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January 18, 2008

Commissar Goldberg: If you want a vision of the future, imagine a daycare worker giving a toddler a sugarfree bran muffin -- forever.

-- by John Emerson

[Discussion of Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism Also see this.]

Goldberg's weird definition of fascism was customized to make it possible to say things like this:

The quintessential Liberal Fascist isn't an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.

But that's just loony. If Goldberg had written 1984, at the end he'd have O'Brien saying:

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a daycare worker giving a toddler a sugarfree bran muffin -- forever.

Or how about this:

A hug is liberal fascism's equivalent of a pistol shot to the back of the head.

You can have infinite fun with Goldberg. Who was the first liberal fascist, for example? Wasn't it Cardinal Biggles with his terrifying Comfy Chair?

Jonah Goldberg's book has no importance at all from a scholarly point of view, but the Jonah Goldberg phenomenon is extremely important. He's the most recent of a long string of Movement Republican mouthpieces who have gained places in the legit media, and he's put a few new tweaks into the formula. Unlike Coulter, Malkin, Limbaugh, Savage, and Beck, Goldberg speaks in a nice NPR voice and has a professorial manner, and while what he says is no more than cheap taunting, the way that he says it seems scholarly. So responding effectively to him will be tricky.

Conservatives hate liberal notions of tolerance, open-mindedness, and civility, and Goldberg is setting a trap: "OK, buddy, tolerate this!" If you argue civilly, he gains legitimacy, since his target readers are the ones who don't pay close attention and will score the debate as a draw. But if you lose your temper or ridicule him, Goldberg will smirk down at you from the moral high ground. This is an old game, and in my opinion it attacks (albeit dishonestly) one of liberalism's genuine weak spots.

Goldberg's book is also intended to inoculate Republicans against the charge of fascism -- "We're no worse than the Democrats" is the standard Republican response whenever they're caught behaving indefensibly. Goldberg doesn't really need to make his case: he just needs to plant a few doubts and give the Republican mouthpieces some new talking points. Even if his book is mostly rejected, there will be some residue, the way accusations tarnish reputations at the unconscious level even when presented from the beginning as false (e.g., "Obama has never been a Muslim and has never attended a Muslim school").

When a legit publication features someone like Kristol or Goldberg, a clear message is sent about what is expected and what is permissible. Movement Republican plants are turf markers, rather like the illiterate commissars holding high positions in Soviet universities or the thugs sent from national headquarters to oversee mobbed-up union locals. The media are free, all right, but they still have to give the Republicans a voice and a veto. The stupider the mouthpiece, the clearer the message -- it's not really possible to pretend that either one of these guys was hired for his talents. And everyone else in the organization will get the message about what the management wants.

What about the substance of Goldberg's book? Is there any? If you take the book seriously, you play into Goldberg's hands, but it's worth pointing out briefly that there's no there there. So:

Like fascists, American liberals are more populist and futurist than classical liberals and traditionalist conservatives, but so are Republicans. (The classical liberals and traditionalist conservatives are nostalgia items -- dead as a doornail.) Like fascists, American liberals are willing to intervene in the economy in a way that classical liberals weren't, but so are Republicans -- and like Republicans (but unlike liberals), fascists favored big business with their interventions. It is true that in the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century many left groups were racist, but in the contemporary U.S. the racists are Republicans (the paleoconservatives and the neo-Confederates). Some early Nazi leaders were closet homosexuals, but so are many contemporary Republican leaders. The Nazi SA used anti-capitalist rhetoric at first, but the SA leaders were all massacred in 1934 and the group lost its influence.

And so on. As far as authoritarianism, militarism, contempt for legality, xenophobia, and the cult of personality go, the Republican Party which Goldberg automatically supports is remarkably more fascistic than the Democrats or any liberal group, so Goldberg just obscures these issues.

There's really only one reason why the Republican Party cannot be called fascist yet, though it's a big one. The Republicans (so far) don't have a paramilitary branch using violence and illegal means to intimidate opponents. But multiply the anti-abortion terrorists by a few hundred, and they'll have that too. (And you have to wonder what the Blackwater paras will do once they're brought home).

Repeating falsehoods with a straight face is Jonah's job. He can do this with confidence because he knows that his Republican sponsors and his media employers will accept anything he says. He was hired as a Republican mouthpiece, and if the Republicans like what he's saying the media can't object. Goldberg can also be confident that with a very few exceptions (Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, and Paul Krugman) no one in the major media will ever call him out on his fraud.

I expect the rest of the media will disgrace themselves by treating him as a reasonable man making a reasonable argument, and that in itself should be enough to tell us what desperate shape our country is in.

-- John Emerson

Posted by John Emerson at January 18, 2008 9:29 AM

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"Conservatives hate liberal notions of tolerance, open-mindedness, and civility,"

Well, I'm not a conservative and in face have voted for a Republican only once in my life, but if you think that liberals shine in the realms above, you really aren't seeing the forest for the trees.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2008 1:04 PM

The stupider the mouthpiece, the clearer the message -- it's not really possible to pretend that either one of these guys was hired for his talents. And everyone else in the organization will get the message about what the management wants.

This is very astute.

Posted by: richard [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 18, 2008 6:50 PM

I can see why Jonah Goldberg linked to this "review" (without comment) from his blog. It is an iridescently perfect self-parody, rich in irony because you will never in your lifetime get the joke.

Be sure to send Jonah a thank-you note -- he's bring your blog more hits than you ever had, even if it's only people who come over to laugh at you.

Posted by: Scott Ferguson [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 2:50 PM

you have to wonder what the Blackwater paras will do once they're brought home

This is pretty chilling -- it's an angle that had not occurred to me before for looking at the privatization of the military.

Posted by: Anacreon [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 4:42 PM

The phenomenon of liberal fascism is described here.

