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Be Careful What You Covet
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Be Careful What You Covet

The wrong desires can drive you to ignore good advice and your own conscience.

Sam Bankman-Fried. (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images.)

Dear Reader (including anyone who canceled their trip to the World Cup after Qatar banned booze at matches),

I want to apologize in advance, as this will likely not be what students of the genre call a “good ‘news’letter.” A whole bunch of personal, professional, and technological problems, challenges, and ill-chosen monkey-paw-wishes conspired against me today. So, now I’m sitting in a parked car just down from the FDR memorial trying to bang this out and still get home in time for dinner. In other words, if you want to skip this one, be my guest. 

I’m really digging the Sam Bankman-Fried cock-up. Just so you know, I will not be calling him “SBF,” a pretense so douchey, it should be in an ad by Massengill featuring a mom and daughter having a heart-to-heart on a sailboat

John Ray, the new caretaker CEO of FTX, Bankman-Fried’s crypto company,  told the U.S. Bankruptcy Court:

Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here. From compromised systems integrity and faulty regulatory oversight abroad, to the concentration of control in the hands of a very small group of inexperienced, unsophisticated and potentially compromised individuals, this situation is unprecedented

And Ray is the guy who unwound Enron

Bankman-Fried’s cybercon operation apparently didn’t even have an accounting department. Instead, according to Ray, Bankman-Fried tapped Prager Metis to be the auditor of FTX.com, the non-U.S. exchange division. Prager Metis, according to Ray, is “a firm with which I am not familiar and whose website indicates that they are the ‘first-ever CPA firm to officially open its Metaverse headquarters in the metaverse platform Decentraland.’”  

Look, I understand that when you’re a twentysomething nerd helping to create a whole new currency and financial system, you might not want to go with some fuddy-duddy pinstripe accounting firm that still uses old leather-bound ledgers and green eyeshades. But maybe go with an outfit that doesn’t brag about its no doubt lavish HQ in “Decentraland”? (I wonder if they know the dudes from Tron?)

Now, as a matter of policy, I’ve avoided getting too up to-speed on the crypto fad, because I’ve long suspected a lot of people would end up with cider—or cyber—in their ears. Of course, the great thing about the undiscovered country of the metaverse is that you can have a third ear attached to your forehead so you can hail this bold new front ear. (Work with me, people.) 

But you don’t have to have a granular understanding of blockchain to understand this guy was a fraud. I think there are a lot of reasons he got away with it for as long as he did. Buying political cover from politicians with donations (Bankman-Fried was the Dems’ second biggest donor in the last cycle) and purchasing political cover from the media with woke gobbledygook about philanthropy is not a bad strategy. Also, hiding your malfeasance in the squid ink of technical jargon few people understand is pretty savvy as well. 

But I think he had something else going for him. Democrats and the left love having billionaires in their corner. It’s a great way to blunt charges of “Marxism” and whatnot, and it’s also a fun way to advance the argument that there’s no real tension between progressive policies and profit. Having token billionaires is even better when those billionaires seem like they’ve broken the old paradigms of heavy industry and are on the cutting edge of innovation. Having dinosaurs who made their money the old-fashioned way—especially the ones who made their money from liquified dinosaurs—can trigger psychological or ideological second thoughts. Peddling ones-and-zeros just sounds so cutting edge. 

One lesson from this is that new ideas and new technologies—not to mention getting rich off them—can blind you to the importance of due diligence. Say what you will about old-fashioned accountants and lawyers from prestigious firms—they at least have a vested interest in protecting their reputations and brands. Thinking that the rules of the past don’t apply to you is a great way to give yourself permission to break rules that definitely do apply to you. 

Another lesson: Be careful what you covet. Coveting is different from mere desire or ambition. It’s an emotional state, much like lust and envy, that drives you to ignore good advice and your own conscience. 

You can’t always get what you want.

People don’t talk about coveting enough. Of the sins laid out in the Ten Commandments, covetousness stands out a bit because it’s a desire, not an act. As such, it fits more neatly among the deadly vices like envy and lust, but also wrath, pride, greed, and calling yourself SBF. 

Carl Schmitt, the Nazi philosopher, famously said, “Tell me who your enemy is, and I will tell you who you are.” The French gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” 

I don’t think either of these claims are entirely true, but they do get at something real. Similarly, I think “tell me what you covet and I’ll tell you what you are” has some explanatory value. 

Remember that scene in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lecter marries the Socratic method to Marcus Aurelius’ meditations? 

Lecter: I’ve read the case files. Have you? Everything you need to find him is there in those pages.

Starling: Then tell me how…

Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

 Starling:  He kills women. 

Lecter:  No. That is incidental. What is the first thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?

Starling: Anger. … Social acceptance. … Sexual frustrations. 

Lecter:  No. He covets.

(Flashback: I made a similar point in a column about the Cookie Monster 17 years ago.) 

Coveting is revealing because we covet what we don’t have but want the most. Obviously, this is mostly a point about psychology or the human soul. But I think it also applies to politics.

Noah Rothman recently noted on the Commentary podcast (very quickly while John Podhoretz took a deep breath mid-monologue) that Republicans are suckers for pretty girls and celebrities.

