Friday, January 25, 2008

 

Long Book Review

Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg

Subtitle: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning

Short review:

Really good. Mostly.

Long Review:

The historical fact that fascists were socialists, were clearly a product of the left (nationalistic as opposed to the international socialism of Communism) is knowledge hidden in plain sight. The Nazis were bold enough to leave behind the gigantic clue of their name. However, most people are ignorant of this historical fact and have severe trouble getting their minds around it, even when it's brought to their attention. Most of us at this site have had the fact clearly in our minds for about 20 years now, Diomedes longer than I have. And, for me, it was learning, from Diomedes, (and then finally accepting) this fact which was a sine qua non for my migration to the right. Jonah Goldberg, who is a superb writer and a pedigreed center righter (he is the son of conservative stalwart Lucianne Goldberg) who 'blogs' at NRO (the Corner) and has a column in the Los Angeles Times, of all places, has shown himself to be a witty, down to earth sort of guy, a little geeky (he likes Battlestar Galactica and Cloverfield) but able to pierce the densest lefty persiflage with a single, well-turned phrase. We are indebted to him for this well end-noted, very approachable, meditative historical treatise on the essential fact about fascism. I'm going to quote liberally from the book. These are but nibbles of the greater feast awaiting anyone who reads it.

Discussing how the left has purged the bad socialists from their history and actually use the phrase fascist (and German form Nazi) wrongly but exclusively for conservatives with whom they disagree, Jonah pens this inescapable fact of history (from p. 9):

Before the war, fascism was widely viewed as a progressive social movement with many liberal and left-wing adherents in Europe and the United States; the horror of the Holocaust completely changed our view of fascism as something uniquely evil and ineluctably bound up with extreme nationalism, paranoia, and genocidal racism. After the war, the American progressives who had praised Mussolini and even looked sympathetically at Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s had to distance themselves from the horrors of Nazism. Accordingly, leftist intellectuals redefined fascism as "right-wing" and projected their own sins onto conservatism, even as they continued to borrow heavily from fascist and pre-fascist thought.


Projection is the key thought there, something that should cause current leftists to pause but which, in my experience, only results in an irrational denial from cognitive dissonance.

Jonah traces the fascism created by Mussolini back to the first fascist movement, the French Revolution, and prior to that carefully defines the term fascism in the context of its historical and intellectual origins. And that history and those origins are all, ALL on the left. Here is the shortest definition he gets behind (from p. 2 and scholar Emilio Gentile):

A mass movement that combines different classes but is prevalently of the middle classes, which sees itself as having a mission of national regeneration, is in a state of war with its adversaries and seeks a monopoly of power by using terror, parliamentary tactics and compromise to create a new regime, destroying democracy.
Here is how Goldberg himself defines fascism as (from p. 23):

...a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives.

What Italian Fascism and German National Socialism have to do with modern American conservative thinking is clearly nothing. Jonah writes cogently (from p. 61):
If we put aside for a moment the question of whether Hitlerism was a
phenomenon of the right, what is indisputable is that Hitler was in no way conservative--a point scholars careful with their words always underscore. Certainly, to suggest that Hitler was a conservative in any sense related to American conservatism is lunacy. American conservatives seek to preserve both traditional values and the classical liberal creed enshrined in the Constitution. American conservatism straddles these to distinct but overlapping libertarian and traditionalist strains, whereas Hitler despised both of them.

Jonah's often repeated vision of the modern American version of fascism, what he somewhat redundantly (but necessarily) calls liberal fascism, comes from what George Carlin once said on Bill Maher's nearly unwatchable show on HBO, that fascism will come to America not with brownshirts and jack-boots but with Nike sneakers and a smiley face. The cover art is that statement made visual.

Despite the oft invoked statement: 'It can't happen here,' the book shows clearly that fascism did in fact take root in America and not only under the Wilson administration, the only Democrat president (other than Grover Cleveland) between the end of the Civil War and 1933, even though it was plainest under Wilson. I learned a lot about the excesses of the American Protective League, more history hiding in plain sight. Of ultimately less interest to me was the connection to fascism of America's next Democratic president after Wilson, FDR. No sane, reasonably well educated person really doubts that socialism was inherent to the New Deal. It was cool, however, to see the connection the NRA stylized eagle logo had to fascism's more famous symbols. More grist for the mill.

The book became much more interesting to me once it discusses periods when I was alive and aware, namely, regarding 1960s radicalism, which was all lefty and essentially fascist. Jonah draws a singularly sharp distinction between right and left during the last few years of the 1960s (from p. 197)

Meanwhile, what of the supposedly fascistic American right? While the New Left relentlessly denounced the founding fathers as racist white males and even
mainstream liberals ridiculed the idea that the text of the Constitution had any relevance for modern society, conservatives were launching an extensive project to restore the proper place of the Constitution in American life. No leading conservative scholar or intellectual celebrated fascist themes or ideas. No leading conservative denigrated the inherent classical liberalism of the United States' political system. To the contrary, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Jr., and the conservatives around National Review dedicated themselves to restoring the classically liberal vision of the founders.


Fascist scum!

The book also shines when Kennedy and his vice president are discussed. On page 202, Jonah writes that news of a Dallas school reacting to Kennedy's death with cheers was false. I hesitate to tell him this, but I was in a military school in the deep South then and I clearly recall hearing cheers at the news in my school that November day. So maybe not so false after all. Here is Jonah's keen insight into the origin of the conspiracy industry which grew up surrounding Kennedy's assassination (from p. 203):

The fact that Oswald was a communist quickly changed from an inconvenience to proof of something even more sinister. How, liberals asked, could a card-carrying Marxist murder a liberal titan on the side of social progress? The fact that Kennedy was a raging anti-communist seemed not to register, perhaps because liberals had convinced themselves, in the wake of the McCarthy era, that the real threat to liberty must always come from the right. Oswald's Marxism sent liberals into even deeper denial, their only choice other than to abandon anti-anti-communism. And so, over the course of the 1960s, the conspiracy theories metastasized, and the Marxist gunman became a patsy.

Johnson, as the book shows, did what Kennedy probably would not have done, that is, support, in the form of the Great Society legislation, the progressive state-olatry which is quintessential fascism, but nice.

In these chapters, along with history of the Cornell take-over (which had escaped my notice) is this little know inconvenient fact about the HUAC (from p. 224):

There is a modern notion that liberals didn't disapprove of or oppose anti-communism; they just opposed McCarthyite excesses. The problem is that communists and liberals have always made allowances for McCarthyite tactics when it is one of their enemies getting grilled. The House Un-American Activities Committee, after all, was founded by a progressive Democrat, Samuel Dickstein, to investigate German sympathizers. During the barely remembered "Brown scare" of the 1940s, everyone from real Nazi supporters--the German-American Bund, for example--to misguided isolationists was targeted and harassed...

One might excuse such tactics as a necessary evil in the fight against Nazism. But the more poignant hypocrisy is that American communists did the same thing to other American communists. The Smith Act, which made it illegal to belong to an organization that advocated the overthrow of the United States, was a linchpin of American fascism, according to many leftists. But American communists themselves used the Smith Act to get American Trotskyites arrested during the war.


With the modern left's obsession with conservative hypocrisy, it's good to be reminded of its as often as possible.

Of particular interest to the modern conservative reader is the tactic, which started during the 1960s, to pigeon hole conservatives with the fascist label as described by Jonah (from p. 237):

Conservatives were caught in a trap. If you rejected the concept of the omnipotent state, it was proof that you hated those whom government sought to help. And the only way to prove you didn't hate them--whoever "they" were--was to support government intervention (or "affirmative action," in Kennedy's phrase) on their behalf. The idea of a "good conservative" was oxymoronic. Conservatism by definition "holds us back"--leaves some "behind"--when we all know that the solution to every problem lies just around the corner.


Even Ann Coulter would tip her hat to that subtle use of sarcasm. But there's more of what Laura Ingraham plays fight sounds to on her radio show (from p. 244):

The American right is constantly required to own the darkest chapters in the country's history: the accommodation of segregationism, McCarthyite excesses, isolationism prior to World War II, and so on. Rarely mentioned is the liberal side of these stories, in which the Democratic Party was the home to Jim Crow for a century; in which American liberalism was at least as isolationist as
American conservatism; in which the progressive Red Scare made McCarthyism look like an Oxford Union debate; in which successive Democratic presidents ordered such things as the detention of Japanese-Americans. sweeping domestic surveillance, and the (justified) use of horrific weapons on Japan; and in which Moscow-loyal communists "named names" of heretical Trotskyites.


Jonah has a good overview of the left's embrace of eugenics, far beyond Margaret Sanger's well documented desire to have less dark skinned Americans through birth control, but to the point where Hitler was learning evil ways from us. Here's Jonah on the modern artifacts in the left's thinking from the early eugenicists (from p. 254):
Progressivism was born of the fascist moment and has never faced up to its inheritance. Today's liberals have inherited progressive prejudice wholesale,
believing that traditionalists and religious conservatives are dangerous threats
to progress. But this assumption means that liberals are blind to fascistic threats from their own ranks.

Meanwhile, conservative religious and political dogma--under relentless attack from the left--may be the single greatest bulwark against eugenic schemes. Who rejects cloning most forcefully? Who is more troubled by euthanasia, abortion, and playing God in the laboratory? Good dogma is the most powerful inhibiting influence against bad ideas and the only guarantor that men will act on good ones. A conservative nation that seriously wondered if destroying a blastocyst is murder would not wonder at all whether it is murder to kill an eight-and-a-half-month-old fetus, let alone a "defective" infant.

When the book turns to Hillary Clinton (in her own chapter) and to modern times, it is much less like a history book and more like an NRO opinion piece, a well reasoned, generally dead on opinion piece. Behold (from p. 360 et seq.):

The simple fact of the matter is this: liberals are the aggressors in the
culture wars. Why this should seem a controversial point is somewhat baffling. It is manifestly clear that traditionalists are defending their way of life against the so-called forces of progress. When feminist groups finally persuaded the courts to force the Virginia Military Institute to accept women, who was the aggressor? Whose values were being imposed? Which side's activists boast of being "agents of change"? My point is not that the forces of change are always wrong. Far from it. My point is that the left is dishonest when it pretends that it is not in the business of imposing its values on others.

...there's a larger point behind the effort to cast opponents of change as fascists: to make change itself the natural order by ridiculing the very notionof a natural order. The underlying dogma of those movies is that social and gender roles are not fixed, that tradition, religion, and natural law have no binding power or authority over the individual's will to power, and that the day we make the mistake of thinking otherwise was the day we took a tragic Wrong Turn.

After discussing the Nazi Kulturkampf, Jonah pens his most controversial statement regarding the modern cultural war by the left (from p. 368):
The white male is the Jew of liberal fascism.

That single sentence is apparently sticking in the craw of nearly every lefty aware of it. The truth no doubt hurts. Jonah has plenty of ammunition to support that statement, unnecessary for those who take an interest in the recent political sphere.

Here's another solid complaint about liberal tactics and an explanation for the necessity of the book (from p. 392 et seq.):

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. More important, as a conservative I actually believe that that conservative policies will be better for America. From school choice to free markets to advancing democracy around the world, I believe that conservatives are, for the most part, correct. When conservative proposals are rebuffed with insinuations of fascist motives, it not only cheapens public discourse but also helps beat back much-needed reforms, and it does so not through argument but through intimidation. Surely, it is no small matter that our public discourse is corrupted in this way and I have written this book largely to set the record straight and to educate myself--and others--about the real meaning and nature of fascism.


Here's a Parthian shot regarding the left's smiley-face fascism (from p. 393):

Many progressives seem to think we can transform America into a vast
college campus where food, shelter, and recreation are all provided for us and the only crime is to be mean to somebody else, particularly a minority.


A palpable hit, there. But Jonah does not only criticize the left. In the section on the real fascistic tendencies of the Republican party lately, he does not hold back. Indeed, both the difficult-for-me-to-describe Pat Buchannan and our current president come under cogent, deserved criticism near the end of the book. Disguised as such criticism is this long, actual restatement of the essential anti-fascism Creed of modern conservatism (from p. 402 et seq.):

What many conservatives, including Bush and Buchannan, fail to grasp is that conservatism is neither identity politics for Christian and/or white people
nor right-wing Progressivism. Rather, it is opposition to all forms of political
religion. It is a rejection of the idea that politics can be redemptive. It is the conviction that a properly ordered republic has a government of limited ambition. A conservative in Portugal may want to conserve the monarchy. A conservative in China is determined to preserve the prerogatives of the Communist Party. But in America, as Friedrich Hayek and others have noted, a conservative is one who protects and defends what are considered liberal institutions in Europe but largely conservative ones in America: private property, free markets, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and the rights of communities to determine for themselves how they will live within these guidelines. This is why conservatism, classical liberalism, libertarianism and Whiggism are different flags for the only truly radical political revolution in a thousand years. The American founding stands within this tradition, and modern conservatives seek to advance and defend it. American conservatives are opposed on principal to neither change nor progress; no conservative today wishes to restore slavery or get rid of paper money. But what the conservative understands is that progress comes from working out inconsistencies within our tradition, not by throwing it away.


If only someone would run on the planks of that platform!

Liberal Fascism can provide one with a slow, careful, pleasurable read. We here at XDA are grateful for the additional ammunition against the smug, liberal know-nothings who throw the term fascist and Nazi at the wrong side of the political axis. Or should I say political aisle? A lot of conservative books I buy end up, read once, on the bookshelf. This one, I believe, will be often referred to.

Labels:


Comments:
"If only someone would run on the planks of that platform!"

I think that's the very platform on which Fred Thompson did run.
 
And he got figuratively nowhere. Is there anything good we can say about the 'pure' conservatism of Barry Goldwater, who was beat like a drum by Johnson? I think things might well get worse before they get better.
 
Rog,

A few comments, not about Conservatism but about the GOP. The prolem that Conservatism has is that the GOP since at least 1992, has called itself and acted nothing like a Conservative party.

Instead, the GOP has misused its power for all sorts of venal purposes, including the K Street Project and Karl Rove's dream of a permanet Republican majority has become the GOP's Thousand Year Reich.

I agree things might get worse b/f they gat better. Here is a really good question: How do you shrik government?

True Conservatism is opposition to all forms of political religion. But what is Neoconservatism. Isn't it the ideology that drove our foreign policy in Iraq?

Meanwhile, I suggest that addressing the inconsistancies in our system is nothing more than Pragmatism, which in my mind is not an ideology but an attitude toward dealing w/ issues, and that adherence to any ideology, as history has proved, is a recipe for failure.

T
 
I lost you, Tony, in the fourth paragraph. Neoconservatism is no religion unless you're making some reference to the number of Jews who are neocons, which I assume you're not. We Republicans were indeed bad in Congress for 4 years and got well spanked for it in 06. However, compared to the Reed-Pelosi nightmare recently, we were near masters of the Universe. We can shrink government but it's going to be very, very difficult. I'm working through your last paragraph but don't have anything to say yet. I might need clarification. Am I wrong to adhere to the ideology that people should be be free and responsible? What failing ideaologies did you have in mind.
 
Rog,

Believing that people should be free and responsible is not an ideology per se. That's like saying I believe that people should have enough to eat and be disease free.

Ideologies are systems like Communism; Socialism; Neo- conservatism all of which systems fail sooner or later--mostly sooner--b/c they tend to be empirically unworkable. Once you start applying belief systems to facts if the systems are unworkable, they break down.

The last year and half in congress has not much about which to write home but remember, the GOP contolled both houses and the Presidency from 2000-2006 and controlled both teh House andd the Senate since from 1992-2006 except from 2001-2002 when Jim Jeffords left the GOP.

T
 
Did someone mention "smug, liberal know-nothings"?
 
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