When I hear the word culture … aw, hell with it

by John Holbo on April 11, 2007

Jonah Goldberg is now grumbling that people are calling him stupid. But, to be fair, the upshot of Goldberg’s indignant response to Henry’s post would seem to be that Henry was actually too charitable to Goldberg’s original post. But I’m getting ahead of my story. Goldberg complains: “Any fair reader of my post (hint, that excludes Henry) would see that I was criticizing liberals and conservatives for not taking culture into account enough.” Now what would that too low accounting value be? “My point was not that culture is everything, but that government isn’t everything.” That is, Goldberg is claiming that the assignment of a non-zero significance to culture is bold contrarianism that places him at odds with both left and right. Of course, far from being a bold position, the claim that culture is not nothing is something everyone would grant freely, if it seemed to anyone worth mentioning.

To put it another way, Goldberg is making a standard rhetorical move which has no accepted name, but which really needs one. I call it ‘the two-step of terrific triviality’. Say something that is ambiguous between something so strong it is absurd and so weak that it would be absurd even to mention it. When attacked, hop from foot to foot as necessary, keeping a serious expression on your face. With luck, you will be able to generate the mistaken impression that you haven’t been knocked flat, by rights. As a result, the thing that you said which was absurdly strong will appear to have some obscure grain of truth in it. Even though you have provided no reason to think so.

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04.14.07 at 3:52 am



Peter 04.11.07 at 6:41 am

I don’t know how anyone could give Goldberg’s post a fair-minded read and conclude that he was saying “Culture is Destiny”.

Nor do I see why you would believe he making a point so trivial and uncontroversial as to go without saying. He is clearly taking a position somewhere between the two is saying that certain features of national cultures are very important (or essential) factors in fostering an environment in which a European style welfare system is possible, and that America is lacking those cultural features.


bi 04.11.07 at 7:59 am

John Holbo:

Someone suggested calling it “non-arguability”.

In other words, suppose you want to argue for a specific, strong position. But you don’t want people to refute this strong position, so you use coded messages, in such a way that when people read you literally you’re arguing for a weaker, not-so-controversial position.

We’ve been there before: Uncyclopedia on “Intelligent Design”:

“It [the Creator] might be the Christian God …but it might not, and we’re not telling! That’s what makes it scientific. […]

(Hidden message to loyal followers of the One True Faith: it really is the Christian God! We promise! But don’t tell anyone).”


abb1 04.11.07 at 8:22 am

I think the significance of culture (the set of phenomena that can be reasonably categorized as “culture”) in politics is highly exaggerated. Yeah, the French drink wine, and Germans prefer beer, and Turks smoke water pipes – that’s culture; but the idea of welfare society is universal. See the 1944 economic bill of rights, for example. It took a decade of McCarthyism – pretty much an equivalent of Stalinist purges – to bury that idea.


Katherine 04.11.07 at 8:45 am

Peter, I think it is these gobsmackingly ignorant phrases that are the ones being criticised:

“France and Denmark can handle the systems they have because they have long traditions of sucking-up to the state and throne”

“Royalist, throne-kissing, swine left America for Canada”

I don’t think it is entirely unfairminded to read that and think that Mr Goldberg thinks the Canadians and the Europeans have welfare states because they are throne-kissing suckups who love big government because of their culture of sucking up to central power. I mean, since that is actually what he says, I think that is fair minded reading.


Ginger Yellow 04.11.07 at 9:34 am

The reason people call Goldberg stupid is that he constantly makes, as Henry puts it, “sweeping, half assed claims” and then getting called instantly on them. Henry charitably didn’t mention this zinger:

There are plenty of African and Latin American welfare states that are indistinguishable on paper from their European cousins and yet we don’t see Swedens and Denmarks all over the place.

Really, Jonah? Name one.


John Holbo 04.11.07 at 9:38 am

Peter, I might actually have made this clearer: only a strong ‘culture is destiny claim has is relevant, as a response to the people – Ezra Klein, for example – whom he was, apparently, setting out to object to. When people say that such-and-such works in Europe, therefore it is wrong to say it doesn’t work, the claim that ‘culture is not nothing’ is not even the start of an objection; ergo, it is fair to say Goldberg was hinting at something like ‘culture is destiny’.


bad Jim 04.11.07 at 9:41 am

Goldberg’s not entirely without use. Had he not been granted a weekly column in the L.A. Times, I’d have had to sacrifice other possibly recyclable materials cleaning up after my brother’s dogs visits, which might have been an even more deplorable waste.


Daniel Nexon 04.11.07 at 12:05 pm

He is clearly taking a position somewhere between the two is saying that certain features of national cultures are very important (or essential) factors in fostering an environment in which a European style welfare system is possible, and that America is lacking those cultural features.

So Goldberg’s position is, if I understand you correctly, that the weight of the national culture variable is greater than zero but less than one? Yes, indeed, an intellectually courageous position, and one worth pondering.

We’re back to JH’s point: Goldberg’s claim is either banal or dumb… or both. And, although I can hardly take much credit for this, I predicted that Goldberg would quickly disown the strong version of his argument in favor of the trivial version.

We haven’t touched much upon Goldberg’s use of the phrase “culture” (cf. c.l. ball’s comment in the last thread, though). Let me just suggest that he needs to think very hard about the nature and scope of the concept… and that most social scientists have abandoned the way he’s using it for very, very good reasons.


Aeon J. Skoble 04.11.07 at 1:41 pm

John is right about the ubiquity of that rhetorical device — see, for instance, abb1’s claim upthread that McCarthyism was “pretty much” the equivalent of Stalinism. Since McCarthyism didn’t lead to mass imprisonments and executions, I’m guessing the “pretty much” is what allows for the transition to weaker version. And I agree this move needs a name, but isn’t it a species of equivocation?


felix 04.11.07 at 1:43 pm

a standard rhetorical move which has no accepted name, but which really needs one

How about the Austin Shuffle, in honour of JL “There’s the bit where you say it, and the bit where you take it back” Austin?


bi 04.11.07 at 1:59 pm

Aeon J. Skoble:

And of course, this “species of equivocation” will also include the way you mention Goldberg’s tactic and abb1’s tactic in the same breath, even if they’re arguably different tactics.


