Jonah Goldberg, of Liberal Fascism fame, has a new book out entitled The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. I love reading Goldberg, because when he is wrong, which is very often, it is quite funny. And when he is right, it is usually not in the way he thinks he is right, but very important nonetheless. So, I really will have to read this book of his at some point.

In the meantime, here are some excerpts from an NPR interview with him. [Goldberg’s words in red]:

“What you have often in American political discourse are appeals to clichés that steal territory, steal terrain unearned by argument. And all I want is an argument. I don’t care that liberals have an ideology. I want them to have an ideology. I want to have a contest of ideas. What bothers me is when they come in and they say, ‘Oh, you guys are the crazy ideologues with your labels and all of the rest, and we’re just pragmatists who care about sound science and the numbers and the facts’ and all that.’ “

What becomes rapidly apparent from listening to Goldberg is that he is not, in fact, against cliches. He is only against liberal cliches. Well, to paraphrase Nietzsche: “he who fights clichés should take care that he does not himself become a cliché”. And indeed:

On the response that conservatives also have their own clichés

“Yeah, and some of these things I absolutely agree. I think that there is something endemic — one of the reasons why some of these cliches appeal, why they have power, why they move men, is because they appeal to the hard-wiring in our human nature. We’re all built from the crooked timber of humanity; we all want to live in groups; we all want to live in tribes; we all want to, you know, band together and do good things.”

It might have been good to notice that before you wrote the book. So, he certainly is willing to allow as how conservatives also have clichés. But whatever, it’s okay, because everyone does. But liberals, when they do it, do it wrong and perniciously. Got it?

But when an actual instance of something thought to be a conservative cliché is raised, Goldberg is skeptical of its status as “cliché”:

On the saying, “Government is the problem”

“No, I’m not against having a government. I don’t know if that qualifies as the kind of cliché that I am talking about … The mainstream media never talks as if government is the problem — you never hear that repeated over and over again. Even on Fox, to a certain extent, you won’t hear that sort of thing. It’s a catchphrase, to be sure, and it’s a glib catchphrase that oversimplifies things, but the context in which I was talking about it was that Ronald Reagan had said, ‘In the current situation, government is the problem, not the solution.’ And that is the beginning of a serious argument.”

Yeah, but the point is, when you just start quoting that line of Reagan’s all the time when talking about the government, then it becomes a cliché. That’s how clichés work, Goldberg. Remember; every cliché was an original thought once.

At bottom, though, his point is correct. Clichés in politics are a problem, like I wrote about in this post. As I see it, both Democrats and Republicans use clichés all the time, and it does, as Goldberg says, hinder productive argument.

But as far as I can tell, without having read the thing yet, Goldberg’s book is just a compilation of liberal clichés. I haven’t heard anything to suggest he offers a solution to our cliché-filled politics. Which is fine, but how would one go about fixing it?

George Lucas once said “Don’t avoid the clichés–they are clichés because they work!” And he proved it, too, by making billions of dollars off of a movie franchise built around some of the oldest clichés of all. It works the same with political clichés.

Like I said in the other post, people learn their communication through imitation. Why should political communication be immune from this? Think about the effort involved in figuring out how to not think in political clichés: you’d have to be willing to ignore all the slogans and ideas told to you by your friends, family, colleagues, political analysts, writers and the politicians themselves. The you would have to try to reevaluate everything about politics. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success. You might just become Alex Jones.

Back to what Lucas said: “clichés work”. They sure do. It’s a cliché to say the Republicans are defenders of the super-rich, and indeed, that is oversimplifying things greatly, but even so it’s still a pretty good synopsis that gives you a decent idea of their behavior. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it, and if you go around operating on that assumption, it will be awhile before you notice anything that makes you question it.

It goes back to what I’ve talked about before lots of times on this blog: people are too busy to get really involved in politics beyond following the leaders of their parties. And it’s not because people are lazy or stupid; it’s because really thoroughly understanding politics is a full-time job.

I came across a very interesting blog called “Noahpinion”. One post that particularly caught my eye was one that relates to the issue of the Southerners and the Tea Party, which has been under discussion here lately. The author, Noah Smith, makes a lot of great points in it, but he also makes what I think is a somewhat significant error. He writes:

“It seems to me – and this part is a guess and a supposition – that white Southern conservatives just don’t have a lot of nationalism – at least, not for the nation they currently inhabit. They seem to feel, instinctively, that the United States of America is only “their country” when one of their own is in power… 

When Southern white conservatives talk about the “real America,” or cry “I want my America back!”, my instinct says that they are talking about an America that the United States has never been – a white racial nation.” 

