February 03, 2010

Definitions and Double Standards - A Rebuttal

A response to Jonah Goldberg's critique of 'An Academic Book — Not!':

Definitions and Double Standards - A Rebuttal

"If you’re catching flak, you must be over the target." That Jonah Goldberg spontaneously uses a metaphor drawn from the Anglo-American bombing campaigns on Nazi Germany is, if nothing else, indicative of his mindset about the subject at hand. The fact is that he does NOT conceive his book as a reasoned, empirically grounded, original contribution to comparative fascist studies, but rather has executed a thinly disguised propaganda attack on "liberals."

Genuine academics use reasoned arguments that do not wilfully distort their sources to rhetorical ends. They do not use footnoted polemics without destroying their own credibility among their peers. That has been Goldberg’s approach.

I wrote NOT as a "liberal"' engaged in fending off attacks on the freedom to think. I wrote as an academic concerned that the tools of the specialism to which I contribute are being abused by a neoconservative with no academic track record in fascist studies that qualifies him to denigrate, by association, a form of social democracy or liberal socialist agenda that is generically different from fascism. I did not set out to discredit Liberal Fascism in the spirit of a type of political Star Wars, but as a university lecturer professionally offended by Goldberg's impersonation of a historian whose publishing success is in inverse proportion to its merits and significance as a scholarly monograph.

Genuine academics target truth, conceived as a complex, multifactorial, contested reality reconstructed through collaborative effort. They do not "target" particular groups of people defined by their affiliations or beliefs. In strictly academic terms, Jonah Goldberg does not understand fascism. Perhaps he should also brush up on his liberalism. (HISTORICALLY, that is, not politically).

As for the tone of Jonah's self defense: its slanderous, offensive tone reminds me of the way bad drivers react when other motorists hoot them for dangerous maneuvers. Their insulting behaviour smacks of bad faith: they know they are in the wrong, but have not the honesty or moral courage to admit it. All the book sales, chat shows, and plaudits from the anti-Obama clique cannot compensate for Goldberg's intellectual and moral vacuity.

Incidentally, my point about parallels between Goldberg's technique of discrediting liberalism by tarring it with connotations of fascism, and the way Nazi propaganda associated Jews with Communists - and even Negroes with Jews - is a sober reference to a familiar technique for discrediting the targets of persecution by association - cf. the equation of social liberals with Bolshevism and Stalinism in the McCarthy era. It was NOT an ad hominem argument as Goldberg alleges. I, at least, can make a distinction between chalk and cheese, or in this case tell radical anti-Democrats out to malign and discredit the sort of welfare policies commonplace in all advanced liberal democracies in Europe, apart from the rantings of neo-Nazis and Christian fundamentalists (loosely called by some of their opponents "Christian fascists," a term I also have problems with on academic grounds).

By misrepresenting my critique as a personalized, "ad hominem" attack, neoconservative partisans like Goldberg give themselves license to dismiss every word I write. After all, even if I am, at least on paper, an internationally known professor of modern history who has devoted several decades of specialist research and writing to probing into the nature of fascism, I am "actually" simply "unhinged," cannot marshal evidence or arguments to support a position, and can only "hyperventilate."

It’s true that Goldberg’s book made me angry, and no doubt my review reflected that. But the anger is not partisan – it’s professional and ethical. Frauds, after all, have that effect on the people watching as they’re perpetrated if they understand the subterfuge.

It would be one thing if Goldberg’s fraud were limited in scope. But it has spread – to the Tea Parties, to the TV talk shows, to the blogs. And try as Goldberg might to complain that liberals misunderstand his thesis – he insists he’s not identifying liberals with fascism – the problem is hardly limited to liberals. Many of his sign-carrying acolytes at the Tea Parties, and his TV friend Glenn Beck, explicitly identify liberals and President Obama with fascism.

Here is a revealing sample of the support garnered by Jonah's book, from fellow neoconservative Mark Noonan:

My view: Goldberg gets it exactly right. This is especially true in light of my own assertion that all non-conservative views ultimately stem from the same, flawed source. Liberalism, as I’ve said, rests upon the falsehood that Man is perfectible by men. That our problems stem not from our fallen nature, but from the unjust systems and that if we can just change the system, we’ll change ourselves. Heaven on earth will result.

From that initial folly has stemmed all the rest - and thus liberalism, socialism, communism, fascism and Nazism are branches of the same, poisoned tree. Of course, to point any of this out - especially in a best-selling book - is to irk the liberals to no end. They insist that things like Nazism and fascism have nothing to do with liberalism - in spite of the obviousness of the relationship.

I rest my case, satisfied that I, at least, am trying to water the oak of liberal humanism and democracy through disinterested intellectual labour in the pursuit of historical truth — always complex, always contested — not poison it with a version of history genetically modified to achieve thinly veiled political ends.