The ‘Lifestylization’ of Politics

by Jonah Goldberg
Disagreements become insults when politics becomes a statement about who you are.

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.

Dear Covfefe,

I will admit upfront that I have a pretty good gig, writing-wise. No one really tells me what to write, particularly in this “news”letter. I have no lane, as it were. I can go anywhere I want — Alger Hiss was guilty! I like eating cold chicken over the sink! Cows, when cooked properly, are delicious! Hail Orb! Etc!

Still, even as a generalist, there are some topics that aren’t a natural fit for me. I rarely write about sports. I can’t remember the last time I weighed-in on relations between Peru and Singapore or why I might spare One Direction’s lives if I were czar. I don’t review video games, miniature-horse rodeos, or Canadian pornography. But I will confess that, if I wanted to, I could. And, if someone out there wants to pay me to share my musings I will be happy to discuss terms.

I bring this up for the simple reason that I want to head off a specific asinine rejoinder that is so prevalent in this remarkably stupid moment: “If it’s okay for you to do it, why can’t I?”

My short response to this is: “Because this is my job.”

This is a long way around to get to what should have been my lede: Stay in your lanes, people.

The other day, the guy behind one of my favorite Twitter feeds, @Dog_rates, announced that he would donate half of the proceeds from a jokey anti-Trump hat to Planned Parenthood. I was among the first to criticize him. I didn’t dispute his right to do what he had in mind, but I said it was a terrible business decision for the rather obvious reason that Planned Parenthood is polarizing.

There’s a reason why lots of businesses don’t want to be seen as political — i.e., because they want to maximize the number of their customers. If you start hawking “liberal” widgets, you are closing yourself off to conservative widget buyers, and vice versa. Of course, some business models involve finding market niches, but ideally you want to sell to everyone. A dog-themed Twitter account is already something of a niche, but since only monsters don’t like dogs, it’s a pretty broad niche. Picking sides on one of the most divisive issues of our time — abortion — may be a principled thing to do, but purely on business terms it was a bad idea, as anyone who’s watched Seinfeld could have told him.

Now, I’m not going to rehash all of it here (Ian Tuttle has two good posts on the situation here and here). But I will say that I would have made the exact same argument if @Dog_Rates had promised to donate money to pro-life groups, a point my left-wing critics seem to have a very difficult time processing.

Anyway, it looks like I was right that Matt Nelson, the operator of the account, hadn’t thought the whole thing through when he came up with the idea, and he tried to backpedal as best he could, which then in turn pissed off the pro–Planned Parenthood crowd. As best I can tell, he’s even taken down his semi-apologetic statement. That’s what happens when you blunder into a no-win situation.

Now consider this tweet rant from the ACLU:

I have no doubt the ACLU sincerely believes all of this. But you know what? Climate change isn’t in the American Civil Liberties Union’s portfolio. The ACLU is supposed to be concerned with — wait for it — civil liberties. I think it has been drifting off that beat for a long time. But this tweet is truly remarkable and remarkably dumb. The ACLU depends a great deal on its reputation as a non-partisan defender of constitutional rights. It puts that reputation at risk when it starts soapboxing about climate change. What does it gain from this as an institution? The people who already agree with these tweets don’t need to be persuaded, and the people who don’t will not be persuaded by them. But they will — or might be — further convinced that the ACLU is just another partisan political outfit. Credibility is a difficult resource to accumulate and an easy one to squander.

Maybe the ACLU is too far gone to be a good example of what I’m talking about. But the problem is everywhere. From news anchors and reporters all but giving up any claims to neutrality on the issues of the day, to judges who must virtue signal their distaste for Trump, to actors who think that they are full-time pundits who play make-believe on the stage and screen as a side hobby.

Almost every morning I see this GE ad.

I’ve seen nary a critical word about it, even though it is nothing more than corporate political propaganda. But since it’s propaganda all the right people support, they don’t even pause to think about how they would respond if it pushed a political message they don’t like. It’s like my old rants about NBC’s “Green Week.” Imagine if ABC came out with a “pro-life” week in which they incorporated positive messages about fighting for the unborn in their news broadcasts and sitcoms. The same people cheering @Dog_Rates would be burning cars in the streets.

Peanut Butter Cup America

It’s a familiar conservative lament to say this is all part of the politicization of everything. And I think that’s true. But you can flip it on its head, too. Everything is becoming lifestylized (I hereby decree that’s a word). It’s like that ancient debate between Plato and Socrates: Did Socrates get his chocolate in Plato’s peanut butter or did Plato get peanut butter in Socrates’ chocolate? (“That sounds dirty” — The Couch.)

