EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
This has been a weird year. But, frankly, things have been getting weird for a while now. For a few years, I’ve increasingly felt like someone was ransacking the conventional-wisdom warehouse and throwing away the old standards.
The D&D geek in me likes to imagine there’s some Gothic keep out there with a grand library full of jars containing the Unwritten Rules of the Universe, each filled with some kind of pixie or will-o-the-wisp free-floating within. Alas, a couple of precocious kids broke in, climbed up the sliding library ladder along the shelves, and then smashed each ancient jar on the floor. The ephemeral creatures within flew away, and took their rules with them.
The Lifting Curses
I know none of these things are the actual explanation for all the weirdness around us anymore than “climate change” explains the rise of ISIS or the fact that the Cubs and the Indians are in the World Series.
Let’s talk about that for a minute. I want the Cubs to lose, and not just because I don’t want Hugh Hewitt to start cutting himself again. I want the Cubs to lose for the same reason I wanted the Red Sox to lose in 2004: I like curses. No, I don’t mean in the sense of giving someone the evil eye so that they give birth to a duck or anything like that. I like curses because they are romantic, in the anti-Enlightenment sense. They defy the machine thinking of the Scientific Revolution. I wrote about this almost exactly twelve years ago:
This isn’t sour grapes. I may technically be a Yankees “fan” but it’s only out of vestigial loyalty sort of like the way Madonna is still a “Catholic.”
Nevertheless, I do hope the Red Sox lose in the World Series. There aren’t many curses left in modern society most people still believe in. We’ve sanitized the culture of such mysticisms. Or we’ve elevated them to quasi-religions deserving full respect under the rules of political correctness (“Oh? You’re a Pagan? Isn’t that wonderful! My hairdresser’s a Druid!”). The BoSox curse is old but it’s not weird. It’s a comfortable bit of lore which adds drama to life. If it disappears the magic and mystery of life will be a teeny bit diminished. Except of course for Red Sox fans, who will be whistling dixie out of every orifice for a year. Depriving them of such joy seems worth the price.
For entirely understandable reasons, this argument was not well-received by Red Sox fans. I’m not hugely invested in either team, or in baseball generally, but if the Curse of the Billy Goat is lifted, a game more attached to superstition than any other I can think of (save for the Virgin League “sport” of Quidditch) will be somewhat diminished. The origin story of George Will be shaved down ever so slightly (though he’ll still have the tale of how he was bitten by a radioactive Oxford Don).
As a Chestertonian at heart, I like and respect old things. I like it when stuff beats the law of averages for reasons we cannot easily fathom. The Hayekian in me thinks old things that last often do so for good reasons we just don’t — and sometimes can’t — know.
Unfortunately, we live in an age where we take the razor of reason to every little thing and strain to know the whys of it, as if knowing the why will empower the how.
For example, we know that kids raised in stable two-parent, religiously observant families will on average do better than kids who are not. This holds true despite differences in race, class, and religion. We all have theories for why this is so — but too many people think that if we can just isolate the variables, we can take the good bits and discard the husks we don’t like.
An even worse — and more prevalent — mindset is to not even bother with the why. If we can’t immediately grasp why some old practice, some ancient tradition, some venerable custom or Chestertonian fence is worthwhile, we tend to instantly dismiss it as outdated and old-fashioned.
Simply because something is ‘old-fashioned’ doesn’t mean it wasn’t fashioned in the first place.
But again, as Chesterton and Hayek alike understood, simply because something is “old-fashioned” doesn’t mean it wasn’t fashioned in the first place. And by fashioned, I mean manufactured and constructed. Customs are created because they solve problems. But they get less respect in our present age because they have no identifiable authors. They are crowd-sourced, to borrow a modern phrase for an ancient phenomenon. The customs and institutions we take for granted are crammed full of embedded knowledge every bit as much as prices are. But most intelligent people are comfortable admitting they can’t know all the factors that go into a price, but we constantly want to dissect the whys of every custom.
Anyway, back to baseball. The last time the Cubs made it to the Fall Classic, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton hadn’t been born yet, and WWII had been over for exactly one month. The last time they won the Series — 1908 — was 20 years before the invention of sliced bread. Why would I want that gloriously magical losing streak to end?
I can’t shake the feeling that all sorts of streaks are coming to an end. Only thrice in the 20th century has a party held on to the White House for three elections in a row. Harding (1920), Coolidge (1924), and Hoover (1928) strung together three wins during the Roaring Twenties. FDR did it because he was essentially president-for-life. George H. W. Bush did it because he was standing on Reagan’s legacy and running against Michael Dukakis, a Black Swan of dorkiness. Only two sitting senators were elected president prior to 2008, when we had no choice but to elect one because both candidates were senators.
