It’s been months now since I added Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism, to my “Currently Reading” page.
It’s a reflection of how ridiculously little time I’ve had for recreational reading that I’m just now getting the book finished. Finding time to write a proper review would take another six months, but the book is important, so I want to at least put a few thoughts out there.
So, here’s some of my finest thin gruel for you:
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First . . . about the packaging, branding, and positioning of the book. Liberal Fascism is not the book it’s title and cover will lead most people to assume–and this is both a blessing and a curse to the book and its author.
I suspect that too many people, both liberal and conservative instantly pegged the book as belonging to that shrill, preaching-to-the-converted genre endlessly produced and consumed over the last ten years or so. Al Franken got the party started for lefties with Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. Since then, there have been scores and scores of screedy tomes–lefty and righty–designed to provide gratification and validation for those who agree with the author and zero persuasive influence on those who don’t.
These tend to sell like crazy because few things are more exhilarating that having all your closely-held biases endorsed by an authority. I have a bookshelf full of them. We all love to told be we’re right.
Liberal Fascism is not one of those books. But it is titled and packaged like one. That has probably helped sales. (It made a strong showing on the New York Times bestseller list.) But it has also certainly kept some people who would benefit greatly from reading it from picking it up. And that’s a shame.
Indeed, I wish every intellectually honest liberal in America would read Liberal Fascism. At minimum, the general tone of our public discourse would improve as there would be far fewer people throwing the label “fascist” at people they don’t like.
And any liberal reader with a sense of shame or decency would never again dare suggest that the modest security/intelligence measures the Bush Administration took following 9/11 somehow represented a dangerous and unprecedented effort to turn America into a fascist dictatorship. They would have learned that Woodrow Wilson and FDR both took far more extreme measures.
No, this book isn’t another volley in the Left vs. Right name calling wars. It’s an extraordinarily well-researched and well-written book of history. Particularly the history of a set of ideas that, in the early part of the 20th Century, went by the name of “Fascism.”
One learns, in fact, that there was a worldwide “fascist moment” in which Benito Mussolini was toasted in better dinner parties all over the planet as the prototype of the enlightened leader of the future.
The work springs from something I’ve seen in Jonah’s columns and blog posts for some time. On many occasions he has remarked and marveled at liberals’ general disinterest in the history of their own ideas. In contrast, Jonah observes, conservatives are always discussing and debating the origins of their principles–in Hayek, Adam Smith, Friedman, et. al..
Apparently, Jonah decided that if liberals wouldn’t take an interest in where most of their impulses and agendas originated, he’d do the job for them. In the opening chapter titled, “Everything You Know About Fascism is Wrong,” Goldberg tells us:
Indeed, it is my argument that during World War I, American became a fascist country, albeit temporarily. The first appearance of modern totalitarianism in the Western world wasn’t in Italy or Germany but in the United States of America. How else would you describe a country where the world’s first modern propaganda ministry was established; political prisoners by the thousands were harassed, beaten spied upon, and thrown in jail simply for expressing private opinions; the national leader accused foreigners and immigrants of injecting treasonous “poison” into the American bloodstream; newspapers and magazines were shut down for criticizing the government; nearly a hundred thousand government propaganda agents were sent out among the people to whip up support for the regime and its war; college professors imposed loyalty oaths on their colleagues; nearly a quarter-million goons were given legal authority to intimidate and beat “slackers” and dissenters; and leading artists and writers dedicated their crafts to proselytizing for the government?
As I said, most of the Americans who would most benefit from reading this book, won’t. But you should. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
[For a proper, meaty review, see this, from the Claremont Review of Books.]