Hogan 04.11.07 at 2:11 pm

While we’re at it, maybe we need a shorthand term for the dumbass-Burkean use of “culture” to mean “all the stuff I won’t go into detail about but it proves me right, oh yes it does.”


Belle Waring 04.11.07 at 2:32 pm

I’m with ginger yellow. what latin american or african countries is he talking about?


Functional 04.11.07 at 2:35 pm

As it happens, Obsidian Wings has a good answer to those morons who equate domestic political disputes with Stalinism.


Aeon J. Skoble 04.11.07 at 2:44 pm

bi: no, they’re essentially the same – the strong version of the comparison is attention-getting and dramatic, and surely unreasonable, but there’s a weaker interpretation which is true but far less interesting. BTW, I wasn’t really impugning abb1’s character, it just seemed like an ironically-well-timed example of how common this two-step is. functional: good call.


Thomas 04.11.07 at 2:45 pm

Tyler Cowen made a similar (and similarly simplified) argument just a week ago:


Surprisingly, Henry and John missed it. Now that it’s been brought to their attention, I’m sure they’ll not hesitate to suggest that Tyler isn’t respectable or serious.


Avram 04.11.07 at 2:51 pm

How about The Argument of the Diluted Middle?


SG 04.11.07 at 2:54 pm

wow, sensitive to the Stalin comparisons there… I wonder what David Hicks would think of that sensitivity? Can I ask him? No, because he has disappeared into an American … oh, but I suppose I am not allowed to say “Gulag”?

The fact that your noble leaders choose to do it to less people, or mostly kill people other peoples rather than their own in order to secure their economic goals, does not make the substance of the crime different.


harry b 04.11.07 at 2:55 pm

Well, Tyler is pretty open that he is being simplistic, and offers the thought as a kind of model for discussion. I don’t think what he says is stupid at all. It focusses our attention on th structure of american government institutions and asks us to be sensitive to their (in my opinion, and his apparently, pretty awful, and distinctive) flaws when making demands. He doesn’t mention culture, which is irrelevant to his simplified thesis. He also has an extraordinary record of intellectually serious accomplishment. If he’d written something as stupid as Goldberg did I’d have spent a good deal of time looking for the kernel of interestingness and smartness in it.

Wouldn’t have found it, of course. But then he wouldn’t have written it.


Lee A. Arnold 04.11.07 at 3:03 pm

Another one!

The “Double-cheeked butt-cover”?


djw 04.11.07 at 3:07 pm

thomas, don’t be daft. Here’s what Cowen said:

Europe is better at producing (many) public goods through the public sector. Europe has more homogeneous nations with more urbanization, higher levels of social cohesion, and a more even distribution of ability. America is better at resource mobility, private sector innovation and catering to elites.

He gives specific, concrete variables to explain what he thinks causes European governments to “work better.” Social cohesion, urbanization, and even ability of distrubution aren’t “culture,” they’re specific, measurable sociological/democraphic factors. The rest of the post discusses how people percieve government in light of that performance difference. I certainly don’t agree with all of it, but it’s a very different species of even a charitable read of Goldberg’s argument.


Colin Danby 04.11.07 at 3:12 pm

The problem with Jonah Goldberg is false dichotomy. The first post attributes to “liberal defense of European welfare states” a kind of zero-history, zero-culture, bounded, discrete understanding of nations as so many parallel experiments, so that you just read off the results of the experiments and figure out which is the best government. Such a view, if anyone held it, would be silly.

Goldberg then imagines only one alternative view, the old chestnut of national culture as a stable, shared, national essence. Henry politely pointed out that this is not the only alternative to the first view.

Goldberg fails to grasp this point (not a good way to begin a post defending one’s own intellectual acumen). He seems to imagine that he was criticized for saying that government does not matter at all.

So you get this: “Obviously, my point was not that culture is everything, but that government isn’t everything.” He now imagines himself the bold defender of the unpopular truth that “government isn’t everything.” Of course this kind of self-banalization is not an uncommon move by people trying to weasel out of a bad position.

Arguments like Goldberg’s (or Cowen’s) would be strengthened if they would specify the “liberal defenses of welfare states” that they imagine themselves refuting.


lemuel pitkin 04.11.07 at 3:17 pm

Unsympathetic Jonah’s intellect may be, but it’s hardly vast. Nor cool. You guys need a new tag for Intellects Tiny and Annoying.


Luther Blissett 04.11.07 at 3:25 pm

Am I guilty of pointing out the painfully obvious when I say that the whole problem with Goldberg’s ideas is that you can’t sever a nation’s form of governance from its national culture?

Isn’t that exactly what we’re told in the American Civic Religion? That America has no singular ethnic-cultural tradition, but what holds us together is the way we extend our governmental ideas to the realm of culture. (For example, the way Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray connect jazz as an American art form to democratic institutions that mediate between the individual and the collective.)

Then there’s the other major problem, as Goldberg identifies a welfare state with a monarchy. Only in the fever dream of Ayn Rand can these two forms of so-called centralized government be seen as identical enough for a nation to replace one with the other. (And only in a terrible reading of history can Europe be seen to replace monarchy with the welfare state.) If anything, the omnipotent executive branch favored by Goldberg and his ilk has much more in common with true monarchy than does the vast bureaucratic systems of Europe. A monarchy isn’t even a centralized government — it’s a monadic government. Which is why you can have total barbaric chaos below the level of the monarch and still have a monarchy.

Then again, this is the same guy who thinks liberals are Nazis. You know, because all forms of centralized governance are identical.


abb1 04.11.07 at 3:35 pm

I don’t have a tactic.

Also, McCarthyism was not a domestic political dispute, but a government/corporate persecution of ideological deviants – yes, pretty much the same as the Stalinist purges, whether they did “lead to mass imprisonments and executions” or not; that’s irrelevant.

Stalinist purges meant people losing their party membership and their jobs, unsanctioned political activity suppressed, dissidents intimidated. Where’s the difference?


P O'Neill 04.11.07 at 3:41 pm

Suggested pundit rule: if you can’t show evidence that you understand the concepts of adverse selection and moral hazard, and explain their application to mechanisms for the provision of health care, your pronouncements on health care should have zero credibility. I’m willing to bet that Jonah flunks that test. I’m also willing to bet that Jonah doesn’t know that Americans suck on the government teat for about the same amount of healthcare (as a share of GDP) as other OECD economies.


