M&Ms, Masterminding, and Meandering
On the moral imperative of staying in your lane.
Dear Reader (Including those of you will be persuaded by arguments only if I punctuate them with loud stage whispers like Joe Biden).
As I am nothing if not transparent to you, Dear Readers, this once again is one of those times where I’m getting a very late start on the G-File. Even as I write this, I don’t know what this “news”letter is going to be about and I implore you to keep that in mind as you read it. If I end up having great and powerful insights that change your life, fantastic. But I’d rather you read this in the spirit of, “Let’s see what Jonah can come up with in 90+ minutes of typing” than, say, “This is the final product I will judge Goldberg by from this day to his last day.”
If I could, Thanos-like, snap my fingers and remake reality anyway I wanted, I … well, hold on. If I could do that you probably wouldn’t be reading this “news”letter because I wouldn’t be writing it. I’d almost surely be doing something else. And even if I were the all-powerful master of time, space, matter, etc., and I still thought the best use of my time late on a Friday afternoon was pecking out this epistle, odds are good you wouldn’t be reading it, because I would probably have done a lot of cool stuff already, like create a dozen other, easily visitable Earth-like planets throughout the solar system, each populated with hypoallergenic adorable animals that don’t poop and let you use their enormous bellies as hammocks. I certainly wouldn’t eliminate half of all living things the way Thanos did, on the dumbest interpretation of Malthusianism imaginable. Seriously, the guy thinks that resources are in short supply, so he kills half of all living things? If you get rid of half of the crops and animals along with half the sentient lifeforms, how have you created meaningful abundance for anybody? So maybe this Thanos set-up was a mistake.
Let me start over. I think if I could convince the people who control the commanding heights of our culture and politics of one thing to improve our political and cultural landscape, it would be to flip their hierarchy of priorities. Hollywood would concentrate first and foremost on making awesome movies that make money and only second about changing consciousness or lecturing us about how we think wrongthought. Chefs would focus on making great food first, auto manufacturers would focus on flying cars ahead of robot gender inclusivity. More on that in a minute.
Part of what I’m getting at is the concept of “telescopic philanthropy” popularized in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. One character, Mrs. Jellyby, is obsessed with all manner of charitable causes in Africa, while ignoring the perilous plight of her own children.
Note: I am not saying that modern day Mrs. Jellybys shouldn’t care about the plight of the downtrodden and oppressed faraway, I’m saying that they should first prioritize the problems closest to them and the people who have the most pressing and legitimate demands for her concern and attention. (Of course, some far away problems—like, say, genocide—can, as a matter of both prudence and morality, take precedence. But even here the first moral imperative is to resolve, not be complicit in it. And as we’ve seen, a lot of people are fine with virtue signaling when it comes to costless denigration of America, but stop short of actually being virtuous if it comes at a cost. Moral philosophers call these people “a**holes.”)
Call it moral triage. If your family is fine, cast your gaze to the plight of your friends, neighbors, local community, country, and then the world. I could invoke all sorts or religious arguments for this (subsidiarity, baby!), but let’s skip that stuff and just use (Hayekian) economics and common sense. The closer you are to a problem, the more likely it is you’ll have a greater grasp of what the real solutions are. The further you are from a problem, the more you rely on abstraction and speculation about how to fix it. The idea that a stranger a thousand miles away has a better grasp on the problems faced by your family or your community than you do isn’t necessarily preposterous. It depends on the problem. A doctor on the other side of the country probably knows more about how to treat your diabetes than the plumber next door. But the notion that a far-off bureaucrat has a better grasp of your local school’s problems than local parents and politicians strikes me as unlikely.
But I’m not just talking about philanthropy or even public policy. As Yuval Levin often says, the first question anybody in a position of authority in any given institution should ask is, “What’s my role here?” In other words, as Edmund Husserl told his protégé Martin Heidegger when they were bowling in Stuttgart, “Stay in your lane.”
As longtime readers know, I love the essay “I, Pencil” in which Leonard Read—writing from the perspective of a pencil— argues that nobody knows how to make a pencil. Thousands of people of different religious faiths, nationalities, and worldviews across the globe each doing their jobs produce an object none of them could make on their own, at least not efficiently and inexpensively. They are not directed by any central authority or “mastermind.” “I, Pencil,” Read writes, “am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny knowhows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human masterminding!”
One of the great problems we have today is too much masterminding. People struggle to grasp their own problems but are supremely confident in how to fix the problematic people they don’t know. It’s as if the zinc miners are more concerned with what people do with their pencils —“Stop doodling penises in your textbooks!”— than with simply playing their part in the supply chain. Worse are members of the graphite goody-two-shoes lobby, who are happy to take the profit from selling their commodity, but are devoting a huge amount of their time to the question of how graphite makes people they don’t know feel.
Confectioners of the soul.
Consider the recent announcement from the makers of M&Ms that they will be revamping the personalities of their cartoon pitchcandies (updating gender roles is a big part of the makeover). Forgive the long excerpt, but they do a better job of parody than I could (emphasis mine):
M&M’S has been around for more than 80 years and this year the brand continues to evolve to reflect the more dynamic, progressive world that we live in. And as part of this evolution, built on purpose, M&M’S promises to use the power of fun to include everyone with a goal of increasing the sense of belonging for 10 million people around the world by 2025.
The brand has also introduced the M&M’S FUNd to track the brand’s impact on our mission, which will offer resources, mentorship, opportunities and financial support in the arts and entertainment space to help ensure people have access to experiences where everyone feels they belong.
The refreshed M&M’S brand will include a more modern take on the looks of our beloved characters, as well as more nuanced personalities to underscore the importance of self-expression and power of community through storytelling. Fans will also notice an added emphasis on the ampersand to more prominently demonstrate how the brand aims to bring people together. M&M’S branding will also reflect an updated tone of voice that is more inclusive, welcoming, and unifying, while remaining rooted in our signature jester wit and humor.
