By Thomas Kenna
Prior to listening to his brilliant lecture on Wednesday evening, I had the honor of interviewing National Review Senior Editor and American Enterprise Institute Fellow Jonah Goldberg for The Conservative Conscience. The interview lasted about thirteen minutes. It has been transcribed for your consumption and enrichment below.
Conservative Conscience: How can America move beyond this current tribalism and divisiveness in our politics and return to politics as a meritocracy of ideas?
Jonah Goldberg: This is a big question. Given the scope of the question – since it’s a big picture question, I’ll give you a big picture answer. I’m sure we can come up with all sorts of beneficial and productive public policies, but if you want to hear my take on disallowing the state and local tax deduction on your federal taxes, that’s kind of a boring answer. So instead, I think we should start more broadly.
I’m a huge believer, and I’m sure it will come up tonight [in my lecture following this interview], I’m a huge believer in the importance of federalism, of subsidiarity, and of pushing as many political questions to the most local level possible. There’s a whole bunch of reasons for it. One is that this is the best system for letting people live the most happiest lifestyles that they want to live. But to answer in the context of the tribalism stuff, you know, save it times of war or the Olympics and a handful of other things, most people don’t derive much meaning from being an American. I mean, sure, the Fourth of July, whatever, but on a day-to-day basis, the meaning you have in your life is derived from your friends, your family, your faith, your local community, institutions that you’re a part of – American University, College Republicans, we can run through a long list. Those are the places where you draw meaningful notions of your own identity, and the problem that you get in America today is that all of those institutions of civil society, those mediating institutions that live and reside and do important work in between the individual and the state: they’re all atrophy, and they’re in a lot of trouble.
And the problem that you get when that happens is that we all want meaning. We all want a sense of belonging in our lives, and if we can’t get it at the local level, we can’t get it because our families are dysfunctional, or because our local institutions don’t work, we don’t stop looking for it. We just look elsewhere, and a place a lot of people are looking today is national politics, so they are divvying up into team that have this view that America has to be one way and no other way. And when you view national politics as zero-sum like that, you get really nasty towards the other side because, it’s sort of like in ancient England. If you were a passionate Catholic, the very thought of having a Protestant on the throne seemed like a violence to your entire way of living. And vice versa. And you had wars to prevent these things.
And the only way to short-circuit that is like the old story about the bus, or the truck, with the tires… the truck that gets stuck in the tunnel and the only way to let it out is when the kid says ‘let the air out of the tires’ to look smart. We have to deflate the importance of national politics and reinvigorate local politics, local institutions where winners and losers actually know the people, they’re not just abstractions. Any time you make all of politics a sort of zero-sum battle for who’s going to control how everyone has to live, everyone’s going to invest in politics importance that it shouldn’t have.
CC: You often speak about how the best way to connect with people is to tell a story. What story can social or cultural conservatives tell to counter the progressive narrative about traditional values and social conservatism being hateful and ignorant?
JG: Well, that’s a good question. It depends. The most persuasive stories are personal stories, and when you tell a personal story about yourself as a human being, and I’ve found that most of the people who tell stories are human beings, it allows you to connect where a stranger can actually see and recognize parts of themselves in you and see you as a real human being, and so that varies from person to person. Persuasion is usually a one-on-one kind of thing. I also think that there are grander, bigger stories that are worth talking about.
We live in a time where everyone wants to make the American past just a singular story of racism and bigotry and oppression and all the rest and… The thing is, people seem to forget that the story of how, say, slavery ended, was a story of vast numbers of white Americans dying to end the institution. And why do we have to focus as if the losers were the winners of that contest? It’s a very strange thing to me that somehow the northern states which fought, bled, and died in huge numbers essentially to put an end to slavery, that their stories don’t count for anything, and the people who fought and lost- their stories count for everything. It is bizarre to me.