Matt Kuzma 04.11.07 at 3:43 pm

I didn’t like Henry’s response to the Goldberg piece, because I thought he was mis-reading the thesis. But you’re spot on that Goldberg is so vague about the point he’s making that it’s impossible to refute. By the same token, it’s impossible to do anything with it except nod and say “Hm, that’s very interesting” and move on. He’s not so much making a statement as insinuating a general attitude.

Maybe that should be called Not-a-Thesis. Anyway, it may not be intentionally deceptive in all cases, but where it’s not, it’s simply so intellectually weak that we should expect better from college freshmen, let alone someone writing for public consumption.


Functional 04.11.07 at 4:08 pm

Social cohesion, urbanization, and even ability of distrubution aren’t “culture,” they’re specific, measurable sociological/democraphic factors.

Social cohesion isn’t “culture”? Since when? Why are you suggesting that anything “specific” and “measurable” can’t be culture? That’s a weird dichotomy. Maybe you think “culture” refers only to opera, ballet, and the like?


Larry M 04.11.07 at 4:15 pm


I’m a pretty strong anti-imperialist – I’d like to see us bring ALL of the troops home, from ALL foreign bases, massively cut our military, dismantle the national security state, and pursue a policy of pretty strict isolationism. And I’d love to see the current crew tried as war criminals, convicted, and suffer the ultimate fate.

But as bad as things are, equating the current situation here with Stalinism is so absurd that it seriously undermines any critique of the current policies of the United States. i.e., you are not helping.


You say “whether they did “lead to mass imprisonments and executions” or not; that’s irrelevant.”

Pretty much self refuting. I’ve been following your posts long enough that I think you are sincere, but sometimes you really sound like a right winger trying to parody an insane anti-US extremist. As with sg, you’re not helping.


Larry M 04.11.07 at 4:17 pm

Though credit where credit is due – unlike Jonah, abb1 is pretty much sticking to the strong claim.


Daniel Nexon 04.11.07 at 4:18 pm

Functional – I just made a similar point to Cowen on the other Goldberg thread. While I agree with you that Cowen is wrong to suggest that culture can’t be measured or observed, he invokes a very important analytic distinction between the structure of social relations and the meanings actors attach to them, i.e., their cultural content. In any given context, form and content are mutually constitutive of one another–they produce on another. But we can still compare whether some mechanism like “social cohesion” explains aspects of welfare states independent of the cultural dimensions/sources of high levels of social cohesion.


Kieran Healy 04.11.07 at 4:20 pm

I’m sympathetic to culture as an independent variable (so to speak), but Goldberg’s two-step is certainly annoying. “I’m making a provocative argument!” “No I’m not, it’s obvious!” etc. Bleah. Also irritating are the sophomoric “you are beneath me” put-downs, as when he refers to the post as being written “by some guy named Henry.”


Functional 04.11.07 at 4:20 pm

What people seem to be missing is that Goldberg’s basic point is right on: A lot of discussions of health care policy and the like (at least on lefty blogs) takes the form:

“France does it and Sweden does it. Therefore if the United States just adopted their system, we’d all save money and be healthier at the same time!”

But this ignores cultural factors, such as the oft-noted clash between welfare statism and diversity, the fact that Americans are fatter and unhealthier than Europeans, the fact that Americans may be more likely to resent any limitations on hugely expensive end-of-life care, and so forth. All of which suggests that it’s not quite so simplistic as transplanting France’s system to America and then we’ll all have ponies.

People around here seem to alternate between: 1) being too dense even to comprehend that culture matters; and 2) claiming that the point is so obvious that Goldberg was wasting everyone’s time in making it.


jholbo 04.11.07 at 4:29 pm

functional, a better way to put it might be this: just saying ‘there might be a cultural problem’ is vague enough that Goldberg’s objection is really no more substantive than if he just said ‘there might be a good objection to this’. That’s true. But it’s not really a good objection. It’s not as though Americans have any special ‘rugged individualist’ attachment to do-it-yourself health care. (Yeah, great-granddad whittled great grandma an MRI machine, whereas the soft kids today go to the hospital to get the same care. Naw. There isn’t really a conservative ‘rugged individualist’ ethos regarding healthcare, which universal healthcare might run afoul of. Because modern medicine isn’t the way medicine was in the good old days. Namely: cheap, available, and not very good.)

In short, the abstract possibilty of an unspecified cultural problem is not really a cultural objection. So Goldberg was acting like he had an objection, when really he didn’t.


Thomas 04.11.07 at 4:40 pm

harry, I agree with functional in 28, so I think Tyler is talking about “culture” in some sense. I also think that Tyler’s conclusion (“Policy is not an exogenous or all-determining variable”)doesn’t in fact focus us on the structure of American government institutions.


Daniel Nexon 04.11.07 at 4:40 pm

Functional-could you point us to a living, breathing, and consequential proponent of the straw man you’ve just described? France demonstrates that a country can have superior health care without the kind of hybrid system we have here, i.e., it refutes claims made that socialized medicine is necessarily inferior to market-based health care.

Furthermore, I don’t quite follow you. Your first argument concerns the question of political feasibility. Why would putative American anti-statism interfere with the workings of the system once it was in place? Your second argument may or may not be relevant to the issue at hand. Americans might be unhealthier because of cultural factors, social factors, of even because of policy decisions. One major benefit of a shift away from the current insurance system, its proponents argue, is that it would ameliorate these problems. For example, many private insurance companies don’t cover preventive care–or even smoking cessation treatments–because they don’t expect you will be on their insurance when it comes time to pay the piper. Your third argument, about whether Americans would accept explicit (rather than de facto) rationing, is very much a part of the debate over health-care reform.

And the real question is whether any or all of these factors stem from relatively immutable features of American culture, or whether people like Goldberg just call them “national culture” in the most useless way: because country X does policy Y at time T, it must be because of its culture. The fact that it does X, in fact, then provides evidence of its putative “national culture.” I imagine one could find similar claims about why any social insurance scheme was doomed to fail in the United States, even those that we now take for granted…


Functional 04.11.07 at 4:55 pm

If you’ve never seen lefty blogs that discuss France’s health care system in the simplistic terms I describe, use http://blogsearch.google.com. I could come up with a hundred examples, but I have better things to do.


abb1 04.11.07 at 4:56 pm

Well, Larry M, I don’t think it’s a particularly strong claim; rather it’s a very obvious one. Also I disagree that there’s anything “anti-US” about it, let alone ‘insane’ or ‘extremist’.


