Dear Reader (including my cousin’s friend who knew a guy who told him about a dude that said he heard it from a very reliable source that while you can’t get pregnant from a toilet seat, you can become immune to the coronavirus if you lick the underside of a toilet seat at any Waffle House in the Southeast and some truck-stop Taco Bells in the Midwest),
Some news stories are important in their own right. Some stories aren’t very important on the merits, but they represent an important trend.
For instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Met Gala dress stunt is not important on the merits at all. I mean, I get that AOC wants credit for having kicked “open the doors of the Met.” (Stop laughing.) But there was no bravery, no edgy transgressive rebellion, no sticking-it-to-the-man on display here. There was terrific marketing for her own line of swag, though! Not since Columbia Records rolled out its “The Man can’t bust our music” ad campaign have I seen such brilliant marketing of radical chic in the name of filthy lucre.
I do think, however, that this stunt is significant for what it represents. But I’ve written so much about how Congress—and coverage of Congress—is dominated by social media trolls that I don’t think it’s worth spending a lot of time on that. I’m especially reluctant because by writing about this pseudo-event I would be doing exactly what she wants.
Instead, let’s talk about something that got a lot less attention, but is at least tangentially related to the Met’s embrace of woke chic.
Taste the wokeness.
So let me ask you a question. Let’s say you love burritos and you love bulldogs (but not bulldog burritos). In your neighborhood there are two burrito stands. One uses incredibly fresh ingredients, makes its tortillas from scratch, doesn’t use canned beans, and slow roasts its pork, beef, and chicken to perfection. The other buys its burritos from a guy who gets a deal from a subsidiary of the RAMJAC Corporation’s vending machine supplier. He diverts a couple cases every month from a shipment intended for a minimum-security prison in Muncie, Indiana. Before the bad burrito guys throw their frozen bricks into the microwave, you can see on the packaging: “May contain meat product.”
In other words, for the sake of this hypothetical, the former’s burritos are so good that if stoners had suicide bombers, they’d serve them in their promised paradisical afterlife. The latter’s taste like something you might be grateful to eat a full decade into the zombie apocalypse.
But here’s the thing: The owner of Garbage Burritos (“Ya gotta eat something”®) does fantastic work for the local bulldog rescue charity, dedicating a portion of every sale to helping bulldogs. Meanwhile, the owner of Heavenly Burritos is a cat person.
If you say, “Let’s eat at Garbage because I want to support its work with bulldogs,” that’s fine. But I’d have huge problems with anybody who says Garbage Burritos are objectively better because of what the owner does for bulldogs.
The organization that doles out the prestigious annual awards has retooled its criteria and now will also base decisions on whether candidates have shown a “demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability, and a culture where all can thrive.” The James Beard Foundation, which administers the awards, also announced a slate of other changes aimed at diversifying its judging committees—a move it ultimately hopes will lead to a more diverse group of winners—and screening for potentially problematic chefs taking the industry’s top honors.
I think this is horrible. Oh, I have no problem with diversifying judging committees and all that stuff (though the devil is in the details). But the idea that food should be graded on the chef’s political commitments is gross. I say this regardless of what those political commitments are. When I was in college, Domino’s was very controversial because its owner gave to pro-life causes. Some people refused to order from Domino’s because they didn’t like his politics. Some people ordered from Domino’s because they liked his politics. But most people ordered—or didn’t order—pizza from Domino’s for reasons that had nothing to do with politics. What I can’t imagine is anyone saying, “You know Domino’s is the best pizza” because of their politics.
I don’t know how to put this more plainly: You can’t taste social justice. It doesn’t have umami. It doesn’t provide that third kind of heat. No one ever sent back a plate of ravioli saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t taste any commitment to gender equity,” or, “I asked for extra intersectionality awareness.”
I think this matters in part because I actually care about the James Beard Awards—though much less now than I did before this announcement. But it also matters because I think one of the things ruining the culture and our politics is the refusal of institutions, and the people who run them, to stay in their lanes.
Merit is a dirty word these days, but merit matters. If I recommend a surgeon to you and he amputates your leg instead of removing your appendix, you might say, “I thought you told me he was the best surgeon in the area!” If I respond, “Well, as far as the actual medical stuff goes he’s pretty subpar, but I was including his commitment to environmental justice in my evaluation,” you might bludgeon me to death with your prosthetic leg. And rightly so.
