De te fabular narratur

by Chris Bertram on May 29, 2004

I just read “a particularly egregious column from Jonah Goldberg”:,,482-1126901,00.html in the London Times. The Times is only freely available to people within the UK, so I thought I’d surf over to the National Review Online to see if the content was also posted there. I didn’t find the Times piece, but I did happen upon “Goldberg’s take on the Instapundit-Yglesias spat”: which concludes:

bq. Yglesias would improve his arguments if he stopped his recent habit of increasingly asserting bad motives on anyone he disagrees with.

Back to the Times, where Goldberg begins thusly a column aimed at critics of the administration’s Iraq policies in general and Anthony Zinni in particular:

bq. HERE we go again. It is time to blame the Jews. That seems to be this month’s explanation for the Iraq war. Obviously, this is hardly a new idea on either side of the Atlantic, particularly for readers of, say, The Guardian or Le Monde. But in America, the emphasis on the theory has reached almost French proportions

“[A]sserting bad motives on anyone he disagrees with” ?



nick 05.29.04 at 11:45 am

Goldberg is truly the last person to be offering instruction on how to improve one’s arguments.


Barry 05.29.04 at 12:39 pm

Whenever the right accuses the left of anything, it almost always means that the right is doing it several times as much. With the only exceptions being if the right hasn’t had a chance of doing it themselves yet.

It seems to be a requirement of that psychology.


antirealist 05.29.04 at 12:49 pm



John Isbell 05.29.04 at 12:56 pm

Goldberg has asserted that his mode of argument allows space for two propositions which contradict each other. Are you asserting that this instance of that phenomenon indicates hypocrisy on his part? That, surely, would be imputing bad motives, and we know how much Goldberg disapproves of that tendency; except when he doesn’t.
You’ll have to get up pretty early to catch old Goldberg out, though he has yet to state that his moode of argument does not require a basis in reality, and I think we’ve got him on that one. Reel him in.


q 05.29.04 at 1:10 pm

In the interests of fairness to all concerned, we need to stay on topic. I will reprint Matthew’s first and last paragraphs of his column to try and get a sense of where he is going:

_Take a look at the morning paper nowadays and it’s clear that America has a lot of enemies. Two or three different brands of insurgency are operating in Iraq. North Korea has nuclear weapons and Pakistan is selling them. Our former best friend in Baghdad turns out to be an American spy. Al Qaeda, of course, is still out there. All this notwithstanding, some commentators on the right seem to have decided that the real enemies aren’t the ones they read about it the papers, but the people who write them._
… …
_The image of an “unpatriotic” press hell-bent on wrecking Bush’s war couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, we got into this mess in no small part because of the media’s reluctance to apply a proper degree of scrutiny to the administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction and the likely postwar situation. With the original rationale for war long since having bitten the dust, we’ve now shifted to a campaign designed to bring American freedoms to Iraq. It’s a campaign that will likely fail, not because it’s being undermined by a hostile media, but because the president has steadfastly refused to commit the resources necessary to achieve his grandiose vision. As if the consequences of the fateful mismanagement of the war weren’t bad enough, we now face that prospect of losing the very liberties we set out to spread._

And now the same for Jonah GoldBerg on the website:

_Matt Yglesias employs an odd new version of argument ad Hitlerum in a column for the advocacy group the Center for American Progress titled “The Return of the ‘Stab in the Back.'” He says the critics of the press’s one-sided coverage of American setbacks in Iraq are laying the groundwork for “a new version of the ‘stab in the back’ myth that helped destroy Weimar Germany”_
… …
_Yglesias offers some other strange points in his essay, including his suggestion that it was the press’ excess of patriotic fervor which drove the faulty coverage leading up to the war. But it’s his — granted, novel — invocation of the “our enemies are Nazis” nonsense that is so disappointing and perhaps revealing. At least the Vietnam analogy, so flawed in so many ways, would be far more apt here. Yes, many of us are blaming the media for a host of transgressions. But we are not plotting a Nazi coup and Yglesias would improve his arguments if he stopped his recent habit of increasingly asserting bad motives on anyone he disagrees with._

I would summarise
MY as: “Shooting the messenger” is becoming dangerously fashionable,
JG as: Current “shooters” are unlike the Nazis.

If you have ever had to deal with a bully who believes in fascism (with a small f), you will agree that both positions at the moment are equally plausible.

Intellectual bullying takes many forms, insinuation is one.
Maybe Instapundit insinuates that people pointing out government flaws should be silent?
Maybe Matthew insinuates that Instapundit is on the road to being like a fascist.

