LABELS

LIBERAL FASCISM

The author of the book "Liberal Fascism" complains people aren't taking it sufficiently seriously. But look at this interview with him:

Before we really get started, give us the Jonah Goldberg definition of fascism.

A short definition would simply be -- there's a longer definition in the book -- it's one word we give for a totalitarian, religious impulse, where everything has to go together, where the state has to govern every aspect of society or at least direct every aspect of society towards some Utopian end. Something like that. It's a hard thing to (define) which is why it's important to define it better on paper, which I do in the book.

In the lead-off question of a friendly interview -- a softball-of-softballs question, that's the best he can do? Define your key term: Uh, it has something to do with totalitarianism or something, I dunno. It's in the book somewhere.

I've written books. This book has a thesis. The thesis is based on the meaning of the word "fascism." Before you begin to even think about that book, you'd better have a good working definition of fascism in your head. You'd better know it by heart, backward and forward. You'd better have it written down and framed and nailed to the wall over the desk where you write. Because as you write this book you're going to be sieving every fact, thought, and observation through the filter of that definition. Or else you're wasting everyone's time.

But frankly the problem with notions like the one at the core of this book is not fuzzy thinking about fascism. It's the damnable stupidity of trying to fit the entire variety of human political experience into the flatland world of "left" and "right." And that's not the fault of this author. It's the defining political error of the past half century.

A simple pair of labels invented to describe the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly in 1789 (in which the nobility took the seats on the President's right and left the Third Estate to sit on the left), they may have been useful for a time in describing the rudimentary politics of the early French Republic. Their application to anything else is a farce.

What would be better? Almost anything. A spiral galaxy, for instance. There is a large, undifferentiated, blurry center. There are arms that trail out of it, getting smaller and more extreme as they are more distant from the center. Here is socialism, and beyond it, communism. Here is conservative moralism, and beyond it theocracy. And out there is a lumpy arm that starts in libertarianism and ends in anarchism. The arms sometimes come nearer each other than the center as they spin out.

Still not very good, but a lot better than left and right, if you ask me.

It seems to me that fascism principally arose as a reaction against communism. There never was a serious fascism in the world until communism became a serious threat to the social order in Western nations.

That is not a definition of fascism.* That is a description of the milieu that produced it.

As such, fascism incorporated many aspects of the old conservative orders, which were certainly of the right, and were terrified of communism. But it also included many socialists -- whom many communists historically regarded as their number one enemies. There were important paths of travel between socialism and fascism in most European nations, and men such as Goebbels took them. If people don't realize that and Goldberg's book points it out to them, so much the better for it. But that only works if it is read by people who feel they have reason to take it seriously.

Fascism usually owed its success to the assent, if not the active aid, of the churches and the capitalists. Yet these more or less despised the fascists, as the fascists despised them. Their agendas often were no part of fascism's program.

Socialism is on the left. Communism is lefter than socialism. In a two-dimensional political world, an anti-communist political movement thus must be on the extreme right. Which is how we ended up regarding fascism as exclusively a right-wing thing. That this description obviously is incomplete doesn't mean you ought to rush to the opposite conclusion, that fascism is principally left wing. That's an even worse answer. It leads you down the same mistaken path the modern left takes when it labels anything that is in opposition to itself as "fascism."

The alternate terms we sometimes use in America, "liberal" and "conservative" are of no better use here. Is fascism "conservative?" It reveres a mythical national past, not the past as a record of proven virtues and values. Instead, fascism is dynamic and seeks to overhaul society as it finds it, not in the name of a real past so much as for the sake of an ideal future.

When the British and Americans firebombed Germany's old cities in World War II, Hitler only shrugged. He said it was a good thing ultimately, since it cleared the ground for the Reich to build new monuments and architectural wonders. Hardly a conservative view.

But was that a fascist view? Hitler, after all, was a wanna-be architect and monumental city planner. Was this fascism or Hitlerism? In a totalitarian system, the personality of the leader gets wrapped up in the ideology of the government. As Michael Ledeen points out.