I know the Academy Awards have gone a long way toward being the James Beard Awards of the film industry. But at least they haven’t publicly changed the criteria for Best Actor to “Good enough acting plus an exceptional commitment to social justice.”
If you want to start a social justice organization, great. I might have objections to your agenda, but go for it. Heck, if the James Beard Foundation wants to give out some special social justice award, more power to it. Jose Andres can probably find a little more room on his shelf. But not every institution needs to become a social justice organization. If you run a company that sells widgets, then sell excellent widgets and go into your own pocket to support the causes you care about. But whether its widgets, surgery, or awards for best cooking, diluting your commitment to excellence serves no one—especially you.
In fact, I would argue that doing what you’re good at is better for society than trying to do good outside your own competency. Simone Biles is free to use her status as the best gymnast in the world to support any cause she wants (and she has, to great effect). But it would be insane to include “commitment to gender equity” as a criteria on the judge’s scorecard. Either she stuck the landing or she didn’t.
This cultural grading on a curve is a symptom of the politicization of everything and the politicization of everything is why so many people think the system is corrupt—not just on the right. For the left, refusal to participate in the cause is morally equivalent to opposing the cause. And that is literally a form of totalitarian thinking. No, it’s not totalitarianism of the sort we associate with Stalinism or Nazism, but it is totalitarian in the way Mussolini—who coined the term—meant it. There’s no safe harbor. No right to exit from orthodoxy. No freedom to not care or simply have other priorities. No freedom to judge excellence on criteria outside ideologically warped and warping priorities. It’s gross.
74 words, 74 million voters.
Since I’m on the topic of warped and warping ideological priorities, let’s cast our gaze to the ongoing corruption of the GOP. Last night, Rep. Anthony Gonzales announced he won’t be running for re-election. He offered the almost obligatory “more time with my family” explanation. But he also made it clear that the decisive factor was that there is no room in the GOP—or at least the Ohio GOP—for someone who dissents from Trump worship and fidelity to his lies.
In today’s GOP you can get drunk on fever swamp water all day long, rant endlessly about conspiracy theories, or dabble in white nationalism and you’ll be fine. You’ll even prosper. But refuse to say the election was stolen—when it wasn’t—or decline to treat the January 6 rioters as patriotic political prisoners and you’ll be hounded and harassed. There’s no safe harbor. No room for dissent.
Now, I know a lot of people actually believe the BS they’re spewing about the election being stolen and how the rioters did nothing wrong. But what makes this even more troubling is that most of the “leaders” saying this stuff—or refusing to refute it—know the truth but are too cowardly, selfish, or power-hungry to admit it. I loved the video of Ron Johnson revealing that he’s secretly sane about the election. It was vaguely reminiscent of a Soviet Politburo member admitting in private that Stalin’s economic theories make no sense. Of course, the analogy has flaws given that under Stalin, such blasphemy would get you executed. But the scent is the same even if the stench isn’t as strong.
What truly fascinates me is how stupid all of this is. It’s a cultural-political collective action problem. Everyone with any sense in them—which I know excludes a lot of people—knows that buying into the “big lie” is toxic for the Republican Party and the country. But the incentive structure is so warped that it’s in no individual’s political interest to do much about it. The same belling the cat problem that made Trump the GOP nominee has led to the GOP worshipping the intellectual bathtub residue he left behind.
Last Saturday, George W. Bush delivered an excellent speech commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I think it was arguably the best presidential rhetoric we’ve heard in years.
And I think a lot more people would agree with me were it not for half of one paragraph:
As a nation, our adjustments have been profound. Many Americans struggled to understand why an enemy would hate us with such zeal. The security measures incorporated into our lives are both sources of comfort and reminders of our vulnerability. And we have seen growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders, but from violence that gathers within. There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home. But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.
Those 74 (italicized) words caused a remarkable number of people to take offense, mostly on behalf of other people.
