Haute Cuisine and Warped Priorities

The politicization of everything continues apace, to our peril.

Dear Reader (including my cousin’s friend who knew a guy who told him about a dude that said he heard it from a very reliable source that while you can’t get pregnant from a toilet seat, you can become immune to the coronavirus if you lick the underside of a toilet seat at any Waffle House in the Southeast and some truck-stop Taco Bells in the Midwest),

Some news stories are important in their own right. Some stories aren’t very important on the merits, but they represent an important trend.

For instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Met Gala dress stunt is not important on the merits at all. I mean, I get that AOC wants credit for having kicked “open the doors of the Met.” (Stop laughing.) But there was no bravery, no edgy transgressive rebellion, no sticking-it-to-the-man on display here. There was terrific marketing for her own line of swag, though! Not since Columbia Records rolled out its “The Man can’t bust our music” ad campaign have I seen such brilliant marketing of radical chic in the name of filthy lucre.

I do think, however, that this stunt is significant for what it represents. But I’ve written so much about how Congress—and coverage of Congress—is dominated by social media trolls that I don’t think it’s worth spending a lot of time on that. I’m especially reluctant because by writing about this pseudo-event I would be doing exactly what she wants.

Instead, let’s talk about something that got a lot less attention, but is at least tangentially related to the Met’s embrace of woke chic.

Taste the wokeness.

So let me ask you a question. Let’s say you love burritos and you love bulldogs (but not bulldog burritos). In your neighborhood there are two burrito stands. One uses incredibly fresh ingredients, makes its tortillas from scratch, doesn’t use canned beans, and slow roasts its pork, beef, and chicken to perfection. The other buys its burritos from a guy who gets a deal from a subsidiary of the RAMJAC Corporation’s vending machine supplier. He diverts a couple cases every month from a shipment intended for a minimum-security prison in Muncie, Indiana. Before the bad burrito guys throw their frozen bricks into the microwave, you can see on the packaging: “May contain meat product.”

In other words, for the sake of this hypothetical, the former’s burritos are so good that if stoners had suicide bombers, they’d serve them in their promised paradisical afterlife. The latter’s taste like something you might be grateful to eat a full decade into the zombie apocalypse.

But here’s the thing: The owner of Garbage Burritos (“Ya gotta eat something”®) does fantastic work for the local bulldog rescue charity, dedicating a portion of every sale to helping bulldogs. Meanwhile, the owner of Heavenly Burritos is a cat person.

If you say, “Let’s eat at Garbage because I want to support its work with bulldogs,” that’s fine. But I’d have huge problems with anybody who says Garbage Burritos are objectively better because of what the owner does for bulldogs.

Which brings me to the James Beard Awards. These are the Oscars of the food world. That’s not my description, it’s basically the group’s unofficial motto. From the Washington Post:

The organization that doles out the prestigious annual awards has retooled its criteria and now will also base decisions on whether candidates have shown a “demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.” The James Beard Foundation, which administers the awards, also announced a slate of other changes aimed at diversifying its judging committees—a move it ultimately hopes will lead to a more diverse group of winners—and screening for potentially problematic chefs taking the industry’s top honors.

I think this is horrible. Oh, I have no problem with diversifying judging committees and all that stuff (though the devil is in the details). But the idea that food should be graded on the chef’s political commitments is gross. I say this regardless of what those political commitments are. When I was in college, Domino’s was very controversial because its owner gave to pro-life causes. Some people refused to order from Domino’s because they didn’t like his politics. Some people ordered from Domino’s because they liked his politics. But most people ordered—or didn’t order—pizza from Domino’s for reasons that had nothing to do with politics. What I can’t imagine is anyone saying, “You know Domino’s is the best pizza” because of their politics.

I don’t know how to put this more plainly: You can’t taste social justice. It doesn’t have umami. It doesn’t provide that third kind of heat. No one ever sent back a plate of ravioli saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t taste any commitment to gender equity,” or, “I asked for extra intersectionality awareness.”

I think this matters in part because I actually care about the James Beard Awards—though much less now than I did before this announcement. But it also matters because I think one of the things ruining the culture and our politics is the refusal of institutions, and the people who run them, to stay in their lanes.

Merit is a dirty word these days, but merit matters. If I recommend a surgeon to you and he amputates your leg instead of removing your appendix, you might say, “I thought you told me he was the best surgeon in the area!” If I respond, “Well, as far as the actual medical stuff goes he’s pretty subpar, but I was including his commitment to environmental justice in my evaluation,” you might bludgeon me to death with your prosthetic leg. And rightly so.

I know the Academy Awards have gone a long way toward being the James Beard Awards of the film industry. But at least they haven’t publicly changed the criteria for Best Actor to “Good enough acting plus an exceptional commitment to social justice.”

If you want to start a social justice organization, great. I might have objections to your agenda, but go for it. Heck, if the James Beard Foundation wants to give out some special social justice award, more power to it. Jose Andres can probably find a little more room on his shelf. But not every institution needs to become a social justice organization. If you run a company that sells widgets, then sell excellent widgets and go into your own pocket to support the causes you care about. But whether its widgets, surgery, or awards for best cooking, diluting your commitment to excellence serves no one—especially you.

In fact, I would argue that doing what you’re good at is better for society than trying to do good outside your own competency. Simone Biles is free to use her status as the best gymnast in the world to support any cause she wants (and she has, to great effect). But it would be insane to include “commitment to gender equity” as a criteria on the judge’s scorecard. Either she stuck the landing or she didn’t.

