Here’s Goldberg again, in his weekly G-file “newsletter.” Plenty o’ polysci here, too, so it’s an extended graf.
Love that term “megalothymia.” Never heard of Chesterton’s fence before – what an awesome idea!
Goldberg shows off his range, a real tour de force: from finance (safe harbors) to music theatre (Don Quixote).
Crush the Safe Harbors
So I guess we’re done with the RFRA fight for now and a lot of people are done with Governor Mike Pence (Here’s is an aerial view of his cave-in, by the way). For those interested, my column today is my second attempt to explain why comparing religious freedom laws to Jim Crow is so inane. I don’t have much hope that it will do any good.
Indeed, this whole ridiculous, insane, paranoid, sanctimonious, bullying, freak-out has me despairing for the country. I don’t know that I can do another stem-winder on the liberal gleichschaltung or the fact that real, meaningful, diversity must be a diversity of customs, institutions, and communities. Civil society is where life happens; we want it to be as rich an ecosystem as it can be. That means tolerating — or even celebrating — hippies and drag queens in San Francisco, but it also means tolerating — or even celebrating — religious and observant people, too. All RFRA was intended to do was to give millions of Americans a little space to be and do what their religion tells them they must. If that faith goes too far, than the common good trumps it. But short of that, let people be for God’s sake.
No one would confuse me for a particularly pious or religious person. If properly compensated, I would happily bake a cake for a gay wedding — or write a special “news”letter for some lesbian nuptials — myself, though I don’t expect there’s a big market for that (but make me an offer!).
But I also believe that in a perfect world businesses should be able to decline service to anyone for almost any reason. I firmly believe in the right of people to exit systems and institutions they do not want to belong to. I’m much less committed to the idea that people must be able to join any institution or group they want to just because they want to. I could have sworn that even liberals believed that freedom means the freedom to create the rules you want to live by, individually and collectively. In a perfect world, campus Christian groups could have rules barring, you know, non-Christians from joining. Call me a utopian, but I think the producers of the “Vagina Monologues” should not be bullied into including performers with penises (giving a whole new meaning to “cast member”).
Selma, Now and Forever
And before you flip out, let me acknowledge that we don’t live in a perfect world (and I don’t mean the Kevin Costner movie). America made grave and profound moral errors with regard to race. Therefore it became a moral necessity to compel businesses offering public accommodation to serve black people.
Was there a better way? Maybe. Though I find such post-hoc arguments really tiresome after a while. First of all, some of the people who want to get in the WayBack machine and re-litigate the Civil Rights Act tend to be of a cranky disposition. (No really, it’s true. Wait awhile and they’ll show up in the comments section of the online version of this “news”letter.)
Second, there’s virtually no political upside to such debates. (It’s like Ron Paul explaining on Meet the Press there was a better way to end slavery than the Civil War — that’s news we can use!)
And third, substantively saying the Civil Rights acts were unnecessary is sort of like saying to someone who escaped a burning building: “You, know, you really didn’t have to throw that chair through the plate-glass window to get out.” In other words, it treats an extremely exigent moment in American history as if it were amenable to solutions spit-balled in an endless college seminar.
I’m Sorry Sir, You’re Not Black
What I do think is far more relevant and timely is the fact that so many people want to glom onto the moral stature of the civil-rights movement and reenact it for every single American with a grievance (save for conservatives who, like the Civil War re-enactor who’s always forced to play a Confederate, must always be cast as the bad guys). If you take all the people idiotically, reflexively, and sanctimoniously invoking Jim Crow at face value, it’s hard not to conclude they’re reflexive and sanctimonious idiots — or simply dishonest. And while that’s probably true of some, it’s clearly not true of many. Instead, I think you need to see this tendency as a Freudian slip, a statement of yearning, a kind of self-branding or what you (well, probably not you) might call moral megalothymia.
Take Out Your Dictionaries
Megalothymia is a term coined by Francis Fukuyama. It’s a common mistake to think Fukuyama simply took Plato’s concept of “thumos” or “thymos” and put a “mega” in front of it because we all know from the Transformers and Toho Productions that “mega” makes everything more cool.
