Goldberg’s *schanda*

If Jonah Goldberg insists on defending the Crusades and the Inquisition, he ought to change his name. I suggest “Jason Ormont.”

Blood, we are told, is thicker than water. But factional loyalty can be thicker still.

You’d think that someone named “Jonah Goldberg” wouldn’t have any doubts about the moral status of the Crusaders – who, on their way through Europe to the Holy Land, paused from time to time to slaughter the local Jews, and who, when they finally took and sacked Jerusalem, killed the Jews along with the Muslims – or of the Inquisition, which regarded torture and burning at the stake as good ways of inculcating Christian piety, especially among Christians of Jewish ancestry. Indeed, you’d think that any decent human being would be clear on those points. But apparently the actual Jonah Goldberg prefers being a loyal member of the Red team to being either a decent human being or a self-respecting Jew. If Barack Obama criticizes the Crusades and the Inquisition, Goldberg instinctively rushes in to support them.

Goldberg quotes what is now the standard wingnut position that the Crusades were “defensive.” (Tell that to the inhabitants of Constantinople, sacked in the Fourth Crusade.) And he somehow has it figured out that the Inquisition was all about due process, or something. But here’s the cream of the jest:

Christianity, even in its most terrible days, even under the most corrupt popes, even during the most unjustifiable wars, was indisputably a force for the improvement of man.

“Indisputably a force for the improvement of man.” Really? During the genocidal crusade against the Albigensians? When Ferdinand the Catholic and Isabella the Butcher expelled all the Moslems and Jews from Spain? As Charles V and Philip II tried to extirpate Protestantism in the Low Countries by extirpating the population? In the Thirty Years’ War? When the Spanish and the Portuguese enslaved Central and South America? During Calvin’s theocratic dictatorship in Geneva, which burned Michael Servetus at the stake? While Cotton Mather and his crew were hunting witches and flogging Quakers? As the Klan carried out its lynchings by the light of burning crosses, after raising money in Southern Baptist churches? Today, with the Lord’s Resistance Army terrorizing Central Africa? “The improvement of man”? Seriously?

Of course Christianity has sometimes been a force for good. So has Islam. I have no idea how you’d calculate the net gain or loss; what’s the counterfactual? But Goldberg’s insistence on whitewashing Christian crimes and exaggerating Muslim ones is hard to swallow.

My father used to say of people like Goldberg “they ought to sew the bastard’s foreskin back on.” Perhaps the old man, for all his undoubted wisdom, sometimes took just things a bit too far. But now that Goldberg proudly wears his goyische kopf, he might, just as a gesture toward honesty, adopt an appropriately goyische name.

How about “Jason Ormont”?

Update It’s not quite as weird when a medievalist who teaches at a Jesuit university and has published in First Things defends the Crusades and the Inquisition, but if Thomas F. Madden is right that those were part of “mainstream” Christianity, that simply reinforces President Obama’s point that all religions have within them the seeds of evil, simply because they are human institutions. (I think the technical term is “original sin.”)

Of course a believing Christian should want to say that torture and slaughter are a perversion of his faith rather than an expression of its essence, just as a tolerant liberal should want to say that about similar actions undertaken in the name of other religions. And equally of course, since institutions don’t actually have “essences,” there’s no truth of the matter. Every faith, like every other institution, has resources for both good and evil, and insisting that the good bits are genuine and the bad bits spurious is a legitimate rhetorical tactic rather than an empirically testable proposition.

The real bigots – Goldberg, for example – want to claim that the evil parts of Christianity are incidental while the evil parts of Islam are essential. Madden seems instead to be denying that the evil parts of Christianity – or at least the Crusades and the Inquisition: he doesn’t mention the atrocities listed above – are actually evil. I’ll take Obama’s approach over theirs. As Noah Smith (@noahpinion)  Tweeted, “No one expects a defense of the Spanish Inquisition.” It’s a little bit shocking that one of America’s two great political parties now thinks it proper to provide such a defense.

