Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jonah responds to the historians -- sort of -- in defense of 'Liberal Fascism'. Grade: Fail

-- by Dave

When we first published that series of historians' critiques of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism at HNN last week, the official word was that Goldberg had declined to respond, though we had notified him ahead of time that the essays were coming.

Well, it seems he changed his mind.

Sort of.

Actually, as you can see, Goldberg really only deigns to respond in any depth to one of his critics -- Robert Paxton, whose essay on Goldberg's scholarly flaws is damning indeed. I'll mostly let Dr. Paxton speak for himself in his own response, except that, as I'll explain, Goldberg's evasive reply is largely in line with the kind of exchange I've previously had with Goldberg.

The rest of us he airily dismisses. Indeed, according to Goldberg, the entire enterprise was tainted by the fact of my participation:

Let me say up front that selecting David Neiwert to “introduce” the discussion – without telling me in advance – is pretty strong evidence that this symposium was intended a priori to discredit the book rather than honestly discuss it (usually, introducers at least pretend to be evenhanded). The slanderous and absurd bile in some of these initial responses – comparing my book to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and me to a Nazi propagandist – runs completely counter to the spirit of open debate. I would like to think that HNN didn’t know what it was getting into when it started this project.

So forgive me if I take all of this gnashing of teeth and rending of cloth over the polemical – as opposed to scholarly – nature of Liberal Fascism with a grain of salt. Neiwert and Bertlet are deeply invested in their cottage industry of spotting fascism and Nazism in the Republican Party, talk radio and elsewhere. In nearly every respect they are both caricature and embodiment of precisely the mindset I attack in my book (a mindset Professor Paxton claims doesn’t exist). Heaven forbid I adopt a Marxist mode of analysis, but it’s fair to say that for them to treat Liberal Fascism respectfully would be like a Luddite welcoming the cotton mill. I’ve dealt with Neiwert’s arguments before, so I won’t waste more time on him here.

Well, it's true that I previously had a brief running exchange with Goldberg, largely in response to my review for The American Prospect. What you might miss from Jonah's link, though, is the the way Goldberg abruptly ended the discussion by dismissing me as no longer worth his time:

Here's my grand theory about this guy. He's made his career hyping the terrible threat from the Posse Comitatus, Aryan Nations and American Nazi Party and so like the bureaucrats in Office Space who think TPS reports are the most important thing in the world, he can’t seem to grasp that they’re pretty trivial.

In other words, he came to his understanding of fascism by following bands of racist white losers in the Idaho woods while using some Marxist tract or other as a field guide to identify the various species he encountered. In other words, he's internalized every cliché and propagandandistic talking point I set out to demolish in my book. Moreover, his career depends on maintaining his version of the fascist peril. So, he's banging his spoon on his highchair a lot because my book undercuts his whole reason for being.

... So, you want my short answer to why I don’t discuss, say, the Posse Comitatus? Okay here it is: Who gives a rat’s ass about the Posse Comitatus?

I’m sure Neirwert’s gorillas-in-the-mist reportage on these guys is top notch, and I’ll take his word for it their bad guys. But being bad guys alone doesn’t in and of itself make them fascists. Indeed, from my limited understanding of what these guys believe, they are radical localists , who don’t believe any government above the county level is legitimate. Do I really have to spell out why that’s not exactly in keeping with hyper-statist ideology of Nazis and Italian Fascists? “Everything in Hazard County, nothing outside Hazard County,” has a nice ring to it, but the Hegelian God-State it is not.

Ah, yes. The My Superior Mind Is Grappling With Great Metaphysical Questions While You Are Merely Wallowing In Insignificant Details dismissal.

Of course, I shortly responded in some detail. Judge for yourselves, but I believe I pretty thoroughly demolished Goldberg's "Grand Theory" about me (he had nearly every detail wrong).

All for naught, of course; I had already been summarily dismissed by his Superior Mind:

After today, I doubt I will deal with Neiwert again — at least not at any length — for one simple reason. Virtually every rebuttal to what he's said about my book can be found in my book. He simply doesn't care what I say, he only cares about discrediting me at all costs. There's no percentage in debating such people.

Besides leaving unanswered the specific responses to his counterclaims, Goldberg most of all refused to confront one of my ongoing and major points:

[L]et me first point out the fundamental dishonesty of this kind of argumentation: I in fact provided a long list of clearly fascist American organizations -- only one of which was the Posse Comitatus -- who represent a very real manifestation of actual fascism, not simply because they're racist (as I said, that's not necessarily any kind of definitive trait of fascism anyway), but because they fully fit the description, both academic and real-life.

So yes, one might easily dismiss the Posse Comitatus, by any accounts a relatively small organization with a relatively limited immediate reach. But one cannot so easily dispense with the entire American far right -- the bulk of which in fact is identifiably fascist or proto-fascist -- quite so readily. The Posse Comitatus is just a small, though important, part of this continuum -- it was founded by one of Gerald L.K. Smith's disciples, William Potter Gale; and it in turn became a significant cornerstone of the Patriot/militia movement of the 1990s, perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing; who in turn gave birth to the Minutemen so fondly back-slapped by right-wing pundits like Jonah Goldberg.

