Jonah Goldberg Fires at Me, Somehow Shoots Own Foot

Last month, I called out Jonah Goldberg’s foolish Twitter declaration that “you can support abortion and still be a conservative” at LifeSiteNews, and reacted here to his subsequent tweetstorm about a LifeNews piece compiling unfavorable Twitter reactions to him. This was one of his follow-ups that most stood out to me:

The issue, of course, is that Goldberg has never been shy about touting National Review’s record of kicking out beyond-the-pale apostates.

So I replied:

Goldberg never responded, directly or indirectly, to my article or any of my rebuttal tweets. I don’t know whether he simply missed it or he decided to concentrate fire on the easier target, but given his Twitter habit of responding to softballs from anonymous fringe types while strenuously ignoring substantive counterpoints, I have my suspicions.

Anyway, he displayed his selective support for kicking out apostates once again with a recent G-File. Here are some key quotes:

  • From the very beginning, NR has stood against the ‘irresponsible Right.’
  • And with the advantage of hindsight, one can argue that NR dawdled in excommunicating other elements of the irresponsible Right.
  • Like water seeking its level, bogs claim whatever they are allowed to claim until stopped by nature or man. That “supposedly” is the rhetorical device that says, “Let the swamp grass grow, it’s not my responsibility to prune it.”
  • My view then, and now, is that everyone should not only be forced to choose between traditional conservatism and the alt-right but that they should force that choice on others.
  • Buckley understood, as he put it in Up from Liberalism, that “conservatism must be wiped clean of the parasitic cant that defaces it.”
  • By refusing to defend conservative dogma against “supposedly” racist and nativist forces, our dogma is being erased like the battlements of a sand castle when the tide comes in.

Huh. Apparently there is a “thing” apostates can be kicked out of after all.

As should be needless to say, I fully support excommunicating white nationalists, anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, etc. from conservatism (I’ve written plenty about that myself). Where I and Goldberg’s other critics differ is that we believe that defenders of violence against children deserve the same treatment, on both conservative dogma and human decency grounds.

So, in response to the G-File, I reminded Goldberg of his own words (again). This time finally got a response:

As funny as it was to see Jonah slap the “gibberish” label on a tweet that’s mostly one of his own quotes, the invocation of his podcast was more interesting. Had he finally confronted the meat of the issue? Did he put me in my place with a superior review of embryology, natural law theory, conservative history, or the Founders’ thinking?

After listening to the podcast he cited…not exactly. During the segment (starting at 50:40) devoted to complaining about the pushback he got with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (not exactly an authority on conservatism), Goldberg merely says that “a pro-life website went hammer and tongs after me” (presumably LifeNews) and mentions a couple writers at The Federalist. 

At no point do Goldberg or Douthat address, directly or indirectly, anything I said on the matter or any variation of the objections I raised (they don’t get specific about anything any of Goldberg’s other critics said, either). So how does he know I “made a fool of” myself? How does the podcast demonstrate it? Apparently Goldberg either (a) confused me with the LifeNews author, (b) didn’t know my reasoning but lazily assumed it was probably covered in the exchange, or (c) did know and was deflecting with simple ad hominem.

None of these possibilities are a great fit with the image of one of “serious” conservatism’s best and brightest.

As for the points Goldberg did make, none of them vindicated his original thesis. If anything, they reinforced my own observations at multiple points (you might even call it gibberish):

As a matter of political strategy it is insane to me for pro-lifers to say “you have to be a conservative to be a pro-lifer.” Because that way you’re basically telling every socialist, every good Catholic, every Nat Hentoff type, everyone who wants single-payer healthcare, that they also have to be pro-choice, right? You want to make it a separate track.

That would be insane…if any of Goldberg’s critics had said it. Maybe he heard it from some random troll (he does love his random trolls), but “pro-lifers must be conservatives” is a pretty glaring reversal of the actual proposition in dispute, “conservatives must be pro-life.” Of course pro-lifers should want non-conservatives to oppose abortion, but simply stressing that abortion is incompatible with American conservatism’s first principles hardly implies otherwise.

There are so many different kinds of conservatism, many of which I despise, right? I mean, read Friedrich Hayek’s “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” something the libertarians love to quote the title of, but never quote the essay […] He says that America is the one place in the world where you can call yourself a conservative and still be on the side of liberty, because we’re trying to conserve a fundamentally liberal institution, which is the American Founding […] a “conservative” in America means something profoundly different than a “conservative” in Portugal, you know? A conservative in Portugal might want to restore the throne; a conservative in America wants to uphold the principles that overthrew the crown. Very different things. Radicalism and conservatism are the two most contingent ideologies; they depend entirely on where and when you’re talking about.

In retrospect, I should have expected the Hayek tangent to make an appearance here. I enjoy a good chat about what conservatism conserves across different nations and eras, but…we’re not in Portugal. It’s not the seventeenth century. The “where and when [we’re] talking about” is 2018 America, where conservatism is generally understood to have something to do with conserving the principles of the American Founding.

So why rest his defense on some rambling about what conservatism might mean in other parts of the world? Why completely ignore the intellectual tradition and first principles that could shed light on the question? Perhaps because (as I showed) where American conservatism falls on the right to life is so utterly straightforward that Goldberg knew he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if he did anything other than obfuscate.

