« Silly | Main | Sentinels! »

June 29, 2007

With Great Publishing Contracts Comes Great Responsibility

Sean Carroll comments:

I don't think "You shouldn't be talking about Hegel unless you've spent several years reading his works in the original German, along with the most important secondary sources" is the right angle for the Jonah-mockery to take. If we're not allowed to talk about the works of thinkers about which we are not as knowledgeable as the world's true experts, the public discourse would become a little arid.

I agree. Which means I should probably, just this once, take a break from mockery (Actually, this isn't such an either/or choice. What follows is a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care) and make my critique of Goldberg a little more explicit, because there's actually a reason so many on the left are taking aim at the book.

It's certainly allowable to muck about with the works of thinkers you've not comprehensively read, or even particularly understand. But that has to be balanced -- particularly in certain mediums -- with an understanding of what the reader is expecting, and, more to the point, assuming. Blogs, for instance, are largely about puncturing the writerly authority that permeates more established forms of published expression. I feel no compunction about spouting off half-cocked in this space. Not so with articles, or op-eds, where the very fact of your entrance into the medium denotes your passage through a gatekeeping mechanism which, in theory, is meant to assure readers of your credibility and fluency with the relevant material. Dead tree material doesn't have links, or comment sections, and most of it doesn't offer footnotes. The audiences, rather, have been taught to trust the writers, or at least the reputation of the outlet. That places a different burden on the author.

And books are all the worse. They are artifacts of erudition and learning. It's problematic, as they actually go through far less editing and fact-checking than the average magazine article. But the tangible weight of a book, the mass of its pages, the blurbs on the back, and the entire literary culture exist largely to imbue these tomes with a very, very high level of authority. The reader is told, implicitly, that no one who didn't fully understand what they were talking about could complete such a large project, or amass praise from such distinguished personages, or get a contract with a major publisher, or be placed on a book table near truly great tomes.

These are the heuristics Jonah's book will rely on as it makes its case for "liberal fascism." The inclusion of thinkers like Hegel will only add to its projected aura of intellectual mastery. And yet, in everything Jonah writes about it, in every preview and early glimpse we've been offered, it looks like the platonic form of hackish overreach. The switch from a subtitle featuring Hillary Clinton to one elevating Hegel was to make the book look all the more serious, even as it's still the same book that was meant to appeal to the audience of braying morlocks who purchase Coulter's venom-drenched slash fiction. And given Jonah's demonstrated tendency to always go for the partisan jab rather than address the actual issue, it's unlikely that this book will offer anything different. Indeed, how could it, given that he's also been writing a weekly column for both The LA Times and The National Review, and 92 daily blog posts, and magazine pieces? But unsuspecting readers won't have all that context. They'll just know it's a book, with a provocative title, a namecheck to a famed philosopher, and all the assumed authority that comes with a publishing contract and a book tour.

So this deserves mockery, at least till some counterevidence is introduced. And given that every time Goldberg tries to assure critics of his book that they're doing him wrong, he inadvertently reveals how cosmically awful this effort is likely to be, I think it's actually the duty of all right-thinking people to question why anything in this book should be believed, and why anyone should take it seriously.

And finally, I'm tired of the right-wing publishing paradigm. The Party of Death, Liberal Fascism. Unhinged. Slander. Godless. Etc, etc. This stuff is insulting, embarrassing, and hackish, and it's long past time that got pointed out, again and again. Right wing authors who want to be respected should demand that their publishers let them write respectable books. If they don't, there's no reason anyone need ignore that choice. Were Jonah's book either on an inoffensive topic, or on some topic he seemed in real control of, I'd probably just ignore the thing. But so long as he's slurring my ideology as fascistic and doing so through a lot of intellectual hand-waving and rhetorical fireworks, it's worth pointing out what a farce this all is.

June 29, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

All this mockery notwithstanding, poor Jonah Lucianne should find solace in the fact that all great authors of the eras gone by were ridiculed by their detractors before the passage of history proved their works to be seminal masterpieces that shifted paradigms of prior hackneyed formulations.

Posted by: gregor | Jun 29, 2007 1:38:44 PM

So this deserves mockery, at least till some counterevidence is introduced.

Cool. Maybe a thread or two per day until Jonah refutes it. It's important to definitively settle this issue before the book comes out. And to have a few more threads in which people can post about how hackish Jonah is, how he only has his job because of his mother, where he went to school, his demonstrated tendency to attack personalities rather than their ideas, etc. We'll all be Jonah experts, and better for it.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 29, 2007 1:40:38 PM

Ezra,
"Morlock" is not a good pejorative; your class biases are showing.

Remember where it came from: H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. The Morlocks were descendants of the industrial proletariat; the Eloi were descendants of the idle rich. Morlocks ate Eloi. Wells thought it was a good idea.

