vast swaths of leftwing egg-headery to this simplistic argument. Critical legal studies, critical race studies, Marxist notions of “false consciousness,” the Frankfurt school, etc: They’re all variations of the claim that the existing power structure -- or even just inconvenient arguments -- are nothing more than rationalizations of privilege, usually white-male privilege. By the way, such claims are not always wrong, but they are seldom right.
Saying everybody who disagrees with you does it because of some ideological spell or narrow self-interest is a great trick if you can pull it off, and ironically enough, Jonathan Chait is arguably the foremost champion of this charade. (Other than the current president of the United States).
#page#Among the problems with this con is the fact that it leaves liberalism almost completely defenseless against the exact same kind of argument when it sneaks up on it from the Left. That’s what’s so hilarious about the attack on Marx as just another marcher in the long parade of the pale-penis people. For generations, liberals saw things primarily through an economic lens. And from that perspective, Marx wasn’t part of the problem bequeathed to us by the DWEMs (Dead White European Males); he was part of the solution. But now that race and gender trump economics, he’s being reassigned to the same dustbin of history along with Plato and Shakespeare.
It’s amazing. We spent a century trying to explain to the Left why Marx was wrong. It just never occurred to us to try “He’s a white guy!” It should have been obvious. It’s like we spent hours trying to hack their computer and then suddenly someone suggests trying “password” as the password -- and voila.#ad#
What was I saying? Oh, right: Because pragmatic liberalism (deceitfully) claims no ideological principles save the greater good, it has few defenses when it’s ideological principles are attacked, particularly from within. If good is simply defined by what (liberal) people at any given moment think good is, all questions become contests of power. Bertrand Russell understood this as early as 1909, when he wrote that if everyone becomes a pragmatist, then “ironclads and Maxim guns must be the ultimate arbiters of metaphysical truth.” Russell’s point was that there’s nothing within pragmatism to delineate the proper and just limits of pragmatism. We must look outside pragmatism for truly meaningful definitions of the greater good.
Contra Russell, I don’t actually expect the different factions of liberalism to settle this like the fight scene in Anchorman, as awesome as it would be to watch Amanda Marcotte try to check Jonathan Chait’s privilege with a trident. But these questions won’t be settled by contests of principle either. They’ll be settled with power -- cultural power, electoral power, and social-media power. And at least until Barack Obama’s out of office -- and probably long after that -- Chait’s side of the intramural fight will likely continue to lose. This is because Chait’s position can find no emotional purchase on the left. So many of the responses to him have been “aww poor white guy doesn’t like to be made fun of.” It’s a stupid retort, but it works in a world where the highest goal is to use victim status to bully people.
Near the end of his life Charles Beard started to understand the problem he and the pragmatists had unleashed. By launching a “crusade against standards,” in the words of J. Allen Smith, liberals left themselves ill-equipped to enforce universal standards of their own. “These people are talking the relativism which will ruin liberalism yet,” Beard said of the new generation of liberals. “Don’t they know that the means can make the ends? Don’t they realize that their method of arguing can justify anything? I wish we could find some way of getting rid of conservative morality without having these youngsters drop all morality.”
It seems Chait is learning a similar lesson.
The Return of Sturm und Drang
As M. Night Shyamalan says to himself whenever he’s overwriting a screenplay, let me bring up one last irony. I began by pretentiously mentioning that Chait has stirred up a lot of Sturm and Drang. For those of you who didn’t know, those are the names of the Rottweilers I will train to help me survive the zombie apocalypse. It’s also the name of an 18th-century artistic movement in Germany aimed at pushing back against the Enlightenment. I didn’t intend it when I started, but it’s a pretty apt description for the forces on the left these days. According to the Sturm und Drang-ers, the Enlightenment was too rational, too empirical, too universal in its ideals. It reduced important questions to tests of reason, principle, and fact. The German Romantics (or proto-Romantics if you want to be a pest) preferred passion and emotion and self-expression. Artistically, Sturm und Drang was all about appealing to emotions and shocking audiences, not appealing to reason and rightly formed consciences. They responded to cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) with caleo ergo sum (I feel therefore I am).
(I’m sure many of you will correct my Latin if caleo is the wrong word.)
Well, that’s pretty much what the identity-politics crowd is all about. Away with your biology textbooks and medical definitions! If I feel like a woman, that is what I am. Your facts are useless against me! You may think you’re marshaling superior arguments, but all I hear is mansplaining! I don’t care that you’re descended from dirt-poor serfs who came to this country long after slavery ended, you’re white and that’s all I need to know! You must atone! And any claims to the contrary are just efforts to reinforce your privilege! Heed my trigger warnings or face my wrath!
#page#Verschiedene und Sonstige (AKA Various & Sundry)
Things are changing. Why, at this moment, fly DNA is rewriting my whole genetic makeup. If you thought it was no picnic watching me eat before, just give it a day or two. No, that’s not right. What I mean to say is that the Tattaglia’s are backing Virgil Sollozzo’s push to sell drugs in our territory! (“Tattaglia’s a pimp! How many times do I have to tell you? It’s Barzini!” -- The Couch.) No, that’s not it, either. I know: The leader of our cheerleading squad has been stealing all of our best routines from the public-school girls. If we’re going to win nationals this year, we’re really going to have to bring it.#ad#
No, none of that is right. Now I remember. Very, very soon NRO will be undergoing the Mother of All Redesigns. As the founding editor of NRO, let me tell you with adamantine certainty that some of you will complain about it. That is the nature of redesigns. But this was a long time coming. I mean we don’t even have a search engine these days. When I want to find an old article, I have to rub its scent on an intern’s nose and say “fetch.”
But I am confident that you will also appreciate how much time and thought went into this redesign. And, if you complain too much, please take note of the death-ray feature we had installed.
Zoë Update: So we’re in the homestretch. The Fair Jessica returns Monday and my forced and intensive bonding with the dingo will wind to a close. She’s been on the best behavior of her short life these last few days, and I’m afraid to jinx it. I fear it might be because she’s sick. She’s still full of energy when it comes to wrasslin’ dogs and chasing squirrels, but she seems to have a cold. The only evidence I have for this is that she sleeps a lot more and is sneezing a lot, which she did in my mouth yesterday morning as a novel way to wake me up. That was only the second-worst animal related thing that has happened to me this week. The worst was when my iPhone fell in the cats’ litter box while I was cleaning it. Anyway, here she is sulking, post-bath. And here she is getting her compensation for the pain and suffering.