Jonah Goldberg and the Case of the Haphazard Harking

>> Monday, October 05, 2009

Steven Hayward's Washington Post article on the brain death of the conservative intellectual movement damns the nearly-departed with the faintest of all possible praise:

The bestseller list used to be crowded with the likes of [Milton] Friedman's Free to Choose, George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty, Paul Johnson's Modern Times, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Charles Murray's Losing Ground and The Bell Curve, and Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man . . . About the only recent successful title that harkens back to the older intellectual style is Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, which argues that modern liberalism has much more in common with European fascism than conservatism has ever had.

Considering the heft Hayward requires of the phrase "harkens back," I thought it would be instructive to figure out exactly what it means. To the OED!

b. hark back. Of hounds: To return along the course taken, when the scent has been lost, till it is found again; hence fig. to retrace one's course or steps; to return, revert; to return to some earlier point in a narrative, discussion, or argument.

Significantly, both to my mind and Hayward's argument, the OED says nothing of what happens after the hounds recapture the scent. Hayward believes that Goldberg harked back his hounds until they caught the "very serious, thoughtful" scent of a Bloom or Fukuyama, then had his hounds track it till they produced an argumentative quarry "that has never been [treed] in such detail or with such care."

The only non-fantastical element to that is the part where Goldberg takes credit for the labor of his dogs, because in truth, even if Goldberg did hark back his hounds to an intellectually serious scent, he chose not to trust the tug of their leashes and instead struck out in some random direction. How do I know?

I was one of those hounds. I answered Goldberg's infamous plea for a Herbert Spencer scholar, the result of which was an email exchange that, sadly, lives on the dead drive of a desktop currently being used as furniture, but the gist of which went something like this:

Goldberg: I believe Spencer said this.

SEK: That's a common misconception. He actually said this.

Goldberg: But some people who aren't Spencerians said he said that.

SEK: They did. But it's a nineteenth-century caricature based on a misunderstanding that's been thoroughly discredited by 110 years of scholarship by people whose work is based on reading Spencer instead of repeating rumors about him.

Goldberg: You are not providing me with the citations I need to substantiate those rumors. Please don't write back.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying, as Scott noted, that if Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next To Each Other is what your leading lights produce when they hark back to your intellectual tradition, not only do you need brighter bulbs–you might want to have the whole house rewired.


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