Bubble, Bubble, Toil, and Trouble
Bubbles can be good. But when secular ideology takes on a religious zeal, they get a little too thick.
Dear Reader (Including those who wish to be included but heretofore felt left out of this oppressive Dear Reader gag),
As the owner of the strip club said to the manager when one of his favorite dancers kept showing up late for happy hour, “Let’s talk about Bubbles.”
Okay, maybe that was a little obscure. You see, in the joke the stripper’s name is “Bubbles,” which is the kind of name you give your kid if you want to guarantee that they become a pole dancer (not the sort of Pole dancer of the polka variety, mind you). If an evil scientist—who also happened to share my self-indulgent obsession with dad-joke wordplay and was a big fan of Don Ho—met Bubbles, he would use his miniaturization ray on her and throw her in a vat of effervescent fermented alcohol just so he could say, “Tiny Bubbles in the wine, make me feel fine.”
Why would he do that? Maybe because he was mad at Bubbles for refusing to play a game of “Cuomo and the junior staffer,” I don’t know. I’m severely sleep-deprived. Work with me here.
Anyway, I don’t want to talk about those kinds of Bubbles, though I am tempted to riff on the Bubble Act of 1720. Let’s talk instead about cultural or social bubbles, i.e. the communities—and communities of understanding—that define various subgroups.
The most familiar explanation of what I’m talking about is the famous line from Pauline Kael that she didn’t actually say: “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” The actual quote is less fun and more self-aware, but it makes the same point. Kael said, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.'”
Charles Murray famously created a test to measure how “thick” your bubble is. It’s a little out of date, but it still works well enough to prove his point. “Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized,” Charles wrote. “Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them."
I think Charles would be the first to concede that his test measures just one kind of bubble. You don’t have to be a social scientist or the stage manager for the The Lawrence Welk Show to understand that there are many different kinds of bubbles. Think of it this way: The Amish would do very badly on the bubble test, but no one would put them in the upper class.
Consider this fascinating tweet thread by Michael Harriot about how devastated he was when he learned the Hardy Boys were white. An excerpt:
Or consider our own David French, who grew up in a small Kentucky town and then attended a conservative Christian college. He has a hilarious law school story about being invited to a professor’s house for brunch.
Good bubbles and bad.
Here’s the thing: In one sense, I like bubbles. In fact, I want more bubbles. That’s a huge part of my 20-year spiel about federalism: I want America to be a really interesting place to drive across, because I want America to be thick with different kinds of communities that serve the needs of people who live in them. If I had my way, America would be like the interior of a giant sponge: a vast honeycomb of semi-permeable bubble-spaces.
It’s not that I’m hostile to every argument for diversity. Elite institutions in a democracy should be open to qualified people of different ethnicities, races, genders, etc. My objection to diversity mania is that it tends to create systems that filter out other kinds of diversity. Institutions end up being homogenous in terms of thought, even though they look like Benetton ads.
More relevant for this discussion, I wish people could muster a bit more sympathetic imagination for the idea of diverse communities, too. If I lived in Austin, I’d definitely be on the Keep Austin Weird team.
One of the things I find truly bizarre about many well-to-do American progressives is how they love to travel abroad to experience different cultures but carry a deep-seated animosity toward “backward” communities in their own country. They can talk your ear off about how people in Peru do things differently, and then get incredibly haughty about how people do things in Peoria (or how they imagine people do things in Peoria).
I’ll spare you the four long paragraphs I wrote explaining how this is not a new phenomenon, so I can get to the point.
The new faith.
As much as I dislike elite snobbery about places, I particularly dislike it about people. And I think the problem with much of our politics and culture can be described as a form of snobbery that animates much of the progressive elite.
Let’s call these elites “gentry liberals” (a term I didn’t coin). Around 2014, something remarkable happened. For the first time, white liberals became identifiably more left-wing in general, and more concerned with racism in particular, than blacks in general and even black liberals. This phenomenon has come to be called “The Great Awokening,” a term that apparently started on Twitter and then migrated into the halls of journalism and political science.
