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 Reader (Particularly those of you who identify as G-File readers),
“Gone? Like not there?” I asked.
“I think so,” Baier responded, sounding a bit like maybe he really didn’t.
The questions flooded into my mind. How will CNN and MSNBC fill all the extra airtime? How will Sean do his opening monologue? Will Bill Mitchell spend his days refreshing his browser like a cocaine-study monkey hitting the lever over and over again, hoping this time it will pay off?
I thought of that scene in Excalibur when Lancelot and Guinevere discover King Arthur’s sword betwixt their adulterously naked bodies.
The president without a Twitter feed! The land without a president!
I joke of course (and alas), but it really is true that whether you love it, hate it, or stare at it with unblinking befuddlement like it’s that severed head that sprouts crab legs and tries to walk out of the room in The Thing, Donald Trump’s Twitter account has dominated our political life in profound ways.
Remember that scene in Good Will Hunting? No, not the idiotic one where Matt Damon pretends that Howard Zinn is the pinnacle of historical scholarship. I mean the good one, where Ben Affleck gives that little speech about how the best part of his day is when he shows up at Damon’s house and thinks, for just ten seconds, “he won’t be there.” I often wonder if John Kelly spends his mornings the same way, when Trump’s Twitter feed is silent.
Or at least I used to.
As I wrote in the wake of Kelly’s press conference and George W. Bush’s speech a few weeks ago, I think Kelly has immense moral authority, and he deserves respect for his talents and his service.
But I also think he’s spending it down, rapidly. First there was his factual error regarding Frederica Wilson, which he should have apologized for.
Then came his interview this week with Laura Ingraham, in which he praised Robert E. Lee and offered his popular-but-wrong theory that the Civil War was caused by a failure to “compromise.”
I think Adam Serwer is very persuasive when he argues that this is simply untrue. Before the Civil War, the story of slavery in America is the story of one compromise with evil after another, starting with the three-fifths clause of the Constitution.
But it’s not simply untrue; it’s untrue in complicated ways.
Writing about Kelly’s comments this week, my National Review colleague David French gently concedes that Kelly was wrong about the compromise part. Instead, he addressed the question of whether honorable men could fight in a dishonorable cause:
I agree with General Kelly on his core point. Honorable men could and did choose to fight for the Confederacy. That does not mean that they fought for an honorable cause. The southern states seceded to preserve slavery. That’s plain from their articles of secession. While a free people have a right to self-determination — and that includes a right of secession — the cause for which they seceded was repugnant and reprehensible. No amount of revisionist history can permit the descendants of Confederates to turn away from this terrible truth.
But many truths operate at once, and here are others. In 1861, the invading northern army was not seeking to free the slaves. It was attempting to restore the union by sheer force of arms. The Confederates who lived in the southern states — even those who opposed secession — saw themselves as citizens of their states, yes, but also as citizens of an entirely different and new nation. One nation was invading another, and invasions mean death, destruction, and despair.
I think David is right that many truths can operate at once. This is true for every human being. Men and women of science can be religious and superstitious. Self-described feminists and religious moralists can be sexual harassers. Socialists can be money-grubbers, and passionate capitalists can be, and often are, the most passionate philanthropists. Even a pacifist can fantasize about beating someone with a tire iron when cut off in traffic. We all love to condemn cognitive dissonance, but we’re all hypocrites when we do so.
And what is true of individual humans is even more true of human societies. There were honorable men scooped up in the Wehrmacht (I’m not sure you can say the same about the SS). There were evil men fighting on the side of the Allies and the Union alike. If you read, say, Roll Jordan, Roll, you’ll even “discover” that some black slaves had complicated views about Southern society. Why? Because they’re humans, and humans, as John Locke observed, naturally come to different positions based on different experiences and different interpretations of their experiences.
None of this changes the fundamental moral issue: Slavery was evil. Nazism was evil. Evil is evil — even if some people can’t see it for what it is from their vantage point.
Serwer makes a very important observation:
What is strange is that the circumstances surrounding the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the Union are regarded as tragic. The issues debated on the eve of the Revolutionary War were more amenable to compromise than those that rent the Union in two in 1861. Many Americans died in the Revolutionary War; neither the United States nor Great Britain today regards its outcome as lamentable. Few regret that George Washington and King George III didn’t sit down at a table and hash out a compromise. Almost no one wrings their hands today about the uncivil tone of the Boston Tea Party, or the colonists’ stubborn insistence on self-governance.
I’m a big defender of the American Revolution, but it’s easy for me to concede the moral stakes in our fight with King George pale in comparison to the moral stakes of the Civil War. And yet, if I say, “Benedict Arnold was a villain,” no one but a few pedantic history buffs will bother to argue with me. If I say, “Robert E. Lee was a villain,” my email box will overflow with outrage.
