TCS Daily

A California Case Study in Liberal Fascism

By Michael Rosen - February 28, 2008 12:00 AM

If there's any place in the United States—or the world, for that matter—more opposed to right-wing fascism than my hometown of Berkeley, California, I sure have never heard of it.

The epicenter of 60's-era counter-culturalism, Berkeley is renowned for its avowedly socialist tendencies; its strident opposition to war ("What's it good for? Other than saving the world from genocide, totalitarianism, and religious-inspired evil, absolutely nothing"); its prosecution of its own foreign policy (including diplomatic relations with sister cities in Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador); and its unwavering dedication to "free speech."

This latter devotion made national news when Berkeley's City Council voted in January essentially to prevent the United States Marine Corps from recruiting inside the city limits.

Last year, the Marines relocated a recruiting center to the very heart of downtown Berkeley in order to be closer to students at the University of California campus situated a few blocks away. The center provoked an immediate response from radical anti-war groups like Code Pink: Women for Peace and The World Can't Wait: Drive Out the Bush Regime, which promptly mounted noisy and disruptive demonstrations outside the premises.

The Council got in on the act, voting in late January to provide Code Pink with an official parking space outside the recruiting center, waiving the usual noise permit requirement, and instructing the city clerk to write a letter to the Corps informing them that they were "unwelcome intruders [who were] not welcome" in the People's Republic (boots were reportedly quaking in Quantico).

Keep in mind that this is the same city council that in 2006 placed on the municipal ballot a referendum on whether President Bush and Vice President Cheney should be impeached.

The ordinances sparked immediate and widespread outrage. It was one thing for some moonbat extremist groups to protest to their heart's content; but it was quite another for the official civic apparatus to credit and underwrite those efforts.

Measures were quickly pulled together in the Senate, the House, the California State Assembly, and even the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce to strip the city of federal, state, and local funds critical for its operations.

Even the chancellor of UC Berkeley distanced himself from actions he called "ill advised, intemperate and hurtful, particularly to the young men and women and their families who are sacrificing so much for our country."

Conservative talk radio, unsurprisingly, went apoplectic. To their credit, rabble rousers like Medea Benjamin (cofounder of Code Pink) and Sharon Adams (a local attorney-activist who has proposed zoning the recruiting center as a porn shop) went on air with the likes of Mike Gallagher and Laura Ingraham, who subjected them to respectful but aggressive questioning.

(Ingraham went a step too far when she grilled Adams about whether she would call for federal intervention if "the terrorists attacked one of your beloved Peet's Coffee shops." Laura should know better than to mess with the best coffee chain in the country. This column itself was fueled by Peet's Coffee and was written, in part, in the La Jolla, California store. All views expressed are, of course, my own.)

Bowing to this unrelenting pressure, the Council then retracted its "unwelcome intruders" and issued a bland statement acknowledging "the recruiters' right to locate in our city and the right of others to protest or support their presence." But the new language fell far short of an apology and only reiterated the Council's stated opposition to "the recruitment of our young people into this war."

This sorry episode demonstrates, more than anything, that while Berkeley's virulent antipathy to rightist fascism is alive and well, so is its embrace of what Jonah Goldberg aptly calls "liberal fascism."

In his excellent—and incendiary—recent major best-selling book by the same name (subtitled The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning) Goldberg provides a fascinating lens through which to observe the latest fracas in the People's Republic of Berkeley.

Goldberg's detailed revisionist intellectual history of fascism has already been treated elsewhere (and blasted, usually unfairly, by liberals), including on this site. But his thesis hasn't yet, to my knowledge, been tested in a real-world laboratory.

He defines fascism as "a religion of the state...[that] views everything as political[,]...takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seek to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure....Any rival identity is part of the 'problem' and therefore defined as the enemy."

This description, regrettably, fits Berkeley to a tee. Nary a political fad, health craze, or "children's issue" has been too outlandish to escape notice, and often codification into law, by the guardians of the city's virtue, both official and quasi.

