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‘You Need to Know What Time It Is’
I talked to Jon Gabriel about the collapse of the expert class, the lessons of Ornette Coleman, and many other things.
This week, I talked to Jon Gabriel @exjon on his podcast for Ricochet. Below is a transcript, edited for readability.
David, welcome to the King of Stuff podcast. I wanted to bring you on for one statement. Well, you said it a few times, but you put it out in an article several months back. And basically it said we need politicians who, “know what time it is.” And as I mentioned earlier, I listen to the American Mind Podcast, and they've brought this up a few times. I don't know how to define “what time it is,” but I know we're in a very different time. And I think we're seeing so many politicians and pundits who are like, “if we can just get back to this calm 1990s-era mild technocracy, everything will be fine. If the American people would just stop being so kooky and nuts about everything and just let us take care of them in the simple way.” That time was three decades ago, and we’re now in a different world. I think we do need politicians who know what time it is, but I'm not sure exactly how to define that. So expound and enlightened me, sir.
Knowing “what time it is” is a bit of shorthand. It's shorthand for, “do you recognize or realize where we are in the movie?”--which is, itself, kind of another shorthand phrase. But the bigger picture is, what happens after 50, 60, or 100 years of the success of the Progressive project? What happens after 50 or 100 years of success of the Long March through the institutions? We're no longer the country we were.
Obviously, I take a position on it--I make a value judgment about it--but you don't even necessarily have to. In this case, you have to say, “look, we're, we're a country today that is unbelievably divided, and we're not divided about dumb stuff. We're divided about the fundamental character of the regime.
And, and even more than that: what are things that define different forms of government and different regimes? It is the concept of justice, and we no longer agree on it. We once did in America, we once thought, for example, that being guilty or innocent based upon your race or other circumstances of birth is a tremendous injustice. But today, pretty much half the country is on board with that very definition. And you can't have these two systems coexisting; you can't have two very, very separate—even opposite—visions of justice and have a coherent country. So we have that on one hand.
On the other hand, we have what I consider the abject failure of large, empire-sized and empire-scale multi-ethnic states united by ideology. It’s clear that it doesn't really work anywhere throughout history. It doesn't work because the people unavoidably end up believing a variety of different things about the regime. They end up despising one another because, by definition, huge multi-ethnic states based on an ethos or an ideology will eventually come apart, because this ideology will morph and change, and some people will reject it. Some people will continue to embrace it, but whatever it is, it's fact of life. Entropy is a thing that exists. It is something that’s unavoidable.
So this has led me to a bunch of different conclusions about where I think the United States is headed, or where I think it should be headed--some of which are, you know, inside and some of which are outside the Overton window, in terms of accessibility today. But I think that, at the end of the day, if we want a secure country that is free and peaceful and not a tyranny we're going to need to step up and do something about it.
Well, I think one thing that we see with people not getting “what time it is” is, they seem to have accepted this late Sixties and Seventies attitude about openness, like the Berkeley free speech movement. Which is, just like, “look, you should let people speak their mind and you shouldn't censor anybody. You shouldn't censor anything.” And over time, the Republicans are like, “yeah, that's a good point; everybody should be able to free to have their positions.” Well, now the woke are in control of so much of our institutions—from government to business, to entertainment, to fill in the blank, to the show Jeopardy, for crying out loud. They're like, “okay, we're in charge now. We don't want free speech. We want to cancel you.” If you say anything that is against the whatever the Zeitgeist says this second—if you did not support required government funded trans surgery for three-year-olds one year ago, well, you should be canceled because that's obviously out of step with what the great almighty party thinks now. And you have, it seems, many conservatives are just caught totally flat-footed by this. They say, “but you guys said, we should be free to speak our mind and we wouldn't be canceled. Don't you come let us reason together.” And the work respond, “no, we have power. We're done with the reasoning we're done with the debate we're done with the discussions. We're going to cancel you.”
They said these things, because they didn't have power.