Noah’s right on both counts. Tulsi Gabbard might still have a following on the right if she wasn’t so easy on the eyes, but I’m willing to invite charges of sexism by simply asserting that if she wasn’t so pleasing to the male gaze, her following would be … smaller. Similarly, if Kari Lake, Sarah Palin, Tudor Dixon, Kristi Noem—all very attractive women of varying degrees of political and policy competence—looked like members of the 1972 Bulgarian women’s weightlifting team, they’d have a harder time in politics. That may be sexism at work, but the observation is just a statement of the obvious.  

But I don’t think coveting—at least the kind I have in mind—gets us very far in understanding why that’s the case. I mean traditionally, yeah, coveting women—and livestock—does get at the heart of the biblical understanding of covetousness. But that’s a human thing. And attractive women are fairly well distributed across the ideological spectrum. Moreover, there’s a well-established finding in social science literature that attractive people—of either sex—have an easier time getting listened to than people who make small children hide in terror. It’s sort of like how being tall is a huge advantage for men in politics. 

But coveting does help us understand why Republicans have such a weakness for celebrities. They just don’t have a lot of them, which is a problem in a culture that places such an unhealthy emphasis on fame. I’m still trying to figure out why anyone cares about Kim Kardashian’s or Robert DeNiro’s opinions, but the fact is many people do. 

The list of Republican celebrities isn’t much deeper than a kiddie pool. I mean, I liked Happy Days and Charles in Charge more than most, but Scott Baio isn’t exactly an A-lister. Clint Eastwood is great, of course. Jon Voight had a very solid career and so did Kelsey Grammer. But it doesn’t take long to work through the roster before you end up with Ted Nugent, James Woods, Robert Davi, and Stacy Dash. 

Meanwhile, you can list Hollywood bigshots off the top of your head for a half-hour with a high degree of confidence that you won’t name more than one or two Republicans or conservatives. 

You can see the bitterness of this covetousness when right-wing pundits renounce left-wing Hollywood celebrities (remember Laura Ingraham’s “Shut Up and Sing”?), but bend over backward to celebrate right-wing ones of much lower stature. I mean, the dudes from Duck Dynasty were huge

This was one of the reasons Donald Trump succeeded in 2016 and one of the reasons he wanted more celebrity support. In her biography of Trump, Maggie Haberman recounts how he wanted to be a producer—of film, theater, TV—and was always obsessed with celebrity. He sees politics as just another platform to perform upon.  

Black conservatives play a similar role. I’ve long noted that two of the most popular figures in the Tea Party era were Ben Carson and Herman Cain. Peter Viereck coined the term “transtolerance”—which has nothing to do with Drag Queen Story Hour—to describe the phenomenon in the 1950s where anti-communist right-wingers put aside ethnic, religious, or racial hang-ups to embrace blacks or Jews who subscribed to their ideological commitments. Viereck didn’t like the dynamic, which I never really understood. Surely it’s a good thing—or at least it can be—when atavistic bigotries are erased by ideological solidarity. Surely it can be a good thing when racial or sectarian friction is overcome by patriotic sentiment. 

Viereck disliked the anti-elitism of the largely Midwestern “radical right,” and so he could only see Jews and blacks signing on to the anti-communist crusade as some kind of betrayal. But I think in the case of figures like Carson and Cain—regardless of whatever criticisms of them I may have—there’s an upside. Most normal conservatives don’t like to be unfairly called racists—which happened a lot in the Obama years—so embracing black leaders who agree with them is an effort, at least for some people, to prove the charge is false. Sure, there’s tokenism involved. But tokenism has been part of politics forever. And contrary to a lot of left-wing charges of right-wing hypocrisy, tokenism is not the same thing as identity politics. Calling Ben Carson (or Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, et al.) “race traitors” is an identity politics play. Tokenism, whatever flaws it may have, is a rebuttal to such thinking. 

Of course, a real problem with tokenism is that you can elevate someone symbolically useful beyond their competence. I don’t remotely think that’s the case with Thomas or Sowell. Carson is a tougher case. He’s clearly a brilliant guy, but it’s not obvious to me that being a great surgeon translates to being a brilliant politician. And then there’s Herschel Walker, who illustrates the problem with both racial and celebrity tokenism. 

I think it’s an interesting exercise to look at the politically passionate by what they covet because it tells you what they think is most lacking in themselves or what others falsely claim is lacking in them. 

Of course, in politics, the most coveted thing is power. But that’s often incidental—like Buffalo Bill’s killing sprees—to the more profound underlying hunger for vengeance, or respect, or, in this case, a good way to end a bad “news”letter. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: Pippa is mending very well. We stopped putting the cone of shame on her pretty early because she didn’t seem to want to nibble on the incision—or maybe she just couldn’t reach it. She has adamantly stuck to her policy of waiting until the sun comes up and, often, until she gets her belly rubbed before agreeing to go out on the morning walk. The problem is that Zoë completely and totally disagrees with this policy so she increasingly yells at me in the mornings to get with the program. Also, while I don’t think the Twitterdamerung is nigh, I’m going to look into creating an Instagram account so I can assure the Strategic Dog Content Supply is not threatened.

ICYMI

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Jonah Goldberg

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.