Fact check: Malkin and O'Reilly
Saturday, November 05, 2005
Well, I'm still awaiting my copy of Michelle Malkin's new book, Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild. So in lieu of any new data, I checked out her appearance on Bill O'Reilly's show [via Crooks and Liars] the other night, promoting her new smear job on the left. A couple of things she said were noteworthy:
- What I do argue is that a lot of the violence, a lot of the paranoia, a lot of the conspiracy theories, a lot of this hatred that I talk about is not relegated to the fringes of the left, we are talking about, um, something that is permeating, a disease that is permeating the leadership, up to the top. You know, it wasn't just some fringe crackpot on some college campus who was suggesting on a radio station, for example, that President Bush was tipped off to 9/11. That was the head of the Democratic National Committee: Howard Dean.
Hm. The remarks she's referring to, evidently, are these, made by Dean on Dec. 9, 2003, in an exchange with radio host Diane Rehm:
- Caller: "Once we get you in the White House, would you please make sure that there is a thorough investigation of 9/11 and not stonewalling?"
Dean: "Yes, there is a report which the president is suppressing evidence for, which is a thorough investigation of 9/11."
Rehm: "Why do you think he is suppressing that report?"
Dean: "I don't know. There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I've heard so far -- which is nothing more than a theory, it can't be proved -- is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis.
"Now, who knows what the real situation is? But the trouble is, by suppressing that kind of information, you lead to those kind of theories, whether or not they have any truth to them or not, and eventually, they get repeated as fact. So I think the president is taking a great risk by suppressing the key information that needs to go to the Kean Commission."
Now, you can interpret these remark any number of ways -- it's worth noting, at least, that he does not openly endorse the theory, but you can probably say, quite fairly, that it was irresponsible to bring the theory up without clearly disavowing it. Still, any fair reading of the entirety of his remarks has to recognize that what Dean was talking about was the way speculation runs rampant when the government doesn't properly investigate catastrophic events like 9/11 -- and when the administration stonewalls, as it was doing at the time. It was a valid point, badly put.
Six days later, Dean was asked on Fox News Sunday about this exchange:
- WALLACE: The most interesting theory is that the president was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Why would you say that, Governor?
DEAN: Because there are people who believe that. We don't know what happened in 9/11. Tom Kean is trying to get some information from the president...
WALLACE: Do you believe that?
DEAN: ... which doesn't -- no, I don't believe that. I can't imagine the president of the United States doing that. But we don't know, and it'd be a nice thing to know.
WALLACE: I'm just curious why you would call that the most interesting theory.
DEAN: Because it's a pretty odd theory. What we do believe is that there was a lot of chatter that somehow was missed by the CIA and the FBI about this, and that for some reason we were unable to decide and get clear indications of what the attacks what were going to be. Because the president won't give the information to the Kean commission we really don't know what the explanation is.
Dean clearly said what he neglected to say, clearly at least, the first time: that he did not subscribe to this theory. He was asked about it at again a subsequent presidential debate in Durham, N.C.:
- DEAN: Well, in all due respect, I did not exactly state that. I was asked on Fox fair and balanced news that... (laughter) I was asked why I thought the president was withholding information, I think it was, or 9/11 or something like that. And I said, well, the most interesting theory that I heard, which I did not believe, was that the Saudis had tipped him off.
We don't know why the president is not giving information to the Kean commission. I think that is supposed to be investigated by Congress. I think it's a serious matter. I agree with Wes Clark, the president is not fighting terrorism. And we need to know what went wrong before 9/11.
I did not believe, and I made it clear on the Fox News show that I didn't believe that theory, but I had heard that. And there are going to be a lot of crazy theories that come out if the information is not given to the Kean commission as it should be.
Now, these remarks garnered a lot of attention at the time -- he was, after all, asked about it on a televised debate -- and a lot of condemnation from mainstream Democrats, not to mention such "liberal" media outlets as Slate and Spinsanity.
So what was that about liberals never condemning any signs of kookery within their own ranks? Had Dean made clear at the outset what he evidently believed -- that this was an example of the kind of groundless conspiracy theories that harm the broader societal and national interests -- no one would have uttered a peep. He was criticized, fairly, for bringing such a theory up so neutrally, since doing so is irresponsible. And he was loudly and publicly spanked for it. But every politician commits gaffes, and Dean certainly was no exception; he corrected himself rather quickly in this case, and was thoroughly excoriated for it anyway.
Trying to suggest, as Malkin does now, that Dean actually believed this theory (and perhaps continues to do so) is simply false, and a smear. As is Malkin's claim that this case is more evidence that liberals tolerate conspiracy-theory mongering, when the broader liberal reaction in this case actually indicates the opposite.
