Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) leaves the Senate chamber in Washington, D.C., January 24, 2019. (Leah Millis/REUTERS)If anti-Semitism is wrong, it’s no less wrong no matter how bad Ilhan Omar’s childhood was.
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Dear Reader (including Paul Manafort, who will finally have the time to catch up on back issues of this “news”letter),
Imagine a semi-prosperous middle-aged white guy saying something like “The Jews are bad and not just because they smell like cabbage.”
I think it’s fair to say that some reasonable people would call that ridiculous or anti-Semitic or some combination of the two.
Now imagine a one-armed lesbian Yemeni refugee with a cleft palate, a severe gluten allergy, and a really rough childhood saying the exact same thing.
Does the statement become any more true? Do I suddenly, as if by magic, start to emit the odor of cabbage? When all eyes turn to me for no obvious reason and people start asking “Is someone making sauerkraut?” is it because the One-Armed Yemeni has called out my people again?
The reason I ask is that I’m still noodling over James Clyburn’s statement yesterday. From The Hill:
Clyburn came to Omar’s defense Wednesday, lamenting that many of the media reports surrounding the recent controversy have omitted mentioning that Omar, who was born in Somalia, had to flee the country to escape violence and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the United States.
Her experience, Clyburn argued, is much more empirical — and powerful — than that of people who are generations removed from the Holocaust, Japanese internment camps during World War II and the other violent episodes that have marked history.
“I’m serious about that. There are people who tell me, ‘Well, my parents are Holocaust survivors.’ ‘My parents did this.’ It’s more personal with her,” Clyburn said. “I’ve talked to her, and I can tell you she is living through a lot of pain.”
Now, I’m tempted to cut Clyburn some slack. The more I think about it, it might be his way — his really, really poorly worded way — of saying: “Don’t pay too much attention to her, she’s kind of messed up.”
You know, like the uncle who just got out of prison who threatens to stab you in the hand with his salad fork at Thanksgiving dinner when you reach for the bread rolls. “Please excuse Uncle Roy. He was ‘away’ for a long time. He’s still getting used to life on the outside.”
But I don’t think that’s the case, and it’s certainly not how it was received. Clyburn seems to be suggesting that because of her experiences and identity, her ideas deserve more latitude than those of another person with the exact same views.
Now, I have to admit, I have trouble with the logic here on a number of fronts. Ilhan Omar had a rough childhood in Somalia. She apparently went through the ringer in a Kenyan refugee camp. And therefore she earned the right to bitch about Israel and the Jews?
I’m just missing some of the connective tissue here. If she had been born in Chad and spent time in a Nigerian refugee camp, would that give her some special dispensation to rip into the Irish? I mean, what the hell did the Joooooooooz or Israelis have to do with her youthful travails?
This just seems like Dewey Oxburger logic to me. Dewey, you’ll recall, was the John Candy character in Stripes who understood that you can convince an idiot of anything if you do it with great confidence and authority. There’s the scene where he and his low-IQ comrade “Cruiser” arrive in the barracks in Italy, and Cruiser jumps up on the top bunk. Dewey says:
What are you doing? No, no . . . get off. Get off. See . . . you gotta make my bunk. See, we’re in Italy. The guy on the top bunk, he’s gotta make the guy on the bottom’s bunk . . . He’s gotta make his bed, all the time. See, it’s in the regulations. See, if we were in Germany, I’d have to make yours. But we’re in Italy, so you gotta make mine. [shrugs his shoulders] Regulations.
The problem is, we’re not all idiots.
The Suck-Up Instinct
I already wrote a column about this, and David French has the intersectionality beat covered, so I want to come at this from a different direction.
Because the vast majority of my readers are humans, I’m confident that nearly all of you have some experience with the phenomenon of sucking up, and I don’t mean the form of sucking up where you find yourself on your hands and knees in a motel room outside Albany at 4:00 a.m. trying to salvage the tequila from the soaked carpet after you accidentally dropped the bottle because you got too worked up singing both parts of Donny & Marie’s “I’m a Little Bit Country, I’m a Little Bit Rock and Roll.”
An intern tells you a joke: “What do you call a can opener that doesn’t work? A can’t opener.”
You might chuckle. You might throw a stapler at his head.
Now, imagine the CEO of your company or the dean of admissions for your kid’s dream school told you that joke. You might, might, laugh a bit harder than the joke deserved on the merits. And even if you’re a rock in such matters, I’m sure you’ve seen some version of this dynamic in others.
I remember talking to Rich Lowry about how amazing it was that Barack Obama could offer the most modest quip at a rally — “I guess I’ll have a salad.” “I picked the wrong day not to bring an umbrella.” — and there would always be a couple of people in the background who laughed so hard you had to wonder whether you were missing something.
This is part of human nature. And, as with anything that comes preloaded into our operating system, we shouldn’t get too worked up about it. What fascinates me is how this aspect of human nature manifests itself in different contexts.
In pre-Enlightenment societies, this deference to power was codified into law and custom alike. Of course the king’s jokes are funnier, his insights wiser, his Paul Krugman columns less foul-smelling in the chamber pot.
I won’t get all deep in the weeds on Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, but the gist of his argument was that the priestly caste turned the hierarchy of morality on its head. They made virtues — strength, honor, etc. — into vices, and vices — meekness, weakness, etc. — into virtues. Now, Nietzsche’s ideas of what constitute virtue and vice are not my own, but his analysis was brilliant nonetheless.
