Friday, October 14, 2016

Jonah Goldberg and His Angry Readers

"freedom from extraneous purpose and irrelevant interest is the sign of all seriously undertaken thought" -- Michael Oakeshott

In recent months Jonah Goldberg has afforded us a partial window into the life of a political columnist. It seems every time he writes something critical of Donald Trump he hears from his readers. Doesn’t he know that he’s just helping Hillary? He—Goldberg--is a liberal, a know nothing sellout (to be fair, the interest alone on an evil lair must be difficult to cover), he’s only saying these things to keep the Georgetown society invitations coming. And by happy coincidence all of this has occurred at the same time as Experience and Its Modes has been re-issued which is just the book to turn to if one wishes to make sense of all this.

In Experience and Its Modes Michael Oakeshott argues that experience is modal (now that I’ve cleared that up). That is, instead of being one big whole we break experience into modes, or “platforms of understanding.” Modes determine what questions we ask, how we answer them, and what we do with the conclusions. There isn’t an object and then we think about it, the object and the way we think about it are intertwined from the start. In the course of his works he identified as modes, the philosophic, the scientific, the historical, the practical, and a poetic mode and suggested there were or could be developed additional modes. A mode is coherent or sensible within its parameters but ultimately incomplete or partial. A fundamental error—an ignoratio elenchi, otherwise known as a category error—was to approach one mode from the postulates of another, that is to fall prey to the error of irrelevancy.

It may be useful here to expand on two of these modes. For Oakeshott, philosophy or theorizing was to view things critically. To question that which we already know in order to understand it better. And it was unique in that its ‘conclusions’ produced more questions rather than ‘answers’. Whereas the other modes went on the merry way without questioning its premise, the philosopher focused on just that area even to the point of questioning the premise(s) of philosophy.

The poetic mode is defined by “the thing in itself.” We enjoy a painting because it is pleasing or disturbing not because it teaches us something. To say The Godfather is a bad movie because it glorifies the mafia is modal error because it is viewing the poetic (a film) in practical terms. A joke is either funny or it isn’t. When we ask whether a joke is good for society we’ve left the poetic moment in favor of the practical.

Now if you are still following along you can probably anticipate where this is going. A political column is a modal mutt, a mix, in various proportions, of the poetic (the column’s style or as entertainment), the philosophic/theoretical, and the practical. The columnist whose work is written to bring about a result—advance a cause, get you to vote for particular politician or party known in its pure form as ‘the hack’—is operating within the practical mode. Whereas a typical Jonah Goldberg column or his newsletter is usually more theoretical in nature than practical. And it’s amusing that the friendly advice he receives to have fewer jokes contains this modal understanding. The readers won’t take a funny man seriously.

As a writer, Goldberg is showing us his work as he considers a particular event or political problem. The question he asks and the arguments he uses are at least as important as his conclusion. But for the mono-modal reader of the practical kind the only consideration is the expected practical outcome(s) associated with the column. He wants answers, a dogma, and his side to win. A political columnist is either on the Trump train or off it. What train you’re on, what side you support is for this reader the only relevant consideration.

One final thing. You may have noticed, at least to the degree I’ve been successful, that this post doesn’t really tell you how to read a political column, still less how to write one. The attempt has been to understand “a particular goings on a little better.”

Footnote: the comedian Jon Stewart was on to this modal character albeit disingenuously His Daily Show mixed the poetic (comedy, laughs for laughs sake) with the didactic. When the practical content of the show was criticized he retreated to the defense that it was all comedy, I.e the critic was guilty of a ignoratio elenchi.

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