Michael Ledeen Responds to Liberal Fascism
Liberal Fascism is a careful book, maybe even too careful. Jonah keeps on telling us that he's not trying to make any sweeping generalizations. Despite the provocative title, he's not saying that liberalism is the same as fascism, or that fascists were really liberals, or any such thing. What he does say is that many of the iconic figures in American liberalism (and among the British left as well) greatly admired Mussolini. As well they might, he says, since he was really one of them in many ways.
It's a work of political theory, not a history. What is important for Jonah is the ideas, and he points out that many of the ideas that found a home in the fascist ideology have a surprising origin: the most radical wing of the French Revolution. And from this, and from other similar historical similarities, he concludes that fascism really has a left-wing genetic code, and therefore it's wrong to “blame” fascism on the right.
On this central claim, Jonah is at least half right. The great masterpiece that drew the blood lines from Robespierre to modern mass movements and regimes, is Jacob Talmon's The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, now nearly half a century old. But Talmon was not just talking about fascism, he wrote about all three of the twentieth century's terrible totalitarian movements: fascism, Nazism, and communism. Talmon showed how the Jacobins, above all at the height of the Terror, laid down the guidelines for the totalitarian ideologies and regimes of modern times. With specific regard to Italian fascism, so far as I know, the first time this thesis was advanced was in a book I coauthored in the mid-1970s, in a book-length interview with Renzo De Felice, the great biographer of Mussolini. When De Felice pointed out that the fascist movement drew in part on the ideology of the French Revolution (although he stressed that the intellectual lineage was somewhat spurious), there was a firestorm of criticism from the Italian left, whose leading lights had always argued that fascism was a purely reactionary phenomenon, and that only left-wing movements could legitimately be called “revolutionary.”
It doesn't seem that Jonah is aware of this literature, but he's got the concept right. He's got it right when he suggests that fascism was a revolutionary movement. But then he shies away from the consequences of that insight, because many of the people he wants to call “liberal fascists” are boring reformers, certainly not revolutionaries. And he shies away from the revolutionary nature of fascism for another reason, too: because it shows that revolution is not just a leftist political phenomenon. Jonah wants to have us believe that fascism was “of the left.”
While certain French revolutionary ideas played into the creation of the fascist movement, and while Mussolini started life as a socialist, and while various radical anarcho-syndicalists supported Mussolini from the very beginning (and some remained to the end), it is still a real stretch to say that fascism was fundamentally leftist. Mussolini came to power because his thugs won the street battles with socialist thugs, not because he won the support of left-wing voters. Mussolini put together a very broadly based movement that enabled him to seize power in 1922, win public support, and over the next twenty years he sorted out fascist doctrine and practice.
Nonetheless, many fascists continued to believe in a revolution, a spiritual revolution, and as the years passed they could not avoid the realization that Mussolini was not leading that revolution. In De Felice's famous terms, there was an abyss between fascism-movement (which embraced the revolutionary ideal) and fascism-regime (which created the reactionary state). The smart communists in Italy knew that “revolutionary” fascists could be recruited to the Italian Communist Party, which was accomplished at the end of the war and immediately thereafter. So while there were fascists with leftist tendencies, they were alienated from the regime, embittered by its reactionary nature, and eventually went elsewhere. If anything, their stories show how little “leftism” survived the twenty years of fascist rule.
What is missing from Jonah's book--he mentions it in passing a few times, but never gives it the weight it deserves--is the specific historical context from which fascism was born: the First World War. Fascism was created in the trenches of that war, it was a war ideology from beginning to end, and the central core of fascism was composed of two basic concepts. First, the conviction that the only people worthy of political power were those who had been tested and proven in combat (for the most part, the brownshirts were veterans, and the socialists they attacked had been pacifists or neutralists). And second, that Western civilization was under siege from the left, that is, from communists and socialists.
Jonah, instead, says (pg. 80) “Fascism, at its core, is the view that every nook and cranny of society should work together in spiritual union toward the same goals overseen by the state.” Certainly Mussolini and his cohorts believed that (how did it go? “Everything in the State; Nothing outside the State”…), but that is not the central core of fascism; it's not Mussolini or his imitators, and certainly not Hitler, whose vision was global, not just national. The issue is "the same goals," not just the methods of rule.
The weakest part of the book has to do with the Nazis. All of us who have worked on fascism have had to try to figure out to what extent Hitler belongs inside the category. As Jonah says, Hitler worshiped Mussolini (a love that was not reciprocated), but the Fuhrer was driven by racism and antisemitism, not by the sort of nationalism the Italians embraced. It is very hard to find a political box big enough to accommodate the two, and, like the rest of us, Jonah huffs and puffs trying to make one. Predictably, he has to downplay Hitler's ideology. He calls Hitler a “pragmatist,” and then adds “saying that Hitler had a pragmatic view of ideology is not to say that he didn't use ideology. Hitler had many ideologies. Indeed he was an ideology peddler.”