Thomas 04.11.07 at 4:56 pm

John, I think you’re misunderstanding the argument, and you’re missing functional’s point. Building on 33, the structure of the liberal policy-entrepreneur’s argument includes the unstated premise that there are no relevant cultural differences between France and Sweden and the US. Pointing out that this is a premise, and that in many cases it’s a premise that isn’t true, doesn’t commit one to a particular view of whether it is or isn’t true in any particular instance. It’s an argument about the argument, and only tangentially about the underlying issue.


Daniel Nexon 04.11.07 at 4:57 pm

Did what you asked. Couldn’t find one on the first two pages. Gave up. But note I said “consequential,” not “some random lefty dude with a blog that provides a convenient stand in for ‘liberals.'”


Thomas 04.11.07 at 5:05 pm

Daniel, you say “France demonstrates that a country can have superior health care without the kind of hybrid system we have here, i.e., it refutes claims made that socialized medicine is necessarily inferior to market-based health care.” But that’s not really the issue. What Ezra and others are claiming is that if the US were to adopt a French-style system, it would get results approximating French results. (If they’re not claiming that, then what’s the point of the argument?) That’s the reason I pointed to Tyler’s post, and his claim that “American liberals look at Europe and see (sometimes) better results per dollar spent. They then conclude that America should be more like Europe, whereas in reality America would end up spending more to get more bad American government.”


abb1 04.11.07 at 5:08 pm

Yeah, what they call ‘culture’ is, in fact, just a bunch of societal institutions; some organic, some artificial. After all, Mussolini managed to make the Italian trains run on time. Yes, the Italian trains, man.


Colin Danby 04.11.07 at 5:11 pm

Let me join Daniel and others. Functional and Thomas, would you please engage serious examples rather than your generic “lefty blog” or “liberal policy-entrepreneur”?

#33 reproduces Goldberg’s false dichotomy.


Thomas 04.11.07 at 5:14 pm

Kieran, if you think it’s apt to describe Goldberg’s latest as “sophomoric” because of the “put downs”, how would you describe Henry’s post, which describes Goldberg as a “hack”, “pretends” to take his argument seriously, suggests that Goldberg hasn’t read anything on the subject, describes (a misstated version of) his argument as “half-assed”, and suggests that the whole point of Goldberg’s argument is to justify his own selfishness. Really, after that, “some guy named Henry” doesn’t strike me as much of an offense.


Daniel Nexon 04.11.07 at 5:17 pm

Well, all Ezra claimed is that much of the difference between Scandanvian economic performance and French economic performance can be explained through public policies rather than the supposed failings of some monolithic thing call the welfare state. I haven’t read Cohn’s article–I don’t subscribe to TNR–so you may be correct there.

But the question is whether they’re naively omitting putative *cultural* differences that would significantly change their interpretation of the comparative evidence.

Goldberg’s “riff” doesn’t even come close to making this case, although your and other commentators have, in my humble opinion, done a better job of specifying differences, some of which relate to “national culture,” that might matter.


bi 04.11.07 at 5:27 pm

Aeon J. Skoble:

Eh, when you say “they’re essentially the same” is that supposed to be interpreted as a strong comparison or a weak comparison? :)

As abb1 states, he’s sticking to the strong claim. Though whether it’s true is irrelevant to me — because in the first place I don’t agree with abb1’s main thesis that McCarthyism killed the idea of social welfare. I think the idea of welfare in the US never ever died; it’s just that at the moment the anti-welfare forces are making a lot more noise to be able to drown out the pro-welfare crowd.

= = =

What the heck is the problem with Functional and Thomas? Do they seriously think that

“France and Denmark can handle the systems they have because they have long traditions of sucking-up to the state and throne”

is a perfectly good, rigorous, rational, fact-based argument?


Kieran Healy 04.11.07 at 5:34 pm

Well, thomas, based on past experience I don’t think Goldberg has any intellectual credibility and mostly just wants to score points while insulating himself from any real engagement with theory or research. (Based on your own previous contributions around here, I have much the same view of you, as well.) So John’s diagnosis of his rhetorical strategy is correct. Saying “France and Denmark can handle the systems they have because they have long traditions of sucking-up to the state and throne” and then immediately backing away from it when pushed is just so much B.S.

On the other hand, if I unwisely give you the benefit of the doubt, and take you seriously on the difficulty of importing models developed in one place to somewhere else, then I think you’re actually on the right track when it comes to the importance of culture. I agree with you that it’s wrong to think that culture is either solely some abstract set of values or some non-observable, easily-dispensed-with fluff.


Scott Eric Kaufman 04.11.07 at 5:36 pm

Monty Python covered this one: “splunge,” which means “it’s a great-idea-but-possibly-not-and-I’m-not-being-indecisive!”


Functional 04.11.07 at 5:37 pm

Heard of the New Republic? Check out the 6th and 7th paragraphs here — it offers all the usual tropes about how countries with universal health care have better health and spend less money.

Ezra Klein has done this often. For example, here, where he says, “They do it for less money, while providing universal coverage, etc, etc. We’re spending twice as much as anyone else, leaving 45 million of our countrymen uninsured, and getting outcomes that are comparable or a bit worse.”

Granted, these examples don’t literally promise that if only America adopted the French model, we’d all be twice as healthy for half the cost. But as seems to be almost universally true (in the world of liberal bloggery), they do their damndest to leave that implication. And they never acknowledge even the possibility that there might be any cultural factor whatsoever that might lead to higher costs and worse health in America.


bi 04.11.07 at 5:40 pm


Oh great, so two wrongs make a right!

What problem do you have with people looking at Goldberg’s arguments on their own merit?


Colin Danby 04.11.07 at 6:02 pm

You need to do better, Functional. You have the whole internet out there, an ocean of sloppy logic and hasty blog-posts, and so far you can’t find anyone articulating the argument you accuse “lefty blogs” of making routinely.

