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 people who need people),
As long-time readers know, from time to time I vent my spleen on the misuse of the phrase “begs the question.” Every day, someone on TV or radio gets it wrong. And it vexes me. I find it more distracting than when that guy who sat next to me when I took the SAT would absentmindedly tap his No. 2 pencil on his glass eye as he tried to work through the analogy section. I think it’s more annoying than the fact that Debbie Wasserman Schultz can’t rinse the conditioner out of her hair.
So for the umpteenth time, “begging the question” involves assuming a premise — usually the premise in dispute — is true. It does not mean to raise a question. Question Begging:
Everyone’s eating Tide pods, because eating Tide pods is the hot new craze.
Baal is all-powerful, because I sacrificed 50 goats to him asking for a snow day and then it snowed.
Anyway, this discursion raises the question of why I’m talking about begging the question.
The other night, my AEI colleague Ryan Streeter, who worked in the Bush administration, told me a story about his final interview for his highfalutin job in the domestic-policy shop. Harriet Miers asked him a series of blunt questions: “Have you ever hit your wife?” “Have you ever hit your kids?” “Have you ever been arrested?” “Have you or anyone in your family done anything that might later come back to embarrass the administration?” Etc.
This is normal in a lot of administrations. I heard that one of the reasons Sidney Blumenthal couldn’t land a real job in the Obama administration, despite Hillary Clinton’s importuning, was because he was asked, “Have you ever sworn fealty to Mephistopheles, Agrat bat Mahlat, Furfur the Great Earl of Hell, or any demonic or eldritch deity?” and he couldn’t answer honestly, so he had to return to the stygian sewers and work off-book for Hillary.
But, obviously, that’s just got to be another Beltway rumor since, as everyone knows, Sidney Blumenthal wouldn’t have problem lying to get what he wants.
Wife Beating: Theory & Practice
Anyway, I bring this up because among the greatest examples of question-begging in everyday use is the phrase “When did you stop beating your wife?”
This sort of rhetorical trick is a mainstay of political debates. They come up in every contentious confirmation hearing. They also show up in any number of policy debates. For instance, gun-control advocates assume that if Republicans oppose “gun free” workplace rules, it’s because they think gunplay at work is okay — and not because such laws don’t work on people keen on shooting up their office. It’s axiomatic: If someone won’t heed laws against murder, they probably won’t be deterred by a sign that says they could be fined if you bring your Smith & Wesson to work.
So why did I bring this up? Oh right, because I think we are in a remarkable moment. Many supporters of the Trump administration argue that one of its great benefits is that it eschews the abstractions of the ideologues in favor of concrete practicalities. “Spare me your lofty arguments about free trade, Ye Sophisters and Calculators!” “You can keep your ‘principles’; we’re getting things done!” And to be fair, there are times when this is a good argument — and a better one than I would have foreseen.
But if we’re going to talk about leaving the realm of Platonic ideals and talk about the need for concrete practicalities, I think we should at least take a moment and acknowledge that, for the first time in living memory, the phrase “When did you stop beating your wife?” has been plucked from the ether of rhetorical abstraction and rendered an utterly pragmatic query. For that is just one of the many questions John Kelly or Don McGahn should have asked Robert Porter.
And they probably did! They just took Porter’s denials at face value and didn’t bother to credit the accusers, the FBI background checks, or common sense. I mean, the thing about the “When did you stop beating your wife (or wives)?” question is that the person being asked will deny it — even if he actually beats his wives.
I have no doubt that Porter was good at his job. One hears reports about how he was a stabilizing presence in the White House and a reliable ally of the Gang of Grown-Ups in the West Wing. But it tells you something about the bunker mentality inside the White House that these allegations were simply too bad to check.
It’s an Eminence Front
A few paragraphs ago, around the time I referenced how one of the great defenses of the Trump administration is its practicality and rejection of abstract theory and ideology, I lit a cigar (Sobremesa Imperiales, if you must know). But that’s not important right now. As anyone who’s read me over the years knows, I am a passionate defender of ideology (my last book was an extended apologia for ideology and my next one is even more so). Part of my defense of ideology is that much of it isn’t abstract theory (though some is).
Saying “something is an abstraction” isn’t the same thing as calling it a fiction. Pure mathematics is an abstraction, but it ain’t fiction. Applied mathematics takes principles found in pure mathematics and applies them to real-world stuff, such as engineering. A perfect triangle exists only in the abstract. But what we learn from the Platonic ideal of the triangle has all sorts of real-world applications — and vice versa. My hunch is that humans figured out how to make fulcrums long before anyone dabbled in geometry.
