Politics & Policy

Life Conspires Against The “Old Jonah”

Getting less young, writing books, getting married, having kids…

Scene: A large room, resembling a fallout shelter or a storage bunker, containing all of the books Alec Baldwin claims to have read but hasn’t. There are tarps hanging sloppily over cardboard boxes, and an old couch. The corners of fading pizza boxes can be seen poking out from underneath fraying issues of Commentary and Juggs. The sound of footsteps echoing off the walls fills the dusty air as Jonah Goldberg walks in.

To camera: “Hello? Hell…loooooo? Anybody here? No? Well, let’s get started anyway. First thing we can do is get rid of these stupid quotations marks as I’m in here writing alone.”

Ah. That’s better. Hi, I’m Jonah Goldberg. You may know me from such columns as “Those Aren’t Pillows!” and “Stay On Your Toes Like Robert Reich at a Urinal.”

I’ve been “away” for a while, as some of you have noticed. This isn’t to say I haven’t been writing a lot. “Away” is a just a term my therapist and I came up with to describe how I feel when the little white pill starts to work. “Three State Killing Spree” is a term some use to describe how I feel when I take the red pill, but that’s a story for another day. The good news is: I don’t take the red pill anymore.

Anyway, recently I asked readers of The Corner to send in questions for a new “Frequently Asked Questions” column. I got a nice response–though I can’t answer all the questions (and not just because many of them aren’t all that frequently asked, and a few aren’t even questions). Some of the questions can be answered in these vintage FAQs (here, here, here, but definitely not here).

The most common question I got goes something like this:

“Whatever happened to the Old G-File? You know, the one with all the tasteful nudity, conversations with your couch, and indiscriminate bashing of libertarians, Alec Baldwin, Cynthia McKinney and the Holodeck?…is it in some parallel universe where Spock has a goatee and Rich Lowry spends lavishly on his staff?”

These readers complain that I’ve gotten too serious since I got married, had a kid, started a book, and launched a syndicated column. Why can’t I still be the guy who brags that he can put 32 cheese puffs in his mouth at one time? In short, they like their G-Files like their Fire Island Oscar Parties: loud and lavish!

Since this amounts to the most frequently asked of all frequently asked questions, let’s start there.

Answer: In part, the question answers itself. Married life, fatherhood, rank careerism, age, maturity: all of these things conspired–like the members of the Pentaveret conspire to make you crave Kentucky Fried Chicken–to make me write less like a whacky twenty-something with nothing to lose. Writing a book, particularly one that involved a vast amount of historical research (at least by my lights), militates against the kind of G-Filing which relies on a lot of free time. More important, I really hate being pigeonholed [“Isn’t that something they do after those Oscar parties?”–The Couch]. You’ll note that the second I became quasi-famous for the French-bashing stuff, I all but stopped the French-bashing. Similarly, I cut wayyyy back on quoting The Simpsons once that became sort of my official shtick. It’s not like I suddenly admired the French for their valor and clean living–they could use a bidet on their filthy Gallic souls!–or stopped liking The Simpsons; it’s just that I think such gimmicks can become the crutch of bad writing. I’m no artiste, but I think one should not only avoid clichés like the plague like bargains at a Haitian brothel, but one should also avoid gimmicks when they become substitutes for creativity [“Oh, look who thinks he’s frick’n James Joyce!”–The Couch].

But the biggest issue has simply been a lack of time. Even during the heyday of the pull-my-finger G-Files, I didn’t make with the yucks every time. Now, because of a pressing schedule and better pharmacology, I feel like I should G-File when I have something substantive to say. Also, The Corner, my dark digital mistress, has leeched a lot of the zaniness with her siren song of blogginess. Nonetheless, when the book has ascended to that transcendent plane of existence known as “doneness,” I hope to kick it old school around here more often.

Which brings me to the second most frequently asked question: When the hell is your book going to be done?

Answer: This question is asked by editors, colleagues, friends, theologians and–most of all–in the smoldering, sultry, rage-filled glares of my bride, the Fair Jessica.

So here’s the thing. I’ve written the book once already. But I had so much fun doing it, I decided to write it again as a palindrome. When you realize that I use German words like gleichschaltung more than a few times, you can begin to understand why this takes quite a bit of my time.

Actually, I’m not just kidding. Page-wise, I really have written the book more than once. This is partly because I got lost going off on (what I considered to be) fascinating tangents. Partly because I learned lots of new things which made me revisit old things. And partly because I just found so much of this stuff interesting. My guess is that, if Random House published every page I’ve submitted, it would be some 800-900 pages long. That’s not tenable. So, as we speak, I’m in rewrite hell (if you look very closely, you can see Adam Bellow poking me with a pitchfork). It will be done when it is done. And when it is done, oh boy will you people hear about it. There will be book-signings, tarot-card readings, and requests for help with an underground railroad to get me from one event to another so as to avoid threats to my personal safety.

