Taking a Step Back From the News Cycle
Dear Reader/ Cher lecteur (including my minders from the Ministry of Canadian Security and Bilingualism/ Y compris mes tuteurs du ministère de la Sécurité canadienne et du bilinguisme),
I’m writing this from a bench on McGill Street, just down from Victoria Square in Montreal. The Canadians here seem friendly enough, but I try not to make any sudden movements. They may be a stoic people, slow to anger. But the coiled viper never seems a threat—until it’s too late.
I’ve been playing a mental game. Think of a noun that has a rough or edgy connotation to it, and then put the word “Canadian” in front of it. Canadian prison. Canadian bikers. Canadian pornography—so many shouts of “eh!” and “is this okay?”
Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s funny how the word Canadian just drenches everything it touches with irony or drains the grittiness away. Walk into a saloon, pound the bar, and growl “Whiskey.” The saloonkeeper will give you a wary eye. Then say, “Canadian whiskey.” His whole body language relaxes, and you’ll hear the distinct sound of Colts being un-cocked as all the hired toughs tip their hats back over their eyes for some shuteye as the piano player starts back up.
Of course, it’s all unfair. But that’s the role assigned to our neighbors to the North. The weird thing is, given the way we talk about Canada, you’d expect it to turn out to be a serial killer one day. I mean, that’s the way neighbors always talk about the stalker next door. After the grisly horror is revealed and Canada’s massive sex dungeon is exposed, Americans will be interviewed. “I’m shocked. Canada was a really quiet neighbor. Kept to itself. Whenever we asked them to turn down the music, they did. Really the last country I’d expect to do this kind of thing. I guess it’s always the quiet ones.”
“I knew Canada in high school. Everyone liked it, but I can’t say it had a huge amount of friends. It was just sort of ‘there.’”
Outside, Looking In
It’s been a really interesting week to be out of the news cycle and largely off Twitter. From a distance, it seems like this may the worst week ever for the Jungian cacophony that is social media and cable news.
Of course, the distance is virtual. It’s always virtual, because the news cycle isn’t really a place but a state of mind, a realm of quasi-entertainment. It’s like some VR setup in Ready Player One or—for old schoolers— Brainstorm, or THX1138, where the events almost entirely take place in your head. Whether it’s a mass shooting, a stock market crash, or a dog being rescued from the ice, if you’re physically involved in the events that form the narrative of the news cycle, you’re not in the news cycle, you’re in the event itself. It’s the difference between being at the table and being part of the meal.
And if you push away the Twitter or walk away from the TV, suddenly the world doesn’t seem so bleak. Again, I mean for the spectators, not the victims of mass shootings or anything like that. Their horror is all-too-real. But as I travelled around New Hampshire and Maine earlier this week, or as I sit here watching all of the Canadian pedestrians (wow, that sounds redundant) heading to work at Tim Hortons industrial-scale sweatshops, I don’t see all of the rage and virtue-signaling—which is often just another form of performative rage-sparking. I see people living their lives and generally being pleasant with each other. It’s like the news cycle is some horrible, gladiatorial chatroom, a magical wardrobe that takes travelers not to Narnia but to a Hieronymus Bosch version of an EST seminar, where everyone takes turns hating on each other to get to some deeper truth that is always just beyond our fingertips, like a precious heirloom, dropped in a murky lake, that sinks slightly faster than we can swim down to catch it.
The Cola Wars, Begun They Have
Readers of this “news”letter—never mind listeners of The Remnant—know that I’ve become devotee of Albert Jay Nock. I don’t agree with everything he wrote—the man thought Belgium was just as good a place as America to live. Belgium. But what I love about Nock is the critical distance he had from the events of his day. As I wrote—my God, I’m old—10 years ago, Nock was like one of those characters from science fiction who has lived long enough to recognize how the same stories repeat themselves with different actors, dialogue, and costumes:
“I have been thinking,” Nock wrote in 1932, “of how old some of our brand-new economic nostrums really are. Price-regulation by State authority (through State purchase, like our Farm Board) was tried in China about 350 b.c. It did not work. It was tried again, with State distribution, in the first century a.d., and it did not work. Private trading was suppressed in the second century b.c., and regional planning was tried a little later. They did not work; the costs were too high. In the eleventh century a.d., a plan like the R.F.C. [Reconstruction Finance Corporation] was tried, but again cost too much. State monopolies are very old; there were two in China in the seventh century b.c. I suppose there is not a single item on the modern politician’s agenda that was not tried and found wanting ages ago.”
Nock also wrote that “Communism, the New Deal, Fascism, Nazism are merely so-many trade-names for collectivist Statism, like the trade-names for tooth-pastes which are all exactly alike except for the flavouring.”
Now, I disagree with this to some extent. The New Deal wasn’t Nazism or Communism (you can tell by the missing dead bodies). But it most certainly was Statism. Differences of degree matter—a lot. All good principles carried to an extreme become bad in practice. Democracy is good. Too much democracy is bad. The proper check on any good principles is another good principle. Identifying the point when one good thing encroaches too far into another is the essence of wisdom. Good parents understand this. Kids need freedom, but not too much freedom. They need discipline, but not too much discipline.
In my LA Times column this week, I wrote about how the fight between left and right these days is turning into a kind of ideological battle between Coke and Pepsi. When you’re a combatant in a cola war, you’ve got to keep your head on a swivel. The fight is for all the marbles. A victory for Coke is a defeat for Pepsi. But for the outside observer it’s…a fight between what brand of carbonated sugar water people will drink.