The weakest part of the book has to do with the Nazis. All of us who have worked on fascism have had to try to figure out to what extent Hitler belongs inside the definition. As Jonah says, Hitler worshiped Mussolini (a love that was not reciprocated), but the Fuhrer was driven by racism and antisemitism, not by the sort of nationalism the Italians embraced. It is very hard to find a political box big enough to accommodate the two, and, like the rest of us, Jonah huffs and puffs trying to make one. Predictably, he has to downplay Hitler’s ideology. He calls Hitler a “pragmatist,” and then adds “saying that Hitler had a pragmatic view of ideology is not to say that he didn’t use ideology. Hitler had many ideologies. Indeed he was an ideology peddler.”

Whew! So much for the view—the fact—that Hitler was driven, from an early age, by an antisemitism so virulent that he would not rest until he had set in motion the Holocaust. Indeed, in one of “Liberal Fascism“‘s most unfortunate phrases, Jonah trivializes Nazi racism, equating it with some American political rhetoric:

“What distinguished Nazism from other brands of socialism and communism was not so much that it included more aspects from the political right (though there were some). What distinguished Nazism was that it forthrightly included a worldview we now associate almost completely with the political left: identity politics.” And in case you thought he was kidding, he repeats it a few pages later: “What mattered to (Hitler) was German identity politics.”

The best that can be said about this is that it’s imaginative. But it’s what happens when you are bound and determined to put liberals, Socialists, Communists, fascists and Nazis into a common political home. I don’t have a final answer to this question, but it is likely that the differences between Italian fascism and German Nazism are greater than their similarities.

And Spanish fascism. And Croatian fascism.

And what was American fascism? It was the alternative presented especially in the 1920s and '30s when the old liberal democracy and free markets seemed doomed to ruin and communism looked like the only alternative. What was the commonality between the KKK, Huey Long, George Lincoln Rockwell, Gerald L.K. Smith, and the German-American and Italian-Americans who supported the nationalist movements in their homelands? Sort that out if you like. Call them all liberals or all conservatives. You're stuck in the Procrustean bed fallacy.


*The best definition I've found is in Robert O. Paxton's book "The Anatomy of Fascism" [published in 2004]:
A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

[January 19, 2008]

SOCIAL CONSERVATIVE

Is social conservative -- as shorthand for "anti-intellectual evangelical fundamentalist Protestant Republican voter" an oxymoron?

"Evangelicalism, driven by emotion, and not creedal, is thoroughly erratic and by its nature cannot be conservative." [Dartmouth professor emeritus Jeffrey Hart]
The Founders, and the philosophers who instructed them, certainly would be in agreement with that. "Enthusiastic" religion horrified them, because they saw it as irrational. America, peopled in part by people who found their home societies insufficiently enthusiastic in religion, has got a strong dose of it. The most persistent strain is that the Scots-Irish carried down the Appalachians into the upland South, and rooted it there. They fought the British, the federal government, the Cherokees, the Confederate Authorities, the Revenuers. In some cases they fought for change; in some they opposed it. Nixon, holding his nose, brought them into the GOP as an electoral strategy.

That so many of the heirs of enthusiastic religion happen, in our day, to generally stand opposed to some of the most active efforts at social change -- especially in the realm of sexuality and morality -- or that it did so in the past with regard to desegregation, shouldn't fool anyone into thinking that it is in some sense inherently "conservative," in any philosophical or practical definition of the term.

As easily it can be a force for change. As it was during Prohibition -- surely a "progressive" movement (the further back you go in history, the more Americans drank). Back when New England, too, was full of "anti-intellectual evangelical fundamentalist Protestant voters," they were abolitionists. Who would John Brown be today? [While we're on the topic, who would Cindy Sheehan be in 1864?]

[February 8, 2007]

LIBERAL

Dennis Sanders wonders why there is no collective statement from the principled right comparable to what certain leading liberal humanitarians have attempted on the left.