This cultural grading on a curve is a symptom of the politicization of everything and the politicization of everything is why so many people think the system is corrupt—not just on the right. For the left, refusal to participate in the cause is morally equivalent to opposing the cause. And that is literally a form of totalitarian thinking. No, it’s not totalitarianism of the sort we associate with Stalinism or Nazism, but it is totalitarian in the way Mussolini—who coined the term—meant it. There’s no safe harbor. No right to exit from orthodoxy. No freedom to not care or simply have other priorities. No freedom to judge excellence on criteria outside ideologically warped and warping priorities. It’s gross.

74 words, 74 million voters.

Since I’m on the topic of warped and warping ideological priorities, let’s cast our gaze to the ongoing corruption of the GOP. Last night, Rep. Anthony Gonzales announced he won’t be running for re-election. He offered the almost obligatory “more time with my family” explanation. But he also made it clear that the decisive factor was that there is no room in the GOP—or at least the Ohio GOP—for someone who dissents from Trump worship and fidelity to his lies.  

In today’s GOP you can get drunk on fever swamp water all day long, rant endlessly about conspiracy theories, or dabble in white nationalism and you’ll be fine. You’ll even prosper.  But refuse to say the election was stolen—when it wasn’t—or decline to treat the January 6 rioters as patriotic political prisoners and you’ll be hounded and harassed. There’s no safe harbor. No room for dissent.

Now, I know a lot of people actually believe the BS they’re spewing about the election being stolen and how the rioters did nothing wrong. But what makes this even more troubling is that most of the “leaders” saying this stuff—or refusing to refute it—know the truth but are too cowardly, selfish, or power-hungry to admit it. I loved the video of Ron Johnson revealing that he’s secretly sane about the election. It was vaguely reminiscent of a Soviet Politburo member admitting in private that Stalin’s economic theories make no sense. Of course, the analogy has flaws given that under Stalin, such blasphemy would get you executed. But the scent is the same even if the stench isn’t as strong.

What truly fascinates me is how stupid all of this is. It’s a cultural-political collective action problem. Everyone with any sense in them—which I know excludes a lot of people—knows that buying into the “big lie” is toxic for the Republican Party and the country. But the incentive structure is so warped that it’s in no individual’s political interest to do much about it. The same belling the cat problem that made Trump the GOP nominee has led to the GOP worshipping the intellectual bathtub residue he left behind.

Last Saturday, George W. Bush delivered an excellent speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I think it was arguably the best presidential rhetoric we’ve heard in years.

And I think a lot more people would agree with me were it not for half of one paragraph:

As a nation, our adjustments have been profound. Many Americans struggled to understand why an enemy would hate us with such zeal. The security measures incorporated into our lives are both sources of comfort and reminders of our vulnerability. And we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.

Those 74 (italicized) words caused a remarkable number of people to take offense, mostly on behalf of other people.

And then, of course, there was Donald Trump himself:

So interesting to watch former President Bush, who is responsible for getting us into the quicksand of the Middle East (and then not winning!), as he lectures us that terrorists on the “right” are a bigger problem than those from foreign countries that hate America, and that are pouring into our Country right now. If that is so, why was he willing to spend trillions of dollars and be responsible for the death of perhaps millions of people? He shouldn’t be lecturing us about anything. The World Trade Center came down during his watch. Bush led a failed and uninspiring presidency. He shouldn’t be lecturing anybody!

I could take my red pen to nearly every sentence here, but I have other points to make.

Imagine if the January 6 riot had not occurred at all, or if Bush had offered those 74 words last year. It would be obvious that he was talking, at least in part, about Antifa and the various Black Lives Matter rioters who spent much of 2020 determined “to defile national symbols”—not just of Confederates, but of abolitionists, too.

He would have been right. And while some lefties would have stupidly been outraged on behalf of Antifa—posting pictures of the Normandy invasion with the caption “the original anti-fascists” or some other inanity—most elected Democrats probably wouldn’t take the bait. After all, Biden did condemn violence while running for the nomination.

But here’s the thing: If he said, “How dare you attack my voters,” it would have been spectacularly idiotic. Because taking offense at criticism of rioters and vandals is a roundabout way of taking ownership of them.

And that’s what much of the GOP is doing now. It’s amazing how rapidly the angry right adopted the ideological imperative of “love me, love my criminal whack jobs.” It’s like a fatwa went out, “You must believe that criticizing Trump or the rioters for the events of January 6—or the lies that motivated them—is an insult to 74 million Trump voters.”

That’s insane.

And I’m not even talking about the lunatics who not only believe the “big lie” but float the need to respond to that alleged conspiracy with mass executions for the “thousands” or “tens of thousands” who were in on it.

Factually, it’s not true that 74 million Trump voters believe the election was stolen (though too many have bought the propaganda). It’s not even true that 74 million voted for Trump or even love him. I know lots of Trump voters. Most of them voted against Biden rather than for Trump. And while there are lots of people so enthralled by him that if he took a dump on their dinner table on November 25 they’d say, “Happy Thanksgiving!” there certainly isn’t anything close to 74 million of them.

And politically, it’s just malpractice. There are two major political factions intent on claiming that all Trump voters supported the January 6 riot or are morally invested in it in some way: Trump haters and Trump lovers.

It’s no shock that the MSNBC crowd interpreted Bush’s remarks as a direct rebuke of the January 6 rioters. It’s a standing order of American progressivism to link conventional Republicans and traditional American conservatism with violent extremism, racism, and all the other very bad things. This has been true since FDR was president; it’s a through-line of American politics. After JFK was assassinated by a communist, the American right was blamed. When Barry Goldwater ran for president, the media portrayed him as a crazy Nazi. After Oklahoma City, Clinton blamed Rush Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio.