I'm not complaining that Jonah missed discussing the Posse Comitatus per se; I'm complaining that he completely elides any kind of serious or thoughtful discussion of American fascists as we've known them historically. Of course, any such discussion would probably have to include the Posse, but that's beside the point.

Tracking the activities of these groups has consumed a sizable chunk of my journalistic career, but Goldberg, rather than respecting that on-the-ground experience, dismisses it in a cloud of amusing innuendo ...

No, Jonah, being bad guys alone doesn't make them fascists. But holding swastika and Dixie banners aloft, shouting "Sieg Heil," and ranting ad nauseam about how bestial colored people and queers and the Jewish media are destroying the country, and demanding that we start shooting Mexican border crossers -- well, that pretty clearly marks them as fascist, dontcha think?

Of course, all this was before two Posse-style "sovereign citizens" -- Scott Roeder of Kansas and James Von Brunn of Washington, D.C., made national headlines by committing violent acts of domestic terrorism -- walking into a church and shooting a prominent abortion provider in the head, and walking into the Holocaust Museum and gunning down a security guard, respectively.

Of course, when that happened, Goldberg not only declined to discuss the Posse connection, but actually argued, alongside Glenn Beck, that these men were not right-wing extremists at all, but merely lone nutcases.

All this inspired Charles Pierce to observe at Altercation:

Pretty trivial, indeed.

I swear, if he were more of a tool, you could use him to spread mulch.

Since then, Goldberg has continued to pretend that he fully responded to my arguments, when in fact he only indulged in selective attacks on a handful of dubious points (note especially his continuing insistence that the Klan was nothing more than out-of-hand film cult) and completely ignored the central arguments, particularly the overwhelming historical evidence that contradicts his central thesis, to wit, that "properly understood," fascism is "a phenomenon of the left" and not the right.

Indeed, he continues to do the same in his response to Paxton. Note especially that among all the words Goldberg expends on minor details (without a hint of irony, I might add) he utterly fails to properly confront this this passage from Paxton:

Goldberg simply omits those parts of fascist history that fit badly with his demonstration. His method is to examine fascist rhetoric, but to ignore how fascist movements functioned in practice. Since the Nazis recruited their first mass following among the economic and social losers of Weimar Germany, they could sound anti-capitalist at the beginning. Goldberg makes a big thing of the early programs of the Nazi and Italian Fascist Parties, and publishes the Nazi Twenty-five Points as an appendix. A closer look would show that the Nazis’ anti-capitalism was a selective affair, opposed to international capital and finance capital, department stores and Jewish businesses, but nowhere opposed to private property per se or favorable to a transfer of all the means of production to public ownership.

A still closer look at how the fascist parties obtained power and then exercised power would show how little these early programs corresponded to fascist practice. Mussolini acquired powerful backing by hiring his black-shirted squadristi out to property owners for the destruction of socialist and Communist unions and parties. They destroyed the farm workers’ organizations in the Po Valley in 1921-1922 by violent nightly raids that made them the de facto government of northeastern Italy. Hitler’s brownshirts fought Communists for control of the streets of Berlin, and claimed to be Germany’s best bulwark against the revolutionary threat that still appeared to be growing in 1932. Goldberg prefers the abstractions of rhetoric to all this history, noting only that fascism and Communism were “rivals.” So his readers will not learn anything about how the Nazis and Italian Fascists got into power or exercised it.

The two fascist chiefs obtained power not by election nor by coup but by invitation from German President Hindenberg and his advisors, and Italian King Victor Emanuel III and his advisors (not a leftist among them). The two heads of state wanted to harness the fascists’ numbers and energy to their own project of blocking the Marxists, if possible with broad popular support. This does not mean that fascism and conservatism are identical (they are not), but they have historically found essential interests in common.

Once in power, the two fascist chieftains worked out a fruitful if sometimes contentious relationship with business. German business had been, as Goldberg correctly notes, distrustful of the early Hitler’s populist rhetoric. Hitler was certainly not their first choice as head of state, and many of them preferred a trading economy to an autarkic one. Given their real-life options in 1933, however, the Nazi regulated economy seemed a lesser evil than the economic depression and worker intransigence they had known under Weimar. They were delighted with Hitler’s abolition of independent labor unions and the right to strike (unmentioned by Goldberg), and profited greatly from his rearmament drive. All of them would have found ludicrous the notion that the Nazis, once in power, were on the left. So would the socialist and communist leaders who were the first inhabitants of the Nazi concentration camps (unmentioned by Goldberg).

Paxton has in these brief paragraphs utterly demolished Goldberg's thesis (and believe me, he is only briefly summarizing the mountain of concurring evidence in this matter).