This description of their behavior is largely true, although I am by no means certain that just because they are nationalistic means they long for a white-only nation. But the behavior described here is, in fact, textbook nationalism. Nationalists are frequently in direct opposition to their own government, if they feel that government is run by cosmopolitan intellectuals. I consider this one of the defining characteristics of nationalism.

As longtime readers may know, I like to quote from, of all things, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism on this subject:

“Patriots revere ideas, institutions, and traditions of a particular country and its government. The watchwords for nationalists are ‘blood’, ‘soil’, ‘race’, ‘Volk’, and so forth.”

And this quote requires I briefly quote myself from another post on the subject: “This definition, I think, makes it too easy to categorize Nationalists as simple racists.” I do think nationalism, although often associated with racism, is not the same thing, and the two need not always go together.

So what Smith is really describing here, I think, is the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Ultimately, of course, what’s really important is that he describes their behavior quite well, even if he uses unconventional terminology.

(Hat Tip to Andrew Sullivan.)

Conservative film critic John Nolte has capped off his series on the “Top 25 Left-Wing films” with Oliver Stone’s JFK. In the preamble, explaining why he considers it a “liberal” film, Nolte writes: “Simply put, the Left cannot psychologically or emotionally reconcile their undying hatred of the Vietnam War with their undying love for the same president who escalated our involvement in that war.”

Well, I’m sure Nolte would consider me part of the “Left”, and I don’t believe in any of those conspiracy theories. In any event, however, whether Nolte’s claims are true or false is irrelevant for my purposes. What I want to discuss is the Republicans‘ peculiar attitude towards President Kennedy. For they too seem to have paradoxical feelings towards him. As in, for example, the conservative wiki Conservapedia’s analysis of him as “basically a conservative”.

Republicans have come lately to believe that his tax-cuts were the precursor to President Reagan’s supply-side, Laffer curve-based tax cutting program. (That Kennedy was in fact following the advice of Keynesian economics is strangely forgotten.)

They also seem to admire Kennedy for having a hawkish approach to foreign policy–and there is clearly some truth to this. After all, he had been a military man, and no doubt he certainly found himself in quite a few showdowns with Khrushchev. His anti-communism is hailed by the Republican party of today.

The Republican admiration for Kennedy isn’t complete, of course. There are still times when they find it useful to portray Kennedy as just another Liberal president, to be reviled like Woodrow Wilson and FDR. In what is perhaps the seminal work of the Tea-Party canon, Liberal Fascism, you can really see author Jonah Goldberg wrestling with this dilemma.

Goldberg doesn’t like a lot of Kennedy’s behavior in office, and draws upon it to further his “Liberalism resembles fascism” argument. But when, he gets right down to it, Goldberg can’t just lump JFK in with the rest of the supposedly “liberal fascists”, writing: “While not a modern liberal himself, JFK was turned after his death into a martyr to the religion of government.” Goldberg writes that Kennedy’s myth was “hijacked” by Lyndon Johnson to advance his own brand of (you know it) “liberal fascism”.

This is interesting because it illustrates just how complex the Republicans’ relationship to JFK’s legacy really is. Maybe they just think it would be too cruel to openly despise a man so tragically cut down, or maybe–as a cynic might put it–they are simply looking to do a bit of myth-hijacking for themselves.

Or maybe they feel compelled to offer gestures of bipartisanship, but cannot seriously claim that there was anything good about more recent Democratic Presidents for fear of implying that they were in fact legitimate politicians with reasonable ideas. Such an implication would no doubt draw a sharp rebuke from Rush Limbaugh. So, they are forced to reach back nearly a half-century to find some Democrat who they can like without risking much ideological ground.

“The other night, from cares exempt,
I slept — and what d’you think I dreamt?
I dreamt that somehow I had come
To dwell in Topsy-Turveydom!”

Really, I don’t know what to make of this very strange excerpt from Rush Limbaugh’s show. He said:

“[L]ook at all the things that were built in five years during the Great Depression: The Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building. The Empire State Building came in ahead of schedule, built during the Depression, back in the days where we actually built things. And back then there wasn’t talk of extended unemployment benefits. There wasn’t talk of national health care. That mind-set just didn’t exist. And because those things didn’t exist people had to do what they could to fend for themselves, and if that meant picking up, moving to San Francisco, working for whatever you got paid in a dangerous job like building the Golden Gate Bridge or the bay bridges or the Hoover Dam or the Empire State Building, it’s what you did, you found work wherever you could.”

