Sunday, February 06, 2005

Cole Versus Goldberg

Glenn Reynolds points out that Jonah Goldberg and Juan Cole are exchanging barbed comments. Cole has asserted that Goldberg is a no-nothing.

Jonah Goldberg knows absolutely nothing about Iraq. I wonder if he has even ever read a single book on Iraq, much less written one. He knows no Arabic. He has never lived in an Arab country. He can't read Iraqi newspapers or those of Iraq's neighbors. He knows nothing whatsoever about Shiite Islam, the branch of the religion to which a majority of Iraqis adheres. Why should we pretend that Jonah Goldberg's opinion on the significance and nature of the elections in Iraq last Sunday matters?

Goldberg retorts that Cole doesn't know how to read.

I don't think I made the allegation that Saddam had nuclear weapons "over and over again" on CNN or anywhere else. My point was actually the reverse. Iraq didn't have nuclear weapons and therefore we could remove Saddam at comparatively low risk -- an option we didn't, and don't, have with North Korea. Also, I wrote columns more than once criticizing the effort to boil the whole thing down to the WMDs issue.

Of course, the validity of arguments from authority have been questioned. If predictive performance is the criterion against which to judge the thinking of Goldberg versus Cole, it is not clear that Cole is Goldberg's superior. For example, Cole recently predicted that the Iraqi elections would be a joke:

"These elections are a joke," said Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Michigan. "The Bush administration has created the worst possible advertisement for democracy because the perception across the Middle East is that democracy means you get a country where everything is out of control," he said.

In an ideal world the intellectual dispute between Cole and Goldberg would simply be settled by events. However,  Cole has taken things to the next level by asserting that Jonah Goldberg is a physical coward for not volunteering for combat despite the fact that he is 'pro-war'.

Goldberg helped send nearly 1500 brave Americans to their deaths and helped maim over 10,000, not to mention all the innocent Iraqi civilians he helped get killed. He helped dragoon 140,000 US troops in Iraq. And he does not have the courage of his convictions. His excuse is that he couldn't afford to take the pay cut!

What is Goldberg going to say to the tens of thousands of reservists he helped send to Iraq, who are losing their mortgages and small businesses and have been kidnapped for 18 months at a time (not what they thought they were signing up for) by Rumsfeld? "Well guys, thanks for carrying out the policy I wanted to see, and for putting your own little girls into penury. I'd have loved to help out, but my little girl is more important than yours and besides, I like a good meal and I hear you only get MREs."

Cole's assertion is not, strictly speaking, any kind of advance on his previous argument from authority, unless it is to broaden the definition of 'authority' to include a 'moral authority' with which he feels better supplied. But Cole's white feather is really a period; the punctuation mark the British call a 'full stop'. As in 'from this point the conversation can go no further: full stop'.

In truth, the ground for civilized debate has been shrinking progressively from September 11. The sharp animosity that has sprung up between the Left and Conservatives may be a kind of emergent behavior arising from the wide-ranging changes that have taken place since that fateful day. One could hardly expect that the end of the Cold War, the decline of Europe, the ascendancy of India and China, the collapse of the UN and the advent of terrorism would leave political relations between Left and Right unchanged. But it was the declining vigor of Marxist thought coupled with new conservative ideas that poured the most fuel on the flames. Discourse between Left and Right could only remain civil for so long as Conservatives remained meek or had no counter-pulpit. The weakening of the traditional media and the stresses caused by war have created a kind of 'play' in the system which now allow unchained weights to crash about. In that sense, there is nothing surprising about Juan Cole calling Jonah Goldberg names. One gets the feeling he has been calling people names all his professional life; and I think Mr. Goldberg can handle it. What has changed is that, with the decline of the MSM, there is nothing which prevents incivility from becoming a two-way street. And I'm not sure either the Left or the total system can contain the stress.