And the same thing goes with stories about, or just the facts, the historical facts about things like the relationship between capitalism and segregation. The reason why Jim Crow laws were put into place was because the market was antithetical to bigotry. The white minority rulers basically wanted to abolish the free movement of labor in the south and crush labor markets by making it possible for black people move. And they couldn’t do that, and because the market was going a different way, they had to use laws to impose tyrannical measures. The same thing with the bus systems in the south, with Rosa Parks and all back-of-the-bus stuff. They’re terrible stories, but it’s worth remembering that some of the biggest opponents of the segregated busing in the south were the bus companies because it was a huge unfair regulation on them. It added costs to them, and they didn’t wanna piss off half their customers. They didn’t want to have two separate bus systems or have bus drivers get out of their seats to deal with all this crap. They wanted to have as efficient a system as possible to deal with anybody who paid their fare. You had to have the state intervene in order to impose bigotry that capitalism doesn’t support. The history of capitalism is the history of lowering the barriers of bigotry and prejudice against strangers. We are really really bad at telling that story.
The problem in universities, I assume like this one: it’s not so much that story that Howard Zinn and those guys want to tell about the past is not true, it’s just one-sided. It’s just a half-truth, and sometimes the biggest lies are half-truths, and yeah, we did terrible things to the Indians. We should know about that, and slavery was a terrible thing. But all those chapters involve other stories that sort of point to the fact that this is a freakin awesome country. But we live in a time where we just want to think badly of any narrative that doesn’t fuel the victimization of my tribe, and that’s a project that the historical profession, the academic profession, has a lot to answer for. They’re invested deeply in this idea of the history of America is just a story about pale penis people being mean to everybody else and that’s just nonsense.
CC: Given your experience writing about and thinking about politics, what professional advice could you give to young people, especially those who want to join the “DC swamp”?
JG: [Laughter] I have no problem with people wanting to join the DC swamp. There’s a lot to be said for the DC swamp. It’s not as, you know, um have you ever actually been to like the Everglades? There are big chunks of it that are really cool, you know, um my standard advice, which I think Robbie’s probably heard me give before, is actually sort of contrary about what to do in the swamp. Rather it’s that when you’re young, and by young I mean all of you fetuses, right out of college, it is the only time in your life you can truly afford to be poor. I can’t afford to be poor. Right after college, I tried to start a business. It failed. I went to Prague, and I taught English and I tried to be a starving writer, and I didn’t starve and I didn’t write, but I had a great time. If I try to do anything like that today, it would cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in terms of I would lose my house, I would lose my wife, I would lose, you know. As you get older, things own you as much as you own them. I have a mortgage. I have car payments. I have tuition for my kid. I can’t afford to be poor. But when you get right out of college, assuming you don’t have crushing student loans, you can afford to do weird stuff. And it is really the only time of your life where you can.
In your twenties, there is really no such thing, I mean there is such a thing as wasting time. If you’re sitting around getting baked, playing Call of Duty, that’s wasting time. But if you go off and you try a career that you just wanna take a stab at and it turns out that you didn’t like it, that’s incredibly important information because finding out that something’s not for you is almost as useful as finding out something is for you. I was a television producer for several years and I had a great time and the learning curve was like this [Mr. Goldberg made an exponential growth hand gesture] and when it leveled o, I was like, you know, this is not how I wanna spend the rest of my life. But I learned an incredible amount of stuff, and I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about how to manage people and how I don’t like managing people.
By all means, if you want to go into politics in Washington, that’s great. It will be here if you wanna take a year off and go do something weird. And it could be anything. It could be trying to write a novel. It could be going on some strange adventure. It could be go working as a teacher in inner-city schools. I don’t care what it is. When I say weird, I don’t necessarily mean self-indulgent and goofy. I mean something that’s not obvious about your intended career path. And you’ll come out of it, whatever it is, thinking you’ll be more eager to actually apply yourself to your career. At the same time, you’ll spend the rest of your life thankful that you pocketed that experience. At the end of the day, very few things cause human beings to be happy and one of the most important ones is experiences. Stuff doesn’t really do it.
In terms of being in Washington, I’d usually give the same advice that I always give. Be really careful about choosing who your enemies are because they’re gonna be hanging around Washington for just as long as you are. You’re gonna see ‘em all over the place. Try to be as nice to everybody and polite to everybody as you possibly can within the parameters of your integrity and your self-respect. You’ve gotta stand up for yourself and don’t be a suck-up, but you never know who of the people you meet is gonna be really important to you one day. And this helps you remember too that when you do pick your enemies, they actually deserve it. So there you go.
CC: Thank you.
JG: Sure. pleasure.