Saturday, April 11, 2009

Glenn Beck's 'Liberal Fascism Hour': Revising history as Newspeak

-- by Dave

Back early last year when I was busy critiquing Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, the question came up frequently: Why would I bother? Isn't it a problem to be treating a book of junk political philosophy like this with more respect than it deserves? Isn't flat-out mockery perhaps the better response?

Well, as I noted then:

[T]he problem with dismissing Liberal Fascism out of hand is that the mainstream media certainly haven't dismissed the book out of hand: Goldberg's been on a regular rotation of cable-talk shows since the book's release, and more certainly are on the way. As much as we might wish this noxious meme would choke on its own fumes, it's clear that isn't going to happen: the "liberal media" is all too happy to present this fraud as "serious," and there are going to be large swaths of the public lapping it up. (There already are, in fact.) Pretty soon any discussion of actual fascists will be dismissed with a wave of the "ah, you libruls are the real fascists" hand.

Moreover, from where I stand, his grotesque misreadings of history and the realities of the rise of fascism both in Europe and America, his eradication and trivialization of genuine American fascist elements from the pages of that history -- those things simply cannot go unanswered. Someone needs to point out that the Pantload has no clothes.

Of course, at the time I couldn't have predicted that only a little more than a year later, the hottest talk-show host ratings-wise on cable TV -- Glenn Beck, on Fox News -- would not only be regularly plumping Goldberg's book, he'd be devoting the core thesis of his show to the proposition that under Barack Obama, the nation is proceeding on a direct fascist course.

And that, as he did Friday, he'd devote an entire hour, replete with select historians, to exploring this crackpot notion.

As you can see, the entire show was such a mix of distorted fact and outright misconceptions, piled on top with tendentious misreadings of actual history, that it's hard to tell where to begin.

But a side remark Beck makes is fairly indicative of the problem with this whole enterprise -- namely, it is a grossly blinkered version of history, revised and selectively edited to serve as a nice bedtime story for conservatives. He turns to Amity Shlaes (we told you it was a select bunch) to ask her about FDR and the Depression:

Beck: Amity, let me start with you, because I want to go to the Depression, I want to talk about that. But what I really want to do, because we're running up against the clock here, is spend a little time on: Who is the person we should look to that stood up against this? Who are the people that were successful?

I know Henry Ford was one of them -- in FDR. He stood up against them and said, 'This is wrong!' Who else?

[Shlaes, FWIW, chooses Wendell Wilkie. Yah shoor, he was such a success.]

This isn't the first time Beck has invoked Henry Ford as a consummate anti-fascist. This is very funny.

I walked through all this the last time Beck did this, but Hume's Ghost has a succinct wrapup:

Ok, let's walk through this. F.D.R. headed up the war efforts against the Nazis during World War II. Henry Ford did everything he possibly could to prevent the United States from fighting the Nazis because he was a fan of the Nazi regime. Henry Ford was awarded and accepted the highest medal that Germany bestowed upon foreigners in 1938. The Ford factories in Europe helped build the Nazi war machine. The rabidly anti-Semitic paper that Ford published helped inspire the Holocaust and popularized the notorious Protocols of Zion.

But in Beck's warped, alternate universe, Henry Ford is anti-fascist because he didn't like the New Deal ... - while the guy who actually headed up the government while it fought and defeated the fascists is a fascist. Here's a clue for the eternally clueless Beck: we actually had fascists in America during the New Deal - and some of them were opposed to it precisely because they were fascists.

Now, for anyone who really wants to delve the broader subject of fascism, "liberal fascism," and Jonah Goldberg's Bizarro thesis, I always recommend they scroll through some of the detailed work I did last year. Boiled down, my conclusion is that Liberal Fascism and its thesis are Newspeak: using a word to mean its opposite, thereby rendering the word itself meaningless.

Or, you can check out Chapter 6 of my new book, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (available at Amazon), which is titled "Understanding Fascism". An excerpt:

The term fascism has come to be nearly useless over the past 30 years or so. In many respects, leftists are most responsible for its degradation; lobbing it at anyone conservative or corporatist in the 1960s and ’70s became so common that its original meaning—describing a very distinct political style, if not quite philosophy—became utterly muddled, at least in the public lexicon.

Over the past 30 years or so, fascism is now loosely used to define the broader concept of totalitarianism, which encompasses communism as well. Liberals are every bit as prone to this particular confusion as conservatives. The difference, perhaps, is that the latter often do so deliberately, as a way of obscuring the genuine fascism that sits at their elbows.

The godfather of this obscurantism is Rush Limbaugh, who for years has been holding forth on the rise of “feminazis” on the ranks of the left; at various times he has told listeners that because Nazism had “socialism” in its original name (that is, National Socialism) it was actually a left-wing movement. Various other right-wing propagandists have proposed similar readings of history.