I've been wondering why there is no Euston Manifesto for the Right and Center Right. The Manifesto is signed by left-liberals who believe in defending democratic values and human rights. They were concerned in seeing so much of the Left that seemed more interested in Anti-Americanism and excusing terrorism, than they are in supporting democracy.
He asks, "why haven't conservatives come up with something like this"?

Well, you'd have to find a conservative, first. Are there really any left? The mis-called "social conservatives" are often reactionaries, but they can as easily flip into aggressive activism for social transformation. Neither position is essentially conservative.

Philosophical conservatives remain in certain universities (damned few of them, though) and on the mastheads of certain magazines. Their numbers are so small, it's not a question of writing them a manifesto. A group e-mail probably would suffice.

The neo-cons, or whatever you want to call people like me, don't generally qualify as conservatives, either, though we have some affinity and affection for them. We're descendants of the John F. Kennedy kind of Cold Warrior -- visionary, believing in the power of America as a force of good in the world (and, in practical terms, being not very effective). Reagan was of that class -- challenging the Soviet Union to an economic death race hardly was a "conservative" position.

That is the face of old-school romantic liberalism in the modern world, if anything is. The Euston Manifesto is persuasive because it attempts to pull sensible people on the left back to their philosophical roots, with reference to modern issues, even at the cost of agreement with their political foes of the moment -- who are, after all, often purist apostates from leftist churches, e.g. Hitchens.

What would a conservative manifesto call people back to? Standing astride the path of history and shouting "stop!" appeals to everyone on one issue or another. But very few want to take it as an overarching philosophy of politics or life.

The problem, as I see it, is that, whatever labels we choose to use for ourselves and one another, we're all liberals now, in one or another of the the philosophical senses of liberalism -- and we all believe in changing the world for the better -- as we define "better."

Which would explain the nastiness of contemporary politics: When one half of the dichotomy collapses, the game turns from grass court tennis lobs to rule-less mud wrestling. The vicious 1820s -- the mis-called "Era of Good Feeling" -- happened for the same reason. If you live in one of those local municipalities where the voters of one party outnumber the voters of the other by about 3 to 1, you know what I mean.

[February 27, 2007]

PROGRESSIVE

People are fascinated by the story of a Texas Baptist pastor running for office as a Democrat. Whoever heard of such a thing? Well, the Progressives have. Not the people who call themselves that today, but the original Progressives. You have to pull down your American history book to talk to them today.

The original Progressive movement was alive and thriving in America a century ago, entwined firmly around another public crusade that shared its goals: the Social Gospel movement.

In fact the phrase "What Would Jesus Do," so vividly mocked by the modern left, is from "In His Steps," an 1897 novel by Charles Sheldon that was one of the most popular books of that generation. The old Progressives weren't mocking. They were nodding in agreement. This article tells the story of the book:

In simple style, In His Steps tells the story of self-satisfied congregants of a midwestern church who are challenged by a tramp during a Sunday service to live up to their declaration of faith. The tramp then dies in their midst. So moved are the minister and his parishioners that they pledge to live their lives for one year asking themselves, "What would Jesus do?" Their example [of] how they suffered, faced ridicule and emerged victorious inspires other churches throughout the country to do the same.
The article is fascinating reading for modern folks who associate a mix of firm Christian conviction and politics with smug Republican conservatism.

[As an aside, I had heard the story of "when Jesus edited a newspaper," but I didn't realize it was Sheldon who was at the center of it:

When the owner of the Topeka Daily Capital offered him full rein editing the paper for one week "as Jesus would do it," he labored 13 to 16 hours a day. The Capital's average daily circulation was just over 11,000, but during Sheldon's week it shot up to more than 362,000.
A lot of which, no doubt, had to do with mere curiosity.]

The modern political faction that claims the title of "progressive" has stolen the laurels from the graves of men like Sheldon without earning them. The old -- and to me, true -- Progressives were, like modern progressives, based in urban areas, and they often were wealthier than the average American. They included some of the most popular literary figures of the day, and they were deeply concerned with social justice issues.

