The Intellectual Wet Market
The internet lets bad ideas germinate and spread like contagious diseases.
Dear Reader (including those of you quarantined at a California air base),
Welcome to the Age of the Wet Market.
By now you’ve heard that the coronavirus everyone is talking about is believed to have originated in a Chinese wet market in the city of Wuhan. Wet markets sell live and dead animals, and not just chickens and the like. You can get bat and badger meat—fresh bat and badger meat, since who among us likes bat haunch with freezer burn?
The intermingling of humans and wild animals, blood, excrement etc. is a great way to spread viruses. As with interns, the stress of being caged can weaken the immune systems of animals, making it possible for disease to hop from one species to another. Also, many of the vendors actually live with, or in close proximity, to, their “livestock”—I use quotes because I’m unsure if I can call bats, snakes, and badgers livestock. (I’m much more confident I will never call them “lunch.”)
Anyway, I’m not going to write a lot about the coronavirus; I just needed to lay down a foundation to use wet markets as a metaphor. But I will say I’m shocked we haven’t had more of these problems until now. Globalization doesn’t only shrink distances between people and products, it does the same thing for germs, parasites, and viruses. Throw in the huge—huge—problem of antibiotic resistance and it seems like it’s more a matter of “when” than “if” for a really nasty epidemic in our future. And while it may be a sci-fi cliché, it would not surprise me one bit if some of the bugs that stewed the bowels of your average Neanderthal don’t end up ruining a Southwest flight sometime soon. In other words, the whole world is becoming a giant wet market.
The intellectual wet market.
Okay, so now for the metaphorical stuff. Readers of The Dispatch will have noticed that I think the arguments surrounding impeachment have been a hot mess. I think what Dershowitz has been arguing is grotesque. But I’ve had my say on that. But more broadly, the entire conversation about impeachment has been suffused with bogus legalisms. For a while I’ve been saying it’s like someone distributed giant boxes of legalisms and judicial metaphors all around the capital like secret weapons caches in anticipation of an invasion or civil war. Whenever called upon to offer an opinion on impeachment, lawmakers and commentators rummage around in the bin and pull out some phrase or concept that doesn’t really work intellectually other than as a weapon to bludgeon a political opponent with. Due process, executive privilege, presidential “rights,”—they’re like the rich variety of weapons from the fight scene in Anchorman, and about as edifying.
But it occurs to me it’s not just legalisms, and it’s not just impeachment. Amid the uses, misuses, and abuses of terms like “due process” and “high crimes” people also grab concepts like “will of the people,” “election interference” and “democratically elected” and use them like weapons, too. Hey in a vicious cockfight, if you don’t have a Billy club, a golf club is better than nothing. Don’t have a golf club? Grab a lamp. After all, I love lamp.
For instance, I’ve lost count how many times someone has gravely lamented that impeaching a president overturns “the will of the people.” The inherent assumption here is that “the people” voted not just for the president but for the impeachable behavior. In Trump’s case, neither of these things is, strictly speaking, true. First of all, no one who voted for Trump voted for him to do what he did viz a viz Ukraine (whatever you think he did). Moreover, Trump didn’t win the popular vote. So, going by strict democratic theory, his whole presidency flouts the “will of the people.” Now, that’s fine by me given that I support the Electoral College. My only point is that these are weaponized talking points, not serious arguments.
Like a lot of people, I don’t want to talk about impeachment anymore. So, let’s zoom out. It seems to me that our entire culture is becoming a kind of wet market. Memes—ideas, customs, fashions, behaviors that spread via imitation—can be a trite concept these days. But another way to think of them is as germs. The internet is a particularly conducive medium for them. Look around and you can see what I mean all over the place. The various market stalls of the alt-right butcher their bushmeat daily, and some of it contaminates other stalls. Attempts at maintaining hygiene discipline fail and some people become infected, in part because the intensity of partisan captivity lowers their immune systems. Some of the products end up in the mainstream food supply and for one reason or another some people become fond of, even addicted to, exotic fare they would never dream of trying never mind developing a taste for.
Of course, it’s not just politics. Our culture is shot through with cross contaminations and exotic fetishes, as people shop for fashions and meaning from a global, uh, Chinese menu. As a result, weird, quirky, interesting and, yes, idiotic misapplications of concepts proliferate as it becomes ever more difficult to keep the batshit droppings out of the sauce. For instance, Gwyneth Paltrow is selling “psychic vampire repellent” to rich people who are dumb enough to buy it. People who can’t read Hebrew prattle about the Kaballah and try to fill their swimming pools with something called “Kaballah water.” Intellectuals grab square-peg concepts off the shelf try to cram them into the round holes of our souls. Politicians who think they know something about Scandinavian socialism believe that utopia awaits if they can just get it through customs intact and set it up here.