Otherwise, a good post.

Posted by: Joe S. | Jun 29, 2007 1:52:17 PM

Nah, my culture is showing. My Morlocks come from the X-men.

Posted by: Ezra | Jun 29, 2007 1:57:51 PM

He who is tired of throwing rotted fruit at Jonah Goldberg is tired of life.

If we're not allowed to talk about the works of thinkers about which we are not as knowledgeable as the world's true experts, the public discourse would become a little arid.

On the contrary, I fail to see how the public discourse suffers if Ezra is inhibited from offering half-baked opinions on Wittgenstein, or Kevin Drum is reluctant to hold forth on Schopenhauer after having read 30 pages of him on a flight.

Moreover, it isn't simply about Jonah having an opinion about Hegel. Rather, the scope of the his proposed project is far outside and beyond Jonah's competence, if his prior work is any evidence. Jonah has not only to demonstrate a grasp of Hegel's ideas, but also to show that those ideas have manifested themselves in the main currents of American liberalism. This in the absence of any obvious institutional connection between Hegel's writing and abolitionism, populism, the progressive era, civil rights, feminism.

Someone as erudite as Louis Menand might be up to the task, if the central thesis had anything to be said for it. But Goldberg doesn't really even have any idea how much he's bitten off. It's like Evel Knievel, drunk in a bar, seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon on a calendar and boasting that he can jump a motorcycle over it (true story, btw).

Posted by: kth | Jun 29, 2007 2:29:27 PM

He who is tired of throwing rotted fruit at Jonah Goldberg is tired of life.

Or rotted fruit.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 29, 2007 2:36:15 PM

And finally, I'm tired of the right-wing publishing paradigm. The Party of Death, Liberal Fascism. Unhinged. Slander. Godless. Etc, etc. This stuff is insulting, embarrassing, and hackish, and it's long past time that got pointed out, again and again. Right wing authors who want to be respected should demand that their publishers let them write respectable books. If they don't, there's no reason anyone need ignore that choice.

Are you sick of the mirror image in the left-wing publishing industry? Consider Chris Hedges (NY Times reporter) putting out a book called "American Fascists," by which he means conservative Christians. Has he been raked over the coals by liberal blogs? Not that I've seen. They're more likely to fawn all over him. Then there's Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy. Michael Moore's Stupid White Men. Al Franken's Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. I could go on and on. Not that all of these books are worthless drivel, but they're hardly scholarly and sophisticated and free of hackishness.

Posted by: John Doe | Jun 29, 2007 2:37:33 PM

Um, John Doe, Rick Perlstein, who has impeccable liberal credentials (he's even a liberal blogger!), actually panned the Hedges book in the New York Times Book Review:
http://tinyurl.com/2ejc4n
And even if the Hedges book is not very good, I'll bet it looks like Hannah Arendt compared to likes of Jonah et al.

In general, liberal reviewers are far more likely than conservatives to be critical of books they consider to be substandard -- even if those books are written by their ideological comrades. That's because liberal writers tend to more intellectually honest than conservatives by several orders of magnitude. Our writers and intellectuals on the left still care a lot about things like standards and integrity, even if the market doesn't reward them.

But for today's conservatives, it's almost never a case that the ends don't justify the means, and consequently moral and intellectual standards on the right tend to be shamefully low. The whole intellectual superstructure of the right, starting from the hacktackular "think" tanks and wingnut publishing imprints down and continuing to the lowliest right-wing newspaper columnists, is a shambles and a freaking disgrace. If I was a conservative I'd hang my head in shame.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Jun 29, 2007 2:56:20 PM

Jonah get's named as hackish, because he is, you know, hackish, and very consistently so. In this consistency is not a moral virtue. When a dog is thought be talking, and someone points out that the dog is in fact gagging on gristle, a moral good is being served.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 29, 2007 3:02:44 PM

John Doe, to sustain your point about "American Theocracy" being de facto irresponsible, you'd have to argue that there exists no significant cadre of theocrats in America.

Which is impossible.

While, on the other hand, there are no "liberal fascists." Which is why Jonah Golberg will require Hegel to make his point, which, I imagine will rely massively on arid abstractions.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein | Jun 29, 2007 3:21:55 PM

John Doe,

While I may not agree with using the term "fat" as a pejorative, Rush Limbaugh - or at least his public persona - is a big idiot.

As for the rest of your examples, if that's the best you can find of out-of-control liberal books, then we should thank you for proving Ezra's point.

Posted by: Stephen | Jun 29, 2007 3:31:16 PM

In general, liberal reviewers are far more likely than conservatives to be critical of books they consider to be substandard -- even if those books are written by their ideological comrades.

Says who? Didn't you notice, for example, the many conservatives who panned D'Souza's latest book?

