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Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (Doubleday 2008).
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, ch. 6 (1871)
A trip on any day to an airport book store turns up tables heaped with political books. New titles appear every week, and the prominence of display suggests a brisk turnover. On one level, this must be a good sign. A democracy needs a passionate, thriving political discourse to work. The fact that political issues command attention and engage the public suggests that all is well in a democratic state. But then I wade into these books and get discouraged. All is not well. We no longer live in an age of Pitts, Burkes, Tom Paines and Alexander Hamiltons. The quality of dialogue that rages in these books is generally vapid, mundane, crude political diatribe. The books are often little more than a chain of ad hominem attacks on political personalities. I don’t see much basis for distinction between writers on the “left” and the “right” in this field, though the later seem to have a sustained predominance in the marketplace. Granted this is not true of every book, though surely it is true of the great majority.
What’s missing? A serious engagement with great ideas. A willingness to think consequently, to pull out of the rut of mundane partisan politics, to approach national and international politics in a manner divorced from the “gotcha” world of contemporary rhetoric. Is this sort of dialogue worthy of our society? Does it serve us?
Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism, is certainly not the worst of the worst. But it’s amazingly bad. The fact that it secured publication with a major publishing house and that it is offered up as a subject for conversation on talk shows around the country says something rather profound about our culture, I am afraid–and not positive.
I approached Goldberg’s book thinking I would get a critical review of American liberalism from the pen of a figure who has emerged in recent years as a definer of what is conservative. Goldberg is the figure behind National Review Online, a lively Internet-based double to William F. Buckley’s flagship of American conservatism. He has also most recently emerged as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. But it’s hard to say exactly what this book is. It has pretentions. Goldberg wants to sell it as a work of intellectual history, charting the “secret” origins of the “American Left” in fascism. But this is to a work of real intellectual history what a Classic Comics magazine on Plato would be to a Platonic dialogue. Its crudeness and superficiality suggest that Goldberg simply doesn’t understand most of the thinkers he is characterizing—indeed, his descriptions are as primitive and confused when they deal with figures on the left as on the right. The work proceeds with the confidence and artistry of a solid B- undergraduate term paper in a political philosophy class. Not the sort of thing one would expect to find published as a book.
But the key issue I have with his writing is the hopeless sprawl of his language, which operates at a level of impermissible ambiguity for serious scholarship or serious political dialogue. His book is a whirl of phrases like “left,” “right,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “socialist,” “communist” and “fascist.” These terms are essential to Goldberg’s narrative, but one arrives at the final chapters of this book convinced that Goldberg doesn’t have a clear set of reference points for any of them—and indeed, what is “liberal” on one page becomes “socialist” or “fascist” on the next. In fact, the best way to make this point may simply be to watch Goldberg’s appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, selling his book. You can only come away from it wondering: Who is this guy? And what on earth is his book about? And those are the same questions I ask myself after having read the book, cover to cover.
Let’s start with one of the handful of points that Goldberg makes that I agree with, and which seems to be what launched him on the path to his book.
There is no word in the English language that gets thrown around more freely by people who don’t know what it means than “fascism.” Indeed, the more someone uses the word “fascist” in everyday conversation, the less likely it is that he knows what he’s talking about. (p. 2)
Indubitably true. Fascism is used because it is the political equivalent of throwing a Molotov cocktail. It is bound to provoke, to raise anger. Time was, of course, when Middle and Southern Europeans would proudly stand up and proclaim their fascism. But the idea has been forever tarred with the stench of burning bodies and some of the most revolting acts of barbarity that humanity has recorded. Consequently, today no one wants to be called a “fascist.” And that would include genuine fascists, of course.
Then we jump forward several hundred pages to find exactly what inspired Jonah to write. “Let’s begin at the beginning,” he writes on p. 392,
Ever since I joined the public conversation as a conservative writer, I’ve been called a fascist and a Nazi by smug, liberal know-nothings, sublimely confident of the truth of their ill-informed prejudices. Responding to this slander is, as a point of personal privilege alone, a worthwhile endeavor.
Here Goldberg offers up the most intellectually honest apology for his work. It is an act of defiance or retaliation. A return smack at all those effete liberals who have hurled the sobriquet “fascist” at him.
I don’t think Goldberg is a fascist. And I also conclude after wading my way through his book that he has little understanding of what fascism is about. In fact, I’m convinced he doesn’t care. His purpose is to do just what those smug liberals do—to hurl it as a bomb right back at them.
The problem is that fascism is something deadly serious, it is, as Albert Camus said in those famous lines near the end of La peste, a dormant bacillus in our society which lies in our linens and furniture, and more significantly in the human psyche, ready to spring forth and work its malicious harm on future generations. The only inoculation against it, again as Camus wrote, is to be conscious of its true past and the damage that it once did. Using the label “fascist” in current political dialogue as a casual retort cheapens this label, causes us to forget the threat, undermines the inoculation.
It is amazing to me that Goldberg in such a lengthy work never seriously attempts to come to grips with fascism as a concept. He prefers to deal not in the world of ideas but in a pageant of characters, fairly crudely drawn ones at that. I spent my own time studying fascism, when I was a university student living in Munich, and had to secure permission to wade deep into the bowels of the Bavarian State Library to read old copies of Der Stürmer and the völkische Beobachter. I remember the crumbling brittleness of the yellowing paper, the sickly acid smell that accompanied them, the shrill, hysterical language of the discourse, the viciousness and hatred that oozed through those pages filled with racist stereotypes and crazed conspiracy theories. All of that was a demonstration of the power of illiberal ideas to work horrendous wrong. They destroyed the Weimar democracy, but that was only the starting point.