The reason abortion makes me uncomfortable at the second and third trimester is because I think it’s a moral horror. The reason why abortion makes me uncomfortable in the first two weeks of conception is, I don’t like the state being involved in the process of deciding who is and who is not a human being. So it’s a very libertarian point on the beginning of life. I cannot muster anything like the moral horror I have for things like partial-birth abortion for the aborting of blastocysts. The morning-after pill doesn’t shake me to my core and fill me with a sort of morally-generated disgust the way essentially infanticide does in the eighth or ninth month. And so I’m just willing to admit my intellectual weakness about the beginning of the argument.

Alternate headline: Jonah Goldberg admits he’s not qualified to be commenting on abortion in the first place.

This is pure emotion. There’s no appeal to evidence, no attempt at reasoning, and no serious application of conservative dogma…on one of the most fundamental, most straightforward natural-rights questions possible. Didn’t the Right use to pride itself on following reason over feelings, in contrast to the Left?

There are lots of people who came after me, including people I’m friends with, who see conservatism as a sort of industrial analogue to the Republican Party, that it’s a movement, that it’s a network of institutions. And so, to me what they were doing is they were replacing an intellectual, philosophical conception, with the Young America’s Foundation and the NRA, this network of institutions, right? And those are just different things to me.

First, conservatism quite obviously is a movement (whether specific organizations are effectively reflecting its first principles are a different story). Second, where does Goldberg get off claiming he sees conservatism as an “intellectual, philosophical conception” and his critics don’t, when his critics are the ones arguing philosophy and he hasn’t made a single philosophical counter-argument?

He strenuously avoided any exploration of any concept or work — purpose of government, natural-law theory, individual rights, constitutional interpretation, American conservative thought since the Founders, etc. — that would have produced a reviewable argument as to whether there can be a conservative case for legal abortion.

What an inspiring example of the intellectual caliber that apparently merits a slice of a $2.4 million grant for “reconciling individual freedom with cultural values that make freedom and progress possible” these days…

A lot of these outlets and institutions thought I was the better target of their ire than Tomi Lahren, because there is this unbelievable deference to clickbait warlords out there. And so I’m throwing her under the bus for saying something stupid, that is contrary to the strategic argument, that is contrary to the moral argument, and instead, because I made some rhetorical concession to something that they didn’t like, and because I’m in this anti-Trump box for a lot of these people, they’d rather attack me than attack her, even though they didn’t realize that I was actually carrying water for them. And that’s part of the weird moment that we’re in.

This is, to use one of Goldberg’s favorite terms, horseshit.

Sean Davis, Kimberly Ross, and Micaiah Bilger were among the voices to criticize both Goldberg and Lahren (I tweeted about her latest stupidity herehere, and here, and wrote about her here, here, and here last year). The conservative commentariat torched her Roe comments (for instance) here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and in countless tweets. So it’s not as if taking some time to slam Goldberg’s comments somehow detracted from holding her accountable.

As I said at LifeSite, in the grand scheme of things the stupidity of a provocateur pandering to the lowest common denominator is ultimately less concerning than someone who supposedly knows better, speaking with the perceived credibility of one of the Right’s most esteemed publications. If anything, the Right focused too much on Lahren’s poison and not enough on Goldberg’s.

So what’s the root cause of all this nonsense? Why is Jonah Goldberg so hellbent on carving out space for pro-aborts under the conservative umbrella, and why is he so abysmal at backing it up?

Like I’ve acknowledged in the past, I appreciate that he has written insightful pieces on abortion, and that he takes his uncertainty as a call to err on the side of caution rather than a license to kill. But between the above, his April admission that he disagrees “to some extent” with the “moral, practical, [and] legal grounds” for thinking “abortion is the taking of a life and should thus be treated under the law as such”; and his suggestion last year that there’s some substantive moral difference between Doug Jones supporting abortion-on-demand and Roy Moore being “the more evil man in his personal conduct” for his alleged crimes, it all paints a distinctly squishy picture.

I believe there are ultimately two things going on here, neither of which are intellectual. The first is that Goldberg simply doesn’t want to give up any of his own claim to the conservative label (not that his stance makes him not a conservative, but it does make him less conservative). The second is that he doesn’t want to admit that more than a few of his personal friends in this industry hold a position every bit as repugnant as the worst the John Birch Society peddled at its height.

This whole affair is another example of what so many of Cruise-Ship Conservatism’s lectures to the Results-Oriented Right boil down to: double-standards. None of it is about upholding first principles or wiping clean parasites. It’s about tearing down competitors for the soul of the movement by any means necessary, while insulating themselves and their allies from criticism for the exact same offenses.

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2 thoughts on “Jonah Goldberg Fires at Me, Somehow Shoots Own Foot

  1. I’m not going to get into the details of idiotic “twitterstorm,” but one can be other than properly Pro Life and still be conservative. There’s a lot of vectors and contexts involved in anyone’s overall political position and we Americans shouldn’t make the same mistake as the Left in demanding total orthodoxy.

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    • There’s a difference between demanding uniform thought on questions of priorities, prudence, etc.; and demanding adherence to foundational core principles. It’s my contention that believing an entire category of human beings doesn’t have a right to life falls into the latter category, and should be disqualified from the conservative umbrella, and that doing so is an example of good “orthodoxy” no different than excluding racists, statists, or anyone else who rejects the basics.

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