But that’s not the case. Megalothymia is a neologism of megalomania (an obsession with power and the ability to dominate others) and thymos, which Plato defined as the part of the soul concerned with spiritedness, passion, and a desire for recognition and respect.
Fukuyama defined megalothymia as a compulsive need to feel superior to others.
And boy howdy, do we have a problem with megalothymia in America today. Everywhere you look there are moral bullies utterly uninterested in conversation, introspection, or persuasion who are instead hell-bent on grinding down people they don’t like to make themselves feel good. If you took the megalothymia out of Twitter, millions of trolls would throw their smartphones into the ocean.
Make no mistake: This is a problem across the ideological spectrum, because it is a problem of human nature in general and modernity in particular. But in this context, it’s a special malady of elite liberalism.
Moral Heroism without Morality
We teach young people they should be morally heroic, and that is good.
The problem is we lack the ability to think about morality seriously, never mind talk about it seriously. In a world where Harvard — once a Christian seminary! — is now a place where its “safe spaces” aren’t safe enough because the poetry is too offensive, we should not expect a lot of serious conversation.
This is one of the reasons why our moral categories are so content-less. Tolerance and sympathy become moral imperatives without reference to what is being tolerated and sympathized with. All week people on Twitter have been telling me that all discrimination is bad, no matter what. That’s awful news, because I really don’t want to invite pedophiles, Nazis, or complete strangers from the 7-11 parking lot to my Passover seder. Now I’m told such discrimination is wrong, no matter what.
Indeed, for some, the more immoral or offensive something becomes, the more heroic it is to find a reason to defend it (Hence the old chestnut about how a liberal is someone so open-minded he won’t even take his own side in an argument). Internationally, our own worst enemies have to be on to something because, gosh darn it, we must have something to apologize for. The whole world is covered in a steaming pile of sh*t and the the left-wing optimist is the guy who thinks he will find a pony — to explain how it’s really all America’s fault.
And at home, rebellion against the traditional, the existing, the old-and-tried is its own reward. Everything is Chesterton’s fence, and nobody cares or bothers to ask where the fences came from or what they’re for. As I keep saying, America has an autoimmune disease.
So is it any wonder that today’s liberals have “Selma envy”? Is it a surprise they see Jim Crow laws everywhere? If your only frame of reference for moral heroism is the struggle for civil rights half a century ago, it’s no shock that you will do everything you can to bend the world today into your sepia-toned viewfinder of the past. Teach enough kids that they have to reenact Selma to be heroic, they’ll start seeing Selma in the weirdest places. Worse, the real issue won’t be the alleged injustice, the real issue will be their heroism — like kids who dig latrines in the third world so they can explain what heroes they are to the admissions counselor at Vassar.
The problem is that to compare any other group’s experience to the black experience in America must of necessity be a poetic or metaphorical enterprise. The facts don’t line up for women and gays. The transgendered weren’t carted over here in the galleys of ships. (You could look it up.) This isn’t to say blacks are the only people to have suffered from historic injustices (or to say that constant dwelling on those injustices is necessarily constructive). It is to say that the constant unending desire to leach moral standing from their experience to give your own claims underserved grandeur is pathetic and shameful. And the know-nothing, often fundamentally anti-American, desire to constantly cast this country as an oppressive, evil-intentioned society, is an indication of how the Left’s intellectual gas tank is empty, and is now running simply on the fumes of megalothymic passion.
I take real offense when people insist I am a bigot just to make themselves feel good. It’s literally quixotic. Don Quixote was sure windmills were dragons because he was sure he was a chivalric knight. But Quixote’s certainty didn’t transmogrify the windmills into dragons — his certainty proved he was crazy. I watch the preening jack wagons of MSNBC picking heroic fights with straw-men and I see the same lunatic alchemy at work. Scream loud enough at imaginary demons in America today, and someone will salute your courage as a demon slayer. But it won’t be me.
For the Time Being
Sometimes I think W.H. Auden really was a prophet. From, the Herod section of For the Time Being:
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions . . . Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.