The writings you cite make arguments that health-care resources are being used wastefully in the United States. Money in, health-care services out. Maybe the comparisons are badly-drawn. Maybe we should be willing to put up with wasteful use of resources to have more freedom. But making a cross-national comparison is not tantamount to assuming that institutions could be transferred intact.


abb1 04.11.07 at 6:07 pm

I don’t know if this is relevant, but according to today’s LA Times:

…recent New York Times/CBS poll found that 90% of Americans said they thought that the healthcare system needed either “fundamental changes” or to be “completely rebuilt.” The last time the poll recorded such desire for reform was in January 1994. Indeed, according to the poll, 62% report themselves willing to pay higher taxes for universal coverage.

Traitors to their culture.


Aeon J. Skoble 04.11.07 at 6:17 pm

bi: “when you say “they’re essentially the same” is that supposed to be interpreted as a strong comparison or a weak comparison? :)”
:-) Actually, though, I wasn’t using “essentially” in a weasly way, but was trying to make a claim that that the essence of both was the same rheotorical device.


abb1 04.11.07 at 6:24 pm

I don’t agree with abb1’s main thesis that McCarthyism killed the idea of social welfare

It didn’t kill the idea, it just made it (to the extent of FDR’s “economic bill of rights”) institutionally impossible, that’s all; just like Stalin’s purge of the 1930s made returning to the NEP institutionally impossible. No politician or government official or intellectual could advocate it and remain relevant.


Felwith 04.11.07 at 6:26 pm

Up until recently, the primary argument against government run health insurance was that it was *intrinsically* ineffiecent. Citing contrary evidence from other countries is a perfectly acceptable response to that claim.

As for the claim that American culture precludes government run health insurance (or as some of the more strident pro-Iraq-war folks would have it, the claim that Americans are too stupid to have a sensible health care system), I suggest consulting comparative satisfaction levels of Americans in private health insurance programs vs. Americans in government run health insurance programs. I believe you can find the numbers on Ezra’s site.


rm 04.11.07 at 6:26 pm

At least part of Goldberg’s rhetorical method is the good old straw-man argument: pretend his opponents are all statist monarchists who have zero sense of culture, then bravely argue that culture matters.

But the rest of it, the Shuffle Which Has No Name, might be called casuistry (silently shifting from one premise to another as it suits you) or sophism in the pejorative sense (arguing without principles). There is a Possible Valid Goldberg Argument on this topic, and any disagreement with what he actually argued represents an unfair challenge to the Possible Argument Which Makes Sense. It’s not up to him to do the work to bring this argument into reality — if he did, he’d find that he is restating what most folks think.

Somewhere in Burke (In _Grammar of Motives_, I’m almost sure), in his discussion of the permutations of the concept of “substance,” he diagnoses this illness. At the risk of sounding Goldbergian, I don’t have the time at hand to find it. It’s about the ways totally unjustified (e.g., vague and stereotyped) claims can be weaseled out of by appealing to essential natures and fundamental principles. Europeans are substantially X (never mind the particulars), so it follows that . . . .


bi 04.11.07 at 6:52 pm


Aye; it’s in Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Motives, and it’s called the “rhetoric of substance” (not sure whether that’s his own term).

“We may even go a step further and note that one may say ‘it is substantially true’ precisely at a time when on the basis of the evidence, it would be much more accurate to say, ‘it is not true’.”


bi 04.11.07 at 6:56 pm

So Goldberg’s arguments are “basically” sound, which means they’re not sound after all.


julian 04.11.07 at 6:56 pm


“Stalin’s purge of the 1930s made returning to the NEP institutionally impossible. No politician or government official or intellectual could advocate it and remain relevant.”

Well, that’s one way of putting it. Another would be to say that no politician could advocate it and remain -alive-.


Lee A. Arnold 04.11.07 at 7:08 pm

rm #56: Nice comment with one minor objection: Casuistry used to have a good name. See: The Abuse of Casuistry by Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin (University of California Press, 1990) which properly returns us to this lost link in the lore of learning and argument.


Hogan 04.11.07 at 7:51 pm

Well, if we simply imported the French health system into the US, all the doctors would be speaking French. So in that sense, Goldberg is perfectly correct–it wouldn’t work here, for cultural reasons.


rm 04.11.07 at 7:58 pm

Bi: Thank you, that’s exactly it.

Lee: Thanks for educating me. I knew that sophistry had a good sense, but I didn’t know the history of casuistry.


abb1 04.11.07 at 8:12 pm

Let us not exaggerate, Julian: he could very well remain alive; but anyhow, Julian, seriously now, to the rest of us, to 250 or 300 million people – what difference does it make whether this hypothetical politician or intellectual has been executed or imprisoned or expelled or ‘only’ completely ridiculed, bullied, shut out of the mainstream public discourse and left to be published in some Zmag that no one ever reads? Isn’t result the same? From the big picture point of view, wouldn’t you agree that the exact fate of that particular individual is largely irrelevant?


soru 04.11.07 at 8:39 pm

Can anyone postulate a set of institional practises, principles or policies that would let people with a culture like abb1’s be involved in politics safely?


abb1 04.11.07 at 8:55 pm

What do you disagree with, Soru, and why?


Richard 04.11.07 at 10:36 pm

OK, I know we’ve moved on and don’t care about Goldberg any more, but I’ve finally read all the pieces in question and I don’t quite know what Goldberg (or anyone else) means by:
1) culture (whether it extends further than throne-sucking and acceptance of SI units),
2) Americans (who they are, where they come from, how they slip into or out of their American-ness like a light overcoat),
3) Europeans (how far Europe extends, how come it includes Scandinavia, what alchemical process happens to Europeans when they elect to become Americans or Canadians (or Latin Americans, I guess),
4) government (a category that does not include the people, apparently).

It seems to me all of these are used as stretch-to-fit terms, to support whatever half-assed thesis the author has in mind, and when that thesis proves completely insupportable, someone retrospectively claims JG was only joking (adding to the fields of his incompetence).


C. L. Ball 04.11.07 at 11:01 pm

If Goldberg had argued that Swedish welfare or French health system will not have the same effects because more regressive taxation is accepted in Sweden or dietary habits are far different in France, respectively, he would have a plausible cultural argument. But that’s not what he said, as Nexon has pointed out.