Of course, rapping with O'Reilly, she had a sympathetic audience when it came to the subject of Howard Dean.
And, speaking of conspiracy theories, O'Reilly says this of Dean's assumption of the DNC chairmanship:
- That was a backdoor deal.
Oh really? Last I checked, Howard Dean won the chairmanship because he picked up a large majority of votes of DNC members. What backroom deal was that, Bill? Or do you know some secret, blockbuster insider info about a ... conspiracy ... that none of the rest of us know?
Funny that Michelle, in the spirit of denouncing conservative extemism and wackery -- which she claims conservatives do -- neglects to denounce this bizarre conspiracy theory.
But then O'Reilly asks the million-dollar question:
- O'Reilly: Do you see mainstream conservatives condemning Michael Savage?
Malkin: All the time.
O'Reilly: You do?
Malkin: Of course you do. In fact -- again, I think that this is something that the mainstream media does not recognize. It is in fact conservatives who are very outspoken in condemning fringe people, and people who are extremists on the right side of the aisle.
Malkin goes on to tout the Trent Lott case -- which was, if anything, the exception that proved the rule. Not to mention that the motives of many conservatives in dumping on Lott had more to do with internecine warfare within the GOP than any pure or enlightened motives. At the same time, Malkin seems oblivious to the significant role that liberals -- especially the liberal bloggers Josh Marshall and Atrios -- played in keeping the Lott story alive. It's not as if conservatives alone deserve credit for bringing Lott down.
But in the meantime, back to O'Reilly's question (and Malkin's response): People on the right condemn Michael Savage? Really? Who?
Please, Michelle, name one. And I mean one conservative of any significant standing who condemns Savage, not just meekly criticizes him.
How about you, Michelle?
A quick Google of your site reveals only four posts that include any mention of Savage, and most of those are in your comments (and those are all favorable mentions).
The one post you did write about Savage is actually in his defense.
Speaking of "unique levels of hypocrisy."
UPDATE: TBogg points out that Malkin also has a history of publicly discussing speculative theories (which turned out to be groundless) and giving them credence.
Joe the Fixer
Friday, November 04, 2005
I always get these little flashbacks when I see Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova back making their presences felt in the national media.
Because I used to see them on MSNBC a lot, back during the Clinton impeachment, where they were busy pounding home that day's GOP talking points. I downloaded a lot of sound bytes from them (among many others) for the MSNBC.com site, because that was my job.
What I noticed was that they tended, well, to prevaricate, hedge, and distort. A lot.
Actually, as Atrios notes, the Toensing/diGenova team has quite a bit of history in this regard. TV producers like to bill diGeenova in particular as a "legal expert" of various shades, but what he really made his career as was a political fixer.
The text from Toensing's recent Wall Street Journal piece was right in line with this: a classic piece of misdirection, encapsulating of Republican talking points on the Plame scandal, but spun to pin the blame on the CIA. And, on the truth meter, she doesn't disappoint.
Take, for instance, the first graf of her rundown of talking points:
- First: The CIA sent her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, to Niger on a sensitive mission regarding WMD. He was to determine whether Iraq had attempted to purchase yellowcake, an essential ingredient for nonconventional weapons. However, it was Ms. Plame, not Mr. Wilson, who was the WMD expert. Moreover, Mr. Wilson had no intelligence background, was never a senior person in Niger when he was in the State Department, and was opposed to the administration's Iraq policy. The assignment was given, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee, at Ms. Plame's suggestion.
Actually, the facts are this: Mr. Wilson went to Niger because he had the necessary diplomatic contacts there to obtain the information; the CIA did not need a WMD expert to gather it. The Senate Intelligence Committee's charge that he was given the assignment at Plame's suggestion has been proven false.
And that's just the first. The rest are either as badly grounded factually or are complete non-sequiturs.
In other words, disinformation in the guise of propaganda. Clouding the discourse by intentionally repeating falsehoods.
Par for the Toensing/diGenova course. They've been at this a long time.
DiGenova's history as a fixer well precedes even the impeachment brouhaha. He will probably, in fact, go down in history as the last independent counsel ever appointed to investigate an administration of the same party to which he belonged. Two years later, of course, the Calvinball standard was put into effect.
Robert Parry reported all this some time back:
- After the Bush interviews, diGenova began work on his final report. Despite the evidence that Clinton's files had been exploited to influence the outcome of a presidential election, diGenova concluded that there was no wrongdoing by anyone in the Bush administration.
DiGenova added only "that certain White House personnel may have indirectly encouraged the search for Clinton's passport files by making inquiry about the status of responses to [FOIA] requests." As for the Oval Office, diGenova "found no evidence that President Bush was involved in this matter."
