Saturday, March 18, 2017

Hard Situations Mean Hard Choices

By Jonah Goldberg
Saturday, March 18, 2017

I’m writing from sunny Fairbanks, Alaska.

That right there is a good example of a fake-but-accurate statement. It has been remarkably sunny here. It’s also been cold, existentially cold. It’s been No-one-can-hear-you-scream-in-space cold. It’s been so cold that if you lost the heat, you wouldn’t think long about whether it’s worth burning your daughter’s Fathers’ Day card or your prized comic-book collection (that your wife thinks takes up needless space in the attic because she just doesn’t get it).

But it has been sunny, which is nice, because without the good lighting, you’d never be able to catch the subtlety of the blue in your fingertips or watch bits of your soul wander out of your nostrils.

The Mess Back Home

Anyway, more about Alaska later.

I’ve been out of town during a pretty tumultuous time in Washington. If I were a political cartoonist, I’d probably be a pain in the ass. I only say that because my dad worked with hundreds of political cartoonists over his career, and he’d always say that they tended to be pains in the ass. The only political cartoonist I know first-hand is Ramirez, and he seems like an exception to the rule. Then again, he’s a conservative, so he’s an exception to more than one rule.

Anyway, where was I? Oh right. If I were a political cartoonist, other than making work for proctologists who concentrated in pain relief, I’d capture the mood in Washington right now by drawing the elevator at the U.S. capital with all the relevant players standing with pained expressions and maybe one or two holding their nose.

Then — because if you’re going to imagine yourself being something you’re not, you might as well imagine that you’re really good at it (nobody daydreams about having super powers but being really lame at using them) — I’d brilliantly draw “health care” as some sort of noxious fart cloud and everybody in the elevator — Obama, Trump, Ryan, McConnell, Pelosi, Reid, Schumer, Cthulhu, etc. — saying “It wasn’t me!”

I know what you’re thinking: George Will doesn’t use the phrase “noxious fart cloud” often enough (I think the last time he did, it was in a column about the Panama Canal Treaty). But that’s his problem.

I agree with Ponnuru, Levin, Klein, and Podhoretz (an all-too plausible name for a kickass law firm) in their criticisms of the House bill and what it represents. But I really don’t share the outrage and shock of many of my friends on the right, particularly among Donald Trump’s most ardent fan base. The way some of them talk about the House Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA), you might be led to believe that they expected Donald Trump to get to Paul Ryan’s free-market right on health care. I suppose if you took just 10 percent of the things Trump has said about health care — “get rid of the lines!” and, uh, something else — and pretended that was all he had ever said on the subject, you might be right. But the simple fact is that Trump never thought much, never mind read much, on the bedeviling complexity of the health-care system, particularly post-Obamacare passage. That’s why the president could say — sincerely! — the other week that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

Many of us, including those who are now shocked, said years ago that if Obamacare passed, it would radically, and perhaps permanently, change the relationship between the individual and the state. Now, many of the same people are gobsmacked that Paul Ryan says the fix has to happen over time and in three stages. He might be wrong about that. If making incorrect predictions was green beer, we’d all be able to pee our full names in the snow with emerald letters from today until the next St. Patrick’s Day.

But if Ryan is wrong, it could just as easily be because his plan is too ambitious, not because it’s too timid. I could walk you through the problems with budget reconciliation, the math of the Senate, etc., but I won’t because that’s Yuval’s job. I could also bepop and scat about how if you nominate and elect a man of Nixonian domestic-policy instincts, you shouldn’t be stunned when he pursues Nixonian policies. Blaming Ryan for proposing a plan that could pass the requirements of the White House strikes me as more than a bit cowardly. Maybe “cowardly” is the wrong word, since the point of much of the anti-“Ryancare” rhetoric is really about defenestrating Ryan in favor of a more Bannon-pliable nationalist who can replace him.

But I actually don’t want to beat up on Trump today because:

a) I do that a lot already;

b) He’s actually been much more free-market oriented in his appointments and tax proposals than I expected (so far);

c) While I disagree with Trump ideologically, politically I find myself in the uncomfortable place of being more sympathetic to his predicament than some of his longtime boosters who have suddenly discovered the Rorschach test they’ve been staring at isn’t a window on the real world;

And, d), because I’d much rather belabor strained analogies about the most ferocious member of the weasel family (wait for it).