So much for the view--the fact--that Hitler was driven, from an early age, by an antisemitism so virulent that he would not rest until he had set in motion the Holocaust. Indeed, in one of Liberal Fascism's most unfortunate phrases, Jonah trivializes Nazi racism, equating it with some American political rhetoric:
What distinguished Nazism from other brands of socialism and communism was not so much that it included more aspects from the political right (though there were some). What distinguished Nazism was that it forthrightly included a worldview we now associate almost completely with the political left: identity politics.
And in case you thought he was kidding, he repeats it a few pages later: “What mattered to (Hitler) was German identity politics.”
The best that can be said about this is that it's imaginative. But it's what happens when you are bound and determined to put liberals, socialists, communists, fascists and Nazis into a common political home. I don't have a final answer to this question, but it is likely that the differences between Italian fascism and German Nazism are greater than their similarities.
He is, however, entirely right to stress the enormous sympathy for Mussolini among "progressive" American intellectuals and politicians. To be sure, it had been said before, but Jonah says it well, he expands the argument with wisdom and good humor, and he has done a real service in battering down the intellectual boundaries that were painstakingly erected after the Second World War. And he is right, in my view, that many of these boundaries were created to protect the left from the sort of critical examination it deserved. Now, in no small part because of the debate over Liberal Fascism, that examination may begin.
HNN Special: A Symposium on Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism
- Neiwert: Introduction
- Paxton: The Scholarly Flaws
- Griffin: An Academic Book - Not!
- Feldman: Poor Scholarship, Wrong Conclusions
- Berlet: The Roots of the Book
- Michael Ledeen Responds to Liberal Fascism
- Goldberg: Definitions and Double Standards
- Feldman: An Open Letter to Mr. Jonah Goldberg
- Griffin: Definitions and Double Standards - A Rebuttal
- Neiwert: Goldberg’s Response Fits His History of Evasion
- Griffin: Definitions and Double Standards - A Rebuttal
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Jaber Aberburg - 5/22/2010
There's a lot of confusion here. In order to understand why one ideology/regime is labeled left-wing and the other right-wing, you have to look at the underlying ideologies and not just what they degenerated to once their followers tried to implement them. (There is a difference between marxism, communism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.)
Left-wing totalitarians ideologies are based on good intentions, i.e. humanistic ideals and utopias ("communism"), right-wing ones are based on nationalism and racism. In practice, they are all catastrophic of course but the underlying ideology is different.
The jihadi terrorists are clearly right-wing nuts. They also have anti-semitism in common with the nazis.
Maarja Krusten - 1/29/2010
Thank you, N.! As to the NYC Ballet production, I saw that at Kennedy Center for the Peforming Arts in Wshington, DC in, as I recall, 2005. I too do not get to NYC much these days.
Mr. Ledeen and Mr. Goldberg did not show up to discuss the question I posed for them (I'm not surprised, The Corner itself does not allow comments, different place, different culture, that's the way it goes). But I did enjoy our chat about WSS very much.
N. Friedman - 1/29/2010
"The one change that I do think improves the storytelling is the shift in the film of "Officer Krupke" to before the Rumble and the placement of "Cool" after the rumble."
I agree entirely. I also agree that the movie is quite good. I merely note that it does not have the energy or passion of the show. You should watch this clip, which I found online, recorded in 1958, which is most of Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert performing Tonight as they did onstage. It is so powerful and passionate; just remarkable.
I do not get into NYC much anymore. I grew up in New York but have moved. Perhaps I did not make myself sufficiently clear. I went to High School in the city. But, I have not lived in metro NY for nearly 35 years. The area is still home to me, as my kids remind me when I cheer for the wrong team.
Thanks for the articles and interesting book suggestions. Also, thanks for the interesting information.
There is, if I recall correctly, an interesting documentary about Robbins that plays sometimes on PBS. He was rather great at what he did - the many things he did.
Maarja Krusten - 1/29/2010
The movie is not perfect but I do like it very much. I've seen several stage productions so I know what you mean about some of the differences. The one change that I do think improves the storytelling is the shift in the film of "Officer Krupke" to before the Rumble and the placement of "Cool" after the rumble.
I don't know if you and your wife ever go to the ballet, but the West Side Story Suite performed by the New York City Ballet is wonderfully evocative of the stage version of the show. It's a pretty long piece and actually tells the entire story of WSS in a compressed version that in the version I saw was quite evocative of the 1957 Broadway version in set design and costuming. See the reaction of the dance reviewer for New York Magazine at
There's some interesting rehearsal footage from the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company at
If you get a chance, read the biography of choreographer Jerome Robbins which came out in 2006: Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill. Robbins initially was supposed to co-direct West Side Story and in fact was the primary director for the location shooting done in NYC (the opening of the film). However, soon after the company returned to Hollywood to film the rest of the film in the studio he was fired. (Sequences were taking too long to film in the estimation of the PTB and of course time consumes money.) The abrupt firing upset some but not all of the dancers and actors (he wasn't an easy person with whom to work) and the situation was somewhat tricky, from what I've read. I don't know how the movie would have turned out, had he stayed in a co-director role. Robert Wise is the credited director for the film. I've also read an interesting biography of Leonard Bernstein.