Posted by: John Doe | Jun 29, 2007 3:32:34 PM

Perhaps; still, the conservative base and conservative intellectuals alike continue to warmly clasp to their bosom a truly nauseating and despicable cast of hacks (John Podhoretz), liars (Rush Limbaugh), frauds (John Lott), and crazy people (Ann Coulter). All of these folks gleefully ride the rails of the wingnut welfare express, landing lucrative speaking gigs, sweet publishing deals and cushy "think" tank jobs. From time to time a prominent conservative may be critical of these folks, but that is extremely rare.

There is simply nothing comparable to this on the left. Yeah yeah, I know: you'll probably drag out the names of Ward Churchill ('cause he's, like, so prominent, and so wildly popular among liberals!) and Michael Moore (because what he does is *exactly* the equivalent of Ann Coulter, of course). But that's bullshit and you know it.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Jun 29, 2007 3:52:45 PM

That's because liberal writers tend to more intellectually honest than conservatives by several orders of magnitude.

Well, liberals are certainly convinced of that, at least. I don't see a big difference overall.

for today's conservatives, it's almost never a case that the ends don't justify the means, and consequently moral and intellectual standards on the right tend to be shamefully low

That explains it!

If I was a conservative I'd hang my head in shame.

If you were a conservative you'd probably think the same thing about liberals.

you'd have to argue that there exists no significant cadre of theocrats in America

Easy to argue because it's true. There is no significant cadre of Americans who favor religious authority running the country. There is a significant cadre of Americans who favor the leaders of the country relying on personal religious beliefs, who want the government to be hospitable to religion, and so on. And there are a lot of people who want to paint that as theocracy.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 29, 2007 4:00:55 PM

While I agree with Sanpete - this argument is old and a bit universal - the idealist in me says some of this appears to have run its course; I don't get the impression that the crop of screechy ideologues on either side have been exactly burning up the book sales list. Coulter's probably the notable exception, and she's taken to packaging her columns (one of the previous ones, and the next one) in an effort to stretch thin credibility but so much further; seems like she's running out of ideas to assail the left with (and indeed, she's way more savvy than most that what people really want is a celebrity with a shtick, which she's more than happy to provide).

I think there's only so much "no, you suck" literature the market can bear; and a lot of the arguments on either side are starting to feel a bit old. But more to the point, the whole we're great/you suck approach to politics is making less sense on the issues we're increasingly finding ourselves faced with. And so the Fox news screamers seem sinking more and more into the trivial (the hours spent on Paris Hilton are mind numbing), and the screed writers seem more and more overblown; even Ponnuru seemed somewhat embarrassed to have "Party of Death" attached to his ideas, while D'Souza's "let's blame gays and feminism for 9/11" pretty much got laughed out of the room just as everyone expected. And I'd point to some example from the left... but honestly, I can't be bothered to read them.

To be honest, I took Goldberg at his word, at first. He seemed terribly serious, and earnest, describing all the work he was doing. But increasingly - and really, the subtitle is just a more public example - it's clear Goldberg's natural tendency to be glib is undermining any serious mission. If the best he's got is that liberalism looks a lot like fascism... well, I think we can all hit the snooze button. That's going to add essentially nothing to any constructive debate. Which is a shame really: it's the very search for some pretentious mantle tat hurts Goldberg and shows his real strengths so poorly - a real gift for a turn of phrase, and a slightly jaundiced eye to the political scene. I'm kind of hoping that the lesson he learns is to keep his day job.

Posted by: weboy | Jun 29, 2007 4:24:07 PM

Weboy,

"to be honest [you] too goldberg at his word, at first. he seemed terribl serious, and earnest, describing all the work he was doing?"

That's the funniest thing I've ever read, aside from Jonah's other stabs at being serious and earnest, like the time he attacked Juan cole for the temerity to think that some (any!) subject matter expertise might be required for serious commentary on the middle east and the Iraq war. Unles Jonah suffered some massive brain trauma and changed his entire personality an accidentally received a stunningly good education and work ethic as the result of a piston driven through the appropriate section of his brain (sorry, I've been reading the Economist's rehash of brain research) he hasn't done, read, thought, or learned anything since he burst on the national intellectual scene that would make him an adequate commentator on toddler pool olympics, let alone "the poltical scene." A jaundiced eye isn't something that applies to one and only one half of a binary political scene. It either applies across the board or its just another word for partisan hackery.

aimai

aimai

Posted by: aimai | Jun 29, 2007 4:40:11 PM

Coulter's venom-drenched slash fiction

Slash fiction? Coulter writes slash? Are you misusing that phrase, or did I miss something? :D

Posted by: rmb | Jun 29, 2007 4:40:55 PM

books are all the worse. They are artifacts of erudition and learning.

I remember feeling uneasy the first time I saw the proofs of something I wrote. There's something about how typed work demands greater standards than handwritten, and typeset work even more so. You're no longer comparing your work to other people's essays and theses, but to other books.

