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A Random Walk Through My Mind
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A Random Walk Through My Mind

Freud, the narcissism of small differences, and antisemitism.

Street artists draw portraits for tourists at the Montmartre hill in Paris on October 15, 2023. (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (Congrats to all of you who weren’t named in the Jeffrey Epstein court documents),

I’ve always been a bit of a flâneur. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the word. It just looks like one of those words that seem like code for “I need an ass-kicking.” If we ever take the culture war to 11, I could see some folks looking for a reason to go all Gilead on some modern-day Ephraimites, and asking someone to use flâneur correctly in a sentence would be a great heuristic for deciding whether to beat them with a pillowcase full of oranges. (Then again, “heuristic” is a kind of an ass-kicking invite-word, too).

Anyway, flâneur is a very literary term for urban strollers, wanderers, saunterers in quest of serendipitous discoveries of interesting things and events. People-watching is one of the great pastimes for flâneurs. The flâneur is an archetype in all sorts of writing about Paris, cities, 19th-century France, class, modernity, mass politics, etc. (By the way, I must say the Wikipedia entry for flâneur is outstanding). “Free and alone in the maze of the city, the flâneur craves a revelation that might change his life and destiny,” writes Federico Castigliano in Flâneur: The Art of Wandering the Streets of Paris. At first, I thought this a bit of an overstatement, but I cannot deny that in my youth such emotions were not alien to me. When I was a teenager, I’d put on my headphones, hit play on my two-pound Walkman, and walk the streets of New York in a trench coat for hours, like I was a mysterious character in a music video.

I still love doing that. I’m not exactly a big hiker or athlete (I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself from the shock of this statement), but I can walk aimlessly through any great city for hours. My wife and daughter dubbed this tendency “daddy death-marching” a long time ago. I rarely embrace the term “it’s the journey, not the destination” unironically, but when it comes to exploring cities, it really is true—at least for me. A two-block walk in suburbia is a chore for me. A two-miler in New York, London, Paris, or Prague is a down payment on a fantastic afternoon. 

But I’m also a bit of an intellectual flâneur. I can stroll through almost any book for a little while and enjoy myself, picking up historical bric-a-brac and intellectual brickbats alike along the way. But for reasons I’m neither happy about, nor proud of, starting from the first page and reading straight to the last often feels like too much of a commitment. I have the same approach to bookstores, especially used bookstores, like the Strand in New York or Powell’s in Portland. I can wander amid the shelves for hours, often buying books based on a single interesting paragraph or index entry. Bookstores are a kind of window shopping for the mind. 

I’m also a TV wanderer. The Fair Jessica will often ask me, not unreasonably, “What are you watching?” and I’ll often reply, “I don’t know. I just stopped here for a minute.” A lot of my TV watching is downright cetacean, which is ironic given my first name. Like a blue whale scooping up plankton as I find it, I can surf the channels collecting morsels that can achieve satiety only in bulk. 

The other day, I caught an old episode of The Simpsons that has one of my favorite lines. I watched long enough to hear it, before moving on. The episode “Lisa’s Wedding” is set in the near future, where Bart and Lisa are grown-ups and Homer and Marge are in their golden years. We see the couple in bed, watching TV. Marge says to Homer, “You know, Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually I didn’t even notice. Yeesh.”

Of course, that episode aired in 1995, which means that we are well past the future in which it was supposed to take place. This kind of thing can lead to despair. For instance, we are farther from the release date of Back to the Future (1985), than the film was from the year 1955, the time in the distant past Marty McFly drove to in his DeLorean. The “future” in Back to the Future II—you know, the one with all the hoverboards and such—was set in 2015. This of course raises the question, “Dude, where’s my hoverboard?”

But that’s a subject for another day. Let’s stay on feelings of depressing old age. In Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi was played by Pat Morita, who was then … 52 years old. The aging Father Merrin in The Exorcist was played by Max Von Sydow at the ripe old age of 44 (Kourtney Kardashian and Chris Pratt are 44 today). If that’s not depressing enough for you, let me remind you of some other tidbits I uncovered last May:

  • Redd Foxx, the cantankerous old man from Sanford & Son, was 49 years old when the sitcom premiered;
  • Conrad Bain, the avuncular dad on Diff’rent Strokes, was 51;
  • His grandmotherly housekeeper, Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Ray), was 52;
  • Sorrell Booke, also known as Boss Hogg, was 49;
  • Carroll O’Connor was 47 when he debuted as Archie Bunker and Archie’s wife, Edith, was played by a 48-year-old Jean Stapleton;
  • Jim Backus was 51 when he started playing Thurston Howell III;
  • Marlon Brando was 47 when he acted in The Godfather; and
  • Alan Hale, the world-traveled skipper of the S.S. Minnow, was 43.