Hard Situations Mean Hard Choices

Again, I don’t much like the House health-care plan as proposed. But when you are in a crappy situation, you shouldn’t be too haughty about the fact that the solutions are pretty crappy too. Difficult choices are always — always — between at least two really good options (steak or lobster?) or at least two really bad ones. In the annals of human history, there are precious few examples of sane people agonizing about whether to choose a check for a million dollars (or the Stone Age equivalent) or having their soft bits eaten by a wolverine. That’s an easy choice.

Since this is a complicated point, allow me to illustrate. Say you’re handcuffed to a radiator and are told that in one hour a hungry wolverine is going to be released into your rumpus room. That’s a crappy situation because your only solution is either to wait, and then fight, the wolverine — so much kicking and yelling “No! Bad wolverine! Stop it! Don’t eat that!” — or do something very painful to get out of the handcuffs before the beast comes in.

There is one other kind of scenario where decisions are hard: When you have imperfect information. Choosing the lady or the tiger is easy when they’re behind glass doors. (“I see you, Mr. Tiger!”)

That’s the situation the GOP finds itself in. No, not literally. But it’s bad options on top of bad options multiplied by imperfect information for as far as the eye can see. Trump came into office promising everything would be easy. A lot of people chose to believe him. That was foolish. It also wasn’t Paul Ryan’s fault.

Mutants Everywhere

Maybe I have wolverines on my mind because I saw Logan this week. (I liked it, but I didn’t love it.) There’s no point in doing a full review here, but — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — I think Sonny Bunch’s take is very good.

Bunch notes that a lot of the reviews of the movie describe the world of Logan as “dystopian.” But it’s not really dystopian. It’s not perfect, sure, but, hey, look out the window; that ain’t dystopia either (unless you live in Camden, N.J.)!

What makes reviewers think it’s dystopian is that the mutants have been culled from the gene pool through some kind of “public health” campaign. No new mutant has been (naturally) born in 25 years. “Does this make the world of Logan a dystopia?” Bunch asks. “Not as we understand the term at present.” Rather, “It just makes it Denmark.”

The Danes, you see, have set out to make Down syndrome a memory in their society by weeding out the Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life). No one calls that a dystopia. Heck, Francis Fukuyama says that Denmark is the teleological Shangri-la at the end of history. Once we get there, humanity can kick off its boots and relax. We made it!

Bunch makes a good point here about Denmark and he does a good job of tweaking liberal sensibilities about their soto voce fondness for eugenics — so long as it’s the right kind of eugenics.

But if he really wanted to earn his reputation as a Level 20 (Chaotic Good) Troll, he would have taken these analogies in other directions as well.

One of the most brilliant aspects of the mutant storyline in Marvel comics (now ripped off everywhere) is its political and cultural adaptability. Mutants are Jews fleeing a Holocaust. Mutants are blacks facing bigotry and segregation. Mutants are immigrants with no rights or, again, Jews with no homeland. Some mutants are even racial supremacists who see themselves as homo superior. Heck, mutants are even guns (or gun owners). In one scene in the first X-Men movie, Senator Kelly says to a colleague:

Senator, listen. You favor gun registration, yes? Well some of these so-called children possess more than ten times the destructive force of any handgun! No I don’t see a difference. All I see are weapons in our schools.

Mutants are such malleable cultural props for several reasons. First, they tap into the modern cult of identity politics: that our political or cultural self-conception is a hardwired fact of nature, immune to assimilation or scientific refutation. Mutants are also definitionally non-conformists, and non-conformity is the new conformity. (The mutants who choose to “pass” as human are considered to be living in a state of self-denial, the second greatest sin after bigotry itself). Last, mutants are victims “just for being different,” which is a form of saintliness in our secular culture. Even the mutant supremacists claim the mantle of victimology and resentment (call them the alt-homos).

Anyway, the better and more explosive analogy isn’t to Down syndrome, which most progressives have no objection to weeding out of the garden of humanity — such cases are near the heart of abortion-as-sacrament talk. But what about homosexuality?

I understand that we’re in a confusing period where definitions are lexicological shmoos, serving the needs of the given moment. I have a hard time keeping it straight (no pun intended) whether gender, sex, and sexual orientation are choices or innate characteristics. But if the old orthodoxy holds that most gay people are simply “born that way” (which I think is true), that means homosexuality is rooted in biology and/or genetics. And that means science can get to it. I am in no way condoning that. But it will be interesting to watch when being pro-life becomes a staple of the gay Left.

I’m a big subscriber to the view that science and technology drive culture and politics far more than we appreciate and, quite often, far more than ideas (Denmark ain’t the End of History, it’s a portal to a whole new chapter of human history, and not necessarily a pretty one.

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