DiGenova reserved his toughest criticism for State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk for suspecting that a crime had been committed in the first place. DiGenova castigated Funk for "a woefully inadequate understanding of the facts."
John Duncan, a senior lawyer in Funk's office, protested diGenova's findings of no criminal wrongdoing.
"Astoundingly, [diGenova] has also concluded that no senior-level party to the search did anything improper whatever," Duncan wrote. "The Independent Counsel has provided his personal absolution to individuals who we found had attempted to use their U.S. Government positions to manipulate the election of President of the United States."
DiGenova was such a naked partisan that when he issued his report, he apologized to Bush Administration officials on behalf of the American people for putting them through the ordeal of an independent counsel investigation -- an investigation that, in fact, was more grounded in potential criminal behavior than Whitewater.
It was the last bit of business from the old Bush administration that needed tending to, and Joe -- well, he fixed it.
Nice to see some things never change, I suppose.
Friday whale blogging
This is a female orca and calf I photographed near Lime Kiln State Park on July 28.
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
One of the reasons Michelle Malkin fails the test of being an actual journalist lies in the way she conducts her work: There is simply no evidence of any attempt at fairness.
A serious journalist -- theoretically, at least -- tries to operate with an open mind. It's essential when approaching a subject to gather the available evidence first, and if a conclusion is to be reached, it is only done so when all the evidence is in and weighed. Typically, this means when a reporter is assigned a story, he or she looks first to gather as much information about it as possible.
This doesn't mean the journalist is necessarily "objective," or that bias can't creep in. The very selection of a subject of inquiry may represent a certain bias; and the interpretation and presentation of the data may also be slanted. But the core of the journalistic enterprise revolves around honest inquiry.
Malkin forgoes all this. Throughout her career, her approach has been thesis-driven: She latches onto a potential story or scandal, settles on an angle to pursue, then sets out from the start to prove her thesis, ignoring or tossing aside all contradictory evidence along the way. This was the trend in her column-writing career at the Seattle Times, and it came to full fruition in her execrable In Defense of Internment, which ignored a mountain of evidence contradicting her thesis, and in the process became nothing less than a historical fraud.
Now her latest book is out, and the trend not only continues, it evidently intensifies, if the preliminary material she has made available on her Web site is any indication. [My copy is supposed to be arriving in the mail soon. Yes, dear readers, I'll be reading Malkin so you won't have to. It's a sacrifice, but someone has to make it.]
Titled Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild, it's supposedly an expose of those angry lunatics of the left. Malkin says:
- I'll probably have to say this a million times, and those predisposed to attack the book (without reading it, natch) will ignore it, but I do not argue that we on the Right have never gone overboard in political word or deed. The book is about turning MSM conventional wisdom on its head and showing that the standard caricature of conservatives as angry/racist/bigoted/violence-prone crackpots is a much better description of today's unhinged liberals than of us.
Fair enough. But just a little later, she writes this:
- It's not Republicans taking chainsaws to Democrat campaign signs and running down political opponents with their cars. It's not conservatives burning Democrats in effigy, defacing war memorials, and supporting the fragging of American troops. And it's not conservatives producing a bullet-riddled bumper crop of assassination-themed musicals, books and collectible stamps.
It's not a Republican who invoked Pol Pot and Nazis and Soviet gulag operators when discussing American troops at Guantanamo Bay. That was Democrat Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who kept his Senate Minority Whip position and who continues to blame an “orchestrated right-wing attack” for what came out of his mouth.
It's not Republicans who suggested that President Bush had advance knowledge of the September 11th attacks or that Osama bin Laden has already been captured. Those notions were advanced by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and current Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.
And it wasn't a Republican who asserted that the war Iraq was "just as bad as six million Jews being killed." That was Democrat Rep. Charlie Rangel, who has refused to apologize and whom no Democrat leader has denounced.
So, you see, despite her earlier disavowal, Malkin does intend to show that it isn't Republicans who have gone overboard in stoking the current political fires. It's just Democrats and the "wacky left."
This is reminiscent of Malkin's disclaimer, with her last book, that she wasn't arguing in favor of race-based internment of Arab Americans -- she was simply justifying the race-based internment of Japanese Americans.
Well, Michelle ...
It isn't Democrats who sprayed racist, pro-Bush graffiti on Democratic campaign HQ in Sacramento, or stole computers from Democrats in Ohio, or set campaign signs afire in Louisiana, or spread blood and innards around the front door of Bush critics. It isn't Democrats firing workers for their presidential choices.