This guilt-by-association stuff isn’t new. What is new is how so many on the right today agree with it!

If I write a “news”letter condemning cannibalistic pederasts and you reply, “How dare you insult 74 million Trump voters,” I’m not the one calling Trump voters cannibalistic pederasts.

But when a former president condemns “violent extremists” and the response from Trumpy right-wingers is “How dare you?” I have to ask: What the actual fornication are these people doing?

The correct answer when some asks, “Do you condemn violent extremism?” is, “Of course.” Not “It depends,” or, “Only for the other team,” or, “Why are you insulting 74 million Trump voters.”

But that’s not the world we live in now. Everybody has to be all in on the lies and propaganda that fuel the angriest fringes of their parties. The tails are wagging the dogs.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So as I mentioned last week, Pippa needs surgery for her wrist, but the wait time to get it scheduled is like a month long. It’s as if she’s a poster pup for Canadian health care. Meanwhile, she now chews off her brace—even when it’s wrapped in duct tape before the car ride to the park is over. So we’re doing what we can. One additional problem is that I think she worries more about the ever- present menace of mean dogs because of her injury. It’s harder to get the morning close-ups of her because she’s constantly looking past me to see if there are any mean dogs in the vicinity, which is kind of sad. 

Zoë is way into her rubber frog again, I think because of the recent thunderstorms. I don’t want it to sound like they’re a couple of neurotics. They’re generally very happy girls. Gracie’s doing well, too. But she’s constantly monitoring me

ICYMI

The truth is out there

Reflections on 9/11

Disrespecting the classics

In your face, French

An actual forever war

Wednesday’s Dispatch Podcast potpourri

Everyone loves rules

Thoroughly lost to logic

And now, the weird stuff

High times

Bigly

Based on a story by Matthew Lewis

I welcome our new cyborg overlords

Ol’ Leatherhead

Read another book

You stole what from the whonow?

Cry it out

It’s the computer’s fault

Biden Tries to Change the Subject

He’s stretching the law on the assumption that he can buy himself time.

Dear Reader (including whichever of you released a dazzle of zebras in Maryland),

Because one of the core purposes of the internet is to reveal that nobody actually said any of the things they’re famous for saying, I have no idea if Alice Roosevelt Longworth ever said, “If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me.”

Still, if you don’t have anything nice to say about any of these people right now, come sit by me.

Let’s start with President Biden’s speech yesterday.

It wasn’t good. But I’m not sure whether it will matter that it wasn’t good—which doesn’t reflect well on a lot of Americans who really don’t much care about violations of constitutional or presidential norms as long as they like the results.  

When I say his speech wasn’t good, I mean that firstly on the most basic level, although there are—like an overstuffed tuna and turkey sub from Subway left on your dashboard in the hot sun—many layers to its ungoodness.

Biden isn’t a robotic politician in the way, say,  Al Gore was. (Yeah, yeah, I know Gore is still alive—his battery has a very long half-life—but he’s not a politician anymore.) But Biden has a robot-like malfunction. Sticking with this metaphor beyond all reason, every politician has a menu of subroutines or modes available to them. Caring, angry, lighthearted, fatherly—or motherly—etc. Bill Clinton had the most range of any politician in my lifetime. Recall how, at Ron Brown’s funeral, he was laughing until he realized he was on camera and immediately started crying. 

Biden never had that kind of range, although he was better than most. But he’s lost the ability to plug-and-play the right emotion—and sustain it—in the right moment. He can sound angry when he should be mournful, mournful when he should be stern, and stern when he should be compassionate, sometimes all in the same paragraph. You can see it best when his eyes lock back on the teleprompter because he’s gotten distracted. When he delivers a speech, he sometimes gets lost and, like someone missing a step on the stairs in the dark, he grabs hold of the text like it’s a railing. And while he gets a firmer hold on the text, he often loses the context and blurts out the wrong intonation or emphasis. It’s like an actor who’s given the wrong motivation by a director. The words on the script are, “I love you,” but the inflection is, “I’m gonna put my thumb in your eye!”

Then there’s the politics and policy. Biden and his subalterns said they wouldn’t mandate vaccinations. The reasons covered the waterfront. “That's not the role of the federal government,” Jen Psaki said when asked about mandates. “That’s the role that institutions, private-sector entities, and others, may take.” When CDC Director Rochelle Walensky floated the idea that the administration was looking into federal mandates, the administration forced her to retract the comment and declare, “There will be no nationwide mandate.”

Hard-hearted cynics might say that Biden reversed course to change the subject from the debacle in Afghanistan and his sagging poll numbers, particularly as we head into the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Well, the hard-hearted cynics are right.

I’m sure there are other motivations at play. Human beings rarely admit to themselves that cynical self-interest is their only reason for doing something. We like to gussy up our baser instincts with high-minded rationalizations. And there are plenty of such rationalizations available. More than 1,000 people are dying every day. The economy is sputtering in the face of the Delta variant. Getting people vaccinated is in the public interest.

But I think I’m right in no small part because the plan Biden put forward is clearly a disjointed mess. Just as a matter of logic, if the administration had always been planning to do this, they wouldn’t have insisted otherwise. And if they had always been planning to do this, they would have had a better plan—and a better argument.

Instead, we got a bizarre word salad—all the more bizarre because it was written out beforehand. After—correctly!—pointing out that the vaccines do a good job protecting people from COVID and a fantastic job preventing hospitalization and death, Biden said, “The bottom line: We’re going to protect vaccinated workers from unvaccinated co-workers.”

