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Just as I was beginning to despair that Goucher College’s most famous graduate among contemporary historians Jonah Goldberg had lost his talent for offering revelations about the past, Jonah surprised me yesterday with a learned discourse on the Middle Ages as a prolonged period of primitive barbarism. For those who may have forgotten this nugget of wisdom, Jonah informed us in 2001 that Palestine “was largely empty” when settlers arrived there from Eastern Europe to create a Jewish state. In fact unlike the Americans who killed numerous Indians, Jewish settlers in Palestine did not have to engage in atrocities when they occupied a demographic vacuum. I also learned from Jonah that the French counterrevolutionary Catholic Joseph de Maistre was not a conservative but a raving leftist because he did not believe in universal human rights. Goldberg even compares the supposedly leftist Maistre to today’s liberals who want to assign jobs and admit applicants to elite universities on the basis of quotas. Like these liberals, Maistre stressed the distinctness of peoples and the value of different national traditions, which, we are told, proves his leftist credentials. I also took away from Goldberg’s best-selling study Liberal Fascism that architects of the present Democratic Party (but of course never Republican advocates of the welfare state) affirmed the same ideology as did European fascists, and even German Nazis. Although I did research on fascism for decades, I never suspected its incestuous connection to the Democratic Party until Goldberg, a Republican publicist, pointed this out.
But now Goldberg has furnished new historical insight in a hymn to Premier Netanyahu, on the occasion of the Israeli premier receiving the Irving Kristol Prize from AEI. Apropos of Netanyahu’s observation that “the core of the conflict in the Middle East is the battle between modernity and early primitive medievalism,” Goldberg reveals to us the true character of the medieval world. It seems that the Middle Ages represented the polar opposite of everything that Goldberg believes we should prize: “modernity, pluralism, secularism, democracy and, in many cases, even science.” So abhorrent does Goldberg find the Middle Ages that he believes that “medievalism,” more than “terrorism” or even “Islamism” describes the enemy we now face. In his considered judgment, ”primitive medievalism highlights the real divide not just between modern Westerners and the barbarians but between modern Muslims and the barbarians.”
Given Goldberg’s exalted position as a Fox-news Allstar and a bestselling author on fascism, it may be necessary to defer to him in his recognition that the Middle Ages was the enemy of civilization and science. Perhaps I should throw away the misleading history books that I read as a graduate student, say Herbert Butterfield’s study of the medieval and early modern origins of science, or J.R. Strayer’s study of the medieval creation of the modern state, not to mention all the silly texts I once pored over about medieval universities, philosophy, theology, economics, poetry, architecture and music. Nor should I believe what I was told about the Gothic cathedrals and inner cities in Europe being constructed during the Middle Ages, which I now know was a period of unmitigated barbarism. My entire view of European civilization must be changed in order to be in line with Goldberg’s pronouncements about the intellectual vacuousness and savagery of the Middle Ages.
As evidence of his subtle, dexterous mind, Goldberg qualifies two of his judgments in what starts out as a tribute to Netanyahu and as a critical assault on the medieval foundations of our civilization. Goldberg notes that “I would rather live under medieval Christians than under the Islamic State, but that’s beside the point.” Although Goldberg does not give any reasons for this preference, it should be taken seriously because of the authority of the one expressing it. After all, not everyone has been given the honor of appearing regularly on Fox-news as an expert on everything. Goldberg also stresses that while he agrees with “the progressive ideology that modernity is preferable to the customs of the past,” “as a conservative” he thinks “progressives often go too far,” but are undoubtedly right on the “big picture.” Since Goldberg is listed on Wikipedia as “a conservative syndicated columnist,” it may be unfair on my part to question his ascribed world-view. Still I’ve never found anything Goldberg says that would qualify as notably “conservative, save for his ritualistic defenses of the GOP and his opposition to increases in the national debt, especially when the Democrats are in charge.
Sarcasm aside, I’m not sure that Goldberg understands the “Whiggish idea that modernity is preferable to what people believed in the bad old days, although he signs on to this notion. Whigs, by which is meant nineteenth-century liberals, would not have believed what Goldberg, as I would gather from his columns, associates with “modernity,” e.g., gay marriage, feminism, and the march toward social equality. As Hebert Butterfield stresses in his famous critique of the “Whig interpretation of history,” Whig historian and politicians praised the establishment of “religious tolerance.” But they were not interested in establishing a secular mass democracy founded on “human rights.” Nineteenth-century Whigs had no problem with restricting the suffrage to tax-paying male property owners and held decidedly traditional views on marriage. What they opposed were the remnants of serfdom and royal monopolies, not those inequalities resulting from acquired or inherited wealth or higher and lower social positions. What is wrong with Goldberg’s terminology is its ridiculous anachronism. It is hard to see how the current Cultural Marxist agenda, much of which Goldberg and other authorized “conservatives” accept, has anything to do with what Whigs in the mid-nineteenth century wanted to advance. (The intermittent feminist and quasi-social democrat J.S. Mill was not a Whig but a radical democrat. The opponent of universal suffrage, Walter Bagehot, was indeed a self-described liberal or Whig.) Although this may be too much to request of a leading “conservative” intellectual, perhaps one day Goldberg may be persuaded to learn some history. But I wouldn’t hold my breath until that happens.