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Rights and Wrongs
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Rights and Wrongs

Having the right to do something doesn’t make it the right thing to do.

Dear Reader (Especially the newest member of The Dispatch team, Allahpundit!),

Full disclosure: I’m vexed. So I’m going to try to prevent—or delay—going full splenetic by easing into my first point.

Remember those idiots who wanted to burn the Quran? I probably need to be more specific because I vaguely recall there were a lot of idiots who wanted to burn a lot of Qurans. But the moment I have in mind was probably this one in 2010, when a tiny fringe church led by Terry Jones in Florida—grandly called the Dove World Outreach Center—announced it would burn the Islamic holy book to make some point it thought was clever. In 2011, the church literally put the Quran on trial for six hours, found it guilty of all charges, and set it aflame.

It was a dumb, hateful, un-Christian (spare me the lectures about the book burning at Ephesus) stunt intended to insult as many Muslims as possible. And it succeeded. Fatwas for Jones’ death were issued. A handful of protesters in various cities died in some riots. No doubt some terrorist attacks on Americans, Westerners, or Christians were at least partly inspired by the burning.   

The whole thing sparked an intense debate about free speech, and I hated it. I hated it because it forced all sorts of people, institutions, and governments to take sides on the question of free speech for no productive purpose. It didn’t bring anyone closer to Christianity—or to free speech. Yes, forced to choose, I sided with his right to do it, but I was far more passionate in my belief that he was wrong to do it.

In other words, being right about a principle isn’t enough. Think of it this way: We all have a constitutional right to be bigots. In no way is that a defense of bigotry. Burning the Quran forced people in favor of free speech to question their commitment to free speech. People in favor of free speech were put in the unnecessary and ugly position of defending an unnecessary and ugly act.

Right, rights, and wrong.

Some of the most important questions in our politics often get turned into arguments about whether so-and-so has the right to do wrong as a way to avoid answering the question of whether they were right to do it in the first place.

For instance, in both of Donald Trump’s impeachment trials, his defenders argued that the president was within his rights to do the things he was impeached for. In the first impeachment, they argued that since he can bully a foreign leader for dirt on his political opponent for partisan ends, any further debate is irrelevant. He has the authority to withhold congressionally approved military aide in service to that bullying, so lighten up. In the second impeachment, people actually argued that since the frick’n president of the frick’n United States merely came close to the Brandenburg standard for incitement and (arguably) didn’t cross that line, senators shouldn’t rely on any other standard. Never mind that the standards for impeachment aren’t laid out in criminal law, but in the informal rules of statesmanship, stewardship, and decency. Also put aside the fact that allowing a president to come a hair’s breadth short of meeting the exacting standards of criminal incitement is to declare you have no real standards at all.

The same thing happened during the Clinton impeachment. Diddling an intern isn’t against the law, countless partisans argued, so we have no right to apply any other standard. Indeed, any other standard becomes a mere matter of taste and partisan persnicketies.

Time and again, the question of whether a president—or some goofball pastor—should do X is dismissed as pharisaical partisan sanctimony and replaced by lawyerly procedural sophistry. It’s pathetic, cowardly, and dangerous. Yes, I’m all for the rule of law. But the rule of law is the skeleton of the body politic. The flesh, blood, and sinew of a healthy society are the morals, customs, standards, and principles that define not just our culture, but our conceptions of right and wrong. If the only argument you can muster in defense of someone’s action is that they can do it, you’re conceding that you have no other defense.

Soul of a campaign speech.

Which brings me to Joe Biden’s speech last night. I thought it was a perfectly defensible campaign speech. I agreed with some of his points, particularly at the beginning. His spirited defense of America’s founding and the Constitution was welcome to hear from the leader of the party that gave oxygen to the 1619 Project and often talks of the Constitution as if it’s a relic—at least whenever it proves inconvenient to their preferred policies.

But it wasn’t billed as a campaign speech. It was an official primetime presidential address, introduced by the Marine Band and guarded by Marines. I believe it was the first such official address in 40 years that neither made news in the form of an official policy announcement nor responded to a major event.

Some people point to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech of the 2020 GOP nomination at the White House. I don’t know if that was billed as an official presidential address, nor do I care. First, his speech would have been covered by the networks no matter what. Second, and far more important, I thought using the White House as a political convention venue was grotesque and indefensible—and so did all of the people citing it as a precedent for what Biden did last night.

Do you get the point? Countless defenders of Biden’s speech say he was perfectly within his rights to use a national monument and a presidential address for partisan purposes because Trump did that kind of thing all the time. They’re right that Trump did that kind of thing all the time, but if you condemned it for Trump, why are you celebrating it for Biden? For instance, when CNN’s Jeff Zeleny matter-of-factly noted Biden’s break with White House tradition, former Sen. Claire McCaskill blew a gasket.

