Commentary Magazine


Goldberg Vituperations

An editorial that appeared today in the New York Sun goes a long way toward straightening out the record on what it calls “a kerfuffle [that] has been sputtering on the World Wide Web over a question [Norman] Podhoretz asked in respect of the Kurds.”

Mr. Podhoretz asked the question five years ago at a banquet in New York honoring Robert L. Bartley of the Wall Street Journal, Bernard Lewis of Princeton, and Jeffrey Goldberg, then of the New Yorker. Mr. Goldberg, a marvelous reporter, was being saluted for a dispatch from Kurdistan that had helped light the way for American entry into the Battle of Iraq. Mr. Goldberg had just come in from Northern Iraq and spoke about Kurdistan. In a tour d’horizon of the Middle East in the January/February number of the Atlantic, Mr. Goldberg relates that after the event, Mr. Podhoretz asked him, “What’s a Kurd, anyway?” Mr. Podhoretz, in Mr. Goldberg’s account, “seemed authentically bewildered.”

Goldberg is surely capable of giving an accurate description of an event in which he himself was a participant. Yet what he does here is to make it sound as though I had never even heard of the Kurds. And this indeed is precisely how the story has been widely interpreted.

That his portrayal is false is confirmed by the author of the Sun editorial, who was also present at the banquet:

As it happens, we were either in the same or a similar conversation with Mr. Podhoretz at the same banquet, and we took him not as being ignorant of the Kurdish question; after all, Commentary during his years as editor in chief contained plenty of references to Kurdistan. We took him to be curious as to how Mr. Goldberg would answer a question of ethnography that has never been resolved.

The Sun editorial is right: I was, in fact, asking Goldberg about the ethnic and/or racial character of the Kurds. And that, as it happens, was and is a very good question — since, as I have since discovered, no one seems to know the answer. According to Wikipedia, “There are many different and diverging views on the origin of the Kurds,” and according to no less an authority than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, their ethnic origins remain uncertain. The only points on which there seems to be general agreement are (1) that they are not Arabs; (2) that they are mainly Sunni Muslims; and (3) that they speak “an Indo-European language of the Iranian branch.”

To tell the truth, after five years I don’t remember what Goldberg said in answer to my question, and neither, I would bet, does he. Why then does he go out of his way to bring it up after such a long time?

The answer is that, in his Atlantic article, Goldberg was trying to show that “neoconservative ideologues” are not “interested in the Kurdish cause, or even particularly knowledgeable about its history,” and having no solid evidence to back up this smear, he settled for a malicious representation of an old conversation with me (“the vicariously martial neoconservative who is now a Middle East adviser to Rudolph Giuliani”).

Thus did an animus against neoconservatism lead Goldberg to violate the most elementary standards of journalistic fairness. And there is an additional factor, which is that Goldberg, whose views are often dangerously close to those held by us “neoconservative ideologues,” is (like others I could name) so fearful of being stigmatized by that dread label that he can never resist an opportunity to demonstrate through smears and sneers that he is nothing of the kind. But that is another story, for another day.