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Corrections and Clarifications
Don't be petty about consistency.


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Jonah Goldberg

When it was announced on this page that the new NRO “Flying Monkey” T-shirts were available, I received over a dozen e-mails from people assuming that it was a reference to the line from Wayne’s World. “Shaa…and monkeys might fly out of my butt.” Obviously this wasn’t my intention considering the reader-writer relationship it might imply.

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But it did remind me of a funny story. In the early 1990s a friend of mine lived in South America. One night she was watching Wayne’s World with Spanish subtitles. She had fun noting the differences between the actual English dialogue and the subtitles. When the line “Shaa…and monkeys might fly out of my butt” came up she couldn’t believe the translation.

The Spanish subtitle read, “Yes, when Judgement Day comes.” Which is not quite as funny.

I bring this up because, well, things sometimes get lost in translation. And, what better theme for a Corrections and Clarifications column?

Consistency Hobgoblins
I’m not going to poke any sharp sticks into the sleeping dog that is the ongoing libertarian-conservative debate, but I do want to address a point of confusion about consistency. Both in Wednesday’s column about Peter Singer and in my response to Harry Browne’s piece I downplayed the importance of consistency. Also in the Browne response I argued that conservatism doesn’t have a single all-important principle that we are required to be consistent about. This had various people saying conservatism is just fuzzy socialism and calling me a communist, a totalitarian, and a fool. But more on the diplomatic skills of some readers in a minute.

First, let’s talk about consistency. Joseph Addison once observed, “Nothing that isn’t a real crime makes a man appear so contemptible and little in the eyes of the world as inconsistency,” which might help explain the consternation of some people. But the fact is I have nothing against consistency if it is prudent, reasonable and mature.

But making consistency your highest value is, well, absurd. Montaigne said: “Stubborn and ardent clinging to one’s opinion is the best proof of stupidity.” I think that’s unfair to hyper-consistent people who can be very smart, but it’s true of their position. After all, most of the really evil philosophies and excessive movements in human history were above all things consistent.

Insisting on pure, abstract consistency is like sticking with your ideological map even though the actual road you’re on diverges from what’s on the page. Which are you going to believe — an imperfect map or your own “lying eyes”? If you go with the map, eventually you’re gonna hit something. Totalitarian regimes from the Reign of Terror to the Soviet Empire killed people because whenever the choice was between human beings and abstract ideas, the abstract ideas won out.

That’s why conservatism was once defined as the “negation of ideology,” which meant that it invokes judgment, caution, and prudence rather than follow purely abstract rules created by what Russell Kirk called “sophisters, calculators and economists.”

It may be very comforting to stick with a single rule or principle and say it must trump all other considerations in every circumstance. But this is as much of a recipe for disaster as having no principles at all. To consistently say “maximizing freedom is the highest virtue” in every circumstance means, inevitably, that you will favor maximizing freedom in a circumstance where you shouldn’t.

For example, while all libertarians believe murderers should be punished, they are in effect violating the “two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right” rule by doing so. If constraining freedom is always wrong how can it be right to put someone in jail? When I point this out to some of my critics, they either yell that I am an idiot or they say “of course I don’t mean murderers can’t be jailed!” They say a free society must uphold law and order, or justice, or enforce contracts etc.

Indeed, this is just a parallel to the “seamless web” argument offered by opponents of the death penalty and abortion. They say life is always sacrosanct, so the state can never take it because two wrongs don’t make a right. It’s a good argument, but the reasonable conservative will say, “yes but, sometimes other principles — order, justice, retribution — outweigh the sanctity of a murderer’s life.”

That’s all great and I agree. But once you see the necessity of these things you are automatically recognizing that human judgment and wisdom sometimes must recognize the validity of other important values. This inconsistency to a single value is an attempt to have a greater consistency to doing the right thing. It doesn’t make a conservative unprincipled, it just makes him reasonable. We do not permit mobs in part so we can maintain the right to free association, we put people in jail so that others may be free.

