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It’s Complicated
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It’s Complicated

Monocausality is at the heart of a lot of our dysfunction.

People holding banners and Palestinian flags stage a demonstration on May 14, 2021, in New York, United States. (Photo by Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (except you Norwegians hoarding Easter eggs),

If you go into a car dealership and say, “I’m going to buy a car today, but I have one drop-dead, non-negotiable, requirement: I need a blue car. Everything else is open to negotiation,” two things are definitely going to happen: 1) you’re going to buy a blue car and 2) you’re going to spend too much on a blue car. 

I often use hypotheticals like this to rant against what I call one-thingism. Sometimes, when I want to sound fancy, I use words like “monocausality” or “monism,” but that sometimes invites philosophy and theology buffs to start talking about neo-Platonism, monotheism, or even henotheism. And, sometimes, pervy dudes think I’m saying “moan-ism” which is a common form of auralism. I don’t want to talk about any of that. 

If you listen to The Remnant, you’ve heard me rant against monocausal explanations, the idea that a complex event happened for a single, usually simple, reason. 

Fun fact: I am so ill-disposed to monocausal explanations that I just wrote like 600 words expanding on the point, but decided to cut them so I could get to my actual point faster. 

So to summarize what I just threw on the cutting-room floor, there are instances for which monocausal explanations are valid. But they tend to be very tightly constrained to narrow facts and time periods. Why did Lincoln die? For that I can give a simple singular answer: John Wilkes Booth fatally shot him. What did Lincoln die for? 

How much time do you have?

Good historians hate monocausal explanations. If you ever meet one who says there was one reason for stuff like the fall of Rome, or the rise of the Bolsheviks or the Nazis, you can be pretty sure you’re talking to a bad historian. 

My objection to one-thingism extends into normal life, too. If you’re looking for a potential spouse and your criteria is a single-item checklist, things probably won’t go well. The one arguable exception is, of course, “love.” But I cut several hundred words explaining how love is really a multivariate thing that magically becomes a unitary thing. So, let’s leave that there. 

What I mean is that if, like the guy looking to buy a blue car, you tell me “the one thing I’m looking for in a woman is height. She’s gotta be really tall,” I’m gonna try to talk you out of it. If I can’t, don’t be surprised when you find yourself saying something like, “Sure, Sandra is a heroin addict kleptomaniac with horrible halitosis, but man she’s tall. I definitely found the one!” 

One implies two.

I think it’d be fun to say that monocausality is the cause of all of our problems. But for obvious reasons I can’t go that far. Still, I think one-thingism is at the heart of a lot of our dysfunction. 

The desire to reduce everything down to a single cause, it seems to me, stems from a desire for certainty. A classic example of this is theological. Everything that happens is God’s will. Now, I have no problem with this at a very high level of abstraction. But the closer you get to life on the ground, the more you have to make allowances for free will. Sin is impossible if everything you choose to do was God’s will. It’s been a while since I read the Bible, but I’m pretty sure there are lots of examples in both testaments of God getting mad at people for doing things He didn’t want them to do. If there’s no free will, then God getting mad at the golden calf-worshippers or the temple moneychangers is like me getting mad at a remote control car for crashing into a tree. 

Marxism, a shadow religion of Christianity and Judaism, was a cathedral to one-thingism. Every development could be reduced to a single secular demiurge. The unfolding “scientific” process of class antagonism explained everything. And if you had a different understanding of the facts, it wasn’t because other theories had equal claims to the truth, it was because you couldn’t see reality the way only Marx and Marxists can. “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being,” Marx wrote, “but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

A lot of people like to say that various forms of identity politics are Marxist. The most forceful opponents of this view aren’t the practitioners of identity politics—many of them like the association with Marxist radicalism. No, the people who really hate this claim are doctrinaire Marxists themselves. If you say that race is more important than class, you’ve dethroned the scientific certainty of the Marxist project. The place where the Venn diagrams overlap is the shared hubris and theoretical imperialism—or one-thingism—of both camps. Our theory explains everything—or at least everything important—and if you disagree you are an enemy of truth. Ibram Kendi explicitly believes that there’s no safe harbor outside of his racist/anti-racist paradigm. You’re either with us or against us. If every explanation for the problems—real or perceived—of black people or women is “racism” or “sexism,” you’re reducing the complexity of life and individual agency to a single variable. 

I’m not saying, by the way, that racism and sexism lack explanatory power, I’m saying they lack all-explanatory power. As a matter of logic, saying racism explains every bad thing is no different than saying “Satan” explains every bad thing. 

