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 (No, really),
This is my last G-File under the National Review flag. It will soon fly under a new banner, one might even say a pirate flag. More about that at the bottom. What I want to say up front is: I love you. Okay, technically not all of you. Some I merely like. But as a collective, I cannot begin to express how much the National Review audience has meant to me over the years, starting in 1998 when I joined NR and started the Goldberg File (a blog before we had the word, then a column, then a “news”letter, and, soon, a dessert topping and a floor wax), straight through the launches of NRO, the Corner, and all the rest. I’ve made real and lasting friendships — in the meat space, not just in the digital space — with some of you, and I’ve learned a ton from a lot of you.
My appreciation for you, Dear Readers, is only exceeded by my appreciation for my friends and colleagues here at NR, starting of course with Rich Lowry. I often say he hired me to pay me back for saving his life in prison — WFB loved that joke — but the truth is, he took a flier on me early in his role as editor, and I’m eternally grateful for it.
Speaking of Bill Buckley — another object of my eternal gratitude — he liked to say “Lowry, what were you thinking hiring this guy?” But he also liked to say, “Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius.” Really. He’d say it like it was a normal thing for a person to say. It roughly means to include is to exclude, and he often invoked the phrase to explain why he couldn’t thank everyone in attendance at a meeting or talk. There are so many friends and colleagues I am grateful for that if I start naming them, I’ll run the risk of forgetting someone or using up this entire “news”letter calling the roll of my indebtedness. Also, while I may be leaving the magazine, I’m not leaving the family. I’ll be staying on as a fellow at the National Review Institute and staying in touch with everybody. Even so, I feel like I’m amputating part of my soul. Okay, enough with that.
If I keep going the pollen out here will only get worse.
Down (And Up) With the French
One of the earliest traditions of NRO was, to put it bluntly, French-bashing. I used to write an annual Bastille Day G-File recounting the perfidy of what my longtime NR colleague John Miller called in a book by the same name “Our Oldest Enemy.” Long before the anti-French boom during the lead-up to the Iraq war, I was quoting Groundskeeper Willie’s (of The Simpsons) felicitous phrase, “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” I became so associated with it that when the “freedom fries” folderol started, countless major news outlets attributed the epithet to me, even though I never claimed to have coined it.
I bring this up because of a strange irony. As I head out the door, NR is caught up in an outpouring of pro-French sentiment. Of course, I don’t mean the country but the man (mensch is a better label) David French. (Please buy my album, Rational and Seamless Segues Were Never My Bag, Baby.)
Sohrab Ahmari, a very decent fellow whose writings I’ve long admired, has been on quite an intellectual journey. Almost exactly two years ago, he wrote an insightful essay for Commentary entitled “Illiberalism: A Worldwide Crisis.” It was — to stick with the French theme — both a cri de couer and a tour d’horizon of the global crisis of faith in classical liberalism. “As an ideology and as a governing philosophy, liberalism is fast losing ground,” Sohrab warned. Russia’s Putin and Hungary’s Orban weren’t the only avatars in the rising tide of illiberalism, Sohrab wrote: “Trumpism (and Bernie Sanders-ism) are but the American symptoms of a global phenomenon: the astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far right and far left.” They represented a pas de deux of illiberal convergence. “The strength of the Trump and Sanders presidential candidacies has revealed the hollowness of this liberal consensus in the 21st century.”
No better proof of that hollowness can be found than Sohrab’s own metamorphosis. I am not accusing Sohrab of bad faith. His conversion to one form of illiberalism — or, if you prefer, anti-liberalism — is surely sincere and a byproduct of his good-faith Catholicism. But that just demonstrates the point. For Sohrab, to be a good Catholic, as he understands it, requires jettisoning – or again, in abundance of fairness, questioning — the classical liberal and civil-libertarian faith in pluralism that David French models in almost everything he does (though his fondness for Aquaman remains troubling).
But while I can’t gainsay Sohrab’s sincerity and personal decency, I also can’t adequately express my conviction of his profound error in analysis and strategy. The idea that David French — and the civility and decency he manifests daily — are what’s holding social conservatives back from “victory” in the culture war strikes me as one of the most preposterous claims to be taken seriously by intelligent conservatives in recent memory. I can’t really improve upon the replies by David himself and Charlie Cooke, and I really do like Sohrab, so I’ll just endorse what they said.
Victory You Can Taste but Never Swallow
Instead, let me turn to the larger project Sohrab is associating with. The First Things crowd, and various allied parties, have become intoxicated with the bizarre notion that social conservatives can win the culture war if they lean into Trumpism, nationalism, and some of the worst caricatures of the Christian right. R. R. Reno, the editor of First Things, is giddy about the fact that Trump broke the old conservative consensus around limited government, free markets, individual autonomy, and the foundational metaphysical claims of the American Founding. He sees the New Deal as a nationalist attempt to impose social solidarity from above. And he’s right. He just celebrates the effort, while traditional conservatives do not.
