TCS Daily


Jonah Goldberg's Revisionist F-Bomb

By Arnold Kling - January 23, 2008 12:00 AM

"If the American idea was to subdue Native Americans and place them at the disposal of European settlers, to import several million Africans to the New World and subject them to a lifetime of slavery, to impose on Asian immigrants a lifetime of discrimination, then perhaps the American idea was not so admirable."
--John Hope Franklin, The Cover-Up

One way to describe Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism is that it is an attempt to do to the heroes of the Left what the John Hope Franklins have done to the founding fathers. Goldberg has written an important book, although there are a number of ways I would have liked to see it written differently.

Over the past 40 years, revisionist history has drawn attention to the adverse consequences, ideological errors, and moral blind spots that once were airbrushed out of the picture of America's founding generation. Meanwhile, the icons of the progressive movement--Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, the 1960's student movement, and so on--have been left untouched. Their unintended consequences, ideological errors, and moral blind spots are totally overlooked in mainstream history texts. Goldberg is out to change this.

Many Books

Reviewing Goldberg's book is difficult. I would argue that it is many books, written by an author with Multiple Personality Disorder. There is Goldberg the revisionist historian, Goldberg the outraged conservative child, and Goldberg the troll.

In contemporary jargon, a troll is someone who posts a taunt on a web site in an attempt to get under the skin of his opponents. His goals are to draw attention to himself and to enjoy the anger and discomfort that he arouses. The troll appears in various places in Liberal Fascism, most notably in the title and the cover art, which shows a smiling face with a Hitler mustache.

The outraged conservative child is tired of being blamed all the time while his liberal sibling gets away with everything. He writes (p. 118)

In the liberal telling...there are only two perpetrators of official misdeeds; conservatives and "America" writ large...one will virtually never hear that the Palmer raids, Prohibition, or American eugenics were thoroughly progressive phenomena. These are sins America itself must atone for. Meanwhile, real or alleged "conservative" misdeeds--say, McCarthyism--are always the exclusive fault of conservatives...[Liberals] feel no compulsion to defend the inherent goodness of America. Conservatives, meanwhile, not only take the blame for events not of their own making...but find themselves defending liberal misdeeds in order to defend America herself.

The outraged conservative child probably helped motivate Goldberg to write the book, and the troll could serve to motivate more people to read the book. However, my view would be that the troll and the outraged conservative child detract from the message of the revisionist historian.

Origins of Fascism

One of books-within-the-book is about the origins of fascism. Goldberg defines fascism as (p. 23)

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 the 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.

Where does fascism come from? Consider these possibilities.

(1) It comes from the personality defects of individual leaders, such as Hitler.

(2) It is a demon lurking within capitalism, which can emerge whenever there is a crisis that weakens liberal-progressives.

(3) It is the unintended consequence of liberal socialism (Hayek's Road to Serfdom).

(4) It is the desired end state envisioned by ideological theoreticians, including not only Benito Mussolini but progressives of the World War I era.

Too many people fall back on (1), which in my view reflects the fundamental attribution error. For example, the best-selling novel The Kite-Runner depicts a Taliban leader as the stereotypical schoolyard bully grown up. The banality of evil. No ideology or connection with Islamic theology to see here. Move along.

Instead of accepting (1), Goldberg treats fascism as an ideological phenomenon. He tries to debunk (2) while drawing attention to (4).

The most effective chapter is "Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of Liberal Fascism." Goldberg catches Wilson, Herbert Croly (the founder of The New Republic), Walter Lippmann, and other famous progressives of the World War I era with their hands in the fascist cookie jar. They preferred efficient government to democratic government, undertook severe repression of dissent (on p. 117, Goldberg writes "Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but it has been estimated that some 175,000 Americans were arrested"), and saw a need for the ordinary individual to be manipulated, educated, and constrained by an elite cadre aiming for national greatness. Above all, they saw war and military conscription as a positive force for molding citizenship and speeding the pace of progress.

Should today's Left be held accountable for the errors and excesses of the Wilsonian era? Perhaps not, but in that case John Hope Franklin should not hold white Americans accountable for the errors and excesses of our history.

