The Space between Us

by Jonah Goldberg
The point of the conservative movement was never simply to make the GOP more conservative — it was to move the center of gravity in American politics.

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 (and Buyer!),

By the time this “news”letter makes it to the light of day, The Memo will likely have been released. This creates several challenges.

First, it means writing more than I already have on the topic would be pointless since I have nothing more to say about it, pending new information.

Second, the news will overtake this “news”letter like a giant fast-moving thing that is well known for overtaking other things in a very funny and apt way.

Sorry, my metaphor generator is still warming up.

Third — and this is the most important part — I am reliably informed that the information contained in the memo is not only “worse than Watergate” but actually 10,000 percent bigger than what the British did to prompt the American colonists to wire their heads and their hearts together, cooking full-tilt boogie for freedom and justice.

This is therefore probably the last thing I’ll write before the revolution starts, and you may be reading this in a bunker or cave somewhere. Or, if you’re a member of the New New Model Army, you may not have time to read this because you’re too busy putting my head on a spike, having executed me for my lack of revolutionary zeal.

Still, I guess if I had one regret, it’s that we don’t pronounce the “e” in “memo” with an “ee” sound. If we did, we all could have luxuriated in Mike Huckabee’s “Finding Memo” jokes right until the end.

So, in short, I’m not going to write about any of that stuff.

Everything Is Relative

In space, no one can hear you scream. But that’s not important right now.

Another funny thing about space is that it’s really hard to have a fixed position. Sure, from our perspective, things like the sun appear stationary — but, in reality, everything is moving. For smaller stuff, such as humans or asteroids or mint-condition AMC Pacers mysteriously cast adrift far outside our solar system, all positions are relative to each other. Or something like that (I don’t need 5,000 emails from physics geeks explaining all this to me in minute detail, btw.)

Imagine, if you will: You have two astronauts free-floating in their space suits. Neither can see his ship or space station or any other “land”marks. One is more or less stationary, while the other is drifting away at an alarming rate. From the perspective of the moving astronaut, however, it might appear like it’s the other guy who’s moving.

I started noodling this image yesterday while working on my column, but never used it. I had set out to write about how far to the left the Democrats have moved on immigration. But like a divining rod being pulled to ground water, or a 16-year-old’s hands being guided on a Ouija board to spell, “We see you and we are legionn” (ghosts are terrible spellers), I ended up writing about how the ideological structure of our political system is being rearranged before our eyes.

Extremism for Thee, Not for Me

I won’t explain my original point about Democrats becoming extremists on immigration; I’ll just assert it to save time (and because it’s true). Here’s the thing, though: While some politically literate liberals might understand how rapidly the Democrats have moved leftward, I suspect that most run-of-the-mill activist Democrats don’t really see it. They see the Republican party as having moved farther and farther away from them. And the farther the Democrats drift, the more “extreme” they think the Republican position is.

You can see a similar dynamic on all sorts of issues. As I’ve written 912 times (an admittedly rough estimate), progressives — not conservatives — tend to be the aggressors in the culture war. Gay marriage is the best example. Twenty years ago, the standard conservative position on gay marriage was that gay marriage isn’t a thing. That was the same position conservatives (and nearly everyone else) had had for a couple thousand years. But liberals, and the culture, moved wildly to the left on the issue, and Republicans stood still. Yet, from the perspective of progressives and the media, it was the GOP that became more extreme simply because it didn’t want to get dragged along.

(I should note that some argue that the left–right formulation here leaves much to be desired, since you can make an argument that, in many respects, the move toward gay marriage was a rightward thing. The sexual-liberationist Left in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to destroy the institution of marriage, not rope gays into it by arguing that marriage is such a vital institution. Twenty-five years ago, the stereotypical gay character in popular culture was flouncy and flamboyant. Now he’s a harried dad trying to install a car seat. But you get the point.)