Other streaks are more ephemeral. Ronald Reagan was the first and only divorced man to be elected president. Even so, there’s been a rule of thumb, which he adhered to, that having an admirable married life — at least in public — was essential to getting elected. That ends this year no matter who wins. The related rule of thumb that you needed to be known as a person of reasonably good character to win your party’s nomination, never mind the presidency, has also come crashing down off the shelf — the magical pixie who guaranteed it has flown out the window.
I could do this all day. It used to be that religious leaders at least pretended that a politician’s personal character and faith mattered, even if they were a Republican. It used to be that kowtowing to foreign despots meddling in our elections was a no-no, particularly for the GOP. It used to be a vicious slander to suggest that Democrats were socialists in disguise. But we spent the last year watching Democrats fall all over themselves to insist there’s no meaningful distinction between them and their socialist brethren.
The fact that no one wrote such rules down was a sign not of their weakness but of their dogmatic strength. No one ever bothered to write down that candidates shouldn’t brag about the size of their penises either. And I’m sure the jarred-spirit upholding that dictum was more surprised than anyone when he was liberated from his obligations.
The Clinton Way
If we wanted to play the blame game, I could talk — or rather type — at great length about how much blame Bill Clinton deserves for all this. He spent his life, like his presidency, mocking the settled rules and customs of public life. Countless other presidents have had affairs, taken bribes, bent and broke the rules. But when caught, they had the decency to be, against at least publicly, ashamed and slink off the public stage, at least for respectable period of time. Not Bubba.
Clinton’s problem was twofold. The first is of his own making: He is and always has been a shameless cad. The second wasn’t his fault at all: He was born too late. The world changed around him and he couldn’t adapt. Something similar happened to Nixon. Tricky Dick’s schemes were not very different from those of LBJ, JFK, and FDR. But the rules changed on him, and like the slowest player at musical chairs, he was out.
In a sense, Clinton learned from Nixon. But the lesson he took from his downfall was that it’s always better to simply brazen it out. Bill forced institutions and people to bend to him — to discard their principles and integrity — for some fly-swarmed and misbegotten argument about the “greater good.” Feminists who invested vast sums of argument, time, and money into a new dogma about sexual relations suddenly started penning articles in the New York Times about how politicians deserved “one free grope.” Today, countless conservatives who decried this and related hypocrisies have now embraced them as the new rules, all in the name of the greater good.
Bill’s wife, always his partner in such matters, learned her lessons too. In the America of the Old Rules, Hillary would have resigned from public life long ago. But she is equally without shame. She’d prefer to debase our institutions and those who work in them by making them bend the knee to the greater good. She put James Comey and the FBI in a no-win situation — so it’s no surprise he and the Bureau came away losers, reinforcing the suspicion that our leaders are all shot-through with self-serving corruption. The Old Rules of probity and the rule of law that Comey continues to sing now clang off the ear as false notes. The Old Rules are now the rules for little people. Why? Because Hillary and her junta “wanted to get away with it.”
In the America of the Old Rules, Hillary would have resigned from public life long ago.
But blaming one man is misguided. Clinton was a creature of our age, the first president to break — publicly — the unwritten rules of character that were already in decline in society at large. After all, it was candidate Clinton who talked about his underwear in order to seem cool. It’s not such a long trip to another candidate talking about his d**k. We were already in that neighborhood.
I still think Donald Trump will lose in at least an Electoral College landslide. But my thinking may indeed be based on the Old Rules. We’ve already learned this year that overreliance on such guideposts can lead you into a ditch. The development economists tell me than an institution, at its core, is just a rule that binds people to certain practices even when it may not be in their self-interest.
In that sense, we are where we are because our institutions are failing, flung off the shelves for fun and profit. It should be no surprise that weird things happen in such an environment. Weirdness is a subjective measure based upon what the observer assumes to be normal. And it looks like we are heading to a new normal — or, at the very least, that the old one lays in ashes. As a conservative, I must believe we’ll find our way out for the same reasons that we discovered the Old Rules in the first place. Certain ways of life are “better” because they work better for most people. The task for conservatives is to identify, defend, and, when possible, restore those customs — even when the acolytes of the fierce urgency of now try to tear them down. On this score, I share David Brooks’s optimism.
Yes, this has been a weird and unpleasant time, but as Bill Clinton no doubt told many a nervous intern, just because something starts out weird and unpleasant, doesn’t mean it can’t end well.
Author Update: Mere minutes before this thing was about to go out in the pneumatic tubes, word broke that FBI director James Comey is re-opening the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. It’s as if God wanted to prove my point about how weird 2016 is. There will be more to say about all this soon — here’s my hot take — but I don’t think it changes anything I wrote and it happens to offer a nice segue to what follows.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: So now let me explain why such matters are on my mind, beyond the obvious reasons. I’ve been struggling to figure out the best way to tell this story. I even thought about starting the G-File with this Very Special Canine Update, but even in a “news”letter in which the author can apparently get away with anything — pull my finger (“You keep using that joke, and as the entity on the business end of your butt, I don’t think it’s funny” — The Couch) — it turns out he still must adhere to some of the Old Rules. So I’ll just start typing and we’ll see where that gets us.
