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Reining In Our Paranoia
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Reining In Our Paranoia

People get so addicted to their own narratives that they become blind to practical dangers.

Dear Reader (Including the few left who still think jokes about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s swollen testicles are still funny),

I have a very nice note from George H.W. Bush somewhere in my “files.”

I use scare quotes around “files” because to call the scattered piles of policy effluvia and literary litter strewn around my office “files” is a bit like calling the retrieved contents of a Sbarro dumpster a “tasting menu.”

Anyway, it was a brief thank-you note for repeatedly sticking up for him over the once infamous, now largely forgotten, “supermarket scanner scandal.” For you young’ns, here’s what I wrote about it 21 years ago:

In 1992, President Bush visited a grocers convention in Florida. He was shown a new kind of checkout scanner that could read torn labels on supermarket items. The president reacted politely, as if he were wowed by the contraption. Even though the New York Times did not cover the event, they used the pool story and photo of a[n] “amazed” Bush on the front page- and made it seem as if the Republican president had never seen a normal scanner before. For an incumbent during a recession, the story was devastating. It sent a clear message: Bush was an aristocrat, out of touch with real Americans. The media loved it, and so did a grateful Clinton-Gore camp. “Here is a man who sees 20-year-old technology at the supermarket checkout line and looks like an ape discovering fire,” railed Gore.

For years in conservative circles, this was, rightly, a go-to example of liberal media bias—and the outsized influence of the New York Times. The paper didn’t even do a story on it. It just ran a picture of Bush being impressed—how shocking that a famously polite politician running for office might act impressed when his hosts are showing off something they’re proud of—with the caption “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed.” (To its credit, the Associated Press has always been good on the unfairness of this episode.)

But I don’t want to write about liberal media bias because I think its existence is settled and I find the topic fairly tedious. Though I will say that my position on the issue annoys both liberals and conservatives alike. Some liberals think I’m trying to duck the topic because I can’t prove this outrageous falsehood to their liking (I don’t want to debate that basset hounds have droopy ears, either). And some conservatives think fighting media bias is one of the core missions of conservatism—it’s certainly a core mission of conservative fundraisers. Again, I think it’s a legitimate issue, but there are plenty of folks on the beat—as I was for decades—and there are more interesting things to talk about.

That said, sometimes an example of liberal media bias has significance beyond the issue of liberal media bias.

For instance, remember the firestorm that erupted from the incident with the Covington High School kids on the mall a few years ago? It showed how social media can not only be a medium for deliberate misinformation, but for accidental misinformation as well.

It also illuminated how poisoned and poisonous America’s political climate was in 2019. A confrontation between some kids wearing MAGA hats and an eccentric Native American activist—the sort of weird event that has probably occurred at big protests on the Mall and elsewhere thousands of times over the years—became a national media obsession, a cultural Rashomon moment, a cause of enduring nationalist resentment, and the impetus for some massive lawsuits, all because people had camera phones and social media accounts. The Wikipedia entry for an event that would have been a triviality prior to these innovations is more than 8,000 words—if you include the 122(!) footnotes. Liberal media bias played a big role, but liberal media bias wasn’t the most interesting thing about it.

Horse hockey.

Which brings me to the bizarre and thoroughly ridiculous reaction to a picture of a Customs and Border Patrol agent riding a horse.

I get that the picture looked bad: White guy chasing a black guy with what looked like a whip. But it wasn’t a whip and there was no whipping of any Haitian migrants. The whipping motion of the reins is a standard practice for maneuvering the horse, not rounding up humans.

This was clear very early in the development of this story, but not early enough. Vice News still has this tweet up:


Various activists and Democratic representatives took the bit, as it were, and they weren’t going to let go.

Maxine Waters went so far as to say that what happened at the border was “worse than what we witnessed in slavery.”