Anyway, on to the diplomatic skills of the hobgoblins and other critics. I have just one complaint. It is amazing how many of them call me an “idiot!” or a “fool” or a “bigoted moron” because I “don’t understand” their position. I have no problem with the idea that I am an idiot, in fact I grow more comfortable with it every day as my dog keeps making me fetch the toys he throws.

The only thing that bothers me is the arrogance of saying that the only reason I could possibly disagree with someone about Black History Month or libertarians or Dr. Singer’s materialist claptrap, is that I don’t understand it. It is an intellectual defect to think that someone’s disagreement with your position can only result from a failure to understand it. Indeed, it is a defect found in ideologues across the spectrum, and it doesn’t fly with me.

Black History Month, Adieu
Speaking of Black History Month, that column got a huge response, with everybody saying “Oh boy, you’re in trouble now! The PC crowd is going to tear you a new Dershowitz on this one.”

What’s odd is that nobody complained for the longest time. Only now, a couple weeks later, are the angry e-mails coming in. This is a phenomenon I’ve seen before. Sometimes it can takes months for something I’ve written to catch up with the people it offends. I think it’s because leftists, Goths, transgender types, etc., are not my usual readers and they only stumble on this sort of the thing by accident. Then they post it in some academic nut-hatchery or send it around their IH8 Whitey list-serv thingies long after I’ve forgotten about it.

Anyway, I won’t waste much time defending myself on that column since it’s unlikely most of these people would see it anyway — and it was a good column. Still, a couple quick points:

1. I said that, “In this country, we do not keep score on ethnic groups.” Several readers said, “Oh yes we do!” and recounted all sorts of things from the census to various diversity mongering. I misspoke. I should have said, “In this country, we are not supposed to keep score on ethnic groups.”

2. I mentioned “Brazil and Africa in the Making of the Southern Atlantic World” twice on the list of black courses at Brown. That was a dumb mistake.

3. A couple of Brown alumni were angry that I picked on Brown. I don’t care. It’s not my problem they chose Brown.

4. And, of course, numerous souls think I am an insensitive, bigoted jackass. Black History Month is a great or at least harmless institution, they say, and it is not propaganda.

My response is that I may be insensitive and I may be a jackass. But I take offense at the bigoted part and I never said it was literal propaganda; I said it feels like propaganda and it does. From the “Amtrak Celebrates Black History Month” banner at New York’s Penn Station to the commercials on network television drilling Benjamin Carver’s résumé into my skull, it feels like the state and its corporate cronies cheerleading certain races. I don’t like that feeling.

Men Aren’t Angels and Neither Are Angels
My favorite correction came from a reader who pointed to Madison’s famous and oft-used quote: “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

He points out that “it’s great rhetoric but crappy theology.” Lucifer, the Great Horned One (not to be confused with Ron Jeremy) was an angel too. So even angels need some government. I await some people to tell me interesting things about how Lucifer was fallen and that angels do or do not have free will. In the meantime, I think this is great.

Enlightening Me on Pre-Enlightenment Values
While defending myself during the libertarian-conservative brouhaha, I was too sweeping in my denunciation of “pre-Enlightenment values.” This resulted in lots of interesting comments about how great thirteenth-century French lawyers were and how content people were to die from the plague.

Still, let me clarify. I do not believe there was nothing worth keeping from the time before the Enlightenment, and I certainly do not believe, as one chastising history professor puts it, that the Enlightenment was the fons et origo of all good things. That said, I do think the Dark Ages were pretty damn dark and nostalgia for a period marked by awful dentistry, widespread disease, and spiceless food is ill advised.

The Mortal Foil & Other Minor Mistakes Writing about Voter.com I used the phrase, “depart this mortal coil.” One reader tells me that this is incorrect because “depart” is not a transitive verb. Okay, and if vests had sleeves they’d be jackets. I’m just going to take his word for it.

I misspelled “Kobayashi” in Kobayashi Maru from Star Trek II. And while we’re on the subject, here’s a question for people who know how to spell Kobayashi: In Star Trek II Kahn says there’s an “old Klingon proverb” that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Leaving aside the original origins of this quote — surely not Klingon — how would Khan have known? He’s from the early twenty-first century when humans had no knowledge of Klingons or Klingon proverbs. There’s an answer, I think, so this is a timed test. If you’re reading this on Monday, don’t send your answer, it’ll be too late.