That the French health system might not travel well to the US (or Italy or Canada, where people’s reported satisfaction with their health system is far lower or only modestly higher, respectively, than in the US is unlikely to be due primarily to cultural variables, however broadly defined.


Luis Alegria 04.11.07 at 11:39 pm

Mr. Richard,

You raise some interesting questions.

Let us attempt “culture”.

I have a case of a very specific bit of behavior that has been claimed to have a bearing on educational achievement –


“The analysis of these data revealed wide differences in the experiences parents provide their children. The better educated a parent was, the more she spoke to her child. Welfare parents addressed an average of about 600 words per hour to the children from the time they began to speak until they were 3 years old. Working-class parents directed about 1,200 words per hour to their children during the same period, and professional parents said over 2,000 words each hour to their children. These differences were stable across time, and were the same no matter the number of siblings the children had or the number of people present during the observations.”

“These and other differences in parent behavior were associated with achievement. During the 6 months before the children reached their third birthday, for example, those from professional homes added 350 words to their vocabularies, while welfare children added only 168. IQ scores were also associated with parental behavior during the first 3 years. These findings persisted with a subgroup of the children tested 6 years later in the third grade. Hart and Risley found that the best predictor of performance was not socioeconomic level or race but the behavior of the parents.”

So we have here a cultural metric, and for our purposes this is what “culture” means. I am making no claim as to the validity of this particular research, but this is the kind of research that needs to happen to make “culture” something that can be part of a useful model, and useful policy.

What we do know is that there is a very great deal of value in that bucket called “culture”. There is gold in them thar hills.


SG 04.12.07 at 1:05 am

Larry M, I am not trying to help. The deaths of all those Vietnamese and Laotians who were carpet bombed to oblivion for dubious political gains count for something, in my book, and whether a country starved its own people or bombed someone elses, in the end it is still a tyrannical and evil nation. Whether your gulag includes 250 people or 250,000 or 250 million is irrelevant – it’s still a crime.

Of course it’s easy to pretend that your nation is still the beacon of freedom that in fact it never was (remember slavery anyone?) if you insist on reinterpreting Stalins purges as only ever ending in death, and ignore your own blighted history wherever it suits (or, heaven forbid, your current actions). But only a neo-conservative would engage in such sleight of hand, eh? Certainly not a “pretty strong anti-imperialist.”


bi 04.12.07 at 3:00 am

Luis Algeria:

What Richard was asking is what Goldberg specifically meant by the word “culture” when he smoked up his stuff, not what the word “culture” might have meant when used elsewhere by someone else.

Which all ties back to rm’s point on the Possible Valid Goldberg Argument. No, you’re not allowed to critique what he actually said; you’re only allowed to critique What He Might Have Said (Except He Did Not Say It).


Richard 04.12.07 at 4:24 am

Thanks, Bi – indeed, culture has been used to mean everything from “all aspects of behaviour that have to be learned” to “specific art forms characteristic of the ruling class.” I’d be interested to see Goldberg’s definition.

I have to say, I like Luis’ example, however – I haven’t come across a cultural metric before: that is, culture offered as an analytical tool, rather than as an object to be admired or a bit of vigourous hand-waving in lieu of explanation. Of course, I’ve got some caveats straight off (IQ testing has its critics, I’d need to look at the study’s definitions of class and other possible environmental factors that could lead to consistent distinctions, and sample size is critical) but this still looks intriguing, and highly unusual.


abb1 04.12.07 at 6:50 am

Shit, Kurt Vonnegut died. He’s a big part of my culture.


clone12 04.12.07 at 8:05 am

For Jonah Goldberg, “culture” is something that prevents US from adopting changes in political institutions that he doesn’t like,

OTOH, “culture” doesn’t matter if it means forcing Iraq at a barrel of a gun to accept changes in its poitical institutions that he happens to like.


soru 04.12.07 at 9:40 am

IQ testing has its critics

The most common criticism of IQ testing is that it is not the culture-neutral thing it sometimes is claimed to be.

Which implies ~100 years of effort by smart people to define a task that can be completed equally successfully by people of all cultures has failed.

So, to the list of ‘different arguments that guy could have made’ you could add the point that ‘running a healthcare system’ seems unlikely to be the trick those trying to define culturally neutral performance tests were missing all along.


Katherine 04.12.07 at 10:01 am

Not really following the comment thread anymore, but I thought I’d make this point: if applied by a European commentator to the US, the kind of sentiments that Goldberg is stating, and the way in which he is stating them would immediately and vociferously be denounced as “anti-American”. I dislike this criticism, since it is lazy and is used mainly for shutting someone up without explaining why they should up-shut, but sauce for the goose and gander and all that – Goldberg, by these standards, is anti-European and anti-Canadian and therefore anything he says can immediately be ignored.


abb1 04.12.07 at 3:51 pm

Goldberg, by these standards, is anti-European and anti-Canadian and therefore anything he says can immediately be ignored.

Nah, you just don’t get it. ‘Anti-American’ is to be ignored; ‘anti-European’ and ‘anti-Canadian’ are not.


Daniel Nexon 04.12.07 at 4:41 pm

Soru – the argument, as I understand it, is that many IQ tests require specific knowledge that people in certain cultures are more likely to have than those in others. For many involved in the formulation of IQ tests, this may have been a feature rather than a bug. Or it may have stemmed from their own cultural blindness. Regardless, this is really an apples and oranges comparison.


soru 04.12.07 at 5:11 pm

@daniel: are you saying that culture-neutral IQ tests would, in fact, be easy to produce, it’s just that everyone who ever tried is stupid or corrupt?


djw 04.12.07 at 5:32 pm

Why would that follow?


Daniel Nexon 04.12.07 at 6:33 pm

Soru – I have no idea. I defer to others who specialize in questions relating to whether there exists a general intelligence factor that can be tested through the processes found in IQ tests. And what DJW said.


Colin Danby 04.12.07 at 6:53 pm

What Daniel said. And I’m glad we’ve established that it was Kurt Vonnegut who was screwing up U.S. healthcare.


abb1 04.12.07 at 7:15 pm

Interesting. The previous Goldberg thread (where I won’t comment as I’m boycotting that particular poster) also talks about the IQs. But there in that thread ‘culture’ seems to be synonymous with ‘ethnicity’.