Exactly. They didn't have power. So they were like, what can we get away with? Well, we just we're, we're all equal here. And yeah, once I have power, they're like, yeah, nevermind. We're not interested in that anymore.
Yeah. Step one is recognizing “what time it is” is recognizing that you have no institutional power. This why I think that no matter how you feel about any particular political issue in America, policy-wise, the Trump administration was fantastic because it allowed people to see the long deceased, rotting corpse of institutional legitimacy in this country. We're looking at what happens in Afghanistan and we're seeing that in every possible respect; every institution is failing. And a certain number of people who don't know “what time it is” will see that and they'll get freaked out the same way they got freaked out when Trump appeared. They’ll freak out and say, “no, no, no, we cannot have this. It is such a horrible thing that these institutions are demythologized and exposed to be fraudulent. We're just going to pretend it's not happening.”
Of course, that doesn't do anything but keep you within the bounds of your situation. Knowing “what time it is” is realizing that these institutions are crumbling, with or without you, and the surest way to get to something better is to allow them to crumble--and for as many people as possible to recognize that these things are, indeed, crumbling.
Another thing that drives me crazy about people who don't know “what time it is”: as my friend Michael Anton says, these are people who will have studied the fall of empires from Rome to the British to the Ottomans, and they will say, “no, we understand that all empires fall--we understand that there's a cycle of regimes. Except for America--we're going to be 1776 forever.” And I don't think it's a matter of stupidity--I mean, maybe for some, it's a matter of stupidity—but how could you be David French and look around you, surveying the scene in America and say, “you know what, basically all we need to do is press rewind”--because that's possible, right?
And that's the thing that kind of drives me nuts. I was, you know, the original Alex P. Keaton; they basically modeled that character after me in high school. During Reagan’s second term I joined the Navy. I loved Reagan, but something that's driven me nuts--going back 20 years—is, every single primary candidate running for president says, “I'll be the next Reagan.” And even back then, I was like, “we don't need another Reagan. He was right for that time, we've moved way on.” We need the next JD Vance. We need the next Ron DeSantis. We need something new, because Reagan worked in 1980 in the kind of struggle we were in then--with the economy with international communism, and so forth.
But every generation needs a completely new perspective on these things because the challenges are totally different. As you've been saying, it's constantly changing, and we need to change with it. Going back to the history books only is not going to be enough unless we go way back in history and look at these cycles of empires. The Austria-Hungary empire, for example, was this kind of pastiche of different countries and groups that atomized after a while. We need to learn those lessons and then go forward and form something new and for something better and not be constantly looking back.
As I do often, I'll make a jazz analogy here. In 1959, when Ornette Coleman showed up in New York from Los Angeles and he was playing “free jazz,” the entire network-- let's say, the institution of New York jazz musicians--came to hear him. And many or most of them were absolutely disgusted. Ornette was dispensing with a system of harmonic organization for music that all of these people had invested their entire lives and careers into studying 8, 10, 12 hours a day for decades.
JON GABRIEL: “The Shape of Jazz to Come.”
Right. So, of course they're going to be furious; they’ve invested into the system. One thing my old friend, the late Paul Bley, told me years ago, 20 years ago. He says something that proved to be very important in politics when dealing with people that don't know “what time it is”: He said, when Ornette first showed up, in one day--in that one moment--the entire system, the hierarchy chart of who was and wasn’t important in New York in jazz completely changed.
And suddenly the people who ended up being displaced, who were on the top--or who were jockeying for position on the top--realized that they no longer matter. I mean, that’s a really heavy thing; it’s your identity. And that's why you see people like David French and Jonah Goldberg get so psychically damaged when someone like Trump comes along; these people were once important and now they’re completely displaced from their old audiences.
Not so long ago, an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was enough to kill anything on the Right. A nasty WSJ piece on some activist or a bill that a Senator is proposing, and the this was as good as dead. And that's no longer the case. And the people who were invested in how that system worked get very upset about it, because they no longer have the power that they once had.
