Jonah Goldberg’s *Schanda*

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 teaching 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 within in 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 Timothy Noah tweeted, “No one expects a defense of the Spanish Inquisition.”

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.