For the last couple months, I’ve been taking the dogs to a different park for their Morning Pee, Poop, Perambulation, and Patrol Exercises. Our usual park, Battery Kemble, is fantastic, but difficult to walk in the dark and I got sick of clearing spider webs with my face and having to hose off the spaniel when she unerringly got in the fetid creek that runs alongside the trail. So instead we’ve been going to a neighborhood community park for 4P Exercises. There’s a paved path, partial street lighting, ample bunnies, and the occasional deer for the dingo to chase. Also, since there are no dogs there until after the sun rises, I don’t have to worry about the Dingo getting into any tussles.
Anyway, Wednesday morning was like almost any other except I was under more stress because I had to fly to New York for a podcast recording and an evening talk and then get back the same day to watch my kid, as my wife had to go to Arizona for work. Well, there I am walking our usual route at around 5:50 in the morning. The stars are still out. I’m throwing the ball for Pippa, keeping one eye out for Zoë, and listening to the Marketplace “morning report” on my headphones. As I head toward the soccer field where the street lamps taper off, I turn on my iPhone’s flashlight.
One end of the soccer field has a chain link fence with a heavy iron gate that’s always unlocked in the center (one whole side of the field is unfenced, so it’s not like a security thing anyway). I heard the fencing at the other side of the field rattle a bit, which made me think Zoë had run into it chasing a critter that could go under it (that happens a lot) or perhaps a soccer ball, as is her occasional wont. The light from my phone barely illuminated the area a few feet in front of me, in an eerie, cinematic way. Just as I approached the gate I heard over the sound of the radio heavy hooves hitting the ground. For just a moment in the half light, I saw something and thought to myself, “Zoë looks strange.” Then suddenly, I’m struck in the head by a blur of metal. A very, very large deer was galloping at full speed, presumably to get away from my wolf-like companion. It charged straight into the gate at the precise moment as I was about to walk through it.
I saw something and thought to myself, ‘Zoë looks strange.’
The force was like a linebacker running full speed into an open door. The whole thing happened so fast and the nano-second before it was so normal and tranquil — I think the deer must have been clocking at least 20 mph — that I keep thinking of those scenes in movies where the alien or monster comes out of nowhere and snatches an unsuspecting human. But when I think about the sound of it running, I think about scenes from movies or Game of Thrones where the unsuspecting knight is blindsided by a horse.
The deer hit the mesh in the middle so hard it blew the hundred-pound gate clear off the hinges straight into me. I caught the brunt of the edge smack dab in the middle of my forehead, on my left knee, and my left wrist. I was also knocked on my ass onto the pavement. I pulled muscles in my neck and my chest. I know this is shocking to people, but the first words I’d associate with my physical condition are not “lithe” or “limber.”
I’m lucky to be alive, given that there’s a pointy steel rod protruding from the thing where they can chain-lock it when needed. If that thing had hit any number of places on my body, I might have bled out on the ground or at minimum lost an eye. Pippa was terrified and ran away and hid. Zoë chased the apparently uninjured (!) deer for a few more seconds, and then gave up as she always does.
I won’t say I am not at least a little saddened that Zoë’s reaction to her possibly unconscious master was seeming indifference. She stayed near me, but I would have preferred it if she had circled me and then sat with her back to me to protect me from any more ungulates or their projectiles.
The story doesn’t end there (the failed hunt for my glasses and the drive home without them, never mind the trip to NYC, and dealing with solo parent duty, were particularly stressful), but you get the picture.
I’m still a sore, rattled, and limping mess. The swelling on my knee and forehead has gone down and I’m no longer worried that I broke my wrist, but I now have a fairly hideous wound on my head that has scabbed up even more since last night. It will be a particularly fun challenge for the makeup ladies at Fox (I was on Brit Hume’s On the Record on Friday night.)
Anyway, ever since I keep thinking about how unbelievably bizarre and scary the whole thing was. (And yes, I have ruled out the possibility that it was Corey Lewandowski in a deer suit.) When I got home and explained what happened to my wife, and as the adrenaline drained from my body, I kept muttering, “That was so 2016.” It wasn’t literally a black swan, but it was close enough figuratively to literally knock me on my ass. So, in short, the world is now a weird place.
My Friday column is on the Medicis of the Ozarks.
My first column of the week was on the black swanny — in a good way — potential for a McMullin presidency.
Thanks for all the kind words about my first appearance on ABC’s This Week.
The new GLoP podcast is out, with the best photoshop to date.