[In fact, I tried keeping a running tally during the election of reports of thuggery from both right and left, and tracked it at a post called Thug Watch. Though I'm sure there were some reports that I missed on both sides, the reports of thuggery from the right, as you can see, outnumber those from the left by a factor of more than 2-to-1.]
It isn't Democrats, Michelle, who have denigrated the service of war heroes; it's people like you. And it isn't Democrats who are delivering a steady stream of "bestselling" books attacking liberals as subhuman scum: calling them innately treasonous, identifying them with terrorists, the "enemy within" with a "mental illness." Going on talk shows and saying that the best way to talk to a Republican is "with a baseball bat, preferably."
As for the "assassination" themes, Michelle, it wasn't a left-wing blogger who posted the following remark at the height of the 2004 campaign:
- Rope. Tree. Justice. The only three things that Qerry deserves for his "service".
No, as a matter of fact, that was a blogger who resides on your blogroll.
It was that same blog, in fact, that earlier urged the use of violence against another blogger and even provided directions to that person's home on his blog. I'm not aware of any left-wing bloggers having done that.
Indeed, for all the left-wing wackery out there -- and there's no doubt plenty of it -- what you don't see is this kind of eliminationist rhetoric.
After all, Michelle, it wasn't a prominent Democrat who publicly hypothesized about what would happen to the crime rate if all black babies were aborted. It wasn't a prominent Democratic radio talk-show host in Seattle who said of a U.S. Senator -- yes, the same Dick Durbin whose remarks you find completely out of line: "This man is simply a piece of excrement, a piece of waste that needs to be scraped off the sidewalk and eliminated."
It isn't the most prominent liberal talk-show host in the country who jokes that we shouldn't "kill all the liberals" -- instead, we should "leave enough so we can have two on every campus -- living fossils -- so we will never forget what these people stood for."
It wasn't a prominent member of the "liberal" media who opined that we ought to incarcerate everyone who works for Air America.
It wasn't a Democratic congressman who opined that we ought to ship liberal dissenters to Iraq to serve as "human shields."
It wasn't left-wing letter writers who attacked former USA Today editor Al Neuharth and recommended he face execution for treason. Al Neuharth, mind you -- not exactly Mr. Liberal.
And kooky theories? Well, Michelle, what about the forthcoming tome from a well-known conservative postulating -- against all known historical fact -- that fascism is a liberal phenomenon. Of course, you know all about ignoring the weight of historical evidence, don't you?
It isn't liberal bloggers, Michelle, who have waxed wroth at the General Ripperesque notion that the Flight 94 memorial is actually a tribute to the terrorists, or who have whipped up groundless fears about Islamist terrorists in Oklahoma and elsewhere; no left-wing moonbats groundlessly attacked the Pulitzer winner in photography or attacked USA Today with conspiratorial accusations for a badly retouched photo.
No, Michelle, that would be you and yours. Moonbats, wingnuts, take your pick: The shoe fits -- you.
Look, there's no use in pretending that there isn't excess on the left as well. Unlike Malkin, I probably would be more than willing to acknowledge its presence and denounce it when it occurs if people like Malkin and Co. weren't so ready to spring into action at the first imagined slight (and more often than not, they are imagined) -- and yet so consistently fail to acknowledge similar behavior on the right.
Indeed, the pattern has been rather the opposite: When the acts of violence that the right wants to link to liberals turns out, in fact, to be the work of right-wing extremists, there's no acknowledgement made, much less apologies issued. Witness, for instance, Malkin's handling of an arson case in Maryland which she and other prominent bloggers presumed to be the work of eco-terrorists; but when it turned out that these were race-related arsons, the subject went away quickly with a brief semi-acknowledgement of error. Likewise, Malkin waved all kinds of accusations about regarding a murder of a Coptic Christian family in New Jersey, and then quietly shut it down when it turned out not to be the work of Islamist radicals after all.
And that's the problem, isn't it? It would be nice to have pleasant, reasonable debate in which facts and evidence and reason all play a role and are all respected -- but in recent years, the right hasn't been playing by those rules. Not since the Republican Congress ignored the popular will and proceeded to impeach Bill Clinton. Not since Republicans quite literally stole the 2000 election. Not since their incompetence left us exposed to the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Not since they subsequently shoved a misbegotten war in Iraq down our collective throats.
Because in the pursuit of that agenda, the conservative movement has become a take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth entity, whence so much of the ugliness in our current discourse arises. A lot of it, as I've examined at length previously, is deeply personal stuff, and the effect on our personal lives has been lasting and profound.
The chief, overarching argument of the conservative movement, in essence, has been that liberals are the sole and primary cause of everything that is wrong both with America and with the world at large. What kind of reasonable discourse is possible, really, when that is the starting point of the conversation?
Malkin's book, it's clear, is simply going to be another contribution to that liberal-bashing trend, even as it pretends to shame liberals for behavior that is rampant within the ranks of conservatives -- behavior, indeed, encouraged from the very top. After all, it wasn't a Democratic vice president who pointedly, and publicly, told a prominent U.S. Senator to go fuck himself.
A serious journalist would have examined the ugliness in the discourse and recognized that it's rampant on both sides. I also think an honest accounting would find that, if anything, it's more pronounced and far more aggressive from the right. Much of the ugliness from the left seems, if anything, largely reactive to the nasty provocations and threats of elimination coming from the right.
But Malkin, as we know already, is not a serious journalist. As with her last book, she has simply chosen snippets of evidence that support her thesis and ignored substantial contravening evidence -- which is never mentioned, let alone confronted. The result is a blinkered and ultimately false version of reality.
There's only one thing to call that: propaganda. Malkin's book not only is unlikely to end the ugliness in discourse -- it virtually guarantees that it will get worse.
When to ignore them
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
I've known for some time about the white-supremacist twin singing duo known as "Prussian Blue." They've performed at Aryan Congresses at Hayden Lake and are prominently touted at a number of hate sites, particularly Stormfront and National Alliance. If you monitor the far right, you know about them.
So, in some ways, the recent ABC News report on them really wasn't anything new. Though I did note that they intend to leave Bakersfield and move up to these parts. We're just thrilled.
What it did highlight, of course, was a noteworthy facet of white-supremacist culture: the way it imitates "secular" society with its own, parallel forms, particularly in the entertainment field.
They've been doing this for some time now. The biggest arena for this is in hardcore metal music, where skinheads and white-power types have been churning out records and CDs for years. The most prominent of these operations is Resistance Records, which is nowadays operated by the National Alliance. [For a complete rundown on this, read the Center for New Community's report [PDF file] on the white-supremacist manipulation of youth music subculture.]
What the ABC report did, unfortunately, was give the Gaede twins national exposure -- exactly the kind they were hoping for. And besides Cynthia McFadden's horrified tut-tutting and moral indignation, the report didn't shed much light on the subject. Certainly there was little discussion of the larger context of this phenomenon, and there was only a brief attempt to examine just how successful the twins actually are in recruiting people into their belief system.
Predictably, the girls' defenders and promoters on the far right used the ABC report for their own ends: to depict themselves as victims of an arrogant, out-of-control media, and to burnish their persecution complex. You also had neo-Nazi figures like Edgar Steele leveraging the moral-outrage line: How could these horrible people abuse two sweet girls like Lynx and Lamb?
You even had mainstream conservatives offering knee-jerk apologias for the twins -- this from a writer for a Web site dedicated to "exposing" left-wing extremists. (The post, which was pulled, was so well researched that the writer couldn't even bother to read the entirety of the ABC News report.)
This is a common problem with reportage on white supremacists: All such reportage, even if largely negative, is seen by them as (and in fact is) a way of getting the word out to the public, much of which is already skeptical of the innate perspectives offered by mainstream media reporters anyway. If the reporter fails to explain to the audience the larger significance beyond the moral horror of these belief systems, then these reports become helpful ways to recruit.
Thus it's incumbent on any reporter filing such stories to get the larger perspective: to explain, in this case, how musical acts play a role in white-supremacist recruitment (there was a brief stab at this), and to discuss whether recruitment like this is actually working (they really needed to talk to someone who monitors the numbers of people actually joining white-power movements). It might not have hurt to have shown the girls performing at an Aryan Congress, so viewers could see what their audience is.
The reality, though, is that acts like the Gaede twins and the Resistance Records hatemongers are of concern almost solely because of their power to recruit -- and that power is questionable at best. Thus, in the bigger picture of the movement, they are an interesting sideshow, but not a lot more. That's why it's questionable to run a report on them, other than its freak-show quality.
I often hear from people who despise the far right that the best thing to do is just ignore them. Of course, my own experience has been that this is a horrible mistake: Movements like this flourish in an environment of public ignorance and silence from the opposition. Pretending that they don't exist and hoping that they go away is a virtual guarantee that they will stay and prosper.
But standing up to them has to entail knowing when and how to stand up to them. This means recognizing the leaders and their strategies and exposing them, as well as publicly opposing them.
And there are, indeed, times to simply ignore them. When they put little girls up onstage to spout their hate -- well, the contempt such a thing inspires is understandable. But the whole point of their schtick is to provoke outrage that they can then claim is left-wing menace directed at two harmless little girls. So it may be best just to deny them the attention they seek.