Many people, mostly on the left, will claim such responses are proof of racism or white supremacy. And, believe me, I am happy to concede that is true for some people. But it’s not true for vastly more people. For instance, there’s not a racist bone in David French’s body as far as I can tell (the best proof of that is probably his adopted Ethiopian daughter, but it’s hardly the only proof). Rather, people make complicated distinctions that often fall afoul of narrow rational analysis. And sometimes people look at the same set of facts and simply draw different conclusions from them.
And that’s where the issue of compromise comes in. The Civil War was fought over slavery and to save the Union. The war settled the issue of slavery, but it was less clear at the time that it settled the question of the Union. When we defeated Japan and Germany, the Allies understood that needlessly humiliating our former enemies would be folly. Indeed, the humiliation of Germany after the First World War was widely understood to be one of the main causes of the Second.
Abraham Lincoln, who’d spent his political life with one eye on principles and one eye on the compromises necessary to fulfill those principles, understood this better than anyone. That is why, as the war was rapidly concluding, Lincoln ended his Second Inaugural by saying:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Allowing southerners to save face in the wake of world-destroying defeat was the real compromise. One can run the counterfactuals all day long: Perhaps things would have been better if the Union took the approach of post-war German governments and banned any expression of nostalgia for, or pride in, the antebellum regime. There was certainly some of that during Reconstruction. Maybe there should have been more. The sudden imposition of Jim Crow laws that came after Reconstruction supports the idea that there should have been a tougher northern approach to the post-war South. (I’d like to think I’d have been in the Radical Republican camp myself.) But it’s hard for me to second-guess the wisdom of Lincoln’s basic instincts.
What gets lost, however, in all the talk of compromise, both before and after the war, is that compromise is not, strictly speaking, a principle. As Oakeshott says, “A ‘compromise’ is not a position; it can only be defended pragmatically.” I think this is right.
But there’s an irony to this view. Compromises aren’t principles, but allowing for the possibility of compromise is a principle. It’s called “freedom” or “pluralism.” It is axiomatic. In a free society, all people must be free. That’s why slavery had to go and could not — ultimately — be compromised with. But, after that, free people must be allowed to live how they want to live so long as that doesn’t infringe on someone else’s freedom. That requires compromise, not in law but in life. People have a right to be wrong.
I really didn’t want to get into this stuff today. But I felt compelled to because I did want to explain why I think Kelly’s comments in his Fox interview were such a mistake. On Twitter the other day, I said that Kelly “should stop giving interviews.” And for the next day or so, I was inundated with demands to answer the question “But is he right?” I’ve tried to answer that question above. But I think that question is irrelevant.
As a rule, chiefs of staff should work behind the scenes. They are White House information-flow managers, not spokespeople. For reasons that should be quite familiar now, that role is more important in the Trump administration than any other in memory. This president likes to rely on fawning reviews from click-bait outlets, shows such as Fox & Friends, and the sewage-recycling system of his own Twitter feed. Kelly is supposed to be one of the “grown-ups,” who not only protects the president from bad information, but the country from what he might do with that information.
For reasons that Noah Rothman lays out in detail, Kelly has opted to trade his non-partisan stature to lend aid and comfort to President Trump’s culture-war games. Willingly or reluctantly, Kelly is making himself into a spokesman for Trumpism. In doing so, he’s putting intellectual meat on the thin bones of Trump’s Twitter outbursts. If you are all-in for MAGAism, this probably doesn’t bother you. But if you’re among the majority of Americans who have problems with the way Trump divides the country, this is a worrisome turn.
And if you’re a Republican who takes some pride in the fact that the GOP is the Party of Lincoln and that it was founded as an abolitionist party, then watching Kelly and Trump defending “our heritage” of the Confederacy, then you might be watching the spectacle with unblinking befuddlement.
Allahu Akbar! This Is a Dumb Controversy!
Never let it be said that the New York Times is above a little trolling. Yesterday, the Times tweeted
“Allahu akbar” has somehow become inextricably intertwined with terrorism. Its real meaning is far more innocent. https://t.co/HO5PIE3p77— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 2, 2017
As I joked, that “somehow” is carrying so much weight, it’s going to get a hernia. Of course, in the article, the Times does get around to acknowledging, perhaps a bit too reluctantly, that the reason the phrase gets “intertwined” with terrorism is that pretty much whenever Islamic terrorists kill people, they shout “Allahu akbar!”
The suggestion that it’s weird for people to connect the two is what’s weird.
