Calling Out Jonah Goldberg
Jonah Goldberg has been complaining since before the release of his book, Liberal Fascism: How To Smear Liberals With Classic Right-Wing Projection, that there just weren’t any liberals who took it seriously. And it’s been a steady patter ever after, joyfully dismissing liberal critics either for being too scatological, or for not having read the book, or for just not being "serious."
And then there’s me.
I did read the book, and wrote a review for The American Prospect that was, frankly, quite scathing, but otherwise perfectly serious in its examination of Goldberg’s arguments and evidence. Jonah responded, kind of: as I promptly pointed out, while Goldberg expends a great deal of time excoriating and dismissing various details within the review, he utterly neglected to address its central point. Which seemed to me a reasonable expectation.
Since then, Goldberg simply hasn’t responded himself, except for a brief dismissal. But hey, the fans keep sending in those cards and letters! And those nasty liberals still won’t talk about his book seriously! Meanwhile, I published a detailed counter to his response last Sunday — but so far, Goldberg has neglected to acknowledge its existence.
I’ve also e-mailed and asked if he could at least let me know if he’d be responding, and have heard nothing back.
So it now appears that Goldberg is more than happy to respond to right-wingers like his NRO cohort Michael Ledeen because, well, they’re "serious" — which is to say, they don’t attack his central thesis. The left? Oh, they’re just not "serious". OK, even when they are "serious" — that is, they read the book, published their review in a national venue, and the critical issues raised are by any standard serious points, they’re not really serious because they’re not on subjects that Jonah wants to talk about (i.e., subjects that undermine the entirety of his enterprise).
Now, I know being raised in a place like Idaho makes me something of a crude bumpkin, manners-wise, but where I came from, there was just one word for this kind of nonsense: chickenshit.
We "liberal fascists" want to know: Is Goldberg sincere about having a serious dialogue about the real problems with his thesis? Or is he just playing a deeply cynical game? I think the answer is becoming clearer daily.
Perhaps it would help if Jonah explained what he means by "serious." I know that I’m being deadly serious, because Goldberg’s book, in my view, wreaks havoc with the public’s understanding of the very real phenomenon of fascism — a subject I’ve been involved in trying to educate the public about for years.
So let me be clear about where I’m coming from regarding Goldberg’s book. My chief credential for reviewing it is that I understand fascism from the ground up: I was a reporter and newspaper editor for some years in northern Idaho and western Montana and covered the racist right folks who set up camp in our neck of the woods in the 1970s, particularly the Aryan Nations and Posse Comitatus; that work extended into the 1990s, covering groups like the Montana Freemen. These people were all, by any definition of the word, fascists, and not only did I cover their rallies and their crimes (I used to get phone calls from Robert Matthews, the leader of The Order), I also interviewed many, many of their followers. I also became familiar with the academic study of fascism and its permutations at that time. (Secondarily, I’m not a historian, but I’m more than familiar with the milieu; my last book was a piece of history, written journalistically, that nonetheless underwent rigorous peer review from historians in the process of being published.)
Fascism isn’t just a theory for me, and it’s certainly not ancient history. But it’s clear that for Goldberg, this is largely a semantical exercise, a chance to bend definitions, to play rhetorical tit-for-tat with liberals who bandy the term about too freely (and they do exist). In other words, for the most frivolous reasons, he’s purposefully muddying the public discourse when it comes to the very real problems posed by the existence of very real fascists.
It needs to be pointed out that there are a number of groups — not just well-known organizations like the ADL and the SPLC, but church-based groups like the Center for New Community and community-organizing efforts like Not In Our Town — whose primary mission entails helping the public deal with the very real issues created by the ongoing presence and activities of these groups. The key to their efforts entails educating the public, and having a clear understanding of the nature of the beast is an essential predicate of that.
What Goldberg’s book means to them is that, when they try to identify real fascist organizations (particularly skinheads, neo-Nazis, and the Klan) as operating within their communities, the mainstream conservatives who constitute Goldberg’s audience — only a fraction of whom will have actually read the book (Jonah insists therein, you see, that he’s not claiming that all liberals are fascists, and anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t being serious), while the rest will mostly have absorbed its title — will more than likely just dismiss them: "Nah, it’s you liberals who are the real fascists!"
And let’s also be clear: mainstream conservatives are not fascists. While both are clearly creatures of the right, they are quite distinct, and it’s essential to our understanding of fascism that we make that distinction. Moreover, it’s my belief that right-wing extremists pose at least as great an existential threat to mainstream conservatives as they do to liberals, even though the latter are in fact their natural enemies. Maintaining the line between the far right and the mainstream is an essential project for all of us — especially conservatives.
Now, I’ve raised more than a few eyebrows among some of my colleagues on the left for even taking Goldberg seriously in the first place. Atrios quite adroitly observed that "while I appreciate that the light needs to shine on such stupidity occasionally, I do not understand the endless efforts to actually grapple with his very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care."
Heh indeedy. For starters, there’s the whole issue of even attempting to engage movement conservatives in serious dialogue, because for all their waving about the snotty rag of "seriousness" they’ve made clear that they’re only interested in dialogue on their own terms, i.e., terms that include pretending that the utter horseshit they’re selling is actually the finest ambrosia. The instances where this has happened have been too numerous to count, including those well within my realm of experience. Several commenters have observed that I was deluding myself if I thought I would actually get a dialogue in good faith with Goldberg, and so far they’ve been proven right.
Then there’s the larger point of the effect of taking a book like this seriously: It’s such a ludicrous premise, it deserves not serious examination but scornful ridicule. Treating it as anything but a joke gives it a patina of seriousness it shouldn’t get, and just gives Goldberg’s meme that much more air.
I appreciate these points, which certainly have some validity. But the problem with dismissing Liberal Fascism out of hand is that the mainstream media certainly haven’t dismissed the book out of hand: Goldberg’s been on a regular rotation of cable-talk shows since the book’s release, and more certainly are on the way. As much as we might wish this noxious meme would choke on its own fumes, it’s clear that isn’t going to happen: the "liberal media" is all too happy to present this fraud as "serious," and there are going to be large swaths of the public lapping it up. (There already are, in fact.) Pretty soon any discussion of actual fascists will be dismissed with a wave of the "ah, you libruls are the real fascists" hand.
Moreover, from where I stand, his grotesque misreadings of history and the realities of the rise of fascism both in Europe and America, his eradication and trivialization of genuine American fascist elements from the pages of that history — those things simply cannot go unanswered. Someone needs to point out that the Pantload has no clothes.
So my initial review at TAP Online raised this point right in the subhed:
In his new book, Goldberg has decided to dream up fascists on the left rather than acknowledge the fact that the real American fascists have been lurking in the right’s closet for lo these many years.
Here’s what the review states in its culminative paragraphs:
What goes missing from Goldberg’s account of fascism is that, while he describes nearly every kind of liberal enterprise or ideology as representing American fascism, he wipes from the pages of history the fact that there have been fascists operating within the nation’s culture for the better part of the past century. Robert O. Paxton, in his book The Anatomy of Fascism, identifies the Ku Klux Klan as the first genuine fascist organization, a suggestion that Goldberg airily dismisses with the dumb explanation that the Klan of the 1920s disliked Mussolini and his adherents because they were Italian (somewhat true for a time but irrelevant in terms of their ideological affinities, which were substantial enough that by the 1930s, historians have noted, there were frequent operative associations between Klan leaders and European fascists). [More here and here on that.]
Beyond the Klan, completely missing from the pages of Goldberg’s book is any mention of the Silver Shirts, the American Nazi Party, the Posse Comitatus, the Aryan Nations, or the National Alliance — all of them openly fascist organizations, many of them involved in some of the nation’s most horrific historical events. (The Oklahoma City bombing, for instance, was the product of a blueprint drawn up by the National Alliance’s William Pierce.) Goldberg sees fit to declare people like Wilson, FDR, LBJ, and Hillary Clinton "American fascists," but he makes no mention of William Dudley Pelley, Gerald L.K. Smith, George Lincoln Rockwell, William Potter Gale, Richard Butler, or David Duke — all of them bona fide fascists: the real thing.
This is a telling omission, because the continuing existence of these groups makes clear what an absurd and nakedly self-serving thing Goldberg’s alternate version of reality is. Why dream up fascists on the left when the reality is that real American fascists have been lurking in the right’s closet for lo these many years? Well, maybe because it’s a handy way of getting everyone to forget that fact.
And that fact, as I point out, makes clear that fascism, in its current, modern-day context, clearly describes entities that reside well on the right of the political spectrum. Regardless of how many strands of progressivism he can dig up from the 1920s (when, as he constantly reminds us without any appreciation for how it affects his own thesis, the context was very different indeed), fascism today lives on, as it has now for all those generations since the ’20s, in entities who are unquestionably right-wing.
So how did Goldberg respond? By composing two pages of sneer (the review, he says, was "shallow, cliché ridden, attack-the-messenger stuff") that, rather predictably, completely elided any discussion of the central point. When I promptly pointed this out, Jonah posted this lame response:
From a reader:
Jonah: Contemporary labels are opportunistic and confuse the political
reality. Here is why this is…
Neiwart: Labels aren’t the issue. Fascists are racists, racists are
right-wingers, therefore you and the right have a lot of accounting to
do! Why aren’t you accounting?!
I’m tempted to just leave it there since I think so little of Neiwart’s attempt. It seems to boil down to: Fascists are always the bad guys. There are real bad guys today. They are on the right. Therefore they are the real fascists. Talk about anti-intellectual!
Well, as I pointed out immediately, this is just a classic strawman, a grotesque misrepresentation of both Jonah’s argument (his response said nothing about "contemporary labels confusing the political reality") and, even moreso, mine: As I said then, the people I’m talking about — the Klan, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, skinheads, and nativists — are not definably fascist because they’re "bad guys" (whatever the hell that means). We can identify them as fascist for a number of reasons:
— They share a direct lineage with American fascists of the 1920s and ’30s whose activities never ceased in the intervening years, and whose ideologies and activities both in the 1920s and since were clearly on the political right, as they are today.
