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Holy Bovines

On Vivek Ramaswamy, Social Security, and the Iowa State Fair.

A man uses his mobile phone to take a photograph of the Butter Cow at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, August 17, 2015. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Dear Reader (including those of you who don’t understand what WWE stands for),

In yesterday’s edition (🔒) of his always excellent, if not always uplifting, newsletter, Nick Catoggio wrote, “The hardest part of my job is finding a topic each morning.” 

I know of what he speaks. If there’s something I really want to write about, I can sit down like Schroeder at his kiddie piano and just start banging away. And the nice thing about this “news”letter—unlike my syndicated column or, frankly, the stuff we pay Nick to write about—I feel no particular obligation to be “relevant” to the news of the day, the week, or even the millennium. But sometimes my muse is sleeping one off and I have to go looking for something that gets me excited. And, sometimes, my muse is all hopped up on ketamine and Dr. Pepper, and, like Roger Stone on a bender in Bangkok, looking for opportunities to get really weird. But sometimes, like Roger Stone stuck in customs at the Suvarnabhumi Airport trying to explain why his bags are full of handcuffs and leather chaps, my muse lacks immediate options to indulge her appetite for weirdness.

So, as Stone’s intern said when he finally got the ball-gag out of his mouth, “What I’m trying to say is I don’t know what to do here.”

All that to say, please bear with me as I wing it as I go. If that’s not your cup of tea, you should probably not drink from it. Who knows what Stone might have slipped in it.

Debating sacred cows.

One of the great missed opportunities in the recent Republican debate was when Martha MacCallum asked Tim Scott about curtailing government spending. She made a reference to how, when Joe Biden was a senator, he called for freezing federal spending and “dealing with sacred cows.”

The missed opportunity lay in not asking that question of Vivek Ramaswamy. Oh, I don’t care what he has to say about government spending—it’s whatever he thinks his fans want to hear—but it would have been fun to see if, as a Hindu, he’d take offense at the use of the phrase “sacred cows.”

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t care that Ramaswamy is Hindu or that he’s Indian-American. At least prior to the MAGAification of the party, I’ve long believed that the GOP should prioritize bringing Indian-Americans into the party (now I think they should prioritize being normal). 

This always seemed like a no-brainer for a party in desperate need of diluting its overwhelming whiteness. Indian-Americans strike me as a natural constituency for the GOP. They’re an obvious target for appeals to family values, and they’re the highest-earning ethnic group in the United States. That doesn’t mean they’re all rich, of course, but the classic American immigrant work-ethic is very strong in Indian-Americans.

As someone who has argued in favor of theological pluralism but moral unity, I am wholly unbothered—and even kind of jazzed—by the idea of a Hindu president of the United States. Now, I should be clear, not this Hindu. I think Ramaswamy would be a disastrous president. But his religion is a total non-factor for me. 

That said, I do think that if Ramaswamy posed an actual political threat to Trump, a lot of religious bigotry would be unloaded on him. I’m old enough to remember how much garbage was thrown at Mitt Romney because of his faith. The “Christian nationalist” crowd would turn on Ramaswamy in a heartbeat if he ceased being a useful, pandering, tool (in every sense) to that crowd. And the fact that Ramaswamy’s list of “Ten Truths” begins with “God is real” would help him as much as Ranier Wolfcastle’s goggles protected him from acid. 

All the theisms.

Nor would it matter—contrary to a lot of common assumptions—that most Hindus consider themselves monotheists. All of those gods are apparently different facets or manifestations of one, supreme, deity called the Brahman. If it was your bag, you could definitely complain about idolatry or henotheism in Hinduism—among the biggest complaints from Muslims. But Hindus have answers to that as well.

(Oh, I should explain what henotheism is. It’s not the worship of female chickens, though it’s possible that at some point some henotheistic faith did exclusively worship hens. It’s the belief that while your god is yours, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other gods out there. Sort of like monotheism for me, but not for thee. A henotheistic reading of “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me” would be a bit like a paraphrase of the Marine Rifle Creed: “This god is mine, there are many like it, but this one is mine.” A monotheistic interpretation would be, “I am the only God out there and you will worship no false gods,” or something like that.) 

But let’s not cast the first stone. There’s a ton of idolatry to go around out there today (more on that in a moment). And even Judaism, the O.G. monotheistic faith, has some henotheistic skeletons in its closet. Prior to the Babylonian Captivity, many Israelites believed that different peoples had different gods. But they came to believe that the Babylonian Captivity was actually God’s punishment for those kinds of beliefs. 

Frankly, they should have known that already given the unpleasantness at Mt. Sinai when Moses went off to get the Ten Commandments (15 if you believe Mel Brooks). The freed slaves (not counting those goody-goody Levites) got impatient and, under the regrettable influence of Edward G. Robinson, decided to worship a golden calf. 

I know what you’re thinking: Where the hell is this going? I dunno, let’s find out. 

One of the great things about monotheism—other than the chicks—is it inverted the ancient transactional relationship with gods. In the old days, gods were essentially servants of man. Or, perhaps more accurately, they were very expensive super-agents or dealmakers. If you paid their fee, and asked nicely, they’d deliver military victory, good harvests, fecund brides, or horrible plagues on those jerks who pee in the river upstream. If you didn’t ask nicely, like some Hollywood super-agent, they’d still take your payment but they’d screw you. “You’ll never work in this city-state again!” There were different gods for different places, jobs, etc. 