What does Goldberg have to say? Very little: He excerpts only the portion pertaining to labor unions, and then claims that he's already rebutted this:

I find this argument bizarre. First of all, how did independent labor unions do under Stalin? Under Castro? Under Mao? Are those regimes not left-wing? Hitler sent Communists and rival socialists to concentration camps. This was evil, to be sure, but how was it right-wing? Stalin liquidated the Trotskyites (and 31 other flavors of socialists) too. Why is killing rival Communists and socialists right-wing when Hitler does it and not when Stalin does it? If your answer is that Stalin was somehow “right-wing” when he did these things, then your definition of right-wing is simply “evil”—and that validates a big chunk of my book.

But in fact the matter of fascist attacks on unions extends well beyond the actions took after fascists obtained power: These attacks were a fundamental aspect of the early rise of fascism as a movement, and clearly delineated that fascism was occupying political space on the right.

Indeed, Goldberg has continued to claim that his thesis remains intact:

By any remotely similar definition, fascism belongs on the left – and to date, not a single critic of the book has even come close to rebutting this basic point.

Translation: "Lalalalalalala I can't hear you!"

I think it's safe to predict that eventually, Goldberg will haughtily dismiss even Dr. Paxton as somehow not worthy of the expenditure of effort from his Superior Mind. Already, he's dismissed not just myself, but Roger Griffin, Matthew Feldman and Chip Berlet. (Feldman has responded here.) On what basis? Apparently, we're just too nasty. Gearing up for the predictable kissoff, he says he was disappointed in Paxton's response, but adds:

Still he stands head-and-shoulders above some of the spittle-flecked ranters.

Indeed, his cohort Michael Ledeen -- who penned his own semi-admiring contribution for HNN, largely in tune with the admiring blurb he wrote for the book's cover -- similarly complained that we were nothing more than a partisan "mob" intent on destroying Goldberg:

When asked to participate, I hoped that maybe finally it was time for a serious debate on the nature of fascism, which has been impossible for more than half a century, mostly because of the Left’s refusal to look reality in the face. Jonah’s crime was to look at it and say, as others (myself included) had said before him, that fascism came at least in part from a leftist revolutionary tradition.

Now, there are several deep ironies in this: First, all four of the essays in fact discussed the fact that fascism came at least in part from a leftist revolutionary tradition. And all four of them explained from various perspectives why this ultimately was a nonsequitur.

The second big irony is this: In 1972, Micheal Ledeen published a book titled Universal Fascism: The Theory and Practice of the Fascist International, a book built around interviews with Italian historian Renzo de Felice, whose thesis, as American Conservative magazine detailed a few years back, was that "Italian fascism was both right-wing and revolutionary".

Indeed, as the AC piece explores in some detail, the idea of a revolutionary right embodied in a "universal fascism" was a fetish of Ledeen's for some years. And as far as I can determine, Ledeen has never disclaimed or explained this work in light of his more recent preoccupation with "Islamofascism" -- not to mention his current endorsement of Goldberg's thesis.

Goldberg and Ledeen are rather transparently hiding behind the claim that somehow his critics are a spittle-flecked mob that unfairly misunderstands his Superior Mind and Great Metapolitical Thesis, and instead is merely intent on burning him at the stake.

Nevermind that, when it comes to flecks of spittle, Goldberg was entirely unconcerned about Glenn Beck's frothing "documentary" calling the progressive movement a "cancer" and a "virus" responsible for most of the past century's great genocides. Indeed, not only was Beck's entire thesis derived from Liberal Fascism, Goldberg played a prominent role as an interview subject for the "documentary," and actively promoted it beforehand.

In contrast, Goldberg spends much of his time in his response whining that the mean historians misconstrue his intent -- really, he's not trying to argue that liberals are taking us down the road to genocide. He cites the text of the book itself:

Now, I am not saying that all liberals are fascists. Nor am I saying that to believe in socialized medicine or smoking bans is evidence that you are a crypto-Nazi. What I am mainly trying to do is to dismantle the granitelike assumption in our political culture that American conservatism is an offshoot or cousin of fascism. Rather, as I will try to show, many of the ideas and impulses that inform what we call liberalism come to us through an intellectual tradition that led directly to fascism. These ideas were embraced by fascism, and remain in important respects fascistic.

Well, if this is so, why does Goldberg participate in, and avidly promote, a fake "documentary" by Glenn Beck claiming that indeed liberals -- or more properly, progressives -- are the same thing as fascists; and that believing in socialized medicine is part of path toward genocide, as he did just last week? (See the video above.)

Terry Welch raised this issue in the comments to Goldberg's reply:

Goldberg seems to be saying that all those darn liberals are simply getting him wrong: He never intended to suggest that American liberals are the equivalent of Nazis and to say he did is just being stupid.

So why is it that he ONLY argues this when liberals read his argument this way? Many right wing nutjobs believe that his books thesis is "liberals=Nazis" (just look at the many, many signs to that effect at the tea parties or the Glenn Beck "documentary" in which Goldberg himself took part) and yet Goldberg seems content with their use of his oh-so-scholarly work.

If Goldberg only answers one more question -- and that's doubtful, considering that we have already cost him more effort from his Superior Mind than he would like -- I would like to see him answer that one.

Cross-posted at Crooks and Liars.

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