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March 22, 2007

Know Thy Conservatives

I forgot to link to this when it came out, but Sam Tanenhouse's list of essential readings to understand movement conservatives is very good. I'm mainly glad to see George Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America make the cut, as it should be read by any and every politico interested in how ideas interface with public life. It's also a book that, sadly, has no corollary on the liberal side. Were I smarter, more thoughtful, and possessed of a more impressive attention span, I'd write one.

Speaking of which, something struck me as odd, rather than just humorous, about Jonah Goldberg's promise that his book is "a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care." Putting aside that the argument seems pretty unserious, and it's never been done with such detail or care because other writers had too much self-respect to spend 300 pages comparing Hillary Clinton to Benito Mussolini, it's sort of a weird thing for Jonah -- or any writer like Jonah, including me -- to pretend that a book produced over the past few years is a serious, intense work of scholarship.

Scholarship requires sustained time, and attention. That's why so many book writers go on extended periods of leave, without blogs, without work. Jonah Goldberg, however, writes a column for The National Review, a column for The LA Times, contributes radio commentaries to NPR, does various panels, book reviews, feature articles, and media appearances, and blogs about 35 times a day. I'm perfectly willing to believe that Jonah has written a very fine -- though disagreeable -- polemic. But I find it unlikely that he managed to compress years of serious study into the space between posting time wasters and completing columns. It's one of the drawbacks of of being a blogger. Given the number of bloggers writing books, and given how many of them have been subpar, it'll be interesting to see if anyone figures out a better way to meld the two forms. Trying to ape what authors with years of concentrated time for study and thought produce, however, strikes me as unlikely to produce very satisfying results.

March 22, 2007 | Permalink


In his defense, he has been working on this for, like, a decade. I'm sure it's been spent in libraries, conducting research, seriously mulling complicated ideas, and so forth. I mean, it must've taken a couple months alone to come up with the concept of the Hitler-mustached smiley face for the cover. That's gold!

Posted by: Ankush | Mar 22, 2007 5:16:29 PM

Hey, some great books are written quickly. Take _Homage to Catalonia_. Granted, that was journalism more than anything else, but it is great.

JG, of course, is beneath notice.

Posted by: wcw | Mar 22, 2007 5:25:17 PM

Isn't he just asking his readers to do the research for him? Not sure if this is for the same book:

WANTED: HERBERT SPENCER EXPERT [Jonah Goldberg]I'm working on a chapter of the book which requires me to read a lot about and by Herbert Spencer. There's simply no way I can read all of it, nor do I really need to. But if there are any real experts on Spencer out there -- regardless of ideological affiliation -- I'd love to ask you a few questions in case I'm missing something.


Posted by: sweetloaf | Mar 22, 2007 5:26:15 PM

Isn't he just asking his readers to do the research for him?

Not his readers, but a research assistant. He must think he's a university professor.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 22, 2007 5:59:04 PM

I disagree, Ezra. I think you can make a fair case that Andrew Sullivan, for example, has written a thoughtful, original book. Non-academics like Lippman and Kennan wrote influential books with novel ideas, too.

A book need not be the product of decades of scholarship to be "a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care."

None of this means that Jonah's "Take _That_, Liberals, Vol. LXXVI" is actually going to reflect a level of thought that Hugh Hewitt or Rush Limbaugh have been unable to achieve, but I do think you're setting the bar too high on the principle.

Posted by: Elvis Elvisberg | Mar 22, 2007 7:55:29 PM

Lippman and Kennan certainly wrote serious, ranging books of scholarship - but they took the time to do it! My point is more on the fractured mental schedule blogging imposes, not at all to suggest only academics can write books.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 22, 2007 8:24:33 PM

Andrew Sullivan's book also can not be called a serious, intense work of scholarship. I doubt he himself would accept that characterization.

Posted by: Korha | Mar 22, 2007 8:30:42 PM

Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks on one long roll of teletype paper. A book that I worship.

Jonah Goldberg, however, could spend his life writing up his magnum opus, and I still wouldn't use it to wipe my ass.

Posted by: Buckeye Hamburger | Mar 22, 2007 10:15:26 PM

What are the essential readings in liberal thought? Just curious, as a college age progressive activist I can't really think of any. Dewey?

Posted by: charlie | Mar 22, 2007 10:19:35 PM

Lots of people have asked charlie - the answer, I think, is that liberalism isn't l;ike conservativsm; its very modernism and consideration of alternative ideas means that there's really no "stone tablets" laying out liberal order like there is for conservatives. Conservatives take this "we have a philosophy" stuff very seriously... so seriously, in fact, that it drains much of what might otherwise engage or interest anyone in following them. Too many rules. But that's a liberal for you. :)

To that point, Goldberg did take more than a year off to do research and work, I expect. on several drafts, so I think Ezra's being somewhat unfair here. I think the problem is, as I mentioned, that he's not a book length idea man. I'll probably glance at it in the store and check out excerpts. But I suspect rather than being polemical, ot's actually dry and more than a little over earnest and drained of much of the situational, spot humor that really makes his writing click When you're bidding to be taken seriously, out go the Star Trek and Simpsons jokes.