It’s worth noting that “we” didn’t witness anything during slavery because slavery ended more than 150 years ago—a fact some people are determined to downplay. But going by these things called “books,” I think I’m on fairly solid ground that even if one of these CPB guys was using his reins as whip, a bunch of worse things happened during slavery—including, you know, the existence of slavery. But, again, the whipping didn’t happen.

I am offended that I even have to say this, but there are profound moral differences between law enforcement agents trying to stop black men risking their lives out of desperation to become Americans—or at least live in America—and white men trying to catch black slaves in a slaveholding America. You can denounce Biden’s harsh policies at the border—or lack thereof—while still understanding that this is a profound and ridiculous category error.

Of course, Jen Psaki fanned the flames. She called the images “horrible” and “horrific” and vowed various investigations into something that didn’t happen.

She promised that border agents would no longer use … [checks notes] horses in Del Rio, Texas, as if the horses were the issue. I mean, there was no whipping, but even if there was, why not ban whipping rather than equine transportation?

But even now, as the facts are known and established, the momentum is too great. The legend has been printed, as it were. Joe Biden said today(!), “I promise you those people will pay.” He went on: “There will be consequences. … It’s dangerous, it’s wrong. It sends the wrong message around the world, it sends the wrong message at home. It’s simply not who we are.”

And he’s half right: It simply isn’t who we are because it didn’t happen.

The undertow of thirst.

Now, I could go on about Biden’s strange tendency to amplify racial narratives when he should be tamping them down. Recall that, in 2012, he told a largely black audience that Mitt Romney—Mitt Romney!—would “put y’all back in chains” because of… (checks notes again) Romney’s financial and regulatory policies. Just a few months back he said that the Georgia election law was “Jim Crow on steroids.” Again, you can have problems with that law, but even if all the exaggerations and distortions heaped on that law were true (and they weren’t), it wouldn’t amount to Jim Crow, never mind Jim Crow on steroids.

But I think what’s more interesting is that this is just the latest example of how people are thirsty for drama, specifically drama that reduces—or exaggerates—our political conflicts into stories of heroic defiance against tyranny, authoritarianism, or white supremacy.

During the Bush years, big swaths of the left convinced itself that we were living under some kind of despot. Never mind that if George W. Bush was half the tyrant the Naomi Wolf or Cynthia McKinney types claimed, they wouldn’t be allowed to call Bush a tyrant. One of the hallmarks of tyranny is that it’s dangerous to criticize the tyrant. If there’s a Michael Moore in North Korea, he’s working in a labor camp by day and crapping in a bucket by night—if he’s lucky. He’s not getting rich off of movies mocking Kim Jong-un.  

I used to enjoy mocking the left about this kind of thing. And to be honest, I still do. But this paranoid style is now a much more bipartisan affair. When Joe Biden suggested that local public health officials might need to go “door-to-door” to encourage vaccination, a lot of folks on the right lost their minds. Now, you can disagree with the policy—which was already being implemented without any major blows to liberty by the way—but through listening to the Madison Cawthorn and Charlie Kirk types, you’d think this was proof that Biden was a dictator. The thing is, if Biden were a dictator, whining about people going door-to-door with public health pamphlets wouldn’t scare him off. And if Biden believed he was an autocrat, he wouldn’t be using OSHA to implement his convoluted vaccine mandate.

Now there’s an argument that this kind of hair-trigger paranoia is valuable. My friend Charlie Cooke has made this point many times. A country that treats small intrusions into liberty like outrages is less likely to invite major intrusions. I think that’s right—sometimes.

But in practice the dynamic often works differently, because people get so addicted to a specific theoretical narrative about tyranny that they become blind to practical dangers. Today, the reigning paranoias of the left are about white supremacy, the patriarchy, and voter suppression. Never mind that if the Pale Penis People had anything like the power—and evil intent—attributed to them, whining about white supremacy and the patriarchy wouldn’t be a lucrative vocation.