Scads have been written, mostly by conservatives and libertarians, about the problem of politics bleeding into the nooks and crannies of traditionally apolitical life. And I agree with much of it. But far less has been written about how lifestyle is creeping into politics. With the decline of traditional religion and other mediating institutions, the primary source of identity for ever larger numbers of people is partisan affiliation. Indeed, partisan affiliation — for the first time ever — is often more predictive of behavior and attitudes than race, ethnicity, religion, and gender. That’s bananas.

But it’s also utterly predictable. When politics becomes a secular religion, a source of meaning, or simply a “lifestyle,” politics will be less about arguments and tradeoffs and more about wearing “ideas” on your sleeve. I agree with Jonathan Last when he writes that the current hysteria over the Paris pullout is virtue signaling about virtue signaling. But what else can you expect when people start wearing their partisan affiliation the way people once wore a crucifix or Star of David?

Disagreements become insults when politics becomes a statement about who you are. And, as I keep saying, that explains why so many now define free speech as assault and assault as free speech.

Rights and Science

What do the passionate cries of “science denier” and calls for prosecuting Kathy Griffin have in common? They conflate amoral processes with moral stances.

This is difficult to explain, so give me a minute. Neil deGrasse Tyson notwithstanding, science is not moral. It is not a source of values. Scientists can do extremely evil things or extremely noble things. Science is a method and a tool. But the freedom to “do science” is a wonderful thing because a society with healthy guardrails can harness science to wonderful ends. Think of fire. Fire has no morality. It can be used to burn down a home and it can be used to cook a meal. Our legal, cultural, and moral guardrails make these distinctions constantly. We don’t let mad scientists use humans for experiments without their permission, even though I could make a perfectly rational argument that if we gave scientists a free hand, we could get more medical breakthroughs more quickly. What are a few eggs if we get a better omelet? Etc.

If you read left-wing Twitter, this is a source of remarkable confusion for many people. Every day, I see a tweet from someone saying that you must “believe in science” when it comes to climate change and another tweet from someone else saying that science is a tool of oppression and racism. How can science be righteously authoritative on environmental policy but cruel and bigoted when it comes to the science of embryology or sexuality?

Something similar holds for our rights. We have all manner of rights to do wrongs. For instance, as Kat Timpf and Charlie Cooke have been insisting, what Griffin did with that beheaded effigy of Donald Trump was stupid and repugnant. But at the same time, she had every right to do it, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Charlie is right. But there is a tension. Just as Griffin has every right to do what she did, she was also wrong to do it. This is a distinction people get profoundly confused about on both the left and the right.

For instance, when it was reported that General Michael Flynn (Ret.) would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights, many of his defenders shrieked that we shouldn’t count that against him in any way. As a legal matter, that’s correct. But there’s nothing wrong with making judgments about it either. It looks bad, even if Flynn is within in his rights.

If you’re going to get on your high horse about how it’s unfair to leap to conclusions when someone pleads the Fifth, then I can only assume you condemned this:

What’s interesting to me is the way that people talk about rights as if they have moral content to them. “How dare you judge me for exercising my rights!”

There is an infinite menu of things I can do with my rights that would be immoral or unethical, just as there is an infinite menu of things scientists can do with science that would be immoral, unethical, and illegal.

Americans have the right to say horrible things on Twitter in response to a terrorist attack on a bunch of young girls. They have the right to associate with Klansmen. They have the right to worship Satan. They have the right to do all manner of gross, tacky, weird, and unspeakable things with their own property and in their own homes. Indeed, they have the right to sit around all day wearing Indy 500 Rompers and eating lettuce jam while watching Donnie Darko. But in these and in so many other things, I have the right to make judgments and to criticize based on those judgments. Whether my judgments are fair and my criticisms are sound has no bearing on whether I have the right to them.

Why should the Fifth Amendment be any different? The Fifth Amendment is the right that ensures a fair process. That’s all. It’s not a source of meaning or moral direction outside that process.

Whether my judgments are fair and my criticisms are sound has no bearing on whether I have the right to them.

Morality only enters the picture when you look at the system as a whole. The trees can be bad, but the forest is good. As I wrote in this much better “news”letter, the essence of conservatism can be defined as “comfort with contradiction.” People have the right to do wrong and people have the right to condemn, shame, and boycott people who do wrong. Saying you had the right to do x is a universally valid defense in only one venue: a court of law. Outside the dock, there are higher standards — or there should be.

The problem with the lifestylization of politics — most acutely on college campuses — is that people want to clear away the contradictions. They want a unity of goodness where all good things go together and bad things are given no quarter. This has chiefly been a problem on the left, but it has become increasingly bipartisan. Why? Because right-wing populism is a lifestyle too:

Everywhere you look, people are mistaking inconvenient facts for insults. Every single day, people are taking offense at disagreement and confusing rights (and presidential prerogatives) and science for moral authority. It’s a hothouse where the air is thick with hypocrisy because arguments are downstream of feelings — and where facts are so much flair to don or discard depending on what lifestyle you want to adopt and what virtues you want to signal. In short, it’s a very stupid time.