If a radical faction of Amish terrorists shouted “Rumspringa!” every time they galloped their horse carts through civilians, would we really be so shocked that the word became associated with (terribly ineffective) terrorism? Ditto if a cult of Sonny Bunch worshippers blew themselves up right after shouting, “Sucker Punch is genius!”
Now, if you know anything about Islam, you should know that “Allahu akbar” is not solely a villain’s catchphrase. Muslims also say it at weddings, births, Bar Mitzvahs — wait no, strike that last one — and countless other joyful events. Or, at least, I thought we all knew that.
CNN’s Jake Tapper said as much the other day in the wake of the New York terror attack. And the reaction from some corners proved me wrong. Sean Hannity threw an extended hissy fit over the comment.
My favorite part was in the beginning when Hannity says, “liberal fake news’ CNN’s fake Jake Tapper.”
Wait, Fake Jake Tapper said something? Well, what did the real Jake Tapper say? Why does CNN use Fake Jake Tapper? Is the real Jake in CNN prison or something? I want to hear more about this doppelganger.
Anyway, both Hannity and the Times seem to be working from equally incorrect premises. Hannity thinks it’s ridiculous to point out that, for countless millions of Muslims, Allahu akbar has nothing to do with terrorism. Meanwhile, the Times seems to think that it’s bizarre that Islam’s signature phrase has been associated at all with terrorism. The Times doesn’t put it as bluntly as, say, Hillary Clinton, who said that Muslims have “nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism,” but it’s still missing the point.
It seems to me that the sane position is where the Venn Diagram overlaps. Islam isn’t purely about terrorism –terrorists kill more Muslims than non-Muslims, by a wide margin. But Islamic terrorism is Islamic. It draws on Islamic scripture, and the leaders of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Iran know far more about Islam than any of the Westerners who say that Islam has nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.
It seems to me that the sane position is where the Venn Diagram overlaps.
And even if you think such distinctions are incorrect, and you truly believe that all of Islam is the problem, not just the terrorist sliver of it, think about what that means as a matter of policy. Billions of people are Muslims — as are millions of Americans, including many in our military. Treating them all as terrorists wouldn’t simply be unjust, it would be idiotically suicidal. By all means, let’s crush the terrorists. But that requires help from Muslims, not treating them all as evil. Lincoln understood this about the South. The Allies understood this about Germany and Japan. You’d think more people could understand this about Islam.
Various & Sundry
The latest Remnant podcast is out, and it was great fun. I had Andy Ferguson in to talk about why he’s not a TV pundit, what constitutes a real martini, whether evolutionary psychology is B.S., and other fun topics, including whether or not Steve Hayes is a horrible boss. We also have a new email address for the podcast: [email protected]. Please share comments, suggestions, etc. if you can. Subscriptions are going very well, but if you haven’t subscribed yet, I beseech you to do so, even if you’re not a regular podcast aficionado. It helps with everything from advertising to my self-esteem.
Canine Update: The beasts are well, though we have to remain constantly vigilant for ticks this time of year. Just as people rob banks because that’s where the money is, the dingo goes deep into the bush because that’s where the critters are — and that means into the heart of tickness. The other morning, she returned from a sortie deep in some brambles where deer are known hatch their evil schemes. She came back with, by my count, 13 ticks crawling on her. I spent the better part of the morning like a mommy chimpanzee, searching for them before they could implant. Also, Zoë is continuing her effort to understand what the spaniel’s strange fascination with tennis balls is. She really doesn’t see the appeal, but she sees me playing with Pippa, and I think she thinks I’m playing favorites and gets jealous. I try to make up for it in other ways. Still, anytime Pippa gets more attention than her, the Dingo pouts, fumes, or intercedes.
As I’ve explained a few times around here, now that my wife doesn’t work from home, we’ve had to rely on our dogwalker Kirsten on weekdays for the midday perambulations. I still walk the dogs every morning when I’m in town (save my birthday and Father’s Day) and at least once every evening. The Fair Jessica handles the big midday adventures on weekends, usually along the Potomac, and the first walk of the evening when she gets home. But on workdays, it’s Kirsten who handles the big adventure, which is great because they love her more than anyone on earth — with the merely possible exception of my wife and me. They also get to run with a full pack of dogs, which is what dogs really want to do, and their mischief batteries get drained to acceptable levels. But perhaps the best upside, at least for their fans from afar, is we get some terrific action shots. I bring all of this up because lots of people are complimenting me for some of the photos, and I want her to get the credit she deserves.
Update: Long after I packed this “News”letter into the pneumatic tube, I got word from Kirsten that Zoë has a crush on a dog named Ben. I may have to have this young man over to my house to discuss his intentions.
And now, the weird stuff.