In Defense of Both Sides—and Neither

Too often people selectively invoke principles when it serves their purposes and discard them when it doesn’t.

Dear Reader (including Britney Spears, who is finally free to read the G-File unsupervised),

Russia, Russia, Russia.

So I often write about how alienated I am from a lot of mainstream politics these days. This annoys a lot of people who think I’m under some obligation to pick a side, particularly the people who think that if I’m not wholly on their side I must be the other side. Anger at both-sides-ism is ironically one of the few areas of agreement between, well, both sides.

But let me take a moment to speak in praise of both-sides-ism.

Consider the “Russia collusion hoax.” Going by what we know, the Steele dossier was a travesty. It was an outrageous, indefensible, dirty trick. And even if you believe that Steele operated in something like good faith, the shoddiness of his work should have been self-disqualifying for the political operators who tried to weaponize it. Instead, the shoddiness was almost a feature, not a bug; just get the accusations out there and don’t worry if they’re true. The important part was to do the political damage. I can’t find anything meaningful to  disagree with in this editorial on the subject over at National Review.

Likewise, I think Adam Schiff is a dishonorable and dishonest hack. The only thing that impresses me about him is his gift for flinging hyperpartisan innuendo while seeming to be a studious and serious legislator. He’s got the tone down just right. Rhetorically he’s like a Gucci bag filled with bullsh-t. If you define McCarthyism by Joseph McCarthy’s actual tactics—pretending to have damning information he can’t reveal right now—Schiff is a McCarthyite. The fact that he doesn’t sound like one is substantively irrelevant. Eli Lake’s excellent review of Schiff’s book captures the man well.

So there you go. I’m with the right—at least the serious right—on all of these points.

But …

There’s the other side of the ledger. Donald Trump openly called on the Russian government to meddle in the 2016 election. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump declared at a press conference. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” That same day, Russian hackers went after Clinton’s server.

The Trump campaign held a meeting at the Trump Tower with pretty much the entire senior staff, because a Russian woman promised to deliver the goods on Hillary. It came to nothing, but it certainly demonstrated that a lot of the outrage over the allegation that Trump would ever work with the Russians was exceedingly selective.

Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, gave internal polling and campaign data over to Russian “businessman” Konstantin Kilimnik, who, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, is a Russian intelligence officer and “part of a cadre of individuals ostensibly operating outside of the Russian government but who nonetheless implement Kremlin-directed influence operations.”

It hardly ends there. There was inexplicable sketchiness with Michael Flynn that may have been amateur hour stuff, but he did confess to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia. And, of course, there was Trump’s weird Champ Kind/Ron Burgundy man-crush on Putin, his grotesque siding with Russia over the U.S. at the Helsinki summit, and so on.

Now you can make as much or as little about all of this as you want—and many people have, in both pro- and anti-Trump tribes. My only point is that just because Team A misbehaved, that doesn’t mean Team B’s misbehavior didn’t exist.

The other night I caught a conversation on The Five about Schiff’s recent appearance on The View (which I missed). If that was all you listened to, you’d think it was insane to believe Trump ever did anything to encourage the media feeding frenzy about Russia. Again, I have no objection to their attacks on Schiff—he has it coming. But the entire discussion was one way. It was also a bit otherworldly. In the telling of Jesse Watters, Jeanine Pirro, and Geraldo Rivera, the country was torn apart by it. “This really destroyed the country,” Watters declared. Rivera rightly noted that the FBI’s handling of the Steele dossier, Schiff’s conduct, etc., damaged the credibility of our institutions.

But when Pirro said, “We have never been torn apart as a country as we were by this Russia collusion delusion,” I had to wonder what country she was in. Really? The Civil War? The fight over civil rights? McCarthyism? Gallup polled Americans throughout 2018 on what the most important problem facing the country was. “The situation with Russia” ranked 46 out of 48, narrowly beating out “care for the elderly” and “child abuse” with less that 0.5 percent of respondents mentioning it. A Morning Consult poll showed that 35 percent of Americans thought it should be a “top” priority to investigate allegations of Russian involvement in the election. But that still put it below plenty of other priorities like infrastructure and immigration reform (but not building a wall on the Mexican border).

Anyway, my only point here is that you don’t have to buy into the nonsense people say defines our national disagreements. Well, I guess that’s not my only point. Every time I turn on cable news I’m told that America is split between those who think Kyle Rittenhouse is a patriot who bravely defended the country against lawlessness and those who think he’s some kind of white supremacist fascist (even though he didn’t shoot any black people). There’s room to believe that both sides have a few facts on their side of the equation. There’s also room—right next to me—to believe that he was an idiot who did something really stupid, but that doesn’t make him a cold-blooded murderer.