A perfect case-in-point was a 2002 ballot measure that would have required all coffee sold in Berkeley's legendary cafes to be either organic, shade-grown, or fair trade. While in the end voters wisely rejected the ordinance, the sentiment behind it nicely encapsulates many of the city's liberally fascist ideas: an insistence that residents consume only organic (i.e. healthy) beans; a demand that storekeepers purchase beans from local farmers in developing countries only at "fair" prices; and a mandate that both brewer and drinker reject the supposedly devastating environmental ramifications of sun-grown beans. And for good measure, the initiative would have stuck it to the big, corporate chains like Starbucks (and, ironically, Peet's), which would have had to choose between spending vast sums to conform their uniform practices to the ordinance or just relocating their stores outside city limits.

This same tendency manifests itself in what is generally thought of as one of Berkeley's bedrock, principled beliefs: the supremacy of free speech. What this dedication often boils down to is unswerving support for left-wing speech and indifference, at best, to any alternatives in the marketplace of ideas.

When former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to town, his scheduled address had to be abruptly canceled when protesters—decrying, you guessed it, "fascism"—posed a "safety" risk.

Then, an attempt to display the shell of an Israeli bus blown to smithereens by a jihadist suicide bomber encountered, first, stiff resistance from city permit officials and, then, a ferocious and bloodthirsty counter-protest, including such well-considered statements as "Get back to Germany!", thoughtful chants like "2, 4, 6, 8, we are martyrs, we can't wait," and informative posters accusing Jews of stealing organs from Arab children.

Similar instances abounded during the violent Palestinian intifada of 2000-2002, especially on campus, where Jewish students came under figurative (and, in some horrific cases, physical) assault from an alliance of militant Islamists and left-wing fellow travelers.

Thus, the heckler's veto persists, reinforced by the city government's complicity in squelching viewpoints that don't hew to radical Berkeleyan gospel. In a sense, city officials generally need only to sit on their hands to vindicate the people's "general will." By keeping a low profile, these activists-turned-politicians help the city's smiley-face fascism proceed apace, with any would-be opponents shrugging "That's just Berkeley!" in resignation.

But in the case of the recruiters, the Council took a further step down the road of institutionalizing the city's burgeoning liberal fascism. Here, the received wisdom that mustn't be challenged is the fundamental evil of war and its practitioners—both at the Pentagon and in theater. And city officials formalized this wisdom into law in a manner antagonistic to any alternative.

The Berkeley activists also took advantage of "crisis," another of fascism's many instruments.

Goldberg explains that crisis is "a core mechanism of fascism [that] short-circuits debate and democratic deliberation. Hence, all fascistic movements commit considerable energy to prolonging a heightened state of emergency."

The Bush administration's detractors, including many in Berkeley, routinely wail that Bush has manipulated 9/11 by invoking it repetitively and using it as a justification to aggregate power and suppress civil liberties; hence the frightening, color-coded "threat levels" to which we are daily subjected.

But in this instance, Berkeley radicals manufactured, exploited, and prolonged a crisis in order to amplify their belief that the Iraq War, the military leadership, and its recruiting efforts are inherently evil. These wicked folks had the audacity to lay down roots in the cradle of liberalism, and all right- (left-)thinking people must forcibly resist their intrusion. Crisis presents opportunity, and the Marines' presence offered a stage on which extreme pacifists could strut their stuff for all the world to see. In a fitting twist, while fascists love to use war as the quintessential crisis, the Berkeley City Council used anti-war activism as its springboard.

Goldberg's critics complain that his comparison of liberals and fascists is overwrought; after all, while fascists murdered millions, liberal causes don't hurt anyone. The same could be said of Berkeley activism: whom has it ever harmed?

But leaving aside those who actually have been physically injured by the excesses of the People's Republic, Berkeley radicals have time and again sought (and often succeeded) to impose, in Goldberg's apt formulation, "uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure," a tendency of which the Marine brouhaha is only the latest example.

Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's Intellectual Property Columnist, is an attorney in San Diego.


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