This is the kind of garbage politics you get when everything is reduced to can rather than should. Your team did wrong and got away with it, so our team can now do wrong, but we’ll call it right because it’s our team doing it now. A morality that cites the authority of your enemies’ sins as proof of the same sins’ virtue when they’re yours is not, in fact, morality. As I wrote in the Wednesday G-File

My problem with whataboutism is that it’s virtually never a substantive retort. It’s an effort to paint simple truths as simplistic distortions. To take an example from today, lots of people respond to eminently credible charges that Donald Trump mishandled classified information by saying, “What about Hillary Clinton?”

Well, what about her? If what she did with her server and emails was bad—and it was—that doesn’t make what Trump allegedly did good. If you were outraged by her mishandling of classified documents, saying Trump did the same thing should be an indictment of Trump, not an exoneration.

This hypocrisy goes down to the bone on both sides. Right now, a huge swath of right-wingers are whining that Biden was mean to them because Biden said mean things about Republicans or MAGA Republicans. We can argue whether Biden was right or wrong about what he said, but my God, spare me the tears. Contrary to some absurd spin that Trump never disparaged whole categories of people, Trump disparaged whole categories of people all the time. Deal with it.

But the problem is much bigger than mere hypocrisy. One of my complaints about the Quran burning stunt was that it divided Americans along partisan lines on an issue that should unite them. We believe in free speech in this country—or at least we’re supposed to. But because culture warrior right-wingers liked to dunk on Islam and identity politics besotted left-wingers patronizingly made allowances for Muslims they would never countenance for Christians, defending free speech rights got subsumed into the broader partisan food fight.

Biden did something similar last night. He claimed to be delivering a high-minded speech about the sanctity of democracy—and some of it was exactly that—but he included in the stew all manner of partisan ingredients that indisputably ruined the flavor. He tried to connect contempt for democracy with opposition to abortion. He insinuated that if you agreed with him on the high-minded stuff, you should be onboard with his domestic agenda and vote accordingly. He played verbal games about just how many Republicans he was indicting as a threat to democracy, but he clearly wanted the persuadable voters he was talking to hear “pretty much all of them.” To be sure, he had all the requisite “to be sure” caveats that will give partisan defenders permission to defend his partisanship. But I doubt there’s a political professional on either side of the aisle that didn’t see that speech for what it was: a rallying cry for Democrats going into the midterms and an effort to make the election about Donald Trump. It was unifying if you agree with him, but that is true of virtually every partisan speech ever given.

By melding a partisan agenda with an attack on what he claims—and probably believes—is a real threat to democracy on the cusp of the general election campaign, he made the debate about the threat to democracy even more partisan. And that’s reprehensible.

Donning the cynic’s hat.

But it might work. As a political strategy, making the election a choice between the forces of Trumpism and the forces of Bidenism is a hell of a lot smarter than making the election a referendum on Biden and his policies.

It could also backfire.

The Democrats’ fortunes were improving in no small part because Trump was back in the news thanks to his own unforced errors. I think a wiser course of action might have been to stay out of it. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, when your enemy is beclowning himself, best not to get in the way. It would be very bad for Biden—and the country—if Trump’s legal troubles seemed like the fruit of political persecution, which is precisely why Republicans are trying to spin it that way.

One of the nice things about cynicism is it keeps you from taking things too personally. Save for my passionate and patriotic desire for Trump to never soil the White House again, I really don’t care which team benefits from all of this. I don’t have a partisan rooting interest here, which is why I see hypocrisy in every direction.

Victim’s progress.

But let me change gears a bit and address what I think is the generator of a lot of the hypocrisy soaking our politics: victimology. Conservatives love complaining about the liberal cult of victimhood. Indeed, many have convinced themselves that victimology is solely an animating spirit of the left. But conservatism these days is shot through with its own cult of victimhood.

The whole “deplorable” fad was an exercise in victimhood. J.D. Vance’s struggling campaign rests on pandering to the grievances of people who blame their problems on them. The idea that you have to vote for Trump because the FBI was “unfair” to him is nothing if not some barmy epiphenomena of a collective persecution complex, as is the potted idea that if you insult or offend Trump, you’re insulting or offending the “74 million Americans” who voted for him. Kevin McCarthy demands an apology from Biden for saying some Trump supporters are semi-fascists. We can argue about the numbers, but it strikes me as unequivocally true that some Trump supporters are, in fact, semi-fascists. CPAC had some installation art intended to make peoples’ hearts bleed for the January 6 rioters. They even ran an electronic banner wallowing in their victimhood status proclaiming, “We Are All Domestic Terrorists.” Just this week, Trump promised that if elected he would issue pardons and an apology to the convicted criminals he encouraged to assault the Capitol. I can’t believe I have to say this, but if you willingly beat up a cop or defecated in the halls of Congress, you are owed neither an apology nor a pardon.

Trump’s cult of personality fuels this cult of victimhood, but it’s a larger phenomenon. The right’s obsession with media bias and cancel culture—despite the obvious merits of many complaints—is only understandable in this larger context. Lots of avowed Christians see their victim status—and the politics that attend it—as an outsized source of their identity. White supremacists are nothing if not peddlers of theories of their victimization.