Readers have a lot more questions and criticisms about the book, but all I can say is that many of the rumors and assumptions about it are inaccurate. Beyond that, I’m bound to secrecy (but, between you and me, there is no scratch’n’ sniff section; after all, who wants to smell Mussolini?).

Next Question: A bunch of readers wanted to know what I meant when I said that my views on “libertarianism” have “evolved” since my earlier, full-throated, attacks. Well, for starters, I no longer make jokes like: “Q: What’s the hardest part about being a libertarian? A: Telling your parents you’re gay.”

Again, more seriously, as I’ve watched compassionate conservatism, Buchananism, Crunchy Conservatism, and similar movements bubble-up since the end of the Cold War, I think it’s better for everybody concerned if we start from a foundation of libertarianism and build up from it. In public policy–as opposed to cultural politics–I think the default position should be libertarian and then arguments should be made for why we should deviate from libertarian dogma. I’m more sympathetic to arguments based on tradition and custom than your average libertarian. But I’m more hostile than I used to be to what you might call neo-traditionalism in the forms of “national greatness” conservatism, Buchananism, Crunchy Conservatism, and the rest. I am extremely susceptible to nostalgia, but intellectually I think it is more often than not a poison to clear thinking. Starting from libertarian assumptions puts you in a better place to identify nostalgic toxins. My problem with the so-called paleolibertarians is that they are often more nostalgic than the conservatives they denounce.

Question: Weren’t you going to answer questions people might ask at the fundraiser in Houston for those of us who can’t make it?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Okay then, why are these fundraisers so damn expensive?

Answer: Actually, people who go to the fundraisers don’t ask that question very often because they can afford them. They ask questions like: “Can I get a fresh slipper for my champagne?” But the basic answer is: They’re fundraisers. NR needs the money and it costs a lot of shmundo to send all of us to these cities (even when flying economy on Bob’s Airplane and Mattress Discounter). I wish we could come up with a more small-”d” democratic model–and we are working on it–but thems the breaks.

Next Question: Are the NR cruises a good place to meet women?

Answer: Generally speaking, yes–particularly if you dig affluent, intelligent, middle aged (and older) married women. But, then again, many of these women have very attractive daughters. Also, thanks to NRO, the demographics of the cruises are changing pretty rapidly. So the number of younger (i.e. eligible) people is going up. I should also add for the ladies that there are a sizable number of successful young men who go on the cruises and are the sorts of men who aren’t opposed to expensive vacations and family values. Hint, hint. Maybe this will solve the chicken-or-the-egg problem.

Question: What the hell happened to Andrew Sullivan?

Answer: Well, that’s the title to my next book. But the people do ask the question a lot.

Question: Did you ever write that review of the last Star Wars movie?

Answer: No. I saw the movie right around the time my Dad passed away and everything went down the memory hole around then. But I’ve been slowly catching up on my movie watching–I recently saw such classics of American cinema as Sin City, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, and Firefly.I’m thinking of doing one giant omnibus movie G-File once I get around to seeing those art-house flicks like Crash and Brokeback Mountain.

Question: Why didn’t you see Brokeback Mountain yet? I mean, everyone was talking about it.

Answer: See my forthcoming book, What the Hell Happened to Andrew Sullivan? Also, I don’t really like love-story movies. I really don’t like movies about adultery. I don’t see how making the adulterers gay sheepherders broadens the appeal of the film.

Question: Is Ramesh a Vulcan?

Answer:I don’t think so, but it’s a fair question.

Question: James T. Kirk, Glenn “The Instapundit” Reynolds, Groundskeeper Willie, Triangle Man: Who wins in the no-holds-barred cage match?

Answer: I’d like to say Captain Kirk (and I think you mean this Triangle Man, but I’m not sure). I think it’s Groundskeeper Willie. He fights dirty. No offense to Reynolds, but Kirk would run halfway up the wall, and on the way down chop Glenn on the top of his shoulder and he’d be insta-out of the fight. He’d then blog from his unconscious state.

Question: Who are the decent and fair-minded liberal pundits you’d recommend to a conservative trying to hear the other side of the argument?

Answer: There are none. They are all whores and liars, every last one of them.

Question: Seriously?

Answer: No, not seriously. There are a lot of liberals I read and respect–which is different from saying I agree with them. Peter Beinart, Will Saletan, Michael Tomasky, Kevin Drum, Jeffrey Rosen, and Jonathan Rauch come to mind (though Rauch is less of a liberal and more like a gay Vulcan). But there are lots of others. I really dislike the tendency on both sides of the aisle to claim that people who are wrong about this or that are stupid or dishonest. To be sure, stupid and dishonest people will be wrong a lot, but that doesn’t mean that people who are wrong are stupid and dishonest. I really think conservatives must read those they disagree with as much as possible.