The ultimate Newspeak
Monday, October 31, 2005
Newspeak, you may recall, has a special quality: It combines two ideas that, conventionally speaking, are virtual (if not precise) opposites, and presents them as identical -- thereby nullifying the meaning contained in each word: "War is Peace." "Ignorance is Strength." "Freedom is Slavery."
- Newspeak serves two functions:
1) It deflates the opposition by nullifying its defining issues, and throws the nominal logic of the public debate into disarray.
2) It provides rhetorical and ontological cover for its speakers' own activities and agenda.
Via Atrios, we learn that none other than Jonah Goldberg has emerged with perhaps the most crystalline example of Newspeak possible, one that projects the right's own totalitarian impulses onto its opponents: Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton.
According to the Amazon synopsis:
- LIBERAL FASCISM offers a startling new perspective on the theories and practices that define fascist politics. Replacing conveniently manufactured myths with surprising and enlightening research, Jonah Goldberg shows that the original fascists were really on the Left and that liberals, from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Hillary Clinton, have advocated policies and principles remarkably similar to those of Hitler’s National Socialism.
Goldberg draws striking parallels between historic fascism and contemporary liberal doctrines. He argues that “political correctness” on campuses and calls for campaign finance reform echo the Nazis' suppression of free speech; and that liberals, like their fascist forebears, dismiss the democratic process when it yields results they dislike, insist on the centralization of economic decision-making, and seek to insert the authority of the state in our private lives–from bans on smoking to gun control. Covering such hot issues as morality, anti-Semitism, science versus religion, health care, and cultural values, he boldly illustrates the resemblances between the opinions advanced by Hitler and Mussolini and the current views of the Left.
Of course, as I just got done explaining a little bit ago, the conservative charge that fascism was a leftist phenomenon is a rightist attempt at David Irvingesque historical revisionism. There is not a single serious historian of either fascism or World War II who does not consider it a right-wing phenomenon: its anti-liberalism and anti-socialism were its defining characteristics, regardless of the rhetoric adopted by early adherents and leaders. Remember Robert Paxton's description of the political space that the fascists occupied in obtaining power:
- In sum, fascists offered a new recipe for governing with popular support but without any sharing of power with the Left, and without any threat to conservative social and economic privileges and political dominance. The conservatives, for their part, held the keys to the doors of power.
The key historical fact underlining this debate is that fascism never was just a European phenomenon. It may have originated in America (Paxton identifies the Ku Klux Klan as the first real iteration of fascism in the era of mass politics), and certainly there were fascists in America in the 1920s and '30s (see, e.g., not just the Klan but also the Silvershirts), all of whom were aligned to the right, sometimes (as in the case of the America First Committee and Charles Lindbergh) with mainstream conservatives.
For that matter, of course, there are still genuine fascists and proto-fascists with us today. They go by such names as the Aryan Nations, Christian Identity, or National Socialist Movement. And they're all aligned, politically, to the far right. Their spinoffs, such as the Patriot/militia movement, were all right-leaning movements with substantial interaction with mainstream conservatism, as I've documented at length. Indeed, the militia movement's own bastard brainchild -- the Minutemen -- is now being ardently adopted by a variety of supposedly mainstream Republicans.
This was underscored by a couple of recent forays in the realm of a serious discussion of fascism. First, from an outsider's perspective, there was this piece by Paul Bigioni, a relatively little-known Canadian attorney, which takes a meta-structural approach to observing fascism's creep in the United States.
He does this first by examining the economic and political structures that led to fascist regimes in Italy and Germany, and concludes:
- Even this brief historical sketch shows how fascism did the bidding of big business. The fact that Hitler called his party the "National Socialist Party" did not change the reactionary nature of his policies. The connection between the fascist dictatorships and monopoly capital was obvious to the US Department of Justice in 1939. As of 2005, however, it is all but forgotten.
It is always dangerous to forget the lessons of history. It is particularly perilous to forget about the economic origins of fascism in our modern era of deregulation. Most Western liberal democracies are currently held in the thrall of what some call market fundamentalism. Few nowadays question the flawed assumption that state intervention in the marketplace is inherently bad. As in Italy and Germany in the 20's and 30's, business associations clamor for more deregulation and deeper tax cuts. The gradual erosion of antitrust legislation, especially in the United States, has encouraged consolidation in many sectors of the economy by way of mergers and acquisitions. The North American economy has become more monopolistic than at any time in the post-WWII period. Fewer, larger competitors dominate all economic activity, and their political will is expressed with the millions of dollars they spend lobbying politicians and funding policy formulation in the many right-wing institutes which now limit public discourse to the question of how best to serve the interests of business. The consolidation of the economy, and the resulting perversion of public policy are themselves fascistic. I am quite certain, however, that President Clinton was not worrying about fascism when he repealed federal antitrust laws that had been enacted in the 1930's. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives is similarly unworried about fascism when it lobbies the Canadian government to water down our Federal Competition Act. (The Competition Act regulates monopolies, among other things, and itself represents a watering down of Canada's previous antitrust laws. It was essentially written by industry and handed to the Mulroney Government to be enacted.)