Huh? 

Which brings me to the mandate plan itself. Some of the stuff is fine by me, assuming it passes legal muster. Ensuring that health care workers are vaccinated is good policy—again, if lawfully executed.

The mandate on private businesses, however,  is obviously much more problematic. Ilya Shapiro has a good explainer of some of the issues it raises. Andy McCarthy argues that it’s flatly unconstitutional:

There is no general federal health-care power. The constitutional exhortation for Congress to “provide for ... the general Welfare of the United States” (art. I, sec. 8) is not an open-ended authorization. Ours is a federalist system, the states presumptively govern their internal affairs, and Congress’s power to provide for the general welfare is cabined by its enumerated powers.

Andy’s one of my favorite law dudes—and people!—but I’m not entirely convinced this is true. In 1796, during the Washington administration, Congress passed a federal quarantine law in response to yellow fever. In 1824, the Supreme Court in Gibbons v. Ogden recognized the police powers of the state to compel isolation and quarantine “to provide for the health of its citizens.”

I don’t see how federally mandated quarantines are meaningfully different from federally mandated vaccinations. There are two important caveats, though. First, the quarantine measures imposed by the feds back then were grounded in the Commerce Clause—a lot of it had to do with the role shipping played in spreading disease. Second, and more importantly, in 1796 Congress passed a law. Joe Biden is invoking his caesarian authority under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and its “Emergency Temporary Standard” (ETS).

As Walter Olson—another great law dude—notes, ETS orders far less grandiose than this are frequently blocked by courts. For an ETS to pass, the OSHA website says “OSHA must determine that workers are in grave danger” and that an emergency standard “is needed to protect them.”

But by Biden’s own words, vaccinated workers are not in danger—never mind grave danger—from the unvaccinated.

More importantly, who in their right mind thinks OSHA should have this power?

It kind of reminds me of the X-Files movie—which was a harbinger of a lot of the paranoia we see all around us today. In it, a sinister cabal aiming to pave the way for an alien takeover of the planet uses the pretext of a virus in Texas to suspend the Constitution via FEMA. The amazing thing is that using OSHA is even more ridiculous. 

I’ll get to right-wing paranoia in a second, but let’s cut to the chase with what Biden is doing. He’s playing on left-wing paranoia. I think John Podhoretz gets it right: “This speech was a Rube Goldberg message aimed at neurotic vaccinated people. Biden was saying that they shouldn’t worry ... but if they’re worried, their worries are justified.”

This was the meat of the dog whistle in Biden’s condescending swipe: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.” He likes to say this is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”—and he’s right. But he’s sending the signal here that he is the president of the vaccinated. His promise to steamroll governors who don’t do his bidding—“If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as president to get them out of the way”—didn’t mention Greg Abbott or Ron DeSantis. But you know this anti-constitutional boob bait was crafted entirely to troll them.  

The bell trolls for thee.

Let’s move on. I, too, am impatient. At this point, for the average person, there is no rational reason to refuse vaccination. Vaccines work. They’re safe. More Americans have died from COVID than in the Civil War. The economic, social, and psychological toll is now beyond incalculable and the pandemic isn’t close to being over globally. And a whole industry of asininity has sprung up around telling people it’s unpatriotic and idiotic to get vaccinated. Lecture me all you want about how ivermectin is a wonderful drug—stipulated counselor! But the only reason we’re even talking about it is because politicians and media personalities—most of whom are surely vaccinated themselves—want to monetize telling other people they’re right to refuse vaccination. That’s grotesque.

There’s a bizarre tautology that’s ensorcelled people: Biden is a tyrant. Wanting people to get vaccinated is therefore tyrannical. Therefore I will not get vaccinated because vaccination is part of his tyrannical agenda. The only problem with this own-the-libs nonsense is that it’s, well, nonsense. Wanting people to get vaccinated isn’t tyranny. It’s not liberal fascism, contrary to what a thousand bandersnatches keep yipping at me. It’s basic civics and common sense. When anti-vaxxers were mostly left-wing, many of the same people replacing the boot with a syringe in the Gadsden flag had a jolly old time making fun of this sort of thing. It’s like if Biden gave an address saying, “We will do everything we can to keep people from eating Tide pods,” there’d be a run on Tide pods.

And that’s what’s so infuriating about all of this. Biden is in a very bad place of his own making. On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, he has handed Afghanistan to the Taliban. Not some “new” Taliban, but literally the same Taliban we went to war with two decades ago. His agenda in Congress has stalled, perhaps fatally, because he foolishly listened to people who said he could be a new FDR. The problems with the economy and the pandemic aren’t all of his making, to be sure. But his failures to live up to his rhetoric are his own. Cornered, he is trying to turn the page. That’s why he’s not speaking tomorrow—the last thing he wants to do is shine a light on what he has done.

And so he has maneuvered into a strategy that he thinks will be win-win. Much like his unconstitutional gambit on the eviction ban, he’s stretching the law on the assumption that he can buy himself time before the courts trim his sails. In the meantime, the vaccination rate will go up, and the vaccinated electorate—or a sizable chunk of it—will reward him in the polls. That’s the first prong, and it relies on the second: He needs to elicit a wave of outrage from the right. I’m not saying outrage is unreasonable, but he is counting on the media to shine a light on the most unreasonable actors to play to type. And you know they will. There is a Baptists-and-bootleggers codependency at work here. When he trolls the right, many—or at least enough—figures on it will react precisely the way he wants. It’s a strategy we’ve seen before. FDR was a master at it. Bill Clinton brilliantly—and cynically—used the Oklahoma City bombing as a way to demonize conservative talk radio, and conservative talk radio was only too happy to be demonized.