FDR and Father Coughlin

I thought that Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man gave us all the revisionism we need about Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. But adherents to the conventional heroic view still think that FDR saved us from worse evils, such as the anti-semitic populist Father Coughlin. Goldberg attempts to address this issue, but perhaps not successfully. On p. 140, he writes

Coughlin himself was a darling among Capitol Hill Democrats, particularly the progressive bloc...In 1933...Ten senators and seventy-five Congressmen sent a petition declaring that Coughlin had "the confidence of millions of Americans." The vast majority of signatories were Democrats.

One sees Coughlin as a 1930's version of Lou Dobbs. His demagoguery could have broken either toward the Left or toward the Right, and there were plenty of Roosevelt partisans who wanted to co-opt Coughlin and his constituency. In the end, however, Coughlin and Roosevelt became enemies. Goldberg writes (p.141) that "Coughlin became a villain in late 1934 almost solely because he had decided that Roosevelt wasn't radical enough." One could view that as: advantage, Roosevelt.

I also think that Goldberg misfires in his chapter on the 1960's. He grants the idealism of the majority of those of us who were on the left in those days, but he writes (p. 164-165)

there is no denying that the movement's activist core was little more than a fascist youth cult.

But the point here is that the fascist youth cult, while always hoping to lead a revolutionary youth movement, was never able to take control over the movement in the way that Hitler took control of the German Workers' Party. When the radical wing of the student movement morphed into the violent Weather Underground, this both reflected and reinforced the radicals' isolation and powerlessness. In early 1930's Germany, young political partisans were gangs looking to rumble. In the 60's, "Street-Fightin' Man" was just another chart-topper for The Rolling Stones.

Another book-within-the-book surveys the contemporary political scene. Suddenly, none of the history matters. In the chapter "Brave New Village," Goldberg writes (p. 318),

Today's liberals aren't the authors of past generations' mistakes...No, the problems with liberalism today reside in liberalism today.

In this chapter, Goldberg expresses frustration at the ability of Hillary Clinton and her fellow-travelers to market soft totalitarianism. He writes (p. 350-351),

Clinton argues for the diffusion of parental training into every nook and cranny of public life...Clinton relies on her loyal army of experts to dispense advice about every jot and tittle of child rearing...she believes by the time kids are old enough to go to boarding school, it's too late. Hence her passion for day care. Of course, there is a second agenda here. Day care is also the holy grail for baby-boomer feminists who believe not that children should be liberated from the family but that mothers should be liberated from children.

My favorite passage in the entire book is this (p. 393):

Many progressives seem to think we can transform America into a vast college campus where food, shelter, and recreation are all provided for us and the only crime is to be mean to somebody else, particularly a minority.

Goldberg does not spare modern conservatives. On p. 402, he writes,

What many conservatives, including Bush and Buchanan, fail to grasp is that conservatism is neither identity politics for Christians and/or white people nor right-wing Progressivism. Rather, it is opposition to all forms of political religion.

A Lesser Charge

In my view, Goldberg should have written his revisionist history without dropping the f-bomb. Rather than try to convict the Left of fascism, Goldberg might have borrowed from Masonomist Daniel Klein's outstanding essay The People's Romance. The lesser charge of romanticizing the state is one for which it would be much easier to convince an impartial jury that the Left is guilty.

I suspect that the attempt to get a conviction on charges of fascism reflects a fear that if the charge is romanticizing the state, the judge will be too lenient. When Goldberg writes "we are all fascists now," he is admitting that all of us are guilty of romanticizing the state.

I think that a better approach for convincing the judge to get tougher would be to show more clearly the parallels between the quasi-religious views that lie behind today's progressive agenda and the thinking behind past mistakes. In my view, they are linked by faith in unproven scientific fads, faith in technocratic elites, and faith that those who share progressive ideology have superior wisdom and moral standing that justifies ruling over others. I believe that the best way to insulate oneself against romanticizing the state is to recognize these faiths and their dangers.


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