Here’s some advice, for what it’s worth. The way to tell if a liberal–or a conservative–is to be trusted is to see how fairly he or she deals with the other side’s arguments. Obviously, you can’t give a full airing to the other side’s point of view or you’d be spending all your time making the other side’s case. And not every column has to be a on the one-hand, on-the-other-hand affair. But, over the long haul, you can tell which liberals actually have the intellectual self-confidence to engage with the other side’s best arguments and not just their worst ones. Meanwhile, if you look at, say, Maureen Dowd, there isn’t even an attempt to be fair to the other side. It’s all bile, snark, and sneer–which would be a good name for a law firm in mordor. Lord knows, I don’t mind bile per se, but it can only be a single ingredient, not the whole thing. Dowd’s stuff is closer to fiction writing than opinion journalism. I think a lot of rightwingers have a similar problem–and I wouldn’t recommend them to liberals trying to get a fair read on the conservative point of view either. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading. But entertainment is not necessarily argument.

Question: Okay, do you have any advice for people who want to do what you do?

Answer You’ll have to be more specific because there are many things “I do” which I don’t think other people should do.

[You can say that again!–The Couch].

Question: I meant, punditry and journalism, jerk.

Answer, from Goldberg and the Couch in unison: Oh.

Well, I do have a lot of advice but that would require a long answer. My shortish answer: Think of a way you can provide something few others can. Sure, if you are really, really, really talented like Mark Steyn or James Lileks, and just a little lucky, you can probably get noticed on pure talent. But odds are you’re not that talented–and if you are, you don’t need advice from me.

Look: Generic punditry is easy. Opinions are like Eric Alterman, everybody has one. Oh, wait, that’s not quite right. But you know what I mean. And lots of people can write well or well enough. But new facts–known in some circles as “news”–is always in demand. Liberalism inherited an incredibly valuable tradition from the muckrakers. The Washington Monthly, The New Republic, et al. cultivate reporters. Journalism–exposing existing evils–is almost an inherently liberal vocation. Conservatives tend to be attracted to normal professions. And the young conservatives who want to get into journalism tend to want to be philosopher types. We’ve got plenty of those. What we don’t have is a lot of young(er) Byron Yorks. We need more Yorks. A good reporter can go into punditry whenever he or she wants. If you’re in college and want to be a journalist, do not study journalism or even English. The former is a waste of money, the latter a waste of time–if you want to be a journalist. Learn a language, get some expertise about something other people don’t know about. Even if you want to be the conservative Walter Lippmann, studying how to write instead of learning interesting stuff to write about is a waste of time. If you must, you can always go to one of the clubhouse j-schools after college. Knowing stuff is the best way to get opinions about stuff. More importantly, it makes your opinions more interesting.

Question: Aren’t you getting kind of serious here?

Answer: How can you even ask that when I’m wearing the full dress uniform of a Romulan general?

Question: Fair point. How do you deal with all your hate mail?

Answer: I just delete all of Rod Dreher’s e-mail without opening it.

Question: Really?

Answer: No, not really. Rod’s been a trooper in our little disagreement. As for hate mail, I won’t lie and say that hate mail doesn’t bug me some times. But usually it bugs me in ways the author didn’t intend. Sometimes the insults make me a little depressed about America. For example, while I know all the caveats and whatnot, I can still be stunned by the barbarism of really anti-Semitic e-mail. What’s even more depressing is the anti-Semitic e-mail from people who are otherwise normal and then slip it in because they simply get comfortable. I had a liberal e-mailer from Canada who would write me almost everyday. We’d argue a lot, but it was almost always civil and intelligent. Then one day when I made a comment about how it may not make economic sense for busboys to make $15 an hour–or something like that–he wrote in “don’t be such a Jew.” I was pretty stunned. Other hate mail can get under my skin if I let it, not because I care much about the insults–to me, my wife, my mother, my daughter, my dog, etc.–but because these little weasels think they got away with something. But generally, you learn how to ignore it.

Question: Do you think you get more hate mail than other writers?

Answer: Naw, not really. I’m sure lots of people get more. But I do think I generate a certain kind of hatred on the Left (and parts of the Right) because while I take arguments seriously, I don’t take myself that seriously and I try to have a good time. There’s something about conservatives enjoying themselves that elicits violent rage from some people. I don’t pretend to understand it. Some friendly readers think it’s because I come across as a normal guy and that drives some lefties batty because it defies their convenient stereotypes. Then these friendly readers see me in my Romulan General’s costume and they retract their normal-guy theory.

Question: Do you have time for any more questions?

Answer: No.

Question: But you could always just post this thing later and answer more questions now.

Answer: That’s true but this thing is already longer than Derb’s favorite number.

Declarative statement masquerading as a question: But there are so many more frequently asked questions we didn’t get to?

Answer: That’s true. But nobody made it this far anyway

Consensus: Good point.


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