Sunday, 8 February 2009

“Liberal Fascism”, by Jonah Goldberg (Penguin)

Goldberg-LiberalFascismA conservative look at the underbelly of American Liberalism

In Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg has set out to respond to the liberal knee-jerk reaction of accusing American conservatives of being “fascists”. Instead, he argues, it is the political left that is the more fascist. This is an unorthodox claim, but Goldberg proceeds to lay out a well-constructed, calm and composed argument that this is, in fact, the case. Working his way through American history, from Wilson and FDR, Kennedy and Johnson, Hillary Clinton (a bête noire of conservatives, and Rush Limbaugh’s “dittoheads”), as well as “Liberal Fascist Economics”, and environmentalism, Goldberg paints an interesting, “alternative history” of the American liberal left.

Goldberg’s argument is that fascism is a “secular religion”, which reaches into every part of life and society. The author begins by introducing the book, with a brief outline of how he’s going to construct his argument, the author provides a quick literature-review of works already published about fascism, as well as explaining what fascism actually is: in short, governmental control over nearly everything, and not the racist, homophobic militarism of Hitler. Later in the book, Goldberg explains that liberal fascism has a visceral need to impose order on society. Two short chapters about Mussolini and Hitler, the world’s two most famous fascists, provide detailed explanation of how each of these two men’s political ideology was formed, and also how they were different in important ways. Written in a largely dispassionate way, these chapters are especially good.

“American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying.” So says Goldberg in the introduction, before he proceeds to disprove this statement – especially in the chapter about Woodrow Wilson. In this chapter, the author describes the various “patriotic” organisations and policies brought into reality during Wilson’s presidency; including the Espionage Act (June 1917), the Sedition Act (May 1918) and the American Protective League (APL), which were really civilian spies. The practice of using civilian spy-networks was not reserved for Wilson’s presidency, as according to Goldberg FDR would try to use the American League in much the same way, not to mention Japanese internment in 1942. Goldberg also comments on the admiration some progressives actually felt towards Hitler and Mussolini (written in the 1920s and 1930s, rather than contemporarily) and their ability to control or guide their respective societies.

One of Goldberg’s more interesting comments: “perhaps the greatest irony is that according to most of the criteria we use to locate people and policies on the ideological spectrum in the American context – social bases, demographics, economic policies, social welfare provisions – Adolf Hitler was indisputably to Wilson’s left.”

It is when Goldberg discusses modern liberalism that things become a little wonky. His passions are certainly more energised when writing about Hillary Clinton, “Organic Fascism”, and Hollywood (he has some strange ideas about certain movies, including The Matrix, Gladiator and American Beauty). One weakness of Liberal Fascism is that Goldberg’s phraseology and observations can easily be attributed to certain conservative factions, which the author (of course) doesn’t do. For example, Goldberg says that American liberals see “no realm of human life that is beyond political significance”. How is this any different from the conservative right? He continues, “Liberals place their faith in priestly experts who now better, who plan, exhort, badger, and scold. They try to use science to discredit traditional notions of religion and faith, but they speak the language of pluralism and spirituality to defend ‘nontraditional’ beliefs.” With very few changes (“priestly experts” to “priests”, for example), this could be thrown back at the extreme right, or the conservative equivalent of the Progressive left.

It would be difficult to argue that this book is ‘wrong’ (there are no lies, only the occasional omission and frequent hyperbole). There’s plenty in Liberal Fascism that will make even the most dyed-in-the-wool liberal pause for thought (especially the history chapters), and it’s difficult to fault Goldberg’s “fascist” accusations when you consider things like New York’s trans-fat ban, the war on smoking around the Western world, the banning of LEGO in a Seattle day-care centre, and other such socially-charged laws, not to mention the more scary and wider-reaching policies described above. When analysing contemporary liberalism, however, Goldberg occasionally comes across as reaching. He also suffers from tarring all liberals with the same brush – to be fair, though, liberals do that with conservatives. At least conservatives are not left out of his analysis, as the Afterword deals with Conservative Fascism as the author sees it, with the GOP adapting to the American political environment.

Overall, this is a good book: well-written, always interesting, measured with only fleeting instances of hyperbole, occasionally amusing, and frequently illuminating (particularly of the roots of Nazism and Mussolini’s fascism). The different take on liberal icons and holy grails is refreshing. Goldberg doesn’t attempt to make this an academic exercise, rather a long-form journalistic appraisal of liberalism and its preconceptions, not to mention its contradictions. The blurb on the back describes it as “angry”, but to me it came across mostly calm and is the better for it. Even though it’s unlikely to change anyone’s ideological bias, every conservative and liberal should read Liberal Fascism, as something to energise and stimulate new debate, and also to hopefully inject just a little more understanding of the roots of American liberalism.

Also try: David Frum, “Comeback” (2008); Ross Douthat, “Grand New Party” (2008); Ron Paul, “The Revolution” (2008); Newt Gingrich, “Real Change” (2008); Paul Khan, “Putting Liberalism in its Place” (2008)

Read if you disagree with: Paul Krugman, “Conscience of a Liberal” (2008/9); Thomas Frank, “The Wrecking Crew” (2008)

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