Everyone’s (Kinda) a Rebel
And when everyone’s a rebel, no one is.
Dear Reader (Or, as the Woke Manual of Style suggests, “Fully autonomous and self-realized Readxr”),
During a summer in college, I shared an apartment with a couple friends. One of them—let’s call him Phil—had pretty humble dining habits. One of his favorite “foods” was potted meat. As far as I could tell, potted meat was made from the stuff that wasn’t high enough quality for scrapple. The dead giveaway for me: “Beef lips.” (Still, several years later I would conclude that potted meat is one grade above the “meat” product in the Spicy Jamaican Beef Patties sold at 7-Eleven. I discovered that the real point of Spicy Jamaican Beef Patties wasn’t to soak up the excess alcohol that led you to believe you wanted the product in the first place, but to crowd out the shame for whatever you did while drunk combined with the even greater shame of recalling that you devoured one at 3 a.m.)
We would sometimes give Phil a hard time about his potted meat consumption, particularly when he would leave the crusts of his potted meat and mayo on white bread sandwiches on the bathroom sink with a few cigarette butts stubbed out in the greasy detritus. Anyway, I’ll skip ahead. At one point when he got fed up with our ribbing, he wheeled on us and said, “Listen: Potted meat meets the minimum standards for human consumption set by the FDA!”
Now, in fairness, we were claiming it was inedible, and so his retort was valid in strict debating terms. Still, I always loved his passionate delivery of this defense as if it was saying a great deal, when it was almost literally the least one could say in defense of any food product; “Say what you will about potted meat, sir. At least the government has confirmed through rigorous testing, that humans can eat it with a high probability of avoiding severe bodily harm, volcanic gastrointestinal distress, or death.”
This came to mind last Sunday when I watched the Chris Wallace interview with President Trump. As I was among the first to note, the buried lede in that interview was the fact that the president of the United States of America claimed that he found a test for dementia to be “very, very, hard.”
Ever since he took the test, he’s been bragging that he “aced” the testing equivalent of potted meat. As I wrote earlier this week, this is like bragging about nailing a sobriety test while sober. But since I always get dinged for recycling lines here, it’s also like expecting your wife to be super excited by the “fantastic news” that you tested negative for the whole battery of sexually transmitted diseases. “I didn’t even have crabs! Can you believe it? The doctors have never seen anything like it.”
Call me crazy, but I thought passing a basic dementia test was sort of implied as one of the minimal standards of the president’s job description.
None of you are rebels.
I had Matt Continetti on the podcast earlier this week to do some rank punditry and to wallow in some conservative intellectual history nerdery.
[I interrupt this paragraph to report that my spell checker says “nerdery” is in fact a word.]
He distilled a point I’ve written about a million times with a concision that has eluded me. The American right is the only dissident right in the world. Normally, the right is the defender of orthodoxy, established institutions, and longstanding tradition. Much of the right does that in America, but to do so is a rebellious act here. I’ve got my criticisms of the nationalists and post-liberals, but you’ve got to admit they are imbued with the venerable American spirit of rebellion and dissent, too. But you know what? So are the more traditional social conservatives. And, come to think of it, so are the paleocons and the neocons, the fusionists, and the libertarians. Even the Trumpists—perhaps especially the Trumpists—see themselves as besieged rebels and martyrs in a war against the Powers that Be, the Deep State, the Establishment, and Mainstream Media. The Alt-Righters and QAnonsters—whom I loathe to even mention—lurk in the digital catacombs plotting their next campaign like Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts, ready to raid pizza parlors and Wayfair like some Orc lair. They all see themselves as insurgents of one kind or another, both within the conservative movement and in the larger culture.
But wait. Pull out the camera lens even further, and it turns out that nearly everyone on the left thinks they’re rebels, too. Certainly the anarchists, Marxists, and socialists do. Black identitarians, LGBTQ activists, and feminists all think they are members of a righteous resistance. But, if you listen closely, so do the more moderate liberals and progressives. Pretty much everyone on the left sees themselves as members of the happy few in a culture war Agincourt.
Even the moderates, centrists, pragmatists, and self-declared non-ideologues think they are the real non-conformists, and against the backdrop of the ideological and partisan debates that define our politics they kind of have a point. Refusing to demonize others in an era of demonization makes you a kind of outcast. In an age of insanity, the sane seem like oddballs.
What about the politically apathetic? Yup, also mavericks. In an age when “You will be made to care” is an unstated commandment, not caring is a kind of dissent.
Hold on! Pick up the tripod on your social camera and back up until you hit the wall. It’s not just the political activists. Almost everybody thinks they’re a rebel or nonconformist. Listen to the pretty multimillionaires accept their Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, and Grammys, and you almost get the impression they see themselves as members of a dissident socialist-Jewish theater troupe in Berlin circa 1936, bravely questioning the established order. Silicon Valley billionaires—of the right and left—paint themselves as agitators, heretics and, most of all, “disruptors.” The CEOs of staid conventional corporations may not seek the limelight in the same way, but they’re perfectly happy to market their companies and wares as forces of rebellion and change. In 1968 CBS Records ran the campaign “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music.”
Now luxury car companies hawk their SUVs as the indispensable tools of mavericks who play by their own rules.
Universities are incubators for a culture of rebellion and dissent, run by tenured professors who often see themselves as battle-hardened drill instructors for revolutionary cadres.