At present, monopolies are regulated on purely economic grounds to ensure the efficient allocation of goods. If we are to protect ourselves from the growing political influence of big business, then our antitrust laws must be reconceived in a way which recognizes the political danger of monopolistic conditions. Antitrust laws do not just protect the marketplace, they protect democracy.
Our collective forgetfulness about the economic nature of fascism is also dangerous at a more philosophical level. As contradictory as it may seem, fascist dictatorship was made possible because of the flawed notion of freedom which held sway during the era of laissez-faire capitalism in the early twentieth century. It was the liberals of that era that clamored for unfettered personal and economic freedom, no matter what the cost to society. Such untrammeled freedom is not suitable to civilized humans. It is the freedom of the jungle. In other words, the strong have more of it than the weak. It is a notion of freedom which is inherently violent, because it is enjoyed at the expense of others. Such a notion of freedom legitimizes each and every increase in the wealth and power of those who are already powerful, regardless of the misery that will be suffered by others as a result. The use of the state to limit such "freedom" was denounced by the laissez-faire liberals of the early twentieth century. The use of the state to protect such "freedom" was fascism. Just as monopoly is the ruin of the free market, fascism is the ultimate degradation of liberal capitalism.
Certain to get more attention is a piece that Lewis Lapham published this week in Harpers titled "On Message," which springboards off an old FDR quote:
- "But I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, then Fascism and Communism, aided, unconsciously perhaps, by old-line Tory Republicanism, will grow in strength in our land." -Franklin D. Roosevelt, November 4, 1938
In 1938 the word "fascism" hadn't yet been transferred into an abridged metaphor for all the world's unspeakable evil and monstrous crime, and on coming across President Roosevelt's prescient remark in one of Umberto Eco's essays, I could read it as prose instead of poetry -- a reference not to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or the pit of Hell but to the political theories that regard individual citizens as the property of the government, happy villagers glad to wave the flags and wage the wars, grateful for the good fortune that placed them in the care of a sublime leader. Or, more emphatically, as Benito Mussolini liked to say, "Everything in the state. Nothing outside the state. Nothing against the state."
[Hat tip to Carolyn Kay at Make Them Accountable]
The Eco essay that caught his attention was "Ur-Fascism," which I've discussed at length previously. Lapham goes on to notice, as did I, to what a large extent the fascist themes that Eco identifies are operative in 21st-century American politics, and then proceeds, somewhat whimsically, to proclaim:
- Eco published his essay ten years ago, when it wasn't as easy as it has since become to see the hallmarks of fascist sentiment in the character of an American government. Roosevelt probably wouldn't have been surprised.
He'd encountered enough opposition to both the New Deal and to his belief in such a thing as a United Nations to judge the force of America's racist passions and the ferocity of its anti-intellectual prejudice. As he may have guessed, so it happened. The American democracy won the battles for Normandy and Iwo Jima, but the victories abroad didn't stem the retreat of democracy at home, after 1968 no longer moving "forward as a living force, seeking day and night to better the lot" of its own citizens, and now that sixty years have passed since the bomb fell on Hiroshima, it doesn't take much talent for reading a cashier's scale at Wal-Mart to know that it is fascism, not democracy, that won the heart and mind of America's "Greatest Generation," added to its weight and strength on America's shining seas and fruited plains.
... As set forth in Eco's list, the fascist terms of political endearment are refreshingly straightforward and mercifully simple, many of them already accepted and understood by a gratifyingly large number of our most forward-thinking fellow citizens, multitasking and safe with Jesus. It does no good to ask the weakling's pointless question, "Is America a fascist state?" We must ask instead, in a major rather than a minor key, "Can we make America the best damned fascist state the world has ever seen," an authoritarian paradise deserving the admiration of the international capital markets, worthy of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind"? I wish to be the first to say we can. We're Americans; we have the money and the know-how to succeed where Hitler failed, and history has favored us with advantages not given to the early pioneers.
Lapham also later describes the ways that modern American politics resemble fascism:
- I don't say that over the last thirty years we haven't made brave strides forward. By matching Eco's list of fascist commandments against our record of achievement, we can see how well we've begun the new project for the next millennium -- the notion of absolute and eternal truth embraced by the evangelical Christians and embodied in the strict constructions of the Constitution; our national identity provided by anonymous Arabs; Darwin's theory of evolution rescinded by the fiat of "intelligent design"; a state of perpetual war and a government administering, in generous and daily doses, the drug of fear; two presidential elections stolen with little or no objection on the part of a complacent populace; the nation's congressional districts gerrymandered to defend the White House for the next fifty years against the intrusion of a liberal-minded president; the news media devoted to the arts of iconography, busily minting images of corporate executives like those of the emperor heroes on the coins of ancient Rome.