Elliott Aron Green - 1/28/2010
Chip, I think that the word "some" is too weak. After all, Mussolini himself was a leading socialist journalist. Pierre Laval, the Vichy PM, was a socialist. Doriot, one of the top chiefs of the Milice, was a former Communist leader.
In other words. leading socialists and Communists became leading fascists and Vichyites.
Why? This question remains unanswered.
In any event, the word "some" is much too weak for this situation.
N. Friedman - 1/28/2010
See my comment above.
Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2010
Yes, exactly! If I remember correctly, some buildings at the site were undergoing condemnation proceedings in advance of the construction of Lincoln Center that began around 1962, which is one reason the company was able to film in the area without disrupting existing businesses. You may recall that you see some piles of rubble and vacant lots during the "Prologue" which opens the film. I actually saw a live production of WSS at Lincoln Center around 1967 or 1968. Coincidentally, we stayed with friends in Bergen County when we visited, as we lived in DC by then, where Dad worked for Voice of America.
Thanks for the interesting addition to our chit chat. It's a small world, isn't it (if I can make such a unity comment on a thread of this nature, LOL.)
Chip Berlet - 1/28/2010
No serious scholar of fascism disputes the fact that SOME socialists and anarchists joined the fascist parties in Europe. David Horowitz was once a socialist. Is he still? What changed?
Chip Berlet - 1/28/2010
I not only read the other essays, but all the comments, and books by Goldberg, Ledeen, Griffin, Paxton, Feldman, Neiwert, Gentile, Payne, Eatwell, and about 75 others, thanks for asking.
No one is asking anyone to bow down.
Corporatism was the Catholic Church's solution to socialism--an alternative not of the left. It was a form of vertically integrated cross-class syndicalism weded to a basic conservative view of social hierarchy iwth at least some serious convern for the lives of working people.
We disagree--it is not that I am too stupid or stubborn to understand what you are saying, nor would I ever suggest that of you.
I also understood Hayek and von Mises. I simply disagree.
Chip Berlet - 1/28/2010
From Bergen County, NJ, but escaped into NYC (The Village!) when possible. West Side Story was filmed near what became Lincoln Center, I believe. My wife and saw it on a huge cinema screen a few years ago here in Boston.
N. Friedman - 1/28/2010
I would say that, hands down, West Side Story is the greatest Broadway style musical ever produced. We agree about that.
I like the movie quite a bit less than the stage production of the show I have seen. In particular, I do not like the way that the movie alters the songs "A Boy Like That" and "I Have a Love." I also do not think that any of the movie song voices remotely compare with Larry Kert or Carol Lawrence, not mention Chita Rivera. I also thought while it was a really good movie, it missed a lot of the intensity in the interaction of the actors.
I saw a production of Bernstein's music at Tanglewood, the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. I believe it was a memorial to him. The music does quite a bit less well in a symphonic setting than on stage or in the movies. It was still really great.
I would hope that someone would produce a new movie version. I do not want the story brought up to date and I do not want the dance brought up to date. I want something that captures a bit of the original stage production - to the extent that I can discern it - but in movie format. In this regard, there was, some years back, a "best of" The Ed Sullivan Show, which showed the Tonight scene. It was great beyond all imagination and had, as I noted above, an intensity that the existing movie lacks. If you have not seen the scene, I think you can find it - or at least part of it - on YouTube.
Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2010
Sorry for the typo, I'll man up (woman up) and say my fault for posting in haste!
Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2010
Mr. Ledeen, I have a question for you that stems from an intersection of several forces. Do you believe there is a sufficiently robust framework in the political market place to discuss in productive fashion the issues about fascism that you raise in your essay? More generally, I would be interested to hear whether you know of any conservative scholars who have delved into the problems that arise from the inability to reconcile the values of the governmental world and the political. In my view, there are emotional and political factors that often hinder political discourse. Although difficult to confront, doing so may reduce the likelihood of flame wars about issues such as fascism. I would imagine the points I raise are of particular interest to conservatives as its advocates stress issues such as accountability. What I see, however, from both sides at times, are praise-and-blame reductions that contribute to a type of emotional nannyism. People on both ends of the political spectrum sometimes indulge in this. I raise it here because I think it contributes to the difficulty to discussing books such as the one by Mr. Goldberg.
First, some background. My parents lived under totalitarian regimes (first Communist, then Nazi) when their sovereign, democratic nation in Europe was forcibly occupied by foreign forces. Luckily for me, they were able to escape and come to the United States as displaced persons. With such a background, it should not surprise you that I am dismayed when I hear ordinary U.S. citizens misuse the terms Communist and Fascist. Such misuse dilutes and diminishes the horrors that totalitarian systems force on those in their grip.
My question stems from the coming together of three things, some of which require me to set the scene. These are
(1) my prior work;
(2) (2) an observation offered here on HNN by Ernie Laza at http://www.hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=139972&bheaders=1#139972 and
(3) a letter to the editor in today’s New York.
After finishing graduate studies in history, I worked for 14 years as an employee of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) I spent ten years listening to some 2,000 hours of the 3,700 hours of Richard Nixon’s White House tapes. It was my job, and that of my cohort, to determine what could be released to the public and what required restriction for national security, personal privacy and other reasons stated in federal regulations and statutes. Our work took place in a high-risk environment requiring constant awareness of the public trust. Yet it was a fascinating job for someone such as I, who had worked on Nixon's campaign as a senior in high school.
During the course of my work, I had the honor to meet H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon’s former chief of staff. I found him to be very bright, candid and introspective. It is my belief that he handled the consequences of his role in Watergate better than most people trapped in that scandal did. He manned up and talked to us at NARA at length about White House operations and why some aspects of Nixon’s efforts at governance played out as they did. I often recommend to my historians the oral history interview we did with Bob. Equally commendable is Egil “Bud” Krogh’s examination in his 2007 book, Integrity, of his role and the culture of the White House. Whether it is a coincidence or not, both men served prison time for their actions during the Nixon administration. Perhaps such an experience leads a person to man up, as Haldeman and Krogh did, rather than to vaccilate in a rather uneasy state between denial or acceptance of responsibility, or to spend the rest of their lives looking for people to blame.
In his comment here on HNN under Mr. Griffin’s essay, Ernie Lazar observes of Mr. Goldberg’s book that “In essence, the new spectrum is a rather transparent attempt to pretend that everything despicable, dishonorable, frightening and dangerous originates exclusively from the LEFT side of the spectrum whereas everything decent, honorable, moral, and desirable may be found exclusively in the center and center-right side of the spectrum.” That may or may not be fair but it does point to why this topic requires the careful laying of a certain groundwork if the goal is honest debate. Lazar observes of the realignment that “Seen from this perspective, the more government intervention in our lives, the more that government controls or regulates human affairs, the less freedom exists and the more opportunity for tyranny to flourish.”
I thought about Mr. Lazar’s comment when I read a letter in today’s NYT in which the writer observes, “It’s not just the populist who, as David Brooks says, ‘absolves voters of responsibility for their problems.’ It’s also almost every politician and elected official.
One of the bedrock rules of political life is never to blame the American people: we are invariably decent, generous, hard-working, wise and, always, better than the people who govern us.”
Doesn't its mirror image of such praise--blame--ndermine the conditions for debate of the type you seek? In my view, part of Richard Nixon’s legacy was the creation for some voters of a type of emotional nanny “state.” I’ve observed this in the way some of the “culture wars” have been fought over the last couple of decades. Although very smart and capable (David Gergen believes he would have made a good history professor), Nixon battled a number of resentments. Nixon’s inability to control them unleashed a crippling template, one which can contribute to a type of political emotional tyranny which can hold voters in thrall as much as some state action. At its most benign, it shows up in the type of verbal comfort food the NYT writer describes. At its worst, it rewards blame shifting and denial. As a result, there is no room for real debate on some issues. To his credit, Republican David Brooks tackles some of these issues of civic maturity and resilience from time to time in his columns in The New York Times.
Is it possible to create a framework where people can debate issues such as fascism as well as what President Obama yesterday referred to as genuine ideological differences about the role of government in a grown up fashion, without taunts and flaming? How can we undo the damage of decades worth of watching people argue political issues by relying on what Brooks calls “the organization of hatreds?”
I am about to leave the house but look forward to seeing what you or others think of the questions I’ve raised and the observations I’ve offered. TIA.
Elliott Aron Green - 1/28/2010
Jacques Doriot, a former communist, was a leader of the milice. See link:
Elliott Aron Green - 1/28/2010
A new book documents how anarchists flowed into Mussolini's fascist combat squads. This is:
Alessandro Luparini, Anarchici di Mussolini: Dalla sinistra al fascismo, tra rivoluzione e revisionismo 
[title: Mussolini's anarchists: From the Left to Fascism, between revolution and revisionism]
Several anarchists played an important role in early fascism. Mussolini as we know was a socialist at the start of WW One, and had been anti-war [whatever that means] at one time. I think that the more important question is how was it, why was it, what caused the shift of anarchists and socialists [like Mussolini] to this new fascist ideology and/or movement.
What was it about socialism and anarchism that led some of them to fascism? Was it the justification of violence, extra-legal violence? Was it some sense of fulfillment in domination of others?
And now in the case of France, there is a similar but not identical question which I do not see dealt with in Prof Paxton's article on Goldberg's book. Why were so many of the leaders of the Vichy govt in France veteran socialists, as well as stalinist and Trotskyist communists?
For the Stalinists, the answer may be easy. At the start of WW2, Stalin was allied with Hitler. Likewise, the Communists in France supported the Nazis. The CP deputies in the French parliament opposed any military moves against Nazi German aggression. [by the way, the British CP did too].
