Wednesday, January 16, 2008

JONAH GOLDBERG'S I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I? I'll say this for him: Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism is full of fun historical facts, including these hilarious biographical details for Rabbi Michael Lerner: "When [Lerner and his bride] were married, they exchanged rings extracted from the fuselage of an American aircraft downed over Vietnam. The wedding cake was inscribed with the Weathermen motto 'Smash Monogamy.'"

But the book doesn't offer much in the way of analysis. As in his writing for National Review and elsewhere, Goldberg treats facts as dirt-clods to hurl at his opponents; the task of condensing them into a case that fascism comes out of liberalism (and that modern-day liberalism is still just a putsch short of fascist dictatorship) is well beyond him.

We get a hint at the problem early on, when Goldberg defines fascism. "Scholars have had so much difficulty explaining what fascism is because various fascisms have been so different from each other," he says. But he is unwilling to take as a guide such apparently definitive statements as Mussolini's ("the resolute negation of the doctrine underlying so-called scientific and Marxian socialism") -- even while calling Il Duce "The Father of Fascism" -- prefering instead to emphasize Mussolini's youthful enthusiasms for Marx and socialism, which Goldberg accepts as proof that Marxism, socialism, and fascism are all the same thing -- that is, liberalism.

As a perhaps semi-conscious defense of this selective reading, Goldberg notes that "as a pragmatist, [Mussolini] was constantly willing to throw off dogma, theory, and alliances whenever convenient" -- yet he doesn't seem to grasp that this statement cuts both ways; if Mussolini was just conning people when he denounced the Left, why couldn't he have been conning them when he embraced it?

So Goldberg offers his own definition:
Fascism is 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. Any rival identity is part of the "problem" and therefore defined as the enemy. I will argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies all of these aspects of fascism.
If the charge at the end surprises you, you have missed a trick: by "all of these aspects," he doesn't mean all at the same time. Any little piece of the bill of particulars, regardless of context, will serve. Thus, the fact that Mussolini supported old-age pensions and a minimum wage becomes as important to understanding his fascism as hyper-nationalism and the one-party state, because "takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being..." appears in Goldberg's definition.

You can imagine how this figures in Goldberg's classification of the Great Society and national health care as fascist phenomena. Indeed, there isn't an American welfare program or idea in the book that Goldberg doesn't find fascist or proto-fascist (this includes George Bush's compassionate conservatism). One wonders why he failed to mention the fascist provenance of Home Relief or the Sermon on the Mount.

Once you start using history and logic so irresponsibly, anything goes. For example, when we come to Hillary Clinton, Goldberg's "First Lady of Liberal Fascism," we are offered her 1973 Yale graduate paper arguing for granting legal autonomy to children in court cases as evidence of her fascism. Many of us might question the scope of Clinton's youthful claim, but it takes a Goldberg to compare Clinton's arguments to those of Robespierre and Hitler on the grounds that they, too, advocated "'capturing' children for social engineering purposes." Goldberg follows with some characteristic broken-field running, saying that Clinton's project "is in no way a Nazi project" -- and then compares her to Stalin and Mao ("they share a sweeping vision of social justice and community and the need for the state to realize that vision").

Clinton took a side in legitimate competing interests, and the most evident legacy of her efforts may be seen in the relatively mild legal and policy efforts of the Children's Defense Fund. But Goldberg finds her fascist because "while there are light-years of difference between the programs of liberals and those of Nazis or Italian Fascists or even the nationalist progressives of yore, the underlying impulse, the totalitarian temptation is present in both." And didn't Goldberg explicitly use the word totalitarian -- in italics -- in his bill of particulars? Close counts in horseshoes and Liberal Fascism.

If you think this is rich, see what he gives Norman Lear. Yes, that's Norman Lear the TV guy. The sitcom maker's formation of People for the American Way, and his despair at "the spiritual emptiness of our culture" and "our obsession with numbers, the quantifiable, the immediate," draws this analysis from Goldberg:
Lear's cri de coeur is an almost pitch-perfect restatement of the neo-Romantic objections to modern society that inspired fascist movements across Europe and the search for 'a cause larger than ourselves' of the American Progressives. He might receive an appreciative hearing from the early Paul de Man, Ezra Pound, and countless other fascist theorists and ideologues who denounced the Western -- particularly Jewish -- obsession with numbers and technical abstraction.
From wan, warm-hearted boilerplate to fascism in two easy sentences! And it can be used on anyone who pleads for deep feeling -- even Mr. Spock! ("It is almost a biological rebellion, a profound revulsion against the planned communities, the programming, the sterilized, artfully balanced atmospheres...") Try it at home yourself!

There are many similar howlers in the book. The barbarities of Leftist radicals in the 60s -- despite Goldberg's admission that these people sought to "differentiate themselves from liberals, whom the hard left saw as too concerned with politeness, procedure, and conventional politics" -- are connected to official Democratic politics because Howard Dean once spoke nostalgically of the Civil Rights Act and Hollywood made Easy Rider. Goldberg glides over the blacklists of the 50s -- he has previously spoken sympathetically of them -- but takes care to remind us that "[Joe] McCarthy's political roots lay firmly in the Progressive Era." The Da Vinci Code is linked to "the Nazi attack on Christianity." And there are all those brain-farts ("The white male is the Jew of liberal fascism") that have been the joy and solace of Sadly, No! lo these many weeks.

Goldberg is on firmer ground documenting the often deplorable overreach of the Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt Administrations. Of course, you may have already learned about many of their atrocities from Howard Zinn, Gore Vidal, and other liberal writers. That liberals, socialists, and progressives mainly took it in the neck from Wilson doesn't bother Goldberg -- after all, the Nazis fought the Commies, and they were all fascists. And I doubt Goldberg would even acknowledge that the more coercive aspects of the Roosevelt Administration are now rejected by most liberals, and indeed mainly defended by conservatives.

And that's really what this book is about. Throughout Liberal Fascism Goldberg inserts complaints that liberals unfairly call conservatives fascists -- a slur that, in our age of blogospheric intemperance and extraordinary renditions, is even harder to escape than when hippies were yelling it. Well, he'll show them. Having heard the "Why do you think they called it National Socialism?" routine for decades, I have some idea of the depth of Goldberg's well of resentment. Though he has plowed up a lot of source material to stuff his magnum opus, that sense of ancient grievance permeates and dooms his book. Goldberg betrays a palpable need to get all his (and previous generations of American conservatives') grudges in, from Rousseau to John Kerry. And he's got to prove they're all fascists. Even a skilled polemicist would have collapsed under the weight of the task, but a skilled polemicist would have known enough to rein it in a little. Goldberg doesn't. Whenever he does manage to string a few points together, The Quest calls him unto a new absurdity.

That won't matter to the built-in market of Coulter fans and dittoheads who have already adopted Liberal Fascism, but unaffiliated readers will probably be flummoxed. As for those of us on the other side -- the real fascists, if you will -- it is, as tradition dictates, just the latest, if also the largest, of Goldberg's gifts of laughter.

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