And even aside from that: let's say you're not invested. Let's say you're an outside observer and you don't work in politics, or you're not working in media, or you’re not adjacent to any of it. You're just a normal civilian who's keeping up on this stuff. Suddenly, you don't know who's who in the zoo. You don’t know who to trust. In 2016, that dynamic created a whole level of agita for a lot of people. And, and frankly, I think that dynamic has kind of sorted itself out in a way that the other ones haven't so much: the people who used to have audiences no longer do, as a lot of those folks have gone to listen to other commentators. Many of these newer voices are a lot more interesting than the old ones used to be.
Yeah. It’s one thing that's been frustrating to see, especially with the professional GOP NeverTrump crowd. If you still labeled yourself as NeverTrump after he was elected in 2016, it was a grift, because it didn't make sense. And I was once a part of NeverTrump. I'm not good enough to be a grifter, so I didn't make a dime out of it; I guess I'm stupid about that stuff. But I voted third party, for the weed dude, Gary Johnson, in 2016.
Well, I was totally wrong because I was concerned that he wouldn't get the right judges, and that he wasn’t conservative enough. I’ve been burned by so many people who promised to be conservative and then flip when they're in office. But after he won, I thought, “all right, let's, let's ride this out.”
I watched his actions in office and I'm like, “well, I agree with that. Oh, and that, and that, oh, he actually did appoint pretty darn good judges that were conservative.” And he actually stuck behind them when the pressure was against them. And so he ended up earning my vote for 2020. And I think that's the frustration seeing so many people that I respect going into this dizzying Orange Man Bad panic tailspin. You need some humility. You’re a pundit, and when you get something wrong, you have to say, “Hey, I got that wrong. And here's what I've learned from it. And I'm going to trim my sales.” So I don't make that mistake in the future. And that's kind of been the frustration about it, seeing so many people unwilling to realize that it's a different time. The clock has moved on, and what solutions might've worked in a think tank in 1994 don't apply anymore.
Look, I agree with you. I think we had an almost an identical path. For most of 2016, I did not really support Trump. I mean, I supported him after he was nominated, but I was a Cruz guy. Like you, I didn't trust him. We had been burned so many times.
Before he was inaugurated, I noticed that a lot of the Russia stories that were starting to dribble out. Maybe the biggest one for me was the Alfa Bank story by Franklin Foer in Slate, which was debunked within, I don’t know, 30 minutes. So, I work in this field; I know how stories like these are created. It’s clear that there was a tremendous amount of money, time, people, and other kinds of resources that were brought to bear very specifically in tainting Trump as an agent of Russia.
And I knew that, if there was fire there, it would be immediately apparent. And I started looking around and I started to see what these people were alleging as parts of a grand conspiracy. And again, I have some experience with these kinds of national security vulnerabilities, people who are compromised, and influence operations. I mean, that's been my bread and butter. So I'm looking at this and thinking, “this is bullshit.” And so if I was kind of agnostic about Trump until Election Day, by that December, I was fully on board--and furious about what the media and Democrats were doing.
And not just Demorcrats, of course. Throughout 2017, you still had deadbeat Republican Members of Congress and Senators who earnestly believed that this guy's an agent of Putin. I mean, these people deserve to be homeless; they should be on the streets begging for money. I’m not saying that because I think they're bad people—though I do--but I'm saying that because I think they're stupid.
Right. They were gullible. They shouldn't be allowed outside of the house without a safety helmet on.
Yeah. Look at John McCain. He went to the Senate floor and thunderously condemned anyone who dared raise a question about Huma Abedin's family background, calling them un-American. Her parents are documented, up-and-down, fully 100% percent Muslim Brotherhood. People were saying, “Hey, how did she get a security clearance? What's the process for figuring out who gets a clearance?” For that John McCain pulled out all the stops to defend her honor.
But he had no problem whatsoever advancing and promoting every possible conspiracy theory about Putin and Trump. Why? Because he hated them, and he liked Huma personally. And that that's offensive to me, not really as a partisan, but as somebody who tries to be right about some of these things. People like David French, I think, still believe that Trump is a Russian agent, and there's nothing you can possibly do to convince him. These folks are crazy.
