Everyone’s a Pundit Now

Plus, thoughts on murder hornets and the warping of time.

Dear Reader (including all of the people who think it’s censorship if I block them on Twitter), 

Remember back when we were all talking about murder hornets? You know when that conversation started? Twenty-seven days ago. 

I don’t know about you, but that number shocked me, because the topic seems so old now. Talking about murder hornets feels only marginally fresher than talking about that dress that some people saw as white and gold and serial killers saw as blue and black. Admittedly that might be because the alleged murder hornets got lawyered up and pleaded down to manslaughter bees (h/t Emily Andras). But I think the more plausible explanation is twofold. First, events are moving faster than our brains are wired to process. Second, because what qualifies as an “event”—which I’ll define as, “Something that happens, that has elements of importance and surprise to it”—has been defined downward. 

I don’t think I have to provide examples of the first point, because everyone I know seems to have made this observation at some point. But just to flesh it out: Consider that in our natural environment, our brains like to rest in neutral. The noises and routines of our environment hold pretty constant, the nature of gossip is about familiar subjects and familiar people. Did you hear that Arook fooled around with Bork’s mate? Did you see that Smark ate the forbidden berries and now he’s soiled his loincloth? 

Big events shift our brains out of neutral and put them in a higher gear or, if necessary, reverse. “Holy crap! A sabertooth tiger is eating Flork’s face!” “Todd discovered fire!”

As for the second, consider the fact that China is essentially erasing Hong Kong’s democratic safeguards. It’s a move of massive geopolitical importance that future historians will consider vastly more important than roughly 95 percent of the garbage people are arguing about right now. At least that topic is getting some oxygen, but how much are people talking about the growing hostilities between China and India (two nuclear powers, mind you)? What about our slow-rolling admission of defeat in Afghanistan? 

Now, I’m not a big fan of “Why are you talking about X when I care about Y?” whining. But that’s not my point. It’s a truism that social media and the internet generally have democratized and commodified commentary. Everyone’s a pundit now. 

“Pundit,” by the way, is a Sanskrit word we culturally appropriated from India. A pundit—or pandrit—in India is a wiseman, a scholar, or a gifted musician. Originally in America, “pundit” meant an expert in a specific field or fields. Then it became someone who offers their relatively reasoned opinions for a living. Now, it’s just someone with opinions—and everybody has opinions. 

That’s not altogether a bad thing, we all have the First Amendment right to commit journalism (I’ve opposed licensing journalists for 20 years for this reason). But the net effect of these two dynamics is a flattening of what is important, and an elevating of what isn’t. Moreover, because the media environment is now both nationalized and globalized, we are barraged by infinitely more events, both real and in the sense of Daniel Boorstin’s “pseudo-events”—“An event produced by a communicator with the sole purpose of generating media attention and publicity.” China’s internment and cultural genocide of the Uighurs is filed down, while some idiot’s tweet is elevated upward. 

We don’t actually measure the passage of time with clocks or calendars, but with events. Try to remember a significant moment in your life—your first kiss, your first promotion, whatever—and come up with the rough date of it. Your brain doesn’t call up a calendar to look up the moment, you call up the moment and then check it against other moments you happen to know the date or time for. The acceleration of events yields the acceleration of time, and suddenly the invasion of murder hornets feels really old—and in a way, you do too. 

Benda’s verdict.

In Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals, he observes that prior to the rise of socialism, nationalism, populism, and the sub-isms that were merely brand new names for these three kindred forces, rulers did what was in their realm’s interest without much concern for the feelings of the people. A monarch decided whether it was worth the blood and treasure required to take back some lands or answer some insult to the nation’s honor. But, Benda writes, “[The] modern citizen claims to feel for himself what is demanded by the national honor, and he is ready to rise up against his leaders if they have a different conception of it.” He doesn’t claim that this is merely a product of democratic societies. Kings and despots felt answerable to the masses, too. 

Prior to the modern age, Benda writes, “leaders of States practiced realism, but did not honor it; Louis XI, Charles the Fifth of Spain, Richelieu, Louis XIV, did not claim that their actions were moral. They saw morality where the Gospel had shown it to them, and they did not attempt to displace it because they did not apply it. With them morality was violated, but moral notions remain intact; and that is why, in spite of all their violence, they did not disturb civilization.” Because of such men, Benda adds, “humanity did evil for two thousand years, but honored good. This contradiction was an honor to the human species, and formed the rift whereby civilization slipped into the world.”

There’s a lot to chew on there, but I’d like to bring things back to the moment we’re in. One of Benda’s points here is that leaders are only leaders if they, well, lead. When leaders—whether kings, presidents, senators or, most importantly, intellectuals in the broadest sense—start from the conclusion that the passions of the masses are always not merely valid but supreme, they cease to be leaders and become followers. “There go the people,” Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin allegedly said, “I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

This was the “treason” Benda took dead aim at. The intellectuals had changed allegiances, from champions of truth—moral truth, universal truth, Christian truth, scientific truth, whatever—to champions of whatever the people wanted. (“The educators of the human mind now take sides with Callicles against Socrates,” Benda wrote, “a revolution which I dare to say seems to me more important than all political upheavals.” For Callicles, “the more powerful, the better, and the stronger” were all different words for the same thing. Benda called this the “divinization of realism,” which I could explain more but that would be a real rabbit hole. 

What a stupid time.

That’s what I see all over the place in America today. We don’t have nationalism of the sort Benda had in mind, because the nationalisms of the early 20th century were real mass movements. What we have today are competing audiences that think they’re movements, and entertainers all too eager to tell them they’re right. President Trump is an entertainer who pretends to be other things. So many of his defenders are playing the same game, pretending that there’s a method to his madness, nobility in his crudeness, genius in his ignorance. One prominent conservative pundit who has thrived in the Trump era has told me and several others that the job of conservative pundits is to represent the people who love and support Trump—not to actually tell the truth, or even to stand up for policies that the people who voted for Trump wanted or would benefit from. I normally call that fan service, but it’s also a variant of Benda’s treason.

Right now, a host of politicians, pundits, and various experts are making incredibly vapid arguments about free speech and censorship, all because the fans don’t want to hear that Trump did anything wrong (much less that he has a thumbless grasp of the issues at play). So now everyone is supposed to believe that the only way to save “free speech” is for the federal government to step in and regulate speech. Consider this statement from Trump:

Now, it may be true that some Republicans “feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices.” But I suspect most don’t because I see their tweets—and Trump’s—all the time. But more importantly, it’s just not true. Just log onto Twitter. Do you see Republicans being “totally silenced”?

I know, I know, you’re not supposed to believe your lying eyes, just as you’re not supposed to take the President of the United States literally, just “seriously”—and when taking him seriously does him no favors, hypothetically. And even when hypothesizing about what he might have meant? Shut up. 

The relevant point here is “feel.” Well, what is true for liberals is also true for conservatives: Facts don’t care about your feelings either. Your feelings about the First Amendment or the plain meaning of the law are irrelevant if you’re wrong. 

Or at least your feelings should be irrelevant. But again, we live in an age where feelings come first. I may care more about the right’s descent into a mass of populist panderers and entertainers because I care more about the integrity and viability of conservatism, but this is every bit as much of a problem on the left. However justified your rage at the murder of George Floyd may be—and I certainly think rage is an appropriate response—there is no defense of violent riots and looting. As a great conservative Calvin Coolidge famously said, “There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime.” What holds true for police strikes holds at least as true for violent mob action. 

Similarly, feeling that you are a different sex than the one you were born into is something that you are free to feel. You’re even free to live according to that feeling. But it doesn’t change what medical textbooks tell us. Rachel Dolezal may feel like a black woman—that doesn’t make her one. Feeling that America was “really” founded in 1619 or that the Revolutionary War was fought to protect slavery may feel right, but that doesn’t make it true. Feeling like the “1 percent,” “the Deep State,” the Jews, or the Lizard People secretly control the government doesn’t make it true. Feeling that Trump was a Russian asset doesn’t make it true. Your feelings about nuclear power … You get the point. I hope. 

We are in a moment in which the order of the day is to manipulate feelings, to convert them into money or clicks or votes or ratings or all of the above. It is a moment where people take the emotional feedback from their little slices of the market and divinize it. And one of the most rewarding feelings there is in this putrid climate is schadenfreude, taking joy in the misfortune of others. “Our age,” Benda wrote, “is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.” Those who don’t play along, who speak up for the unpopular truths or just plain decency, are now the new traitors to those who have adapted to the new game. Just look at Mitt Romney. 

Over the last week, I’ve been subjected to relentless abuse for telling the truth about a couple of the more adept players of this game. I’ll be fine, but I think one of the most constant insults I’ve gotten is illuminating. No, not that I’m overweight, I knew that. They keep telling me how irrelevant I am now and how no one wants to hear what I have to say. I don’t think that’s literally true, but it does prove my point. I am certainly capable of error, but I have held onto pretty much all the philosophical and policy views I had before they were disappointed in me. The facts haven’t changed all that much where I am concerned; what’s changed are the feelings. And, I’ve been the first to admit all along, that puts me in a remnant. 

Various & Sundry

I recorded a great second conversation with Matt Ridley earlier this week, which I’ll put in the ICYMI section below. 

I also had a great conversation with Joseph Uscinski on the Remnant yesterday. He’s a leading authority on conspiracy theories, by which I mean he studies their popularity and the role they play in our politics. While asking him the difference between paranoia and “conspiratorialism,” he made an interesting distinction. The latter is when you think “they” are out to get “us,” while the former is when you think “they” are out to get “me.” Which sparked an idea I had never thought of before: Populism is the plural of paranoia. More on that in the future. 

A new GLoP is out, and while it was a nightmare to record, it turned out pretty funny. It’s also in the ICYMI. 

I participated in a really interesting panel discussion on the new book How to Educate an American. You can watch it here.

Animal update: The doggers were ecstatic about the return of the Fair Jessica, I stopped the video after about a minute and a half but it kept going like that for a while. The girls are very happy, but Zoë’s been a bit under the weather and we’re not sure why. She’s been a bit low energy and she’s been sneezing and wheezing a bit. We think it might be hayfever (not Covid-19). Pippa’s damn limp keeps coming and going, we gotta get a new brace for her (she ruined the last one in the ocean). So we’re taking it a little easy on the excessive ball play again. In a more encouraging development, Ralph doesn’t seem to have as much disdain for me as has been the norm. That’s different from saying he loves me. He doesn’t. But there’s a lot less searing dislike. Maybe spending the last 10 days feeding him has helped.

