Hard Situations Mean Hard Choices

by Jonah Goldberg
Thinking through the noxious fart cloud of health-care reform.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear reader (but not the people complaining about the tardiness of this “news”letter. I am four hours behind National Review World HQ in New York. Not to mention the fact that pneumatic tubes had to be carved into the permafrost),

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.

If Ryan is wrong, it could just as easily be because his plan is too ambitious, not because it’s too timid.

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.)!

I can’t believe I’m saying this — but I think Sonny Bunch’s take is very good.

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 (See, Thingamabobs Have Consequences. 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.

Donna Gavora, R.I.P.

I came up to Alaska this week to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral (please forgive the sudden change in topic and tone, but respect must be paid). I was always going to write something about Donna (here’s the obituary, written by my wife, the Fair Jessica), but I feel particularly compelled to because I feel so guilty about this week’s GLoP podcast.

On the podcast, John Podhoretz asked me to talk about my father-in-law, Paul. And, as anyone who knows me personally can attest, I love talking about Paul. He’s lived a larger-than-life life. He’s brilliant, curmudgeonly to the point of parody, and incredibly generous all at once. A Slovakian Horatio Alger — who looks like a member of the Ukrainian politburo circa 1974, who swam the Danube to escape the Communists, and got a degree from Milton Friedman — is easy to talk about in an entertaining way, which is what I did.

But I didn’t come to Alaska to celebrate Paul, but to remember Donna. And Donna was different. First of all, she was lovely.

But more important, perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever met, she was a person of love. I’m Jewish, and pretty secular at that. I’m also more than a bit cynical and snarky and writing about love comes as easily to me as figure skating did to Dom DeLouise. (I was delighted when my sister-in-law Carrie married an Indian-American guy from Baton Rouge. It took some of the weight off of me as the exotic son-in-law.)

Intellectually, I’ve always had at least a vague understanding of the Christian idea of “God is love.” And I always felt I had a better grasp of the Catholic relationship between faith and good works, perhaps because it lines up pretty closely with Jewish notions about repairing the world and all that. I bring this up because I’ve never seen both ideas personified more in a person than in Donna. Her whole life was defined by love and the good deeds (and hard work) that flowed from that love. Love for God. Love for the Church. Love for the community. Love for music and the students she taught it to. Love, most obviously, for her family. She gave of herself, constantly. Every time I visited, it seemed she was continually coming and going to visit the sick or the lonely, to console the grieving, to play the organ at a church service, to help with the church garden, or take the grandkids somewhere.

Single men rarely coach Little League — we do that kind of thing because our wives make us.

My most poignant memory of Donna is from 14 years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our daughter. Donna came down to Washington, planning to help take care of the new baby. But my wife ended up needing an emergency C-section (I’ll tell the story of her epidural not working another day). Very long story short: At one point, I ran back to the house to get something and found Donna, on her knees praying for Jessica and the baby. As far as I could tell, she’d been that way since I had left hours before.

Little of this should matter to most of you, but there are three points that I think are relevant for everyone.

In speeches, I often talk about the importance of family and marriage to civil society. The decline of volunteerism and social trust is, in my view, most attributable to the decline of the family in America. (As Charles Murray likes to note, single men rarely coach Little League — we do that kind of thing because our wives make us.) When I look at how much good work — better work than the state could ever do — was done by Donna, it reminds me how even the best government programs are a poor substitute for the organic work of communities. And people who want to strip religion from public life risk ripping the heart out of the kind of social solidarity they claim to crave.

Second, technically speaking, Alaska isn’t “flyover” country because it’s way past where the planes that fly over “flyover country” stop. But culturally, it is exactly the type of place that people on the coasts look down on with condescension or contempt. Alaska may arouse a bit more fascination than, say, Nebraska. Grizzly bears (and Sarah Palin) will do that. But the point remains. And when I hear people deride traditional or religious or “white” America, I often think of my wife’s family and get angry. When I hear pro-lifers denigrated as people of evil intent, I think of Donna in particular, whose pro-life views barely touched ideology but were enveloped in thick layers of love. Feel free to disagree with her position, but her motivations could not have been more decent or loving.

The last point is both terribly personal and entirely universal. In the first G-File after my brother died, I wrote:

In terms of my own internal response, the most glaring continuity between my dad’s death and my brother’s is loneliness. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got lots of company. I have lots of people who care for me more than I realized. I’m richer in friends and family than I could ever possibly expect or deserve.

But there’s a kind of loneliness that comes with death that cannot be compensated for. Tolstoy’s famous line in Anna Karenina was half right. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but so are all happy ones. At least insofar as all families are ultimately unique.

