Jonah Goldberg’s forthcoming Liberal Fascism. Ahem.
Matthew Yglesias notes that the falsehood of Goldberg’s thesis seems a more pertinent consideration than the NYT reviewer, David Oshinsky, seems to find it. I agree. Ramesh Ponnuru reads the review differently: “Jonah, I think it is remarkable that Oshinsky did not dispute one of your central contentions: that fascism is essentially a left-wing phenomenon. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that his silence on this point constitutes a concession.”
And here is Goldberg, in response to Yglesias: “Oshinsky in fact doesn’t deal with my “main thesis” at all. As Ramesh notes, Oshinsky actually concedes that fascism is a phenomenon of the left. As for where Oshinsky does disagree with my thesis, it is so poorly supported and so unrelated to what I actually write, I’m still a bit flummoxed as to how to respond to it, save to thank the man for his kind words and hope some other liberal actually reads the book and offers a sustained argument against it. Honestly: I would actually like to read such a review.”
Well, if he is willing to send me a free copy I will write a review no ruder than the book itself. But let’s stick with Oshinsky. It’s a puffy review, but did he or did he not dispute the central contention that ‘fascism is essentially a left-wing phenomenon’? Oshinsky notes, in passing, that the truth of the thesis that “fascism is strictly a Democratic disease” – i.e. Republicans can’t catch it – can hardly hope to survive contact with known facts about Republicans. Any definition of ‘fascist’ broad enough to include Clinton and Hitler is going to sweep up Reagan and Bush for good measure. The title of Oshinsky’s review ought not to have been ‘Heil Woodrow!’, but ‘Heil Myself!’ (as Chaplin put it.) We are all fascists now. Apparently Goldberg finesses this consideration by not considering it. Nor is it encouraging that neither Goldberg nor Ponnuru even recognizes the objection as an objection, when it is made clearly enough – at least by implication – in a short review. (Admittedly, it was confusing not to register a sense that obvious falsehood is a problem.)
What explicit definition of ‘fascism’ is Goldberg operating with, if any? To judge from reviews, the author’s own comments, his ‘results’, he must be applying the term to any sort of ‘statist’ or ‘collectivist’ political rhetoric, policy proposal, or legislative act, especially such of these as entangle the state in coercive action on behalf of ‘communitarian’ values or ‘identity’ politics: values that subordinate the individual to the whole. The trouble is: pretty much the only sort of conservative who is not going to come out fascist, under this umbrella, is (maybe) the likes of F. Hayek, when penning essays with titles like “Why I Am Not A Conservative”. Otherwise, the whole tradition of conservative thought, from Burke to Kirk and beyond, is ‘fascist’. Hillary says it takes a village, but Burke would never have settled for small-time socialism. He thundered about “the great primeval contract of eternal society.” No doubt ‘it takes a village’ is pretty weak, qua anti-fascist vaccine. But switching to the belief that you would do best to unquestioningly submit yourself to some sort of primordial, vaguely mystical, hierarchical social order is not going to inoculate you either.
In Oshinsky’s review we read: “To [Goldberg’s] mind, it is liberalism, not conservatism, that embraces what he claims is the fascist ideal of perfecting society through a powerful state run by omniscient leaders.” But the obvious examples of believers in the possibility of guidance by omniscient beings are theocrats (admixers of church into state in substantial proportion.) Goldberg is trying to target liberal technocrats and hubristic social engineers. But he can hardly get religion out of the target zone. In general, belief in hierarchy, hence the need to establish and maintain a socially superior class of natural leaders is eminently conservative – from Burke to Kirk and beyond, once again. Furthermore, ‘omniscient’, badly as it serves Goldberg’s purpose, is only there because the word you really want would be even more embarrassing to his case. Fascists believe in Great Leaders. Heroic leaders. It is quite obvious, from Carlyle to Gerson and beyond, that hero-worship is not inimical to conservatism. Of course, conservatives have their rugged individualist sides. They aren’t pure statists or collectivists or slavish self-subordinators. But, then again, neither are liberals. This is all pretty obvious.
Now we get to what is maybe an actually half-interesting point. There are two reasons why ad hitlerem arguments tend to be rude and crude. (Everyone knows Godwin’s Law is law. Here’s why, more or less.) First, the Holocaust. It’s pretty obvious how always dragging that in is not necessarily clarifying of every little dispute. Second, a little less obviously, ad hitlerem arguments are invariably arguments by moral analogy. Person A espouses value B. But the Nazis approved B. Not that person A is necessarily a Nazi but there must be something morally perilous about B, if espousing it is consistent with turning all Nazi. The trouble is: with few exceptions, the Nazis had all our values – at least nominally. They approved of life, liberty, justice, happiness, property, motherhood, society, culture, art, science, church, duty, devotion, loyalty, courage, fidelity, prudence, boldness, vision, veneration for tradition, respect for reason. They didn’t reject all that; they perverted it; preached but didn’t practice, or practiced horribly. Which goes to show there is pretty much no value immune from being paid mere lip-service; nominally maintained but substantively subverted. Which, come to think of it, isn’t surprising. How could a list of ‘success’ words guarantee success, after all?
If I believe it is important to be moral, it hardly follows that I am immoral, just because the fascists believed it was important to be moral – which they did. On some level. Wash. rinse. repeat.
The matter is more complicated, of course. It is plausible to say fascists really lack – except in a pitifully vestigial, reduced sense – certain essential values: tolerance, individualism. (That’s why fascism is a commonly considered inherently anti-liberal. And, since these are classical liberal values, conservatives can be liberals, too, in this sense.) But it isn’t the case that the fascists were the nasty pieces of work they were just because they lacked these values. It’s not that all anti-liberals are as morally monstrous as the fascists were, after all. The problem was also that the fascists valued (or at least said they did) things that really are valuable, but in hideously corrupt fashion. It’s this that feeds the bad ad hitlerem. Fascists believed in the power of the state to improve the lot of the individual. Well, so do liberals. So do conservatives. So do libertarians, if it comes to that. (The fact that extreme minarchists want to hire a night watchman – the Nazis hired lots of those! – hardly proves extreme libertarianism is inherently fascistic.)
This problem crops up in other, slightly less unserious contexts. Sometimes people try to argue that the Enlightenment was a terrible thing, because – look! – it led straight to the Nazis. Sometimes people try to show the counter-Enlightenment (irrationalism, romanticism) was a terrible thing, because – look! – it led straight to the Nazis. They’re both right. What doesn’t follow is that you need to take a stand against the legacy of Enlightenment, or on behalf of that legacy, to ward off moral monstrosity. Saying you believe in the great good of science and technology will not inherently preserve you from that. Nor will saying you think art is nobler than science and technology. You can screw it all up either way. Or both. Why not? The Nazis did.
Of course you can solve this little problem by not specifying values at an unhelpfully abstract, vague or sloganeering level. Still, it is a rather common fallacy that I think has no recognized name: to think that something that can be believed in a really screwed up way must be inherently screwed up in some way. Maybe it could be the abuse-mention distinction, or something like that.
At any rate, the problem with the ad hitlerem is that it is both trivially false (since your interlocutor is rarely a rabid, anti-semitic exterminationist); and trivially true: nominally – at some very general level of description – your interlocutor is almost sure to share a whole range of values with the Nazis.
You want to restrict ‘potential fascist’ to cases where there are not only shared values, in a weak ‘we are all fascists now’ sense, but some evidence that – due to those shared values – the person might turn into a sort of fascist, in a more full-blooded (blood and soil) sense. At the very least, you want to be on the lookout for people looking at actually existing fascism and thinking it’s sort of fascinating or attractive. Maybe they express sympathy with, or peddle apologetics on behalf of, actually existing fascism. Jeet Heer (whose anthology, Arguing Comics, is really good!) has been doing some digging through the archives:
Since its founding in 1955, National Review has been a haven for writers who are, if not fascists tout court, certainly fascist fellow travellers.
Let’s put it this way: if Woodrow Wilson and Hillary Clinton are fascists then what word do we have for those who admired Francisco Franco? When the Spanish tyrant died in 1975, National Review published two effusive obituaries. F.R. Buckley (brother to National Review founder William F. Buckley) hailed Franco as “a Spaniard out of the heroic annals of the nation, a giant. He will be truly mourned by Spain because with all his heart and might and soul, he loved his country, and in the vast context of Spanish history, did well by it.” James Burnham simply argued that “Francisco Franco was our century’s most successful ruler.” (Both quotes are from the November 21, 1975 issue). Aside from F.R. Buckley and Burnham, many of the early National Reviewers were ardent admirers of Franco’s Spain, which they saw as an authentically Catholic nation free from the vices supposedly gripping the United States and the northern European countries. National Review stalwarts like Frederick Wilhelmsen, Arnold Lunn, and L. Brent Bozell, Jr. made pilgrimages to Spain, finding spiritual nourishment in the dictatorship’s seemingly steadfast Catholicism.
The really twisted side National Review’s philo-fascism came through in 1961 when Israel captured Adolph Eichmann, a leading Nazi, and tried him for crimes against humanity. National Review did everything they could editorially to offer extenuating arguments against the prosecution of Eichmann, arguing that he was being subjected to a “show trial”, that this was post facto justice, that pursuing Nazi crimes would weaken the Western alliance and further the cause of communism. As the magazine editorialized on April 22, 1961, the trial of Eichmann was a “lurid extravaganza” leading to “bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of Communist aims, [and] the cultivation of pacifism.” (The editors didn’t consider that a mere 16 years after the death camps were liberated, a “refusal to forgive” the architects of genocide might be understandable).
There’s more. I don’t think it follows that Goldberg is a fascist, just because he is an editor for National Review. Certainly he isn’t an anti-semite. But I think it does follow, by the terms of Goldberg’s own argument, that he is the editor of a journal that is not just fascistic but liberal, at least at an earlier point in its career. The latter of these consequences I think even Goldberg ought to concede is pretty awkward.
Link via Kip Manley.
UPDATE: via John Emerson (in comments), it turns out Spackerman is doing yeoman’s work, heroically slogging through the thing. It turns out my speculations about Goldberg’s sense of ‘fascism’ were pretty on the mark. Certainly close enough for government work.
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 that 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.