Tag Archives: Jonah Goldberg

On Originalism and Omelets

Q: How many eggs do French people like to have for breakfast?

A: One is an oeuf.

Hilarious!  That’s about the quality of Jonah Goldberg’s recent posting at NRO, titled “Close Encounters with a ‘Living Constitution'”.

Here’s the setup.  Goldberg orders an Arizona Omelet at the diner, the Red Flame.  But the server brings him a bowl of oatmeal.  When Goldberg objects that he didn’t order this, the server replies that he, in fact, did order the oatmeal.

“This is oatmeal,” I’d say. “The menu says that the Arizona Omelet has cheese and onions and jalapenos in it. It also says it’s an omelet.”

Waitress: “Well, we here at the Red Flame believe that the menu is a living, breathing document that changes with the times. Oatmeal is healthier than an omelet, and we feel that people should eat more of it. So, we only serve oatmeal, but we call it by different names.

The point, as we see, given the analogy, is that taking X as a ‘living document’ is just to impose one’s will on the document.  Words don’t mean what they mean at all.  Or they mean what we just want them to mean.  And here’s how Goldberg sees the plausibility of this line of thought:

That’s more like how the doctrine of the “Living Constitution” works in real life. A judge makes a small leap of interpretation that seems reasonable — say, replacing onions with shallots, which after all, are a kind of onion. Then the next judge makes another incremental hop in interpretation. And then another. And another. Until eventually the waitress brings me the head of Alfredo Garcia

So Goldberg’s reasoning is that because it happens in ‘incremental steps,’ there will be no constraint on how to read the Constitution or a menu, for that matter.   But the problem is that there must still be a ‘reasonable interpretation’ at each of these steps.  Red onions for shallots… and note what makes it reasonable is that they are kinds of onions.  (And note that it’s a replacement, not a re-interpretation.)
But here’s the big lie to the reasoning — none of the ‘reasonable’ replacements actually end up with what Goldberg takes as obvious — that there’s a series of reasonable interpretations of ‘omelet’ that yields a bowl of oatmeal.
Goldberg closes by noting how he sees the dialectical situation:
There are some issues where I think liberals have a sincerely held, rational, and legitimate point of view that I simply disagree with. But the doctrine of the Living Constitution is not one of them.
You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me.  At no point in time does someone who cares about individual rights thinks that there would be a problem with the dead hand?
And so, we see a fallacy double-dip.  First, there’s the faulty analogy between the situation of Living Document interpretation of the Constitution and the Red Fire Diner’s omelet, and the case Goldberg makes for it as a slippery slope.
The ur-fallacy here is the slippery slope, since reasonable interpretations don’t have the all-too-easy-slide to voluntarist re-writing, the slope isn’t slippery.  So the two cases aren’t analogous.  Oh well, if this is how well Goldberg thinks who hold Living Document views reason, then of course he shouldn’t think there’s a rational and reasonable disagreement.  But he’s not reasonably held that view.

ad effeminandos animos*

The above image was tweeted by Barackobama.com last week. I suppose the idea is that people should talk about health insurance while they do the usual non-alcoholic holiday things.

Sadly, this image has also forced some people to regress to adolescent bullying. Here’s the always regrettable Jonah Goldberg:

If you try to play out the life of Pajama Boy in your mind, he probably has a girlfriend. It’s just that she’s wearing the pants in the relationship, as they used to say. I picture her like Sarah Silverman in School of Rock or the girlfriend at the beginning of Office Space who everyone knows is cheating on Peter.


Pajama Boy is a Low-T liberal who wears a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt and flinches whenever his girlfriend makes a sudden movement…

So the argument goes like this: the sissy in the photograph, who has a girlfriend who physically dominates him, demonstrates that the Affordable Care Act does not address America’s health care needs.

*Caesar, de Bello Gallico I.1: “Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind”

An interesting weak man argument

Jonah Goldberg has a nice piece over at National Review Online about the way the recently upheld Affordable Care Act has been received at National Public Radio.  He picks out Julie Rovner's question about whether there are really any losers in the decision.  She eventually concludes that there aren't any.  Goldberg can't hold himself back:

It is an interesting perspective given that this is arguably the most controversial law in our lifetimes. It nearly sparked a constitutional crisis, helped cause the Democrats to lose their majority in the House, and, despite herculean efforts by the president to “sell” the law . . .  And yet, according to Rovner, the law creates only winners if properly implemented. Why on earth are its opponents so stupid?  For the record, there are losers under Obamacare. Here’s a short list: ….