Last March, Reno organized a group of intellectuals — some of whom I admire — to sign a manifesto of sorts. It drips with disdain for capitalism, or to be fair, it creates a platoon of strawmen, calls that “capitalism,” and then sets fire to it. Now, let me be clear: I agree with many of their concerns. Though Reno clearly didn’t bother to read my book before “reviewing” it, I wrote at great length about many of the problems they identify, including the role capitalism itself can play in eroding vital institutions, most importantly the family, organized religion, and traditional communities.
Still, my disagreement stems from what I think is a mix of bad analysis of the roots of the problem and worse thinking about what to do about it. As Sohrab often implicitly concedes, most of the outrageous assaults on religion don’t come from liberal democratic capitalism, but from the state. Capitalism didn’t attack the Little Sisters of the Poor, the state did. And as both Charlie and David note, the best and only available means of defending such victims are the tools provided by the liberal order and the Constitution. Religious liberty is a concept as close to being definitional of the American order as any I can think of.
The potted idea that a policy of right-wing statism — fight fire with fire! — is the solution rather than a compounding of the problem is deeply dismaying me to me. I’m reminded of my favorite exchange from A Man for All Seasons, in which the cinematic Thomas More (a different fellow than the real one) explains why rules matter:
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.
Conceding the idea that the State should impose one faction’s conception of virtue on the entirety of the country is only a smart play (in the realpolitik sense) if you’re sure your faction is the one that gets to call the shots. When your faction is in the minority with few prospects of becoming the majority, it’s tantamount to turning the asylum over to the inmates.
Since David French set this whole thing off, I’ll use an analogy he’ll like. Like the Greyjoys in Game of Thrones, the First Things coterie are a belligerent band that is formidable only in proximity to their own shores. The farther they extend their forces, the weaker and ultimately ineffectual they become. They can dream of ruling, but they should recognize that’s all it is: a dream. In the larger game — i.e., the game of power — the best they can do is harass the enemy from their home base.
The idea that observant Catholics — a group I admire and sympathize with — can successfully win the culture war entirely on their terms is absurd, particularly if part of that strategy requires defenestrating the likes of David French — not to mention countless secular conservatives, traditionalists, and libertarians — for the sake of not theological or ideological purity but mere tactical consensus. David’s emphasis on “decency and civility” (Sohrab’s words) offers one of the only plausible ways of converting large numbers to the cause. More importantly: Since total victory is impossible, convincing the unconverted and unconvertible, that religious conservatives nonetheless deserve fair treatment and autonomy in a pluralistic society requires first convincing them that the religious right’s real objective isn’t to seize the commanding heights of the culture and turn their guns on the enemy. If average Americans, forget progressives, think the religious right wants to use the state to force everyone else to heel, the assault on religious liberty will only get worse.
But hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the First Things crowd has a brilliant plan for mounting a successful — and permanent–– benign, mildly theocratic takeover of all three branches of the government, the administrative state, as well as the universities, media, and state and local governments:
Step One: Purge the Frenchian Squishes
Step Two: ?????
Step Three: Bask in “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” (Sohrab’s words).
And let us just take two seconds to chuckle at the notion that Donald Trump is precisely the man to pull that off.
Back to the Future
Now, I don’t think Sohrab’s utopian society, if achievable, would be such a terrible place. But “utopian” is a neologism that means “no place.” The only goal we can strive for is eutopia, which means “good place.” And the Founders believed that a good place was a polity where individuals were free to pursue an individual conception of happiness. You can argue that this idea has gone off the rails, as Sohrab does, and I’d have some sympathy. But let’s be honest about their proposed solution: to have the state impose on people its conception of virtue.
Replying, “Yeah, but that’s what the state is doing now and their definition of virtue sucks,” doesn’t require surrendering to the idea that the Right should do it too, throwing out the metaphysics of the founding in the process.
It’s a cliché to say that nationalism’s resurgence is a response to globalization. Obviously, there’s truth to that. Less discussed is the fact that American nationalism — both on the right and the left — is a response to, well, nationalization. What I mean by that is that technology has tended to make the nation smaller and more intimate. Distances are shorter. Media — social, cable, the Internet etc. — creates a national racket where the equivalent of small-town busybodies thrive. We feel like we’re living cheek by jowl with people who actually live thousands of miles away from us. This feeling arouses anger and animosity because we’re exposed to people we think are living wrong and that leads to the desire to use the state or Twitter mobs to make people live the right way.
On the left, this is a very old argument. Woodrow Wilson thought the Constitution had outlived its usefulness in an era with railroads and telegraphs. The whole of the country was now bound together and must now live as a single organic whole (George Will’s forthcoming book is excellent on this, and many other, points). Wilson repudiated the Constitution stem, branch, and root because the Madisonian vision of letting multiple factions bloom was inorganic and divisive. Progressivism, from the New Deal to the Great Society to Obama’s New Foundation, never shed this basically Wilsonian view. The only two important players on the board are the government and the individual whose first commitments and basic needs would be met by it. Classical liberalism doesn’t want a nation of Julias; modern liberalism does.