But that's just a hunch.

Posted by: weboy | Mar 22, 2007 10:30:44 PM

I normally avoid doing this but have you noticed mike kinsley's flameout on Time's blog? It's really horrible to watch. kinsley's obviously under the influence of something. As Atrios suggested, it might be mercury. I'm voting it's lead.

Posted by: ice weasel | Mar 22, 2007 11:29:50 PM

Perhaps the time writing for a blog includes (and is the stuff of) serious research?

I wouldn't apply this to Jonah at all, but might I offer up David Neiwert as a good example?

Posted by: Dan (Fitness) | Mar 23, 2007 2:28:13 AM

People. For fuck's sake, it's Jonah Goldberg. Everything he's ever done up to this point has been decidedly unserious. He's a Bushian anti-intellectual: Somebody who's reasonably intelligent, but lazy, and either envious or threatened by those who have the drive and focus to produce cogent works of lasting value.

The genius of guys like Jonah--who, I will concede, might have succeceded without his ma's help, but not to the degree that he has--is in how they only have to pull down the works or philosophies of others, never having to bother to offer a valid and reasoned counterpoint. (Remember JG's pathetic "I shall now take a victory lap" show of false bravado after Juan Cole humiliated him the first time in a debate about the Iraq war?) Destroying is ALWAYS easier than creating--it took twelve years to make the first atomic bomb, and 1/1,000,000 of a second to blow it up. Jonah is a provocateur who has contributed precious little original thought to political discourse. He makes up for that dearth with a quantity of superficially pursuasive frat-boy polemic and intellectual cowardice.

God, I wish reasonable progressives and lefties would just ignore him.

Posted by: jimmm | Mar 23, 2007 9:08:44 AM

Fittingly, one of Jonah's themes is that liberals do not discuss liberal philosophy or have an idea of their movement’s origins. We, allegedly, have no canon in the same way that conservatives do. In the narrowly defined way he describes it there might be some truth to that (we have no Buckley or Nash), though, obviously, most liberals (to varying degrees) have been directly or indirectly influenced by thinkers such as Rawls, Mill, Marx, Dewey, William James, Charles Beard, Jefferson, Locke, Tocqueville, and maybe Rorty, Habermas, Nietzsche, and various post-Structuralists. Though the latter are more likely to be taken up by "Leftists," who anyway probably have a better sense of where they get their ideas.

Maybe Ezra, you should spend some time putting together a list of books that you think encompasses a modern liberal or progressive perspective and that would help young liberals understand their philosophy better. I would be interested to see what you came up with.

Posted by: Castorp | Mar 23, 2007 9:55:12 AM

Enormous fan of books myself, but in some ways I think one kind of list that could"encompass[] a modern liberal or progressive perspective and . . . that would help young liberals understand their philosophy better" might have quite a few things on it - not just book titles, that is, but lots of (gov't) programs, historical events, actions, etc. Maybe?

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 23, 2007 11:05:00 AM

I'd bet anything that Jonah Goldberg's book will be at least as thoughtful as liberal academic Alan Wolfe's article comparing modern conservatives to a Nazi philosopher.

Posted by: John Doe | Mar 23, 2007 11:25:23 AM

God, I wish reasonable progressives and lefties would just ignore him.

So are you not a reasonable progressive, or is this weakness of will? There's a fair bit of unintended irony throughout your post, I think.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 23, 2007 11:49:34 AM

Weakness of will, Sanpete. Does that make me any less correct? No.

Instruct me: What's ironic about my post (other than that I commented on a third-party discussion of a person whose writing I generally avoid)?

Posted by: jimmmm | Mar 23, 2007 12:01:45 PM

Castorp: A lot of what Libs believe is, quite ironically, found in the Gospels. Gross oversimplification, I'm sure. But not entirely unsupportable.

Posted by: jimmmm | Mar 23, 2007 12:05:31 PM

Jim, there's also the juxtaposition of your reference to envy and your reference to Jonah's career being helped by his mother, followed by your comment that he has to pull down the work of others without offering a serious counterpoint. Just noticing ...

Good point about the Gospels, though biblical support cuts both ways.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 23, 2007 12:17:48 PM

There's a related thread about liberal books here.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 23, 2007 12:19:20 PM

Another related thread on liberal books and Jonah Goldberg here.

Posted by: Sanpete | Mar 23, 2007 12:31:05 PM

Sanpete thanks for the link. Not sure how I missed that, but it's interesting.

Posted by: Castorp | Mar 23, 2007 12:46:34 PM

Also, regarding your second link. I think Paul Starr's new book might be a start to what Ezra was discussing there and what Jonah has also mentioned:


Posted by: Castorp | Mar 23, 2007 12:50:18 PM

The blogging, the columns, the commentaries, the personal appearances...

and the meals...dont forget all the time taken up by the meals...

Posted by: Ray | Mar 23, 2007 12:56:48 PM

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