It seems axiomatic to me that if you have a Handmaid’s Tale costume or vagina chapeau in your go-bag, odds are good that you are unhealthily eager to use it, and you’ll look for an excuse to do so even if events don’t warrant it. And if you think the Deep State has an evil plan to … (checks notes one more time) save the lives of Trump voters from a deadly disease, you might jump the gun and claim that the government wants to put vaccines in your salad dressing.

Consider the left’s obsession with voter suppression. Even though we had historic turnout in 2020, Democrats insist there was massive voter suppression in an election they won. Meanwhile, the real threat to democracy right now comes in the form of the Trumpian effort to hand elections to pliant partisan hacks who will overrule the will of voters. You don’t have to agree fully with Robert Kagan and Kevin Williamson—though I pretty much do—to at least see that they are directionally right. Risk assessment isn’t about certainty, it’s about best guesses based on the known facts. But the Democrats’ approach to our elections is mired in inertia about a voter suppression narrative that was already mostly false prior to Trump’s election.

Meanwhile, big swaths of the right are too busy obsessing over the supposed evils of vaccines—vaccines!—and critical race theory to notice they’re aiding and abetting this effort. They’re so locked into a narrative that rests on Trump’s insecurity that they’re more outraged by Liz Cheney’s truth-telling than the fleet of clown car Republicans perpetually making fools of themselves. (And even many of my friends on the right who say—and believe—the right things about Trump and the “Big Lie” stuff when pressed, reserve their passion for attacking the left.).

Here’s a great example of the psychological undertow that pulls people to focus on the problems they want to fight rather than problems they need to fight. Breitbart’s John Nolte recently wrote that the reason why Trump voters are reluctant to get vaccinated is that they don’t want to give the left the satisfaction:

The organized left is deliberately putting unvaccinated Trump supporters in an impossible position where they can either NOT get a life-saving vaccine or CAN feel like cucks caving to the ugliest, smuggest bullies in the world.

Now, he’s got half a point. The way the left demonizes vaccine hesitancy among Trump voters, but only Trump voters, is irresponsible, ugly, and counterproductive. Never mind that refusing the vaccine to own the libs is no less stupid than refusing a life preserver while drowning because the sailor throwing it is a Bernie bro.

But Nolte can’t stop there. To his credit, he acknowledges the “Trump vaccine” is a life-saver. But he can’t fathom the possibility that there isn’t some grand plan behind all of this. “The left’s morality is guided only by that which furthers their fascist agenda, and so using reverse psychology to trick Trump supporters NOT to get a life-saving vaccine is, to them, a moral good. The more of us who die, the better.”

This is as crazy as anything Maxine Waters could come up with. It reminds me structurally of some forms of antisemitism. Change the facts all you want; the dots can—must be!—connected to evil forces plotting our destruction. It can’t be that we’re wrong. It must be that we were manipulated by sinister string-pullers using clever words to deliver our undoing. Occam’s razor would tell you that glib disdain from liberals for conservatives and Trump voters doesn’t need to be part of a mass murder plot. It’s their default mode. I mean, Nolte’s position presupposes that but for the potential benefit of tens of thousands of Trump voters taken off the voter rolls at the same time they’re taken off the respirator, liberals wouldn’t mock these people. What evidence is there for that?

But in a world where the narrative carts are put before the factual horses, dealing with the reality of the situation is a betrayal to the cause. Occam was a cuck—and horses are racist. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: I may be projecting because I hate D.C. summers with the blinding but dry heat of a thousand suns, but the beasts seem extremely happy about the cooler weather. Still, Pippa’s sense of entitlement grows unabated. She’s long had a habit of demanding a belly rub before she’ll get off the bed for the morning walk. Indeed, when I walk up to her, it’s like I have a magnetic field that repels her onto her back for some belly love. But now, she demands it before she will get treats. I might not cave to this extortion, but she needs to eat food with her pills, so she has me over a barrel. Gracie, of course, has similar demands. But she is a queen and I am her servant. Zoë, meanwhile, is becoming a very sweet girl in her middle age. And Angus stands his post.


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.