An impressive beginning, in line with what the world has come to expect from the innovative Americans, but we can do better. The early twentieth-century fascisms didn't enter their golden age until the proletariat in the countries that gave them birth had been reduced to abject poverty. The music and the marching songs rose with the cry of eagles from the wreckage of the domestic economy. On the evidence of the wonderful work currently being done by the Bush Administration with respect to the trade deficit and the national debt -- to say nothing of expanding the markets for global terrorism -- I think we can look forward with confidence to character-building bankruptcies, picturesque bread riots, thrilling cavalcades of splendidly costumed motorcycle police.
The underlying premise of Lapham's satire is the notion that we are already fully subsumed by fascism, given how immersed we are in Eco's description.
But Eco's essay is by no means definitive. Many other scholars have attempted similarly to describe and explain and define fascism, as I've explained previously; the difficulty, as always, lies in the fact that fascism is not an ideology based on a core ideology, manifesto, or text. Eco's methodology is similar to that of others, notably Stanley Payne, who have attempted a descriptive approach to fascism:
- Payne's approach is useful, in the same way that Eco's is -- it contains important descriptive information that helps us get a sense of the multifaceted phenomenon that fascism in fact is. (Payne's typology is also a good deal more systematic and logically coherent than Eco's.) But these approaches share a similar flaw -- that is, a number of the traits described in these systems also can clearly describe not only communism, which is by its nature the ideological opposite to fascism, as well as other political ideologies. In that sense, it's clear these traits tend to be endemic to totalitarianism broadly -- they're going to be woven into what is fascist, but they won’t be unique to it.
Much wrangling has ensued (Payne's Fascism: Comparison and Definition was published in 1980). The long and short of it is that the consensus (and debate) since the early 1990s has tended to revolve around the work of Oxford professor Roger Griffin, who lectures on the History of Ideas at the school. His 1991 text, The Nature of Fascism, is considered by many to be the definitive work on the subject.
Griffin has essentially managed to boil fascism down to a basic core he calls palingenetic ultranationalist populism. (Palingenesis is the concept of mythic rebirth from the ashes, embodied by the Phoenix.)
Our understanding of fascism, as I went on to explain, has continued to expand with more scholarly work, including that of Robert O. Paxton, whose book The Anatomy of Fascism is something of a landmark in the field, as I've gone on to explore elsewhere. Paxton, similarly, identifies nine "mobilizing passions" that are constant through all stages and forms of fascism, but notes general principle that is also a constant:
- ... [E]ach national variant of fascism draws its legitimacy, as we shall see, not from some universal scripture but from what it considers the most authentic elements of its own community identity. Religion, for example, would certainly play a much larger role in an authentic fascism in the United States than in the first European fascisms, which were pagan for contingent historical reasons.
My reading of Paxton suggests that while we are indeed swimming in fascist impulses, the defining characteristics of genuine fascism -- the violence, the charismatic leadership, the eliminationism -- are generally lacking, though not altogether.
So I think Lapham, even if whimsically, has leapt to the wrong conclusion -- that we are so deeply in the grip of fascist impulses that there seems no turning back. I think there's still a chance at redemption -- but liberals need to wake up to what they're up against.
Jonah Goldberg's new book represents both a special problem, as well as a special opportunity, because of the Newspeak that its title -- "Liberal Fascism" -- represents. Goldberg, in the Newspeak tradition, is not just negating the meaning of both "liberal" and "fascism", but he's providing cover for a conservative movement that, evidently, is intent on adopting fascism as the essence of its agenda.
This is what makes his book the ultimate Newspeak: Newspeak is one of the earmarks of the budding fascist -- and what better way to bud further than to accuse your opponent of engaging in precisely the politics you intend to pursue?
And yet. And yet: What better way, really, to expose the nature of the conservative beast than to let conservatives bring up the subject of fascism?
In a lot of ways, I welcome the opportunity to discuss this. Because it's an opportunity for everyone to understand better just what fascism really is. Let's hope other liberals don't shy away.
Propagandists like Goldberg always flourish in a vacuum of public ignorance. If liberals try to pretend he doesn't exist in the hope this meme will just go away ... it may be a fatal mistake.
When it comes to fascism, fighting back is the only option. But first, we need to see the nature of the beast we're fighting.