Inherent to seeing yourself as a victim is bemoaning the unfairness of the system, double standards, etc. This only makes sense. If you thought you deserved your plight or some insult, you wouldn’t see yourself as a victim. Losers only whine like victims when they think they lost unfairly. The insulted only complain when they think the insult was misplaced.

There’s plenty of room to complain about unfairness or even injustice without crossing the line into a quasi-religious theory that denies individuals of their personal agency and personal responsibility—two concepts that are foundational to both conservatism and the American project. Conservatives see this clearly when criticizing the left, but they are blind to it on their own side. That’s in part because populism has become institutionalized on the right, and populism as a political and psychological phenomenon is always about perceived victim status. They are against us, and we are righteous.

Various & Sundry

I’m going to invoke author—and editor’s privilege—and give a small example of the above in defense of The Dispatch and specifically one of our writers. A few weeks ago, we ran a piece by our excellent reporter Alec Dent about the young new right in Washington. In the course of writing the piece, Alec came into possession of a recording of a Twitter Spaces chat in which Nate Hochman, a former Dispatch intern and current writer at National Review, engaged in a colloquy with Nick Fuentes, an infamous racist, antisemite, and white supremacist (though he denies these things through an incel’s coporaphagic grin). Alec included some quotes from that exchange and a fulsome statement from Hochman admitting his error in engaging Fuentes too generously and, at times, seemingly approvingly. Hochman says he did so to goad Fuentes into a more fulsome debate. Whether that was a good idea or not—I vote not—Hochman admitted the error, and we quoted the admission at length. “I said some really stupid things, which I don’t actually believe,” he said. 

Personally, I think nothing good is gained from treating fever swamp bigots as a faction of the right with some valuable contributions to make, either as part of some broader popular front or as worthy interlocutors within the right. Over the years, National Review, sometimes painfully and tardily, exerted a lot of time and energy arguing for bright lines and fortified borders between such voices and respectable conservatism.

Bethany Mandel disagrees, and that’s fine. She has every right to embrace a different strategy in dealing with bigots, and she thinks more is to be gained by trying to talk them out of their wrongness. This might be a commendable interpersonal strategy, but I think it’s profoundly wrongheaded as an institutional, public approach. We simply differ on this. Everyone has a right to their opinion.

But not to their own facts. In a piece for The Spectator, “In defense of the ‘canceled’ Nate Hochman,” she accuses Dent and The Dispatch of shoddy practices. Note: She doesn’t say the story is wrong. She concedes that “the Dispatch’s reporting is accurate” and adds that Hochman “admits as much.”

But she says that we tried to cancel Hochman. Having excellent sources when it comes to my own motives, not to mention our internal editorial discussions, I can report that this is false. Mandel might have known this if she actually called anyone at The Dispatch for comment, as you’d think she might in a piece opining on good journalistic practices.

She also says that “the Dispatch sent the quotes, without context, to Hochman’s employers” and claims that the Fund for American Studies (TFAS) revoked Hochman’s Robert Novak Fellowship based on an email Dent sent TFAS asking for comment about Hochman’s praise for Fuentes. (In contrast with his manful admission of error, Hochman has recently publicly complained about the unfairness of Dent’s email, too.) The problem is that this isn’t true either. Dent talked with TFAS at great length and on numerous occasions and provided the organization with the full 75-minute audio file (which Hochman is free to release if he thinks more context will cast him in a better light or us in a worse one). This leaves out whatever other fact-finding TFAS did on its own. Similarly, we provided National Review with ample additional context—as did Alec’s actual article. Mandel is right that we didn’t provide more context beyond an initial email to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, another sponsor of Hochman’s work. But that’s because ISI refused to talk to Dent, apparently preferring to feed a misleading tale to Mandel, who promptly wrote it up credulously.

This is all very inside baseball and not worth even this much time or space. Nate Hochman’s a promising young writer, and I wish him well. But I think that he—like a lot of people on the very young, very online, so-called new right—is misreading the moment in myriad ways that are good neither for him nor conservatism. I think he made a mistake, and I was glad he admitted as much. I think he should have left it there and Mandel probably should have too. But as his initial admission seemed to confirm, he’s not a victim and Dent’s—by all accounts accurate—article doesn’t make us victimizers, never mind cancelers. And no amount of tiresome and uninformed grievance peddling on social media is going to change that fact.

Canine update: The quadrupeds had a grand time in Maine and New Hampshire—when there wasn’t thunder. Gracie got in some very important sleeping. I think Pippa may more properly be called a New English Springer Spaniel, she likes that neck of the woods so much. Though who can doubt how much she’d like the mother country? But Gracie really didn’t like the drive—in either direction. She complained vocally for hundreds of miles. But man, she’s such a great cat. On the drive back, the Fair Jessica would let her out in grassy secluded spots and the Queen would find a shady spot to pee before trotting back to the car. Still, I think the days of long drives for Grace are at an end. Meanwhile, everyone is still struggling a bit to get back into the familiar routines here at home.  

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.