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

The first Remnant of the week, with a recent fan-fave Matt Ridley

For Biden’s VP pick: The boring-er the better

My Wednesday “news”letter, so feather-ruffling that we removed the paywall so that all can read it

The week’s second Remnant, with conspiracy theory-researcher and possible Lizard Person Joseph Uscinski

Regulating Twitter? Chill out, Mr. President

Another day, another GLoP

And now, the weird stuff

An extremely young George Carlin

John Wick is called John Wick only because Keanu Reeves kept forgetting the actual title

A deleted scene about Martin Luther from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life

John Waters, being as weird as ever

A David Lynch-composed soundtrack, performed by an actual monkey

Photograph of a murder hornet from Getty Images.

The Media Are Not on the Ballot

Whether Trump likes it or not, he's running against Joe Biden.

Hello,

I got an email yesterday from the Trump campaign. It begins:

Friend,

President Trump isn’t running against Sleepy Joe Biden. He’s running against the Radical Left, the Deep State, the Do-Nothing Democrats, and their partner, the real opposition party, the Fake News media.

They are vicious and crazy, but as long as we have you on our team, we will win and we will WIN BIG!

Despite their best efforts to take him down, President Trump continues to put America First with every decision he makes. In fact, his approval ratings are SKYROCKETING among the Republican Party and voters in swing states.

President Trump knows that the corrupt media will never report the FACTS. He wants to get the TRUTH, which is why he asked us to go straight to the source - YOU, the American People - to take the Official May Approval Poll.

YOUR answers will represent the views of EVERY voter who lives in your zip code.

It goes on like this for a while. But this is more than enough to make my point: The Trump campaign thinks his supporters are idiots.

First of all, Trump’s approval is not “skyrocketing” among Republicans, nor among voters in swing states, in any actual polls. Unless, of course, you think this “Official May Approval Poll,” in which I will be the official voice of every voter in my ZIP code, is a serious thing. And if you do, you should probably just stop reading now and go buy that fish tank cleaner cocktail you’ve been meaning to get.

But none of this is particularly important. Other campaigns do this kind of moronic fake poll crap, too.

Who’s on the ballot?

What is important is the first line: “President Trump isn’t running against Sleepy Joe Biden.” It’s important in part because there are smart and decent people who nod along when they hear statements like this. They think it’s true, in some real and vital way, that the president is running against the media, and the Deep State, and all of the forces of darkness. Yes—on some superficial level, there’s some truth to it. On another, it’s all nonsense—because as a matter of basic reality, he is, in fact, running against Joe Biden.

But Trump doesn’t want you to think of it that way, because by any measure Biden is much more popular than he is. So, he needs his voters to think he’s really running against the monstrous horde Biden is allegedly the front man for.

Trump needs to do this for several reasons: For one, he will lose if the election is a referendum on him. That’s because Biden is more popular than he is—and because Biden is also more popular than Hillary Clinton was in 2016 (which is why the president and his campaign reportedly long for a rematch).

The mythic narrative of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 is that only he could have defeated Hillary Clinton because he was the only candidate willing to attack her. It’s certainly true that another nominee wouldn’t have encouraged “Lock her up!” chants, or invited some of Bill Clinton’s sexual assault victims to a debate. But Donald Trump didn’t make Hillary Clinton unpopular. She did that herself, albeit with the help of conservatives—including yours truly—going back almost 30 years. We now know that Clinton’s candidacy didn’t just make Trump more palatable, it also artificially made Bernie Sanders more attractive to the many Democrats who didn’t like her, either. The best proof is the fact that, in the primaries, Biden destroyed Sanders in the same states where, four years earlier, Sanders crushed Clinton. As I’ve argued before, this means Hillary Clinton is one of the most influential political figures in modern history. She was so toxic she midwifed the transformation of the GOP into a nationalist party, at least for a while, and came very close to transforming the Democrats into a socialist party (or at least accelerated the transformation).

Anyway, the real point here is that Trump needs an enemy for Republicans (and Republican-friendly independents) to hate or fear enough to justify re-electing a president many of them dislike. That’s where all the Deep State, radical left and, most of all, the “the real opposition party, the Fake News media” stuff comes in. They’re the Enemy Within that must be stopped.  

Now, I will happily stack my record of criticizing the mainstream media against just about anybody’s. I’m happy to concede that outlets like the New York Times carry water for the Democrats like Gunga Din for the British Indian Army. But here’s the thing: Gunga Din isn’t on the ballot. And no amount of “punish the media” from Trump’s Gunga Dins on the right will change that.

I’m not outraged by the tactic of running against the media, which is hardly original. It was an old idea by the time the 1992 Bush campaign sold their first official bumper sticker “Annoy The Media: Re-Elect Bush.” (It didn’t work.)

A warless wartime president.

What I do find outrageous is that this isn’t merely Trump’s re-election strategy. It is central to his idea of governance because it is central to his own psychology. He needs to delegitimize everything and everyone who criticizes him or exposes inconvenient facts about him. He doesn’t care whether the criticisms or exposés are true. And he certainly doesn’t care if his counterattacks are true—his execrable insinuation that Joe Scarborough murdered a former staffer to cover up something sordid is just the latest example of immoral demagoguery going back to his birtherism, or his peddling the idea that Ted Cruz’s father killed Kennedy. He’s furious about the threat to free speech posed by fact-checks to his tweets. There is no assault on free speech there. But in response, he threatens to do great violence to free speech as payback.