I was given several chances to move to DC and be another cog in the machine. I always said no. There are a few examples of people who maintain their soul inside the Beltway, but mostly you get your jersey and you defend your friends and your team; you attack your perceived enemies who might criticize your think tank or whatever it might be. You get in your little tribe and you can't leave; you’re just in this blinkered position where you can't see the big picture.
That's another thing that I'm always kind of going on about, which is the failure of the institutions-- not only the ones that we think about every day, like the government, media and education, etc—but the whole constellation of professional policy people within the Beltway. And I knew a lot of these folks, and many were friends. I always thought that they were serious people.
Let's say, for example, the people on the Russia beat: the professional think tank people who studied Russia. I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they knew what they were talking about. But the Trump-Russia story really opened my eyes because, almost to a man, nearly everyone who was supposed to be a legit scholar or expert in their topic fell for this obvious hoax. Nearly every single one.
Partly, it was because they were disfigured with hatred by Trump. But also, if you spend years obsessing over one particular enemy, you get a weird myopic view about them. On one hand, you assume that they're 10 feet tall, hyper-competent, and have the ability to do anything. And you also see them as having capacity and motivation for doing unlimited evil. Anything bad that you can dream up, your enemy is probably doing it. It’s bad analysis. What was amazing was watching this happen is just seeing the expert class collapsing. It was a real eye-opener for me, and I know for a lot of other people too.
Not only is the expert class collapsing, but they’re not even trying to hide the collapse anymore. Before, they would adjust their tie and straighten their Brooks Brothers suit. They’d say, “I'm very important and I'm intellectual and I'm rational.” Suddenly, they just threw all caution to the wind. You have respected presidential historians doing Nazi conspiracy theories about White House Rose Garden design. And you're like, okay, these guys have completely lost their minds and why should I trust them about anything?
General Michael Hayden used to be the Director of National Intelligence, for crying out loud. And this guy is an unhinged maniac. I always think of what my friend Molly Hemingway always says, that the greatest thing about Twitter is that we get to see that journalists and pundits are completely out of their minds. I mean, Hayden was using Nazi analogies and talking about Auschwitz during the Trump years, like a DailyKos blogger from the Bush era. A straight up lunatic, and he was running the CIA.
Now one thing I ask my guests is about any song they might've listened to recently, or anything they can recommend. You are a jazz expert. Is there any song we can put in our Spotify playlist for the podcast? I'd love to throw on whatever song pops into your brain that we can give to our listeners.
I was listening to earlier today was Keith Jarrett's record, “My Song,” with his European Quartet from 1978 on ECM. It's a beautiful, modern jazz record. And it's something that really doesn't sound like it's from the same harmonic tradition as classic swing or Tin Pan Alley tradition. But it's still, you know, exquisitely played and beautifully recorded. And it’s a Keith Jarrett masterpiece.
All right. And just to keep on the jazz theme: Charlie Mingus was born in beautiful Nogales, Arizona. “Mingus Ah Uhm” is my favorite album by him. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is probably the most famous tune off that album, but I love the opener because when I'm in a down mood, I just play it and feel great. It's “Better Get It in Your Soul.” He would be a little playful, which I like about Charlie Mingus. And I don't know, he seemed to come kind of tangential to a lot of different seeds going on and I always just liked his style. So I will put that on the playlist for our listeners.
Well, you can't get better than Mingus. He is someone who changed my life completely. I'll never forget the first time I heard one of his records--for the rest of the day, my mouth was open. I felt like something had profoundly changed in my universe. And that recording was “Tijuana Moods,” and the song was “Ysabel's Table Dance.”
On the Turntable
This is one of the classic bootlegs of all time, and the recording that got me definitively good and hooked on Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Twenty five years after leading the Tropicalia movement, the two friends released a collaborative album. The tour that followed found them with two acoustic guitars, singing their songs together. The playing and the harmonies are wonderful, and you can really hear and appreciate the construction of the songs.