Speaking of the S.S. Minnow, it was named that because the creator of Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz (which sounds vaguely like the name of a lead character in a Yiddish language porn movie) wanted to take a shot at Newton Minow, the onetime commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. Minow had called commercial TV a “vast wasteland” so bereft of redeeming fare that the government should use a heavier hand in promoting quality content. Schwartz objected to Minow’s call for statist programming, so he named the boat after him (though he added an “n,” either out of fidelity to piscine spelling or to avoid being too obvious). 

Diaristic digressions.

Anyway, the reason I brought up the line from The Simpsons is that I have a similar feeling about this “news”letter of late. It kind of transformed, against all my instincts, into a single long essay. I don’t necessarily apologize for that, but I do get nostalgic for the old bloggy-style of the Goldberg File.

The name “Goldberg File” was the product of literally minutes of conversation with Rich Lowry back in 1998. It began as a kind of blog. I say “kind of” because the word blog wasn’t in circulation when I started it. But it was one of the first blogs all the same, inspiring many of the ur-bloggers. Sure, sometimes it would take the form of a single essay—if that’s not too grandiose a term—but more often it was a series of short(ish) posts. 

I wouldn’t say I always—or even often—succeeded, but in my heart the Platonic form of a G-File was a series of standalone posts tied together by my own flâneuristic wanderings. I’d often try to have a little connective tissue between the posts. Sort of like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the semi-independent vignettes only formed a coherent story at the end. When I fell short of this ideal, it was more like Joe Biden trying to finish a speech after the teleprompter conked out. You still knew what the point was supposed to be, but all the digressions swamped the point with reminiscences of Corn Pop-like effluvia. As Aristotle once said, “Look, cows!”

The model in my head was the old “Diarist” feature of The New Republic. At its best, the Diarists would be a kind of unguided walking tour of observations that segued like a flâneur sauntering through different neighborhoods. 

The first time I heard the word flâneur I recoiled like a good American, assuming it was the French word for a baker who specializes in making flan. This, of course, makes no sense because flan is a Spanish word. Moreover, for reasons that only partly have to do with the movie Wag the Dog, I do not like flan. And yet, I love crème brûlée, despite the fact that they are very, very, similar. Small differences matter.

Indeed, I think small differences drive more anger and conflict than large differences do. It was Freud who coined the term “narcissism of small differences” (though credit for the concept goes to British anthropologist Ernest Crawley). I’m reminded by my underrated second book that Freud first used the phrase in “The Taboo of Virginity,” to explain why men are scared of women. It is “precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them,” Freud wrote. I think this is a pretty piss-poor explanation of male-female relations, but I think the concept is really useful in understanding things like inter-ethnic conflict, ideological squabbles, gang rivalries, and antisemitism.

Most of the great hatreds are between groups that have a lot in common. This is why the belief that “understanding” is the great cure to conflict is so misguided. Israelis and Palestinians, Ukrainians and Russians, East Coast and West Coast rappers, prison gangs, political science and economics professors, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Hatfields and McCoys, and, of course, the Peoples’ Front of Judea and the Judean Peoples’ Front all understand each other far better than do the well-meaning social worker types lecturing them that what they lack is mutual understanding.

Mutual understanding is the mother of contempt, familiarity the father of conflict. Most siblings don’t hate each other, but some of the hottest hatreds are between people who grew up together. The Marxists and Marx-ish are right that conflicts arise from fights over resources, they’re just usually wrong about what those resources are. Cain doesn’t hate Abel because of class envy. Cain was a farmer, Abel a shepherd. Cain didn’t murder Abel to get his goats and sheep, but because God cast his favor on Abel and Cain was jealous. 

Status—and God’s favor is historically the greatest source of status—is a positional good. Hatred of Jews takes many forms, but it arguably begins with their claim of being God’s “Chosen People.” And while I don’t think contemporary antisemitism is all that theological—outside of Gazan preschools—the vague resentment of Jewish “Chosen-ness” plays a role. There’s a sense that Jewish success and status is unfair, undeserved, and underhanded. German antisemitism is a long and complicated phenomenon, but as Freud noted, part of it stemmed from the fact that Jews were really good at being Germans—in the arts, sciences, law, etc.—but still held onto their cultural distinctiveness. The small differences elicited large hatreds.

