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Bugged Out

Cicadas, locusts, and the dictatorship of reason.

Dear Reader (Including those of you who never read Plato’s Apology of Socrates all the way to the end),

So I’ve written and talked (on back-to-back episodes of the Remnant) more about Jews in the last couple of days than I have in the previous couple of years. I’m pretty burnt out on the subject. Indeed, I’m pretty burnt out on politics, too. So if you’re looking for punditry from this “news”letter I want to warn you now: Look elsewhere (we’ve got plenty of the good stuff here at The Dispatch).

It annoys me a bit to have to say this, but what annoys me even more are people who complain that I didn’t get to the subject they thought I should write about even though I warned them up front—like just now—that it wasn’t going to happen.  

They sometimes remind me of that scene in The Jerk when Navin Johnson (Steve Martin) brings his girlfriend (Bernadette Peters) to a snooty French restaurant and gets served escargot.

Johnson is livid. “Waiter! There are snails on her plate!” After telling Peters to look away, he tells the waiter, “You would think at a fancy restaurant like this, at these prices, you would be able to keep the snails off the food! There are so many snails on there you can’t even see the food! Now take them away and bring me those melted cheese appetizers you talked me out of!”

The G-File is what it is, and if sometimes you get escargot or melted cheese, them’s the breaks.

Not now, not ever.

With that out of the way, I bring up that scene—easily one of my favorites—for another reason. It pretty much describes how I feel when my self-anointed cultural betters tell me that I really should be eating bugs.

Look, I get it. Bugs are full of protein and minerals. The editors of The Economist, who are also full of protein and minerals, have been telling us this for years. They sometimes sound like a mom annoyed by the kid who refuses to help clean out the fridge. “Remember: There’s leftover stew which is full of vegetables! And we still have that casserole, which would be good for you too.” Just the other day, The Economist passive-aggressively reminded us that “Caterpillars are packed with potassium, calcium and magnesium. They are richer in protein than beef or fish.” Thanks, mom, I’m going to Chipotle.

But they snap back, mom-like, Have you even tried them?

They keep telling us how insects have a low carbon footprint. They taste like nuts, or chicken, or shrimp. You can cover them in chocolate or stir fry them. With the Brood X cicadas coming out, the Washington Post would like you to give them the popcorn shrimp treatment.

And when that doesn’t work, they say, “They eat them in Africa!” “They’re a delicacy in Asia!”

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was a cliché to tell kids they should clean their plates because there are “children starving in Africa.” Now, we’re told: “Fill your plate with grubs because that’s what they eat in Africa.” Maybe the Africans acquired a taste for them back when they were, I dunno, starving?

(By the way, what happened to concerns with “cultural appropriation”? I mean, we’re often told that it’s outrageous for white chefs to cook Korean food. Why is it suddenly okay for Westerners to appropriate the venerated cuisines of Mali?)

Not to go back to the Jewish well, but sometimes we’re even reminded that they’re kosher, as if that were the real sticking point.

But it’s true: According to the Torah, “Every flying insect that uses four legs for walking shall be avoided by you. The only flying insects with four walking legs that you may eat are those which have knees extending above their feet, [using these longer legs] to hop on the ground.”

Just to be clear, there’s only one kind of bug that fits this description: locusts. But, there’s good news, they come in four varieties: red, yellow, spotted gray, and white. It’s almost like God took a page from those nut-peddlers who thought Americans wouldn’t eat pistachios if they weren’t dyed red. Although, all things being equal, a red locust does sound more appetizing than a spotted gray one.

Regardless, the Torah goes on to say that “All other flying insects with four feet [for walking] must be avoided by you.”

To which I say, “That won’t be a problem.”

As best I can tell, from literally double-digit minutes of investigation, the quest to make us eat bugs began in the late 2000s (Here’s Time in 2008 with a photo essay on “Bug Cuisine.”). But the fad kicked into overdrive around 2013 when the U.N. came out with a big report on the pressing need to eat bugs. Not surprisingly, journalists and experts immediately started dancing to the U.N.’s tune. Here’s The Economist (of course):“Why eating more insects might be good for the planet and good for you.” Scientific American published a long article titled, “What’s stopping us from eating bugs?”

The simple answer: “I don’t want to. And you can’t make me.”

But it’s not obvious to me they won’t try. 

“Who is ‘they,’” you ask? 

Well, if you have to ask, there’s a good chance you’re one of “them.” 

I’ve written countless times about the differences between left and right. Thomas Sowell describes it as the difference between the unconstrained and constrained vision. Yuval Levin argues that the fault line is between those who see politics as the task of directing all of society toward a fixed destination and those who think the point of politics is to create zones of freedom for individuals and institutions to flourish. My own view, which is deeply influenced by and related to both, is that the left believes in what you might call the “unity of goodness” while the right is comfortable with contradictions and social distinctions that serve the common good. Whatever school you subscribe to, it’s worth emphasizing that these are broad generalizations. After all, the line between Locke and Rousseau runs through every human heart. 