He then goes on with your expected list (taxpayers…it's a tax, you see, Catholics who see part of the law as subsidizing condom use, and people at the bottom of the slippery slope of medication rationing).  This, so far, isn't what's good about Goldberg's column.  In fact, so far, it's just his usual schlocky version of what a dumb person would think a smart person would say about the issue and about the opposition.  But then he surprises:

Obamacare defenders have responses to these objections, and critics have responses to those responses. Still: Serious people do believe that the law creates — or just might create — losers, a fact Rovner might have mentioned.

I don’t mean to pick on Rovner. Her views on Obamacare don’t strike me as exceptional so much as typical — typical of a liberal Washington establishment that still seems incapable of grasping what the fuss is about.

This is nice, except for his saying that he doesn't mean to 'pick on' Rovner.  That, of course, is ridiculous — he's making an example of her. That's not wrong, nor is it worth making a big deal about not doing it.   Rather, what's nice is that Goldberg sees that this isn't the best the other side can do in the debate, but that it's typical of what the other side does in the debate.  That's a good observation, one that shows some real self-awareness and also dialectical sensitivity.  You have to disabuse your audience of the bad but widely made arguments before you can get to the good but infrequently given arguments. 




The beatings will continue

Speaking of those who don't get first principles, the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus approvingly cited Avicenna's riff on Aristotle: such people ought to be beaten or exposed to fire until such time that they admit that being beaten or burned are not the same as not being beaten or not being burned. 

Jonah Goldberg has something similar in mind for today's youth.  Only on his view, such a view wouldn't illustrate merely the ridiculousness of denying first principles, but would disabuse the youth other, less obvious, though in his mind equally wrong-headed ideas.*

GOLDBERG: Personally, I think the voting age should be much, higher, not lower. I think it was a mistake to lower it to 18, to be brutally honest….[I]t is a simple fact of science that nothing correlates more with ignorance and stupidity than youth. We’re all born idiots, and we only get over that condition as we get less young. And yet there’s this thing in this culture where, ‘Oh, young people are for it so it must be special.’ No, the reason young people are for it because they don’t know better. That’s why we call them young people. […]

The fact that young people think socialism is better than capitalism. That’s proof of what social scientists call their stupidity and their ignorance. And that’s something that conservatives have to beat out of them. Either literally or figuratively as far as I’m concerned.

Pathetic.  The ad baculum at work here basically functions the same way Godwin's law does: when you invoke violence of this type, you admit to not having any understanding of what an argument is.  I suppose the only way to solve that is to beat the concept of rational discourse into you.

via Crooks and Liars.

*edit for clarity.


In what's good for the gander news, NRO's Jonah Goldberg thinks that President Obama's rhetoric has turned ugly.  He's using patriotism against Republicans. 

According to his new stump speech, if you oppose his agenda, then you don’t care about America as much as he does.

Well, let's see the line that Goldberg thinks crosses the line.

What is needed is action on the part of Congress, a willingness to put the partisan games aside and say we’re going to do what’s right for the country, not what we think is going to score some political points for the next election. . . . There is nothing that we’re facing that we can’t solve with some spirit of ‘America first.'

Goldberg objects that the 'America First' spirit is supposed to "separate the patriotic from the petty."  But surely this is mild compared to, say, Michele Bachmann saying liberals are unAmerican or even the rest of Goldberg's article, which makes hay about how the President is going on vacation (and so thereby must not be patriotic, either!).  

The point, however, isn't to make the hypocrisy charge here.  The point is to say that Goldberg doesn't defend those charged with pettiness.  He only cries foul at their being called petty.  But surely if there is a group of legislators that are out only to save their hides for the next election rather than making hard choices or getting on with the work of governing, then they need to be called out.  Moreover, it's not the charge of being unpatriotic that I saw in the Obama speech, but the charge of political cynicism.  And it's easy to be a political cynic and be really patriotic.  In fact, those all too often go hand in hand, don't they?

I won’t forget to place roses on your grave

Tu Quoque arguments, it seems to me, have a statute of limitations on when the first of the two inconsistent acts can be relevantly inconsistent with the second. (See my long article in Informal Logic for the full story)  For example, someone may express appropriate surprise at the fact that the altarboy later became an atheist when he was a grownup, but that's not inconsistency in the relevant sense for an accusation of hypocrisy.  The two acts need to be close enough in time for them to be relevant to each other.  And so it's usual when someone runs an argument from inconsistency, she will say something like:

Person S says we should not do X, but then she turns right around and does X.

