"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Jonah Goldberg is a syndicated columnist, author of books and National Review Online editor because his mother nearly took down Bill Clinton. He is, it’s fair to say, aware of that fact, or at least aware that everyone else thinks it, and his insecurity has made him a uniquely pathetic figure in contemporary conservative thought: He aspires to be taken seriously as a public intellectual, but he is the world’s laziest thinker. It is a grand and wonderful joke that Jonah Goldberg, of all people, would write an entire book about how liberals rely on clichés instead of original thought and intellectual argument.
On the back of my review copy of “The Tyranny of Clichés,” Goldberg’s latest, it still claims that the author “has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.” That, of course, was revealed yesterday to be utter bullshit. He is a two-time entrant for Pulitzer consideration — to enter requires solely an application and a $50 fee — and while Goldberg claims not to have added that line to his bio, it appears everywhere he writes, and it’s hard to believe he hadn’t noticed it until this week. That said, I can’t imagine a person dumb enough to actually believe that Jonah Goldberg had been seriously considered for a Pulitzer. (Well, OK, I can imagine one person dumb enough.)
If Pulitzers were handed out, like editorships at conservative publications, based on nepotism, Goldberg might’ve had better luck.
His mother Lucianne Goldberg’s history is sordid enough. In 1972, she was paid by a friend of Richard Nixon to spy on the McGovern campaign and the reporters covering it, posing as a member of the press. She became an anti-women’s liberation activist and campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment. Eventually she became a literary agent (and ghostwriter) specializing in gutter-scraping attack jobs, starting with unauthorized celebrity biographies and branching out, when Bill Clinton was elected, into conspiratorial books accusing him and Hillary of various crimes. The “Vince Foster was murdered by the Clintons” story? That’s one of hers. (As was the best-selling book on the O.J. Simpson case by racist ex-LAPD detective and convicted perjurer Mark Furhman, who became a right-wing folk hero despite the fact that he was responsible more than anyone for the case against Simpson falling apart.)
She lucked out when she fell upon Linda Tripp, a White House secretary with a deep disdain for the Clintons and a penchant for gabbing with the press. Goldberg was introduced to Tripp in 1993, and Goldberg pushed Tripp to help out with a tell-all expose of the Clinton White House (focusing on conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Vince Foster) for years. The problem was, Tripp’s problems with the Clinton White House were largely based on matters of style — George Stephanopoulos’ dirty hair and Bill Clinton’s flirting — that is, until Tripp befriended Monica Lewinsky after both had been sent to work at the Pentagon. Goldberg convinced Tripp to secretly record her conversations with Lewinsky, promising her a major publishing payday. She then convinced Tripp to go to Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, who’d eventually break the Lewinsky story.
Jonah was there for much of this. His apartment was the scene of meetings between Lucianne and Linda Tripp that would define the rest of the Clinton era. He was privy to the contents of the (illegally recorded) Lewinsky tapes. In 1998, he published a Talk of the Town piece in (Tina Brown’s) New Yorker, in which he played the wry observer of the chaos his mother has wrought. By the end of 1998, young Jonah Goldberg had an enviable contributing editor gig at the National Review, the most prominent conservative magazine in the country. Before Lewinsky, Jonah Goldberg had been writing and producing public television documentaries on gargoyles.
As reprehensible as his mother’s career was, at least Lucianne was fun — I’ll take a chain-smoking, bomb-throwing provocateur over a po-faced pseudo-intellectual any day. Not that Jonah Goldberg was always a would-be scholar. The founding editor of National Review Online, his original job was to be the fusty magazine’s cool young person (though he was already nearly 30 when he was hired) who was conversant with the popular culture. His attempts to be breezy came off (and still come off) as glib and self-amused. His columns were essentially banal conservative dogma with a generous heaping of Simpsons references. Roy Edroso collected some choice early Goldbergisms in his 2008 review of the right-wing blogosphere’s leading lights:
Themes and style were evident from his earliest NRO “Goldberg File” contributions. Prefaced a post on Bill Clinton’s Kosovo intervention with a quote from The Princess Bride (which remains one of his cultural touchstones, along with Animal House, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica) and took a breezy attitude toward matters of life and death (“We should kill Milosevic . . . Stalin moved populations like I play Risk on my computer”). Later, welcomed “the opportunity to wax Swiftian and offer my modest proposal for saving the rainforest,” resulting in a wan P.J. O’Rourke rip-off proposing to “sell the rainforest to Disney” (which “is becoming an incredibly liberal company anyway”).