Shadi Hamid has a good piece in the new issue of The Atlantic exploring issues that should be very familiar to G-File readers. On the left, Hamid writes, wokeism is filling the space left abandoned by organized religion, and ethno-nationalism is filling the same void on the right.
The former trend tracks with an argument made by Jody Bottum in An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. According to Bottum, mainline Protestantism used to be a crucial keystone in American civil society. In 1965, more than half of all Americans belonged to one of the Protestant mainline churches. Now, that number is less than 10 percent. More broadly, Hamid notes, from “1937 to 1998, church membership remained relatively constant, hovering at about 70 percent.” It’s been plummeting ever since.
Bottum argued that the Protestant mainline elite didn’t disappear, it just stopped going to church or defining its worldview in theological or institutional terms. Essentially, gentry liberals are the same Protestant elite, they’re just post-Protestant now.
For my entire adult life, conservative intellectuals have been waiting for a new Great Awakening to recenter American life. Maybe they got what they wished for, but the monkey’s paw screwed them over?
I think we’re all familiar, at least via popular culture, with the noblesse oblige often associated with the old WASP elite. While there was certainly racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism among them, such things didn’t define it. On the contrary, it was full of progressive do-goodery going back to the days of the Social Gospel movement. Later, Mainline Protestant churches were heavily involved in civil rights causes. Their members also tended to be disproportionately educated and prosperous. They were civic leaders.
That’s why I think noblesse oblige is the better term. There was an ethos that “we the privileged” owed the unfortunate help. That’s a good instinct. But this sort of savior ethic could also lend itself to a kind of condescending tokenism. The flipside to do-goodery is for-your-own-goodery. The parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? are a nice progressive newspaperman and art gallery owner, but Sidney Poitier definitely pops their gentry liberal bubble.
I could flesh this out for a while, but the point I’m getting at is that wokeism comes with its own quasi-theological articles of faith. That’s why white, college-educated liberals are more likely to blame racism for problems faced by blacks than blacks are. That’s why the gentry liberals must confess their white privilege as if it’s a kind of catechism.
I should note that Jews, particularly reform Jews, were ahead of the trend on all this, at least many of the ones I grew up with. Countless articles—many of them published in Commentary—have chronicled how after the Holocaust and the civil rights era, secular Jews saw being a “good Jew” as almost synonymous with being a good liberal. I can’t tell you how many Jews I’ve known who take their Jewish identity pretty seriously but don’t take the existence of God very seriously at all.
James Burnham, in his book Suicide of the West, argued that the primary motivation for liberal elites was the oh-so-very religious emotion of guilt:
For Western civilization in the present condition of the world, the most important practical consequence of the guilt encysted in the liberal ideology and psyche is this: that the liberal, and the group, nation, or civilization infected by liberal doctrine and values, are morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself.
I don’t think that’s changed, but how guilt is described and mobilized certainly has.
There are plenty of things to say about all that, but my point is more practical. When ideology becomes its own sort of religious worldview, you’re going to find that people exist within a very thick bubble. Most of the white journalists and activists on MSNBC—and the people who watch it—are, for the most part, white gentry liberals. And here’s the key point: The blacks and Hispanics on MSNBC are either gentry liberals themselves or, by vocation, the sorts of professional party activists, journalists, and intellectuals who have perfected the art of telling white gentry liberals what they want to hear (or, due to their carefully cultivated white guilt, what they feel they need to hear).
David Shor, a data geek and self-described socialist, seems to have figured this out. Only about 20 percent of Americans describe themselves as ideologically liberal, while nearly 40 percent describe themselves as conservative. That means the average voter—of any race—is not going to see the world in the way gentry liberals do, particularly given that they are even more ideologically hardened than most self-described liberals.
The median voter is a 50-year-old without a college degree. Part of the reason why Hispanics shifted to Trump in significant, though not overwhelming, numbers is that the lingua franca of the gentry liberal bubble leaves many of them cold. Hispanic women—not men—were the biggest movers to Trump because they tend to care more about public safety. “Defund the police” talk is seen by non-liberals as preposterous, because it is.
