Posted by: captainfalcon | October 29, 2010

Jonah Goldberg proves he is vapid

Poor Jonah Goldberg. He is literate enough to know that there are terms – Marxism, Pragmatism, ideology – that name some sophisticated concepts, but he’s too stupid, or lazy, or apathetic to wrestle with the concepts directly. Instead, he uses a proxy. He looks to what concrete political programs some of the famous people who have worked with these concepts have happened to support, and assumes that the concepts, or what’s important about the concepts, are coextensive with the programs. (Suffice it to say, by way of debunking the linked post, that philosophical Pragmatism has nothing to do with trying to find workable, compromise, non-divisive solutions to political problems.

It makes sense that this is what he does. He is, after all, a partisan political journalist. The only thing those he respects (and whose respect he craves) care about is whether they can get away with fitting the latest political happening into a category that taps into popular approval or disapprobation. (Can what such-and-such lefty proposed today be described as “socialist?” Can what such-and-such right-winger did be described as “Reagan-esque?”) In his universe, all that matters is into which box the day’s political news can be fit. Everything else is white noise.

And this, of course, is the key to why Goldberg embarrasses himself when he encounters the work of those who, in their professional lives, couldn’t give a toss about fitting concrete political happenings into emotionally-charged categories. Because he can’t imagine anything else mattering, he reads their work as if that’s all they care about – as if whatever they write is just a brief in favor of the time-bound enthusiasms of the political faction with which they’re aligned. In his world, after all, the proxy works. (The irony is that he thereby proves how utterly vacuous his profession is. It’s output, he implies, is properly treated as merely reflecting the particulates in the political air – reading it is not really necessary even for those whose business is to deal with it.)

I have two further points to make about the game Goldberg is in (viz. “getting away with fitting the latest political happening into a category that taps into popular approval or disapprobation.”)

First, while it is vacuous, it has a point. As I explain at greater length in a comment, one of the few ways movementarians can actually change things is by repeating, ad nauseam, the thankless task of trying to fit as many happenings as they can get away with into categories that connect with pre-existing popular attitudes. A contrived example (literally from whole cloth!): by portraying discrete, unconnected terrorist plots as an overarching campaign by “Muslims who hate us,” and then equating “Muslims who hate us” with “Iran,” one increases the perceived frequency with which Iran harms the United States. This generates an opportunity for an enterprising movement to position itself as the solution to a fabricated-real-problem (that is: the type – wanting to harm America – is already recognized as problematic, but the instantiation of the problem is made up).

Second, Goldberg and his ilk (read: partisan hacks) come eerily close to engaging in doublethink. (See this series of posts, and here.) They know – the have to know – that they are in the game of spinning the news. At the same time, the Cornerites work themselves into a bona fide lather about how the country is careening towards socialism (etc.). But it is precisely their disingenuous efforts to force political news into these emotionally-charged categories that’s generating the perception of the problem in the first place!

As in 1984, it is the members of the Inner Party who are most passionate about tilting at the windmills they knowingly (but also unknowingly) project.

Update: It occurs to me that the idea of fitting happenings into categories that connect with pre-existing popular attitudes is helpful in distinguishing between radical and reformist critiques. Reformist critiques are aimed at changing the frequency with which happenings actually fit, or are perceived as fitting, into these sorts of attitudinally-charged categories (e.g. reduce the amount of government waste, or change perceptions about whether abortion is murder.) Radical critiques are aimed at adding to, or subtracting from, the set of attitudinally-charged categories (e.g. make it so that “threats to America” aren’t any worse than threats to other countries, or make it so that what you achieve through hard work is not immediately relevant to what you deserve, or make it so that the fact that there are starving poor people is irrelevant to public policy, etc.) And, given that the attitudinally-charged categories are usually interlocking and connected to deeper impulses, radical critiques tend to have an expansive scope.

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