Unlike their modern namesakes, though, they were rooted in religion. In fact, the were, in part, a reaction against secular excesses of Social Darwinism. Like many political labels, "Progressive" was more an umbrella than a uniform. But the Progressive movement was tightly entwined with the Social Gospel movement. Their causes were the same ones, and they were consistent with the Sermon on the Mount. They sought to reform American society in the same ways, and they saw the same looming threats to democracy and American virtues in the old "sins" like greed and pride.

Progressives in and out of Congress brought America child labor laws, minimum wages, insurance on bank deposits, and votes for women. They also had notable failures, such as Prohibition.

Yes, it wasn't a pack of prudes that gave us Prohibition. It was the same people who gave us votes for women. The Women's Christian Temperance Union was among the leading Progressive/Social Gospel organizations of its day, with a range of causes that also included women's suffrage and prison reform. Like the child labor laws, Prohibition was meant to be a specific solution to specific problems, including the corrupt machine politics of the cities, which were rooted in the saloons.

They were optimists, these Progressives, and they believed in America. They railed against corporate greed and the suffering it caused, but they knew that corporate industry was here to stay and that its products were advancing the quality of life overall. Their goal was to correct big business, not to smash it to bits. With the cross-pollination from the Social Gospel movement, they sought to hold powerful men to standards of moral behavior rooted, explicitly or not, in the New Testament.

Contrast that to the blunt nihilism of so many of the modern progressives. Contrast it to their virulent mocking of white Protestant Christianity, their furious anti-globalization mentality, their enthusiastic adherence to the idea that everything about America is corrupt, racist, militaristic, evil, and unfixable.

For all their pride in "speaking truth to power," few in today's movement can match the old Progressives in their critique of America's problems -- and in their effectiveness in promoting specific solutions to them. Upton Sinclair's scathing "The Jungle" led directly to the passage of the Pure Food & Drug Act. What good has Michael Moore wrought for all his cleverness?

[March 28, 2006]

MODERATES and RADICALS

Senior Editor Brian Doherty at Reasononline has a thoughtful review of two new books that he dovetails into one conclusion.

One book -- "The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times," by Jeffrey Hart -- is from the right. The other -- "The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual," by Eric Lott, is from the left. Each is a lament for its own side.

But the ballast isn't even in the keel here. Hart is a champion of the “responsible” center-right, and a foe of “unrealistic” conservative or libertarian radicalism. Lott is writing from the radical left, trying hard to uncouple it from, in Doherty's words, the "prominent liberal intellectuals in the Clinton era and beyond" who "have smothered any truly revolutionary leftist radicalism."

So you have a center-right Samson, pushing against the pillars on either hand, and a far leftie trying to smash the center-left, the better to make war on the evil right.

Doherty has a fine eye for the flaws in the arguments, and Lott seems to offer him more targets than a carnival shooting gallery. He makes short work of the book. But it's long short work. He casually whittles down Lott like a block of balsa till there's nothing left of him but a pile of white shavings on the ground.

Doherty dismantles the National Review book more carefully, and his real target is the magazine itself, not the book that tells its story, and his libertarian sympathies show through here, too, as he counts off the number of NR leading lights who were converted 1930s Marxists who, Doherty says, changed their coats without changing their essential views of politics and power and human nature.

He points to painful examples Hart brings up of NR editorials defending segregation during the early civil rights movement, saying the dream of equal access to voting booths and lunch counters was "unrealistic" and "sentimental." And from this, he extrapolates the perpetual doom of attempts to define a center and occupy it in the name of realism.

Hence, the title of this dual review, "The Vitiated Center," and Doherty's thematic link: "Together, they explore the perils and possibilities of radical ideologies in a centrist nation."