This is not some passionate case for difference splitting. There’s no categorical imperative that says holding a position in the center is right or even superior to taking a principled stand firmly on the right or the left. As I wrote in my underrated book The Tyranny of Clichés, sometimes the compromise position in the “center” is worse than either ideological alternative:

If I say we need one hundred feet of bridge to cross a one-hundred- foot chasm that makes me an extremist. Somebody else says we don’t need to build a bridge at all because we don’t need to cross the chasm in the first place. That makes him an extremist. The third guy is the centrist because he insists that we compromise by building a fifty-foot bridge that ends in the middle of thin air? As an extremist I’ll tell you that the other extremist has a much better grasp on reality than the centrist does. The extremists have a serious disagreement about what to do. The independent who splits the difference has no idea what to do and doesn’t want to bother with figuring it out.

Lots of people get into trouble by confusing or conflating political compromise and compromising principles. I’m 100 percent against wealth taxes of any kind. I think they’re terrible policy, unjust, and unconstitutional, among other things. If Elizabeth Warren says she wants a 10 percent wealth tax on unrealized gains, I’m against it. Saying, “Let’s compromise and make it 5 percent” is still a 100 percent abdication of principle, even if it’s a 50 percent compromise on her initial bid.

We all know the surely apocryphal conversation between a woman and Winston Churchill (or George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, or Groucho Marx):

Churchill tells the woman: “I’ll pay you a million pounds to sleep with me.”

Woman: “Okay!”

Churchill: “How about five pounds?”

Woman: “Well, I never! What kind of woman do you take me for?”

Churchill: “We’ve already established that, now we’re just haggling over price.”

If you think prostitution is wrong as a matter of principle, the price shouldn’t matter.

This doesn’t mean you should never compromise on principle. It depends on the principle and on the context. If you’re truly pro-life, you’ll be opposed to legalized abortion in the first trimester. But accepting restrictions on the second or third trimester in exchange for legal abortion in the first trimester is, from a pro-life standpoint, better than nothing because it would yield fewer abortions. In other words, context and prudential considerations matter. Distinctions matter.

But let’s get back to both-sides-ism. I disagree with a lot of the principles of the left. I agree with many, though not all, of the principles of the right (depending on which right we’re talking about). But I’ve lost my patience with the way both sides selectively invoke principles—particularly the ones we’re all supposed to agree on like due process, democracy, constitutionalism, etc.—when it serves their purposes and discard them when it doesn’t. For years, many liberals have been content (or at least quiet) as woke activists demand certain books be removed from schools because they contain “triggering” material. At the same time, conservatives have emptied their spleens decrying this stuff as censorship. But last week’s Virginia election was like some kind of halftime requiring the two teams to switch sides. Now I hear MSNBC people decrying fascist censorship of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Fox people touting the need to police school reading materials.

This is the problem with so many of our infotainment-soaked political battles. Partisans switch weapons constantly. For four years under Trump, people like Mike Pence would invoke decency and honesty to criticize Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats when they violated norms of decency and honesty (“She tore up Trump’s speech! The horror!”). But when Trump treated the Oval Office like a urinal, Pence would argue that he was elected to be a “disruptor.”

What Democrats did to pin the Russia collusion narrative on him was indefensible. What Trump did to make that effort so easy was also indefensible.

And so, you know what? I’m not going to defend any of it.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Pippa is really pushing it. She has convinced herself that if I want her to do anything—go for a walk, have dinner, whatever—the first thing I must do is rub her belly. It’s like we’re two magnets and when I get close to her, I repel her onto her back. The only reason that explanation doesn’t make sense—okay, not the only reason—is that she also hits me with the “rub mah belly!” spaniel eyes. 

In other news, while I was in Dallas, the Fair Jessica handled the morning walks. On one trip to the park, someone recognized Pippa (“I follow her on Twitter!”) but not Zoë! This is really outrageous (though also a little confusing), and I take all the blame. Expect more Dingo content in the future. The really exciting news for the girls—which they don’t know yet—is that I will be driving them both out to the Pacific Northwest for Thanksgiving. It’s gonna be pretty brutal since Jess probably can’t drive with me on the way out (she’s killing herself on a book deadline). But it will probably generate some excellent canine content. 

ICYMI

Last Friday’s G-File

The Ruminant’s seventh drive-time broadcast

Kwizatz haderach?

Jay Cost and I discuss James Madison on AEI’s Viewpoint

David French guest-hosts The Remnant and previews Good Faith, a new Dispatch podcast

The Trump factor

It’s time to move on

Jay Cost returns to The Remnant for more extreme nerdery

And now, the weird stuff

Brief emotion

Three leaf clover

Faith and devotion

Hanging around

The right stuff