Now, in the Vichy govt, Pierre Laval started as a socialist. Marcel Deat started as a socialist. Deat was the journalist who advocated allowing the Nazis to take territories that they wanted, such as Danzig. In his anti-war efforts, Deat asked rhetorically: Mourir pour Dantzig? That is, why should anybody die for Danzig? But Deat did not acknowledge that the problem was much bigger. The problem was not just Danzig. Eventually, the Nazis attacked France. And conquered France. And Deat collaborated with them.
Further, the leaders of the notorious milice in France were socialists [or former socialists, if you like].
In France and Belgium, many of the Trotskyists refused to join the Resistance because, after all, these Trotskyists insisted [Trotsky himself was dead, assassinated in 1940 by an agent of Stalin], the German soldiers were Workers too, n'est-ce pas? Indeed, the German soldiers belonged to the great German working class which at one time was considered very advanced by socialist and communist revolutionaries in other countries. So these Trotskyists published an underground newspaper in German meant for the German troops [Arbeiter und Soldat] but did not take part in Resistance military actions. Should these Trotskyists be considered collaborators? Neutrals?
Maybe Prof Paxton can explain why so many anarchists, socialists, Stalinist and Trotskyist communists became Vichy officials of one level or another or Italian fascist operatives. If he has already done so in any of his books or articles, I would be interested in reading it. The question "Why?" remains paramount for now, as far as I am concerned.
Adam Cody - 1/28/2010
Chip, did you even read the other articles here besides your own? Try Paxton's. He at least seems to acknowledge the left/right distinction might not be the best form of analysis for fascism against other political thought. He also, unlike you and the others who wrote here, acknowledges the difference between "classical liberalism" and the modern liberal [american progressive]. Most notably, the issue of property rights, natural law, and the economic theory they promote.
Why should we, the public, bow down to you experts anyways? Over 150 years now of socialism and capitalism directly effecting political ideology and you "experts" don't see what all of us do while we have tea-bagging each other? :) That economic theory states the details of "private property" rights and that it then determines if those rights are considered "natural" or "legal". From this, all things flow about political ideology. That's why you seemed unable to grasp Kayek and von Mises. Corporatism isn't free-market capitalism. Corporatism isn't a captured socialized economy. Economic socialism is the the left of corporatism and corporatism is to the left of free-market capitalism. Now, this goes with the assumption that the less an economic model assumes property rights and that they are natural the larger a government is needed and captures a monopoly [by force] on various spheres of our lives. I'm not saying a perfect rightest world - anarcho-capitalism - isn't free of it's faults or dangers.
Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2010
Thanks for sharing your assessment, N! My sigh was geared towards the posts at The Corner. As I said, ah well. Enjoyed your West Side Story response, funny that that is MY favorite movie too! I have both soundracks, Broadway and movie soundtrack. And CDs. And DVDs. I still remember my parents paying $1.80 for a balconey seat for me at the Uptown Theater in Washington on March 24, 1962 for me to see WSS for (ahem) the first time! You can tell I'm a REAL historian, huh? I onloy lived in NYC until I was 3 but I've been back to visit many times, love the city. Loved the grit NYC showed on 9/11 (as well as DC) and the way people from the NYC still go out to the heartland to volunteer in small towns, rebuilding boy scout camps 'n stuff to repay people for coming together behind it in 2001. Ya gotta love the US of A.
N. Friedman - 1/28/2010
I use to watch Firing Line. Buckley would get the best of most people. I recall that there was one non-conservative who Buckley really liked, Allard Lowenstein. I can only recall one guest besting him - but then again, I watched sometimes, not all the time. Mortimer Adler, who was never bested by anyone. I recall having to keep a dictionary handy.
For what it is worth, I think Goldberg's response was rather intelligent and considerably more careful than those of most of the main posts that review his book.
N. Friedman - 1/28/2010
West Side Story is one of my favorites. And, I have the original cast album - both in record and CD form.
I am from metro NY, from Westchester county. I have not lived in NY, however, for many decades.
Chip Berlet - 1/28/2010
Very glib and cleverly crafted, but, alas, with almost no support in the contemporary scholarship on fascism and neofascism.
That's the point of this set of essays. Overly simplistic and politically-biased definitions don't help us understand history and don't help us grapple with the future.
I understand that there are totalitarian movements on the Left. Stalin and the Cambodian communists are prime examples.
But fascism is only one form of totalitarianism, and in an era of totalitarian movements, we need better analysis, not spin.
Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2010
Thanks, N.! Do check my short little OBE post above, as well. Events have overtaken me, as you'll see.
If I can mention this tidbit about West Side Story (Mr. Ledeen won't yell at me for going off topic, as he's not engaging here). If you've ever seen the 1957 Broadway cast album, the photo of Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert was taken about a block from where my Mom and Dad lived with us a few years earlier when my late twin sis and I were babies. Since I later enjoyed WSS as a film (as I said, back in my day, we liked "cool," I always thought that was neat. My Dad was a radio scriptwriter for Voice of America, which at that time still was headquartered in NYC, my birthplace. Great job, worthy endeavor. USIA was established soon after that and we moved to DC.
Take care of yourself!
N. Friedman - 1/28/2010
By and large, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Political capital is a real concept. And, having empathy, even for the supporters of your opponents, counts a lot. Empathy is something that, thus far, Obama has failed somewhat at exhibiting. It is not even clear that he has exhibited empathy for many elements within his core supporters. Perhaps, following your comment, it has to do with his aloof demeanor. I am not sure that such is the entire issue.
It is interesting how unwilling or unable he is to push his agenda, quite a bit of which makes at least some sense to me. Part of his failure is due to the economic emergency that exists. Part of it has to do, I think, with his substituting his personal agenda, which might make sense in normal times, when, to the public, there is an emergency problem (i.e. the economy) to be addressed.
One last comment on this point, which I think explains why average people might not see him as having great empathy. This is anecdotal but I think it reveals more about Obama than is normally understood. Back when the Sgt. Crowley incident was in the news, Obama took the view of the academy, over that of the average voter, in interpreting what happened to Professor Gates. In other words, his view of the world lies a great distance from that of average voters.
As an aside, for whatever reason, it did not occur to academic people at the time that police officers are, more or less, trained, when dealing with a situation where race might be raised as an issue, to follow a certain approach - the approach that Crowley, it turns out, teaches to other police officers. Hence, before arresting Gates, Crowley called for backup. Obviously, such was not needed for a police officer to control a middle aged man who walks with a cane. However, the way to diffuse the situation - and read that as diffuse from the police perspective, so as to avoid seemingly credible (or even real) accusations of racism - is to have backup that allows the policeman political cover to end the situation anyway he thinks will keep him or her out of trouble. And, having seen Gates as hostile, Crowley quite likely decided that the smartest policy, having a second police officer with him to say he was in the right, was to arrest Gates.
You do have me by a few years. When West Side Story came out, I was a small child. I was in elementary school during Kennedy's administration.
My comments regarding foreign policy were not so much directed at Obama failing to adopt a given approach to world problems. It was directed at - and this is a bit intemperate of me (but not towards you) - adopting an approach that has no apparent consist rationale to it, isolationist, internationalist or otherwise. Which is to say, I think is not capable of getting him what he claims to want or, for that matter, getting him any tangible gains.
His foreign policies do appear to be poll driven, at least in part. Hence, we have Afghanistan policy - send in the troops (and I am not addressing whether or not a good idea) but stating that they will leave soon.
In any event, I have no use for his approach, at least thus far.
You are, lastly, correct, that there is more than one way at looking at the concerns I mentioned in my previous post. I would not deny that.
Maarja Krusten - 1/28/2010
Hey, N., in case you don't know it, Mr. Goldberg submitted a response to HNN which is available on the top page. And more importantly, he and Mr. Ledeen both have written about HNN at The Corner. So, despite my effort to send up some red flags to let them know their support network is less robust than it should be, and to examine how best to handle this so as to help their cause, the HNN thing has been overtaken by events. As someone who self identified as a conservative Republican until becoming an Independet about 20 years ago, I feel a bit sorry for NRO. As I said, I used to be a big Bill Buckley fan as a student, reading his stuff and watching Firing Line helped me get through some depressing days after Watergate. Oh well, too late on this flap of the day, as Bob Haldeman would put it. I did enjoy chatting with you very much, so I did get that out of the effort. Be well!
Mark L Liveringhouse - 1/27/2010
The incredibly pathetic definitions of "fascism" in this article and comments are the stuff of first graders. Fascism is the desire to "smash one's opponent" or inflict harm? WHat type of definition is that?
Anyways, the reason for this type of deflection away from Goldberg's premise is that the common link between fascism and today's progressives is the desire for increasing the underlying power of the state at the expense of the individual.
The objectives of this state power, as Goldberg points out, varied. Obviously today's "progressives" do not seek out an exterminationistic anti-Semitic policy (but they are generally anti-Semites). But then, neither did Fascist Italy or Soviet Russia.
And, as Goldberg powerfully demonstrates, the overlap of MEANS TO STATE POWER is absolutely frightening.
Maarja Krusten - 1/27/2010
Gave your last comment some thought on ride home. You’ve entered some areas I’m not going to get into except to say there are a number of ways to interpret them. But I can share a few more observations, to the extent to which they relate to why a polemical approach (not yours, of course) appeals to some readers but not to others. And why empathy matters. That's been my theme here. As to why I quoted some people (TNC, Brooks) on Obama’s temperament, their comments reminded me of how old I am—I remember when West Side Story was released in 1961. Back then, I was in elementary school and being “cool” was considered a positive.
Different eras have different vibes. But some things don’t change. Stewardship matters. It matters if you’re a president, a vice president, or someone who takes over a business enterprise from a retiree. That why polemicists as defenders don't always serve you best. You have to think strategically and tactically at the policy making and at the political level. The latter sometimes requires empathy, even sympathy. Perhaps NRO addressed that back during 2004-2006, I really wasn’t looking in on it then. It doesn’t discuss that these days.
