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Conservatism, closed-mindedness and Jonah Goldberg

I very seldom agree with conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, whose work appears in the Times weekly, but he said something Wednesday morning in an interview on NPR that was dead-on: “Aggravation is a muse.” His interview aggravated me so much, and unintentionally revealed so much about what’s wrong with conservatism in general and Goldberg’s mindset in particular, that it inspired me to blog about it.

Goldberg was on “Morning Edition” to promote his new book, “The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.” I haven’t read it, but you can get the gist of what it’s about from his interview; Goldberg rails against what he considers an unfair debate technique used by liberals, who fall back on cliches rather than seriously addressing conservative arguments and ideas. “I don’t agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” is one such liberal cliche. Goldberg pointed out that this is not only a lie -- very few people would really be willing to take a bullet to defend someone else’s free-speech rights -- but it’s pablum for people who lack the intellectual firepower to mount a real debate.

True enough. But where Goldberg goes wrong is in presuming this is a “liberal” phenomenon -- it has been the last refuge of intellectually lazy people from all ends of the political spectrum from time immemorial. Conservative cliches might include “Barack Obama is a socialist,” “You’re with us or against us” and “Global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Challenged on this by host Steve Inskeep -- who noted that Goldberg himself has touted such conservative cliches as the Ronald Reagan catchphrase “Government is the problem, not the solution,” Goldberg had to admit that it goes both ways. “I don’t know if that qualifies as the kind of cliche I’m talking about, because one of the things I try to unite all of the cliches in the book around are ones that have this sort of progressive bias towards a certain understanding of the role of the state and all the rest. I’m sure a liberal could come up with a whole bunch of conservative cliches that go the other way.” In other words: The very title of my book, “How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas,” is a lie, because conservatives cheat in exactly the same way -- I’m just not going to write about that.

This goes to the very heart of what’s wrong with conservative thinking, as revealed in another part of the NPR interview when Goldberg was explaining why talking to college students inspired him to write his book.

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“One of the things that really drove me crazy was the way in which college kids, in particular, are educated to think that ideology is dangerous and bad. They’ll say, ‘Mr. Goldberg, that sounds like an ideological statement,’ when I’m talking about tax cuts or something. Well, first of all, of course it’s an ideological statement -- I’m a conservative, I was asked to come here and be an ideological conservative.”

How dare those liberal college professors educate our children to think that having an open mind is a good thing? Later in the interview, he explains that ideology is good because it forms the basis for valuable debates that move the country forward:

“All I want is an argument. I don’t care that liberals have an ideology -- I want them to have an ideology. I want to have a contest of ideas. What bothers me is when they come in and say, ‘Oh, you guys are the crazy ideologues with your labels and all of the rest, and we’re just pragmatists who care about sound science and the numbers and the facts and all of that.”

Goldberg isn’t really talking about a debate, he’s talking about two people who are both impervious to rational argument barking at each other. An ideologue is a person who is closed-minded; no amount of facts, scientific evidence, expert opinion or historical examples will sway someone who is wedded to his own world view. I suspect that what bothered the college students about Goldberg was that as an ideologue, he didn’t seem to be considering any inconvenient facts that might contradict his position. Rather than see this as a failing, Goldberg was inspired to write a book in defense of ideologues.

A person with an open mind would be inclined to base his decision on whether to depose Saddam Hussein on whether there was clear and convincing evidence that he possessed weapons of mass destruction; an ideologue would be more likely to remember how Saddam tried to kill his dad and launch a costly nation-building exercise regardless of the facts (just to give one random example). A person with an open mind would be inclined to examine the overwhelming evidence compiled by scientists around the world that burning fossil fuels is altering our planet’s climate in dangerous ways, and conclude that doing something about it would be smart policy; an ideologue would conclude that scientists are in league with liberal environmentalists in a quest to derail industrial freedom, and opt to ignore them. A person with an open mind would examine past government failures to properly oversee the banking sector and conclude that unrestrained capitalism leads to unacceptable booms and busts, so tighter regulation is a good idea; an ideologue would label such people “socialists” and promote laissez-faire oversight policies. A person with an open mind would see how all these ideological approaches under President George W. Bush had disastrous outcomes and conclude we should go another way; an ideologue would repeat the mistakes and vote for Mitt Romney.

If any conservative reader has gotten this far, he is at this point experiencing palpitations and preparing to fire off an angry reply at the bottom of this web page -- in which case, I’m happy to have served as somebody’s muse. I am, after all, doing precisely what I accused Goldberg of doing: failing to acknowledge there are two sides to every problem. There are liberals who are every bit as blinded by ideology as conservatives, and just as resistant to information that challenges their beliefs. Yet I do think there’s a difference: It was the very “liberalism” of those college students who objected to Goldberg’s ideological approach to issues that prompted him to write his book. He says himself that liberals consider themselves pragmatists who “care about sound science and the numbers and the facts and all of that.” Moreover, one would have to be completely unfamiliar with the hot-button issues that divide Americans -- gay marriage, healthcare, climate change, regulatory policy and so on -- to fail to recognize that the liberal side is more inclined to respect the views of experts and more willing to accept change when evidence shows past policies have been discriminatory or ineffective.

The college students who so offended Goldberg were dead right: People blinded by their own ideology are narrow-minded and backward-thinking. An ideologue is the last thing anyone of any political persuasion should want to be accused of being. To embrace the label, as Goldberg does, is to betray one’s own mental block.

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