Apparently, whatever a higher IQ can be found to correlate with – ethnicity? number of words spoken to a baby? short-sightedness? smaller shoe size? – that is the ‘culture’ controlling our destiny.


Luis Alegria 04.12.07 at 7:36 pm

Mr. Abb1,

One would expect that culture (however defined, and whatever elements are pertinent to a particular question) has some strong if not exclusive relation to ethnicity. The interesting thing is that a very wide range of measurable performance phenomena are associated with ethnicity. This seems to me to be undeniable. Why is this so ?

Perhaps the elements of behavior or mental programming that have a bearing on material success are common to the broader culture of several ethnicities, in spite of the otherwise great differences between them – say Chinese, Armenians and Jews. We certainly don’t know what these elements are yet (maybe it is shoe size, who knows), but there is obviously something there.

Is this important ? I think it is extremely important. If a way can be found to remove the obstacles that seem to prevent some peoples from managing the material success that seems to be reliably achievable by other groups it would be a massive achievement. If Filipinos can be taught to succeed like Chinese the country would go from the third to the first world in a couple of decades, ending a great deal of misery. How about making Yemenis succeed like Jews ? Consider the possibilities.


abb1 04.12.07 at 8:01 pm

Do you mean that the Chinese do something different (like speaking more often to their toddlers) or that their genes are different (a la Pinker)?


Luis Alegria 04.12.07 at 8:13 pm

Mr. Abb1,

I don’t know. Nobody knows I think. Whats clear to me (and to a great many people by now) is that they have something other groups don’t, and whatever it is is very valuable. More research is needed.

And its not just the Chinese. It seems to me that there is some sort of cultural dividing line (or maybe its biological, give that side its due) running through East Asia – the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and probably the Vietnamese (based on their US immigrant performance) on one side, and the Cambodians, Laotians, Thai (maybe), Malays, Filipinos, Indonesians on the other.

Thats just East Asia as an example.


soru 04.12.07 at 8:57 pm

I think this thread is in danger of going down the well-worn IQ test hole, which I should apologise for.

Sorry: it was just an aside.

I think a more interesting and relevant-ish point is the degree to which US political difference, Red-state/Blue state, are actually ‘ethnic’ or cultural in origin.

There’s a plausible-enough sounding theory along those lines:

the foundation of American culture was formed from four mass emigrations from four different regions of Britain by four different socio-religious groups. New England’s constitutional period occurred between 1629 and 1640 when Puritans, most from East Anglia, settled there. The next mass migration was of southern English cavaliers and their servants to the Chesapeake Bay region between 1640 and 1675. Then, between 1675 and 1725 thousands of Quakers, led by William Penn settled the Delaware Valley. Finally Scotch-Irish settlers from the borderlands of Britain and Northern Ireland migrated to Appalachia between 1717 and 1775. Each of these migrations produced a distinct regional culture which can still be seen in America today.

‘Blue state’ values are a coalition of 1 and 3, ‘red state’ ones of 2 and 4.

So when Goldberg talks about ‘american rugged individualism’, he is, without realising it, actually talking about the feuding mountain-man Pashtun-types ethnically cleansed from Northumbria and southern Scotland at the time of formation of the British state.

How many people can say they have a gut feeling of ‘that’s fair’ or ‘that’s just wrong’ disconnected to that of their parents?

If so, while those mountain-man values undoubtedly exist, and are often sincerely held and vigorously expressed, they are far from universally shared.


Luis Alegria 04.12.07 at 9:04 pm

Mr. Abb1,

And as for speaking to toddlers, I have my doubts about the conclusions in that bit of research, beyond the sample size. The talking part could easily be an irrelevant (to success) element of behavior that smart, educated people do more often than others, and not a mechanism for programming achievement. With a larger and culturally broader sample they may have come to very different conclusions.

There are some other such studies that have come to other odd conclusions in studying child-rearing behavior. Some have asserted that the success model is a non-authoritarian, relaxed style of parenting. This does not square with what I know of Chinese parenting.

A lot more research is needed.


abb1 04.12.07 at 9:10 pm

There are 1.3 billion Chinese, Luis; that’s a helluva lot of people. In 1.3 billion people there are – statistically – tens of millions of very smart and ambitious people. Millions of them will travel all over the world (including San Francisco, California) in search for opportunities. This might give you the impression that there is something special about the Chinese. Well, yes – and that’s that there are a lot of Chinese. I bet at least 1.2 billion of them never got their IQ tested at all.

How’s this for an explanation?


Luis Alegria 04.12.07 at 9:33 pm

Mr. Abb1,

The Chinese (in China) have indeed had their IQ’s tested, in statistically significant numbers and with some rigor in sampling, and the resulting average IQ’s are indeed high. I think we can conclude that the average IQ of the 1.3 billion Chinese is higher than the world average.

But the Chinese we are talking about (Amy Chua’s people and my old classmates) are for the most part overseas Chinese, maybe 50 million people counting Taiwan. These did not come straight from China, they have typically been at least one generation removed. Their ancestors made the migration and were perhaps filtered in their first country (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, etc.), and their children and grandchildren continue to succeed there, and in any third country they move to, like the US. We are not talking about a filtered set of smart, ambitious people, we are talking about a self-perpetuating population of these, there are no more filters.

Their ancestors are also almost purely of exceedingly humble origins in China, people who effectively sold themselves into slavery. I don’t think that was a filter that selected an upper cut of the population.


William Blurke 04.12.07 at 9:52 pm

“Liberals constantly invoke Sweden as a governmental model without paying much heed to the fact that Sweden’s government succeeds as much as it does because it governs Swedes.”

American liberals, at least the political variety have no understanding of culture. The one thing they don’t want to admit is that they’re products of it. That’s the only argument I make here.
Goldberg’s comments are pretty basic stuff. The social basis of social democracy: the Scandinavian “model” is neither intellectual nor economic. Culture is not an invention,
Interesting that American culture is developing some social democratic characteristics. Academics are subject to this as much as anyone (though they’re the last to know).

I remember sitting in a bar a few years ago with some friends, 2 Frenchmen and a Brit from Manchester. We chatted a bit about the domesticated European male: the “Euroweenie.” In the end we raised our glasses to the working classes of the the British Isles, started a fight and trashed the bar.
2 cheers for barbarism.