This raises the funny irony of all the folks insisting that reporters deserve to be demonized, belittled, or humiliated because they get the facts wrong or are unkind to Trump. These same people never seem to have any problem with a president who does precisely what they accuse the media of doing. To their credit, the editors of the Wall Street Journal noticed the hypocrisy. Trump is doing with Scarborough precisely the sort of stuff the anti-media Comstocks and Steele dossier obsessives decry, just more flagrantly—and they love it.

The president has been running a wartime presidency adapted to the culture war. Amazingly, when given the chance to actually fight a war of sorts against the pandemic, he couldn’t manage it because it was too damn hard to stay in character. So he turned the pandemic into a culture war spectacle, because that was in his comfort zone.

This illuminates the fact this is all just a stupid game for clicks, ratings, and votes, and most importantly, it’s a way to provide an excuse for not holding the president of the United States accountable for his actions. Pay attention. His most successful defenders will often dodge the substance of a valid criticism of the president and pivot to “What about The New York Times?” Or, “the real issue is the media”—blah blah blah—as if the Times’ or MSM’s conduct has anything to do with the fact that he botched the response to the coronavirus, fired inspectors general, openly invited the Russians to meddle in our election, or spouted countless daily lies on matters great and small. The New York Times, love it or hate it, isn’t the president of the United States and denouncing it as a defense of his conduct has as much logical force as saying “What about Domino’s Pizza!?”

About Ms. McEnany.

Which brings me to Kayleigh McEnany, the new “It” girl of MAGA world.

On Fox News Sunday, I criticized the new White House press secretary’s conduct as grotesque and indefensible. And all the usual suspects got very angry. Michelle Malkin, who is not outraged by Holocaust-denial or racism, is very cross with me. Seb Gorka is going full Gorka (Protip: Never go full Gorka).

After reading all of their arguments and thinking about it a bit, I’ve concluded: They’re all wrong and I was right.

The first thing that needs to be pointed out is why McEnany was given the job in the first place. But that requires some context. She has no real experience in journalism or communications. She is one of these people—Washington is full of them—who just wanted to be on TV. When being anti-Trump got her on TV, she was anti-Trump. When the incentive structure changed, she changed her views accordingly (a very common tale). Anti-Trump McEnany denounced Trump’s racist comments about Mexican immigrants. Pro-Trump McEnany hailed the president’s comments on Charlottesville as—I defecate you negatory—a “message of love and inclusiveness!

In short, she’s in the entertainment business, as are so many of the pundits who will admit in private so many of the things they passionately deny in public. Indeed, there’s a whole theoretical framework out there that says conservative commentators should only say what their audiences want to hear, not what they think is true. She is good at this dumb game, and it got her the press secretary job. Kudos to her.

But she’s not there to answer questions from the press, she’s there to play this dumb game—again, during two national emergencies. Specifically, she’s there because the president’s coronavirus briefings were a disaster. He used them as substitute MAGA rallies, a kayfabe spectacle for his own ego, which was not what most people facing a pandemic and an economic catastrophe were interested in. Initially, he got a rally-around-the-president bump in approval, but he frittered it away.

Meanwhile, virtually every U.S. governor (and most world leaders) has gained support during the pandemic—because they took it seriously. Trump’s aides and allies spent weeks trying to convince him that he was hurting himself by using all this “free media” (his term) for his schtick. Once he realized his mistake and stopped doing the press conferences, he literally concluded that there was no point to having a coronavirus task force at all. The only benefit to the task force, after all, was the opportunity to mug for the cameras. Remove that and you remove the need for the task force in Trump’s mind. He was stunned to find out that his own task force was so “popular” (again his word) and reversed the decision. A normal president—hell, a normal person—wouldn’t think popularity would be a factor. Either it was necessary to have a task force to save American lives or it wasn’t. That just wasn’t a big part of the equation for him.

But Trump was still frustrated that he couldn’t do his rally schtick. So they brought in Kayleigh to do it for him. Trump doesn’t like having White House press secretaries speak for him, if that means actually trying to do the job. But having a smart and attractive woman play all the Dear Leader hits, well, that’s a different story.

The specific exchange that I found grotesque and indefensible came last Friday when reporters asked about Trump’s vow to “override the governors” if they didn’t do what he wanted and open the churches.

She dodged and caviled for a bit until the following exchange:

Q: But just to follow up what Kristen asked, what specific provision of federal law allows the President to override a governor’s decision?

MS. MCENANY:  The President will strongly encourage every governor to allow their churches to reopen.  And, boy, it’s interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.

That’s red meat and fan service.

I keep hearing how journalists are so terrible and need to have their terribleness thrown back at them. This is much more important, it would seem, than providing clear information about the pandemic or the economy or, in this case, the president’s constitutional powers as he sees them.

And that’s the weird thing. If all of these people droning on and on about the evil, biased press had their way, isn’t this precisely the kind of question they would want asked? I guarantee you that if President Obama asserted the authority to override governors and force churches open (or closed!), the very same people turning McEnany into Joan of Arc would be setting their hair on fire in outrage.

Because I know so many of the players—and so much about them—performatively attacking me, I’m so very tempted to opine on their motives. But I’ve learned in the last few years that the human mind is perfectly capable of creating a worldview to back up a decision that was initially made for cynical or careerist reasons, so I’ll assume everyone is sincere.