One of the things I love about conservatism and classical liberalism is that they pan the river of time for the gold of principles amidst the soil of lived existence. These principles don’t always sparkle. Sometimes they are invisible to us, encased in mundane traditions and habits that we take as simple rules. Different thinkers (Burke, Chesterton, Hayek, Polyani, et al.) have different terms for different kinds of knowledge that cannot be simply conveyed with words, such as “tacit,” “hidden,” or “embedded” knowledge. “Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States” is explicit knowledge. How to throw a curveball involves a lot of tacit knowledge; all the variables that go into the price of a loaf of bed is embedded knowledge; all of the arguments that go into why good manners are valuable is hidden knowledge. The point isn’t that we can’t know some of the factors — the way to hold the ball, the cost of wheat, how to defuse social conflict — that go into these things, it’s just that we can’t know all of them.
One of the things I love about conservatism and classical liberalism is that they pan the river of time for the gold of principles amidst the soil of lived existence.
As I write at length in Suicide of the West, it took hundreds of thousands of years of trial and error to come up with the ideas bound up in liberal democratic capitalism and modernity. We have no conception of all the trial and error that went into food preparation, monogamy, democracy, written languages, or human rights. We inherited those hard-earned lessons of the past. To be sure, there was a feedback loop with higher, more abstract, thinking. God is an abstraction, and so are concepts such as natural rights and the innate worth of the individual. But we refined both the abstractions and the practicality against each other like a blade and whetting stone. We justify practicalities by appealing to abstractions and vice versa all the time (and sometimes this involves a lot of question-begging, which can raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions).
And what did we do? We bound a bunch of these principles and lessons and made them into an ideology. For our political ideology, we didn’t include the stuff about food preparation (though if you look closely enough you can find some overlap, hence the political campaign-mounting to make Tide pods look less delicious) but in the realms of law, economics, governance, etc., the supposedly abstract ideology that underlies Western civilization — on most of the left and most of the right and everywhere in between — is the greatest achievement of practicality in all of human history.
If you don’t like the word “ideology,” fine. Call it a “worldview” or, if you want to get fancy, Weltanschauung, which just means the same thing in German. “I know conservatives who say yes to Weltanschauung and no to ideology,” Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn once observed, “but they seem incapable of distinguishing between them (not surprisingly, because there is no distinction).”
The benefit of ideology is that it provides time-tested rules to rely upon during the inevitable chaos of everyday life. It operates in much the same way morality does. Morality gives you rules of thumb that prevents you from making bad decisions. Children ask, “Why can’t I steal that pack of gum or cheat on my test if I can get away with it?” When we answer, we leave abstract concepts of good and evil or right and wrong out of it. We tell them that, if you do what’s right, it won’t matter whether you may or may not get caught.
In politics, the worry is very often not that the government will knowingly do wrong but that it will take the shortest path to doing what it thinks is right. This is what Michael Oakeshott called “politics as the crow flies.” Conservative ideology, rightly understood, is the political conscience that counsels against such expedience. “What is conservatism,” Lincoln asked, “if not adherence on the old and tried against the new and untried?”
Debt Soapbox, R.I.P.
I didn’t plan on taking the above detour, but I did so for a few reasons. First, when you set out to simply pound out a run-on-sentence “news”letter like the climax of Goodfellas, you never know where the keyboard will take you, particularly when you add sweet, sweet nicotine. Another reason is that I planned on writing an extended screed about the budget, and I hate writing about the budget. I guess my id was trying to steer me away from something I didn’t want to do. But, like going to the dentist or adorning your mantle with Wolfsbane and garlic to keep Sidney Blumenthal away, disliking something has no bearing on whether it’s important or necessary. So, as the Hooters hostess said to Bill Clinton, let’s get this over with as quickly as possible.
I have been very hard on Rand Paul over the last year or so, but in this instance, he was on the side of the angels. For the last decade, at least, conservatives have insisted that they were ideologically opposed to precisely the sort of turd burger we saw getting sizzled on the congressional grill this week. Regardless of Paul’s political calculations, his arguments were entirely right. If you passionately insisted that runaway deficit spending was an abomination under Barack Obama, there really is no way you can defend the same thing under Donald Trump. I argued for years that the tea parties were in no small way a delayed backlash against the profligate spending of George W. Bush as much as they were a backlash against Barack Obama. The psychological reasoning boiled down to: “We felt we had to put up with the crap under Bush because of the war or because he was our guy, but we’ll be damned if we’re gonna put up with it from this guy too.”