On the other hand, zooming further out, I should note that this is what thriving cultures do. It’s certainly the story of the West, which has borrowed from around the globe for millennia. Cultural appropriation isn’t a crime; it’s the transmission and transformation of memes on a macro and micro scale. I think what’s different now is that the filters of the cultural ecosystem have been yanked out. It’s sort of like how environmental engineers advise planting lots of trees and grasses between farmland and waterways, to serve as a natural filtration system from agricultural run-off. In an era of pamphlets, books, and slow travel, it took time for new ideas to be absorbed and digested. Now, thanks to globalization and social media, all that stands in the way is the blood brain barrier.
Anyway, something to noodle.
But let’s zoom back in for a moment. No, no, not to impeachment. To conservatism. If you’ve been reading or listening to me lately, you know that one of my major criticisms of the contemporary conservative movement is that it has somehow internalized the idea that conservatism is little more than a messaging operation for the GOP. This is an inversion of how conservatives once understood their task. By all means, they were supposed to try to influence politics in general and the GOP in particular. But at some point, the dog caught the car.
But here is where the analogy breaks down: Rather than stare bewilderingly at the prize, they opted to hop in and go for a ride. As a result, instead of doing everything we can to get the GOP to do what’s best for conservatism, many people have concluded the job of conservatives is to do what’s best for the GOP. At the same time, the GOP—and the Democratic Party—have become shadows of their former selves. They’ve lost their institutional sinew and the ability think about their long-term interests. The result is they’re little more than lifestyle brands chasing market share in the moment and never looking much beyond the horizon of the fundraising quarter or the next election.
This would be a big problem in its own right, but it’s an even bigger one because the dog of conservatism is still in the car. It can bark about the park it wants to go to, but at the end of the day it can’t drive.
My friend Mark Hemingway—and I mean that sincerely, I’ve known the guy for decades—recently wrote a piece for Real Clear Politics that illustrates nicely what I’m talking about. Mark thinks it’s very bad that “Never Trump” conservatives are scandalously overrepresented in the media.
“Media's NeverTrump Voices Drown Out Republican Perspective,” blares the headline.
Mark begins by taking some entirely well-deserved shots at Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin but ends up making a very revealing argument.
Mark does not define NeverTrump (nor does he explain the weird neologism of making it a single, sort of Germanic, compound word). But the gist is very clear: Anyone who isn’t fully aboard the Trump train is a NeverTrumper, including yours truly and my partner in crime Steve Hayes. Ross Douthat and David Brooks are NeverTrump. A crucial piece of evidence for this is that they opposed his candidacy—a data point that would apply in equal measure to himself (a McMullin voter) and to his very successful Fox pundit wife, Mollie. But the Hemingways have repented of their former views and clambered aboard the Trump Train. That’s fine. People change their minds.
Mark’s complaint, and it is well-taken in small doses, is that outlets like MSNBC and the New York Times do a disservice to their viewers and listeners by freezing out pro-Trump voices. After all, Mark writes, “Outside of the Beltway, Republicans and conservatives steadfastly opposed to Trump are a small minority – more than 90% of Republicans approve of the president.”
Now, I think this reading of the polls is wildly tendentious and flawed for myriad reasons, but let’s stipulate that it is true and accurate in the way that Mark uses it. His point seems to be … what? That conservatives who don’t reflexively praise everything Trump does should be somehow shunted aside to make way for those who are? I don’t think Mark would say that David Brooks or Ross Douthat should be “canceled.” But taken seriously, that’s basically the upshot of his position (and it is definitely the view of many of the folks who celebrated his piece).
In other words, conservatives who don’t bend to the momentary infatuation with a single politician—admittedly a powerful one—need to either get with the program or get off the stage. What better proof of my point about how conservatism has been reduced to the single metric of partisan loyalty? Imagine saying PBS should get rid of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line because he was insufficiently loyal to Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment. Let’s say Bernie Sanders wins the presidency and captures the hearts and minds of Democrats the way Trump has of Republicans. Let’s say that most liberals embrace Sanders’ socialism in much the same way conservatives have embraced Trump’s nationalism. I cannot imagine Mark earnestly lamenting that the public is being ill-served by the few remaining liberal voices that don’t fully embrace socialism having an outsized role. “Get Jonathan Chait out of there! He’s not a full Bernie Bro!” Or maybe he would. Maybe he thinks the job of ideological journalists is to carry water for their party. Regardless, I don’t think that.