The important thing is that S turns right around and does it.  If she did X years ago, perhaps S has learned her lesson.  Or she's changed her mind.  Or maybe the facts regarding X have changed.  X may be the best option, nowadays.  The lesson: with charges of hypocrisy, time's relevant.

With that in mind, let's look at Jonah Goldberg's commentary on the (albeit grudging) praise of Ronald Reagan's presidency from liberals.  This is part of a trend he sees. Barry Goldwater, after being demonized by LBJ, was later portrayed as an "avuncular and sage grandfather type." William F. Buckley, too, went from being called a Nazi to later being an actual defender of liberalism.  Reagan, now:

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Gipper is enjoying yet another status upgrade among liberals. Barack Obama took a Reagan biography with him on his vacation. A slew of liberals and mainstream journalists (but I repeat myself) complimented Obama’s State of the Union address as “Reaganesque.” Time magazine recently featured the cover story “Why Obama (Hearts) Reagan.” Meanwhile, the usual suspects are rewriting the same columns about how Reagan was a pragmatist who couldn’t run for president today because he was too nice, too reasonable, too (shudder) liberal for today’s Republican party.

Trouble is, while Reagan was alive, liberals didn't have too high an opinion of him:

[My] favorite comes from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, which in 1982 held a vote for the most hated people of all time. The winners: Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Dracula.

Now, first, note that these are cases where we're looking at things said in 1982 and 2011.  Almost thirty years difference.  Second, note that these inconsistencies are ones distributed over a group, Liberals, not individual people.  Regardless, it's almost as though Goldberg isn't paying attention to the subtext of these retrospectives:  that despite the fact that liberals disagreed with these conservatives, liberals could nevertheless see their virtues as people in retrospect.  And one of the reasons why those virtues are worth mentioning now is that current conservatives so clearly fail to have them.  I take it back.  Goldberg gets that part:

[S]o much of the effort to build up conservatives of the past is little more than a feint to tear down the conservatives of the present.

But, for some reason,  he thinks instead this is a point he's scoring on liberals by showing how they're inconsistent.  Again, in cases where time's changed the variables, sometimes what you've inveighed against earlier becomes the best choice.  Ask any liberal: would you take  Reagan or Buckley over Palin or Goldberg for a decent conversation about government and political norms?  You know the answer.  Goldberg thinks this means that liberals think that the only good conservative is a dead conservative. He's missed the point.  The point, instead, is sadly that all the good conservatives are dead.

Now, that’s a strawman!

Jonah Goldberg has a piece defending Lindsey Graham's recent proposal for a Constitutional Amendment (one that would revise the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause so that children born of illegal aliens are not citizens).  More importantly, Goldberg is out to defend our responsibility to revise and interpret the Constitution as the cases demand.  Now, this should come as a surprise to all the conservatives who take themselves to be strict "Constitutionists" — this sounds all too much like the old 'living document' take on the Constitution conservatives hate so much.  Goldberg anticipates this:

...this "living document" argument is a straw man. Of course justices must read the document in the context of an ever-changing world. What else could they do? Ask plaintiffs to wear period garb, talk in 18th-century lingo and only bring cases involving paper money and runaway slaves?

Goldberg's a little confused about straw men, as straw-manning depends on how you portray your opposition, not how obvious your views are.  But his point is reasonable enough — if the options are, on the one hand, seeing the world and the Constitution's relevance through the lenses of 18th Century Yankees and, on the other hand, looking at the world with the judgment of 21st Century Yankees, we should take the 21st Century perspective… given that we're out to deal with 21st Century problems.  So Jonah Goldberg has made a nice point and also has highlighted a straw man argument.  Oh, but then he steps right back into the straw man mode, himself:

When discussing the Constitution on college campuses, students and even professors will object that without a "living constitution," blacks would still be slaves and women wouldn't be allowed to vote. Nonsense. Those indispensable changes to the Constitution came not from judges reading new rights into the document but from Americans lawfully amending it.