The Left saw nothing but hypocrisy and, often, racism. I always thought the hypocrisy charge had some merit. Bush’s big government “compassionate” conservatism, as I wrote many times, wasn’t a conservative alternative to Clintonism, it was a Republican version of it. As for claims of racism, I always thought those were wildly overblown by a ridiculously raced-obsessed and partisan media. That’s not to say there was zero truth to it anywhere, just that it was wildly exaggerated by the paranoid style of the American Left.
Not only does this budget blow up any pretense of ideological consistency, there isn’t even a coherent economic theory behind it.
But none of that matters now, because the Tea Party is done. MAGA nationalism has siphoned off most of it, and what remains is a scattered and spent force. I understand that Paul Ryan and others insist that we’ll move on to entitlement reform. And Ryan may give it the old college try. But it won’t work. For reasons laid out in our National Review editorial and by Yuval Levin, no serious entitlement reform can get through the Senate now, because Republicans gave away reconciliation until after the midterms. More broadly, the president doesn’t like entitlement reform, as he has made clear many times. His State of the Union address didn’t contain a word about it — but it did float a new paid-family-leave entitlement. The only mention of the word “deficit” was in the phrase “infrastructure deficit” — a term the GOP would have mocked relentlessly if it passed the lips of Barack Obama.
Not only does this budget blow up any pretense of ideological consistency, there isn’t even a coherent economic theory behind it. Borrowing and spending more when the economy is doing well violates not only Keynesianism but traditional conservatism. I understand the military needs more funding. I understand politics is the art of the possible, yada yada yada.
But none of that changes the fact that Republicans have taken a sledgehammer to their last soapbox. We’re not even all Keynesians now — we’re just crows flitting from one place to another.
Various & Sundry
One of the weird things about my line of work is all the blood magic that’s required. You’d think there would be more word magic. Another thing that’s weird is that sometimes you dash off something that you think is no great shakes, and it’s a hit. Other times, you come up with some weird idea that you really like, and it falls flat. You do this long enough, and you tend not to worry about that sort of thing too much. The only test is whether you like it and can stand by it. Two cases in point: Earlier this week, I pounded out in a few minutes a “review” of The Cloverfield Paradox, and people loved it. Kyle Smith, one of the most talented cultural critics in Christendom, called it the best movie review of 2018. I had to go back and make sure they didn’t put my byline on something by Ross Douthat. Meanwhile, my column today, which manages to use an extended analogy based on Father Guido Sarducci’s stand-up routine to critique the Vatican and the Chinese, basically landed without a ripple. Maybe I was overly pleased with cleverness under a very tight deadline, but I liked it.
The latest Remnant podcast is out, and the reception has lined up much more with my expectations, because I thought it was a hoot and a half (using the old imperial measurements). John Podhoretz came by and we nerded out on neoconservatism and the state of the conservative movement until — suddenly! — Gene Shalit sauntered by and reviewed The Poseidon Adventure. Then Vic Matus took his place, and we talked ’70s disaster movies, sitcoms, and the depiction of male-on-female cinematic assault among other things. Good times.
Canine Update: Everything remains joyous in doggie-land, even in the rain. They still hate crows though. And they’re still working with their buddies from the pack on their album cover and band names (possible solo cover here). The Dingo remains terribly needy and jealous of the Spaniel. I’ve noticed that even if they’re in different rooms, if I start giving Pippa scritches and pats, Zoë will show up and demand her piece of the action. I tested it this morning. Yesterday, after Pippa lost her tennis ball, we switched to sticks, and she was still so happy she showed off one of best butt-waggles ever. One piece of feedback I often get is that it looks like Zoë doesn’t get much exercise when we go on our adventures. This is not true. It’s just that much of her best cardio is hard to predict because it depends on her seeing deer, rabbits, or other wildlife and then taking off like Tesla from an airlock. It’s hard to have my iPhone ready in such instances. Still, sometimes she’ll play “Chase the Dingo” with me. Actually, she’ll always play that. It’s me who sometimes doesn’t feel up to it.
And here’s the other stuff:
And now, the weird stuff.