You know who’s most ecstatic about Biden’s gambit? People like Marjorie Taylor Greene, J.D. Vance, and those who think Twitter is the real world.

Even those who offer reasonable criticism—and there are many, including, I think, myself—are still doing what he wants: Changing the subject.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: First, the sad news. Pippa’s wrist (ankle?) has gotten much worse. The vet told us that surgery would probably be necessary one day, and it looks like that day is upon us. She gets very limpy and it makes it hard to take her for a walk of any length. But because she’s still full of spanielly silliness, the lack of exercise causes her to eventually get spazzy and she makes the injury worse. We have a brace for her but she hates it, and will often remove it herself unless we duct tape it. Today we let her go on the big midday walk for the first time in a couple of days and she was downright giddy about it. 

Other than that, everything is good with the beasts. Gracie’s vet visit went well. She hasn’t lost weight, which appears to be a good thing because she has kidney trouble. Zoë is concerned about Pip, but she also likes getting a little quality one-on-one time with me. And Zoë is extremely excited about the news that zebras are on the loose in the area. Chasing a zebra has been on her bucket list for years. Also, I want to give a shout out to Tripp Whitbeck for this inspired idea. I’m going to get a poster of this.

ICYMI

Our age of distraction

It’s a hell of a town

What’s the matter with Texas?

Reflections on 9/11

The Dispatch Podcast on 9/11 and Biden’s grim summer

Meet the new boss… 

The worst is still yet to come

And now, the weird stuff

Ba dum tsh!

It should’ve been Winnie the Pooh

History’s greatest monster

Start spreadin’ the news

 I guess you’d better go wake him up…

Everything’s gone green

Um… 

Taliban 1.0, Chapter 2

It hasn’t reformed. It’s not a partner. And it wants an emirate far more than inclusion in the ‘international community.’

Hey,

Maya Angelou was right about the Taliban. Okay, not about the Taliban specifically, but about people (and the B-2 bomber). “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”

The new supreme leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. It’s not quite the job change it sounds like because he was the emir of the Taliban already. Anyway, in 2017, he let his son blow himself up as a suicide bomber. In poker, if you scratch your nose every time you bluff, it’s called a tell. In life, when you’re in charge of a terrorist movement and you let your son be a suicide bomber, it’s a little more than a tell. You might even call it a shout.

The State Department, which has been filling the air with talk about how the Taliban is our “partner,” expressed concern Tuesday about the new government. Specifically, it’s upset that the new government doesn’t contain any women. It noted in a statement that the new government “consists exclusively of individuals who are members of the Taliban or their close associates and no women.” 

“We have made clear our expectation that the Afghan people deserve an inclusive government,” a department spokesperson told The Hill

Let’s stop here for a moment. Shortly after Bill Clinton was elected, he vowed to have a Cabinet that “looked like America.” I used to joke at the time that this meant 17 left-wing lawyers who all thought the same way but looked like a Benetton ad. It was a kind of diversity, just not a particularly meaningful one in terms of policy.

Now, I understand that it would be pretty significant for the Taliban to include a woman in its leadership, given its whole “keep ‘em barefoot, burqa’d, and pregnant” philosophy. But I was told that the departure from Afghanistan was necessitated by the fact the U.S. would only do what is in our core, vital national interest. No more nation building and social experimenting. Which raises a question: If the Biden administration doesn’t care whether Afghanistan is democratic, why should it care whether it practices gender inclusivity? If pushing democracy is a folly of social engineering, why isn’t affirmative action for women?

Indeed, if the Taliban had decided to put a woman in charge of something, what are the odds that a bunch of terrorists and fanatics would pick someone who disagreed on the stuff that actually touches on our core, vital national interest? Just as the Clinton administration was never going to appoint a woman who meaningfully disagreed with the boss’s worldview, what are the odds that a woman whom Mullah Haibatullah signed off on would be some kind of ideological maverick within the government? I mean, they weren’t going to make Cher or Alyssa Milano minister of the interior, were they? And they weren’t going to make some native Afghan woman a minister for reproductive rights or democracy promotion.

We’re in a weird place when we’re officially more concerned about the lack of gender diversity at the top of a terror state than we are about, you know, a terror state.

This is just a small example of a larger problem. I’ve written a lot of “news”letters lately about the issue of mistaking words for things. I’ve also written a lot about how foreign policy “realism” is often just a concept that the losers in foreign policy debates invoke to criticize the winners. The people in charge who didn’t listen to me are “idealists” or “ideologues,” while I’m just a realist.

Let’s start with the words. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said today that these new leaders of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have “challenging track records.”

Challenging.

How many Americans does a roster of terrorists need to kill before it warrants a tougher adjective than “challenging”? I mean, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the al-Qaeda-aligned Haqqani Network, is the new interior minister. The FBI is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest. (Can I collect some of that shmundo by calling the Feds the next time I see him give a press conference? “I know exactly where he is! Pay me!”)

Can we at least call that “troubling”? Or even—dare I say—“bad”?  

Now let’s move on to Biden’s “realism.” The White House talks constantly about the wonder-working power of the “international community.” We pulled out our troops and gave the Taliban the fourth-largest military helicopter fleet in the world, but we have lots of leverage because we have the “international community” in our corner.

A couple of weeks ago, George Stephanopoulos asked Biden if the Taliban had changed. He responded:

“No. I think they’re going through sort of an existential crisis about: Do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government? I’m not sure they do.”