Goldberg soon created the National Review’s multi-contributor blog The Corner, which will be his greatest legacy: Now an entire generation knows the National Review not as the leading intellectual light of the conservative movement, but as the place where random right-wing hacks alternate arguments about the grossness of Mexicans and gays with brief thoughts on Star Wars and personal tales of harrowing run-ins with liberal stereotypes.
Goldberg is always careful never to actually stake out a controversial position on anything. He’ll never buck the movement, but he sees himself as above the right-wing populists. His position on any number of issues is impossible to discern. On gay marriage: “I have always felt that gay marriage was an inevitability, for good or ill (most likely both).” Jonah defended waterboarding while also claiming to find it a “tough question” and complaining that supporters of waterboarding were unfairly tarred as “pro-torture.” Everything he writes for publication is littered with “to be sure” ass-covering and declarations that he’s not actually seriously arguing what it seems very much like he’s arguing. (The Supreme Court’s Fred Phelps ruling was deplorable but also probably correct but maybe not. Julian Assange should be assassinated not that I’m saying for real that he should be assassinated.) He’s too cowardly and insecure to allow himself to be pinned down on most divisive political issues, much preferring to devote pixels and ink to making fun of mythical sandal-wearing Prius-driving (formerly Volvo-driving) liberals who supposedly think things he finds silly. Or Barbra Streisand, a recurring figure in his oeuvre.
Goldberg’s also a master at avoiding serious challenges to his half-formed opinions. In 2009, TBogg documented more than 40 instances of Goldberg evading arguments or declining to elaborate on points he’d made by invoking some rapidly approaching deadline. (Sample: “This has been discussed endlessly in the Corner and elsewhere. I’m on a deadline so I’m not going to wade too deeply into it.”) Other popular excuses in the Goldberg list of reasons he’s unable to respond to criticism have included working on his books, taking his children to and/or from school and/or the doctor, and being late for something.
Goldberg does this because he seldom seems to possess much more than a cursory knowledge of the issues and subjects he writes about on his blog and in his columns. Indeed, he often seems to have purposefully not learned about a given matter before deciding to write about it. Another collection of Goldbergisms: A series of posts he begins by cheerfully admitting that he “hasn’t been following” whatever debate he is about to weigh in on. (“I haven’t followed the case since its second or third week. … I assume the verdict is correct.” “To be honest, I haven’t followed the New Jersey folderol too closely.” “I haven’t been following the Rand Paul debate too closely.”)
In one of my favorite Goldberg passages of all time, he wrote: “I was trying to make a general point which everyone understands but also ended up communicating an even more general falsehood. Like saying violence never solves anything, people understand what I mean even when in reality what I’m saying isn’t true.” Not sure how anyone could argue with that.
Here’s a thought: The 70% of Americans who oppose what amounts to an Islamic Niketown two blocks from ground zero are the real victims of a climate of hate, and anti-Muslim backlash is mostly a myth.
Calling that “a thought” is pretty generous. The “Islamic Niketown” line is never explained, presumably because Goldberg found it to be a self-evidently funny joke. (I beg someone to tell me what it means. Failing that, I beg someone to find me the editor who allowed it to remain in the column.) Other self-evidently funny things to Goldberg include Asians and Pacific Islanders with HIV/AIDS and poor conditions in public housing and a lack of affordable housing … for people with AIDS.