But sincerity doesn’t transmogrify bullshit into gold. President Trump can’t govern. He doesn’t know how. This means, as many of us have argued for a long time, he’s not Hitler or even a strongman. Real dictators know how to use all the powers at their disposal. As Ross Douthat recently argued, he doesn’t want real authority—because with real authority comes real responsibility. That’s the last thing he wants. What he does want are ratings, and praise, and to be the center of attention—and to get reelected for more of the same. To do that he needs a domestic enemy, a new “Evil Empire” to rally the faithful. And for now, that’s the media.

Fine, beat up on the media all you like. But don’t tell me the media is on the ballot or that the media’s shortcomings absolve the president’s. And don’t tell me that, amid a pandemic that has taken more than 100,000 lives, and tens of millions of jobs, that this crap is the “real issue.”

Or at the very least, don’t tell me these things as if they’re serious things serious people say. Because they’re the kind of things Kayleigh McEnany says.

Photograph of Donald Trump by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

The Only Thing Worse Than Capitalism Is Everything Else

Moving 'past' capitalism means going backward.

Dear Reader (But perhaps not those of you tempted to do the Twitter equivalent of blackface humor to own the libs),

I really like the movie Good Will Hunting, despite the fact I hate it. I know that sounds weird, but I bet you have a bunch of movies like that. Well, not you over in the corner. But the rest of you. The American President is another movie I find compellingly watchable even though there’s so much of it I can’t stand.  

I just cut three paragraphs of ranting about The American President from this “news”letter. Suffice it to say, the movie is everything I can’t stand about Aaron Sorkin’s stuff. He really is a very gifted writer. But he is so sure of the rightness of his views, the stupidity and villainy of those he disagrees with, and so confident that he understands politics better than anyone else, that he ends up making borderline propaganda that’s all the more effective because he pretends that he’s offering the best arguments from conservatives. 

Good Will Hunting is annoying in similar ways. The main thrust of the movie is fine. It’s this one little subtheme that drives me nuts: Matt Damon’s character is a super genius, as demonstrated by his uncanny ability to solve complicated mathematical questions. That’s believable enough. Math prodigies are a thing. But we’re supposed to believe that his ability to instantaneously understand math (and organic chemistry) also applies to history and, to some extent, politics. So of course, he thinks Howard Zinn is the bomb (I am forgoing a 20-paragraph rant about Zinn). 

Anyway, none of that is particularly relevant to what I wanted to talk about, but there’s this scene in Good Will Hunting where Skylar asks Will out for coffee and he replies:

“Great, or maybe we could get together and just eat a bunch of caramels.”

“What?” She replies.

“When you think about it,” he says, “it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.”

Haha. Brilliant! (In that douchey, “I took a course in postmodernism” way). 

Red light, green light.

Except, you know what? That’s a really dumb way of thinking about it. I mean I get the point, but the custom of getting together for coffee isn’t actually arbitrary. It evolved as a cultural norm over centuries. 

Think of it this way: Using the color red in stoplights is equally as arbitrary as meeting for coffee. We could have gone with green for “stop” and red for “go,” but we didn’t. And societies around the globe have evolved around the idea that, if you see a red stoplight, you should stop. If you arbitrarily changed the system tomorrow, you know what would happen? Lots of people would crash their cars. 

Arbitrary means: Based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system. I am entirely open to the idea that the initial decision to pick red for “stop” was arbitrary—even though it wasn’t. From what I can tell, it was picked because red was already the color for “danger” (and because you can see red from the greatest distance).  In the first stoplights—which were used for trains, not cars—they used white for “go” and green for “caution.” But a red filter on one stoplight fell out, making the lamp underneath look white. A train accident followed. So they went with green for “go,” red for “stop,” and yellow for “caution” because yellow was the hardest to confuse for the other colors. 

The story of coffee is even more complicated, though it starts with the fact that Americans considered tea drinking a British thing. John Adams called tea the “traitors drink.” 

Part of my point is that lots of things that seem arbitrary or baseless aren’t. Just because you don’t know why we do something doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason for it (cue mandatory reference to Chesterton’s Fence and 500 pages of Hayek).  

Another point worth appreciating is that nature has an uncanny way of creating order out of chaos. I could explain, but this video is a way cooler illustration. 

Human beings aren’t nails, but they do have a remarkable ability to spontaneously set up rules of behavior. I learned from David Skarbek that prison gangs create elaborate systems of behavior, including their own constitutions, without ever being told to or consulting the Federalist Papers.  

But my real point is that even if something originated as an arbitrary decision, it doesn’t stay arbitrary because humans take it into account as part of the social and cultural landscape. Think of trees: Where a tree takes root could be called fairly random. Certainly, you can pick an arbitrary place to plant one. But once it takes root, the arbitrariness melts away as birds nest in it and squirrels set up their terror networks therein. The address of that specific tree may be arbitrary to you and me—it may seem no different than a thousand other trees—but it is home to the creatures living in it. One of the nastier tactics of the British Empire was to tear down or burn shade trees when trying to conquer various parts of the globe. Big shade trees were—and remain—the natural meeting place of civil society in many cultures. 

Disruption vs. disruptors.

One of the biggest problems with capitalism is the downside of its best features: It’s disruptive. It unsettles the settled. This is a glorious thing when it erodes bad institutions and customs. At various points, it helped overthrow tyranny, aristocracy, monarchy, slavery, and prejudice. But it can also wear down good stuff. It can disrupt settled communities, customs, and institutions that would not necessarily benefit from being unsettled. The factory in a factory town may have been built there for fairly arbitrary reasons, but it became a valued shade tree of sorts over time. 

