Thursday, February 08, 2007

jonah goldberg day

two years ago, i stuck this url on my calendar for today's date and then forgot about it. apparently, i'm not the only one. in case your memory of early 2005 is a little hazy, back then jonah goldberg was involved in a spat with university of michigan professor of middle eastern and south asian history juan cole over who really knew what they were talking about when it came to iraq. on one side we had cole who speaks arabic, had studied the history of the region for decades. wrote a couple of books on the shia, had traveled extensively to the middle east, etc. and on the other we had a guy whose mom had a minor role in delivering tape recordings of monica lewinsky to kenneth starr. truly it was a clash of titans.

anyway, at the time it was hard to watch without feeling a little embarrassed for jonah. cole ran rhetorical circles around him and goldberg was simply too dumb to call it quits. the whole thing culminated in goldberg issuing a bizarre bet:
Anyway, I do think my judgment is superior to his when it comes to the big picture. So, I have an idea: Since he doesn't want to debate anything except his own brilliance, let's make a bet. I predict that Iraq won't have a civil war, that it will have a viable constitution, and that a majority of Iraqis and Americans will, in two years time, agree that the war was worth it. I'll bet $1,000 (which I can hardly spare right now). This way neither of us can hide behind clever word play or CV reading. If there's another reasonable wager Cole wants to offer which would measure our judgment, I'm all ears. Money where your mouth is, doc.

One caveat: Because I don't think it's right to bet on such serious matters for personal gain, if I win, I'll donate the money to the USO. He can give it to the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade or whatever his favorite charity is.
cole turned the wager down calling goldberg's offer to bet over the deaths of human beings as demonstrating "a pathetic lack of humanity":
I cannot tell you how this paragraph [describing Goldberg's wager] hit me in the gut. I was nearly immobilized by disgust and grief. This man really does see Iraqis as playthings. He is proposing a wager on the backs of Iraqis. Millions of Iraqis are going through winter with insufficient heating oil. They are jobless. The innocent 250,000 Fallujans are homeless. Imagine what $1000 means to them. And here we have an prominent American media star, a man who sets opinion on the Sunday afternoon talking heads shows, betting on them as though they are greyhounds in a race. They are not human beings to him, but political playthings on which to be wagered.
to which goldberg responded by calling cole "lame" and announced that he was "tak[ing] a victory lap."

two years have now passed and it's pretty evident that goldberg's prediction that as of today "Iraq won't have a civil war, that it will have a viable constitution, and that a majority of Iraqis and Americans will, in two years time, agree that the war was worth it" haven't quite panned out. in fact, iraq is in a civil war, has a constitution but i wouldn't call it "viable" and a clear majority of americans and an overwhelming majority of iraqis say it wasn't worth it. if cole had taken the bet, goldberg wouldn't just have lost, he would have lost badly. he was wrong about just about everything. goldberg even admits that he "obviously" would have lost the bet.

and yet, jonah is still as clueless as ever. he seems to think that because cole would not take the bet, that renders everything else he said back then moot. the key here is not the goldberg's challenged wager, but rather the sentence that preceded it: "I do think my judgment is superior to his when it comes to the big picture." this is about goldberg's judgment. as matthew yglesias points out: "The point, however, is still about the very, very poor prediction, not about Cole's skills as a gambler."

despite goldberg's documented lack of judgment in his commentary, he's still managed to do quite well for himself over the past two years. these days he writes a regular column for the LA times and is a semi-regular commentator in NPR. many many bloggers have noted that opinion sellers who are regularly wrong continue to sell their opinion and judgments as if those judgments are worth something and with no apparent consequences for their past errors. indeed, as jebediah reed demonstrated last month, at least when it comes to iraq, being wrong pays better than being right.

so today is jonah goldberg day. today we can all reflect on why people should get hired to write their opinions even after they've been proven wrong time and time again.