Monday, August 20

What're You, ein Simpleton?

Jonah Goldberg, "Sinful: The Politics of Envy." Aug. 17

Peggy Noonan, "Hatred Begins at Home The NYPD looks at what turns young Westerners into jihadis." Aug. 17

THE best thing about either of these two is that there's no such thing as the August doldrums with either, because the weather never changes in their heads--discounting the electrical storms that race across the prairie of Noonan's noggin.

Let's start with Goldberg. Despite his odious opinions, his lack of any appreciable skill, in particular any which might even remotely justify his employment, and the dimness of his wits, I can't help feeling avuncular towards the boy. Especially, as here, when he trots out another vintage Cold War argument with no apparent awareness that a) he's doing so or b) that anyone could be old enough to notice.

As with our puny abilities to grasp the mysteries of the Cat, what vistas of stupidity would open for us if we could map the provenance of Goldbergian thought! He leaves such a tantalizing trail of Cheetos crumbs, Birch Society shavings, pop-culture inanities, and peer-pressure induced petty vandalisms, and you keep imagining they're eventually going to lead to terra firma. Called upon to display his deepest thoughts--let's make that "core beliefs"--Goldberg sounds for all the world like a die-hard Nixonian Red-baiter forced to smile and sing the Ronald Reagan Will Make Us All Happy Song. All of which took place before he was old enough to drive. Ponder what became of Cheney or Rumsfeld, Young Nixon administration Turks who had to pretend to have been out of power for forty years when Reagan took office, even though their office furniture was probably still there, and who had to endure eight years of his new-found folksy grandpa FDR of the Right routine, all the while wondering when their chance to shoot hippies in a public park was coming. Goldberg, of course, is the Scarecrow to Cheney's Tin Man.

I just wish he could learn to tell a joke:
As my wife will attest, I often suffer from futterneid. This is the term Germans use to describe the envy we feel when, for example, someone orders a better meal than ours. I’m also prone to schadenfreude, the tendency to take pleasure in the misfortune of others. So if I get the braised short ribs and you get stuck with the snail tartare, your futterneid will fuel my schadenfreude.

Now, to begin with, he's somehow taken a genuinely interesting word, futterneid (do they not have a style book at NRO? Is that a stupid question? Or is it just that Jonah doesn't know how to do italics?), and turns it into mush. "This is the term Germans use to describe...when, for example..."? There may well be some occasion to write as if one is the current storyteller at a slumber party, but political commentary is not it.

Second, as awful as that construction is, it's made worse by overselling the premise of the "joke" to come. Futterneid--I have no German whatever--is literally "fodder envy". Would that not have been enough information for your readers to catch the snail tartare gag? It's like prefacing the bit about the hooker who tells the guy she'll do anything he wants for $300 by saying "Have you gotten an estimate on painting a house lately? It's astronomical! Anyway, this guy is sitting at the bar..." Except, of course, that that joke is funny.

Now, snail tartare is mildly amusing, as most of his readership would consider snails inedible, hopelessly French, an affectation rather than a choice, and raw snails a nauseating reality show stunt. Plus there's that reverse snobbery they get such a kick of but which in Jonah reminds us that he doesn't have the taste to be a snob if he tried. (Fred Astaire and Archy Bunker might each refuse a proffered plate of escargots à la bourguignonne with a scowl, but we should not imagine we have witnessed the very same reaction.)

But the real problem, joke-wise, is that he can't ever resist over-egging the pudding. Braised short ribs may be a fine dish and worthy, but it's not likely that the cheapest cut of meat on the menu, which is, on top of it, one-half bone, will induce fodder envy in someone who has the money to eat in the same place. And they're rather unlikely to be served in the sort of place you'd sneer at for serving some real-world version of "snail tartare". (For the record, snails have to be purged before consuming. a process that requires several days and generally culminates in their being boiled. You would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in the United States that ever dealt with fresh snails. We do not intend this as a too-literal criticism of your gag, Mr. Goldberg. We just mean to point out that if you were 25% smarter you'd have been given pause, and come up with something better. Witness Jay Leno, who I saw do a version of the joke in the 1970s, when he was still funny. He used "colon tartare". This is funny in large part because it pretends a complete bewilderment with the whole issue, not a commonplace dismissal of everyone who eats anything more adventurous than your personal choice of fodder.)