Lott complains American liberalism isn’t radical enough. In fact, his own radicalism, unmoored from history and economics, is self-defeating. Jeffrey Hart’s history of the American right’s leading journal shows the flipside of the American radical’s dilemma: how hewing too doggedly to an acceptable centrism can weaken real effectiveness, even while creating a surface appearance of success.
It's his conclusion from Hart's book that I find most challenging, for it's a shaft aimed at the heart of centerism.
Advocating radical change is often the only way to be realistic, since many central aspects of the modern world cannot, in the long run, survive — from segregation in the 1950s to the entitlement state today. Eisenhower ... was sure that no party would ever speak of ending Social Security and live; thanks to ideological groundwork laid by “off-the-reservation” radical libertarians for decades, the idea is now a real part of the policy debate. Hart himself writes that a respectable right nowadays can’t discuss banning abortion; surely, and regardless of the propriety of abortion laws, a sober reporter would have said the same about legalizing it completely in 1960.

Lasting political change of any sort, whether good or bad — from emancipation to woman’s suffrage to Social Security to the inevitable end of Social Security — starts on the radical fringe before it rules the center. A healthy intellectual discussion should not be restrained by toeing a middle line. As Eric Lott’s bizarre views prove, being radical isn’t the same as being right. But NR’s history suggests that being a politically realistic centrist doesn’t simply mean compromising on little things. Ultimately it makes you incapable of offering a true alternative to a status quo that can range from unmanageable to evil. NR’s past positions on de jure segregation as well as de facto segregation, and its typical embrace of and shilling for GOP pols who pay little but lip service to any conservative principle nowadays other than endless war, show what those who attack radicalism too often forget: the impotence of realism.

Well, that's juicy. At any given time, old, large structures of society totter toward untenable states. That's a reality-based view. Doherty's certainly right about that. But, he seems to say, they won't come down on their own. They have to be brought down by a process that begins with tackle rush from the sidelines of the political field. Note his judicious qualification of such change -- "whether good or bad."

So is that justified by history? Must change always be imagined in the political wilderness before it can happen?

Hard to say. You can point to American slavery as the classic case and say, see, the abolitionists were a despised and radical and occasionally violent fringe group, but in the end their ideas became the will of the people and the law of the land.

But you can't rewind the tape of history and play it without them. You can't say whether the Southern-based abolition movement of the 1820s would have gathered force in the absence of polarizing Northern radicals. You can't say whether the proud South would have hardened in its defense of slavery absent the taunting and provocation. We only know how it happened.

We don't necessarily know if it only could have happened that way. Perhaps the Southern states, with federal aid, could have accomplished a gradual, compensated abolition, along the model of the Northern state abolition acts. There were proposals to that effect kicking around Congress in the 1860s, with a target date of 1900 for total emancipation.

What, keep families in bondage for another 40 years rather than liberating them immediately? What kind of bastard am I? (See a range of opinions below). Yet perhaps that way it would have been accomplished without hundreds of thousands slain, without vicious racial resentments, and with a genuine economic and educational program to get the freedmen started right in their new state. Would we all be better off than we are now?

It also seems to me Doherty's list of historical changes begun in the radical fringes break down into two subsets: destructive change and constructive change. And it seems the essentially negative changes -- the ones that cancel something -- are most typically the ones that heat up on the fringe then move to the center. The destruction of slavery, again, is a classic example. Prohibition is another case. The fight against legal abortion has such qualities, too. The process is as Doherty describes.

But it is not the same thing as a constructive change -- a building of a new order or structure in a nation's life. That has to happen whether the old rotten order falls of its own weight or gets kicked down.

And in those cases, the center plays against the fringe. Lincoln began down the path of Reconstruction by positioning himself in the sane sunshine with reference to the Radical Republicans in Congress. Which is why many in the defeated South were genuinely sorry he got killed before he finished his work. The botched Reconstruction they got was the work of Johnson and Grant.

Roosevelt, too, introduced his retirement savings programs against a background of far more radical proposals, ranging from the Townshend Plan to Huey Long, from communism to fascism. The crisis had arrived, and he solved it radically, from the center.

Centrism has its ugly compromises. Some days I'm afraid it's nothing but that. It lacks the giddy anarchy of radical politics, but you want a robust center when it comes time to build in place of what has fallen.


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© August 23, 2008 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"