In “Unpardonable Reform” I incorrectly characterized the nature of the debate in Texas over concealed-carry gun laws. It has always been illegal to carry guns onto church property. The proposed law in question would have required churches to hang signs telling people it was illegal to carry guns into church. This actually makes the substance of my point stronger — churches don’t have to post signs saying it’s illegal to burn them either — but I wish I’d gotten it right in the first place.

I called the rail yard scene in Gone With the Wind the “hospital scene.”

I rudely called Canadians “icebacks” when the derogatory term d’art is “frostbacks.”

I confused Young Americans for Freedom with the Young America’s Foundation. That was dumb of me, because the Foundation has been very nice to me, but they do make it difficult considering the similarities and the initials and whatnot.

I said soft-petal, which is what roses have, instead of soft-pedal, which is what David Gergen does.

My translation of “Friedrich liked to get funky with the Fraulein” — “Friedrich mochte mit den Frauen funky erhalten” — was apparently very poor. A better way to say that, I’m told, would be “Friedrich wurde gern funky mit den Frauen.” Which translates into “Fredrick gladly became funky with the women.” This may sound odd, but it is apparently more German, which normally sounds odd so it must be right.

I misspelled Paul Cantor’s name when I mentioned his wonderful essay on The Simpsons. Sorry about that. Moreover, a zillion people asked for the link to the essay. Alas, it’s not on the web. It was in the December 1999 issue of Political Theory and I had to have it ordered special from London. I wrote about it in my own ode to The Simpsons (yes, I got an Apu quote wrong) in National Review OnDeadTree. You can also find an excellent essay by Cantor that touches on many of these themes in the American Enterprise.

While we’re on the topic of pop culture, I apologize but I don’t keep track of every reference I’ve made. Still here are a few I’ve found. “The CW Is Eeeevil, Don’t Touch It!” is of course a reference to Time Bandits and what somebody should have said to Monica Lewinsky. “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” is from So I Married an Axe Murder and some old Saturday Night Live skits. But my fealty is to the highly underrated movie rather than the highly overrated TV show. The “slice of cantaloupe” reference was from The Simpsons. As was my assertion that we have reached the limit of what rectal probing can teach us. Sometimes art tells truths journalism cannot.

In my piece about Joe Conason, I said that Yosemite Sam would declare “I hate coconuts!” As about thirty flying monkeys pointed out, the correct phrasing should be “I hates coconuts!” as in “I hates rabbits,” or even more accurately, “Ah I hates rabbits.”

Several people argued that I shouldn’t criticize Joe Conason for consistently defending Bill Clinton when I consistently say the guy will end up in Hell in the cubicle between the casts of Cats and Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance. It’s a totally fair point, except for the fact that I never claimed to be “reporting” about Bill Clinton. My opinions were up front and center. Mr. Conason loves to tout how he’s just reporting the facts even though he always reports that either Clinton did no wrong or that his opponents are worse. It’s a little different when you claim to be an objective reporter, but clearly not different enough for some folks.

Goodbye
And that concludes this C&C column. But again, let me make the request that all corrections, no matter how outlandish or trivial, should say “correction” in the e-mail subject header. If you’re pointing out a movie or TV reference you can say, “reference.” And you can still call me a jughead or fascist in the body of the e-mail. But if you put it in the header I may not find it when the times comes for my mea culpas.

Also, I may be tardy with the column next week because I’m heading out to California to a ritzy conference to give a speech titled “Conservatism: What’s Next?” (When I know the answer I’ll tell you). After that I’m heading to scout wedding stuff in Friday Harbor, Wash., where my wedding will be. By the way, I’m still looking for a great band. So keep the suggestions coming.

And finally, my last correction is visual. If you look up there to the right you will see that I finally got rid of the picture of me with the goatee. The actual goatee, Van Dyke, whatever, has been gone for at least a year. Have a great St. Patrick’s Day.



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