The next stage is to realise that an awful lot of books are published every year, and lots of them are very very bad. Indeed, entire imprints exist for the publication of cheap and nasty pseudo-analytical nonfiction. Regnery is the inheritor of the grand tradition of Grub Street and its penny-worders.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 29, 2007 4:44:58 PM

shows his real strengths so poorly - a real gift for a turn of phrase, and a slightly jaundiced eye to the political scene

"Strengths" such as these, are so trivially dime-a-dozen as to be nearly irrelevant. The idea that someone is to be admired because he/she can affect a borderline wittiness and a vaguely jaded air--and otherwise show not the slightest self-awareness or comprehension of reality--flat-out revolts me, as do the prime examples of same: P.J. O'Rourke, Bill Buckley, etc. etc. ad nauseam.

The blogs didn't become a godsend for me because they specialized in this kind of wanking. They did so because of a passion for telling the truth as reasonably as it could be verified, and an impatience for the kind of sophist PR-bullshit games that passed for 'enlightened discourse' in the conventional media.

Posted by: Captain Goto | Jun 29, 2007 5:00:19 PM

Oh, boo on you, Captain and aimai; I'm not giving Goldberg that much credit, but he's an amusing read on occasion (we are also very close in age, and I suspect temperament),and I don't think he's nearly as hackish as some at NR (Ponnuru and Stanley Kurtz immediately spring to mind, shortly followed by David Frum). Yes, he's myopic about "my side good, your side bad" issues, but I find that all the more hilarious... he says stuff and it's just so... wrong. So wrong I can't even bothered to be offended. But I will tell you that he listens to feedback, and he's learning a few things as he goes. That can't be all bad. I think it's easier - and a smidge more telling - to dismiss Goldberg as one of those unserious academic types of Generation X who use sardonic worldview to cover for thin preparation. I thought maybe he'd gotten past that for his book. So he didn't. I don't think he merits quite the venom some want to aim his way. Were his ambitions more dangerously aimed at world domination, maybe. But as a modestly successful Washington columnist, is he really that crucial?

Posted by: weboy | Jun 29, 2007 6:25:12 PM

This absurdity of the "can't we all just get along" faction on the topic of Jonah Goldberg just gets deeper and broader. This is politics, not philosophical discourse. It's a contest unsuited to prissyness.

In politics, if your opponents are foolish enough to recruit an utter boob as hack and place him in a prominent journalistic perch, you emphasize that fact at every opportunity said hack is certain to provide. In fact, not pointing out such egregious incompetence in judgement would be a dereliction of civic duty.

You do not, by default, allow said boob to degrade the standard of what is acceptable in political discourse to your detriment. Certainly not to satisfy a pose of self-righteous, oneupsmanship.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jun 29, 2007 7:36:15 PM

I think Ezra's got it exactly right. Indeed, I would take it one step further. I think that part of the conceit of modern conservative anti-intellectualism is to equivalence their hacks with serious thinkers. There simply is nobody on the right drawing distinctions between what Jonah Goldberg does and what, say, Ronald Dworkin does. Everyone is ideological, everyone is political, we're all a bunch of hacks. Just as there's no difference between Fox News on the right and NPR on the left.

We have to defend the idea of scholarship. This doesn't mean that serious scholars are always right, or that they aren't sometimes ideological. But just because Michelle Malkin writes a book doesn't make her an expert on the history of Japanese internment.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Jun 29, 2007 9:31:17 PM

I think that part of the conceit of modern conservative anti-intellectualism is to equivalence their hacks with serious thinkers.

The corollary is that the Cornerites regularly claim that they can draw upon a Great Conservative Canon that liberals lack. The implication -- though they at least have the sense not to say it aloud -- is that they are the literary heirs of Burke and Hayek. Uh, nah.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 29, 2007 9:37:12 PM

You do not, by default, allow said boob to degrade the standard of what is acceptable in political discourse to your detriment.

Indeed, we must degrade it ourselves to save it! The detriment of that, after all, is only to our character and to intangibles like good faith and good will. Really, what are those worth in politics? They're mere flags of self-righteousness. And how else could we possibly oppose a force like Jonah? Nothing less than character assassination and every other low rhetorical tool can counter the force of such a man.

Let's make sure that Kathy's words apply to us: "it's almost never a case that the ends don't justify the means."

There simply is nobody on the right drawing distinctions between what Jonah Goldberg does and what, say, Ronald Dworkin does.

Of course not. All conservatives are the same; we know that.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 29, 2007 9:38:02 PM

"He who is tired of throwing rotted fruit at Jonah Goldberg is tired of life.

Or rotted fruit."

"Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."
--Groucho Marx

Posted by: jmack | Jun 30, 2007 12:03:23 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.