The disruptive nature of capitalism—“creative destruction” if you prefer Schumpeter’s phrase—is a net benefit over time. But in the moment of destruction it doesn’t feel that way, particularly by the people for whom it is not actually a net benefit. That’s why disruption itself isn’t the problem, the pace of disruption is. The wool and cotton mills were bad for the Luddites, but good for humanity. Humans can adapt. Americans are particularly good at it. But even the best of us need time to catch up.

I have no problem conceding this downside to capitalism, because it’s real and we shouldn’t shirk from conceding reality. Where I differ from almost all of the left and growing chunks of the right is when we get to the “and therefore what?” portion of the discussion. First of all, the rule of planners and bureaucrats—of any ideological stripe—is more arbitrary than the disruption of the market, and it can be equally painful. The Soviets, in their zeal to help the proletariat, destroyed a whole frick’n sea.

Capitalism works—or at least is supposed to—by laying out clear rules that apply to everyone. That’s the cleanest, clearest, and fairest way to set up an economy and a society. Those rules can have a certain amount of apparent or real arbitrariness behind them. Indeed, that’s inevitable, because cultures are weird by nature and laws reflect culture to some extent. But once set up, their enforcement cannot be arbitrary.

Again, when everybody knows that red means “stop” and green means “go,” the people can govern themselves—for the most part (think of the trillions of times drivers have stopped on red with no law enforcement around). But in a system where some people get to go on red, and others can’t, everything breaks down. If we have an economy where certain players are exempt from the rules because of who they know or because they belong to some special group, then the rules no longer have moral authority. Many people will follow the new arbitrary rules only if fear of getting caught compels them to. And many other people will respond to the new incentive structure and spend more time fighting, campaigning, and lobbying for their own special treatment or exemption from the rules.

The people championing the “little guy,” “the forgotten man,” etc., may be sincere, or at least start out as sincere; I’m sure many of the Castros, Chavezes, Lenins, and Maos of the world started out believing their own propaganda. But any system designed to let rulers arbitrarily decide who is deserving of favor will yield a society where the key to success is currying favor with the rulers. Clear, simple, and just rules help the little guy. Opaque, complex, and arbitrary rules help the rich and powerful. Sure, they may not help the current crop of rich and powerful people, but they will create a new crop of them, and they will not be interested in meeting the needs of the market in the most efficient manner possible. They will be interested, first and foremost, in meeting the needs of the rulers. One need only look at China or Russia today—or every regime prior to, say, 1700 A.D.—to see that. 

The people proposing that we get beyond capitalism have many valid criticisms and observations, and some of their ideas have merit at the margins. And when they say that America doesn’t actually live up to the ideal of clear and fair rules for everyone, they often have a point. But what they propose is not to live up to that ideal, but to replace it with another: “We” should be the ones deciding the rules. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Yesterday I saw something awesome, and I wish I could have videotaped it. Gracie, my chonky and queenly cat, was out in the backyard with the dogs and me. Grace and Pippa get along well enough, often sharing a bed or couch. But Zoë and Grace are, at best, frenemies. Anyway, at one point, Gracie spotted a chipmunk and suddenly gave chase, her ample belly swaying to and fro. Zoë saw it and joined the hunt, in a brilliant pincer movement. The chipmunk got away, but I saw the makings of a new alliance forming. Anyway, the dogs are starting to get super needy. At first, they seemed just genuinely happy to be home from the beach, or at least the long car ride. But now they are back to the usual anxiety and neediness whenever my wife is missing (she and Lucy get back from the beach early next week). If I get up to go to the bathroom or grab the remote, they leap up, convinced that we’re either going for a walk or that I am about to abandon them. They’re a bit like an overprotective dad with an attractive teenage daughter. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Where do you think you’re going now?” I walk around the house with a full entourage of two dogs and one cat (Ralph still remains aloof, though less than he used to). Not much else to report, except that I captured on video the super rare four-point sitting spaniel waggle followed by a tennis ball snoot-bounce. She does love her ball. Oh, and Zoë discovered a hell mouth. 

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant, from the smokiest car in Florida

Photograph by Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images.

The nationalists have a strategy problem

The week’s first Remnant, with brilliant analyst Amy Walter

The members-only Wednesday “news”letter

The week’s second Remnant, with fellow Dispatcher and five-timer David French

Could we maybe have a plan when it comes to China?

And now, the weird stuff

Douglas Murray raps Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”

A very long podcast about Malachi Martin, former National Review religion editor and contender for Most Interesting Human

This Ringo song that The Beatles scrapped from Help! Sounds like an early punk song

An algorithm attempts to write Jennifer Rubin’s column

Dennis Rodman tells a generally gross story about partying in North Korea

AOC and Me

Are we really supposed to believe the Green New Deal wouldn't cost anything?

Dear Reader (I know you’re somewhere under that pile of Doritos bags),

This pandemic has yielded many terrible things, caused great sorrow, and required great sacrifices. Deaths, heartache, closed businesses and lost jobs, heightened domestic and international tensions, cancelled weddings and lamely Zoomed graduations: the list goes on and on.

I do not want to minimize the importance and gravity of such things. But let’s face it, lots of people are writing about these things—giving voice to the voiceless, calling attention to the tragedies, celebrating the indomitable spirit of those staring death in the face every day. But I ask you, Who—who!?—will speak up for the murder in plain sight of the distinction between “less” and “fewer”? You, Lieutenant Weinberg!?

