The Daily Sandwich

"We have to learn the lesson that intellectual honesty is fundamental for everything we cherish." -Sir Karl Popper

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, United States


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Nothing about New Hampshire!

I was going to break my word right out of the gate, but I think yesterday's posts conveyed how frustrated and disheartened I am by the way this (monumentally important) presidential election is being treated like an episode of..... Saved by the Bell, maybe. Instead, I'm going to bring up something that I find even more troubling, but in a different sort of way.

Revisionism, or (to use one of the author's words that was new to me) revanchism, has become one of the central tactics of American conservatism. But as scary as it is to see Holocaust deniers present absurdities as thoughtful scholarship, and as sad as it is to see global warming deniers pass off their ignorance as intellectual honesty, leading conservative voices have no trouble whatsoever presenting lies as fact. To wit:

The title [of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism] alone is enough to indicate its thoroughgoing incoherence: of all the things we know about fascism and the traits that comprise it, one of the few things that historians will readily agree upon is its overwhelming antiliberalism. One might as well write about anti-Semitic neoconservatism, or Ptolemaic quantum theory, or strength in ignorance. Goldberg isn't content to simply create an oxymoron; this entire enterprise, in fact, is classic Newspeak.

Indeed, Goldberg even makes some use of Orwell, noting that the author of 1984 once dismissed the misuse of "fascism" as meaning "something not desirable." Of course, Orwell was railing against the loss of the word's meaning, while Goldberg, conversely, revels in it -- he refers to Orwell's critique as his "definition of fascism."

It's more than just "lying." It's a breathtaking misrepresentation of reality, an attempt to hoodwink an entire nation into believing that up is down, and a fraud of epic proportions made worse by its malicious intent. And it wouldn't be complete without the sick irony that it is exactly what it professes to oppose. But we're also given a bonus sick irony at no extra charge (but only if you drink the Flavor-Aid, so act now!). What is presented as fearless truth-telling serves the purpose of obfuscating the truth by de-linking these loaded, overused terms from their grave and all too real historical significance. And using Orwell to do it, no less.

More astonishing is the reaction of Goldberg's boosters (have a look at some discussions of the book on Amazon's site, where it ranks in the top 100 sellers). The baffling arguments they make to support what they want to believe are just as nonsensical-- and as obstinately, defiantly, and proudly misinformed as they could be. But that's covered in the review as well:

More to the point, perhaps, is that discussing fascism's "intellectual foundations" is a nonsensical enterprise in the face of the consensus historical understanding that anti-intellectualism is an essential trait of fascism, a fact that Goldberg briefly acknowledges without assessing its impact on his thesis. As Umberto Eco put it, the fascist insistence on action for its own sake means that "it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation." In this worldview, the instincts of the fascist leader are always superior to the logic and reason of puling intellectuals. (. . .)

Liberal Fascism is like a number of other recent attempts at historical revisionism by popular right-wing pundits -- including, notably, Michelle Malkin's attempt to justify the Japanese-American internment in her book In Defense of Internment, and Ann Coulter's attempt to rehabilitate McCarthy's reputation in her book Treason -- in that it employs the same historical methodology used by Holocaust deniers and other right-wing revanchists: namely, it selects a narrow band of often unrepresentative facts, distorts their meaning, and simultaneously elides and ignores whole mountains of contravening evidence and broader context. These are simply theses in search of support, not anything like serious history.

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.

Yup. It's an excellent piece on a dangerous recent trend in American politics. And a scenario that's played out countless times in human history.