Unique is a misunderstood word. Pedants like to say there’s no such thing as “very unique.” I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we say that each snowflake is unique. That’s true. No two snowflakes are alike. But that doesn’t mean that pretty much all snowflakes aren’t very similar. But, imagine if you found a snowflake that was ten feet in diameter and hot to the touch, I think it’d be fair to say it was very unique. Meanwhile, each normal snowflake has its own contours, its own one-in-a-billion-trillion characteristics, that will never be found again.

Families are similarly unique. Each has its own cultural contours and configurations. The uniqueness might be hard to discern from the outside and it certainly might seem trivial to the casual observer. Just as one platoon of Marines might look like another to a civilian or one business might seem indistinguishable from the one next door. But, we all know the reality is different. Every meaningful institution has a culture all its own. Every family has its inside jokes, its peculiar way of doing things, its habits and mores developed around a specific shared experience.

One of the things that keeps slugging me in the face is the fact that the cultural memory of our little family has been dealt a terrible blow. Sure, my mom’s around, but sons have a different memory of family life than parents. And Josh’s recall for such things was always not only better than mine, but different than mine as well. I remembered things he’d forgotten and vice versa. In what seems like the blink of an eye, whole volumes of institutional memory have simply vanished. And that is a terribly lonely thought, that no amount of company and condolence can ease or erase.

I’ve always been very jealous of my wife’s family. Not because it is “better” than mine — but because it is so large and so close. It is a whole sprawling community in its own right. At the funeral this week, it hit me quite hard that the culture of the Gavora clan will live on, not just because of love, but because of scale. They have stories that won’t be forgotten because there will always be someone around who remembers them. My oldest brother-in-law Danny delivered the eulogy (drafted by my speechwriter wife) and it was full of stories. About how Donna used to put a couple of the kids in the trunk of the car as ballast so they could get up the icy road to their house. Stories about driving 6,000 miles round-trip, with a half-dozen kids in a station wagon, to visit her family in Colorado every summer.

The Gavoras came to Fairbanks with little and they prospered because they never forgot that. My favorite story about Donna was how when my wife was a kid, she and her siblings would ask for some sugary cereal at the grocery store. Donna would say, “I’m not going to get you that, you’ll just eat it.”

Bear in mind: The Gavoras owned the grocery store.

Stories are what make a culture and a civilization. Memory is what sustains both. The Gavoras are rich in a way money can’t buy because they are swimming in memories of love, shared.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Obviously, I don’t have much by way of first-hand accounts of the beasts, as I have been away a lot. But our spectacular dog-permabulator, Kirsten, agreed to actually dog-sit for us while we were off for the funeral and the beasts couldn’t be happier.

Kirsten is kind of like the archetypal divorced dad who only wants to be the kids’ best friend, showing up for the fun stuff. And it works. They probably love her more than us, running to her car for the midday walks without ever looking back. And they were ecstatic when Kirsten brought them home and then didn’t leave. It was like bringing Chuck E. Cheese’s to the house. Anyway, it was on her watch that the beasts finally conquered the wildlands around D.C. and became the Romulus and Remus of a new canine civilization. We shall mint coins with this image on them.

Also, as some of you may recall, Pippa started out as Donna’s dog. It should be no surprise that Donna was a passionate dog person. She would take her labs, Midnight and Maggie, on long adventures in the woods around Fairbanks. But with her health declining, she couldn’t handle the furry ball of energy that was Pippa, so we agreed to take her in. Given how the spaniel started out in our family as a persecuted minority under the rule of Zoë the Terrible, I always assumed she was bit meek around all dogs. But while I’ve been here, I’ve learned that this is not the case. She was once a mighty warrior herself. Here she is tackling a mighty beast of the north and keeping him in his place.

My Friday column overlaps a bit with the first part of this criminally long “news”letter. But it references C.S. Lewis and uses the phrase “thunderclapping but” so I think you should take a look.

My Wednesday column on apathy vs. fear, which I rather liked.

The new aforementioned Ricochet GLoP podcast.

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Mouse on a plane grounds British Airways Heathrow flight

What going to Mars will do to our bodies

Each state’s most beautiful library

The states redrawn as equal population units

The year in stunning science images

Jetpack skiing

How the world’s heaviest man lost it all

Indianapolis installs tiny ramps on canal to help ducklings

Rabbit hole leads to 700-year-old secret Knights Templar cave network

Lawyer’s pants catch fire during arson trial

The men who volunteered to be poisoned by the government

Death Star trench-run cornhole set

Bulldog and iguana are friends

The man who was Godzilla

Radioactive boars lurk in Fukushima

Rhino demands belly rub

Man attempts to smuggle $164,000 of cocaine through the airport by hiding it in his pants

Bill Paxton’s best roles: a supercut

Patrick Stewart receives his foster dog

Jack Russell terrier enjoys dog-show obstacle course

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg