A tale of two Jonah Goldbergs: Our name, our story
It’s hard to describe the wave of excitement that came over me the first time I walked into a bookstore and saw my name on the shelves. As someone who has always wanted to be a writer, it was simply impossible not to smile and laugh out loud. I was ten years old, proudly staring at not just one but multiple copies of a book by Jonah Goldberg. It was called “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.”
That day, eight years ago, was meaningful, not because it announced my presence as a child prodigy, but because that was the moment I found out that this universe housed both Jonah Goldberg, the aspiring writer from Los Angeles (me), and Jonah Goldberg, the famous writer for the Los Angeles Times. And that has made all the difference.
The existence of my double immediately lent a legitimacy to my own dream. Jonah Goldberg is a three-time bestselling author and nationally recognized political columnist, as well as a senior editor at the National Review and host of the publication’s podcast. Being able to physically see books and articles published by a Jonah Goldberg made it easier to envision adding my own; maybe it even tricked my subconscious into thinking I was already an accomplished author. With time, the name also became a torch. Jonah Goldberg was just as much an automatic role model as my father, providing a clear outline for success: I would know I had become an author the moment someone saw a work by Jonah Goldberg and was unsure which one wrote it. At that point, another Jonah Goldberg would be born, and the cycle would begin anew.
Of course, I rarely actually thought about this, besides the occasional joke that I would one day challenge him to a duel. After all, my “Google doppelganger” was an abstraction, a collection of text whose voice I would never hear and whose scathing commentary I had never bothered to try to comprehend. That is, until he came to Washington University.
Over the summer, I had picked up a copy of “Suicide of the West,” Jonah Goldberg’s newest book, slightly intrigued by the subject matter but mostly just wanting to fulfill the meme of reading Jonah Goldberg and then posting a witty review on my blog. I didn’t expect to become completely engrossed in it. Nor did I expect my floormate to see me reading it and casually remark, “You know the guy’s coming here, right?”
“The guy.” I marked it on my calendar and alternated throughout the days between excitedly telling people about the event and reminding myself not to expect much. Although there was a reception before his lecture, I imagined that Jonah Goldberg would be swarmed by faculty and older fans, if he was in the room at all. Still, when I finally approached the law school building on Tuesday night, it was impossible to not smile and laugh out loud.
My night with Jonah Goldberg went from coincidence to comedy straight away. Like all registered participants, I was given a name tag; this led to stares and laughing from dozens of strangers throughout the event, along with a few conversations involving showing my ID to those who doubted my intentions.
When I walked into the reception room, however, all of this faded away. Like a lover in a movie, I saw nothing but Jonah Goldberg. As I joined and moved forward in the short line of people waiting to get their copies of “Suicide of the West” signed, I couldn’t calm my wide grin. There I was, still a ten-year-old discovering something amazing and ridiculous.
Near the front of the line, another attendant handed me a sheet of paper and a pen; the idea was to give Jonah Goldberg something direct and efficient to copy in place of having to ask guests to spell out the name of the addressee. Although it was unnecessary, I couldn’t resist adding to the moment, and so, when Jonah Goldberg finally encountered Jonah Goldberg, they held three copies of the name Jonah Goldberg—from the name tag, the book, and the paper—between them.
Jonah Goldberg turned out to be a generous and clever man on top of everything else (can I still be talking about both of us here?). As our meet cute continued, he hesitated on how to sign my book, shaking his head and saying simply, “This is really weird.” Finally, he settled on writing the challenge I had always joked about. My double also agreed to get up from the signing table and take a picture; by that point it was inevitable. Afterward, I retrieved my phone from the probably confused person standing behind me in the line and thanked Jonah Goldberg one more time.
I could have left at that point; I had gotten the picture for my friends and family; I had fulfilled my meme and dream. Moreover, as this was a book tour, Jonah Goldberg’s lecture would almost certainly be a summary of the more fleshed-out work. Reading “Suicide of the West,” which I had already done, as opposed to hearing it, seemed the more logical way to fully experience Jonah Goldberg.
But I decided to stay, WUSA hours and studying be damned. And, although I had looked up to Jonah Goldberg for years, it wasn’t until that next hour that I truly became proud to share his name.
Jonah Goldberg may be recognized as a political commentator, but on Tuesday night he spoke to Wash. U. about human nature. He related openly and passionately his belief that the problem in our society—on both the left and right—is not any one issue but rather a loss of ideals and gratitude. He described a hockey stick graph not for climate change but for human progress, and his biggest fear is that the miracle of our sudden rise from tribal killers to a society that cooperates globally and champions human rights—albeit with many, many faults on that path—is all too easily reversible if we don’t turn our attention toward preserving and reforming our government instead of raging against it. He voiced this all naturally and somewhat spontaneously, never looking at his notes and regularly making spur-of-the-moment jokes that couldn’t emerge in a politician’s rhetoric. When one of the organizers reminded him he needed to end before 6:30 p.m., he turned to the audience and began his talk with, “As Henry VIII said to each of his wives, I won’t keep you long.”
I was able to briefly speak with Jonah Goldberg again right after his lecture. To my joy, he remembered my name and invited me to email him for “writerly advice,” an offer I’ll have to be very careful not to abuse. I like to think he saw, as I did, that the unlikelihood of that night made the connection worth preserving. Naturally we won’t ever be best friends—in fact, we’ll almost certainly never see each other again—but that night the universe somehow brought together two literary-minded, LA-raised Jonah Goldbergs in the same room, and something small changed for the better because of it.
I know now that being Jonah Goldberg is not just about writing prolifically. In fact, as college is starting to change my worldview and passions, it may not be about writing at all. The torch I am taking, and the torch I will carry and pass off to the next Jonah Goldberg, is instead the commitment to express myself openly and honestly, fight passionately with whichever weapon or method is strongest for me and be guided by the highest ideals and deepest gratitude.