But this notion leapt onto the New York Times bestseller list in 2008 when Jonah Goldberg of the National Review published his book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Goldberg’s book was essentially an up-is-down-inside-is-out mishmash of history and political philosophy that stipulated, primarily, 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.”

He bases his argument on the following definition of fascism:

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.

There’s an obvious problem with this: Goldberg's definition does not fit fascism per se. One could use nearly the same terms and ideas to define Marxist-Leninist, or any other kind of totalitarian state. His definition describes totalitarianism (or authoritarianism, if you will) generally, but not fascism specifically.

Fascism is a specific species of totalitarianism, and it is best understood not simply by the things it has in common with other forms of this phenomenon (and there are plenty, complete state control of the individual’s mind and life being the most essential) but what distinguishes it. The academic debate over the "fascist minimum" (that is, what is its ineluctable core), has raged for some years. Goldberg’s book did nothing to advance this debate; on the contrary, it muddied the waters of public understanding with illogical nonsense.

Most Americans believe they know what communism is, largely because it is an ideology based on a body of texts and revolving around specific ideas. In contrast, hardly anyone can explain what comprises fascism, mainly because all we really know about it is the regimes that arose under its banner. There are no extant texts, only a litany of dictatorships and atrocities. When we think of fascism, we think of Hitler and perhaps Mussolini, without understanding anything about the conditions that carried them to power.

At the same time, it’s important that both liberal and conservative Americans have a clear view of what fascism is, not just as an abstract definition, but as a real-life phenomenon. Fascism is not an extinct political force. Most Americans view Nazism as some kind of strange European virus that afflicted only the Germans and Italians, and only for a brief period—this by way of reassuring ourselves that “it couldn’t happen here.” But a look at the history of fascism shows this not to be the case; that the Germans and the Italians were ordinary, ostensibly civilized people like the rest of us. And that what went wrong there could someday go wrong here, too. How, then, are we to know if that is what’s happening, as it seems to happen so gradually that the populace scarcely recognizes it?

In its early years, fascism was best understood as an extreme reaction against socialism and communism, as “extremist anti-communism.” This view, predictably, was offered up by communists, who saw everything through their own ideological prisms. In reality, fascism was more complex than that, though the fear of communism was no doubt an essential element that fueled its recruitment and ideological appeal. At the time, there were very few attempts to systematize the ideology of fascism, though some existed (see, for example, Giovanni Gentile’s 1932 text, The Doctrine of Fascism ). Its true spirit was best expressed in an inchoate rant like Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Fascism was explicitly anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and corporatist, and it endorsed violence as a chief means to its ends. It was “revolutionary” in its fervor, yet sought to defend status-quo institutions, particularly business interests. It was also, obviously, authoritarian; the claim that it was oriented toward "socialism" is crudely ahistorical, if not outrageously revisionist. Lest we forget, socialists were among the first people targeted by Mussolini’s black-shirted thugs, and they were among the first people imprisoned and "liquidated" by the Nazi regime.

However, it’s important not to confuse fascism as a movement on the rise with fascism as a power. If can only identify fascism in its mature form—the goose-stepping brownshirts, the full-fledged use of violence and intimidation tactics, the mass rallies—then it will be far too late to stop it. Fascism arose as a much more atomized phenomenon, at first mostly in rural areas, then it spread to the cities; and if we look at those origins, it becomes clear that similar forms already exist in America.

Fascism springs from very ancient sources; its antecedents have appeared all throughout history. It adapts to changing conditions. As the French specialist on the extreme Right, Pierre-André Taguieff, puts it:

Neither "fascism" nor "racism" will do us the favour of returning in such a way that we can recognise them easily. If vigilance was only a game of recognising something already well-known, then it would only be a question of remembering. Vigilance would be reduced to a social game using reminiscence and identification by recognition, a consoling illusion of an immobile history peopled with events which accord with our expectations or our fears.

Assessing the genuine potential for fascism in America requires identifying the core components of fascism itself: its ancient wellsprings that remain with us today. Then, we need to ask ourselves what we are doing to keep those forces in check.

One of the aspects of Friday night's show that was especially bothersome was the way Beck and Co. tried dragging Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson into the whole affair, since in Beck's view it was under these two that America first went astray by ignoring the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.

According to Beck, it was under Teddy that America first made its steps toward "fascism" by adopting the early versions of progressivism:

Beck: The turning point seems to be a guy that so many people say, 'Oh, Teddy Roosevelt. He was fantastic.' But he captured the Republicans where Woodrow Wilson and FDR captured the Democrats, for this Progressive movement and took us fundamentally off the tracks that our Founders had built and moved us in another direction.

