Wednesday, January 02, 2008

This is not a review

I finished Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism a few days ago, was considering writing up something long on the book, may still do that, but for now, a few comments, not quite strung together.

1) I'm not sure what to make of a book whose purpose is to argue against "what most people think." Do most people really believe that the only danger to liberty is found on the extreme right? Isn't it well-known that "Nazi" comes from an expression that includes the word "socialism"? Isn't the notion that the worst regimes come from where the extremes of the left and the right meet, i.e. from over-the-top populism and (often) anti-Semitism, relatively well-known and well-accepted? In other words, are people really as ill-informed as Goldberg's book demands its readers be? If it does not come as news to you that, say, anti-Semitism has roots on the Left, you are perhaps less likely to be so swept up in the book's argument as to consider it plausible that there is something fascist about Hillary Clinton.

Those writing for an academic audience tend to do something between assuming the reader has read everything else on the subject and making the book accessible to those who only just became interested in the topic. This means that key words are defined, minor historical figures are identified, but ideally one may still get something out of the book if one already knew what acculturation meant in Algeria, who the Reinachs were, and so on. Goldberg expects readers to be so shocked by the revelation that fascism was part of a broader early 20th century culture (or, as he would have it, that everything early-20th reeked of fascism) that they are willing to throw out all prior assumptions--even the accurate ones--about the present.

2) Goldberg makes a decent argument for libertarianism or classical liberalism. What he fails to do is make any sort of argument for supporting conservatism politically as it actually exists in the United States in 2007-8, i.e. the real-life Republican party, home of the "values voter" who will support whichever candidate promises to make America most like his Christian sect of choice. Goldberg's point is that government intervention to remake the entire country and interfere with the individual's personal life is fascist. He (unenthusiastically) favors gay marriage, and argues that libertarianism would be perfect if it could account for children and foreign policy. So why a whole long (arguably too long) book on the fascist left and a measly conclusion on the domestically-interventionalist right? It's not as if Huckabee's the only Republican candidate playing this game, nor is it as though "compassionate conservatism" or Democrat-esque policies are the only interventions Republicans have in mind.

3) Fascism is, as everyone knows, tied up with notions of purity. Goldberg denounces the puritanical War on Smoking throughout the book, but offers as evidence against the "fascist" hedonism of the 1960s the rise in STD rates in 1968 Berkeley, as evidence that the natural laws are not meant to be messed with. What makes smoking but not promiscuity fall under the rubric of personal liberty? (Another small but irritating inconsistency--why is Betty Friedan's remark comparing housewifedom to a concentration camp disgusting and unworthy of comment, while a whole long book about the Hitlerian Democratic Party is to be celebrated?)

This leads me to another, related, critique. It is a common human impulse to seek out purity in one form or another. From the perspective of individual liberty, some manifestations of this inclination are far more innocuous than others. Insistence on purity in one's shampoo and cosmetics, in one's show dog, or in one's diet, is all perhaps unnecessary from a scientific standpoint, but is certainly far less damaging to society than demands for racial, spiritual, or ideological purity. When the government steps in and demands the purity of everyone's shampoo, show dog, and breakfast cereal, it might be channeling an impulse to interfere with things that actually matter.

Ultimately the problem with fascism is in its exclusive definition of the state. Either you're part of it or you're not, and you can be excluded regardless of your included status in the pre-fascist regime. Somewhere along the line, "right" came to stand for an exclusive version of America (Gay? Not Christian? Sorry.) and "left" for the side that lets everyone in. Goldberg may want to shatter this "myth," but the fact remains that people do self-identify as "right-wing" when seeking out policies that promote certain forms of exclusivity.

4) Repeatedly and in reference to various historical situations, Goldberg speaks of the "feminine" and "masculine" or "maternal" and "paternal" sides of fascism. This is what in academia is referred to as a gendered reading, or looking at a question through the lens of gender. If someone were to describe this analytical method to Goldberg's National Review, it would surely get mocked on Phi Beta Cons.

5) That said, it is worth telling a lot of readers (more, alas, than read scholarly books on Dreyfus-era French Jews, if the Strand's remainders are any indication) that student protests are not necessarily innocent and well-meaning and have a history of proto- and all-out fascism. Although this is by no means Goldberg's central emphasis, it is worth pointing out that anti-Semitism was originally a left-wing phenomenon, and never fully made it over to the right. And finally the ambiguity of the term "progressive," the ever-growing list of unrelated and often conflicting causes that one is expected to have a certain take on if one is to be considered in favor of a better future, are a big part of what keeps me from identifying as on the left, so on some level it's interesting to see this concept critiqued, even if it's not the strongest critique possible. #5 does indeed contradict #1, but I really don't have a sense of a) who is reading this book, and b) what these readers do or do not already know about European history.

