Skip to content
Buzzed on Coffee and Double Standards
Go to my account

Buzzed on Coffee and Double Standards

On the inverted pyramid of concern.

(Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (except those of you who got sick of leftover spaghetti),

Get ready for a stemwinder—I’m pretty jacked-up on caffeine, nicotine, and relief. 

I’ve had a bunch of things on my plate lately—both figuratively and literally. The figurative plate-crowders have led to a lot of literal plate crowding. You see, to paraphrase Dewey Oxburger, I swallow a lot of stress—and a lot of pizza. But now that a good number of the stress-inducers are behind me, I think I gotta start taking better care of myself. 

I watched a few clips of our excellent special episode of The Remnant and I was reminded of that scene from Friends where they’re watching some old home movies of Monica when she was morbidly obese. She explains that the “camera adds 10 pounds” and Chandler asks, “How many cameras were on you?” 

But nobody wants to hear about my diet and exercise resolutions. Still, relief provides its own kind of buzz. If you’ve ever had to fight your way out of a subterranean Morlock kingdom, or been held against your will in a deep basement pit by a dude who constantly asks you to lather on the lotion, you know what I mean. Fresh air and freedom put a little extra spring in your step. 

Anyway, let’s talk about caffeine, or to be more accurate let’s use caffeine as a way to set up my segue. Esquire has a buzzy article about the dangers of getting too buzzed on coffee. It’s a weird piece on the merits because it focuses on people, literal addicts, who drink a lot of coffee. It opens with a story about a guy who drank the equivalent of 10 cups a day. There’s a scary chart that explains that four cups is the recommended limit for “non-pregnant adults.” Ten cups: “negative symptoms can arise.” And 10-14 cups? We’re told that’s a “fatal dose” next to a picture of a human skull!

The author, John McDermott, writes:

So ubiquitous is caffeine in our culture that it doesn’t even register to people as a drug. Step out of the office for a midafternoon cigarette and people might look at you askance. Get caught doing a bump of coke in the office bathroom as a midday pick-me-up and it’s grounds for immediate termination. But slam a Monster or a quad-shot Americano at work and people will think you’re a go-getter.

To which I say, “Um, duh.”

Now, I’ll skip through most of my other complaints about the article and instead provide just a little perspective. First of all, according to McDermott, 80 percent of Americans consume caffeine. That’s about 265 million people. Meanwhile, a 2018 study found that 92 people died from caffeine overdoses in a given year. Let’s round that up to 100. That means about 0.000037736 percent of Americans die every year from overdoses of this horrible drug hiding in plain sight. Meanwhile, in 2016, 951 people died from contact with a power lawn mower. More than 1,100 people died from falls related to ice skates, skateboards, etc. More than 2,100 died from … constipation. More than 10,000 accidentally died from suffocation or strangulation in bed (and we’re not talking about the David Carradine-style deaths). But be careful fleeing your potentially literal deathbed! Because more than 10,000 people die every year falling out of bed. 

And yes, yes, I understand that caffeine abuse surely plays a much more lethal role as a contributing factor to other problems. I mean spaghetti carbonara isn’t lethal, but overdoing it can make other problems worse. But you get the point. 

The inverted pyramid of concern.

My real complaint about this kind of thing is it’s a kind of socio-psychological trope: We have to do something about this tiny or boutique problem—which may not even really be a problem at all—while ignoring a huge and similar problem right over here. Indeed, we point to manifestations of the big problem—say the sort of drug addiction that causes coworkers to snort some Bolivian Marching Powder in the office bathroom—as inferential proof we’re not freaked out enough about the tiny problem.

For instance, over at Vox there’s an article about a perfectly legitimate concern—cruelty to chickens in the poultry industry. I should say that my long-held position is that animals do not have rights, but humans do have obligations, so taking reasonable steps to minimize animal suffering is laudable and worthwhile. 

But I found this fascinating: Because male chickens don’t lay eggs (no matter how they identify on the gender spectrum), many male chicks in the egg industry are culled. Wherever you come down on the question of animal rights or vegetarianism, it’s a gross process. So some producers are trying to identify the sex of chicks while still in the egg “so they can destroy it before it hatches, before the chick can feel pain.” Then the author says:

But there’s a catch: Scientists believe that chick embryos could potentially feel pain as early as day seven of their 21-day incubation period. That means that even with the most advanced in-ovo sexing, male chick embryos could still be experiencing suffering.

