Surprising no one, the New York Times handed its review of Jonah Goldberg's new book, The Tyranny of Clichés, to a political enemy, Time Magazine political columnist Joe Klein (pictured), which he did under the loaded headline "Hating Liberals." The paper similarly handed its review of Goldberg's previous book, 2007's Liberal Fascism, to unsympathetic history professor David Oshinsky.
Klein was even harsher (calling the book "an insight into the...radical Republican state of mind") and more condescending in an accompanying New York Times books podcast, hosted by his equal in conservative mockery, the paper's book editor Sam Tanenhaus. (Check the next Times Watch post for that.)
After delivering backhanded praise to Liberal Fascism as "a screed, of course, but a clever one," Klein admitted "There are, of course, some fat targets" to criticize on the left, like "The multiple excesses of political correctness, academia gone amok and identity politics." Then he went on the attack.
One of Goldberg’s next targets -- and we’re still in the introduction, by the way -- is centrism, which he sees as a particularly insidious brand of liberal obtuseness: “Well, the Wahhabis want to kill all the gays and Jews. The Sufis don’t want to kill any gays or Jews. So the moderate, sensible position must be to kill just the gays, but not the Jews....The point is that sometimes the extreme is 100 percent correct while the centrist position is 100 percent wrong.”
Would it be pedestrian, in a decidedly liberal way, for me to point out that this sort of argument is not merely infantile, but a sly denigration of the necessary compromises that are at the heart of almost every real policy dispute? Figuring out how to calculate cost-of-living increases for Social Security is not an all-or-nothing proposition. But Goldberg is not interested in anything so quotidian as actual governance.
After a while, it just becomes exhausting. “Feminism was in no small part launched as a Trojan horse for an older and more familiar Marxist assault.” And “No Jews were tortured in the Spanish Inquisition” (only “former” Jews who claimed conversion to Catholicism were, but Jews were treated far better by the Muslims than by the Catholics, a fact Goldberg neglects). Gandhi evinced “stunning naïveté” and was, occasionally, “incandescently dumb,” without a mention of the impact of his philosophy on the American civil rights movement or the collapse of the Soviet empire. Does Goldberg really believe this stuff? Or is he just being tendentious for rhetorical effect? In the end, his vindictive thrashings have very little to do with the actual practice of politics; the idea that political clichés are banal isn’t exactly a blinding insight, either. Sadly, Goldberg has intellectual resources that might be put to grown-up use. But then, as the liberal cliché has it, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Goldberg responded witheringly, getting into the weeds, point by point, at National Review Online in a post accurately titled "The NYT Calls Central Casting."
Joe Klein, who was in my youth an interesting writer, has reviewed The Tyranny of Clichés for The New York Times. If you work from the reasonable assumption that he set out to pan the book -- and me -- from the start, it’s something of a rave, full of grudging compliments and concessions. Indeed, according to Klein, “Goldberg’s erudition can entertain and enlighten.” I should’ve had him blurb it!
The problem, of course, is that Mr. Klein comes not to praise me, but to bury me and such compliments are intended to generate an air of regret that I’ve squandered what little talent and insight I have on such bilge (He even ends the review with groan-worthy “a mind is a terrible thing to waste”). Indeed, the most grating thing about the review is Klein’s studied pose as my better, who’s been forced to render an opinion of my work at all. Most of us know the type. Someone who assumes that he knows more than you and then proceeds to demonstrate he doesn’t, but from a great height. To that end, the review is peppered with the sort of haughty concessions you might expect from a professor who really doesn’t think you’re worth his time.
In short, I’m really not all that bothered by what I think are his unjustifiably low opinions of my work, but I really can’t abide his unjustifiably high opinion of himself.
He says that real policy disputes revolve around how much Social Security checks should go up, and that it is “infantile” for me to suggest otherwise. In other words, according to Klein conservatives are grown-ups when they agree to the status quo and/or growth in the size of government, but they are extremists when they suggest more structural reforms. Liberals, meanwhile, are grown-ups when they agree to bend a little on how much bigger the checks should be and, I surmise, they are never extremists because Joe Klein’s version of liberalism is never wrong. Ultimately, any effort more ambitious than slowing the rate of increase in entitlement spending is, by Klein’s lights, extremist.
What I want to know is whether Klein thinks any of this amounts to an impressive rejoinder or is he just monkey-dancing for the readers the New York Times Book Review as the editors churn the organ grinder? Does Klein dispute that Gandhi was “incandescently dumb” when he advised the Jews of Germany to commit mass suicide? How about after the war, when Gandhi said “The Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife”? Does he know George Orwell and I see eye-to-eye on this? Is Klein arguing that Gandhi was savvy and smart when he told the British to surrender the British Isles to the Nazis? Does he deny Gandhi was naïve to call Hitler his friend? And what does Gandhi’s influence on the American civil rights movement have to do with anything?