6) Finally, two questions for Goldberg, or (more likely) for the reader who wishes to put himself in his libertarian-leaning shoes.

a) If being neither right nor left means being a fascist, as someone who considers herself neither one nor the other on most days, I am concerned. Relatedly, isn't a libertarian, in contemporary America, neither right nor left?

b) The Dreyfus Affair: which side was fascist, by LF standards? On the one hand, you've got the anti-Dreyfusards, many of whom went on to be honest-to-goodness WWII Nazi sympathizers. On the other, you have the Dreyfusards, whose victory led to France's separation of church and state, and to an overall reaffirmation of Third Republic "liberal fascism" (by Goldberg's definition).


Withywindle said...

1) I do actually think it is news to most readers that Nazism has roots on the left. I don't think most Americans know what Nazi is short for.

2) How did you get a copy of the book, anyway? I've ordered it from Amazon, but it doesn't come out until January 8.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

1) Ah, but if I remember correctly, you also don't think Americans are comfortable with the phrase "bourgeois morality," which Goldberg uses throughout this general-interest book. But as for Nazism and its roots on the left, as I learned it, it's more that the New Right adopted tactics of the left well before Nazism began (late 19th C); then in the 1930s, there was an aesthetic common to groups across the political spectrum. Goldberg reads this to mean these other groups were fascistic, but one could also say that fascism was in some ways a product of its time, so in defining it one must put aside the aspects it had in common with those other movements.

2) Strand! Last I checked they had a bunch.

Anonymous said...

Nazism does not have "roots" on the left - National Socialism began on the right.

Withywindle said...

1) Re the use of bourgeois morality: Nu, even Goldberg nods? Withywindle, of course, babbles.

2) It's difficult to remember when I learned things, but I seem to recollect the first time that it sank in how deeply rooted Fascism was on the left was during my college seminar on (strangely enough) Fascist Europe in junior year. Universalizing wildly from my own experience, it seems reasonable to think that this little fact generally gets foregrounded only for the few history majors taking upper-level European history courses. (Frankly, if I were teaching a History of Western Civ II class, I'm not sure I'd spend more than a minute on the lefty influences on Nazism. There's so much to cover.) The alternate possibility, that I was atypically oblivious, I reject with hysterical anxiety.

3) Strand! - ah, yes. Have you tried that chocolate place up toward Union Square? But my order to Amazon is already placed - I must wait anxiously by the door.

4) Not having read the book, does Goldberg mean fascist is neither right nor left in terms of the desire to escape from politics? Which is not precisely the same as centrist, although closer to "radical middle." (Or "national greatness.")

5) I have my own bones to pick with libertarians - Whittaker Chambers heard the echo of the command to the gas chamber in Ayn Rand, and I sympathize with the intuition. To the extent that libertarianism is simply a political position that fits awkwardly in contemporary American political divisions, it isn't fascist. To the extent that it is a utopian ideology that rejects politics, has one answer for all questions ("get rid of the state"), and values principles more than people -- to that extent, it shares some unpleasant features with fascism. Although the recent New Republic article by Eve Fairbanks (I think) that says that the Ronpauljugend is made up of history geeks makes me marginally more pro-libertarian.

BH said...

Thanks for this thoughtful and critical commentary on JG's book. For the last year or so I've been watching its transformation on through various subtitles (from "The Totalitarian Temptation From Mussolini to Hillary Clinton" to "The Totalitarian Temptation From Hegel to Whole Foods" and finally "The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning"), and it really piqued my curiosity -- especially the decision to settle on "The Politics of Meaning" as an end point.

I'm looking forward to reading the book when I can get my hands on a copy at the library, but I'm curious to know what you make of his "politics of meaning" argument. It seems to me as though this book's greatest promise is its potential to shed light on Golberg's and the American Right's own semiotic and linguistic ideologies, i.e. the basic assumptions among American conservatives about how language and signification should and do operate in the world.

For instance: yes, the Nazi party gets its name from the phrase "national socialism", but my understanding was that there's about as much connection between the Nazi use of the term "socialist" and the kind of socialism advocated by American leftists as there is between classical liberalism and contemporary American liberalism. (I was under the impression that Hitler opposed many socialist and communist movements and claimed that they were the ideologically perverse products of Jewish intellectuals.) It seems to me as though Goldberg -- like many others -- assumes that wherever the same word is found, so to must be found the same meaning.

Can you give us a recap of Golberg's "politics of meaning" argument (if there is one)?

Thanks again for a great post and a really wonderful blog.