As I noted in my forthcoming conversation with George Will on CSPAN, what’s amazing to me is that at the precise moment conservatives are finally recognizing the moral horror of the Wilson administration, they are simultaneously adopting his premises.
The idea that a vast, and vastly diverse, continental nation can be united in a singular conception of national purpose that gives everyone a sense of meaning and belonging is just as ludicrous when ornamented with right-wing verbiage as it is when it comes out of the mouth of Wilson, Obama, or the vast horde running for the Democratic nomination. It’s even more dangerous because it would make the race to statism bipartisan, with no serious movement arguing for the ideas and ideals that made this country great.
Again, the solution isn’t to get the best right-wing technocrats to run the economy and the culture. It’s to deny the state the power to run either. Send power back to the communities where people live. If North Dakota wants to be a theocracy, that’s fine by me as long as the Bill of Rights is respected. If California wants to turn itself into Caligula’s court, I’ll criticize it, but go for it.
The enemy here is the state, because by aggrandizing to itself the power to tell people how to live, people put all of the blame on a far-off government in Washington — or even more distant “globalists” — for their problems. Federalism, part of the forgotten portions of the Bill of Rights, is the only system that lets the most people live the way they want to live, in communities they have power to influence and direct. In a real community, there are no faceless “powers that be.” There’s Phil and Sarah, or even Mom and Dad.
And the glorious thing about this kind of pluralism — i.e., for communities, not just individuals — is that if the community you’re living in isn’t conducive to your notion of happiness or virtue, you can move somewhere that is. We want more institutions that give us a sense of meaning and belonging, not a state that promises to deliver all of it for you.
People are misdiagnosing the problem of social, institutional and familial breakdown. A healthy society is a heterogeneous one, a rich ecosystem with a thousand niches where people can find different sources of meaning or identity. A sick society is one where people find meaning from a single source, whether you call it “the nation” or “socialism” or any of the other brand names we hang on statism.
Heck, don’t call it federalism if that sounds too ickily modern to your ear. You can call it “subsidiarity,” a good Catholic word.
The bipartisan love affair with statism — whether it’s called nationalism or socialism — is simply a modern-sounding version of the old games of thrones from the past. Substitute Protestant for “progressive” and Catholic for “traditionalist,” and these fights would be recognizable to Europeans three or four centuries ago. The ideas being thrown around by the new nationalist conservatives aren’t new. The only new part is that conservatives, long the heroic defenders of the American Founding, are spouting them.
Various & Sundry
Well, I guess it’s only fitting that the final installment of this “news”letter ends with a sweaty rant written in nicotine-fueled haste with dogs constantly demanding my attention. I didn’t plan on this topic (because I never plan this thing), but I did choose it this morning because I think it addresses one of the central concerns of this “news”letter from the beginning: defending conservatism as I understand it.
Now, as my wife hears me say all too rarely, it’s time for some housecleaning. The G-File will live on. For the next few months (and possibly beyond) this “news”letter will onlybe available as an email newsletter. (For legal reasons, I cannot take my subscription list with me, so I have to recreate it as best as possible.)
The price will more than quintuple: from zero to zero. In the future, its frequency may increase with added brevity and newsiness on weekdays, but there will always be the traditional Friday version. I can’t really say that separating from the mothership will free me up to make it more outspoken because Rich always let me fly my freak flag any way I wanted in this space. But who knows what changes are in store?
So if you want a front-row seat for the adventure ahead, or if you feel like part of the Remnant and don’t want to feel so lonely, or if you agree with Rusty Reno that I “[exemplify] the decadence and dysfunction of today’s public discourse” and you crave such decadence
— or if you just want to continue to receive canine updates — I would be honored and grateful if you subscribed. Contra Reno, I promise to keep the nudity tasteful and integral to the plot. And we’ll never sell or share your email with anyone. Ever.
Canine Update: It’s been quite a week. The Fair Jessica has been out of town since last weekend, and my daughter’s been crashing on finals, so the beasts and I have had a lot of quality time. Whenever Jessica — whom they love more than me — is gone, they get super needy and worried. I knew it was going to be rough when Pippa watched Jessica get into an Uber from the window next to the front door and started to whimper and cry. They follow me from room to room as if they think I might somehow escape if they lose visual contact with me. If I leave the house, even to take out the garbage, they greet me upon my return like I’m their East German family reunited after the Wall came down. The other night, Zoë even found it necessary to become a cliché and eat my daughter’s homework. But I’m doing my best to burn off the anxiety with extra long perambulations and workouts in the mornings and the evenings. And Kirsten helps enormously with the midday workday walks — and swims. Perhaps Pippa’s forced independence from the mater familias is even causing her to stick up for herself more. The other day at the creek, she didn’t let the big dogs get her ball. The only problem is that the eau de chien after their midday visits to the creek can assault the nostrils with an almost Sex Panther intensity. They are holding up their end by constantly keeping the crows at bay, and Zoë is helping in other ways, like burying treasure for a rainy day and procuring much needed supplies. All she asks demands in return is adequate scritching.