And then, of course, there was Donald Trump himself:
So interesting to watch former President Bush, who is responsible for getting us into the quicksand of the Middle East (and then not winning!), as he lectures us that terrorists on the “right” are a bigger problem than those from foreign countries that hate America, and that are pouring into our Country right now. If that is so, why was he willing to spend trillions of dollars and be responsible for the death of perhaps millions of people? He shouldn’t be lecturing us about anything. The World Trade Center came down during his watch. Bush led a failed and uninspiring presidency. He shouldn’t be lecturing anybody!
I could take my red pen to nearly every sentence here, but I have other points to make.
Imagine if the January 6 riot had not occurred at all, or if Bush had offered those 74 words last year. It would be obvious that he was talking, at least in part, about Antifa and the various Black Lives Matter rioters who spent much of 2020 determined “to defile national symbols”—not just of Confederates, but of abolitionists, too.
He would have been right. And while some lefties would have stupidly been outraged on behalf of Antifa—posting pictures of the Normandy invasion with the caption “the original anti-fascists” or some other inanity—most elected Democrats probably wouldn’t take the bait. After all, Biden did condemn violence while running for the nomination.
But here’s the thing: If he said, “How dare you attack my voters,” it would have been spectacularly idiotic. Because taking offense at criticism of rioters and vandals is a roundabout way of taking ownership of them.
And that’s what much of the GOP is doing now. It’s amazing how rapidly the angry right adopted the ideological imperative of “love me, love my criminal whack jobs.” It’s like a fatwa went out, “You must believe that criticizing Trump or the rioters for the events of January 6—or the lies that motivated them—is an insult to 74 million Trump voters.”
And I’m not even talking about the lunatics who not only believe the “big lie” but float the need to respond to that alleged conspiracy with mass executions for the “thousands” or “tens of thousands” who were in on it.
Factually, it’s not true that 74 million Trump voters believe the election was stolen (though too many have bought the propaganda). It’s not even true that 74 million voted for Trump or even love him. I know lots of Trump voters. Most of them voted against Biden rather than for Trump. And while there are lots of people so enthralled by him that if he took a dump on their dinner table on November 25 they’d say, “Happy Thanksgiving!” there certainly isn’t anything close to 74 million of them.
And politically, it’s just malpractice. There are two major political factions intent on claiming that all Trump voters supported the January 6 riot or are morally invested in it in some way: Trump haters and Trump lovers.
It’s no shock that the MSNBC crowd interpreted Bush’s remarks as a direct rebuke of the January 6 rioters. It’s a standing order of American progressivism to link conventional Republicans and traditional American conservatism with violent extremism, racism, and all the other very bad things. This has been true since FDR was president; it’s a through-line of American politics. After JFK was assassinated by a communist, the American right was blamed. When Barry Goldwater ran for president, the media portrayed him as a crazy Nazi. After Oklahoma City, Clinton blamed Rush Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio.
This guilt-by-association stuff isn’t new. What is new is how so many on the right today agree with it!
If I write a “news”letter condemning cannibalistic pederasts and you reply, “How dare you insult 74 million Trump voters,” I’m not the one calling Trump voters cannibalistic pederasts.
But when a former president condemns “violent extremists” and the response from Trumpy right-wingers is “How dare you?” I have to ask: What the actual fornication are these people doing?
The correct answer when some asks, “Do you condemn violent extremism?” is, “Of course.” Not “It depends,” or, “Only for the other team,” or, “Why are you insulting 74 million Trump voters.”
But that’s not the world we live in now. Everybody has to be all in on the lies and propaganda that fuel the angriest fringes of their parties. The tails are wagging the dogs.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So as I mentioned last week, Pippa needs surgery for her wrist, but the wait time to get it scheduled is like a month long. It’s as if she’s a poster pup for Canadian health care. Meanwhile, she now chews off her brace—even when it’s wrapped in duct tape before the car ride to the park is over. So we’re doing what we can. One additional problem is that I think she worries more about the ever- present menace of mean dogs because of her injury. It’s harder to get the morning close-ups of her because she’s constantly looking past me to see if there are any mean dogs in the vicinity, which is kind of sad.
Zoë is way into her rubber frog again, I think because of the recent thunderstorms. I don’t want it to sound like they’re a couple of neurotics. They’re generally very happy girls. Gracie’s doing well, too. But she’s constantly monitoring me.
And now, the weird stuff