I don't know if Goldberg's book did a reasonable job in describing the phenomenon; I haven't read it. OTOH, I'm not taking the word of someone who thinks there's a conservative management giving orders that anybody is obeying. (If there were, we'd see a "Movement Republican" as front runner for the nomination.)

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 5:12 PM

Please say something specific, Joseph. Why did you bother to comment at all?

Posted by: John Emerson [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 6:33 PM

"The Republicans (so far) don't have a paramilitary branch using violence and illegal means to intimidate opponents. But multiply the anti-abortion terrorists by a few hundred, and they'll have that too."

Glad you noticed it would take a multiple of a few hundred to create said terror force. According to Wiki all abortion terror occurred during the years 1993 to 1998. During this time, "In the U.S., violence directed toward abortion providers has killed 7 people, including 3 doctors, 2 clinic employees, a security guard, and a clinic escort". Nothing since 1998.

Some threat. Maybe it just doesn't take much to scare you.

Posted by: Metalguy [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 19, 2008 8:23 PM

Just so I'm clear, your argument is that fasicism is something that is not classical liberalism or traditional conservatism and can also bring paramilitary force to bear?

Posted by: Rev Prez [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 9:45 AM

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a doughy chickenhawk self-goaling on Godwin's Law -- forever.

Posted by: bartkid [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 10:43 AM

A few reflections:

1.) Won't read the book, as the argument seems to be, at the very least, seriously flawed.

2.) Still, that doesn't mean that the leftist element of fascism was some quaint, marginal phenomenon that was specific to the SA, as you let on. Anti-capitalist rethoric (and a roughly social-democratic level of practice) was a staple of nazi/fascist policy. That should give Goldberg some easy ammunition. "The people's community" wasn't just some grand hoax - it was a (rather popular) reality.

2.5) There is also some Karma involved here. US liberals have, for instance, often ventured to paint the nazis as 'extreme christians' or something along those lines - something that is plainly absurd.
(I find stuff like this fascinating: http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/feier37.htm The archive is an historical treasure trove.)

3.) Still, I agree that ferocious nationalism and militarism was a more dominant marker of fascism. Racism/anti-semitism was obviously a staple with the Nazis, but less so when it comes to Fascist Italy. This is the primary weakness of Goldberg's thesis. Fascists put more "heart" in nationalism, as compared to anti-capitalism.

3.5) Still, even though Goldberg "tweaks" the balance for propagandistic purposes, it's hard to see what makes it so much worse than the average political BS book to warrant the description of Goldberg as a "commissar" . Liberals are lapping up "The Chock Doctrine", after all...

4.) Your mode of reasoning with regards to anti-abortion terrorists is... interesting. It has great potential - the neocons should like it. "Sure, Iraq wasn't *that* dangerous, but if you multiply the danger it posed in 1991 a few hundred times..."

5.) "Conservatives hate liberal notions of tolerance, open-mindedness, and civility"

Yes, that is why conservative mobs routinely disrupt liberal appearences at universities, and why conservatives are leading the charge all over the world to ban the publication or public expression of anything they or their client groups find offensive.

Ooops - that's not really true, though, is it? Across the west though, liberals are prosecuting incorrect thought and expression with abandon...

(See, for instance:

The only reason US liberals have not implemented thoughtcrime in the US is the first amendment combined with their relative political weakness.

In fact, conservatives all over the west are currently the only thing protecting the traditional notions of free speech and democracy. (Not terribly successfully, sadly...)

The fact that Bush tried (and failed) to railroad José Padilla won't change that. Not because of the virtue of conservatives, mind you, but because the primary challenge to political and intellectual freedom in the west currently comes from the left.

Posted by: cgarmfeldt [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 1:52 PM


Isn't attacking Jonah a bit like attacking the Pillsbury Doug Boy? I mean, he's simply a chubby, pasty, male version of Ann Coulter -- of course Coulter probably has a higher testosterone level than Jonah!

I just skimmed through the thread over at gnxp.com – you should never have let yourself get dragged into abortion! Of course, since my views on abortion are pretty much the same as yours, I found your comments on the subject the very model of reason and discretion.

Seriously, your main point in the gnxp discussion seemed to be that the GOP is now marginally more fascistic than the Dems. That’s why I changed my registration to the Dems in ’04, and your comment that you made an exception for Ron Paul also explains why I changed my registration back to the GOP a few weeks ago – to cast a vote for Congressman Paul.

Isn’t this the real underlying problem – it really is hard to see significant differences between, say, Hillary and McCain? Both supported the War, and, more importantly, the underlying imperialist philosophy behind it. Neither is willing to stand forthrightly for civil liberties and the Bill of Rights (though McCain does at least condemn torture).

Supporting either the Dems (except of course for Kucinich or Gravel) or the GOP (except for Paul) is just fiddling while the republic burns.

Somehow, the decent people in the country (and my personal conversations with family and friends convince me that there are still a lot of them in both parties) have to rally and stop the madness.

But how? Any suggestions?


Posted by: Dave M. in Sacramento [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2008 5:35 PM

I actually asked for the thread to be closed once abortion became central.

Hillary would definitely be less militarist than McCain, who's more militarist than Bush at times. And Bush's strategy -- monopolar preponderance and mutliple regime changes is an intensification of anything that went before. But it's true that Hillary just wants better execution and better judgement within the interventionist strategy. Nonetheless, even she would be better than any of the Republicans with a chance to run against her.

Goldberg can't be ignored because he gets space in the legit media. He's a phenomenon, not a thinker. Refuting him is secondary, dealing with him is primary.

But I don't really have any great ideas about a way to get at him and his kind. People like him and Kristol will keep going as long as their backers support them.

Posted by: John Emerson [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2008 3:56 PM

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