Um… wasn’t building all that stuff part of a government program; and under a Democratic President, no less? Isn’t that supposed to be, like, Socialism? Or else “Liberal Fascism“? I don’t think any of that exactly shows off the virtues of the free-market, at any rate. I may be wrong, but I would have thought Limbaugh would be railing against such awful, awful Government things.

If anyone reading this happens to have more knowledge on this subject, I’d appreciate some enlightenment.

(And yes, for those of you wondering, evidently I lied about not blogging till I could finish that big post I’m working on. I can’t help it.)

While reading about the “American Exceptionalism: Does Obama believe in it?” debate, I came across this  interview with Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism

First of all, Goldberg asserts that we as a country are patriotic, not nationalistic. I disagree. I believe every country has its patriots and nationalists. I have been for a long time using Orwell’s definition of the difference:

“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation…” 

However, it would be unfair not to also take into account Goldberg’s definition from Liberal Fascism:

“Patriots revere ideas, institutions, and traditions of a particular country and its government. The watchwords for nationalists are ‘blood’, ‘soil’, ‘race’, ‘Volk‘, and so forth.” 

This definition, I think, makes it too easy to categorize Nationalists as simple racists. This fails to address  phenomena such as “Civic Nationalism” (sometimes called “Liberal Nationalism”) which is not a racist ideology. (To be fair to Goldberg, in the relevant passage he is mainly discussing Hitler, who was a racist as well as a Nationalist.)

But since the original question was “Is American Exceptionalism Fascist?”, then it is neccesary to figure out what “Fascism” really is. Goldberg calls it a “religion of the State”–meaning people worship the government, not any God. This is a weak definition, in my opinion, because even in Fascist Italy, the Church was not replaced; it merely allied with the Fascist government.

Broadly speaking, Fascism is a kind of Socialism for Nationalists. (It is no coincidence that people equate the “National Socialists” of Germany with Fascism.) Again, to quote from Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism:

“Socialism was predicated on the Marxist view that ‘workers’ as a class were more bound by common interests than any other criteria. Implicit in the slogan ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ was the idea that class was more important than race, nationality, religion, language, culture, or any other ‘opiate’ of the masses… What was then called socialism was really just a kind of socialism: International Socialism. Mussolini was interested in creating a new socialism, a socialism in one state, a national socialism…” 

The Nation, therefore, was the unit which the Socialistic policies were to benefit. Indeed, socialism is really just a kind of sacrificing of the individual to the whole (“the greater good”) and therefore is implicit in nationalism, militarism or indeed almost any kind of team effort.

Indeed, Mussolini was not alone in tying Socialist ideas to National tradition. In 1919, the German philosopher Oswald Spengler, sometimes called a “proto-Nazi”, wrote in Prussiandom and Socialism:

“We now face the task of liberating German socialism from Marx. I say German socialism, for there is no other. This, too, is one of the truths that no longer lie hidden. Perhaps no one has mentioned it before, but we Germans are socialists. The others cannot possibly be socialists…The spirit of Old Prussia and the socialist attitude, at present driven by brotherly hatred to combat each other, are in fact one and the same.”

Now, Goldberg believes that this idea of “American exceptionalism” makes us immune to fascism because what makes America exceptional is people’s general resistance to governmental authority. Therefore, Goldberg reasons, we could never be a “religion of the state” because Americans, unlike most people, are hostile to the state.

One problem with American exceptionalism seems, superficially, to be merely a matter of etiquette. It is one thing for a foreigner to say America is exceptional; quite another for an American to say it. At a high-level, it is the difference between someone telling you “You’re very intelligent” and you yourself saying you’re very intelligent. (Incidentally, it was Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, who was the first to articulate the idea that America was exceptional.)

But the issue is deeper than simple manners. The real issue is that, if we suppose that America is an exceptional nation–or, perhaps more accurately, that the American people are an exceptional people–there is still the matter of how it came about. Is it earned or inherent? More specifically: are Americans supposed to be exceptional by virtue of the principles of our Constitution? Or is it a more mystical thing?

If we Americans are supposed to be exceptional purely because we are Americans, then there is a kind of mystical theory at work here–we are dealing in terms of the “People” and the “Soil” once again. (I must choose my words carefully here, else I shall have to order myself to quit comparing everyone to the Nazis.)

Goldberg is probably correct that Americans are more instinctively hostile to government than most. Yet, this is not always the case. After all, didn’t most people readily believe the government’s worst-case claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Recall also, the fact that it was Europeans–the French and the Germans–who were most mocked for resisting the administration’s claims. It was un-American to oppose the war; it was French. (Remember “Freedom Fries”?)

I suspect, moreover, that the same people who believed that the Iraq invasion was justified on the grounds of WMD possession are currently the ones who are most distrustful of the government. And I suspect this is because they are Republicans, and therefore are inclined to believe a Republican administration and distrust a Democratic one. Call it a Leap of Faith, if you like.

Goldberg is not wrong when he says that American exceptionalism is not fascism. It is true that if we adhere to “American exceptionalism” purely as a sort of ultra-individualist/libertarian creed to always question authority, then that would be a good defense against an authoritarian regime or a too-powerful government.

The problem is, we can’t all be anti-government all the time. When Republicans are in power, Republicans generally are willing to go along with the expansion of government power, especially when it comes to National Defense. When Democrats are in, they are willing to go along with it to expand the welfare state.

 As I’ve said before, I’ve come to realize that when either Party is out of power, it uses the Libertarians to its advantage; then casts them aside when it retakes power. The Libertarians have seemingly failed to notice this thus far. And I think that Goldberg, who is more of a Libertarian than a straight-up Social Conservative/Nationalist, is willfully blind to this.

Ultimately, whether or not belief in American Exceptionalism is Nationalist (which is a more accurate word than “fascism”) depends on the reason one believes America to be exceptional. If one means only that America is unique among nations, that is not Nationalistic. (Of course, all nations are “unique” in some way. That’s why they’re nations.) Likewise, if one means something about the behavior of American people, anti-government or otherwise, than this also need not be nationalistic.

It is when we get to the mystical or super/preternatural reasons for American exceptionalism; what we might call “Inherent American Exceptionalism”, that it takes on the resemblance to a nationalist movement.

You may be wondering why, having spent the past month ordering people to quit comparing everyone to the Nazis, I have suddenly started talking about–and encouraging you to read–the works of David Neiwert and Jonah Goldberg, who appear to have simply made essay and book-length arguments, respectively, for why their political enemies are like Nazis.

The reason is that Neiwert and Goldberg both approach the subject with some degree of seriousness–it’s not just mindless name-calling. Therefore, I think they deserve at least a more serious critique than the ones I give to those who simply use “Nazi” as an insult. If they are engaging in Reductio ad Hitlerum, they are at least trying to go about it by gathering and presenting evidence in a thoughtful manner.

That said, I really do think they are wasting their time. Neiwert thinks right-wing militia groups and pundits are bad; my advice is: “Say why; don’t waste time comparing and contrasting them with various other things.” Likewise, Goldberg thinks liberals are bad; to him I say: “Say why, don’t waste time comparing and contrasting them with various other things.”

I read Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism when it first came out in 2008, but now that it is part of the Tea Party canon, I thought I’d try to go through it again. Besides which, I’ve posted numerous times on here about many of the issues Goldberg discusses in it, so it may be useful to go over it again.

There are two major errors I can recall just by skimming through it, both of which undermine some of its rather interesting observations:

  1. Goldberg puts too much stock in labels. So, those who called themselves “Progressive” in the early 1900s are of the same “family tree” (to use Goldberg’s metaphor) with those who do so today. The most fundamental instance of this problem is Goldberg’s oft-repeated use of the standard “Right vs. Left” dichotomy across both time and cultures; as in the chapter “Adolf Hitler: Man of the Left”. This is a mistake for reasons which I explain here, and I think it undermines the entire thesis to an extent.
  2. The issue of Nationalism and how it relates to Fascist movements is one which Goldberg does not spend enough time examining. This is a very dangerous thing to do, considering that what we classically think of as “Fascism” (Mussolini, Hitler) is very nationalistic, which, if Liberals are supposed to be Fascists, does not mesh well with the common Conservative idea that Liberals are anti-American. (When asked about this in an interview, Goldberg responded: “I just would want to emphasize that that ultra-nationalism comes with an economic program of socialism. There’s no such thing as a society undergoing a bout of ultra-nationalism that remains a liberal free-market economy. The two things go together…Today’s liberalism, there’s a strong dose of cosmopolitanism to it, which is very much like the H.G. Wells “Liberal Fascism” I was talking about … These trans-national elites, the Davos crowd who really want to get beyond issues of sovereignty…I think that is much more of the threat coming from establishment liberalism today, but I do think there is a lot of nationalism there too.”)  

Still, these issues aside, it makes for an interesting read. Perhaps I’ll post more in-depth points later.