I know I said there’d be no punditry, but I didn’t say there’d be no political philosophy, and that’s where my typing is taking me.

I should say—even though it will come as no surprise to those who’ve been following me in recent years—that I think these distinctions are getting harder to make these days. The left is embracing a new kind of caste system that privileges some groups over others, and the right is embracing new kinds of social engineering and planning from above.

So for our purposes, I’ll just stick with “they” and “them.” “They” are the people who think they know how you should live better than you do. And I have no confidence that they will stop trying to get us to eat bugs. So long as it’s just moral hectoring and “actually, bugs are good for you” stuff, I can live with it. Free societies need people to exercise their right to be wrong, so long as they don’t impose their wrongness on others. To be fair to the right, I don’t think their new busy-bodies, social engineers, and scolds are going to be embracing mandatory bug-eating any time soon—even as they jettison the limiting first principles that would preclude compelled grub-grubbing. If you take some of the right-wing “common good” stuff seriously, there’s nothing there to prevent it if all of a sudden eating bugs to own the libs became a thing. As David French argues, common good is just right-wingese for “social justice.”

But there’s an important difference between competing factions of them. The left’s unconstrained vision drinks deeply from a strain of Enlightenment thought that Jonathan Ralston Saul called “the dictatorship of reason.” Bugs are good protein and don’t belch bovine levels of gas, therefore any reluctance to eat them is grounded in superstition and irrationality. 

I’m a big fan of reason, but Saul (and Schumpeter, Deneen, et al) have a point. Making reason the only criteria for a decision cleanses society of the nooks and crannies of meaning that make life worth living and the pursuit of happiness possible. The purely rational soldier will not fight, Chesterton observed. The purely rational man will not marry.

Putting pure reason on the throne leads to the same problems as putting a specific faith on the throne: It gives those in power permission to do whatever they want. It assumes that the planners and priests start with the authority—intellectual, political, and moral—to do what they want and the burden of proof falls on the resisters to explain why they shouldn’t go along. Worse, it stipulates the terms for what counts as a persuasive argument. Tell a hyper-rational technocrat that you don’t want to eat bugs because you think they’re gross, and you’ll be met with eye-rolling disdain. Tell the priest you don’t want to sacrifice your oxen to Baal, and you’ll get the same look. And if the regime is true to its principles you’ll be eating bugs or slaughtering Bessy in no time.

Which brings me back to where I started: I don’t want to eat bugs, because I don’t want to, and I shouldn’t have to tell you why. Because in a free society, you can’t make me.

Soylent Green is caterpillars.

One last point: We are now just seven months away from 2022, the year in which Soylent Green is set. If you look around, you’ll quickly discover that the world is not the desiccated husk so many people told us it would be. New York City doesn’t have 40 million inhabitants, as the movie said it would. In fact, it has roughly the same population it did when the movie was released in 1973. Air and water are cleaner than they were then, too. Thomas Malthus was right about the road behind him, but he was completely wrong about the road ahead of him. And the neo-Malthusians, like Paul Ehrlich, who insisted that movies like Soylent Green were prophetic, were entirely wrong. 

If you haven’t seen the movie, you should (not just because it was Edward G. Robinson’s last film; he died of cancer 12 days after finishing). To be honest, from the premises of pure reason and technocratic efficiency, I never really understood why the rulers of that dystopia were so squeamish about their actions or fearful about word getting out. The crackers were made from dead people, not murdered people (leave aside issues with assisted suicide). Is the fear that people will starve if they find out that Soylent Green is people because they’ll refuse to eat? Well, under the dictatorship of reason, so be it. We have too many mouths to feed already.

People ate crackers made of people because they had to (and because they were cheap and tasty, apparently). Food was scarce. And scarcity is often the purest enemy of freedom, tradition, and decency because nothing constrains and drives human behavior more than the necessity to survive. Decent people do indecent things when survival requires it.

Anyway, I bring this up because abundance is perhaps the greatest hurdle for them because it removes the whip of survival and necessity from their tool box while expanding the realm of freedom for everybody. That’s why climate change—which, yes, is real—was such a boon. What would be the argument for eating caterpillars without it? Taste? Nutrition? Cheap rebelliousness? That delightfully fuzzy feeling on your tongue? Where’s the virtue signaling in that?

Various & Sundry

Canine update: This morning, on our usual route in the park, Zoë was feeling a little rambunctious and wanted me to play a game of Chase the Dingo. It started well, but then we noticed at the same moment that our favorite hide-and-seek tree was beset with cicadas. To my surprise, Zoë didn’t eat any, but she was seriously concerned. 

In other news, the Fair Jessica is traveling, and I caved to her demands to appease Chester in her absence. Not much else to report. The girls are all good, though they would prefer if the weather didn’t get any hotter, and maybe got a little cooler. I agree. We’re on the cusp of the bad days of D.C. weather, and none of us deal with it well.


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.