No-no to Reno and Beto
The 'First Things' editor and the would-be Democratic presidential candidate are two sides of the same statist coin.
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Dear Reader (as well as those who opted to receive this “news”letter through long protein strings),
This is the first G-File of the new era. I feel like I should be dressed all fancy and serve the good cheese. You know the one that says cheese and not “cheese product” on the label.
What is this new era of which I speak? Well, this “news”letter is now a product—some uncharitable souls might say the cheese product—of The Dispatch, the new media thingamabob I co-founded with Steve Hayes and Toby Stock.
The thing is, all of this high-minded stuff we talk about in our manifesto, the earnest lectures we give our young staffers about doing things the right way, our burning desire to push back on what social scientists call the garbageification of everything: Well, this “news”letter doesn’t quite mesh with all of that. I mean, sometimes it does, but even back when I was at National Review, the G-File stuck out like a chimpanzee on a tricycle, dressed as Evel Knievel, in a performance of Swan Lake. It’s sort of the curly fry that mysteriously ends up in the bag of normal fries.
So I’m worried that some of our new subscribers will read this “news”letter today and be like the Amish guy who mistakenly went into a BDSM sex shop because he thought all the whips, chaps, and saddles in the window meant it was an equestrian supply outlet. “Oh, no. I think I’m in the wrong place.”
But as the cashier replied, “Maybe not. Give it a try.”
True story: Back when the Obama White House completely botched the Obamacare website, I made a crack on Special Report about how none of us could have predicted that the administration would farm out the job to the best computer programmers the Amish community could offer. My late friend Charles Krauthammer pretended to take great offense on behalf of the Amish, saying something like, “I won’t stay silent as Jonah besmirches the good name of Amish Americans.” I shot back, “Why bother Charles? It’s not like they’re watching.”
That total non-sequitur raises another issue. The G-File is as much a dessert topping as it is a floor wax, by which I mean it’s whatever I want it to be. I completely understand that it’s an acquired taste and some people don’t like it (after all, there are actually people who like flan). As my old boss Bill Buckley liked to say: “Pass the peanut butter and bacon canapes.” People would then say “How can you eat that?” To which he’d respond, “De gustibus non est disputandum,” which means: “In matters of taste there can be no dispute.”
As I explained years ago, the dashboard saint of this “news”letter is the gnostic theologian Joachim of Fiore. I kid, I kid; this “news”letter is a No Immanentizing the Eschaton Zone. The real dashboard saint is Dr. Johnny Fever, the DJ from WKRP in Cincinnati, whose career was almost destroyed because he once said “booger” on the air. When Andy Travis, the new station manager, took over WKRP, he told Johnny he could say “booger,” by which he meant he could do whatever he wanted. At National Review, my friend Rich Lowry was my Andy Travis. Now, because I’m the editor-in-chief of The Dispatch, I’m my own Andy Travis. Ergo, “Booger.”
Post-Liberalism Is a Power Grab
I should probably stop the narcissistic and self-congratulatory stream of consciousness. After all, this isn’t a Trump rally.
Earlier this week, the American Enterprise Institute held a panel on the role of conservative magazines, with the editors of National Review (Lowry), Commentary (John Podhoretz) and First Things (R.R. “Rusty” Reno), and moderated by Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs and—little known fact—perhaps the world’s foremost punk rock bagpiper.
I couldn’t attend, but I was amused to hear about Reno’s contributions. Reno is one of the boosters of this idea that the old conservative consensus is not only dead—possibly true—but that we should all dance on its grave (Yuval could play “Anarchy in the UK” on the grave-turned-mosh-pit). That consensus, he argues, needs to be replaced by a new nationalist or post-liberal or Catholic integralist philosophy. The mere fact that the champions of this “movement” can’t agree on what to call it—never mind what it should do—should indicate how confused the whole thing is. Though I suppose they’d call it a healthy sign of intellectual ferment. I think it’s more like a half-dozen eggheads not merely bickering over where they should go, but slap-fighting over the steering wheel and who should be in the driver’s seat.
Of my myriad problems with this new idea is that it’s not new. Shorn of its grandiose verbiage and tough guy rhetoric (they invest vast amounts of moral and philosophic urgency in the idea that “fighting” is self-justifying and, like, really, cool), their idea is literally one of the oldest ideas in the history, and pre-history, of politics: Our side should be in charge and have its way. What they often dismiss as “procedural liberalism”—i.e., free speech, individual rights, property rights, etc.—are simply hindrances to doing what is right, by which they mean imposing some notion of the Highest Good. In other words, liberty isn’t a good in itself; it is, at best, a means to do good things, and if it doesn’t serve that function, it is a problem.