In fact, just recently I thought back to one of those gray and rainy afternoons spent in the library reading old Nazi newspapers. It was when I came across this compilation of writings by a prominent columnist:
Muslims are “sheep-shaggers.”
The number of Muslims in Europe is expanding
Muslims living in the West are incapable of being
loyal citizens of Western societies.
European Muslims are the “new owners” of European
society and are behaving like “tenants with a right-to-buy agreement.”
Muslims have a collective agenda of taking over
the world, including the West.
Muslims will inevitably take over Europe; the
only issue left to be determined is how “bloody”
the transfer of power in Europe, to Muslims
from non-Muslims, will be.
Belgium no longer belongs to the Belgians: it has
already been taken over by Muslims.
The source is Mark Steyn, and he is one of the writers Jonah Goldberg recruited to National Review. It would be quite an understatement to call this language “intolerant.” Indeed it can easily be paralleled with ethnic stigmatization that has occurred in the most vicious societies in modern times. You can read the entire collection in the current issue of Harper’s or go straight to the archives here.
There are a number of excellent treatments of fascism, and one recent work in my mind really stands out. It is Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism (2004). Paxton, a Columbia historian, expresses the state of the modern scholarship, and one passage which is worth quoting in some length is his definition of fascism:
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Paxton then proceeds to isolate a series of “mobilizing passions” which may be used to identify a political movement as “fascist.” His list is one of the great treasures of the current scholarship on fascism:
- a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond reach of any traditional solutions;
- the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual to it;
- the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
- dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
- the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
- the need for authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny;
- the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
- the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
- the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.
There is no “fascist” movement in the United States today. Neither are there significant “fascist” political candidates. On the other hand, a wealth of fascist ideas have crept into and influence the nation’s political dialogue. These ideas should not be suppressed or excluded for it would be impossible to do so and maintain the integrity of our democracy. But it is vitally important for the population to understand the historical attachment and roots of these ideas.
For Goldberg, the “left” finds its genesis in the French Revolution, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the “father of modern fascism.” (p. 38). He then jumps to Mussolini, a “socialist,” who carries the concept of fascism from its French revolutionary roots into the twentieth century. Mussolini imports a well-known “socialist” symbol, the fasces as the identifier for his movement. (We’re fortunate that Cicero and Livy are not around to read this, they’d be shocked to learn of the socialist origins of the fasces). In America, Wilsonian pragmatism and FDR’s New Deal are simply other manifestations of fascism. And then we come to the student movement culminating in the risings of ’68. You may have thought of them as pacifist or anarchist, but you were wrong. They were just another manifestation of fascism.
With few exceptions, Goldberg tells us, conservatives trace their intellectual heritage back to the Enlightenment (not to worry, Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire have been airbrushed out of it). Heidegger provided the model for the fascist take-over of academia that the student movement was emulating in 1968. No conservatives reflect any influence from Heidegger. Carl Schmitt is a darling of the left, starting with Joschka Fischer. Again, this is a comic books approach to intellectual history that reveals a sweeping ignorance of the differing strains of conservatism that distinguish Britain, for instance, from the Continent—the Protestant from the Catholic traditions and so forth. The cultural conservative strain of Domat to de Maistre. Goldberg trots out a list of simpleton’s conclusions and observations that catapult him out of any serious academic discussion.
But just as his notion of “conservative” is thin and historically disjointed, his portrait of “liberal” is still worse. The core problem is, of course, that in the Anglo-American tradition there is very little space between the “liberal” and “conservative” camps. They share a basic common ground, a shared embrace of democratic norms and of market economics. Burke may be the greatest thinker of Anglo-American conservatism. But Burke was not a Tory, he was a Whig, and his ideas are just as readily embraced and espoused by traditional liberals.
In the sixties and seventies, American conservatives were capable of articulating an effective and consequentially thought through critique of American liberalism. Great Society liberals had drifted away from the commitment to a minimalist government and a maximum amount of freedom for the individual. They were preoccupied with social experimentation. They had become entrapped in poorly planned foreign adventures and they borrowed to pay for them. They demonstrated consistent fiscal irresponsibility. This was a highly effective critique and conservatives wielded it to advantage.
Today, however, it is the conservatives who have come loose from their moorings. Americans historically understood conservatism in terms of limited government, reduced taxation, a strong foreign defense that committed itself to overwhelming the adversary with quick, decisive showing of force, but eschewed entrapment in colonial adventures. A system that advanced individual liberties and protections by restricting the intrusion of the state. But it’s hard to find any of these traits in the Bush Administration, or indeed, any serious commitment to them in the pages that Jonah Goldberg has filled in National Review Online.
What we see increasingly is a revival not of fascism, but of Caesarism. There is a rush to embrace and anoint a leader, and to follow him blindly where he will go. A lazy neglect of basic principles of conservatism, starting with fiscal and political accountability for the conduct of those in positions of authority. A turn to hazy, vaguely religious social standards that overturn the secular base on which the republic was built. A use of foreign military adventures as a tool to silence domestic political foes and unite the public. A steady appeal to fear as a mobilizing political factor.
This is not fascism. But neither is it the conservatism that served America effectively for many generations.
It’s extremely difficult to identify a set of animating political principles in anything that Goldberg writes. The spirit of his work lines up in the tradition of Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza. It delivers a long series of ad hominem punches, most of them below the belt. They may be worth a chuckle here and there. But this will never provide the fuel on which to run a government. As an intellectual matter, it’s vacuous.
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“Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'”