Here’s why it matters. One can disdain polls all one likes, as a recent office holder once said he did. But the voters can reach in and take away the keys from your hand. They have that right in a democracy. You have to find a way to prevent that. That takes some skill, just as all human relations do. The ability to recognize and objectively assess what is going on with the listener does matter. That is a very different quality than being “poll driven,” which is that the former administration official disdained a few years ago. Empathy can come in handy, too. It doesn’t have to be something that is feared as unmanly. In fact, I actually think presidents, regardless of party, benefit from having on staff someone who really understands the people who vote for the opposing party, not just his own (as Clinton did with David Gergen).
You have to consider power as capital that the voters have given you – in trust. It is much more fragile than most presidents realize. A good steward builds capital in areas he believes are important. That is his responsibility. He doesn’t allow it to erode to the point where he cannot pass on power to someone of the same party to continue working on the same goals. And he definitely doesn’t cast blame on others if he allows it to erode. That only erodes it further. Bush and Cheney allowed their political power to erode to the point they had to give away the keys. So did LBJ. So, in a different way than LBJ, did Nixon. Does that mean none of them took foreign policy and national security issues seriously enough? Hard to argue that that was the case although the end result of all their actions – increased isolation, public wariness of foreign adventures -- made it seem that way. The problem for all the men I just listed lay in not understanding how to handle political stewardship. Or failing to see that the great power they held was not something they could take for granted, but something very fragile held in trust. Not just for the people but for their successors.
Just as Vietnam once did, in 2008 Iraq seemed to loom large. For better or worse (not being judgmental here), the nation ended up far more isolationist and distrustful of actions involving foreign nations after the Bush administration than before. Study drill down polling data and it appears voters’ present isolationism is directly related to the Iraq War. I don’t see that being turned around readily. It will take time and a great deal of skill. Given what I said about empathy, I wouldn’t recommend fear mongering. In my view, the American people are not wired for intimidation. Whether you’re a liberal, a moderate, or a conservative advocate, you have to use positive appeals if you want broad support.
I really believe dealing with voters is not that different from dealing with family members. Or co-workers. (I learned some interesting lessons during my tenure at NARA.) You can’t browbeat or disdain them and keep their trust. Do that and you dig yourself into a deep hole. Look how long it took to recover from the last war that a majority of the public stopped supporting, Vietnam. (At the time, I belonged to Young Americans for Freedom and wore “Tell it to Hanoi” buttons. My thinking on Vietnam has evolved since then.)
As it is, Obama gets his highest ratings among those polled for his handling of foreign policy and national security. Whether you like it or not (and I’m not taking a position on it), it appears to reflect what a (small) majority of the American people want.
Brett McSweeney - 1/27/2010
There have been left and right movements that were internationalist, and left and right wing movements that were nationalist; revolutionary and conservative; racist and not. These are not core features of either movement.
The basic principle behind 'left' and 'right' is, as their name suggests, a direction.
'Left' is in the direction of more government
'Right' is in the direction of less.
Thus, "extreme left" results in totalitarianism and "extreme right" ends in the total absence of government (some people use the word anarchy).
It's the only definition that doesn't get caught up in irrelevant historical accidents of birth and development.
And thus we can say the Nazis and Italian Fascists were both leftists, for they clearly imposed significantly more government intervention on their societies.
Chip Berlet - 1/27/2010
This is the discussion that Professor Griffin has been leading for almost a decade. If Hitler and Stalin are both totalitarians (and they were), then don't we need a better explanation of how they were different and stil ran brutal dictatorships?
For Hitler, which part is the fascism, which is the conspiracy theories, which is the millenarian impulse, which is the totalitarianism?
Roger Griffin, ed., Fascism, Totalitarianism, and Political Religion, London: Routledge.
Matthew Feldman, Roger Griffin and Robert Mallett, eds., The Sacred in Twentieth Century Politics: Essays in Honour of Professor Stanley G. Payne. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
N. Friedman - 1/27/2010
Thanks for the kind words. Your writing on this website is always worth reading. I read what you write frequently although, unlike my comments about matters I have a better grasp over, I rarely comment in response.
You are probably correct, based on what you quote, that Goldberg is trying to settle scores. I am not a sufficiently seasoned devotee of his or of National Review (or any other political magazines), although I do read articles on the website (and on others, from various points of view), to follow that closely his circle of friends and thoughts.
I agree with you that the book should have stopped soon after WWII. With few exceptions after that, what he writes is markedly tendentious and difficult to reconcile with any semblance of how events could really unfold. While he makes a number of interesting points, the post-WWII portion of the book undermines the more interesting parts of the book. And, after his discussion on JFK, the quality of the argument deteriorated substantially, although his comments about the Panthers is interesting.
As for Obama's calm demeanor, do not get me started on Obama. Thus far, I think he is just awful - AWFUL. I think the sense that comes most out of him is that he stands for nothing - not for moderation, not for liberalism, not for conservatism, not for anything.
I think the perfect metaphor for him is his sitting in the pews of his racist preacher knowing full well that the preacher is a racist but thinking, no doubt, that it is good politics. That, from a man who was a law professor and who should know better!!!