It’s very similar to Tucker Carlson’s claim that “the market is just a tool.” I have no problem with the idea that the market is a tool, because it is. As Hayek argued, it is a process of discovery that allows us to find the price of goods and services as well as greater efficiencies in distributing resources.
My objection is with the word “just.” The market is a tool, but it’s not merely a tool. Economic liberty is a facet of liberty generally, and liberty isn’t merely a tool; it’s a right and an ideal. Plenty of “tools” are the way we operationalize our rights and ideals. Guns are tools, but self-defense is a right. The printing press and the internet are tools, but free speech is a right. Churches serve a utilitarian function, but faith and the right to exercise it is more than just another way to spend your time.
Now, it is entirely fair to point out that the Founders saw a lot of utility in procedural liberalism. The new science of politics they lay out in the Federalist Papers is deeply practical. The checks and balances, the pitting of factions against each other, is a very utilitarian affair on one level. But their means and ends were properly aligned. The means of procedural liberalism were intended to protect the purpose of the republic they established: Liberty.
Because Reno & co. reject this purpose, they reject the means as a hindrance to their agenda. Again, this isn’t a new idea. The notion that my team should be in charge and use the state to make others live the way my team wants them to live may literally be the oldest understanding of politics that has ever existed. Ancient kings and emperors believed it. Opponents of the Enlightenment believed it. The totalitarians of the 20th century believed it. The technocrats of the Progressive Era and the New Deal believed it (which explains why Reno gets so offended when people criticize Wilson and FDR).
Yet what is remarkable about their project isn’t the grandness of their indictment but the smallness of their agenda. When talking at the theoretical level, they sound like Zeus bellowing at the folly of the mortals, hurling rhetorical lightning bolts. But when they climb down from Mt. Olympus, the courage of their convictions barely has the spark of a Bic lighter. In the famous debate between my soon-to-be Dispatch colleague David French and Sohrab Amari, David French kept asking what a real fighting post-liberal would actually do to fight, among other things, the scourge of drag queen story hours in a handful of libraries. His answer: Have senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz grill the head of the American Library Association. Put aside the fact that there is nothing inherent to the liberal order preventing such a bold move right now. Let’s pretend it were otherwise. For this we’re supposed to dustbin liberty as an ideal? I mean, at least Richard Rich got Wales in A Man for All Seasons. As for Reno, one of his treasured policy goals—apparently impossible under the Ancien Regime of the old conservative consensus—is mandatory ballroom dancing lessons. Paging Sean Spicer: Your nation needs your service once more, not as a mere professional crowd size exaggerator but as the new Ballroom Dancing Czar.
The Intellectual Fecundity of Decadence
Anyway, back to that panel. “I doubt [Donald Trump] used the word ‘freedom’ a single time in his [RNC] convention speech,” Reno mused approvingly. “And his themes are ones of protection and solidarity, I would say.” (I checked: Trump did use the word freedom once, but in the context of better trade deals. He didn’t say “liberty” at all. He also described America as a violence-soaked hellscape, which is apparently unobjectionable in the name of solidarity.)
For Reno, excising freedom from conservative rhetoric is a good thing because “we need a politics of what I would call cultural solidarity.” To that end, he would punitively tax divorce—because you know divorce is free of financial costs under a regime of procedural liberalism. His other idea would be to put a lifetime cap of $1 billion on philanthropic donations.
Why prevent rich people from giving more money to charities (including, presumably the Catholic Church)? Well, among reasons, it is apparently a shock to the nationalist conscience that a private philanthropy, the Gates Foundation, in Reno’s words, “effectively runs health policy for most of Africa. And people say, ‘Well, they do a better job than the governments of those countries would.’ You know, but at some point I say, ‘Fuck you, I wanna run my own goddamn country.’”
He later apologized for his profanity, but I found this particularly amusing for several reasons. Reno and his compatriots have tried very hard to paint their opponents as morally deficient. Reno’s First Things colleague Matthew Schmitz pilloried David French—a devout Christian—for watching Game of Thrones because there are too many boobies in it. French’s defense of the First Amendment and religious liberty is really proof of his “moral relativism,” argue his critics. In a broadside against me for daring to write a book that defends liberty and the market, Reno—who cannot muster much passion about the sybaritic lifestyle and thuggish rhetoric of Donald Trump and his praetorians—wrote: “Jonah Goldberg exemplifies the decadence and dysfunction of today’s public discourse.”