Actually, anyone who's studied the larger scope of the history of that era is well aware that Roosevelt, in adopting a handful of Progressive positions, was essentially working to stave off the looming social chaos wrought by the robber-baron oligarchy that wealthy Americans had created at the turn of the 20th century. If America got "off track" in terms of what the Founders envisioned, it happened well before Teddy came along.

Maybe Glenn Beck should expose himself to a few other quarters of history. Maybe then he would meet such characters as the young fellows below:

If Beck had been alive in the USA back then, he very well could have been one of these boys, or at least have been among that class of citizens. Here's what he'd have faced:

Before 1874, when Massachusetts passed the nation's first legislation limiting the number of hours women and child factory workers could perform to 10 hours a day, virtually no labor legislation existed in the country. Indeed, it was not until the 1930s that the federal government would become actively involved. Until then, the field was left to the state and local authorities, few of whom were as responsive to the workers as they were to wealthy industrialists.

The laissez-faire capitalism, which dominated the second half of the 19th century and fostered huge concentrations of wealth and power, was backed by a judiciary which time and again ruled against those who challenged the system. In this, they were merely following the prevailing philosophy of the times. As John D. Rockefeller is reported to have said: "the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest." This "Social Darwinism," as it was known, had many proponents who argued that any attempt to regulate business was tantamount to impeding the natural evolution of the species.

Yet the costs of this indifference to the victims of capital were high. For millions, living and working conditions were poor, and the hope of escaping from a lifetime of poverty slight. As late as the year 1900, the United States had the highest job-related fatality rate of any industrialized nation in the world. Most industrial workers still worked a 10-hour day (12 hours in the steel industry), yet earned from 20 to 40 percent less than the minimum deemed necessary for a decent life. The situation was only worse for children, whose numbers in the work force doubled between 1870 and 1900.

You see, when Teddy was president, there was no such thing as a 40-hour workweek; most Americans, in fact, worked between 60 and 80 hours per week. The average family lived in real poverty. Child labor, like the little boy miners above, was common. And the courts, especially the Supreme Court -- which relied on a doctrine called formalism, which is essentially identical to today's "strict construction" -- effectively supported the oligarchy and refused to evince any sympathy at all for working Americans. Unrest was rising: Not just progressives, but ardent socialists and communists were making waves.

America was off its track then because of the greed of a few.

The task Roosevelt faced was finding a way to mollify the increasingly angry working-class Americans, and subdue the unrest, while keeping his own class -- the landed gentry -- relatively behind him. So in most regards, Roosevelt chose a very middle-of-the-road path of moderate progressivism. He was no friend of the unions, but he did begin making government concessions to the needs of working people. (In my mind, the best portrait of this moment in American history is J. Anthony Lukas' Big Trouble.)

Mind you, Teddy only took baby steps toward adopting progressive solutions to the problem. It wasn't until FDR that they began to gain traction: The Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, which established the 40-hour workweek. Under FDR labor unions were officially welcomed into the fold of the American workplace. And under FDR, the Great American Middle Class -- which we all take so readily for granted now -- was born.

Indeed, if we listen to the Glenn Becks of the world, we will effectively have handed the country back to the oligarchs.

Now, were these progressive solutions a betrayal of our Founders' intent? Hardly. Indeed, it seems far more reasonable to argue that they intended their successors to adapt the Constitution as needed to changing conditions of the tides of time. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves were they to rise from the dead.

Even more to the point, perhaps, is Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice, which is essentially a treatise on the need for community sharing and consensual taxation:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal. ...

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund prod in this plan is to issue.

As for Glenn Beck's oft-stated view that charities, and not government, should be taking care of the poor, here's Paine's view of that:

There are, in every country, some magnificent charities established by individuals. It is, however, but little that any individual can do, when the whole extent of the misery to be relieved is considered. He may satisfy his conscience, but not his heart. He may give all that he has, and that all will relieve but little. It is only by organizing civilization upon such principles as to act like a system of pulleys, that the whole weight of misery can be removed.

The plan here proposed will reach the whole. It will immediately relieve and take out of view three classes of wretchedness-the blind, the lame, and the aged poor; and it will furnish the rising generation with means to prevent their becoming poor; and it will do this without deranging or interfering with any national measures.

Of course, Thomas Paine's name is familiar to anyone who watched Friday. At the end of the same show, Beck tried to "channel" Paine with a right-wing rant that was all about inspiring Americans to rise up against the administration they just got finished electing. Why? Because they're taxing us.

And the real Thomas Paine's grave was registering the whirling on the Richter scale.

Digby has more.

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