Every day, on a bipartisan basis, Republicans and Democrats, journalists and politicians, America Firsters and Globalists, rather than let the silky butterfly of “fewer” alight upon the flower of proper usage, cram down the leaden, fecal moth of “less.” And they do the same thing in reverse, because this metaphor doesn’t require strict adherence to logic, taking the pristine application of “less” and sullying it in the sewer of misplaced “fewer.”

Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump, Anthony Fauci and Andrew Cuomo—they are all equally guilty. Talking about “less cases” or “less deaths” when they mean “fewer cases” or “fewer deaths.” A cursory Nexis-Lexis search finds no fewer than 18.34 sextillion examples.  

I know what you’re saying, “You have to inflate the doll, after you get in the van. Otherwise the neighbors will talk.” 

Sorry, that’s someone else. 

You’re saying, “I couldn’t care fewer about this.”

Oh wait: You’re not saying that! Why not? Because that would make you a monster. 

As noted lexicologist and grammarian Dr. W.A. Yankovic notes, “Less” is for “mass nouns” while “fewer” is for “count nouns” (not related to Baron Verbs or Duke Adjective). For instance, you would say “less money,” but “fewer dollars.” A good rule of thumb is that if something can be counted, it’s fewer. If it’s something that can’t be counted or is more abstract, it’s less. 

So “less death,” but “fewer deaths.” Less disease, but fewer COVID-19 cases. More music and Les Nessman—oh wait, that’s WKRP

Well, I think it’s time for less pedantry in this “news”letter—and fewer dad jokes.   

As the aforementioned guy with the van and the air pump said to the cop: I’ll get off this in a second, but I feel like I should be honest with you. I have all but lost hope that I will persuade people to use these terms correctly. Really, all I want now is company for my misery. I want to be a super-spreader for the disease of pedantry simply to increase the ranks of the annoyed, to expand the remnant of the grammar-tweakers. 

Almost 20 years ago, my friend Nick Schulz explained to me that you shouldn’t say things like, “The reason I inflated the doll is because we are in love,” or, “The reason people don’t sit next to me on the bus is because I wear a spaghetti strainer codpiece.”

The reason that you shouldn’t say sentences like that is not that they are disturbing, or a good way to con the draft board.  Rather, it’s because “The reason … is because” construction is wrong, like syrup on a steak or vegan shepherd’s pie. “The reason … is because” basically means “Reason is the reason,” which is the kind of tautology that makes Harry Mudd’s androids shut down like France during a general strike (or a Tuesday).  “Reason” and “is because” have the same job in the sentence, and two is a crowd. 

Now, the reason I bring this up is that I have never forgiven Nick for telling me this. It’s like a gnostic curse. People—especially Mike Pence!—break this rule literally almost as often as they misuse literally—and each time they do it, I wince like someone jabbed a thumbtack into my septum, even though it really doesn’t matter. Everyone knows what the speaker means, and my life would be better if I’d never known about this. I want to be normal. I want to enjoy the bliss of grammatical ignorance. But I can’t. So I want to spread the infection, like the guy who sings Hall and Oates songs just to infect other people with an earworm. I’m like the vampire that just wants someone to share the life of the damned with. I am in a dark place, and I just want to be fewer alone, not have less people sharing my affliction. 

Motte & Bailey, cont’d.

So yesterday Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and I got into a brief Twitter spat. She tweeted:

I responded:

And she replied:

You might recall we recently discussed the Motte & Bailey style of arguing here. Make a sweeping statement—“people named Todd smell like cabbage” —and when challenged, retreat to a more defensible claim—“all I’m saying is that Todd from accounting smells like cabbage.”

Ocasio-Cortez insinuates that billionaires don’t pay taxes, when in fact the top 1 percent pays roughly 37.3 percent of all individual income taxes, which is more than the bottom 90 percent (30.5 percent). 

She was responding to a report that Bill Gates, who has promised to spend billions on the coronavirus and has paid an estimated $10 billion in taxes, is trying to get other billionaires to spend more on it. Under his existing “Giving Pledge” initiative, he’s corralled a half-trillion dollars in charitable giving. And Ocasio-Cortez’s immediate thought isn’t “Wow, thanks!” but it’s to mock Gates and people like him as free-riders. 

Her response wasn’t technically a Motte & Bailey argument but more of a non sequitur that contained one. She claimed that I didn’t read the Green New Deal “legislation” she proposed and then claimed it wasn’t really legislation—as in, a law—at all, just a “non-binding resolution of values” that would cost nothing if passed. 

Now, that’s a motte bigger than the Twinkie that Egon Spengler describes in Ghostbusters. I happen to remember when she first unveiled her version of the Green New Deal pretty well. I wrote about it quite a bit at the time. In interview after interview, she was asked how she would pay for her proposal. I remember plenty of times her explaining how we could do it through taxing, borrowing, or printing trillions of dollars. She also said that it would pay for itself by creating jobs. But if she ever said, “Oh, it won’t cost anything at all because this is entirely non-binding and merely an expression of our values,” I missed it. 

Here she is on NPR in what I believe was her first interview on the subject, saying all of these things—except for the part that it wouldn’t cost anything. 