As he’s aged, and begun wearing his fancy “best-selling author” smoking jacket around the house, Goldberg has supplemented his “Battlestar Galactica” references with references to philosophers and scholars — Burke, Hume, etc. — in order to appear serious. The effect is similar to that of a chimp wearing a top hat and monocle. His need to be taken seriously is forever doomed by his addiction to lazy generalities. That tension was apparent in the reception that greeted his first book, and his reaction to that reception.
The thesis of his years-in-the-making (it was delayed repeatedly for mysterious reasons — presumably he just had a lot of deadlines) book “Liberal Fascism” was that the Nazis had “Socialism” in their name so Democrats are the real Nazis because Hitler was a vegetarian. (“Hitler claimed to be a dedicated vegetarian” is an actual piece of supporting evidence used in the book.) Actual historians and experts in 20th century fascism were less than impressed. (Another line: “The white male is the Jew of liberal fascism.”)
The problem is Goldberg is not smart or hardworking enough to pen a genuine piece of scholarship, or even popular history, and he is too pretentious to admit to having written an Ann Coulter-style, red meat-for-morons polemic. Having penned a book arguing a premise that every learned person in the world knows is completely false, Goldberg became incensed when it was reviewed poorly or not at all in various outlets of the “liberal media” (and the less liberal media). No one took his lengthy exercise in name-calling seriously! No one understood that even though the premise of his book is that modern Democrats are the same as Nazis, he wasn’t really actually calling Democrats Nazis! Everyone who hated his book actually didn’t read his book except for the people who did read it and hated it but those people have personal vendettas against Jonah Goldberg!
The full title of the new one is “The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.” (Yes, the title “The Tyranny of ___” is itself a cliché. It’s by no means the only one Goldberg employs in the book.)
I just opened “The Tyranny of Clichés” to a random page. It is the start of Chapter 9, “Slippery Slope,” and it begins with quotations from Hume, Lincoln and T.S. Eliot. Then we’re treated to the prose of Mr. Jonah Goldberg, who is here to share his presentation on “slippery slopes.” It reads very much like a high school student’s essay assignment:
Ultimately slippery slope arguments are a mixed bag. They are useful as a way to reinforce good dogma, but they are also used to reinforce bad dogma. Similarly they can scare us away from bad policies and good policies alike. There are good slippery slope arguments and bad ones for good ends and bad ends.
What insight! What a masterful grasp of nuance! Let’s try one of our own: Airplanes can be used for good things and bad things. Some airplanes carry medicine or ice cream, but other airplanes carry bombs or bad people. But an airplane with bombs might be good because the bombs are for using on bad guys, and on the other airplane maybe the ice cream has melted.
Throughout the book, Goldberg brings his disposable Bic-sharp wit to bear on the most deserving straw men he can imagine. From the chapter on “Let Them Eat Cake”:
The notion that today’s rich are the most likely to say ‘let them eat cake!’ is a form of cultural propaganda. To be sure, there are many wealthy and politically conservative individuals who are out of touch with the hardships of poverty. But the most obvious inheritors of the cocooned arrogance and self-indulgence we associate with members of the monarchical courts of Europe are to be found not in boardrooms, but among the most celebrated liberals of American life: Hollywood celebrities.
The celebrities whose excesses Goldberg goes on to document — those he deems “among the most celebrated liberals of American life” — are Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, John Travolta, (Republican) Sylvester Stallone, Kim Basinger and Sean Penn. Ah yes, the modern American aristocracy.
The book is, plainly, another dumb piece of assembly line conservative argument, gussied up with extensive footnotes. It will not impress any academics or intellectuals and it will not get the blood of true believers boiling with indignation. (It will likely sell well, thanks to bulk orders and conservative book clubs.) The phony Pulitzer bragging, that bit of slightly sad résumé-enhancement, is Goldberg all over: Desperate to impress, but utterly unconvincing.
Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @pareeneMore Alex Pareene.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)