This model holds for feminism, civil rights, and lots of other things. It also works the other way around. Conservatives have moved the GOP rightward on law and economics since the 1960s, while liberals for the most part stayed locked-in to New Deal and Great Society thinking. Both sides called the other “extremists,” but it was the Right that did most of the moving, and eventually the Democratic party moved with it. Bill Clinton did indeed move his party to the right both rhetorically and on many issues, and the early Republican freak-out response to that had more to do with the rage that overtakes partisans when their opponents agree with them and, in the process, take away their favorite issues. But to explore that, we’d have to abandon our astronaut analogy and talk about the narcissism of small differences.

Tug of War

Years ago, Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out to me the downside of watching the opposition party lurch wildly to the left. In 2003, there was a lot of talk about how Howard Dean signaled the revival of McGovernism. People forget — though I bet Howard Dean doesn’t! — that for the better part of a year, everyone was sure that Dean would win the Democratic nomination running away. Lots of Republicans and conservatives relished the prospect, because not only was Dean a haughty and condescending human toothache with a nasty temper, his politics were seen as way too left wing. National Review even ran a cover begging the Democrats to nominate him:

Anyway, the problem with one party veering too far to the right (say, Goldwater in ’64) or the left (McGovern in ’72) is that when one party moves very far in one direction, so does the other party. That’s because in a two-party system, elections tend to be won by whichever party captures the center. If party A moves leftward, abandoning the center square, it leaves it open for party B to take it. Thus both parties move leftward and the political “center” moves with it. There are exceptions stemming from special circumstances, but as a rule of thumb, this dynamic has a lot of explanatory value.

What Conservatism Is For

This rule of thumb should be drilled into the brain pan of every sentient conservative. Under George W. Bush, conservatives got too invested in running interference for the GOP. Part of it stemmed from the perceived need to rally around a wartime president. Part of it stemmed from disgust with how Democrats treated a wartime president. But there were other reasons, too. Indeed, to some extent, this sort of thing always happens to some people who are invested in politics.

The point of the conservative movement, however, was never simply to make the GOP more conservative, it was to move the center of gravity in American politics in a conservative direction. One of the first steps in that project was to gain intellectual influence or control over one of the two parties. It wasn’t supposed to stop there — but everyone seems to have forgotten that. Frankly, if I could make the trade, I’d rather the GOP became liberal if in exchange we could have the universities and Hollywood become conservative. But that’s a subject for another day.

A lot of people make all sorts of clever remarks about how Buckleyite conservatism is insufficient to the times. They invoke that famous line from our mission statement about how National Review “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

The critics make it sound like yelling “Stop” was all Buckley and Co. were interested in. That was never the case, as his entire life story attests. The point about yelling Stop was that the country was drifting away from timeless principles and too few noticed or cared, and too many wanted the drift accelerated.

Buckley wanted to establish a platform — a landmark, if you will — that illuminated a fixed point in space, by which people could judge who was moving and in what direction. When you’re caught in the undertow, the thing you need most is something to grab on to. That was supposed to be National Review.

Now, as I’ve written countless times, National Review back then was wrong about some important things, including, most famously, civil rights (even if that story is more complicated than some claim).

But the larger point is that conservatism is supposed to be rooted in certain truths, even when the rest of society thinks those truths are lies. That is why conservatism is realism: It takes into account the permanence of sin, the crooked timber of humanity, and the inevitable contradictions and trade-offs that are inherent to living in this imperfect world.

Buckley wanted to establish a platform — a landmark, if you will — that illuminated a fixed point in space, by which people could judge who was moving and in what direction.

Truth isn’t something you vote on. You can vote to treat a falsehood as a truth, and everyone can act like it’s the truth, but that doesn’t mean it is. The only things that can topple a perceived truth are reason, science, or God, because the first two are the means of discovering what exists outside our own perceptions and God can do any darn thing He wants.

Being rooted doesn’t require opposing all change — how any movement dedicated to the free market could be accused of unyielding fixity has always been a mystery to me. Rooted things can grow and change, but they remain attached to the soil all the same.

Rootedness does, however, require skepticism about new ideas, untested by time.

Conservatives believe in progress, but we don’t poll the mob for what constitutes progress, nor do we reflexively defer to whatever definition of progress is fashionable these days, on the partisan left or the partisan right. Nor do we define or decide what is true, or conservative, by the pronouncements of a party or a politician.