An added problem, according to Shor, is that thanks to polarization, social media, and the transformation of the parties into mere brands, it doesn’t take much to form the impression that a party is as crazy as its craziest mouthpieces. When everyone votes along the party line, it’s difficult for pretty much everyone besides Joe Manchin to break from the brand. This is a problem, of course, for the GOP as well—which is partly why it’s crazy for Republicans not to ostracize people like Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Now, I’m not saying all of this because I want to dunk on the Democratic Party and white liberals (okay, that’s part of it). I’m saying it primarily because the messaging of the Great Awokening is literally dangerous. A plethora of data shows that whites become racist or more racist the more you accuse of them of racism, and this is why scholars like Sheri Berman argue that the shift toward identity politics helps the right more than the left.
There’s plenty of value in the New York Times’ 1619 Project, but there’s also a lot of ideological and historical garbage in it. When the Times promotes 1619 as America’s “true founding”—which it did and then tried to memory hole—it might give its gentry liberal writers and readers spasms of masochistic joy to expiate their guilt, but it invites a backlash. If the response to the backlash is more shrieks of racism, then the cycle gets even worse.
For the last century, the Democratic Party was mostly a coalitional party. The GOP, meanwhile—at least since the ’60s or the ’80s, depending on whether you start with Goldwater or Reagan—was mostly an ideological party. Sure, FDR had some ideological commitments, but they were always tempered and constrained by conventional deal-making, patronage, and constituent service. That’s why the FDR coalition contained everyone from socialist Jews and blacks to Southern Democrats and big city bosses.
I’m open to the idea—in ways I never used to be—that having ideological parties is bad. But at least the benefit of the GOP’s pre-Trump ideology was that it was mostly negative. I don’t mean that it was bad, but that it was oriented toward limiting government. Think of the Bill of Rights: It lists our “negative rights,” constraints on what the state can do. Hence the old “Leave Us Alone Coalition” Grover Norquist used to tout.
The nationalist, Trumpist, and other forces of the so-called new right reject all that. Some do it purely out of cynical careerist opportunism, but sincere adherents do it because they think the new ideology of the woke Democratic Party requires them to fight fire with fire. Fire on the right would be a new “nationalist” GOP, complete with its own versions of statism, identity politics, and secular religion.
I dislike, and even in some cases detest, the ideologies of both parties. I’ll never vote for either, but I’m not a normal voter. Most normal voters, when forced to choose, may opt for the party that at least claims to be proudly patriotic, and doesn’t live in a bubble concretized by religious doctrines that its denizens don’t even recognize as religious.
Think of it this way: Bubbles are like factions. Our whole constitutional order is built around the idea that factions are inevitable. That’s why we set up a system that harnesses the rivalries and ambitions inherent in factions to our overall advantage. Earlier I noted that the Amish live in a bubble. Now imagine if the Amish took over one of our parties, much of the media, higher education, and Hollywood.
Leaving aside the obvious problems with this thought experiment, do you think that a country largely run—formally and informally—by good and decent Amish people would over time grow more pro-Amish or more anti-Amish? Don’t you think there would be a backlash, and probably a very ugly one? I do. The point isn’t that the Amish are bad, but that whenever a single faction—even a wholly decent and well-intentioned one—takes control of the commanding heights of the culture and government and tries to impose its vision of the Supreme Good on all others, very bad things are likely to happen.
This is a point everyone agrees on these days when talking about the factions they hate, but are often utterly blind to when you make it about the faction they belong to.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: The girls are doing well, but we’ve put them on a diet and they don’t approve. Also, they don’t know that they’re going away for the next couple of weeks to stay at “Aunt” Kirsten’s house while I go with the human girls on yet another cross-country adventure. This also means that Twitter and G-File quadruped content will be curtailed until the end of March. I’ll still post some proof-of-life pics and the like, but I’m afraid their biggest fans will have to go on a Zoë, Pippa, and Gracie diet as well.
And now, the weird stuff