What do you do when a book comes out that attracts all sorts of bad reviews, and it sounds really bad, and the author comes across as an obnoxious jerk, and the last thing you want to do is to buy the book and help to turn it into a best-seller, but nevertheless you have this insatiable curiosity to actually read a bit of it, to see what everyone else is talking about, and you could always go to the library and hope that it’s in, so that you can browse it for a bit, but it’s not that important…
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s had this experience. But now there’s a way to scratch that itch. I’m talking about the Kindle, of course. One of the cool features is that you can download a free sample of most books, so that you can check them out for yourself. I’ve done this several times, and I have to (reluctantly) say that the “conversion rate” is pretty high. You start reading, get into the groove, turn the page, and there’s the seductive “Click here to buy this book”.
Anyway, the trashy book of the moment is Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism”. Back around the time I took the 11-Plus exam, I remember coming across a book about literary devices with long Greek names, and I took great pleasure in using and abusing them in my schoolwork. Eventually my teacher pointed out that flashy tricks were no substitute for real argument, and that (contra Humpty Dumpty) my essays were not improved by redefining a key term as “just what I choose it to meanâ€”neither more nor less”.
Apparently, Jonah Goldberg missed that lesson, and it has led to a dubious honour. Here’s John Cole over at Balloon Juice:
First there was Godwinâ€™s Law. Then we had the less noticeable Kevinâ€™s Law and Coleâ€™s Law. Now, after reading the Jonah Goldberg interview in Salon, our commentariat has come up with the â€œGoldberg Principleâ€:
You can prove any thesis to be true if you make up your own definitions of words.
Read the Salon interview and tell me that isnâ€™t a perfect description.
So I read the Salon interview, and I was appalled at how juvenile Goldberg sounded. The folks at Balloon Juice, Orcinus, and everywhere else have been quoting it to death, so I will restrict myself to one gem:
[Mussolini] says, for example, â€œGranted that the 19th century was the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy, this does not mean that the 20th century must also be the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy. Political doctrines pass; nations remain. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the â€˜right â€˜, a Fascist century.
â€œYeah, Iâ€™m perfectly willing to concede thereâ€™s a lot of stuff Mussolini says, but youâ€™ve got to remember, by â€˜32, socialism is starting to essentially mean Bolshevism. And if you get too caught up in the labels, rather than the policies, you get yourself into something of a pickle.
Eventually I decided that I really had to see this crap for myself ((Itch. Scratch.)), and a couple of clicks later a sample was installed on my Kindle. I read the first few pages, and my reaction surprised me.
I started to laugh.
If it were not for independent evidence to the contrary, I’d swear that we were dealing with a Colbert Report-style parody. (Not as good, but of the same genre.) As far as I can see, Goldberg seems to think that the following chain of “reasoning” will support his thesis:
- Academics in the field of political science have difficulty in coming up with a single, concise definition of fascism. (Although, curiously, Goldberg doesn’t bother to consider the standard and broadly-accepted authorities on the subject.)
- In popular usage, fascism has been used as a fairly broad-brush slur. (Hardly surprising, after WW2 and the Holocaust, but Goldberg doesn’t mention that obvious connection.)
- As a result, serious writers (like George Orwell, with obligatory genuflection) say that the word “has no meaning”. (However, Goldberg mentions this before getting to post-war usage, thus implying that Orwell’s comment referred to the political science debate. Cute, that.)
- “In short ‘fascist’ is a modern word for heretic.”
- Having detached fascism from its original meaning, Goldberg can now return to the domain of political science and redefine it as the opposite of the consensus usage.
There’s an interesting parallel here with evolution. Creationists challenge the science by extracting the technical word “theory”, redefining it according to an unrelated popular usage, and then injecting this usage into the question of science.
Ultimately, however, I can’t sustain my laughter, because of the poison that Goldberg seeks to spread with this nonsense. He’s not as obviously silly as, say, Coulter, but that doesn’t mean that he’s harmless. Here’s an extended quote from Dave Neiwert’s review at the American Prospect:
The title 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 anti-liberalism. 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.”
And then Goldberg proceeds to define everything that he himself considers undesirable as “fascist.” This is just about everything even remotely and vaguely thought of as “liberal”: vegetarianism, Social Security, multiculturalism, the “war on poverty,” “the politics of meaning.” The figures he labels as fascist range from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson and Hillary Clinton. Goldberg’s primary achievement is to rob the word of all meaning — Newspeak incarnate.
Fortunately I can purge my Kindle of Goldberg’s nonsense with a couple of clicks in Content Manager. I would almost wish that we could do the same thing in the world of print – but Goldberg would doubtless seize upon my sentiment as another example of “liberal fascism”.