I’ve talked about all this before. But what’s new—at least in my head—is the realization that one-thingism is in reality dualism. Because if X is everything good and right to you, then not-X is your enemy. But here’s the thing. Not-X could be A, B, C, D, E … and everything but X on your way to Z. And, once you run out of letters, you can start using combinations of letters or symbols to expand the list. 

And that brings me to politics. For a bunch of reasons, our politics these days reduces everything to X versus Not-X. The reasons include, but are not limited to: the two-party system, polarization, tribalism, self-sorting, changing media, stupid binary ideologies that reduce everything to oppressors and victims, popular-frontism, the failures of countless educational and cultural institutions, and the evolved mechanics of our brains. Many tributaries and rivers have converged to form the wave of one-thingism. 

Oh, I left out an important variable: Donald Trump. Both parties are tribal these days and have been for a while. But the Republican Party’s tribalism has been grafted to Donald Trump. Tribal partisanship used to have the sometimes salutary (sometimes not!) effect of enforcing ideological consensus around issues. Right now, issues simply do not matter very much in the GOP. We saw this in the Republican debates. The non-Trump candidates argued about relatively minor policy disagreements as if they mattered a lot. I wish they did. But the reason they didn’t is that the party as a practical matter internally cares only about one issue: loyalty to Donald Trump. Externally, the party claims the real issue is opposition to Joe Biden and the Not-X party. Indeed, that’s their chief argument to whip people into supporting Trump. And it’s working

Let’s talk about the internal dynamic for a second. The Republican National Committee (RNC) is reportedly asking job applicants to affirm that they think the 2020 election was stolen. Apologists justify this on elaborate claims that the election was stolen so of course the RNC should consider loyalty to the lie a prerequisite. The problem isn’t merely that it’s a lie or that the people who will affirm the lie are either liars or ignorant about how elections work. Though that in itself is a problem. Experts in how elections work—experts the RNC needs—know that Dominion, Hugo Chavez, North Koreans, or Italian satellite operators not only didn’t steal the 2020 election but that they couldn’t steal it. If you don’t know this, you’re not going to be a quality hire. Think of this way: If you think Bill Gates did—or could have—put mind controlling microchips in the COVID vaccine, you’re probably a crappy epidemiologist. 

But the real problem is that the stolen election lie is a pretext emanating from the more salient fact that Trump is an insecure narcissist who cannot handle the idea that he lost or that anyone thinks he’s a loser. That’s the one-thingism Trump is imposing on the GOP. The party is institutionally locked into Critical Trump Theory. And like other forms of critical theory, it’s a form of one-thingism. 

The ego-maintenance stuff is just the most obvious example of it. But it poisons policy debates everywhere you look. Because Trump says he won’t touch entitlements, it’s now a kind of tribal heresy to make the same math-based arguments conservatives have made for decades. Because Trump is pro-Putin, apologies for Putinism or condemnations of Ukraine are party priorities, heedless of the arguments or facts. Not-X is defined as anything Trump opposes or that is problematic for Trump. 

The iron-cage binary thinking.

It’s a really simple insight. But I find it hugely helpful in understanding a whole bunch of things, starting with my exhaustion with the stupidity of so much of our politics. 

Every day—every hour if I’m on Twitter—I’m informed, heckled, harassed, and harangued that the entire world of politics is reducible to a simple brainless binary. If you’re not for Trump, you’re for Biden. If you’re not for Biden, you’re for Trump. Whenever I complain about something terrible going on, I’m told by Trumpers who think I voted for Biden (I didn’t) that “you voted for this.” If I say the Alvin Bragg case is unsound, I’m told I’m pro-Trump. All complexity and nuance is sluiced into one of two steaming vats of idiocy. (Read the comments to Ramesh Ponnuru’s Washington Post column this week in defense of being a “double hater” for some truly pristine examples of this brain rot). 

Partisan politics isn’t the only manifestation of this craptacularly insipid Manichaeism. The purest manifestations of one-thingism and the false certainty it provides are conspiracy theories. That’s because conspiracy theorists consider evidence that the conspiracy doesn’t exist to be proof of how successful it is. They reduce complicated events, accidents, mistakes, surprises, tragedies, and unwelcome successes to a single monocausal explanation: Sinister forces did it. Morons insisting that the CIA or the Deep State or the Egg Council were behind the tanker hitting the Francis Scott Key Bridge find their proof in the thing itself and in the official and expert denials that it was an accident.

Antisemitism is both one of the oldest forms of one-thingism and conspiracy theory and it’s everywhere these days. 