Second update More Noah Smith:

National Review’s chief weapon is surprise. Surprise, and fear. Fear and surprise. And ruthless efficiency. Their *three* weapons are…

Makes you long for the day when torture – at least in civilized countries -was far enough in the past to be a punchline, rather than a contested issue. I recall an old New Yorker cartoon: a man is being racked, and one torturer says to the other, “Remember, now! Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.” It was funny, back then.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

23 thoughts on “Goldberg’s *schanda*”

  1. I'll bite. OK, "or" is gold and "mont" is mountain/berg, but is there any other allusion you're making?

  2. Professor Madden is a pathetic example of a scholar who is so deep into his specialty of studying a twig that he cannot see the forest around him. Here is his supposedly learned paragraph rewritten to substitute Islam for Christianity or the West:

    "(ISIS came about) in response to desperate appeals from the (Muslims) of the Middle East, who had lately been conquered and continued to be persecuted by the (Christian West). And these were only the latest in more than four centuries of attacks on (Islamic) peoples by (Christian Western) powers. At some point (Islam) as a faith and as a culture had to defend itself or else be subsumed by (Christianity or its uneasy handmaiden, Secularism). The work of the (Jihadist), who put his life at risk and underwent enormous expense, was to save (the Islamic) people and restore (Islamic) lands. This was no perversion of (Islam). (Mohammed) had commanded his followers to be like the Good Samaritan, hurrying to bind up the wounds of their brother who had been robbed and beaten. This was the same (Mohammed) who said (something about helping friends). That is how (IS) honestly saw (see) themselves following their (Muslim) faith."

    It fits pretty well these substitutions. It is quite stunning how religious fervor can lead to such apologies of cruelty and violence.

    It is also stunning how Madden thinks Obama's reference to the "Inquisition" is to the 12th Century start of the Inquisition instead of the one perpetrated in Spain and Portugal starting in the 1490s.

    When I read such dumbness from the likes of Goldberg and Madden, I wonder if it is just cynicism driving these fellows or if "Idiocracy" is moving along at a more brisk pace.

  3. Mark–You really have to quote Noah Smith's followup Tweet: "National Review's chief weapon is surprise. Surprise, and fear. Fear and surprise. And ruthless efficiency. Their *three* weapons are…"

  4. Sir Steven Runciman concluded his classic 3-volume history of the Crusades with a fine paragraph condemning the whole failed project as "intolerance in the name of God .. the sin against the Holy Ghost". ( I can't find my copy, so this may be a slight paraphrase). If a stuffy, conservative, High Church Anglican could get it right in the 1950s, there is no excuse for Goldberg.

  5. This is not a good moment to dump on Cotton Mather. Yes, there was the witch trial, but he was very young and it was a very short period (I don't think he ever hunted witches – he defended the court that was trying them) .

    He organized a Boston-London smallpox inoculation trial. (not vaccination, that came later, you got the real smallpox virus, hopefully dead, occasionally not). The Commonwealth opposed it but the churches did it anyway.

    1. Josef Mengele was also a young man who was a very serious researcher with arguably "progressive" views about medicine. Should we allow him to be defined by his few years at Auschwitz? I think that's a dilemma for you and I challenge you to distinguish one from the other except on the quantity of their victims. From my perspective, they're both evil bastards who self-righteously inflicted hideous torture upon their innocent victims before murdering them.

      I would also remind you that Cotton Mather hanged a man even knowing that his victim was innocent of witchcraft. The man who a reverend who recited the lord's prayer, even though Mather had previously said that no one in league with the devil could say this prayer. Didn't matter to Mather because the self-righteous price hanged the poor bastards anyway.

      The fact that Cotton Mather had "progressive" views about smallpox doesn't mean that we should overlook the evil that he did throughout his lifetime, particularly since it clearly outweighs whatever small good he did during his life.

      Cotton Mather is a reminder of the tremendous amount of evil that men do in God's name. In fact, it's hard to think of a large scale evil that wasn't perpetrated in his name or with his supposed blessing.

      1. Is it accurate to say that Cotton Mather hanged the man? He supported the legal procedure that issued the sentence and he calmed a crowd that wanted to stop the execution. It would have been heroic if he had led the rebellious crowd and cut the man down but his desire to support the special court is understandable.

        I see a difference between a few years and a few months. People go crazy when children get sick – the new court (with many of the same members) reversed itself a few months later. Are all the court members on your condemned list? Is Sewell?

        I think the moral of the witch trials is that if you assign a special court or special prosecutor to do one thing and only one thing – they will do it and they may do it quicker than the opposition (e.g. Increase Mather) can get their act together.

        He did not just have "views" about smallpox. He took considered but risky action. (I'm not sure "progressive" is right either. Inoculation would have never made it past our regulators.)

        How is bringing in smallpox inoculation a "small good". Surely that saved more people than the 1692 court hanged.

        1. Did Cotton Mather pull on the rope? No.  But it is clear that the doctor, who was an innocent man, would not have been hanged but for Mather’s intervention.  In other words, had Mather done nothing and remained silent, the doctor would have lived. So, yes, it is morally fair to say that Mather went out of his way to deliberately hang a man he knew to be innocent.

          As for your argument that Mather was only “dabbling” in evil, it is pure sophistry since it depends entirely on the fortuity that Mather’s ability to exploit the witch-hunting diminished as the peoples’ bloodlust subsided.  He never renounced witch-hunting.  He did as much evil as he could for as long as he could.

          Would we remember Mengele more fondly if he’d arrived at Auschwitz later or the Russians earlier?  Speaking for myself, no.  The difference for Mengele is the same as for Mather—the opportunity for doing evil was determined by external forces which neither man controlled.

          Also, Cotton Mather can’t fairly be described as someone who was momentarily overcome by fear and anger.  His correspondence shows pretty clearly that he knew  that his supposed expertise in witch-finding was totally fabricated.  He chose to conceal what could most charitably be called his “doubts” about the trials so as not to jeopardize his own position and, perhaps, improve his standing as a leader.  

          As for his work on smallpox inoculation, I have no idea whether Mather's work somehow outweighed the lives he destroyed or the innocent people he sent tortured and sent to their deaths.  I doubt it and your moral calculus reminds me of those who want to free brutal killers from prison because they write or paint well.  I just can’t accept that weighing of contributions to science or the arts as offsetting torture and murder.

          1. Why do you put a quote around a word that I did not use? It makes me feel insecure about the accuracy of your Mather quote.

            The court was the first of its kind after Massachusetts had gotten a new charter. Cotton Mather wanted the new charter that his father had negotiated to succeed. Patriotism led him to error. (His father, a much more cosmopolitan man opposed the trials.)

            I was not arguing for his "contribution to science" (that is an example of the appropriate use of quotation marks) – I was arguing that he saved lives. That is not the same as painting.

  6. Without particularly disagreeing, is what Obama said any different than saying, "before getting on your high horse about beheading people in the name of Islam, don't forget how many people were beheaded in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity during the French Revolution." I don't see any difference and to defend Professor Madden (disclosure – he was my professor a long time ago), it just goes to the fact that historical analogies are almost always stupid.

    1. I do agree with you that the article is more balanced and offers a more nuanced historical analysis than Mark is giving him credit for. On the other hand, I understood his larger point to be that religious people of all faiths have always been barbarous and Obama's references to past Christian barbarism do not actually place what is going great on today in a meaningful context any more than do references by conservatives to past acts of barbarism by Muslims.

      I'm reading him correctly, why isn't he publishing in a more respectable mainstream venue and do the people at National Review understand that he's talking about them, too?

      If that's not a correct reading, what am I missing?

  7. But why not say that too much "democracy" or "liberty, equality and fraternity" can bring about the excesses of the French Revolution? It does not mean an historical analogy is stupid. It means we have show some humility before completely trashing someone else's religion. As a person who admires socialists such as Norman Thomas and Eugene Debs, I still have some caution in promoting their ideas because I saw how "socialism" was practiced in other parts of the world in the 20th Century.

  8. Of course it is the case that all human institutions are flawed. But I don't agree that it's fair to blame God for it. Blame the humans.

    If there are really people out there trying to defend the Inquisition and such, well … wow. (Is this guy the one who writes for the LAT? I never bother with him.)

    1. You make a good point. These threads always seem to go to simplistic excess. Hitler and Stalin were atheists who ran devoutly atheist societies and this means that atheists today……..are in no way responsible for anything those monsters did…they would have been what they were if they were Rosacrucian Polytheist Reformed Jewish Buddhists. Life is dukkha and people of all belief systems are part of that.

    2. To the contrary, if God exists as an omnipotent all-knowing, all-powerful being than everything that happens, for better or worse, is by his choice or design. The human institutions you say are flawed are only that way because that is what God wants. Every tragedy, every atrocity, every crime, every act of evil happens only because God allows it to happen.  

      If God is as described by his Chistrianist adherents, there would be no evil in this world if God did not want it.  So the fault is at least equally with God.

      1. You flunked theology 101…but who cares? Believe what pleases you — you will in any event.

        1. To be clear, I'm not saying what I personally believe. I'm simply asking if it is possible to reconcile the existence of an all-powerful benevolent God with the existence of evil.

          If God exists and is all-powerful he could vanquish evil. If God is perfectly good surely he would want to do so and the world would not contain evil. Yet evil abounds.

          So either God does not possess the some or all of the qualities attributed to him by believers or he does not exist.

  9. Still stuck in theology 101 — by all means make up your own mind . But if you want to seriously engage the topic theologically you might consider reading, well, virtually anything.

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