Even professors?  Really?  Even professors?  Goldberg owes us at least one name for this charge.  But he provides no documentation, no names, no nothing, just vague allegations of intellectual incompetence.  Nobody said that living document interpretation of the Constitution was the solution to those things — we had Constitutional Amendments to solve those problems.  Only utter morons would say those were cases of living document work.  But how about, say, Brown v. Board, or pretty much every privacy rights case?  Or, maybe Gregg v. Georgia, with the notion of an evolving standards of decency in punishment?  Those are all cases of reading the document of the Constitution in a way that keeps its core commitments but also extends them to the cases that the framers did not anticipate.  Ignoring these cases (and actual discussions of them on academic campuses) not only distorts what the "living document" interpretation is, but it makes it impossible to make sense of what Goldberg's own views on the Constitution are.  For someone out to prevent straw manning about Constitutional interpretation, Jonah Goldberg is an expert at constructing and knocking the stuffing out of them.


In a meritocracy, people earn their way upwards.  So foundational is the notion of merit to a meritocracy, that for some, such as myself for instance, it has a broader application.  In a meritocracy democracy, such as ours would like to be, people advance their position on the strength of their arguments.  If your argument has no merit because it rests on made up facts–or lies as some call them–you ought to realize it does not deserve to be made not to mention win.  Well, would that Jonah Goldberg thought this way,  He writes:

I have no idea whatsoever if there's merit to this, and if there is how much merit, but lots of email like this:

When are people going to start talking about the REAL reason the markets are down – Obama up in polls. If I was McCain, I'd start telling people, "If you want to lose more money, vote Obama."

A person such as Goldberg could perhaps be bothered to check to see whether there is any merit to his obviously contentious, to say the least, claim.  His readers could be forgiven, after all, they read him.  

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald for the tip.


As we head toward the Fourth of July, perhaps some might enjoy the following definition of patriotism from Jonah Goldberg (via Whiskey Fire):

Definitions of patriotism proliferate, but in the American context patriotism must involve not only devotion to American texts (something that distinguishes our patriotism from European nationalism) but also an abiding belief in the inherent and enduring goodness of the American nation. We might need to change this or that policy or law, fix this or that problem, but at the end of the day the patriotic American believes that America is fundamentally good as it is.

It's the "good as it is" part that has vexed many on the left since at least the Progressive era. Marxists and other revolutionaries obviously don't believe entrepreneurial and religious America is good as it is. But even more mainstream figures have a problem distinguishing patriotic reform from reformation. Many progressives in the 1920s considered the American hinterlands a vast sea of yokels and boobs, incapable of grasping how much they needed what the activists were selling.

Why "must" it involve such echoes of state religion (i.e., fascism)?  No one knows.  Goldberg doesn't bother to say.



Jonah Goldberg is determined to outdo himself in the category of dumb:

I find Darwin fish offensive. First, there’s the smugness. The
undeniable message: Those Jesus fish people are less evolved, less
sophisticated than we Darwin fishers.

The hypocrisy is even more glaring. Darwin fish are often stuck next to
bumper stickers promoting tolerance or admonishing that "hate is not a
family value." But the whole point of the Darwin fish is intolerance;
similar mockery of a cherished symbol would rightly be condemned as
bigoted if aimed at blacks or women or, yes, Muslims.

He’s right about the undeniable message.  But I don’t think it’s saying what he thinks it is.  For evolutionists, the fish represents the connection between life in the sea and mammalian life.  According to their story, God ordered the fish to rise up from the sea and walk on earth, so that, eventually, the fish would become man (without the God part).  This is an alternative to the literal creationism of some Christians which has a couple of different stories each involving a sea.  I would even venture to guess that many Darwin fish cars are owned by Christians–many of whom are dedicated evolutionists. 

The ridiculous thing about Goldberg’s remark is the charge of hypocrisy.  The point, obviously, of the Darwin fish is to insist on scientific evidence over the unsupported factual assertions of a religious text.  The evolutionists, in other words, challenge fact with fact–the literal creation story (which for some reason very many Christians believe isn’t true at all).  Many Christians do believe this story, however.  They believe it with such a vengeance they think it ought to be taught as fact in science classes in place of or at least alongside of the evolution "story."  In some places, they have even succeeded in undermining the teaching of evolution on the grounds that it’s just a "theory."  That view, of course, is absolutely preposterous–and ignorant and intolerant of basic scientific knowledge. 

Here’s the really dumb thing. To believe in the literal truth of Genesis in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence is not the same as being black, female or Muslim–unless being those things involves embracing obviously false assertions about reality.  To believe in the literal truth of Genesis (and the sometimes consequent belief in the immorality and falsity of evolution) is not even the same thing as being Christian.