Now, I should say that my claim that you could take every penny from the entire 1 percent and not pay for the Green New Deal is debatable; I just think I’d win that debate. I was talking about money the 1 percent basically has on hand. But it’s true: If you forced the top 1 percent to liquidate their companies, sell their houses and stocks, you could theoretically raise the $50 trillion to $100 trillion that the full Green New Deal would undoubtedly cost—even if you included Medicare for All, which alone would run about $32 trillion. So yeah, if you want to go Full Bane and kick the 1 percent out of their homes and seize their companies, the GND might be affordable. 

Of course, any effort along those lines wouldn’t raise anything close to the paper-valuation of existing assets, because people have this funny tendency to avoid having all of their wealth confiscated. But you get the point. 

Science!

Over at The Bulwark, Richard North Patterson offers a fairly  pristine example of a genre of left-wing anti-conservative scolding when it comes to science. Now before I go on, I should say upfront that I agree with the gist of many of his criticisms of some right-wingers and their response to the pandemic. For instance, I think the surge in anti-vaccine talk in some fevered corners of the right is dangerous, disappointing, and embarrassing. 

But on the whole, I detest this sort of argument because it takes a natural human (or even American) phenomenon and turns it into a partisan cudgel. Polls and studies have consistently showed that anti-vaxxers exist on both sides of the political divide. But ask yourself, who has more cache with the mainstream media and elites: Robert Kennedy Jr. or Michelle Malkin? Who did more in the last two decades to promote anti-vaccine theories?

It’s true that in recent years—as the issue has changed from safety to parental rights—the numbers have shifted, with conservatives being somewhat more opposed to mandatory vaccinations than liberals. 

And that’s sort of my point. One’s attitude toward a specific scientific issue is often determined by other ideological considerations. Patterson cites polling that shows conservatives are more anti-evolution. I am not going to claim that those polls aren’t reflective of real attitudes out there. But some of that is people understandably reading the question as an assault on religious beliefs and refusing to play along. This is a phenomenon that is well established in survey research. Some Republicans tell pollsters things they don’t believe because they infer—correctly—that the finding will be weaponized by people they can’t stand. 

A large majority of women say they disagree with the proposition that life begins at conception. I am sure that some percentage don’t actually believe that while still saying they do, because they understand that saying otherwise gives support to those who would restrict abortion. Just as some Republicans question the science behind epidemiology because they care about parental rights, some Democrats question the science of reproduction because they care about abortion rights. Science has been a boon to the pro-life cause, but we never hear that pro-choicers are “anti-science.”

Pretty much every major Democratic candidate said during the primaries that climate change is an “existential threat” to humanity (It’s not, if you take the plain meaning of the term “existential threat” literally, or even seriously.). But nearly all of them insisted that we can’t expand—or even use—nuclear power because nuclear power is “super-icky.” (I paraphrase). That sounds pretty anti-science to me. 

You can do this all day. The notion that men can get pregnant or have periods is not driven by fidelity to science but to politics, and fidelity to politics often requires a lack of fidelity to science. When research into sex differences yields results the left doesn’t like, it’s “pseudoscience.” When it yields information that empowers women or makes dudes look bad, science is awesome again. For years, the left led the charge on opposing genetically modified crops and it still considers geoengineering (see: using science to fix the climate) to be a moral horror. When you only like science when it confirms your priors, you aren’t really aren’t the science-worshipper you claim to be. 

On the latest episode of The Remnant I talked with Paul Matzko a bit about the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”—an argument first put forward by the political historian Richard Hofstadter. I firmly believe there’s a paranoid style in American politics. I also believe there’s a paranoid style in every other country’s politics—and we’re pikers compared to the Turks, the Iranians, the Russians, and even the French when it comes to crazy conspiracy theories. But I also believe there’s a paranoid style in human politics, because we’re pattern-seeking animals and sometimes that steers us in bad directions. Sometimes the paranoid style is anti-science, sometimes it’s anti-capitalist or anti-government. 

Sometimes this tendency manifests itself more on one side of the ideological spectrum than the other. But no side owns it. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So Pippa and Zoë don’t know it yet, but their time at the beach is winding down. It’s time, and not just because I feel like we’re pressing our luck on the alligator front. Pippa gets too excited on the beach and her limp has come back as a result. She’s also developed an ear infection, which we’re treating. But in the meantime she is a canine propeller. Zoë is still obsessed with the forbidden cave of mystery underneath the back porch, and Pippa is getting to be a problem with her constant demands to go back to the beach. If, 15 minutes after going to the beach, you get up to go the bathroom, she leaps up like we’re about to go on her first adventure of the day. If I’m sitting on the back porch and cast my gaze upward for a nanosecond, she brings me a ball or a frisbee with that “We’re you looking for this?” expression. I will say, I’ve really loved the morning walks at first light, before the beaches get crowded with people and dogs and the wind blowing on their canine nethers turns themintopuppies. They’regooddogs

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s audio Ruminant

“History is written by the victors” … sort of

The week’s first Remnant, with fan-favorite Scott Lincicome

Face masks=cowardice, send tweet

The week’s second Remnant, with historian of conservative talk-radio Paul Matzko

A hallowed GLoP

The pandemic will shake up college

And now, the weird stuff

Commander Data keeps himself busy with an expletive-laden musical number

Palpatine’s cartoon voice actor defends the legacy of Return of the Jedi

The Guy Fieri vs. Bill Murray Nacho Battle, happening tonight

If you ever hear this in the woods, run

Would you like vanilla, chocolate, or tear gas?

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

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