Honestly, please try to look at this from my perspective. I’m tired of offering examples of me calling things like I see them, supporting some things Trump does and opposing others (see last week’s G-File for that). I am weary of making the same argument over and over about not putting faith in princes. But I sincerely believe that conservatism is about more than any given politician, particularly the one occupying the White House. And I am exhausted by the argument that the test of real and sincere conservative conviction is how much ardor one can muster in praising Donald Trump—not just his policies, but his comportment and character.
But wait, there’s more. If Mark’s point were restricted to a criticism of the imbalance at MSNBC or the New York Times, I think he’d have something of a point, even though I think voices like Douthat’s and Brooks’s—or for that matter George Will’s—are valuable precisely because they reject the popular front mentality Mark seems to be endorsing. As Brooks recently pointed out to me on my podcast, popping the bubble of liberal readers is an important service. He went on to note how he goes out of his way to tell liberal colleagues that not all Trump voters are racists. Brooks probably has more credibility on this point than many of the pro-Trumpers whom Mark thinks the Times should replace David with.
Toward the end of his essay, Mark goes out of his way to note—or perhaps lament—that, “Even Fox News, which is routinely maligned as being a Trump sycophant, regularly has The Dispatch’s Steve Hayes and Jonah Goldberg on the panel of its flagship news program, ‘Special Report.’”
I am honestly unclear about what Mark thinks he’s doing here because all of the points he makes about the disservice being done to viewers of MSNBC have suddenly been sucked out the window like an old lady searching for the airplane bathroom but accidentally opening an emergency exit. I’m a Fox News contributor and I am happy to go on TV and state my views on Special Report or elsewhere. But it cannot be news to Mark that conservative voices critical of the president are very difficult to find on Fox, particularly in prime time.
I suppose it would offer the sort of clarifying partisan homogeneity Mark seems to be looking for if we were no longer on the panel or if all self-identified conservatives toed the party line. But by Mark’s own logic, wouldn’t that be doing precisely the disservice to viewers he laments over at MSNBC?
Mark once wrote a very flattering review of my second book, praising me for my fidelity to and honesty about conservative ideas. Elsewhere he said, “It might be the best and most fun-to-read primer on the tenets of conservative politics since P. J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores.”
Very few of my convictions have changed since then, but perhaps the one that has changed the most is my confidence in conservatives to take their ideas seriously whatever the political winds. Regardless, there’s nothing in that book that even hints at the idea that the measure of a conservative is his fealty to a politician (while there’s much that argues in the other direction). Was I wrong then?
Again, I think Mark is wrong about the times we’re in. But even if he were right, I would still think he’s wrong about what matters most here. He tells The Atlantic that there’s “no market” for what we’re trying to do at The Dispatch. So far, the numbers say he’s wrong. But he could end up being right. That would be shame but I would still feel immensely proud about what we tried to do going against the tide.
But why on earth should conservatives cater to “the market” the way he suggests? Conservatives used to quote Richard Weaver all the time saying, “Ideas have consequences.” We used to mock Lionel Trilling for dismissing conservative ideas and praise William F. Buckley for being willing to stand athwart history yelling stop. We used to argue that ideas were more important than personalities, even when they found no purchase in parties or polls or when there was “no market” for them at a given time. Is supporting Donald Trump in every regard really a better approach than all that? Are popularity, ratings or market share the best measures of not merely ideas but the people who promote them? Was Mark wrong when he titled his review of my book, “Ideas Matter”?
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So, Pippa’s limp is back with a vengeance. It really breaks our hearts because she is so utterly clueless when it comes to limiting her zaniness. But we do see real progress when she is put on a restricted routine (which suggests she doesn’t have Lyme disease or some such as many have suggested). So, we’re going all in on restricted duty for a week. If that doesn’t work, we’ll pursue X-rays and all that. I promise to give her extra special attention to compensate. Which, alas, also means I’ll have to give Zoe extra attention as well because she will get jealous. Which means Gracie will want her share, too. Which means I’ll spend the next week elbow deep in pats and scritches.
Now the weird stuff …
Photograph of Chinese wet market by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images.