But if the recognition that one does not eat raw snails (which may, in fact, be poisonous due to their diet, regardless of species) requires some sort of specialist knowledge, the idea that one would "get stuck" with snails when tantalizingly slow-cooked standard American stevedore ballast was available makes no sense at all. Snails are expensive, so one would not wind up with them as a cost-cutting, envy-stoking measure. Both "escargot" and "tartare" are widely understood, enough so that Jonah could use the latter as the linchpin of the gag, without one of his mood-killing explanations. I suppose a neophyte could accidentally wind up with mutton stew in a bistro somewhere, but not raw snails or snipe eyeballs.

The point is, Mr. Goldberg, that you coast. You give every indication of having done so for twenty-five years. It's not that you ruined what might have been a good joke--it wasn't--but that you can't avoid covering a piece with greasy fingerprints before we've exited the first paragraph.

I'm sorry--we were musing about the provenance of Goldberg's "ideas". This is clearly not a Spare Rib Epiphany. Somewhere along the line--1989, 1997, one hour before he wrote the column--Jonah became aware of a 1965 Christian Democrat anti-New Left pamphlet entitled Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, by Helmut Schoeck (note to Jonah: there is no such thing as a "timeless masterpiece" of sociology, any more than there is an "immortal classic" of cowboy fiction). The New Left! Jesus Christ, the closest Goldberg ever came to The New Left was Jerry Brown's 1992 Presidential campaign. This is why he took us on that little gastronomical linguistic tour--so he could link a forty-year-old defense of capitalism to German expansionism, Soviet Communism, and, of course, to complete the Unholy Trinity...John Edwards? Yes, Hitler envied Poland, Marx envied the bourgeoisie, and John Edwards envies Jonah Goldberg's choice of take-out, despite the fact that he could buy and sell him a few thousand times over, and doubtless knows his escargot fork from his dessert spoon. And somehow it never occurs to Jonah that between them, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani own the other six Deadly Sins.

And so it was that, after the vertigo subsided, I clicked over to Noonan. Not in search of an antidote, but more by way of a counterbalancing insanity. Peg's the self-hypnotized Reaganaut whose inner Nixon can be summoned only in extreme circumstances, like a Democrat Being President, running for President, or saying something. Compared to Jonah, she's largely sui generis, and unlike the Corner gang, once the Iraq adventure she blessed and the President she canonized both turned unmistakably to pillars of shit, she's mostly seen fit to bubble away incoherently rather than try resuscitation.

But Peggers, who knows why, decides to draw a lesson about US standing in the world from, of all places, the North of Ireland:
Whenever I think of war, I think of this: It was 1982 or '83, I was in Northern Ireland, and a local reporter was showing me around Derry, then a center of the Protestant-Catholic conflict. The neighborhood we were in was beat up, poor, with Irish Republican Army graffiti on tired walls. There were some scraggly kids on the street.

Suddenly an armored British army vehicle slowly rounded the corner, and the street came alive with kids pouring out of houses, grabbing the heavy metal lids of garbage bins, and smashing them against the pavement. They made quite a racket.

A woman came out. She was 35 or 40, her short hair standing up, uncombed. It was late afternoon, but she was in an old robe, and you could tell it was the robe she lived in. She stood there and smirked as the soldiers went by. She'd come out to register her dislike for the Brits, and to show the children she approved of their protest.

As I watched this nothing sort of scene, I thought: That's where it comes from. That's what keeps it alive.

And I thought: Holy Shit. Peggy O'Noonan, the public face of 21st Century American Catholic toe-kissing and weeping Madonna on a grilled cheese sandwich, the Crazy Dolphin Lady, is excoriating Irish Catholics for perpetuating hatred of the thievin' Brits and their military occupation? She's not even vaguely aware that there was some small question about whether they should be there in the first place, or what they'd accomplished? Or some small metaphorical suggestion of how her once-sainted President had condemned his own soldiers to die an Irish Sea half-a-world wide away, for God knows how long, for the sake of a centuries-old religious squabble?