Now, the fight between the self-declared nationalists and self-declared (and quasi-declared) socialists has much bigger stakes in many regards. But, from a Nockian perspective, the similarities are at least as disturbing as the similarities. Take J.D. Vance’s broadside against “libertarianism.” He says: “What I'm going after is the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn't be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce.”
J.D. is a good and wise man, and I’m a fan (sorry for the rhyming). And at 30,000 feet, I have no first order objection to this. As I just said, all good principles need limits, including the freedom of individual choice. Vance says: “We should be concerned that our economy is geared more toward developing applications than curing terrible diseases. We should care about a whole host of public goods, and should actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish some of those public goods.” That sounds eminently reasonable to me, even if I have concerns about how he would actually accomplish this.
But as a matter of principle, how is this so different than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talking about “externalities” or Bernie Sanders complaining that Americans have too many choices of deodorant? The new nationalists and the new socialists both think the American people are spending and investing their money wrong, that they’re making wrong choices. As a conservative, I have zero problem with this observation. People still pay money for Nickelback albums and face tattoos.
Income inequality may be as bad as some claim, but you don’t have to be a Robert Nozick fan to understand that income inequality is inevitable in a free society, because more people will pay money to watch basketball than to watch glass-blowing. Hence, the best basketball players will make more money than the best glass-blowers. That doesn’t mean glass-blowing is worse or basketball better. It really doesn’t “mean” anything at all, save that freedom distributes money unevenly. Of course, Statism does too; it’s just that when the state does it, coercion is involved.
But as a conservative, I also have grave reservations about the idea that we can institutionalize at the federal level a system where the “good” planners will always be in power. I also have grave reservations that the “good” planners can reliably and sustainably plan better than the “bad” ones. I have no more faith that the editors of First Things can conquer Hayek’s knowledge problem than the folks at Mother Jones can.
If I’m forced to choose between the two, I’d almost certainly choose the First Things version. But that’s the point. No one can force me to choose. It’s only a binary choice if people surrender to the assertion that it’s a binary choice. The amazing thing is that I’ve spent my entire professional life being told that libertarianism or classical liberalism is a form of right-wing extremism. And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it’s the new centrism, caught between the rock of socialism and the hard place of nationalism. It’s the new vital center, in desperate need of more vitality.
Which brings me back to Nock, the news cycle, and, I suppose, Canada. Nock sat outside what he saw as the ideological toothpaste wars of his era, making his arguments where and when he could, if only to a remnant of likeminded people out there. He was a bit like Canada, amiably looking in the fishbowl, whose rim begins at the 49th parallel, both marveling at, and disgusted by, the drama of it all. This was always my central complaint about Nock: his studied indifference to the necessary battles. I still believe that.
But that’s not how I feel right now, as I watch the gladiators of the news cycle take bites out of each other. I’m sure that will change, somewhat, when I’m back home in the mix, wearing my VR headset that is part of the standard-issue uniform of my profession.
But right now, my wife and daughter are waiting for me back at the hotel. And that reality is so much more important to me than the virtual reality screaming out of my iPhone screen.
Various and Sundry
Non-canine Update: For complicated reasons, we didn’t take our dogs with us on this trip. My wife and I regret it, though my daughter is pleased not to share the back seat with them, and I really can’t blame her. The Fair Jessica and I spend a remarkable amount of time talking about how Zoë or Pippa would like this spot or that. We both feel that hiking without dogs is like going to an amusement park without kids—what’s the point? We’ve left the beasts with Jack Butler, my research assistant and producer of The Remnant podcast. Herewith his actual canine update:
Yes, it’s true: Jonah has left me in charge of his pets, including Zoë and Pippa, two of the most famous dogs on the entire Internet. (And no, I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.) I am taking this responsibility very seriously—so seriously, in fact, that my supply of the “proof of life” videos so popular on Jonah’s Twitter feed has suffered. You see, Jonah is confident enough in his ability to control his dogs unleashed that he usually has at least one free hand, whereas I am constantly afraid Zoë is going to go kill a deer or something. Thus, so far all I have managed is this, and this.
I can’t compete with Jonah on this front. So I won’t even try. Instead, I’ll note the funniest thing—to me, as a relative outsider—about each of his pets. Zoë has mellowed out considerably since her youth, but she still has enough moxie to steal a stick that I was using to play fetch with Pippa. Pippa refuses to leave my side, even indoors, where she will splay herself on the floor under my feet as I sit down. Gracie, the good cat, has a bizarre fondness for my laptop, sitting atop it when it is not in use and putting herself between me and the keyboard when it is. And Ralph, Jonah’s wife’s cat, from whom Jonah is famously distant, has taken more of a liking to me than I expected. I would never say he likes me better than Jonah. But many people are saying he does. Stay tuned for further updates, as I try to ramp up photo and video production.
And now, the weird stuff.
Last week’s G-File
This week’s first Remnant, with Jane Coaston
What's wrong with America?
This week’s second Remnant, with Lyman Stone
How bad are America’s problems really?
And now, the weird stuff.
I, for one, welcome our new avian overlords
A good dog
The baller nun
Birth of a supervillain
The cat man of Aleppo
Mike Pence celebrates Garfield
Not great, not terrible
Another good dog
Ben Affleck mocks Armageddon (which he is in)
Beware the hugger!
I hate when this happens