Luis Alegria 04.12.07 at 9:58 pm

Mr. Abb1,

On the origins of the overseas Chinese – from an interview with Lee Kwan Yew, on a conversation he had with Deng Xiaoping –

“We are the descendants of the landless peasants of south China. You have the mandarins, the writers, the thinkers and all the bright people. You can do better.” He looked at me, but said nothing. In November 1992, during his famous tour of the southern provinces, he said, “Learn from Singapore,” and “Do better than them.”



abb1 04.12.07 at 10:15 pm

Sorry, the romance of ethnic nationalism is lost on me.


Luis Alegria 04.12.07 at 10:34 pm

Mr. Abb1,

You took this as ethnic nationalism ? It seems to me that LKY was just stating facts.

I don’t have the slightest bit of Chinese ancestry (that I know of) btw.


abb1 04.13.07 at 7:48 am

Luis, in response to #89:

Their ancestors are also almost purely of exceedingly humble origins…

It doesn’t matter what their origin is. Like I said: out of a billion peasants there will be tens of millions of extremely talented people. This is just the way it is, the law of nature. See Lomonosov, for example.

…and their children and grandchildren continue to succeed there, and in any third country they move to, like the US. We are not talking about a filtered set of smart, ambitious people, we are talking about a self-perpetuating population of these, there are no more filters.

But at this point there’s a different kind of filtering at work: once the first generation of immigrants succeeded – their children and grandchildren are now firmly in the upper class of the local society (moneywise, at least) with all the benefits that brings.

In other words (if I could use the stereotype here): extremely ambitious first generation will immigrate and become (relatively) rich by operating and expanding their laundry business and, because of that, the second generation will be able to become professionals or businessmen. And once you became a professional, your descendants are likely to be professionals as well.

That’s my theory anyway.

I mean, find a bunch of Chinese in China who do nothing but smoke opium all day and bring them to California (they wouldn’t come themselves, obviously). Check in a couple of generations – don’t you think self-perpetuation mechanism will affect their descendants too?


Richard 04.13.07 at 12:54 pm

Red-state/Blue state… actually ‘ethnic’ or cultural in origin.

This is an interesting question, but partly because it begs a further question: when does a trait become ‘cultural’ (as opposed to political, free-willed, a choice or indulgence)? Given the allegedly firm divisions in American society now, and the alleged unlikeliness of any individual changing their allegiance between red and blue, I’d say the 2 classifications mark 2 cultural camps: they may only be 50, 20 or 5 years old, but they seem to be self-reproducing (or dialectically reproducing).

My impression (and I can’t back this up in a thesis) is that distinctions tend to start out political, or habitual, or in any arbitrary way: when they’ve been reproduced for some years they grow the label ‘cultural,’ and when they’ve ben reproduced longer than anyone can remember (which also may not be many years) they grow the label ‘ethnic.’

I don’t want to get into debates on the overseas Chinese: there’s an enormous literature on them, which uniformally concludes that they enjoy repeatable success as a community for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious. Whether this is because of any specifically Chinese trait, or because they constitute a marginal trade diaspora, or whether any credence can be given to ‘rational stranger’ arguments, or whether they have ‘commercial confidence’ like Weberian protestants, or whether it’s the lingering ghost of Zheng He (aka Sampo Kong) watching over them remains entirely unclear. I think it’s at least as plausible as the other (quite earnestly supported) arguments above, that they acquired a reputation and a group identity, across Southeast Asian and European colonial communities, as useful brokers for manufactured goods that could not be had elsewhere – a reputation that rested as much on the reluctance of Chinese governments to engage in wholesale trade of these items as on any special entrepreneurship on the part of the overseas communities – and that this reputation became a reproducing and portable element of their culture, capable of being slipped over both the high- and low-class new immigrants that poured out of Hokkien and Fukien, in much the same way that alleged American entrepreneurialism was slipped over successive waves of European and other immigrants in the US. This hypothesis is completely unprovable, but the comparison to the US does at least suggest that biological arguments are complete bunk (as does the very extensive intermarriage between Chinese elites and other, native and non-native groups in places like, for instance, Thailand, producing a hybrid, often “Chinese” but as often “national” elite that possesses much the same characteristics in those nations).

Damn. I said I didn’t want to get into these debates. Too late, maybe.


Luis Alegria 04.13.07 at 3:44 pm

Mr. Richard,

I believe you are correct on the progress of distinctions.

I will cease to debate the subject of the Chinese; it was merely an illustration of the potential for a cultural explanation for a lot of phenomena with a bearing on public policy, which I believe can be very powerful.


Aaron Swartz 04.14.07 at 3:34 pm

Another form of the two-step is the the two-step of terrific technicality, in which on the plain meaning of your words readers understand it in some sort of metaphorical sense, with the associations of the usual words, but in the context of the work you insist you are using the words technically and that they have precise, scientific meanings. This is the game Chomsky knocked B. F. Skinner for and David Stove knocks a bunch of people for in The Plato Cult.


Dude 04.14.07 at 4:43 pm

Saying culture isn’t everything does not simply mean assigning a nonzero value to culture. In Goldberg’s view, cultural differences between the US and Europe are sufficient to make a European style health care system unwise here. I tend to agree. The attacks on this simple point at this site are annoyingly pedantic.


William Blurke 04.14.07 at 5:29 pm

I don’t know what “unwise” means.
The US is becoming more “European” as Europe is becoming more “American.” We’ll end up with a national health system sooner than Goldberg wants or hopes. But his critics responses are being no more empirically based than his.


John M. Burt 04.15.07 at 12:38 am

Aaron Swartz, I confess to using “terrific technicality” myself. I have with malice aforethought referred to a Christian group as a “cult” (because its members were not born into it) and called public-private partnerships “fascist” (because every public-private partnership *is* fascist in principle).

Meanwhile,I’m still trying to come up with a Latin American or African welfare state, and the only one I can think of is Cuba.

True, Cuba is not Denmark. But maybe it would be more to the point to observe that Cuba is not Haiti, nor even the Dominican Republic.

What Cuba’s health-care system demonstrates, actually, is how much can be accomplished by hard work and co-operation with very limited resources. Not a strong argument for Goldberg’s position, but also not very relevant to policy-making in the U.S.

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