Jonah picks up Matthew for making insinuations but not Instapundit. I can find no explanation for this discrepancy. Instapundit “ably” defends, while Matthew has a bad “habit”.

So it would appear that if Instapundit and Matthew are guilty of being dishonourable in debate, Jonah is applying an analysis, which without further evidence is often known as PREJUDICE or BIAS.


nick 05.29.04 at 1:35 pm

q: you could have avoiding wasting that effort on such a facile argument by summarising thus: ‘Jonah Goldberg attempts to defend Reynolds’ silly, hypocritical position with something even sillier and more hypocritical.’

What, exactly is strange about MY’s argument? The press gave Bush a free pass, and helped create a climate that both fuelled and was fuelled by the right-wing pundit class; now that the press deigns to report the facts on the ground, said right-wing pundits speak of a media conspiracy to undermine the war effort, and talk in not very veiled terms of violence and sedition charges.

And Goldberg, like Reynolds, castigates Yglesias for asserting bad motives on those he disagrees with? Fucking priceless. I recommed a strong dose of Matthew 7:3-5.


q 05.29.04 at 2:14 pm

I don’t know enough about Reynolds to accuse him of being hypocritical. Just because you threaten government critics does not make you hypocritical, merely authoritarian, and liable to accusations of fascism. Maybe Reynolds thinks fascism is a good idea!

Your quotes from Matthew-7 are superb especially “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?”. Makes you realise why the book was such a bestseller!


liberal japonicus 05.29.04 at 2:14 pm

Goldberg is truly the last person to be offering instruction on how to improve one’s arguments.

Gee, I dunno, he seems to embody a multitude of faults, so he can certainly speak from experience


Matt McGrattan 05.29.04 at 2:27 pm

If I had a pound for every time some right-wing American trots out the ‘anti-Semitic’ Old Europe line I’d have… quite a few pounds.

It’s a ludicrous charge advocated by people who clearly have little idea knowledge of what they are talking about.

The Guardian is hardly a bastion of rampant anti-Semitism and nor are its readers. At worst a couple of shameful ‘diary’ columns by Richard Ingrams have trod very close to the anti-Semitic line.

I can’t speak for Le Monde as I’m not a Le Monde reader.

It IS true that some of the Guardian columnists are vocal opponents of current Israeli policy. It’s equally true that other columnists are supporters of Israeli policy.

Big deal… as has been repeated so many times it’s boring, criticism of current Likud-driven policies in the West Bank and Gaza does not an anti-Semite make.

Despite this I’ve regularly read dismissals of any presentation of European views (more or less whatever they are) as the views of anti-Semites.

It’s a cynical attempt by the right to use the rhetoric of anti-racism and (anti-) anti-Semitism — rhetoric so often associated with the political left — as a tool to discredit and silence their opponents.


q 05.29.04 at 3:04 pm

While we decide who is fascist, hypocrite or prejudiced, real world events continue …

There exists the growing possibility of either an overthrow of the US-backed Saudi Government, or (as a compromise) the breakdown in cooperation between the US adminstration and the Saudi Royal family to prevent a revolution. The US government has been irritating the Saudis for the last 30 years, but the Royals have mostly remained fairly gentle in their criticism. Hence the popularity of Usama. There has been talk of elections in the Arab world recently, and if there was an election tomorrow in Saudi Arabia the elected representatives would be a lot more forthcoming in their views. The latest incident is an attack in the Eastern Province.

BBC – Saudi security forces have reportedly stormed an oil company housing compound in the eastern city of Khobar

If this happens, then this might keep the Coalition Army in Iraq permanently, in order to keep a military presence in the region, and debates about the aims of the new Iraqi liberal democracy will have a new angle. A troop presence of 400,000 is conceivable. Or just abandon the region.


Thomas 05.29.04 at 4:03 pm

Let’s see: MY compares conservatives to Nazis in Weimar Germany. Goldberg objects. Senator Hollings and others suggest that the war was fought because Jews in the US wanted the war fought. Goldberg objects.

Yep, he’s a hypocrite all right.


fyreflye 05.29.04 at 4:07 pm

Yglesias, for the benefit of those who don’t know, is himself Jewish. Jonah will have to switch over to the “self-hating Jew” argument.


Chris Bertram 05.29.04 at 5:26 pm

MY compares conservatives to Nazis in Weimar Germany.

Except, of course, he didn’t. That’s just Goldberg’s spin on Yglesias, just as “blame the Jews” is Goldberg’s spin on Zinni (not to mention the Guardian and Le Monde).