And, of course, journalists at elite platforms like the New York Times and the Washington Post congratulate themselves for daring to shine the light wherever democracy is dying in darkness. In fairness, sometimes the congratulation is well-earned. But far more often, the self-regard is simply the background assumption of daily preening and marketing.
Now, there are few points I could make here that would be familiar to readers of this “news”letter or my books. This cultural dynamic fits neatly into Yuval Levin’s argument that we no longer see institutions as important mechanisms for shaping character. Instead, we see them as platforms to perform upon for self-promotion and celebrity. And the currency of self-promotion and celebrity is the patina of rebellion. Coolness is about rebellion in our culture, not conformity.
Another relevant point is one I have borrowed from David French: Both sides in the culture war think they’re losing. This becomes somewhat less mysterious when you factor in that people want to believe they’re the rebels fighting a monolithic establishment. Nothing quenches the flame of rebellion more than the cold water of victory. Everyone’s a dog on a mission to catch a car, but no one knows how to drive.
I think this explains some of the outrage over David Brooks’ eminently reasonable column (which has a nice shout out to The Dispatch). At places like the New York Times—and other institutions that both take their cues from it and think they have cultural ownership of it—it is a matter of faith that they are free thinkers and rebels against a bigoted orthodoxy. That is their orthodoxy, which they are only too eager to enforce like the conservative enforcers of orthodoxy in medieval Europe. The fact that they and their ideological comrades control the commanding heights of the culture—Hollywood, fashion, academia, etc.—doesn’t register as victory because there is no limiting principle to their orthodox faith in their own rebelliousness or to the elastic doctrines of social justice.
But I should be clear. While, as a conservative, I have specific complaints about the left’s pretenses and self-serving myths, this dynamic is at work everywhere. It defines the cult of Trumpism, because Trump is Exhibit A for Yuval’s argument. He sees the presidency primarily as a platform to perform upon, not an institution to master and use for ends beyond his own celebrity. It defines so much of conservative grievance culture. So many of the same people who claim that progressivism is the philosophy of victimhood cast themselves as victims themselves. Victimhood and rebellion have a symbiotic relationship, after all. Why rebel if you haven’t been victimized?
In the movie Falling Down, Michael Douglas is an aggrieved white guy who becomes radicalized by his perceived victimization. The climatic line of the film comes when he incredulously says, “I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?”
I’m not saying that every self-styled rebel is a bad guy. I’m not even saying they’re not rebels—some are, I suppose. But their rebellion is usually contextual. They’re rebelling against a specific orthodoxy at a specific institution. Brooks’ critics have a point that offering moderately conservative insights doesn’t make you a rebel in America, but it does at The New York Times. And when they get their non-gendered dresses over their heads about it, they’re proving the point. Bari Weiss is a talented young journalist, but what made her transgressive was her employment at The New York Times. That’s not a criticism of her, but of the Times -- and the times.
But so much of what passes for rebelliousness today is not contextually rebellious. Saying exactly what your fans want to hear—at the Oscars, in academia, on Twitter, on talk radio or at CPAC—doesn’t take as much courage as people think, particularly when it’s monetizable. The greatest proof that Donald Trump isn’t Hitler is that you can call him Hitler on prime time TV and make money from doing so.
The truth is that all of this shouting and bravery on the cheap isn’t a conservative problem or a progressive problem, it’s an American problem—if it’s a problem at all. America is a weird place, always has been. My friend Charlie Cooke argues that America is a uniquely Protestant country, not in the sense that only Protestants can be Americans (he’s an atheist and an immigrant, and he’s probably the most intensely patriotic American I know). As he writes, the “Founders were the product of not just a religiously Protestant inheritance but also of a politically Protestant worldview—and, too, that the two are historically inextricable. This is to say, that once a people becomes accustomed to cutting out the middlemen from their path to God, absolution, and salvation, it becomes easier for them to countenance cutting out the middlemen from their path to liberty and the pursuit of happiness as well.”
In moderation, and when properly channeled, this attitude is one of the things that makes America an exceptional and wonderful country. The primary problem today is not simply that everyone wants to cut out the middleman and define their own understanding of happiness. It’s that they want to define happiness for others and turn that definition into an orthodoxy. But don’t you dare say they’re not on the side of freethinking and free speech. And don’t even think of suggesting they’re not the rebels they think they are. We’re not The Man, you are!
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So we can’t quite figure out whether the dogs are hitting middle age and losing a bit of their rambunctiousness or whether they just really hate the D.C. summer. It’s probably a little of both, given that under the right circumstances the girls still have ample energy. But even Pippa is more restrained on the defining issue of her life and career: BALL!
I do have good news for Pippa partisans. The fine folks at Scout & Zoe’s—makers of a range of excellent fare for dogs and cats—have for the first time established a “Pippa” promotion code for their advertising on The Remnant. It’s funny, I tweet more Pippa material and #TeamZoë people complain that the Dingo gets short shrift. But the primary promo code for Remnant advertisers has been “Dingo” and #TeamPippa folks complain that Pip is getting short shrift (nobody ever says that either gets long shrift). Note: We currently have a policy of not running ads in our newsletters, so consider this reporting of vital news rather than anything so crass as advertising. That said, Scout and Zoe’s (promo code “Pippa”) has great stuff.
And now, the weird stuff