Look, I’m just a scribbler who wants the freedom to say “booger” in my “news”letter. But I think it’s just hilarious that the champion of Catholic-infused nationalism thinks the place to drop the pretense of probity and starting dropping F-Bombs is on the issue of billionaires spending their own money to…[checks notes]…save the lives of millions of poor African children.
The Left’s Cultural Solidarity
While I don’t take Reno very seriously, the movement he exemplifies is a serious thing, because if it succeeds in convincing conservatives that liberty—both as a system and an end—is no longer worth fighting for, then that will leave the whole of the fight to libertarians and a remnant of classical liberals.
And let’s be clear, they may be dangerously wrong in wanting to fight the statism of the left with a statism of the right, but the post-liberals are on much stronger footing in opposing the statism of the left. Consider Beto O’Rourke, who seems to think that the shortest path to the Oval Office is to become a hipster Noam Chomsky. Last night, he said he wants to revoke the tax exempt status of any church that doesn’t perform same-sex marriages:
There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so, as president, we’re going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.
If I were of a more QAnony bent, I would suspect that O’Rourke is a Russian sleeper agent determined to sow social discord by serving as a right-wing strawman made flesh. Or maybe he’s a kind of strawman golem? If enough liberals say, “Oh come on, that’s not what liberals actually believe!” a straw Beto O’Rourke suddenly comes to life:
“Liberals don’t want to confiscate everyone’s guns!”
[Sproing!] “Hi, I’m Beto O’Rourke. We’re gonna get the guns.”
“Um, why are you standing on my table?”
“No liberal thinks the government should force the Catholic Church or Orthodox Jews or devout Muslims to perform same sex weddings! That’s just a strawman.”
[Sproing] “I’m not straw! I’m a real boy!”
But here’s the thing: Beto and Reno have a lot in common. They both reject “procedural liberalism,” if procedural liberalism stands in the way of their definition of “cultural solidarity.” They just disagree on what that cultural solidarity should look like.
And once you do away with the safeguards of procedural liberalism—and the ideal of liberty itself—the only way to determine whose vision will win out is a raw contest of power. Under a liberal regime, one with the law on his side is a majority, in the words of Calvin Coolidge. Under a post-liberal regime, the law is whatever the majority can get away with. As a conservative, and if forced to choose, I think I’d rather live in Reno’s vision of a post-liberal society than Beto’s—I like ballroom dancing—but even if his team could succeed in getting power, I have little doubt it would be a temporary victory, won at the expense of tearing down the safeguards that prevent the kind of victory Beto is proposing. And as a conservative, I’d rather conserve the safeguards.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update, Explained: So I was going to do a long primer on the G-File for the uninitiated, but the open felt too self-indulgent and the rest got away from me like Joe Biden trying to tell a short anecdote. Besides, maybe it’s better to show rather than tell. Regardless, one of the features of every G-File is a “canine update” about my dogs Zoë and Pippa. Zoë is a Carolina dog, a.k.a. the American Dingo, and is a serious predator and something of a white trash swamp dog. Pippa is an English springer spaniel, and a lover not a fighter. As I often say, Zoë is like Daryl from The Walking Dead, happy to cull squirrels for lunch, and Pippa is more like one of the dumber and prettier daughters from Downtown Abbey, if one of the hallmarks of the English aristocracy were chasing tennis balls.
Canine Update: Zoë and Pippa are doing very well. The fall weather is finally truly here and they are all for it. Pippa’s trademark waggle is fully functional. But her limp seems to come back every now and then, mostly because she’s been overdoing it thanks to the weather. She’s also feeling a little superior these days; she even took the Zoë’s wing-dog seat the other day. Alas, the only exciting event this week has no video attached. I was walking the beasts around the neighborhood the other evening—Zoë on leash as is required because, like the Crips and Bloods, she’s so territorial about her streets—and Zoë seemed super excited about something in some very tall hedges. I assumed she spotted a rabbit or squirrel and gave her a little slack in the leash to check it out. She barreled into the hedges and a giant buck exploded out and ran right past me. Scared the crap out of me—figuratively speaking.
And now, the weird stuff.