The Maoist Nature of the New War on Wrongthink
Plus, some thoughts on German words and the concept of Einfühlungsvermögen.
Dear Reader (especially those who take a shot whenever Trump tweets “LAW & ORDER”),
Let’s start with something a bit gloomy, if you don’t mind.
Nothing evokes a nice gloomy feel like the German language. The Germans, a people forged under the gray skies and dark shadows of the Black Forest, are a gloomy people, which is why they have such wonderful words to describe gloomy things.
(For instance, there’s schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. And fremdschamen, the feeling of being embarrassed for someone else who doesn’t have the good sense of being embarrassed for themselves (think of that feeling you get watching Michael Scott humiliate himself in The Office, or President Trump answering a question from Sean Hannity. See below). And there’s my favorite: futterneid—that feeling of jealousy you get when someone is eating something you want to eat. When I go out to dinner with my wife and she orders better than me, my futterneid fuels the Fair Jessica’s schadenfreude.)
So let’s consider the word Einfühlungsvermögen.
Einfühlungsvermögen means “empathy.” And that English word is just over a century old. It entered the English language in 1909 as a translation of Einfühlungsvermögen. It’s an adaptation of the shorter term Einfühlung, a concept pioneered by the German historicist Johann Herder, one of the founders of German nationalism. Einfühlung literally means “feeling one’s way in.” And it was one of the core concepts of the German historicist school, which is responsible for many bad ideas we won’t discuss here.
But Einfühlung, in isolation, is not a bad idea. What Herder meant by “feeling one’s way in” was that for a historian to understand a particular society, one must grasp on both an intellectual and emotional level the cultural currents of the time. One cannot just look from outside the fishbowl using the scorecards of the moment and judge a society from some modern, abstract, standard. You must dive in and understand people and cultures on their own terms first. This is something the best historians do. They make the reader feel like they understand why people did the things they did without the benefit of knowing how events turned out.
For example, when people condemn the Founders for keeping slavery intact in slave states, they tend to ignore the context the Founders were living in. The choice they faced wasn’t a Constitution with slavery or a Constitution without it. The choice was a Constitution with slavery—or no Constitution at all.
I’m open to arguments that this isn’t true, but not from someone who doesn’t understand that this is the way the Founders—many of whom opposed slavery—understood their choice.
Societies are complex things: Most of the rules that govern them cannot be found in legal texts. These rules are embedded in customs, norms, traditions, and manners that are as often as not unwritten—and even when they are written, most people don’t refer to those texts for guidance. Most of us know not to talk with our mouths full because our parents taught us basic manners, not because we read some Dear Abby column.
A certain kind of modern feminist looks at a stereotypical housewife of, say, the 1920s and feels a kind of contempt or pity for her plight, but not empathy. I understand the feeling. But to understand the housewife you need to understand that she didn’t necessarily share your attitudes about what constitutes a meaningful and rewarding life. Condemning her for falling short of standards she did not hold can be a kind of bigotry.
One thing I find remarkable is that many progressives understand all of this quite intuitively when it comes to other countries. Many of the same people who have contempt for the 1920 housewife will comment about a 2020 housewife in, say, Gaza, “Who are you to judge them? It’s their culture!”
Well, the past is another country, too. And given that the American past is part of your own country, maybe you can have just a bit more Einfühlungsvermögen for it.
The new war on wrongthink.
Anyway, what got me thinking about all this was something I tweeted about last night.
South Florida Sun Sentinel @SunSentinelCan Jimmy Kimmel and Tina Fey keep their hosting gigs after blackface scandals? Should they? https://t.co/cS3Z1Mq1zl https://t.co/kFLwRkuCJ6
What particularly annoyed me is the use of the word “scandal.” A scandal is “an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage.” The actions by Tina Fey and Jimmy Kimmel were not scandals when they happened. They were comedy bits on television that went, to my knowledge, unremarked upon at the time. If unremarkable events of the past—not secret events, not unknown events, but simply run-of-the-mill events of daily life—can retroactively be turned into scandals by a mob of moral scolds, we’re in store for some rough times.
Think of it this way, men dressing as women for comedic effect is a very old staple. Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Flip Wilson, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx: The list goes on and on. It is not unimaginable, given the role of transgenderism in our culture today, that in the years—or days—ahead, we’ll have a similar moral panic over dressing in drag (at least by cis-men) and be told that this is—and was—some kind of hate crime. Will Dustin Hoffman ask AFI to take Tootsie off its 100 best films list? Will Tom Hanks get embroiled in a “scandal” because someone dug up an old VHS of Bosom Buddies? Will Mrs. Doubtfire go the way of Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation? And don’t get me started on the intersectional chimera that is White Chicks.
It’s one thing to say, “We should stop doing X.” It’s quite another to say the people who did X when X was entirely normal are now pariahs.
There is something vaguely Maoist about the mood out there. During the Cultural Revolution the young firebrands attacked and humiliated older Communist leaders for the sin of not being sufficiently imbued with the spirit of revolution, or something. The “Black Line” theory of artistic interpretation—which led to the deaths and imprisonment of countless artists and intellectuals —basically held that if you once wrote or painted something “wrong” by the current revolutionary standard, you should be forcibly reeducated, even though what you wrote or painted wasn’t wrong when you painted it. Indeed, most of the victims of the Black Line were Communists in good standing who simply got screwed when the revolutionary game of musical chairs changed its tune.
Since we’ve busted out the Wayback Machine, let’s turn the dials to the final days of August 2019—also known as “last August.” It was a simpler time. No one had heard of COVID-19 yet. Michael Bloomberg’s bid for the Democratic nomination would not be announced for another three more months and the president wouldn’t be impeached for almost four. The hot controversy of the moment was President Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. should annex Greenland (it should). And—who can forget?—So Much Fun by Young Thug topped the Billboard charts.
And a young-at-any-age columnist by the name of Jonah Goldberg wrote a column arguing that Joe Biden’s best bet was to run a “front porch campaign.”
I bring this up for three reasons.
First, to note that I was right.
Second, to highlight my prescience, because I’m even more right now.
Third, I’m not going to dwell long on this point because everyone has already made it. Biden isn’t quite hiding in his basement making a woman suit like Buffalo Bill, but he is mostly staying out of the limelight and his poll numbers keep increasing. Yeah, yeah, insert all the caveats about the polls here. But whatever form your skepticism—or bat guano conspiracy theory nuttery—about polling takes, I think pretty much everyone can agree that it’s better for a politician when his or her popularity goes up. Even President Trump implicitly concedes this, because whenever his polling marginally improves, he celebrates it.
In a normal time, Biden is a bad presidential candidate—which is why he did so badly the last two times he ran. He’s still a hugely flawed candidate. You never know when he’s going to say “that refrigerator won’t vote!” or “I bark flowers like the best of them.”
But up against Trump, most of his flaws matter less or are just a wash. They’re two irritable old white guys who often say very strange things. The chief difference is that Biden is less offensive to the voting blocs he and Trump both need to win (as I write in my column today).
I keep hearing Trump-friendly pundits argue that there’s plenty of time left, the polls don’t mean much now, all is well, a lot will change between now and November, tweeting “LAW & ORDER” over and over again will save him as the vandals push moderate voters rightward, remain calm all is well, etc. I’m skeptical about all of this for a bunch of reasons. But they’re all defensible positions given that we don’t know what’s in store.
But there’s one argument from Trump spinners and pro-Trump pundits that I think is just wishful thinking. I constantly hear that what Trump needs to do is make the election a choice between him and Biden rather than a referendum on Trump. Once Biden comes out of the basement, Trump will be able to define him, and define him in a way that makes voting for Trump more attractive than voting for Biden.
There are many problems with this theory. First, as I write today, Trump seems clueless about how to define Biden. Second, it assumes that once he figures it out, he’ll succeed. Third, Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton. Trump benefited from decades of pent-up dislike for Clinton and a vast armory of anti-Clinton ammo he and his surrogates could take off the shelf. Biden is much more likeable than Clinton and while some of the ammo against Biden has merit, it only has real purchase among people who are going to vote for Trump already.
But these are all secondary. The primary problem for Trump is that he wants the election to be a referendum on him. “Want” may be the wrong word here. Maybe “he needs to make it about him” works better. Or maybe it’s simply that he’s incapable of not making it about him.
Last night, Sean Hannity might as well have been Jerry MaGuire pleading “help me, help you.” He teed up a softball so soft it might as well have been made from Charmin, asking Trump “what’s at stake in this election as you compare and contrast and what are your top priority items for a second term?”
Here was Trump’s answer:
Well, one of the things that will be really great, you know the word experience is still good. I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that. But the word experience is a very important word. It’s an—a very important meaning.
I never did this before. I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington, I think, 17 times. All of a sudden, I’m president of the United States. You know the story. I’m riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our First Lady and I say, ‘This is great. But I didn’t know very many people in Washington. It wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan, from New York. Now I know everybody, and I have great people in the administration.
You make some mistakes. Like, you know, an idiot like Bolton. All he wanted to do was drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.
Never mind the word-salad-thrown-out-of-a-window style. Look at this. Forget the fact he seems not to have given a moment’s thought to what he would do in a second administration. He seems not to have given a moment’s thought about how to make an argument for a second term. For Trump, a second term is four more seasons of the Trump Show.
Now, I could be overreading one idiotic answer, but there’s a broader context. For Trump, the most important and interesting issue is always Trump. When Trump attacked Gold Star parents, he couldn’t understand why he should stop because they attacked him first. Remember when his unpopularity cost a whole bunch of Republicans their seats in 2018? His explanation was that they lost because they didn’t “embrace” him. At his Tulsa rally, the most important issue was Trump. At the coronavirus task force press conferences? Trump. When asked by Hannity to lay out an agenda, a choice, between two governing agendas or philosophies, his answer was—put through the Trump Translator—“Now that I have more experience, I’m even more awesome.”
This is the guy you want—no wait, forget want. This is the guy you expect to run a campaign guided by a strategy that is not a referendum on Trump? Really? What about the last four years makes you think Trump wants that? What about the last four years makes you think that even if you could persuade him to want it, that he could actually pull it off? He wants a referendum on him because he wants everything to be about him, not his ideas, not his agenda, not Joe Biden: Him.
Saying the election will change in his favor once he makes it about a choice, not a referendum, is like saying his presidency will change once he decides to be “presidential.” That’ll happen once Godot shows up to replace Brad Parscale.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Everything is more or less as it should be with the doggers, though they’d all prefer it be a little cooler. Zoë even risked getting her tail floof wet yesterday in the process of cooling off. The biggest problem is that Pippa is still on this “roll in foulness tour” this summer and it’s becoming a huge drag. The other day she rolled in blood. No word on where she found it. She’s also definitely entering her middle years. The waggle is still there, to be sure. But it takes a bit more to coax it out. Relations between Gracie and Zoë have improved. Gracie has taken to colonizing the dog bed, and Zoë lets her. But Zoë still draws the line at letting Gracie in my lap during business hours, which is why Gracie immediately comes petitioning the moment the dogs leave the house. Once they return, Zoë takes the spot back.
And now, the weird stuff
Still from Tootsie ©1982 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.