Giles 05.29.04 at 7:31 pm

Matt I’d be interested on your take on this story
about a Guradian story headed “Hungary foils ‘Jewish’ terror plot.”
which turned out ot be about
“On April 13, the Hungarian police arrested three Arabs suspected of planning to attack a Jewish museum in Budapest…..,3604,1227171,00.html

Possibly an “innocent mistake” but I think it also says something about the culture at the guardian that this slipped through.


q 05.29.04 at 7:42 pm

_Possibly an “innocent mistake” but I think it also says something about the culture at the guardian that this slipped through._

What do you think it says?


norbizness 05.29.04 at 8:21 pm

Looking to Jonah for consistency is like looking to “Manos: The Hands of Fate” or “Plan 9 From Outer Space” for seamless continuity.


Matt 05.29.04 at 8:27 pm

Jonah’s little hissy fit might be a bit easier to take if professional ex-Leftist David Horowitz hadn’t made precisely this “stab in the back” charge, using precisely that phrase, a few months ago in a column about Iraq.


No Preference 05.29.04 at 11:42 pm

Possibly an “innocent mistake” but I think it also says something about the culture at the guardian that this slipped through.

Did you bother to read the omsbudman’s explantion, giles? The header was a first draft written by a sub-editor, and was published in a single edition of the Guardian by accident.

This is a silly puffed-up controversy.


q 05.30.04 at 12:24 am

_JG: But it’s his — granted, novel — invocation of the “our enemies are Nazis” nonsense_

Just in case it is not clear, MY made no reference to Nazis and did not invoke or use the phrase “our enemies are Nazis”. JG misrepresents MY.


Sandals 05.30.04 at 3:11 am

MY is OK but JG is FUBAR and IP/PGR is SNAFU.


Marco 05.30.04 at 4:35 am

“assert on”?

Bzzzzt! Next!


roger 05.30.04 at 6:38 am

Goldberg’s problem seems to be that he doesn’t know enough about Weimar Germany. It wasn’t only Nazis that ascribed to some version of the “stab in the back” thesis — it was a standard, conservative nationalist platitude. It wasn’t only the Jews that were the ‘stabbers in the backers’ — although in most versions, there was a strong anti-semitic tinge, if nothing else. It was the communists, the socialists, the left in general, and so on.
Similarly, after France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian war, there was a strong current in the French right that thought France was stabbed in the back by: decadents, socialists, the working class, and, eventually, Jews.
Jews, thank God, have been eliminated from the candidate pool of potential stabbers in the back by the American right, but otherwise the pool is about the same: liberals instead of socialists, the press instead of novelists, Hollywood, et al. The pschyo-drama that links the right to fascism is played out around a virile body that is mysteriously weakened by some vampirically caused degeneration. However, the American right has always been self-limited by its fundamentally democratic orientation, and these images are slightly foreign to it. Even peak periods of paranoia — the McCarthy era comes to mind — the tendency to make degrading one’s opponent through a rhetoric of extremism created doubt even in the right’s own constituency.


roger 05.30.04 at 6:43 am

Oops, that last sentence should read “the tendency to degrade…”


nick 05.31.04 at 1:39 am

Oh, Goldberg has posted a response to this thread in best ‘cover-your-ass’ fashion, first blaming his copyeditor, and trying to pin the blame back on MY:

Saying I’m a hypocrite for attacking motives while criticizing others who do the same doesn’t excuse Yglesias for doing it and it doesn’t rebut my charge either. It’s a non-defense defense.

Um, Jonah, we’re glad that you admit your hypocrisy, but are you really that dense? I don’t think so.

I don’t say that Zinni is anti-Semitic…

But you do say, Jonah, that ‘[i]t is time to blame the Jews.’ That seems rather like a super-set of what you’re denying, masked only by a rather sneaky use of the passive voice. More importantly, anti-Semitism pro se is irrelevant to the substantive argument of MY’s original piece — in spite of Goldberg’s best attempts to make it so.

But it’s his — granted, novel — invocation of the “our enemies are Nazis” nonsense that is so disappointing and perhaps revealing.

No, Jonah, that’s your own invocation, and by itself it’s disappointing and definitely revealing. For the right-wing punditocracy to single out the press for blame in an attempt to divert attention from the fuckups in Iraq — a press corps that was at best passive, at worst encouraging in the run-up to war — is bad enough; for hacks such as Goldberg to fall back on the old reliable of ‘anti-Semitism!’ as some kind of defence is dishonest in the extreme.


rxb 06.01.04 at 10:26 pm

Why do we care about the political opinions of someone who thinks ‘assert on’ is English?

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