As I wrote recently, we’ve turned victimhood into a source of incredible cultural power to the extent that some people, like Jussie Smollett, make a perversely rational choice to turn themselves into victims because they know that if they can pull it off, they’ll gain status, fame, and money as a result. It’s not always as cynical as that, of course. Victimhood has cultural power because victimhood is a new source of meaning, and people are desperate to find new sources of meaning these days as religion recedes further from modern life. Rachel Dolezal didn’t don blackface — blackbody? — to mock or ridicule black people. She did it because she thought she could fill the hole in her soul with a can of shoe polish.
At least in pre-Enlightenment societies, the corrupt deference to power made some sense. In a society ruled by a monarch or an aristocracy where power flowed from the point of a sword, a certain amount of sucking up made sense. If I ever go to prison, I can guarantee that I’m going to laugh pretty damn hard at some jokes that aren’t all that funny.
Sumptuary Laws, Ancient and Modern
This is the premise of the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. A bunch of people deliberately or delusively convinced themselves they could see something that wasn’t there, because to do otherwise would risk their status or position.
In medieval and ancient societies, rulers codified their power in myriad ways. Among my favorites were sumptuary laws, which delineated the kinds of garments people of different stations could wear. Henry VIII issued an edict that no one could wear “any silk of the color of purple, cloth of gold tissued, nor fur of sables, but only the King, Queen, and the King’s mother, children, brethren, and sisters, uncles and aunts; and except dukes, marquises, and earls, who may wear the same in doublets, jerkins, linings of cloaks, gowns, and hose; and those of the Garter, purple in mantles only.”
Barbara Tuchman writes:
Proclaimed by criers in the county courts and public assemblies, exact gradations of fabric, color, fur trimming, ornaments, and jewels were laid down for every rank and income level. Bourgeois might be forbidden to own a carriage or wear ermine, and peasants to wear any color but black or brown. Florence allowed doctors and magistrates to share the nobles’ privilege of ermine, but ruled out for merchants’ wives multicolored, striped, and checked gowns, brocades, figured velvets, and fabrics embroidered in silver and gold. In France territorial lords and their ladies with incomes of 6,000 livres or more could order four costumes a year; knights and bannerets with incomes of 3,000 could have three a year, one of which had to be for summer. Boys could have only one a year, and no demoiselle who was not the châtelaine of a castle or did not have an income of 2,000 livres could order more than one costume a year.
This ability to figuratively wear power on your sleeve by literally dictating what everyone else’s sleeves could look like was rooted in how society understood power. Today, because we’ve turned identity and the presumed victimhood that attaches to certain identity groups — Muslims, gays, the transgendered; but not the Jooooz — into a new form of aristocracy, that manifests itself in bizarre ways.
This is how I think of cultural appropriation. Victim identity is a resource. So when white people use the accoutrement of that identity, they are seen as stealing cultural power. How dare you make Korean tacos, whitey! These clothes, that hairstyle, this music: They belong to us, and when you appropriate them, you are diluting their brand value. It’s the cultural analogue to copyright infringement. My brand’s value depends on my monopoly on this stuff, so you can’t use it.
Anyway, as the serial killer said before he went to the truck to get the plastic tarp, I should wrap this up.
The aristocracy of victimhood can be seen everywhere if you train your eyes to see it (don’t get me started on the new push for reparations). And the corrupting power of this cultural shift is profound. Because we’re not just heaping praise on victims, we’re investing extra legitimacy to their ideas and arguments. If we as a culture want to say that the Pale Penis People can’t wear sombreros or cook Korean food, I’ll pound away at my keyboard about how stupid that is. But ultimately, that idiocy falls under the loosey-goosey rubric of fashion and manners. If we’re going to start saying that victims’ ideas are “more right” simply because the people spewing them are victims, then we are committing a kind of civilizational suicide. I don’t care if you spent your youth at the bottom of a pit putting the lotion in the basket when commanded to, you’re still wrong if you tell me two plus two equals seven.
If anti-Semitism is wrong, it shouldn’t matter how bad Ilhan Omar’s childhood was. If racism is wrong, it doesn’t become less wrong if a survivor of Auschwitz says something racist.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: So the doggers are doing great, and not because they won the Twitter dog competition this week. One of the reasons dogs are great and why people love dog Twitter is that dogs just don’t care. Still, I want to thank everyone for rewarding the hard work I put into bringing my Twitter followers the best dog content I can. Haters like @comfortablysmug be damned, Zoë and Pippa are good dogs.
Anyway, I’m in Sea Island for work. And after a big speech, I got over-served by the bartenders. Before I left, I made sure to get in some extra quality time with the beasts, because I leave from here with the (human) family for a vacation in Spain and, briefly, London. I’ll say hi to Steve Hayes for you when I’m in Madrid. The good news is that Kirsten, our super-dog-walker, will be dog- and house-sitting while are gone. The dogs love her with a passion that sometimes makes us jealous, but that’s okay because it also removes the guilt of leaving them behind. And Kirsten knows how important it is to send proof-of-life pictures and video. So, I’ll still be tweeting the beasties.
ICYMI . . .
Last week’s G-File
And now, the weird stuff.