I’ve been almost completely disconnected from the Internet for the past couple of days (I traveled back yesterday to storm-ravaged New York City, where I’m staying with friends, as our house here is still uninhabitable due to a construction project). So for tonight, just an item from the mailbag.
The latest edition of Jonah Goldberg’s weekly newsletter, the “G-File” features a fine rant, in the same vein as his latest book, The Tyranny Of Cliches (which, by the way, I’ve just read and enjoyed). In this item he takes on the pious and too-familiar exhortation to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”.
You may not love Mr. Goldberg’s style; he’s one of a breed of political commentators I think of as “playful polemicists” (along with, for example, writers like Mark Steyn). No matter how grave the topic or how deeply he seeks to wound the enemy, there is always in his mind the wish for the little joke, the lighthearted aside, the frolicsome fillip. For many, he’s just too flippant, and I’m afraid that it’s often a regrettable distraction, because he’s an astute thinker, with much of value to say.
Here’s a long excerpt (I’ll keep it below the fold):
Are you comfortable? Can I get you something? Coffee? Tea? Affliction?
I give a pass to priests and rabbis who think it is their job to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Such people are concerned with your soul and that gives the phrase a certain understandable context. I still don’t like the term at all. But at least in the spiritual realm there’s a sense where it’s about getting right with God and not getting bogged down in the material stuff.
But even here, I think the phrase is off base. Comfortable can also mean “at peace.” Even among Catholics with that hair-shirt business, there are instances where “afflicting the comfortable” strikes me as absurd (no offense Kathryn Lopez!). As I understand it, there are times where Christians confess their sins, relieve themselves of guilt, and enjoy the grace or blessing of forgiveness. Is that not a moment of comfort and satisfaction? Is that really the moment to “afflict” the penitent?
Talk about saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock.
But outside of religion, I loathe the saying. It was coined by Finley Peter Dunne, and has been endlessly modified and co-opted ever since, particularly by the journalistic profession. Cub reporters and J-school larvae are drenched with the idea that their task is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” It never seems to dawn on them that this is advocacy journalism and nothing more.
Well, actually it is something more. It’s mindless advocacy journalism. Who says that being comfortable gives license to a bunch of hacks to “afflict” you? And who is to decide whether someone is comfortable? What the hell does comfortable mean in the first place? Giving journalists that license is an invitation to bullying and hypocrisy on a massive scale. For the journalists who use this axiom like a secular fatwa choose to afflict only the ranks of the comfortable they do not like and lionize the comfortable they do like.
The word “comfortable” obviously has — or at least had — an economic connotation to it. During the muckraking era, wealth was a sin. At least comfortable wealth was. If you weren’t in a constant state of dismay and unrest about the plight of the unfortunate and the unfit, you needed to be afflicted into your senses.
But even back then, the term gained a cultural resonance. If you were comfortable in your traditional views, your bourgeois norms, your 19th-century ways, you needed to be afflicted by the New Science and the New Thinking. In politics, affliction served as a kind of emetic for the forces of Progress; out goes the comfortable Newtonian thinking, in comes the unsettling Darwinian.
But let’s get back to the economic part. Is there a clearer example of how envy lurks just under the surface of liberalism? According to this axiom comfort is a kind of sin that must be punished. Those who possess must be afflicted. This is the logic of Jacobinism, Bolshevism, and the forces of Bane in the last Batman movie. Our progressives may not carry it out to the same extreme, and that’s an important distinction. But the very idea that these people think they are the arbiters of who is comfortable and that the job falls to them to afflict those who possess it is disgusting. H. L. Mencken defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Well, is there any more perfect distillation of the puritanical spirit than in the secular divinization of envy we call leftism?
So why am I bringing this up? Well, the other day Robert Reich posted to his Twitter feed, “Will we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable under President Obama, or do the exact opposite under President Romney?”
Now, until Tom Friedman took his place, Robert Reich used to be an obsession of mine. Few people in American life have a more undeserved reputation for thoughtfulness than Robert Reich (I wish I could post Mickey Kaus’s brutal dismantling of Reich for The New Republic from 20 years ago). I’ll save my omnibus anti-Reich rant for another day.
But this tweet from Reich disgusts me. It’s been sitting in the pit of my stomach for days like a bad clam that just won’t digest quietly.
As much of a problem as I have with the “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” line, it’s one thing for private institutions — churches, newspapers, et. al. — to make it their creed.
The notion that the government should be empowered with this mission is repugnant. It is antithetical to the whole point of the American Founding, the Constitution. It’s as if the idea is each American is endowed by his creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But watch out folks, if you actually achieve happiness, or if it just appears that way, then the government has an obligation to afflict you according to this worldview.
