Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Conservatives and fascism

-- by Dave
"Now for the evidence," said the King, "and then the sentence."

"No!" said the Queen, "first the sentence, and then the evidence!"

"Nonsense!" cried Alice, so loudly that everybody jumped, "the idea of having the sentence first!"

"Hold your tongue!" said the Queen.

"I won't!" said Alice, "you're nothing but a pack of cards! Who cares for you?"

Dealing with Jonah Goldberg over his book Liberal Fascism has been like talking with the Queen of Hearts from Alice: Sentence first, evidence later. The sentence being: "Nyah nyah nyah, you liberals are the real fascists!"

It's been abundantly clear, as I've noted, that what has animated this entire enterprise has been his desire to refute the old easy left-wing name-calling canard identifying conservatives with fascism. It's been a constant refrain in nearly every interview, and he also spells it out in text (p. 329):
Ever since I joined the public conversation as a conservative writer, I've been called a fascist and a Nazi by smug, liberal know-nothings, sublimely confident of the truth of their ill-informed prejudices. Responding to this slander is, as a point of personal privilege alone, a worthwhile endeavor.

I think Timothy Noah at Slate has it about right:
Liberal Fascism is a howl of rage disguised as intellectual history. Some mean liberals called Goldberg hurtful names, so he's responding with 400 pages that boil down to: I know you are, but what am I?

Indeed, it's clear that Goldberg, having settled upon not merely his thesis -- "nyah, nyah, nyah, etc." -- but simultaneously his title, then did his merry best to go about finding anything and everything that would support them. This includes, of course, eliding nearly every bit of the mountain of real-world evidence that, in truth, "fascism is a phenomenon of the right."

As things have gone along, its also included making the claim that he got his title from a speech by H.G. Wells that announced the phrase and concept of "liberal fascism" (which, as John Holbo explains in detail, was derided even then as an oxymoron, and gained no traction whatever). In his Bloggingheads interview with Will Wilkinson, Goldberg even received absolution of sorts for his obviously provocative title by virtue of the notion that "I didn't make it up, it came from Wells!"

He's made the same defense at NRO, where he wrote:
I tried to explain, for those whose feelings were so hurt they didn’t even crack the spine, that the title Liberal Fascism comes from a speech delivered by H. G. Wells...

But strangely, this seems to directly contradict what he wrote in the book -- specifically, on p. 429, in note 19:
I did not get the title of this book from Wells's speech, but I was delighted to discover the phrase has such a rich intellectual history.

Of course, Goldberg is being entirely disingenuous by saying that he didn’t invent the phrase. Because he’s perfectly aware that he’s trying to introduce a new, “controversial” concept. Right there on p. 21, near the end of the Introduction, he writes:

The introduction of a novel term like “liberal fascism” obviously requires an explanation.

So, is he “introducing a novel term” or is he just quoting H.G. Wells? Goldberg, like another Queen of Hearts, wants to have his cake and eat it too (a consistent MO throughout both his book and his subsequent defense of it).

Ah well. I'm sure that for pointing this out, we can just be summarily dismissed again as Marxist dupes. "Off with their heads!"

And of course, it's become manifestly clear that Goldberg's whining about how "no one on the left wants to take my book seriously" was just a fraud like his book. I'm not the only serious critic he's dismissed out of hand (Holbo and Spencer Ackerman have both earned a response that has never come, and his response to Yglesias was a joke). Meanwhile, the extent of Goldberg's linking to my posts has been just to make a generic link to my blog instead of to the individual posts. It's all been either neurotically petty or delusionally dismissive. (Meanwhile, he's been all too eager to embrace those fawning fan letters. Pwned!!)

However, there really is a serious undertext here, and at a certain level, I think Jonah's complaint raises an important point that deserves to be explored in greater length. To wit, as I tried to explain previously:
[L]et's also be clear: mainstream conservatives are not fascists. While both are clearly creatures of the right, they are quite distinct, and it's essential to our understanding of fascism that we make that distinction. Moreover, it's my belief that right-wing extremists pose at least as great an existential threat to mainstream conservatives as they do to liberals, even though the latter are in fact their natural enemies. Maintaining the line between the far right and the mainstream is an essential project for all of us -- especially conservatives.

That's an important project, whether conservatives wish to join us or not. Certainly, their longtime propensity for self-serving bullshit is not indicative of any such willingness, and Goldberg's book in fact indicates quite the opposite. Yet it remains not merely worth pursuing, but I think imperative, as explained later:
I have in fact written at length about the crosscurrents between American proto-fascists and mainstream movement conservatives, and have done so by insisting rigorously on people making the distinction between them. But at the same time, it's important to understand that the rise in ideological traffic between the far right and the mainstream actually means that the constellation of traits that constitute the fascist pathology gain traction, and the demon itself starts to take shape.

This is why so many people outside the conservative movement look at its True Believers and see budding little fascists. If Jonah Goldberg is concerned about people mistaking conservatives for fascists, he'd do far more good calling on conservatives to stand back and take a look at where they're heading ideologically.

If conservatives like Jonah don't want to be mistaken for fascists, they won't embrace the racial politics of people like Buchanan or Brimelow or Malkin. They won't let a far-right extremist like Ron Paul, whose campaign is riddled with white supremacists, even into the Republican Party, let alone play a significant role in the GOP presidential campaign, and they won't embrace vigilante organizations like the Minutemen. Maybe they won't write books that manage to trivialize an utterly monstrous and destructive right-wing ideology, pretending that entities like the Klan really aren't right-wing in the process. But conservatives like Jonah have done all these things.

Most of all, perhaps, they could eschew the eliminationist rhetoric that has not only deeply infected the conservative discourse but has poisoned the larger public discourse as well. After all, as Robert Paxton observes:

The legitimation of violence against a demonized internal enemy brings us close to the heart of fascism.

So in the spirit of trying encourage conservatives to think about why other people -- and not merely liberals -- are increasingly mistaking them for fascists, we're going to run a helpful series this week and perhaps longer.

We'll call it "If conservatives really, really hate being called fascists ...". Each post will explore reasons why folks in the general public -- whose understanding of fascism, while loose and corrupted, is closer to the reality than Goldberg's Bizarro book -- are increasingly mistaking movement conservatives for fascists these days.

They'll be presented, of course, in the hope that these things will change. But -- given conservatives' now-intense state of denial about their political aislemates the fascists and other right-wing nutcases -- not exactly hopeful that they will.

No. 1 will be up shortly. Hope you enjoy.

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