With monotheism, the Jews introduced the idea that there’s only one God and clarified the division of labor. You can’t go running from one god to another to get a better deal like a kid going to mommy when daddy already said you can’t go to Chuck E. Cheese. God is everywhere and the rules don’t change just because you went on a road trip: What happens in Sodom doesn’t stay in Sodom. Well, except for those pillars of salt. They pretty much stayed put, but you get the point.

Where was I? Oh right, that golden calf. The sin of the golden calf is a really rich topic for scholars. Was the calf the Egyptian god Apis or some other Lunar bull of the sort widely worshiped in Mesopotamia or India? I don’t know, but that does provide me a good segue to get back to where we started with sacred cows.

Theologically, the reason idolatry is bad is that it replaces the mysterious and omniscient power of God with a false god that is a servant of man’s greed and desire. That’s usually what people are getting at when they talk about worshiping golden calves, putting the emphasis on the gold part. When we make money or sex or power into ends unto themselves, we are idolizing the corruptions of this life. (Prior to World War I, there was actually a club in London called the Cave of the Golden Calf where the Roger Stones of that age leaned into their decadence.) 

The idolatry of government programs.

When people talk about sacred cows today, they’re generally not alluding to the golden calf; most dictionaries say it’s a term borrowed from Hinduism, which holds that cows are sacred. The phrase’s most common meaning is that some things cannot be modified or reformed— they’re untouchable. 

But I think this is a kind of idolatry, too. Remember, one of the problems with idolatry and polytheism is that it exults the personal—or tribal—“good” over the greater good of humanity or community. Monotheism says we are all children of God, made in His image, and therefore, the selfish pursuit of desire from personal gods is a betrayal of the common good. That’s why I like the inherent Deism of the Constitution and the Declaration, because however imperfectly it was implemented, the ideal underlying it was that we are all equal in the eyes of God and should therefore be equal in the eyes of government. The rules of our order are impersonal, meaning that, whether someone is popular and rich or unpopular and poor, the rules apply the same. 

Social Security is, according to many Democrats—and Republicans, too, these days—a sacred cow. Pretty much every informed person understands that Social Security needs to be reformed, but it’s politically untouchable because we’ve made it into something idolatrous. It’s no accident that Joe Biden calls it a “sacred trust.” This is idolatrous thinking, immune from actuarial facts and mathematical reality. People think that, because they’ve paid into it, they are entitled to its beneficence. And they are. But the amount they put in is usually much less than what Social Security pays out. In other words, it’s more like “tribute” to an idol that’s going to repay your one goat with three later on. Yes, people sacrifice in the form of their paycheck withholding, but the return on the sacrifice is expected to be supernaturally greater than what they coughed up. Tell Americans they can’t have a Nordic system without paying Nordic-level taxes, and they hear sacrilege, not math.

An even better example of such magical thinking is ethanol, the sacramental wine of “green energy.” There’s no room to dwell on this. But I think even many environmentalists recognize that environmentalism is shot through with all kinds of pseudo-religious spiritual thinking. Well, the fad for bio-fuels was partly born of that gauzy worldview. Only partly, though, because the agricultural industry and the politicians who protect it defend ethanol subsidies for selfish reasons. Ethanol is mammonic moonshine.

As I noted earlier this week, we now know that ethanol is bad for your car. It’s bad for the environment. Ethanol production fuels the massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It makes food for hungry poor people more expensive. And, it’s bad for fighting climate change. Ethanol production produces more greenhouse gases than it removes. Don’t take my word for it, here’s the Yale School of the Environment. 

But because we think it would be good to grow fuel or that we should grow fuel, we let ourselves believe that ethanol actually does these things. It’s green transubstantiation masquerading as science and economics.

One reason why ethanol is a sacred cow is that it’s worshipped in certain regions. They give the gods corn and the gods repay with gold, or to be more accurate, pieces of paper redeemable for gold. (That’s why I use Rosland Capitol when I buy my gold!). The citadel of this cult is a place called Iowa, a lovely land with very nice people in it. But, historically, one of the things you must do if you want them to vote for you is genuflect to the cult of ethanol. There was brief hope that the cult was waning in 2016, but reports from the field suggest such hopes are overblown. Donald Trump recently visited Iowa and tried to excommunicate Ron DeSantis by telling farmers that the Florida governor is an apostate who “despises ethanol.” 

One of the things all visiting politicians are supposed to do when they make the pilgrimage to Iowa is visit the Iowa State Fair. It is for presidential aspirants what Mecca is for Muslims. And the sanctum sanctorum of this Hajj is, of course, the golden Butter Cow

It’s only a coincidence for those without eyes to see.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Kirsten was perambulating the beasts the other day when a brown lab came up to Zoë and started talking smack. Zoë was on her leash, while the lab wasn’t. When they tussled, the lab’s owner yelled at Kirsten about her “vicious dog.” Now, Zoë has started many fights and we’ve worked assiduously to dissuade and prevent that. And she’s made enormous progress on that front. So it’s pretty infuriating when other dogs pick fights and she still gets blamed. Dingo prejudice is real. 

Today is Friday, and that means the girls get to go swimming. Or, I should say, they get to go swimming without any humans yelling, “Don’t go in the water.” The girls love the suddenly nice weather. But there’s a downside. We’ve had the windows closed for like two months. Suddenly, the sounds of the outside world are spilling into the house and the girls aren’t used to it, so they’re barking at every dog or pedestrian that walks past the house. Also, the nice weather is leading to excessive relaxation at home, including a rise in NSFW spaniel-spreading. Gracie, meanwhile, is doing great, spending as much time as she can in the backyard, so long as Chester isn’t there. Oh, for those wondering, Fafoon remains gloriously Fafoony.

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.