A great deal of our politics these days boils down to arguments among Americans who share far more in common than anything that separates them. But the arguments are about perceived comparative status in our institutions and cultural contests. How many people are still furious that someone they hate called them “deplorable”? How often are our national debates about outrage over utterly symbolic slights against one avatar of one group or another? It’s remarkable to me how Claudine Gay’s explanation of her own role in the latest brouhaha is so Trumpian. Both insist that they are merely avatars for “you.” Their enemies attack them to come after you and your status.

The Jews, again.

I do not for a moment think Claudine Gay is an antisemite. I think her insistence otherwise is sincere. But I don’t think it’s an accident that her problems stemmed from her inability to speak with timely moral clarity about antisemitism. Indeed, if you think about it, it’s easy to see why the champions of identity politics—particularly the perversely racist assumptions of anti-racism and the dehumanizing doctrines of systemic racism—can get hung up on the Jooz. 

Here’s how Ibram Kendi explained anti-racism to Ezra Klein a few years ago:

Well, what it means to be antiracist is to first recognize that we live in a society of racial inequities, from wealth to health to criminal justice to education, and to recognize that we’ve been taught that, let’s say, black people are disproportionately impoverished or incarcerated because there’s something wrong with black people behaviorally or culturally. And to be antiracist is to say, no, the racial groups, not individuals, but the racial groups are equal, that there’s no group that is inferior or superior. And so therefore, the cause of a disparity or an inequity must be policies or practices that we see or don’t see. And to be antiracist is to identify those and challenge them and to try to rebuild a nation that—policies and practices that create equity and justice for all people.

Now, there are some superficial truths here, and I don’t have the space to parse it all now. But the upshot of this is that any statistical differences between groups in the aggregate can only—and solely—be explained by systemic “policies and practices” external to those groups. No cultural or behavioral explanations can explain why more black people are incarcerated or poor than, say, Asians or Jews. Among the myriad problems with this is that it erases the individual actions of individual people, which only become damning group differences when you impose your ideological obsessions with group differences. 

I find it depressing to have to say this, but in a decent, liberal, society bound by the rule of law, an individual who commits, say, murder and is found guilty of murder in a court of law should face a penalty for his or her individual actions, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity. If you count up the murderers and notice that they fall disproportionately into such categories, that doesn’t remove the moral and legal significance of the individual choice to pull the trigger. Treating members of groups as interchangeable with other members of that group is bigotry. 

Now, this lamentable disproportionality is indeed something to be taken seriously, and serious people can debate different approaches intended to address these disparities. But simply dismissing the role of behavior or culture removes all manner of defensible approaches from consideration or even discussion. Instead, it says “society” is to blame for the individual choices of individuals. This erases the agency of both the criminal and the non-criminal alike. Through this looking glass, holding murderers to account becomes “blaming the victim.”

But what Kendi doesn’t get into—to my knowledge—is the question, “What explains the success of certain groups?” And this unstated question points to why Jews stick in the craw of some people (I have no idea what, if anything, Kendi himself says about Jews). If the misfortunes of certain groups are the result of “systemic” policies, then the good fortune of other groups must also be the result of “systemic” policies. It can’t be the aggregate result of behavior or culture which are in many respects simply the terms we use for individual choices in the aggregate. Jewish success—despite millennia of discrimination—simply highlights that systemic explanations are always at best partial and often entirely inadequate. And for some, that thought is so discomfiting, they’d rather conclude that Jews manipulate the system

Individual choices matter. Systems matter, too. But if you think systems are the only thing that matter, and you tell people that their lot in life is solely the product of forces outside of their control, you are denying them the incentives to improve their lot in life. 

And with that, let’s conclude our stroll. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I have to get to CNN so I will keep this short. The doggies are good. Zoë went to the vet this week for a checkup on her mouth and the lumpy lipoma on her shoulder. We really hate it, even though it causes no apparent discomfort of any kind, but the vets insist surgery would be a bad idea. My daughter went back to school this week and the Fair Jessica escorted her. The beasts were not happy about any of it, but we’re making the best of it. The most exciting—and scary—news is that Kirsten spotted a very large coyote on a recent midday walk. She was very relieved that Zoë didn’t give chase, even though I half think Zoë would have lots to discuss with a coyote. Squirrel recipes, and that sort of thing. 

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.