Monday, December 29, 2008

The Consequences of Defining Fascism by Non-Essentials

Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism is definitely worth reading. The book contains an extensive amount of intellectual and political history. Unfortunately, the thesis of the book is off target. In Liberal Fascism, Goldberg strives to argue that fascism is more of a liberal phenomenon than a conservative phenomenon. To build his case, Goldberg extensively documents the state policies of Mussolini's fascist Italy, Hitler's Nazi Germany and then compares them to the policies of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, the demands of the 1960s counter-culture, JFK, LBJ and Hillary Clinton. Goldberg does indeed make a very persuasive case that these Democratic administrations did indeed contain significant fascism elements.

Despite writing a pretty good book, Goldberg comes off as very evasive since he deliberately overemphasizes fascism from the political left while he intentionally overlooks fascism from the political right. For example, Goldberg does not discuss conservative attempts to ban contraceptives, limit immigration or curb abortion rights even though these are clear cases of conservative fascism. I can elaborate on this point further, but it has already been done in Ed Cline's book review and on my Amazon book review. This is unfortunate, since it suggests that fascism is a partisan phenomenon. However, the truth could not be farther from the case.

Instead, I wanted to focus on the negative consequences of Goldberg failing to develop a consistent, non-partisan conceptualization of Fascism. I think this is best illustrated by Goldberg's dithering interview on The Daily Show. You can view the interview here.

Goldberg does make some decent points. However, about two minutes in to the clip, Goldberg starts to get himself into trouble. He cites a decent example of fascism from Hillary Clinton's It Takes a Village, which is Clinton's idea of state-funded 24/7 feeds about how to properly raise children. Stewart clearly misses the point, as he sarcastically quips "you mean, instead of a ticker showing the sports scores?" Obviously, the underlying premise of Stewart's joke is that Clinton's big deal and that Goldberg is making a mountain out of a mole hill.

Does Goldberg draw the essential distinction that Clinton's example would be state-controlled media that is funded through mandatory taxation while a sports ticket is funded through private media and is not regulated? No, Goldberg just passively nodes, implicitly sanctioning Stewart's conflation.

Furthermore, at 5:10 into the video, the interview cuts to a scene where Stewart derisively asks Goldberg to explain "how organic food is fascist." Does Goldberg immediately eliminate the confusion by indicating that organic food is not fascist but state-imposed organic food (e.g., by banning or heavily taxing non-organic foods) would be fascist? No, instead Goldberg clumsily tries to explain how the Nazis were obsessed with organic foods. Stewart, seeing the absurdity in Goldberg's logic, mockingly suggests that Goldberg should conclude that moustaches are fascist, since Hitler had a moustache. Goldberg comes off looking like a partisan hack and Stewart gets a lot of laughs at Goldberg's expense.

This is just another anecdotal example as to why classical liberals in the Republican Party desperately need a rational philosophy to defend against Statism (including to purge it as well as religion from their own party.) Goldberg, in particular, needs to be able to define fascism by essentials, instead of attempting to frame it as a partisan phenomenon.

If anyone is curious, a good definition is a slight modification of the entry to that in The American Heritage Dictionary (1982). (thanks to Ed Cline for digging up the American Heritage definition up in his book review.)

"Fascism - A philosophy or system of government that is marked by stringent social and economic control with a strong centralized government that is usually headed by a dictator and often a policy of belligerent nationalism."


Anonymous said...

Thanks to Doug for the mention and citing my February review of Goldberg's book.

There is also the phenomenon of defining the American Revolution by non-essentials, the chief one being (and promulgated by religionists) that most of the Founders were Christian and intended the U.S. to be a kind of Gilead. Wrong, otherwise why would so many of them insiste on a separation of church and state, instead of advocating a union of them? Other "defining" non-essentials are basically literal concretes of 18th century life and warfare, such as how many buttons were on a Continental solder's frock coat to the consequences of using the Ferguson breechloading rifle or the Pennsylvania (Kentucky) rifle during the war. As for the ideas that were moving men in that period -- Huh? Oh, that's just boring stuff for academics, who really knows?

That's the kind of mentality I often encounter at booksignings, and it takes all my powers of civility to stop myself from telling such people to get a brain.

Ed Cline

Charles T. said...

I would say that merely appearing on The Daily Show is a form of sanctioning evil (if we are talking about trying to discuss ideas).

As if John Stewart is a serious thinker, and not a comedian simply lurking and waiting for an opportunity to crack a joke.

He can be funny, but I would never appear on his program to discuss anything meaningful.