We can argue about whether hatred of Israel is necessarily antisemitic if you want. I don’t think it always is. But what’s indisputable is that antisemitism suffuses much of the hardcore anti-Israel crowd. For them, all inconvenient facts are waved away, denied, or bent into moral perversion. 

But black-and-white thinking of Israel hatred isn’t just a story of antisemitism. The left’s—largely correct and valuable—elevation of rape and sexual assault as grave societal concerns has been defenestrated in order to protect the dignity and moral necessity of Hamas’ “resistance.” Homophobia and sexism, still great sins for white Americans, becomes invisible or a tolerable requirement of “diversity” when it comes to Islamic radicals. 

I don’t think we see anything like the mirror of that on the pro-Israel side, though surely some such extremists exist. But for the people who celebrate mass rape and murder as “resistance,” even Holocaust memorials and Holocaust survivors, are simply mockable ornaments of the forces of Not-X. I think that this stuff is objectively antisemitic, but even if it’s not, it’s objectively grotesque. 

Meanwhile, in certain corners of the right, Christian nationalists are constructing (or reconstructing) cathedrals to theocratic one-thingism. Proponents of post-liberalism and the new nationalism openly talk about the need to impose a singular worldview on the country.

Our political life is punctuated constantly with little Spanish civil wars that demand onlookers pick a side in a movable feast of Rashomonism. Are you pro-Ronna McDaniel or pro-NBC? Are you on the side of the police or the criminals? Taylor Swift or Ted Nugent, Kyle Rittenhouse or the mob? 

I am not saying there’s never a clear distinction between right and wrong, or even between good guys and bad guys. Moral clarity is important. What I am saying is that these moments are rare and don’t require lying or ignoring the truth. And when such moments present themselves, what to do in response is usually still complicated or difficult. If the complication and difficulty aren’t apparent to you, you should look harder. You shouldn’t invent narratives or solutions that erase the complexity and difficulty, the way demagogues and populists across the ideological spectrum tend to do. For instance, I think the rapist, theocratic goons and criminals of Hamas constitute bad guys by every moral and political definition readily available to me. That doesn’t mean dealing with them isn’t difficult or complicated. 

I am a soft convert to the Lewis brothers’ book The Myth of Left and Right. What I mean is that I subscribe to many of their arguments while not buying the “hard” version of their claim that the categories of left and right are meaningless. But I agree with them that the left-right binary fuels muddy thinking and cheap one-thingism. 

So let’s get back to X and Not-X. Ibram Kendi, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rachel Maddow, and Bernie Sanders are on the left. But you know who else is on the left? Steven Pinker, John Fetterman, Lawrence Summers, and—until this week—the late Joe Lieberman. Reducing them all to “the left” is like reducing Tom Sowell, Cornell West, Condoleezza Rice, and O.J. Simpson to “blacks.” It’s true, but the truth of the monism is, if you’ll forgive the problematic word choice, a whitewash of the complexity. 

Belle Fourche, South Dakota, is the geographic center of the United States. But you wouldn’t say Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is on the East Coast or Moab, Utah, is on the West Coast. But the ideological binary combined with the two-party binary causes millions of people, and hundreds of leading “influencers,” to talk about the political equivalent of Baton Rougeans and Moabites as if they were residents of San Francisco or Burlington. 

Okay, I’ve gone on for a while now. And I realize that all I’ve basically done is expand on the old saw, “There are two kinds of people in this world. People who think there are only two kinds of people and people who know better.” 

But I felt like I needed to get this off my chest—or out of my head. Because every day for nearly a decade now people have asked me how I can’t see the binary that is so obvious to them. I can see it. I agree it’s obvious. I just think it’s wrong—most of the time. 

Various & Sundry

Note to readers: My able and affable aide-de-camp Guy Denton is moving on to other challenges. More on that later. I’ve removed the pain collar. What this means in the near-term is that the weird links feature of the G-File will go on hiatus for a little while. 

Canine update: This morning everything was as it should be on our walk. Pippa played and Zoë protected. right as treat time was about to commence, there was some unauthorized activity outside the house. Zoë and Pippa immediately ran to the door to warn the potential malefactors to stay away. But Zoë, being more experienced in security protocols understood that the threat was averted and returned to treat protocols. Pippa, for some reason, did not and lost her interest in treat time. People were concerned, but she’s fine. Yesterday, the Fair Jessica was occupied with pressing matters, so it fell to me to appease Chester who will not leave the front porch without his tribute. In other news, after a hiatus of couple years, Zoë is back to her habit of nocturnal leaf protection. Still have no idea what that is about. 

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.