It seems that nothing gets conservatives off nearly so much as writing obviously unserious books with patently offensive titles, designed in every way to not be taken seriously, and then get huffy when people make fun of them without having given their precious works the deep consideration they deserve. So while I’ve been poking and jibing at Jonah Goldberg, I’ve also been making my way through his book. It gets pretty tedious in parts, contrary to the faint praise with which a lot of people have been damning it it’s not witty or clever, so I won’t deny having skimmed over parts where I already got the point. But I’ve read it, and here’s what I think.
One major problem with the book is that Goldberg has no ability whatsoever to stick to a coherent line of argument. You might call this book “disparate essays about fascism and American liberalism designed to annoy liberals.” He doesn’t seem to care about what his various claims amount to or even whether or not they’re inconsistent. Thus, sometimes liberals are too mean to the non-Hitler fascists of the world. Other times, the problem is that people on the left in the 1920s were, at the time, unduly soft on fascism. But other times the problem is that people on the left now have views on some subjects (e.g., the importance of public health) that are similar to views fascists had back in the day.
Most egregiously of all, there’s an effort to read today’s highly polarized party/ideological nexus back onto a very different context. In the real world, we don’t expect people who vote for the contemporary Republican Party to William McKinley’s views on the gold standard. Similarly, when Karl Rove praises McKinley as the founder of the modern business-oriented Republican coalition, we don’t take this as proving that Rove “secretly” shares McKinley’s views on monetary policy. Woodrow Wilson, in particular, was a very complicated figure. In his presidency, we see the roots of a lot of modern progressive ideas. We also see a lot of authoritarianism, out-of-control executive power, and dogmatic adherence to white supremacy. You can’t really “place” him on the modern ideological spectrum. Unless, of course, you’re Jonah Goldberg in which you can simultaneously identify him as an American-style fascist but also very much a contemporary American liberal, and therefore liberalism equals fascism through the simple expedient of doing history ahistorically.
Alternatively, a sensible approach might say that “though today’s liberals praise Wilson for his progressive views on labor regulations and efforts to use American power to create an institutionalized liberal world order, his actual administration pursued many highly illiberal policies, especially on race and civil liberties.” Paul Starr in Freedom’s Power has an enlightening treatment of these issues, talking about the founding of the ACLU in response to the depredations of MItchell Palmer and seeing the contemporary liberal synthesis as forged by taking some of Wilson’s ideas and dropping other, more pernicious ones.
Beyond specific errors, lapses in logic, etc. the biggest problem with Goldberg’s book is actually that Goldberg himself has the wrong ideology. A certain strand of libertarian, perhaps Justin Raimondo from AntiWar.com, could have credibly written a book with the form of argument “today’s liberals rightly identify fascistic strands in contemporary conservatism, but ignore the fascist mote in their own eye” and deliver a diatribe against statism in general and seek to tar everyone, left and right, with lax deployment of the brush of fascism. But that’s not Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg is, instead, a loyal foot soldier in the Republican Noise Machine. He’s a steadfast supporter of the political party representing the dominant ethnocultural group in the United States, the party that supports torture and unlimited surveillance, the party that supports a larger and more aggressively employed military, the party that supports a more punitive criminal justice system at home, the party whose backers are prone to fretting about low birthrates, the need to police gender roles more rigidly, etc.
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.
But of course that just gets us back to the fact that there’s no real coherent argument to be extracted here at all. Nor does there seem to have been any real intention of producing one. Rather, Adam “In Defense of Nepotism” Bellow’s basic idea was, basically, let’s slap a bunch of shit together that’ll piss off liberals, generate buzz, and then maybe conservatives will buy the book. It’s cynicism, pure and true, but it makes a reasonable amount of sense. The funny thing about it is that as best one could tell, Goldberg is actually slow-witted enough that he doesn’t understand what’s happening and is apparently genuinely upset that liberals aren’t seriously debating his ideas the way one goes back-and-forth against an antagonist whose thinking you respect despite your differing perspectives. That, of course, only makes it funnier to make fun of him and that, in turn, serves the higher call of the marketing pitch.
UPDATE: Goldberg proclaims himself disappointed with the unseriousness of my efforts. Also notes accurately that I’ve been a bit “pissy” toward him ever since he called me an anti-semite in print.