The two female M&Ms—Ms. Green and Ms. Brown—work in tandem as a “force supporting women, together throwing shine and not shade,” Mars explains. To this end they will lose the “Ms.” as part of their mission to de-emphasize gender. Green will replace her go-go boots in favor of “cool, laid-back sneakers.”
Now, on the one hand, this is harmless nonsense. But they clearly take this move seriously, so I think that gives me the right to do likewise. So let’s speak bluntly. If you take seriously the proposition that cartoon candies can improve society by getting rid of gendered titles and cliched footwear, you must also believe that their other actions matter, too. Forget getting red-pilled, baby, it’s all about getting red M&Med.
For instance, as Alexandra Petri notes, these M&Ms eat other M&Ms. Has anybody looked into whether there has been a marked uptick in cannibalism after years of exposure to these characters? Was Jeffrey Dahmer raised on an M&M diet?
One of the core moral and philosophical tenets of Western civilization, Judaism, Christianity, and liberal political theory is that one person is not the property, tool, or instrument of another. We have agency, we have will, we have dignity. The reason M&Ms exist is to be eaten. If we’re going to turn M&Ms into people—or at least sentient beings—what kind of message are we sending? That some beings deserve to be devoured by others.
As Hannibal Lecter, another famous, albeit fictional, cannibal said to Clarice Starling: “First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself? What is its nature?”
I put it to you: The M&M is, above all things, a thing to be eaten. The characteristic that distinguishes it from other comestibles, if you recall, is that it “melts in your mouth, not in your hands.” And while human victims of cannibalism don’t “melt” in your hands, they do leave a mess.
Now, the good folks at Mars—who seem not to care about the pagan moral corruption they might inspire from sharing a name with the Roman god of war—claim to believe that all of this will foster a sense of “belonging” currently missing in our society.
I agree that too many people are starved for a sense of belonging, that too many crave the love that a family can provide. But that hunger will not be sated by eating M&Ms, even if the bag they gorge on says “family size”—or even if Mars erases the word “size.”
You know what would help provide that sense of belonging? If families, churches, schools, and all the other little platoons of life did their jobs. This could be the most successful marketing campaign in history, but I doubt you’ll see the needle move a micrometer on any of the measurements of alienation and inclusion because of it.
Statecraft as churchcraft.
As Socrates said, what is true of M&Ms is true of government. I have been writing for decades now that the government cannot love you. This was, until recently, an admonition aimed almost entirely leftward. But today it works in every direction. Yes, you can get a sense of belonging from being part of a political campaign, and you can get a sense of meaning from being physically part of a movement. But the belonging and meaning come from the participation with other human beings in a cause or community. The state cannot deliver these things to you. It can increase your net worth, but it is largely powerless to improve your self worth—at least at scale. Sure, teachers, social workers, and other agents of the government can make some progress in this regard. But it is a face-to-face, person-to-person endeavor, and there’s little evidence that they’re better at it than people who don’t work for the government.
And the more effort the government puts into filling the holes in your soul—real or alleged —the less energy it puts into doing what government is for. One of the reasons parents are becoming radicalized these days is that they sense, often with good reason, that their kids’ schools and the politicians—beholden to the unions and bureaucracies around them—care more about what people do with pencils than doing their part in making pencils. One reason crime is becoming such a salient issue is that lots of people are increasingly convinced that politicians think criminal justice is a lower priority than social justice.
The Democrats have a growing problem with Asian American voters precisely because Asian Americans are more inclined to think that fighting crime and teaching the three Rs are central to what government is for than the grand visions that arouse the passion and energy of Democratic activists.
Many on the right look at the folly of generations of progressive social engineering and think the folly stems not from the social engineering, but solely from the progressivism. As a conservative, I have no problem conceding that the progressivism has often made the social engineering worse. But centralized social engineering, masterminding soulcraft, doesn’t work from any angle. Social media heightens the problem by shrinking the space we live in. We get mad when our neighbors “live wrong.” But with social media everybody is our neighbor.
I believe there is such a thing as living wrong. But the solution to that, again, is dealing with the whole person, in the rich complexity of their lived experience. You can’t do that from a distance. And that fact doesn’t change just by changing the definition of living right. You want a religious revival in this country? Fine. Work from the ground up, “one-by-one, from the inside out,” as Glenn Loury put it.
And if you think I’m wrong or even just too skeptical about what the government in Washington can accomplish wholesale, I promise you the job will be easier for the would-be masterminds if they first prove government can do the things everyone agrees it should do. But a better strategy would be if societal Mrs. Jellybys prioritized the problems in front of them first, and worried about people far away living wrong a distant second.
Canine update: So the Fair Jessica and Lucy returned and the quadrupeds were ecstatic. I’m sorry I didn’t get a welcoming committee video but I was chivalrously carrying luggage and not my phone. But the most remarkable thing about whenever TFJ returns from a long absence isn’t the dogs’ waggle-and-aroos freakout, it’s how their behavior generally changes. When I’m alone with them they are in a constant state of agitation and neediness. When she returns, they sleep and snuggle like I upped their Prozac. They still compete for the prize spots and all that, but it’s not a high-stakes competition anymore.
The only other significant development is that Jess found some new puppy pictures of Pippa. I will admit it’s been a grueling week for a bunch of reasons I’ll discuss later, and the weather only made things worse. But even with the cold and wet anxious beasts, it was better to have them with me than it would have been if I were alone. Because dogs are good, though whether that’s despite or because of their utter lack of telescopic philanthropy I’ll leave to others to debate.
And now, the weird stuff