Longtime readers will recognize this passage from C. S. Lewis as one of my favorites:

Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.

If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.

I’d change it only slightly. The truly progressive man, the one who cares about his fellow men and women, doesn’t merely turn around and live out his life in isolation, as part of the remnant. He yells “Stop!” and makes an argument for why everyone else should turn around with him. He might even have to scream to get their attention. That’s okay, though. Because while no one can hear you scream in space, down here on earth, they can.

Various & Sundry

Well, now the memo is out. I had to file late because I’ve been distracted by my miserably sick daughter who has a very, very bad case of the flu. This is especially crummy because she had some other crud she was just getting over. And on top of that, she had mono for five weeks at the beginning of the school year. So, this just stinks. Oh, right — the memo.

I’ll probably post something about it over the weekend or later today. But, so far, I think the responses by Jim Geraghty and Dan McLaughlin are pretty persuasive. I still have to read the thing myself and hear what Andy McCarthy has to say about it. But my initial take is that — if true and corroborated — this is a significant scandal, but not exactly the worse-than-Watergate-Armageddon thing it was hyped as. I should say, however, that if Republicans had done this, a lot of the people shouting “Dud!” would be shouting “Worse than Watergate!” which is why I hate so much of politics right now.

The latest Remnant podcast is out, and it’s definitely one of my favorites (though I probably should have spared listeners my rant at the opening). Megan McArdle was brilliant and delightful. Oh, and there’s much dog-talk and philosophical argy-bargy. Please give it a listen. And, not to be too shameless, but if you haven’t noticed, I tend to retweet positive or interesting tweets about The Remnant. So, there’s that.

Thanks very much to those of you who’ve told me they’ve pre-ordered the book. I won’t rehash all the ways this matters so much, but if you wanted to represent how much it matters, let’s say this Twinkie (I’m holding up a normal Twinkie) represents the normal amount of things mattering. According to the latest data, demonstrating how much this matters would require a Twinkie 35 feet long, weighing approximately 600 pounds.

Canine Update: The doggos couldn’t be happier. The Fair Jessica is home, and they like it. The weather is brisk. The tennis balls are fresh, the squirrels are overconfident, and the weekday jaunts with the pack are always thrilling. Oh, and they’ve gotten used to the new car. They are getting along great, a disagreement about the memo notwithstanding. (Pippa, being something of a monarchist, doesn’t have much of a problem with elites abusing their power. Zoë is a Jacksonian at heart.)

I have had to leave them alone more than I’d like this week, but that just means coming home to nice greetings and more bonding at night. The one vexing thing is that Zoë and Pippa both hate crows so, so, so much, and the crows know it. All it takes is a single squawk in the backyard, and they go berserk. They will bark up at the trees with a rage that is very strange. They don’t care about any other neighborhood birds (though they will chase waterfowl because it’s an excuse to get wet, and it’s fun).

ICYMI . . . 

Last week’s G-File

I wrote in praise of Bill Kristol interviewing John Podhoretz on pop culture.

What the heck is going on with the Memo?

My Glenn Beck program appearance from earlier this week

The Tea Party is over.

What the heck is going on with the Mueller probe?

“Chain migration” is not a racist term.

My NPR reaction to the State of the Union address.

Liberals don’t hate nationalism and populism when they’re in service of leftism.

My appearance on Chicago’s Morning Answer

I went on the Michael Graham in the Morning podcast to talk about the Memo.

Will the memo live up to the hype?

Are we undergoing a political transformation?

Groundhog Day: A movie for all time

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Baboons escape Paris zoo

The mysterious ghost lights of Marfa, Texas

Soviet cannibal gulag island

The most evil video game of all time

Maryland likes jousting

The coldest city in the world

The world’s most remote brewery

The Nebraska town with a population of one

Orange thief caught

Orca whales vs. great white sharks

Maybe the orcas will win once they perfect human speech

New York in the ’50s and ’60s

Forty-five minutes of the sound of bacon cooking

Pony works up courage to jump

Musical instruments made of ice

Did the ancient Greeks sail to Canada?

Intensity of religious belief measured by geographic analogue

German shepherd cares

Paris, according to Tripadvisor.com

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg