A Goldberg File tradition.


Jonah Goldberg

In Friday’s column I wrote of Osama: “He may be nuttier than an orgy at Mr. Peanut’s poop party but, again, that is often a requirement for villains.”

I meant to say “pool party.” Not “poop party.” Indeed, if you look on your keyboard — right now! (made ya look) — you will see that the “P” and “L” keys are very close to each other. Kathryn Lopez even asked me if I was sure about the “Mr. Peanut line” and I indicated it was fine, thinking the word “pool” was in there.

While not above excretory humor, I did not intend to imply that Mr. Peanut — perhaps our most respected legume-humanoid — was into coprophilic group sex. All I meant is that Mr. Peanut likes to have a good time (“Toga! Toga!” the Pillsbury Doughboy just yelled). You know: Charlie Sheen good times, not NEA grant good times. My apologies to Mr. Peanut and the whole Peanut clan.

Well, looky-looky. I’ve stumbled into a corrections column like an Alzheimer’s patient wandering into the snow. So I might as well keep going. And since I don’t plan on coming back to fecal mirth (the name of my high-school debating team) anytime soon, let’s finish the job. In several columns I’ve used the phrases “cranial-posterior impaction” and “anal-cranial-impaction.” I’ve also dubbed an article by Ron Rosenbaum a frontrunner for the “2002 Cranium Through the Sphincter Award for the most unqualified suck-up of the year,” but that’s not quite the same thing.

Anyway, a doctor — or maybe someone who just plays one in my e-mail — informs me that the technical medical term for “cranial-posterior impaction” is “fecalosis,” which involves the “inadvertent absorption of fecal matter into the bloodstream or a blood transfusion from Alec Baldwin,” same difference. Unfortunately, when I searched the web for “fecalosis” to confirm that this was the case, I came up empty. Still, it strikes me as a word worth hanging onto.

Now, as for the rest of this column, I have a bit of a problem. It’s been so long since I’ve done one of these, there are now simply too many items to cover. So, as a way of filtering the issues down, I’ve decided to stick with the ones that elicited the most passionate responses, in terms of quantity or quality.

In “Biology & Ideology” I wrote that “biology and ideology” rhyme. I’ve since been told by 72 people that these words don’t rhyme. They are, in fact, “identities.” Here’s how Stephen Sondheim explained the difference between an identity and a rhyme:

Many lyric writers do not understand the difference between rhymes and identities. In a rhyme, the vowel sound is the same but the initial consonant is different, as in ‘way’ and ‘day.” In identity, both the vowel and the consonant that precedes the vowel sound exactly alike, as in “consternation” and “procrastination.” This is not a rhyme, it is an identity. It’s not that identities are outlawed, it’s just that they don’t prick the ear the way rhymes do. They don’t point up the words, so if you are going to use an identity you have to use it very carefully.

After sending me this, a reader explained, “Neither ‘biology’ or ‘ideology’ have consonants preceding the assonant vowels, so they constitute an identity. A couplet like “I make no apology / For my ideology” does rhyme: “ideology” has no consonant before the rhyming syllable (which is acceptable); “apology” has a “p” preceding it.

Now, while I find this interesting, my interest tank on the subject is completely full. There’s not even room for topping off. So even if you are 1,000 percent sure there’s something really interesting you want to add to this discussion, don’t.

In “Left v. State, Again,” I wrote, “Intent matters. To say, for example, that Big Brother lurks in the hearts of those who would put up cameras at traffic stops is silly.”

This elicited a lot of angry — though often quite thoughtful — e-mail from folks who want to judge government by its words, not its actions. Indeed, if I had a dollar for every reader who noted that the path to hell is paved with good intentions, I’d have enough money to buy several super-sized value meals, or give our web techs a handsome bonus.

The essence of the disagreement boils down to one of several slippery-slope arguments — which, as longtime readers know, tend to leave me cold. I don’t want to get too deep into this again, because I suspect these differences of opinion are largely immune to persuasion. But let me just say you can make slippery-slope arguments about everything, and therefore they aren’t very useful arguments. Judgment is necessary for every situation. A slippery-sloper says, “If you give a child some ice cream, he’ll only demand more.” That’s true. But should this mean you should never give your child ice cream? Or does it mean you should give him some ice cream, but decide at some reasonable point that enough is enough? The slippery sloper says “never” because he cannot imagine human judgement interrupting an imagined treadline.

Take the current brouhaha over the FBI. For the last 25 years it has seemed reasonable to bar the FBI from attending political and religious gatherings, even those open to general public. I’m skeptical that this was ever a good idea, but fine. Now, we have terrorist sleeper cells aimed at killing massive numbers of Americans. So, today, it seems reasonable for the FBI to poke around more than they used to. By piously pounding the table asking, “Where will it end?” the slippery-slopers in effect argue for paralysis, by conjuring imaginary hobgoblins of tyrannies that will never come to pass. Meanwhile, more responsible opponents ask instead: “Is this step warranted given the current circumstances?”

The only place where I think slippery-slope arguments are valid is where they involve activists and ideologues who fight for A because it will get them closer to B. And once they achieve B, they press on for C, falsely promising that that’s where they will stop — even as they lay the groundwork for D. Their ultimate goal is, of course, the absolutist position of Z. This is why slippery-slope arguments over, say, gun control make some sense. Because there are people out there who want to ban guns outright, they are actively pushing an issue down an unslippery slope.

In “Spoiling the Party,” I stupidly stumbled into the debate over whether price and value are the same thing. I wrote:

Think of it like a market. I say a stock is worth $100 dollars. Millions of other people and institutions think it is worth, $50, $76, $23, $512… whatever. The market weighs all of these opinions and ends up valuing the stock at $200. I think that’s wrong, but that’s what the market came up with. The interesting thing is that the market could be wrong. The real value might be $100 or it might be a number that nobody had in mind. But the market comes up with the best price it can.

Now, my stupidity had less to do with my being incorrect about anything than it had to do with the fact that there are Wall Street fanatics out there who get furious over the idea that price and value could be different things. This is apparently a quasi-religious argument for some folks, for rarely have I received so much hate mail over such a seemingly esoteric and academic issue. A typically succinct objection: “You are a [bleeping] idiot. I can’t believe I ever respected you! Price is value. Period.”

If I were smart, I would just quietly tiptoe backward out of this argument. But I’m not. Price may be the best way to determine value, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right — in the same way that though democracy is the best way to run a society, it’s clearly sometimes wrong. Warren Buffet refused to buy many dot-com stocks because it was impossible to find the actual value of the companies. Antique dealers often buy whole lots or entire estates at auction, on the hope that they will find one or two items that are more valuable than what is reflected in the price. Now, you can play games with saying that uncertainty is factored into price — but even then, value and price are different things. Anyway, I just wanted to get that off my chest.

In “Islamic Rites,” I really ticked off a lot of Protestants. I mean a lot of Protestants: not since the news that they discontinued “plain”-flavor Jell-O have the Prots been so angry. Literally hundreds of readers have been giving me what-for about my “obvious bigotry” or even more “obvious ignorance.” I’ve been accused of everything from sucking up to my Papist overlords at National Review to buying into the last acceptable form of bigotry in the United States: “Protestant-bashing.”

An even greater indication that I touched a nerve: Rich Lowry was pissed at me. Now, I know that my boss disagrees with me on all sorts of issues: the drug war, immigration, the utility of cats, what constitutes fair compensation for someone of my talent and industriousness, etc. But I’ve written, what? four or five hundred NRO columns in the last four years, and this was the only one that ever made Rich really want to have an argument with me. For days he was Instant-Messengering me the contributions of Protestants.

And since getting a rise out of Lowry is only marginally easier than getting my dog to solve pi to the 40th place, I’m sorely tempted to stick to my guns.

But the truth is I never intended to insult the Protestants, at least not in a mean-spirited sort of way. I fully concede that the Reformation was indispensable to the advancement of Western civilization, helping speed along the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the advancement of individual rights generally. It’s also true, I think, that the chaos caused by the Reformation led to many unlovely things. But it is difficult — if not impossible — to blame all of those things directly on the Reformation. Still, I will leave this conversation to another day, for it deserves lengthier treatment.

But I will not back off from my characterization of Martin Luther as a “a bit of a psycho.” In A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester has a fascinating and lengthy discussion of Luther. Manchester writes that “deep within him lurked a dark, irrational, half-mad streak of violence.” When he was a child, Luther’s father beat him senseless with a “righteous cudgel.” Manchester’s Luther is obsessed with pagan superstitions and “haunted by pagan nightmares of werewolves and griffins crouched beneath writhing treetops under a full moon, of trolls and warlocks feasting on serpents’ hearts, of men transforming themselves into slimy incubi and coupling with their own sisters…” etc. I promised to avoid any more potty humor so I will just say it plainly: much of Luther’s best thinking took place in the bathroom. Luther’s Sammtiche Schriften is rife with “excretory passages.” He is said to have thrown “ink at the devil,” but the original version had Satan and Luther fighting each other with the sort of “stuff” I ascribed to Mr. Peanut’s pool parties in Friday’s column.

Now, this doesn’t mean Luther wasn’t a genius or that he didn’t make a massive contribution to world history. But Great Men are often odd men, and Luther was certainly odd.

As for the suggestion that the Wahhabi Muslims are like the early Protestants, I think I’m on solid ground here too, though reasonable people may differ. However, I should have emphasized more than I did (though I did emphasize it quite a bit) that Christian zealotry and Muslim zealotry will manifest themselves very differently.

Which leads me to another mistake. In the same column, when writing about the Wahhabi zealots who tried to destroy Mohammed’s tomb, I wrote that this “runs completely against the stereotype of ‘conservative’ Saudi Arabia, until you think of mobs of similar ‘reformers’ burning Catholic churches and artwork all across Europe (though I can’t see Christians of any denomination seeking to destroy Christ’s tomb).” Clearly I meant this in the hypothetical sense, since Jesus can’t actually be found in a tomb because of the whole resurrection thing.

I’ve made the joke many times that Ted Kennedy’s car has killed more Americans than nuclear power. Well, apparently there was something called the Argonne Low Power Reactor which, in 1961, was the site of an accident which killed 3 Americans. I did not know this. So now the joke is that nuclear power has killed three times as many Americans as Ted Kennedy’s car.

In “Enough Already” I said that as a political commentator, Frank Rich was little more than the “Bartles and James of New York liberalism — a mid-market distiller of low-potency conventional wisdom.” But I did say that he’d been a good theater critic. Truth be told, I never read much of his theater criticism, but what I did read seemed fine to me. But I’ve heard from a few Broadway veterans who say he was a terrible theater critic and judged too many shows by their political “worth” — i.e., celebrating gay themes — rather than their artistic merit. I’m not qualified to settle this, but let’s just say I’m open to the suggestion that Rich was overrated as a theater critic too.

A number of people are positive that I’m wrong about the etymology of the word “snob.” They say it comes from the French “sans nobilité,” or without nobility. Others say it comes from the Latin “sine nobilitate.” My etymological dictionaries say this is wrong, and I’m going with them.

This wasn’t a particularly good corrections column, I know. They’re more difficult to write than they seem, because they require reading scads of spurious and/or endless criticisms. Which begs the question: Am I using “begs the question” correctly in this sentence? No, wait, who cares. Rather, it raises the question: Why do I do them in the first place? The answer is simple — I think it’s important to make it clear I take my readers more seriously than most pundits do; and myself, less seriously. Also, since every single one of these columns is written in a few hours on the day it’s posted, I think it’s worthwhile to follow-up from time to time. So, please keep sending the corrections. You would help me greatly if you sent them to [email protected] or, if you can’t manage that (apparently most of you can’t), please put “corrections” in the subject header. And, hey, if you think “poop party” was funnier than “pool party” — feel free to think I wrote it on purpose.


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