And yet, this is what's great about this country. Not that an Irish Catholic can turn into a Thatcherite, or any dim bulb with contacts can get a book deal and never write a book. It's that, even in the middle of a swampy August you can always find somebody with a raging fever who'll make you feel more comfortable just by comparison.


Julia said...

I don't know about poisonous. I'm fairly sure you'd get salmonella.

It's kind of reassuring on some level to know he realizes he gets joy out of making others pay for his mistakes. Not so much if you're a soldier, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I must disagree: thinking of these two only remind me to take another shower.

Anonymous said...

laffed at this dissertation until i tasted my own hurl, which would perhaps bring out... what was that funny german word again... not only in jonah but his repulsive mother

the puke of the righteous, best sampled with a cheap red Rhone!

D. Sidhe said...

I don't know. On some level you have to stand in awe of Jonah's mediocrity. He's like the operatic version of Bart Simpson, he's working so hard to not have to work for it. Well, at least I have to stand in awe of it. Even my mediocrity is inherently mediocre. makes a shirt for guys like him, you know.

If Jonah demonstrates that The American Dream can be dreamed by those who fall asleep on the couch in their undershorts while covered in Cheetos and watching old episodes of The Rockford Files, Peggy demonstrates that it can also be dreamed by those who really don't have any idea what country they're in, what day it is, or who they are from moment to moment.

Kinda makes you proud to be an American, once in a while. Or it would if these folks weren't then using The American Dream to show that any halfwitted underachiever could be president.

Anonymous said...

Jonah always leaves me feeling that, no matter how stupid I might act at times...I'll never be THAT stupid.

Anonymous said...

Love it when you "do" Nooner.

Anonymous said...

This is the term Germans use to describe the envy we feel when, for example, someone orders a better meal than ours.

Umm, no. Futterneid is basically a technical term used by biologists and animal trainers when they're talking about dogs, cats, horses, whatever. Not in sufficiently common usage to turn up in any of my German dictionaries (and I have a few). You wouldn't use it about yourself -- or anyone else -- because Futter is specific to the domain of animal behaviour. Directed at a person, it wouldn't even make enough sense to be insulting.

I suspect that your lad Jonah has read one of those bullshit "They Have a Word For It" books, and glommed onto some factoid which had already been through umpteen layers of simplification before it reached him.

Anonymous said...

Excellent. Pace Moynihan, at this point Goldberg is merely emblematic of America's (or at least Tribune Media Services') continuing devolution of standards by defining idiocy down. To paraphrase: there is a limit to the amount of idiocy any society can afford to recognize. As the amount of idiocy increases, society has to adjust its standards so that writing or "thinking" once thought idiotic is no longer deemed so. Perhaps, in honor of Jonah's newfound love of sociology, we might call this defining limit of idiocy the Goldberg Constant.

Someday soon, Noonan will rewrite this paragraph to describe a brave soul (not unlike herself) standing against Islamofascists, liberals, the incivil, whomever:
A woman came out. She was 35 or 40, her short hair defiantly uncombed. It was late afternoon, but she was in a proud old robe, and she wore it like the glorious uniform of a courageous domestic army. She stood there in stoic dignity, and stared her piercing disapproval as the [liberals, Islamofascists, ill-mannered] went by. She'd come out to register her fiery disdain, and to show the children she approved of their protest.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Herr Doktor Bimmler.

Incidentally, what's the German word for shock and disgust invoked by a talentless hack given a forum in a national newspaper of record?

And Riley, you've really found your stride; this is simply the best damn writing on the net. I'd tip my hat to you, but I haven't got a hat.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, I clicked on the wheelchair icon next to the "word verification" field.

Wow. And was hilariously transported to the "dream room" set of "Twin Peaks" (where we're from, the birds all sing a pretty song).

Maybe it's just my computer and sound chip, but the result was extremely disorienting gibberish; I haven't laughed so hard in weeks.

Anonymous said...

Just listened to it again.

Man, I am this close to putting this on my answering machine, if for no other reason than to scare the shit out of telemarketers.