A few weeks back, I was forced to answer “no” to the question, “have you even read Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism?” Of course I hadn’t. Why would I? It seems like the kind of book that really can be judged on its cover, whose smarmy design proves that the book either is, or is marketed as, pseudo-intellectual bear baiting by a political rodeo clown, pitched to those who mistake a few unnecessary multisyllabic words (“ineluctably”) and a superficial indulgence in historical analysis for serious scholarship. Indeed, whenever Goldberg defends the book, e.g., the cover puts him in a bind: no matter how much he insists that the book is an intellectual work founded in real research, he can’t escape the marketing.
Nor does he really want to. That’s part of the trick. Goldberg’s strategy resembles Dan Brown’s. His readers want to feel clued into cutting-edge historical research, so that’s what the author offers: the semblance, but never the fact, of intellectualism. Dan Brown we forgive because he acknowledges that The DaVinci Code’s thesis is fiction. And, dammit, it’s fun to read! But neither virtue manifests in Liberal Fascism, leaving us to conclude that the book is targeted to the type of long-on-rhetoric, short-on-fact argument normally reserved for Twitter.
Such is my impression after reading the first chapters, and reviewing the book’s coverage to date. Will it hold up? We’ll see. I invite you to join me as I continue to work through the book over the course of, well, a while (it’s not that it’s a long or particularly difficult book: I just have better things to read…). I’ll provide intermittent updates and criticism, and aim for a neat summation at the close. You can see this, and all posts related to the review, here. And now, some opening thoughts:
It’s Not Nice to Call People “Fascists,” You Fascist!
The book’s introduction is addressed almost uniquely to a particular, small, and obvious rhetorical sin: the overclassification of one’s enemies as “fascist. ”
We can all agree that’s a poor form. The last President Bush was no “fascist”; nor was Reagan; nor is Obama, now, tea party to the contrary. But did we really need a book to say this? You would think the job could be done in one sentence, maybe two: “Although we’re sure what Fascism looked like in the 1940s, it defies generalization beyond those limits. So don’t call people Fascists.”
What a surprise, then, when we transition, seamlessly and without acknowledging the cognitive dissonance, into:
The major flaw in all of this is that fascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left.
Jonah doesn’t seem to notice the problem. Do you?
What is Fascism?
At least as far as I am, we get no real clarification on this important question. But there’s a sense that Jonah’s using the word in a more general sense, permitting him to tar more groups and persons with the label, without ever abandoning the term’s evil connotation:
American fascism is milder, more friendly, more “maternal” than its foreign counterparts; it is what George Carlin calls “smiley-face fascism.” Nice fascism. The best term to describe it is “liberal fascism.”
Goldber’s “fascism” doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it sounds like he’s redefined the word as some tortured synonym for “the nanny state,” ditching the denotation while weaponizing the connotation against his political enemies. If that’s the case, doesn’t the entire book reduce to a two-hundred page hit-job on the left, in clear violation of his (summarily abandoned) insistence on political decency?
I don’t have time to fact-check the whole damn book, but some clear errors jump out. To spotlight one of the more obvious ones, Jonah takes a swipe at The West Wing for describing school vouchers as “fascism.” I remember that episode very clearly. Like all good liberals, I have the West Wing more or less memorized — I’m only half-kidding when I say it’s replaced religion for liberals of my generation, with a mental library of quotes functioning as our Bible — and though Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman does refer to “school choice” as “fascism” in one episode, he’s quickly mocked for the same, as part of a larger plot proving that school vouchers might not be a bad idea. West Wing actually mocks liberal knee-jerk opposition to vouchers — President Bartlet, the show’s moral compass, signs a damn bill to that effect — and it doesn’t speak well for the larger book that Jonah missed the nuance. What else is he missing, or recasting to fit his thesis?
To be continued.