You can probably see the problem. Abortion rights activists have long insisted that human fetal pain is either a “myth” or that, even if it’s real, it doesn’t really matter (including at Vox). I’m hard pressed to understand why fetal pain for Gallus gallus domesticus should be a major cause for concern, but fetal pain for Homo sapiens shouldn’t be. I’m also confused why anyone would think that chickens would have evolved the capacity to feel pain in utero but humans wouldn’t. 

Rules that prove the exception.

Let’s change gears slightly and pan the camera out in a way that’s only possible in a mixed metaphor. Part of what I’m getting at is a kind of inconsistency that comes from letting symbolic controversies or specific prejudices overpower categorical imperatives. People claim to care about a whole category of justice or injustice, but they cherry-pick exceptions to the rules they claim to be passionate about. We often call such inconsistency “hypocrisy” and sometimes it is. But hypocrisy is an overused term. It’s supposed to describe personal behavior, not necessarily the selective application of principle to other peoples’ behavior. 

I’m reminded of the story told by Abraham Twerski:

The bearded Twerski goes to the airport in his Hasidic garb — the hat, the long coat, the buttoned white shirt. Another Jew, this one modernly dressed, is annoyed by Twerski and unloads on him: “What’s wrong with you? Must you insist on parading around in that medieval get-up as if it were Purim? Don’t you realize how ridiculous you look? You bring nothing but scorn and embarrassment upon us Jews!”

After letting the angry man continue for a while, Twerski says, “I fail to understand what thee art saying. You do realize that I’m Amish, don’t you?”

The modern Jew’s anger quickly turns to embarrassment. “Oh, I beg your pardon,” he says apologetically. “I didn’t realize that you were Amish. You look so much like those Hasidic fellows. You should know that I have nothing but respect for you and your people — keeping to your ways without bowing to society’s wills and whims.”

You see this sort of thing all over the place. Some people who hate religion as a superstitious opiate of the small-minded love to talk about how spiritual they are while showing off their healing crystals. 

Of course, it’s not just religion. Public policy and secular debates are drenched in this sort of categorical inconsistency. Smoking is so terrible that even vaping must be banned because it reminds people of smoking, but isn’t it great that everyone is free to smoke as much weed as they want? Racial discrimination is terrible, but schools must be able to take race into account in admissions. The influence of Big Business on government is outrageous and we shouldn’t allow corporate “loopholes” that let corporations avoid paying their “fair share,” but let me tell you about the progressive tax credit I’ve introduced to encourage companies to fight climate change and my new public-private partnership to promote affordable housing. Crony capitalism and “picking winners and losers” is corrupt and antithetical to the free market, but we must protect American industries and make everybody “buy American.” Who are you to say that men shouldn’t identify as women if they want to, but we all know that white people who identify as black, like Rachel Dolezal, are monsters. The one-drop rule was a hideous manifestation of American racism, but we definitely need it for purposes of affirmative action and census taking. Free speech is under assault, but we have to stiffen the penalties for hate speech. 

Unfree speech, unlimited expression.

Speaking of speech, let’s zoom in on that. 

I’m almost as fanatical as the next guy—if the next guy is David French—about free speech when it comes to politics. I’m still outraged that the Obama administration argued in Citizens United that political books could be banned in the lead-up to federal elections on the grounds that such books could be considered an in-kind donation. I find the idea of licensing journalists to be profoundly icky. The First Amendment was intended to be about political speech—criticisms of the government, elected officials, arguments over public policy, etc. I strongly suspect it never occurred to the founders that the federal or state governments couldn’t restrict other, decidedly non-political forms of “expression.” 

They believed that the government could restrict speech only for the purpose of the public good. The debates over the Alien and Sedition Acts led to a decision that pretty much all political speech short of outright incitement should be permitted. But the idea that you couldn’t restrict or ban pornography or indecency because of the First Amendment would have shocked the founders.

Irving Kristol once noted that bans on bear-baiting and dogfights are only partly about animal welfare. “The main reason they were abolished was because they debased and brutalized the citizenry who flocked to witness such spectacles.” 

Today, the whole idea of protecting people from debasing or debased expression is just a hot mess, with left and right dancing back and forth between wanting to ban some forms of expression and protecting others. Things that have nothing to do with the First Amendment are called “First Amendment issues” all the time, and things that have everything to do with the First Amendment are considered fair game. I’ll spare you a recap of all the arguments about “book banning” because, frankly, I can’t keep it all straight at this point. The only thing I’m sure about: If one team really wants to promote X, the other team will take the position that X should be censored or muffled. X can equal stuff about race, slavery, homosexuality, transgenderism, climate change, patriotism, etc. 