— These contemporary groups all currently employ the symbolism, ideology, rhetoric and behavior of classical fascists. Many of them openly admire, even worship, Hitler.
— They fully meet the definition of fascism — not merely Jonah’s, which as we’ve explained is wholly inadequate, but the broadly accepted understanding of fascism derived from the academic study of the phenomenon.
Yet, indeed, Jonah indeed seems to have just "left it there." After pointing this out, Jonah responded no further, except to quote e-mail from his fan club, as well as an e-mail from "a very sharp law professor friend" who basically suggested ways to politely blow me off (gee, that sounds familiar).
The closest he came to addressing my critique any further came in another post citing another e-mail:
From a reader:
I know you are incredibly busy, but I’m curious if anyone has written anything challenging your basic premise in the book that you found somewhat credible and worth reading for a different point of view. Or are most of the comments just the written equivalent of mouth foam and drool?
So far, nope. I mean Siegel and Oshinsky aren’t droolers by any stretch. But neither offered a sustained and serious critique. Pretty much all the leftwing blog stuff I’ve seen is too vile to pick through the trash in search of a good argument. Some conservative friends have some thoughtful and constructive critiques (Yuval Levin’s going to write some of them up to get a conversation going). I would like to see such a critique, but the leftwingers don’t seem interested in providing it, invested as they are in the character-assassination gambit.
In the meantime, Goldberg has airily dismissed his other liberal critics on various grounds: Ezra Klein and John Holbo (they didn’t read the book), morte at TPM (also didn’t read it, and his irony in calling it "Definitive" in the headline escaped Goldberg), Gavin McNett at Alternet (who chose to mock the enterprise, therefore he’s not serious), and Matt Yglesias, who he later tackles again with a "serious response" that doesn’t demonstrate any intent to actually engage Yglesias’ point at all:
In short, his review is a piece of theater used to disguise his own cognitive dissonance. Nothing to see here folks, no need to read this book, no need to do any heavy thinking whatsoever. Indeed, thinking is the last thing Matt or his friends on the left want to do when it comes to my book.
Well, here’s what Yglesias actually wrote:
I’m not going to say that means contemporary conservatives are fascists. I agree with Goldberg that that’s a superficial line of argument that completely ignores the sociocultural roots of American conservatism and European fascism. But nobody with allegiances like that can seriously turn around, point at the other ideological camp, at start yelling "fascism" at the slightest whiff of collectivism.
Now, that is a serious point, whether Goldberg wants to acknowledge it or not — but he clearly doesn’t, since doing so would concede Yglesias’ chief point, to wit, "there’s no real coherent argument to be extracted here at all."
Ah, but we do know now what constitutes a "serious" argument in Goldberg’s book: a critique from his NRO colleague Michael Ledeen, which he greets with a "Now this is what I’m talking about" post.
In the meantime, I wrote and published a detailed rejoinder to Goldberg’s two-page sneer. It certainly is serious, again, but also quite damning. To date, Goldberg has neither acknowledged its existence at his blog, nor even hinted at attempting a response.
Well, it’s time for this
mendacious cowardly and dishonest chickenshit nonsense to end. Let’s make it simple. Here are three very clear and very serious questions for Goldberg to answer.
— How does he account for the continuing presence — from the 1920s up through the present — of definably fascist groups, not just American entities like the Ku Klux Klan, the Christian Identity movement, the Posse Comitatus, the Aryan Nations, the National Alliance, Hammerskin Nation, and White Aryan Resistance (to name just a few), but also European groups like Vlaams Belang and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, all of whom are clearly right-wing political entities? Doesn’t this lay waste to his claim that fascism is "a phenomenon of the left"?
— How does he defend his whitewashing of the Ku Klux Klan? Is he seriously trying to argue that the Klan is a "phenomenon of the left"?
— How does he explain the self-evident inadequacy of his definition of fascism? (Goldberg’s definition, as we’ve explained, describes not fascism — particularly not any of the traits that make it distinct — but rather totalitarianism (or authoritarianism, if you will) generally, of which fascism is but a particular species, and a definitively right-wing one at that).
(Oh, and while he’s at it, he might want to address Jeet Heer’s very pointed questions about his linguistic credentials in assessing his source material — though no doubt that too is not a "serious" matter.)
Now, Goldberg can seriously address these three questions and thereby make clear that his demands for a "serious debate" over his book were made in good faith.
Or he can continue to pretend that these points haven’t been raised and that they don’t seriously undermine his thesis. In which case I think we can all pretty clearly conclude, without any further adieu, that Goldberg is a fraud — not just his book, but his pose of intellectual seriousness.
Then, I say, let the mockery proceed apace. It’s all he deserves. And if he tries to whine that no one on the left is engaging him seriously anymore, they’ll know where to point when they tell him: You have no one to blame for that but yourself.