That is not republicanism. It is not the rule of law. It is not even democracy rightly understood. It is tyranny. Flimsy, pathetic, and nannying tyranny, to be sure. But tyranny nonetheless. It is the rule by the arbitrary power of the self-anointed that Edmund Burke decried.”Of all tyrannies,” observed C. S. Lewis, “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
“You, yes you,” says the progressive do-gooder in pursuit of cosmic justice. “You look comfortable. Why is that? Never mind, just give me more of what you have and I shall give it to someone more deserving. Don’t argue. It is not your place to argue.”
What This Election Is About
Look, I know this is a really convoluted way to get to what’s actually going on in the world right now. We’ve got an election. But the obvious fact is that I can’t compete with the hordes of psephologists analyzing the polling data like Robert De Niro going over football scores in Casino.
This “news”letter wasn’t carved from the husk of a mighty oak felled by lightning to parse the partisan skew of the latest Quinnipiac poll. That’s what we have Jim Geraghty for! No, this glorious “news” letter was crafted so I could rant about progressives and Star Trek and say “booger!” without Lopez editing it out.
Do I think Mitt Romney will win? In my gut I feel like he will. (“I hope that’s not the bad clam talking” — The Couch.) I know he will win if what many of us have been saying about GOP enthusiasm is true. But let’s not kid ourselves, this is a bowel-stewing moment for a lot of us. We have to stay on our toes like Robert Reich at a urinal.
Which gets me back to this Reichian theory of government as an eternal writ to afflict the comfortable.
This is as close a summation to what this election is about as we can get at this point. Barack Obama represents a worldview that says the comfort of the comfortable (variously defined) comes at the expense of others. The “afflicted” are a victim class and they are afflicted by the comfortable. And that’s not fair! And it is the job of government, according to progressives, not just to ensure fair rules; it must also impose fair results.
That’s why Obama the “pragmatist” said he wanted to raise capital-gains taxes out of “fairness” even if he knew it would reduce revenue. That’s why he talks about taxes in punitive language. Like a necromancer at a graveyard, he goes before his adoring crowds and tries to conjure the dead — and deadening — spirit of envy from the masses. “Yeah, let’s get ’em!” is the response he wants from the ones we’ve allegedly been waiting for.
Mitt Romney has not been great at expressing it, though Lord knows he’s tried plenty of times, but in his own oddly articulate stumbling, he makes it clear he rejects the politics of envy. According to various clichés, fear is the only thing we have most to fear, for fear is the mind-killer (Hey, a Dune-FDR mash-up!).
A coward is a slave to his fears, but a fool refuses to listen to them. Fear has something to tell us. Fear is not one of the seven deadly sins. But envy is. Envy, as Michael Novak has argued, is the cancer that kills all republics.
The politics of envy are always poisonous. They are what make it possible to define compassion as wanting to take someone else’s money and greed as wanting to keep your own. Pull away the mask of Obama’s “Hope” and you find underneath it the slithering sheen of envy.
And what enrages me is that no society, no cause, no movement built on envy has ever helped the people it claims to be fighting for. Not over the long term, and not in a meaningful sense. For when you tell people that acting on your envy pays off, all you do is train them to be ever more envious.
As Reagan said at the 1992 GOP convention: “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”
Reagan incorrectly attributed these words to Abraham Lincoln. But the words themselves are correct.
It Goes On Forever
So, yes, please. Go vote for Romney. Yes, please Providence, let Romney win. But know this: A Romney victory — while an obvious victory for the country — will be no permanent victory. And a Romney defeat will be no permanent defeat. The politics of envy can never be truly conquered because envy is a sin, and a sin that can never be eradicated, only held at bay. It is a progressive tendency to believe that the government or an election can straighten the crooked timber of humanity. This is an eternal struggle with endless battles to be fought because there will always be people who want the government to impose cosmic justice, to fill the holes in their souls, to love them. Government can’t be God. Heck, it can’t even be Baal. But that won’t permanently stop people from making that mistake.
The progressive fallacy that with the right expertise, the right data, the right people with maximum power, we can make this an infinitely just society is of course a manifestation of the desire to immanentize the eschaton. But more practically, it’s a smugness. A smugness that comes from a priestly class that has endowed itself with the right and privilege to adjudicate who deserves his success and who does not. I say to hell with the smug and the politics of envy they exploit. To hell with them all.
So, please: Go forth and afflict the comfortable — the comfortably smug.