Now, I’m not going to get into my own case for what a little more enlightened censorship in our society would look like, no matter how much I enjoy horrifying Sarah Isgur and David. 

Instead, I’ll just make this point. The old argument that we have to provide maximum protection to ugly, debasing, pornographic, inappropriate, or obscene “expression” in order to protect our core First Amendment liberties is persuasive in theory, but it’s proven to be wrong in practice. It goes like this: “We must protect the stuff at the periphery so the censors will never touch the stuff at the center. And besides, the merit of all speech is in the eye of the beholder. No one can be trusted to make these judgments, so we should suspend all judgment and allow just about everything.” This is slippery-slope Niemöllerian logic that, in effect, says, “First they came for the donkey-sex shows but I did not attend such shows so I did nothing.”

I disagree with that argument—which explains why I am characterizing it with such hostility. But I’d be far more at peace with it if that was actually the trade-off. But the policy of “Let your freak flag fly” has done nothing to protect core political speech. Many people who blithely shrug at fringy expression are constantly talking about the need to censor, restrict, or regulate political speech. The lawyers who argued that books critical of Democrats could be banned would be happy to defend the free speech rights of pornographers. Give Ron DeSantis some credit: He’s at least consistently hostile to both core political free-speech rights and broader free expression, too. But that’s still hard to square with all his praise for freedom and the Constitution.

Donald Trump routinely talks about “doing something” about the First Amendment or libel laws while at the same time freaking out about how any restrictions on his speech are outrageous. When Twitter banned Trump out of fear he would foment further violence, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, “We are living Orwell’s 1984. Free-speech no longer exists in America.” 

First of all, this is a great example of mistaking the symbolic for the categorical. Donald Trump losing his Twitter account had no transitive property. Free speech survived. 

But more importantly, it’s almost like by making everything political we’ve made all speech political speech. It’s sort of like what Dash from The Incredibles said: If everyone is special no one is. If all speech is political speech, political speech is as fair game as everything else. 

It’s complicated.

Look, I get it. I’m a fairly Burkean conservative. I’m fine with the idea that cultures are complicated with all sorts of weird, organically evolved customs, traditions, and rules that don’t follow strict, rational scrutiny. As Burke put it: “Far from any resemblance to those propositions in geometry and metaphysics, which admit no medium, but must be true or false in all their latitude; social and civil freedom, like all other things in common life, are variously mixed and modified, enjoyed in very different degrees, and shaped into an infinite diversity of forms, according to the temper and circumstances of every community.” 

As a culture we ban a lot of drugs but keep booze, weed, and that old devil’s tonic of the arabica bean—caffeine—legal. We think it’s impermissible to refer to “colored people,” but enlightened to talk of “people of color.” We park on driveways and drive on parkways. Some people think it’s rebellious to conform and conformist to rebel. Bad people who consistently stick to a sinful code are often hailed as heroes while good people who occasionally fall short of their virtuous ideals are hypocrites and failures. 

But here’s the thing. Because I’m a simple-rules-for-a-complex-society kind of guy, I think we’d all be a lot better off if we had a few, clear, bright lines about what the rules are and tried to follow them even when inconvenient to our side. Arguing for exceptions is fine. Lots of rules have exceptions. I’m for free speech, but happy to argue for banning child pornography. I’m for the free market, but I think the defense industry might need some exceptions. Everyone can make their own cases for why deviation from the norm is justified. 

But this business of always acting as if your exception is not an exception, that the rules are on your side no matter what you do, or how often you change positions, is destructive. Because that’s just another way of saying there are no rules at all. 

Various & Sundry

Canine, feline, and biped update: So we have special collars with AirTags on them for the girls. This morning, a little after 5 a.m., Pippa came up to me emitting a pinging sound. I couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from at first. When I groggily realized it was coming from Pippa, I thought for a moment that she’d become some sort of spaniel suicide bomber. The Fair Jessica is in Europe this week. For her birthday she’s going to the Vermeer exhibit in Amsterdam and then off to Slovakia for more research on her book. So I’m alone with the beasts for a while. They were already pretty pissed before I took them to the park this morning and locked them in the car so I could say hi to Bear. Zoë in particular finds such behavior a heinous violation of all manner of security protocols. (I mean, she just heard about the threat of exploding spaniels!) They’re still committed to their work, though. Pippa in particular is working hard as a load-bearing spaniel. And Zoë keeps her head on a swivel, even when she’s surrounded by silly dogs. I did interrupt all three of the girls in the middle of a meeting yesterday; I have no idea what they were plotting


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.