Now, he’s right that the Taliban would like to be recognized by the international community as a legitimate government. But you know what? So would every government everywhere. That’s in the basic job description of all governments. The Iranians want that. The North Koreans want that.

This should not be an interesting insight. Such recognition brings all sorts of benefits. Sanctions get lifted. You can park stolen money in more reliable banks. You get to send people to conferences in Switzerland and New York, and they can bring back better chocolates and bagels than you can get in Kabul. Being recognized as part of the Parliament of Man affords more opportunities to go to Hooters (“I go for the Buffalo wings.”—Sirajuddin Haqqani).

The issue isn’t what the Taliban wants, it’s what price the Taliban is willing to pay for what it wants. For nearly 20 years now, Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn have been figuratively running around like that guy in the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” who yelled “It’s a cookbook!” screaming, “They want an emirate!”

This is why the Taliban exists. And the only existential crisis it faces is making good on that promise, not least because the first Taliban “moderate” who proposes a women’s empowerment program or gay rights initiative will get beheaded by his underlings.

Forming an emirate was so important to the Taliban that it was willing to fight the U.S. in a bloody war for 20 years. But the Biden administration seems to think the group can be bought off with “inclusion” in the international community. And, yeah, sure, it can trade all sorts of things—including, no doubt, stranded Americans—in exchange for inclusion, recognition, and, eventually, pallets of cash. But it has demonstrated for 20 years that it’s not going to negotiate away the very reason for its existence. When faced with an existential crisis, the Taliban will choose existence, not access to swag at the U.N. gift shop. 

The reigning Brahmins of our foreign policy keep talking about how more than 100 nations “expect” the Taliban to do this or that. Does this mean that if only 97 or 64 nations “expected” the Taliban not to conduct mass executions it wouldn’t be that big a deal? Is some Taliban minister holding firm on his door-to-door death squad policy only until he gets the news that Burkina Faso has joined the Grand Coalition of Condemnation??

How have the expectations of the international community changed North Korea’s behavior? Or Iran’s? Or Russia’s? Remember all of the jaw-jawing of Bashar Assad? If you slaughter your own people, your wife won’t get profiles in Vogue anymore! His answer: “Your terms are acceptable.”

If you’re some Belgian nuncio or German cookie-pusher, not being part of the “international community” might pose an “existential crisis.” But no one in the Taliban leadership has been living in the mountains, crapping in caves without the benefit of first world toilet paper, and letting their sons vaporize themselves so they can get reserved tickets to hear Larry Summers’ presentation at Davos.

In other words, the Biden administration is suffering from a profound case of ideological and psychological projection. The idea of being cut off from polite international society would indeed amount to an existential crisis for Biden, Blinken, Dasher, and Vixen. But 20 years of murder suggests that the good opinion of the Hague is less of a priority for the Taliban.

In a really excellent conversation on The Remnant, The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood noted that when it was last in power, the Taliban really wanted to establish bilateral relations with the Chinese. But the Taliban, being the Taliban, couldn’t stop being the Taliban. So it blew up Afghanistan’s legendary Bamiyan Buddha statues. As Wood noted, that was pretty much the only thing the Taliban could do to really piss off the Chinese. The group did it anyway. The guy who pushed for that grotesque vandalism at the time? Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund—the new prime minister of Afghanistan! This isn’t the Taliban 2.0. It’s the Taliban 1.0, Chapter 2.

But forget the Taliban for a second. Just this morning, I listened to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Morning Joe explain—as Biden has many times—that we can get China, India, and the whole world to adopt carbon neutral policies by the power of our example. If we do it first, everyone else will follow. 

This has been a central Democratic argument for decades. But what evidence is there for it? Sure, some countries might follow our lead. But the problem is that any country willing to follow our lead on climate change is already doing this stuff. In fact, you could argue that we’re following their lead. The countries that aren’t doing this stuff don’t care about our example. We’ve been leading by example on all sorts of things—democracy, human rights, gay rights, etc.—for a long time. Has China become more democratic? It’s still throwing Uyghurs in concentration camps. Hell, it just banned “effeminate men” from TV.

The lazy formulation of “isolationism” versus “internationalism” that is so often foisted on us leaves out some other isms. The most relevant is “multilateralism.” For 20 years, the dominant foreign policy argument of the Democratic Party has been that it’s better to be wrong in a big group than to be right alone.

Now, I’ve got no problem with multilateralism—I’m still a big booster of a “League of Democracies”—but multilateralism is a means, not an end. Large groups of countries can work together for bad things or good things. There’s strength in numbers, power in unity, blah blah blah. But cooperation isn’t what matters, it’s what you do with it. The Nazis had a coalition of the willing, too.

Again, I get that people who love big conferences and working the phones and hotel lobbies for joint statements shudder at the thought of being on the outs with the international community. But letting our foreign policy be dictated by the FOMO of transnational progressives is not what foreign policy is for. And thinking that the leaders of other countries share our ideological priorities and will conduct themselves accordingly isn’t realism. It’s blinkered—Blinkened—folly.

War of Attention

When people are distracted by a zillion different things, the most reliable way to get them to look your way is to say crazy stuff.

Dear Reader (Including all the politicians afraid to publicly come out of the closet of normalcy), 

Since it’s Labor Day weekend, let’s talk a bit about labor.

One of my favorite scenes in Game of Thrones is also one of the best explanations of Marx’s labor theory of value ever offered in popular culture.

The context doesn’t matter much, so I’ll offer little. Jonathan Pryce plays a mild-mannered religious zealot who goes by the title “the High Sparrow.” He divulges his origin story to his prisoner, Queen Margaery:

High Sparrow: My father was a cobbler. He died when I was young and I took over his shop. He was a simple man and he made simple shoes. But I found that the more work I put into my shoes, the more people wanted them. Fine leather, ornamentation, detailing, and time. Time most of all. Dozens of hours spent on a single pair.

Margaery: Quality takes time.

High Sparrow: Yes. I imagine you’ve worn a year of someone’s life on your back. The highborn liked to cover their feet with my time and they paid well for the privilege. I used their money to buy a taste of their lives for myself. Each time I indulged, I felt myself ascending to something better.

He goes on to explain that he became disgusted by the ostentatiousness and crapulence of the elites for whom he worked and whose ranks he sought to join. He resolved to reject worldliness entirely, even including the wearing of shoes.

What I like about this little sermon is that it captures both the economic fallacy embedded within it and the powerful cultural and psychological appeal of that fallacy.

Now, I’m going to try a little experiment. Rather than spending the next 750 words explaining what’s wrong economically with the labor theory of value, I’m going to create a little sidebar with my synopsis and put it in a separate post you can reach by clicking here.

For most of human history, the currency of life—not just economics—was time. And prices were very high. Consider my favorite example: light. If there’s any “product” we take for granted more than artificial light, I can’t think of what it might be. My friends at Human Progress have been all over this point for a long, uh, time.

In premodern times, you’d need to collect and chop wood for 10 hours a day, six days straight just to produce 1,000 lumen hours of light. That’s equal to a single conventional light bulb shining for 54 minutes. And if you’ve ever tried to read—not a problem in prehistoric times, I concede—you know that campfires have drawbacks light bulbs do not.

“The light bulb changed everything,” write the folks at Human Progress:

“By 1900, 60 hours of work could provide 10 days of light. The light bulbs would burn 100 times as bright as a candle, steadily, and inodorously. By 1920, 60 hours of work could already pay for 5 months of stable light. By 1990, that increased to 10 years of light. Today? 52 years. 

And progress has not stopped yet. LED lights continue to become cheaper and cheaper. 

The amount of labor that once bought 54 minutes of light now buys 52 years of light. The cost has fallen by a factor of 500,000 and the quality of that light has transformed from unstable and risky to clean, safe, and controllable.” 

All of the folks who crap on the Enlightenment from a great height take such things for granted as they pound their sledgehammers into the soapboxes they rant from. No, they’re not anti-light. But they often make it sound like all of the benefits that flow from the Enlightenment are a given, while the alleged costs are the product of bad decisions we should have avoided. 

The idea that, if Western societies had simply been ruled by priests and philosophers who knew with invincible certitude how to define the highest good, we’d still have all the good stuff in modern life—antibiotics, automobiles, airplanes, and even stuff that doesn’t begin with “A”—and none of the bad just strikes me as ahistorical, sophomoric philosophical thumbsuckery. When, exactly, should innovation in science, technology, and our social lives have frozen in place? When should we have drawn the line? Should we have listened to the Luddites and stopped economic progress around 1815? Should we have said, “That’s enough change” in the 1950s, the era in which many socialists and nationalists alike would like to live (or at least work)? And how, exactly, would you have stifled innovation?

But this is all familiar terrain if you’ve been reading me for the last few years. So let’s talk about George Jetson. If you’re a certain age you remember the cartoon, with it’s outsized gory violence and shocking sex scenes that laid the groundwork for the most depraved anime to emerge from the Japanese dark web. Just kidding. I’m trying to make the pop culture of my youth more attractive to younger readers.

George Jetson worked at Spacely Sprockets, and his workweek consisted of pushing a single button for an hour a day, two days a week. When I was a kid, I thought that was stupid even for a cartoon. But if you start from, say, the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, or even the Industrial Revolution, we’re heading towards a Jetson-y future.

We’re working less and less every generation. The first thing to understand is that the biggest gains in the decline of work are hard to measure in economic statistics because they manifest themselves outside the traditional workplace. For instance, technology liberated women more than the women’s liberation movement did. Indeed, were it not for things like the washing machine, feminism may not have become a mass movement. It’s worth recalling that many of the early suffragist-feminist types tended to be drawn from the ranks of the affluent or bourgeois (though in fairness that’s generally true of all revolutionaries and activists). They had the “leisure” time to dedicate to politics.

The division of labor between men and women that marked most of human history was complicated, but it was hardly the case that women did less work than men.

According to some estimates, it took some 60 hours of labor to run a typical household in 1930. If you read what a typical day was like for most women in traditional societies, 60 hours seemed almost leisurely. In her wonderful book The Fabric of Civilization, Virginia Postrel chronicles how weaving—making thread, rope, yarn, etc. into essential goods—consumed huge swaths of time. Using the traditional techniques of Papua New Guinea, it took between 60 and 80 hours to make enough cord for a looped bag. It took another month of labor to make the bag itself. “Preindustrial women spun constantly because cloth, whether for taxes, sale, or household use, required a huge amount of thread,” Postrel writes.

But even according to the much narrower—and extremely unfair—definition of work, the amount of time we work has been steadily declining. “In 1830,” writes Marian Tupy, “the workweek in the industrializing West averaged about 70 hours or, Sundays excluded, 11.6 hours of work per day. By 1890 that fell to 60 hours per week or 10 hours per day. Thirty years later, the workweek in advanced societies stood at 50 hours or 8.3 hours per day. Today, people in advanced societies work less than 40 hours per week. That still amounts to roughly 8 hours per day, because workers typically don’t work on Saturdays. The ‘weekend’ was born.”

We’re obviously a long way off from The Jetsons’ economy, and I think it’s pretty obvious we’ll never fully get there—nor should we want to. Also, we should acknowledge that there are plenty of people who still do a lot of hard, often backbreaking labor in the traditional workforce and the traditional home. But something new is emerging as well: The attention economy.

The number of things you can do with your free time has expanded exponentially, even though the amount of time we have is finite. A lot has been written about the attention economy, even before we had the term. YouTube competes with Netflix which competes with the NFL which competes with Call of Duty which competes with the New York Times which competes with the latest Remnant podcast and a billion other things.

I didn’t know until I got to writing this paragraph that the phrase “attention theory of value” had already been coined—though I don’t much like how the coiner uses it, so I’ll avoid his definition. I don’t quite have my own definition either, but what’s clear is that if you can create anything that grabs our attention, you can make money from it.

I don’t think the attention economy is an unalloyed good thing, far from it. Neil Postman saw some of its downsides long before we had a word for it. But I think it’s worth noting in the space I have left how much it’s infecting and corrupting our politics.

There’s no reason to dwell on the obvious bits. The incentive to get noticed is the threshold imperative to behaving like a jackass. When people are distracted by a zillion different things—many of them designed to prey on our lizard brains—the most reliable way to get them to look your way is to say crazy stuff. You want to make the people in your customer base angry at the people not in your customer base—and feel good about their anger. This appears to be the sum total of the social media strategy of Ohio Senate candidates like J.D. Vance and Josh Mandel.

But here’s a somewhat less obvious problem with the attention economy of politics. The more you call attention to a policy initiative or political project, the less likely it is to succeed. If one side really wants X, the more likely it is that the other side will rally around not-X. There are exceptions, but nearly all of them—Obamacare, Trump’s domestic agenda, the American Rescue Plan—passed entirely or almost entirely on partisan lines.  

In general, the only way to pass a bipartisan policy is to make sure it’s under the radar of the political attention economy. Talk to any serious senator or congressman and they’ll tell you the only way to have a productive hearing on any serious, or at least controversial,  issue is to do it away from television cameras. One of the reasons the Supreme Court—and the courts in general—have retained a good amount of institutional integrity is they are, by design, outside of or immunized against the attention economy.

I’m no fetishizer of bipartisanship. That’s really not my point (though this dynamic is a really idiotic way to run a country). Instead, I have a theory: Most people don’t like politics. And who can blame them when there’s so much entertaining stuff on Hulu and Netflix? The majority—or at least the loud minority—of people who do like politics like it for its entertainment value, and the only entertaining form of politics for the vast majority of them is us-versus-them combat. That’s what drives primary voters and small donors. So the moment a political issue gets a lot of attention it immediately becomes zero sum: If they win, we lose. This, in turn, gives politicians and activists all the psychological permission they need to frame things in apocalyptic terms. Getting rid of drive-through voting equals the return of Jim Crow. Raising taxes is now socialism. 

Now, when I say “entertainment value,” that minimizes the problem, because referring to politics as “entertainment” implies that the entertained recognize it as entertainment. The problem is that some people don’t. Think of it this way: Football is purely a form of entertainment. But I’m sure you know people—hey, you might even be one of them—who take it way more seriously than a movie or a TV show. They see it as a huge part of their identity. And while that’s not my bag, it’s a generally harmless obsession. You can even argue that football is a healthy outlet for our belligerent instincts.

For some people, finding meaning is a form of entertainment. I have no problem with people who like to dress up like Klingons or Civil War troops and spend their weekends play-acting. But some of the people swept up in the bogusness (bogiosity?) of politics these days don’t understand that they’re the marks; their passion is being monetized and exploited for narrow political gain. It was all fun and games until they stormed the Capitol or shot up a congressional baseball practice. I have no idea if Madison Cawthorn was serious about taking up arms against other Americans over the made-up claim of a stolen election. The only reason I’m reluctant to form an opinion on that is I think he’s stupid enough to potentially believe his own bulls**t. Sometimes the best conmen are the ones too dumb to realize they’re conmen.  

But what I do know is that this is a far more dangerous situation than the demagogues appreciate.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So this morning we had a guy come in to fix a problem with our kitchen sink. He had to work in the cabinet underneath. There was only one problem: Pippa loved him and was very interested in what he was doing. She kept trying to get in the cabinet with him and “help.” He was good-natured about it, but Pippa was very disappointed that she was denied the ability to share her love retail. Alas, she’ll be more disappointed tomorrow morning, because we’re taking her to the vet (her front right wrist is bothering her again). I’ll let you know how that goes. 

We’re also taking Gracie, but the funny thing about Gracie is that she kind of likes going to the vet. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t fight getting in the carrier (the way Ralph did, turning into a Tasmanian devil the moment he heard us take it down from the shelf). Other than that, the dogs are good. They hated the thunder, but they love the weather Ida left in her wake. We even had treat time outside this morning (in part because I didn’t think anyone wanted to see the workman’s butt in the background). Zoe, by the way, says, “Hello.”

ICYMI

Life is precious

Why government can’t love you

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

Goldberg’s delight

A win for constitutionalism

Another deep dive into the Afghanistan tragedy

A disco ball of asininity

Conservative optimism

And now, the weird stuff

Where’s Peter Sellers?

At least it beats the reboot

A blueprint for flirting 

I still don’t care about this guy

Steer clear of Australia

There’s still no excuse for “Dancing in the Street”

English justice

Monkey business

Why humans aren’t amphibious 

Insert Yakov Smirnoff gag here

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