Various & Sundry

As Michael Knight said to Kitt, I want to change gears a little. Kevin Williamson has a very nice plea for your support today. In his own inimitable way, he corroborates the point I made above:

National Review took a principled and — even at the time — unpopular stand against the man who would go on to become the Republican presidential nominee and, incredibly enough, president. I was not the most restrained voice on the issue. I am sure that this resulted in some canceled subscriptions and withheld donations, but I never heard much about any of that. I get a lot of feedback on my work from the editors here — “Do you think this is really fair to the other side’s argument? Are you sure about the numbers here? Do you really need a 121-word lead?” — but it’s never: “Don’t write that because it will annoy x donor or y advertiser.”

If you are wondering what your donations and support go to, that’s it: maintaining a conservative institution that lets a lot of different writers with a lot of different opinions write what they think without worrying about anything other than producing the best work they can. It’s a big part of what allows National Review to operate as an opinion journal in which — this is remarkable, if you think about it — there is no party line. If there’s a live political dispute that Ramesh Ponnuru, Rich Lowry, Andrew C. McCarthy, Reihan Salam, Jay Nordlinger, Mike Potemra, Rick Brookhiser, Kat Timpf, Veronique de Rugy, Ian Tuttle, Alexandra DeSanctis, and I all agree about . . . I can’t think what it is.

Now, if you’re like me, you may be wondering why he left me off that list. Maybe Kevin knows something I don’t know? But putting that aside, he’s making an important point. National Review has writers who exult in Donald Trump and it has writers who don’t. I don’t think we have any writers who take a position of blanket opposition to him. There are no members of the “resistance” here. But there are plenty of people who understand that conservatism is more than a lifestyle, better than pure team partisanship. In short, we believe in making arguments, standing athwart GroupThink. And the fact that so many friends and readers have trouble with this is a testament, at least in some small part, to the extent of the lifestylization of American politics. If you feel that way, you’re probably not reading this anyway.

But if you appreciate it, if you think America needs more institutions that think arguments and facts matter — even when they are insulting to people on the left or the right — then we would be extremely grateful if you could show your appreciation. If you can’t, we understand. Life is complicated, which is sort of the whole point.

Canine Update: Things have been a bit complicated on the dog front this week. Pippa developed a bad limp earlier in the week, but seems to be on the mend. It’s a sign of how traumatized my wife and I were by the Late Great Cosmo The Wonderdog’s medical troubles that we greet every limp as a potential crisis. Cosmo was beautiful, tough, and smart, but he was also built like an East German car. Before he died, Cosmo was about two surgeries shy of being fully bionic. We don’t know how the Spaniel hurt herself, but we fear it might be that Zoë and Pippa might play too rough when the humans are gone. My wife’s new job has necessitated a lot more alone time, and there’s evidence to believe that Zoë takes out her boredom on Pippa much like Ramsay Bolton did on Reek. We hope that’s not the case. But I’m sorely tempted to get a nanny cam to get to the bottom of it. Meanwhile, it means that when we’re home, Zoë is far needier.

In other news, Zoë is fascinated by turtles and covfefe. In feline news, when the Fair Jessica and I were in New York over Memorial Day, our dogwalker/sitter/aunt reported that around 11:00 o’clock at night, Zoë went bonkers and started barking out an open window. Kirsten looked outside and saw that Gracie, the Good Cat, was staring down a fox in the middle of the street. Between Zoë’s barking and Gracie’s willful glare, the fox turned tail (literally!) and ran away. It could have ended very badly. But now Zoë and Pippa look upon Gracie as a kind of folk hero.

Head’s Up: I’ll be on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

ICYMI . . . 

Last week’s G-File.

My short (mostly negative) review of Alien: Covenant.

My response to Dennis Prager’s take on Trump’s right-leaning critics.

Why government-provided health care doesn’t necessarily lead to better health.

L’affaire covfefe.

My Special Report appearance from Wednesday night.

Why can’t Hillary accept blame for her 2016 loss?

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Two mating camels cause a traffic jam in Dubai

Little girl rescues runaway dog with love

When deja vu is strong enough that you don’t know what’s real

A garden of poison plants

When Nazis tried to bring extinct animals back to life

Behold: a new species of carnivorous sponge

Great White shark launches itself into Australian fisherman’s boat

Science: Your meanest friend just wants the best for you

School in France testing facial recognition tech to keep students paying attention

Love-hormone injections turn gray seals into best friends

What does the edge of the universe look like?

The strange and surprising second life of Harambe

Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation began . . . a robot priest

The most misspelled words in every state

Mathematical proof that your life is interesting

Newborn walks minutes after being born

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg