Andrew McCarthy’s book is apparently selling well! We’ll get to that.
But first: a couple weeks ago Jonah Goldberg did one of those diavlog thingies with David Frum. The occasion was Frum making accusations of ‘epistemic closure’ and Goldberg protesting that it’s all nonsense. The Jim Manzi/Mark Levin thing. The section we will be concerned with is this one. Only 9 minutes long, so you can watch it yourself. I’ve transcribed some highlights. (If anyone listens and notices I’ve mistranscribed or misleadingly paraphrased, please say so in comments.)
Frum: Do you think President Obama is a Marxist?
Frum: OK. And yet that is something we hear on radio and television all the time. And a lot of the people who we rely on to support Republican candidates are absolutely sold on that proposition. Absolutely sold on it. And of course that makes it – if the President is a Marxist bent on overthrowing the constitutional order of the United States, obviously you can’t do business with him. You have to fight him with every tool you’ve got. But you don’t believe that, I don’t believe that. I suspect that very few of your colleagues at National Review, if any, believe that. And yet it’s said, and made an operational reality.
Goldberg: [nervous laughter] I don’t think he’s a Marxist. I do think he’s probably by temperament and conviction pretty close to a Democratic Socialist of the –
Frum: You think he’s a socialist?
Goldberg: Of the mainstream European variety.
[Some backing-and-forthing. ‘Lawyerly’ (Frum’s characterization) qualifying from Goldberg about how Tony Blair says he’s a socialist and he ‘takes Tony Blair at his word’, and Tony Blair isn’t so far from Obama so Obama must be a socialist. (editor’s note: Since Goldberg’s operational definition of a socialist is ‘people who say they are socialists’ it’s hard to say why he thinks Obama is a socialist.) Frum tries to extract a more positive, substantive, policy or political philosophy-centric notion of ‘socialist’, without conspicuous success. Goldberg: socialism does not equal Marxism, so we should be more willing to apply the ‘socialist’ label much more broadly than we are. Frum: that still doesn’t tell us what the term is supposed to mean. Goldberg: read my Commentary piece.]
Frum: If someone believes that markets should exist, but subject to the regulation that markets should meet the test of cost-benefit, that person is not a socialist … John Maynard Keynes wasn’t a socialist, Jimmy Carter wasn’t a socialism … Richard Nixon wasn’t a socialist … What it means to be a non-socialist is to believe in markets, private property and decentralized economic decision-making … Those would be the kind of things we’re talking about … I think you are demonstrating one of the things that I’m concerned about. I don’t think you really think President Obama is a socialist. But you are constrained here because to say ‘well, y’know, he’s spending too much money, and I think he’s taking on too much debt, and I think some of his specific ideas are overburdensome on private industry’ – that’s just not exciting enough.
Goldberg: Look, I’m trying to deflate – to siphon off the poisonous and radioactive level of the word ‘socialist’.
Frum: Was Richard Nixon a socialist?
Goldberg: He certainly – uh, he was sort of a corporatist. Look, I think there were socialistic elements, certainly wages and price controls and whatnot.
Frum: Was Richard Nixon more or less socialist than Barack Obama?
Goldberg: Uh, I would have to say less.
Frum: A President who imposed two wage and price freezes?
Goldberg: Hey look, I’m not burning with desire to defend Richard Nixon! My point is –
[Big snip here. Goldberg’s point is that we need to have words we can use, and allegedly ‘socialist’, as a word for what Obama is doing, is such a word. We’ll get back to that.]
Frum: Do you think the American Constitutional order is in jeopardy?
Goldberg: No. Well, let me put it this way. The threats to the American Constitutional order that have been proceeding apace for quite a long time, that predate Barack Obama and predate George Bush, they have to do with the post-New Deal Constitutional order. These problems that I do not like are accelerating and getting worse under Obama. But no, do I think we have a crisis of the Republic, or in the first things sense a crisis of the regime, no I don’t .
Frum: And yet you’ll acknowledge that a lot of people in the conservative talk complex say so.
Goldberg: Yes. And I don’t think they should.
Frum: And they have an enormous audience, much bigger than you and me. Bigger even than you and certainly bigger than me.
Goldberg: Yes, sure. Stipulated.
Frum: So we’ve got people who are very important to the conservative world who are saying things about the President that you think are really not true.
Goldberg: Yes, I think that’s right. And I’ve said that –
Frum: Is that a problem?
Goldberg: Yeah, it’s a problem. It’s also well within the confines of political discourse that has been going on in this country for a 100 years.
Frum: So you’re saying it’s a problem but if the most important conservatives in America, the most visible, the most listened to, are telling people the President is a Marxist, a threat to the Constitutional order, you say that’s not true, and it’s a problem, but it’s not a big problem.
Goldberg: Yes. Essentially. But now we’re getting lawyerly on both sides …
OK. Let’s stop there.
A couple posts back I quoted Andrew McCarthy re: his new book, Grand Jihad: what is the nature of the “partnership” – “effective partnership” – between the Obama-led left and the terrorists/Islamists?
“In order to establish their respective utopias they need to push out of the way American constitutional republican democracy. That’s the biggest obstacle to both of them.”
So the Obama-led left and the terrorists/Islamists are, in effect, ganging up on the United States constitutional order, in an enemy of my enemy spirit. This is strong stuff because it explicitly rules out the more charitable interpretation that Obama and the left are just clueless about strategy and tactics. It would be one thing for them to adopt counter-productive policies with perverse consequences. But you don’t attempt this sort of Machiavellian bank shot – aiming at overthrowing the American constitutional order by aiding and abetting enemies of the state – unless you are actually attempting this sort of Machiavellian bank shot. Just to confirm that McCarthy is not slightly mis-speaking in an interview, we can quote from a written Q&A in which he makes the same point, being quite clear that he is not accusing Obama and the left merely of incompetence. (In my previous post I made fun of McCarthy by asking whether Obama is like Benjamin Linus to Islamism’s Smoky. McCarthy makes clear, in this Q&A that he thinks that is pretty much exactly the right sort of analogy.)
So it seems silly to me to rationalize that the Left has lots to lose in a partnership with Islamists — as if we were talking about a hypothetical. The cooperation is happening. The better question is: Why? The easy answer is that the two sides have more in common than they have in opposition. Moreover, to say that the Left would suffer more than anyone under Sharia law misses the point. We are not in a situation where the only ones left are the radical Left and the Islamists — where they would square off against each other. Instead, we are at a point in history when they both have a more pressing common enemy: the culture of freedom in the West. As they have done numerous times in the past, they will work together to try to defeat that enemy. Once that happens — if we let it happen — then they can figure out which one is the crocodile and which one the last appeaser to be eaten.
So, getting back to Frum and Goldberg: Andrew McCarthy is making precisely the claim that Frum picks as an example of a transparently silly claim, that no one serious could seriously credit, but which is stock talk radio fodder. Frum cites this as an example of something that Goldberg obviously doesn’t believe, that probably no one at National Review even takes seriously. And Goldberg agrees. He doesn’t push back, doesn’t suggest that it’s more complicated. And, very notably, omits to say anything like: ‘by curious coincidence, David, one of my NR colleagues, Andy McCarthy is publishing a very serious book this month, which defends the very thesis that you dismiss as silly.’
So, what does Goldberg have to say about McCarthy’s book, which says things that, according to Goldberg, conservatives shouldn’t be saying?
I still don’t have a copy of Andy’s book yet, so I haven’t said much about it. But I just happened to notice that it’s #9 on Amazon. Nice!
Well, that’s fair enough. I will be very curious to see whether, when Goldberg finds – to his shock and dismay – that McCarthy is saying things he (Goldberg) thinks are just plain silly, he takes a stern and Frum-ish stand against his colleague. (But I won’t hold my breath, waiting.)
And the same goes for McCarthy, in case he just happened to miss that bloggingheads episode: if McCarthy is right, then it follows that it is actively dangerous – extremely so – for people like Goldberg to give David Frum a pass (never mind agreeing with him!) when he says it’s silly to say that Obama is trying to overthrow the constitutional order of the United States. When, in fact, it is obviously impossible to form a sensible view of American politics that does not have that proposition at its core. (McCarthy doesn’t say that in so many words, but I think he would have to agree: if it’s true that Obama and the left are implacable enemies of the Constitution, democracy, republicanism and freedom, then it can hardly be possible to form a sensible view of what is going on in US politics without knowing this.)
In general, if it really were the case that some writers at NR believed that Obama and the Democrats are actively seeking the overthrown of the US constitutional order – indeed, of all democratic/republican forms of government; indeed, of human freedom – and if other people at NR believed otherwise, this would be the sort of thing one would want to debate. It would be hard to debate anything else intelligently, after all, without settling (or at least considering) which of the two views is more correct. Before doing anything else, you would need to head off into the mist, as it were, to figure out what the so-called ‘moderate left’ (Obama and co.) really thinks and wants. The fact that there is no interest, on the part of Goldberg and McCarthy and co., in debating what would seem to be rather an important issue … what does that suggest?
Let’s get back to Goldberg’s point about how we need words we can ‘use’ – including ‘socialism’ and ‘fascism’. (In McCarthy’s case: ‘Islamism’. We’ll get to that.) Goldberg complains that it is unfair if those on the left can use ‘socialism’ as an analytic category, but he is forbidden from calling people ‘socialists’, on the ground that it is insulting. But, as Frum points out, Goldberg doesn’t use ‘socialism’ as an analytic category. He isn’t interested in ‘socialism’ or ‘fascism’ as a label for a distinctive cluster of philosophical or policy positions.
What IS he interested in? It seems to me – let me try to get this exactly right – that he is in the market for a means of forming sentences that are systematically ambiguous between claims that are so silly that no one could take them seriously, and claims that are so trivial that no one could take them seriously (even if they are true.) I’ve discussed this fallacy before: the two-step of terrific triviality. If someone objects that you are saying something outrageous, pretend that you were just saying the trivial thing. If someone points out that you are saying something trivial, point to the outrageous thing as a sign that you are touching on very serious matters (even if, of course, you yourself aren’t asserting the outrageous thing – that would be silly.) In this way you generate the impression that there must be some substantive middle ground, between the silly extremes, where non-silly but unspecified versions of your point no doubt obtain. But, in fact, there is no such middle ground. You aren’t saying anything remotely serious; or even anything that you yourself would ever care to assert (if the point were translated into terms that would make its actual sense tolerably plain).
This is clearer if we look at examples. What does Goldberg have to say in the very next post, after congratulating McCarthy on his strong sales? He congratulates himself on the prescience of Liberal Fascism, for the way it anticipates and diagnoses the sort of ‘brave new world’ benign tyranny pushed by, for example, Derek Bok. This post has already gone on long enough, so – rather than paraphrase – I suggest you yourself just click over if you don’t believe me when I say that what Bok thinks, and what Goldberg actually quotes him as saying, is pretty much just that it is reasonable for medical researchers to try to find out what things allow people to be happy, by their own lights. (You ask them.) We should see whether it is possible for doctors and medical researchers to better facilitate provision of these things. So, for example, pain management and good sleep turn out to be more important than you might have thought. People who suffer chronic sleep disorders tend to be less happy even than those who have lost a limb. (Another common example, from the happiness literature: chronic pain is worse than blindness, if self-reports of happiness are to be believed.) Insofar as the government is involved in the crafting of health policy, it seems reasonable for the government to be supportive of what seem like reasonable research and treatment priorities. Medicine should not only be about life (keeping people alive) and liberty (making sure that people can do things like see and walk) but also happiness (because this is acknowledged to be a worthy goal.)
You think the government should make health policy such that doctors are in the needless-pain-and-suffering-to-build-character business?
Goldberg sounds the alarm. It isn’t possible for the government to be in the business of providing policy frameworks within which individuals can more effectively pursue happiness, by their own lights – good sleep, no pain: allowing them to get on with their lives – without this putting us on the slippery slope to Brave New World (soma and feelies and all that, I suppose. Details a bit hazy.)
Simply this: it is fool’s gold. The idea that we can create a heaven on earth through pharmacology and neuroscience is as utopian as the Marxist hope that we could create a perfect world by rearranging the means of production. The history of totalitarianism is the history of the quest to transcend the human condition and create a society where our deepest meaning and destiny are realized simply by virtue of the fact that we live in it. It cannot be done, and even if, as often in the case of liberal fascism, the effort is very careful to be humane and decent, it will still result in a kind of benign tyranny where some people get to impose their ideas of goodness and happiness on those who may not share them.
Of course, Bok didn’t say anything about creating heaven on earth. So subtracting the complaints about utopianism, which don’t apply, what’s wrong with just trying to do things better – which certainly is a charge that will score against Bok? How much sting is there in this charge?
Approaching from a different angle: Goldberg does register awareness, at one point, that there is a famous line in the Declaration of Independence. But he gives no indication – and how could he? – of how, if facilitating ‘the pursuit of happiness’, by people’s own lights, is a ‘liberal fascist’ goal, American government has not been essentially fascistic in spirit from the start. (The New World quite Brave from the get-go.) If the Declaration of Independence was, in spirit, an attempt to make Americans less free and more like Europe …
And now you are set. Being a fascist is, of course, bad. But if, trivially, even the Declaration of Independence is liberal fascist in spirit, you have a foolproof method for ensuring all serious attempts at proof can be baffled by a wall of pure foolishness. You never have to have a sensible discussion of liberalism again. And, if called on it, you can cover your retreat: you can mock-innocently protest that what seems like a drop of rhetorical poison is really an attempt to draw the poison out of the discussion, by normalizing the use of ‘fascist’ (‘socialist’), so forth.
Now there is, of course, an alternative interpretation of Goldberg’s complaint against Bok. He might say that the problem with Bok’s proposal is that the government should not be involved in health care issues at all. These are private matters between doctors and patients. There shouldn’t be public health policy. Period. Because then the government will be stepping between doctor and patient, mandating values like ‘pursuit of happiness’ … But then Goldberg should say so, and explain why he thinks so. But he should also make clear that his beef is not with Bok, or Obama, or even the New Deal, but with the fateful step taken in 1789, when the US got its first public health policy in the form of the Marine Hospital Fund. The US had a public health policy – at least the nose of the fascist camel had got in under the tent – before it had a Bill of Rights, actually. (Fun fact!)
What about Andrew McCarthy? Well, I’ve gone on too long already. The schtick depends on finding a term – ‘Islamism’ – that facilitates systematic slippage between terrorism and a world religion with over 1 billion adherents. But, actually, most of the action is in the middle, where what you find are middle-of-the-road liberal policy ideas caught up in a circular swirl of bizarre insinuations. Leftists are guilty by association with Muslims, and Muslims by association with leftists, and so round we go until they both must be very guilty, in rather the way that Baron Munchhausen pulled himself out of the mud by his own ponytail.
Consider, by way of illustration, this post by McCarthy at Powerline. The bold bits, in particular. The evidence that there is some grand alliance between Islamists and Leftists, when McCarthy finally produces it, is … that the left supports health care reform, and there are some Muslim groups that favor the versions of health care reform that the left tends to support. (In another interview he mentions that some Muslim groups favor unions, too.) And there are Muslims concerned about global warming, and the left is worried about global warming …
since the book was published last week, I’ve been asked questions like: “So, are you saying that President Obama wants to implement sharia?” and ” Isn’t it true that if Islamists came to power, the Left would have a lot to fear?” Again, the alliance between Islamists and Leftists (not all progressives, but the modern hard Left) is an alliance, not a merger. Leftists and Islamists have worked together numerous times in history and, as we look around us today, we see them working together on Obamacare, global warming, the Palestinian cause, the campaign to close Gitmo, the campaign endow terrorists with constitutional rights, and so on. That they work together is not a hypothesis on my part; this partnership exists, period. And why it exists is simply explained, it if we are willing to look at the facts. While they differ on a number of significant issues, Islamists and Leftists are in harmony on many parts of the big picture. Islamism and today’s Leftism (which, as I note in the book, David Horowitz aptly calls “neocommunism”) are both authoritarian ideologies: they favor a muscular central government, virulently reject capitalism, and are totalitarian in the sense that they want to dictate all aspects human life. They both see the individual as existing to serve the greater community (the state or the umma). Saliently, they have a common enemy: Western culture, American constitutional republicanism, and their foundation, individual liberty.
When I argue that Islamists and Leftists are working together to sabotage America, this is what I am talking about. Historically, when Islamists and Leftists collaborate against a common enemy (e.g., the Shah in Iran, the monarchy in Egypt), these marriages of convenience break apart when the common enemy has been eliminated. We are a long way from that point in America – and, hopefully, we never reach it. We must expect, though, that Islamists and Leftists will continue their alliance as long as the Western way of life remains an obstacle to their respective utopias.
The advantage of the two-step of terrific triviality is that you have a two-step formula for generating the impression that there is something slippery-slopingly alarming about any policy proposal. You don’t even need to say anything about the policy proposal. You only need to say some other stuff that is ambiguous between something you yourself wouldn’t say, because it’s too silly, and something that is too silly to say – e.g. if you expand the definition of ‘totalitarianism’ to include support for health care reform, you are going to find out a lot of people are in favor of ‘totalitarianism’. Which is, after all, perfectly true.