Experience as a college professor - no offense to those professors who might read this - is not experience to be president. Experience as a community organizer is not experience to be president. Experience running for office - his only other apparent experience - is not enough experience to be president. What an embarrassment.
Moreover, the theory on which his approach to the world is based - which appears to be that his brilliant speaking ability and placating hardball rivals of the US and countries where the population hates the US can score non-ephemeral points for the US - suggests he has not read much history or anything else, for that matter. It suggests a narrow minded ideologue. That's coming from me, a person who votes usually for Democrats and thinks himself rather liberal - although not the new liberal mantra that blames the US and Israel for all the world's ills.
Maarja Krusten - 1/27/2010
Thanks for the follow up, N. You're a cool dude, I always consider carefully what you write. Here's a quick response (overlook typos please as I'm also trying to munch my lunch).
I'm familiar with the stances you cite from some of my other reading. And I agree that they are interesting to consider. Nevertheless, as I said, had I been Mr. Goldberg, I would have cut the book off at the end of World War II. Handling those issues well in crafting narratives from the 1950s onwards requires skill and care and I'm hard pressed to pick out even an historian who could have walked the tightrope successfully. Methodological approach, goals, support structure all can affect that.
Here is the vibe I picked up at NRO where Mr. Goldberg wrote about his book and which told me, nope, not for me. Professor Paxton summarizes it this way: "Jonah Goldberg tells us he wrote this book to get even. The liberals started it by 'insist[ing] that conservatism has connections with fascism' (p. 22). Conservatives 'sit dumbfounded by the nastiness of the slander' (p. 1). 'The left wields the term fascism like a cudgel' (p. 3). So Jonah Goldberg has decided it is time to turn the tables and show that 'the liberal closet has its own skeletons' (p. 22). After years of being 'called a fascist and a Nazi by smug, liberal know-nothings' he decides that 'responding to this slander is a point of personal privilege' (p. 392). Had such thinking not been in the mix, and had he cut the book off earlier, I might have considered reading it. Although I'm an historian, I don't only read history.
I recognize that the political world, of which National Review is a part, often finds the notion of payback to be irresistible. (That's one reason I offered my secular immunity prayer here.) David Brooks recently referred to politics as "the organization of hatreds." Even under the best of circumstances, the political world often fails to value an authentic learning environment or one which embraces the type of 360 feedback that the management classes in better run organizations rely on for improvement. (The voters are in the mix, too. David Brooks says of populism "it absolves voters of responsibility for their problems." He meant by that what he discussed in another column, Red and Blue America's turn to economic immorality.) This can lead to fear of concepts such as empathy and introspection. (I strongly pick up on that collectively at The Corner.) Little ability to do a moral inventory and work the steps, as they say in AA.
The working world doesn't always turn away from those things. I once saw a fascinating video clip of an interview Steve Pearlstein at the Washington Post did with an entrepreneur who talked about leadership. The executive said that to be an effective leader, you have to own your weaknesses, publicly. He pointed out, correctly, that's its not like bystanders don't see them anyway. So talk about them, admit them, own them. I agree. That's where liberation comes from, not in embracing victimhood. I'll mention a side note, since my primary interest in presidents is in their character and handling of challenges. Ta Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic had an interesting column a few months ago about Obama's calmn demeanor and how it seems to rattle some people. And Brooks recently pointed out that in his view, Obama exhibits many of the executive qualities experts say you should look for in a decision maker. I wonder if some of the rage against Obama (which I find as inexplicable in its extremes as I did some of the anger against Nixon and Clinton and G. W. Bush) stems from a recognition that the critic himself probably would not be able to remain as calm and collected in a similar position.
I used to be a National Review subscriber. As a student, I was a big fan of Bill Buckley and Firing Line. But much has changed since then. There is a certain fascination for me in watching adherents of an ideology which preaches self reliance, accountability, and manning up (all qualities in which I believe in the appropriate context) huddle in the comforting and closed community of a frat house. For this reasder, the more thoughtful people (David Brooks, Micheal Gerson, Kathleen Parker) are outside.
N. Friedman - 1/27/2010
I am not a conservative, by the way. I have, most of my life, voted with the Democrats although I rather unhappy with the left fringe of the political spectrum which has pushed hard on the Democrats.
Mr. Goldberg's book is not, as I noted, a history. And, it does make all sorts of mistakes that even a mere reader of history, like me, and not an historian recognize. It was, however, interesting to read - and maybe it is correct - that even in dying, Mussolini unmistakeably branded himself a socialist.
On Goldberg's version of the world, fascism was initially seen by communists as a heresy, which is why, on his reading, communists were so unrelenting in their agitprop against the fascists and how, due to such propaganda, it became seen by everyone else so clearly as a phenomena of the fringe right.
I would not read Goldberg to learn that. I am not sure it is true although Mussolini did, as I understand, support quite a bit of social legislation that would be popular with the progressive movement of the early 20th century, if not also with many communists of that period.
I merely noted that his discussions of certain topics, such as the minimum wage and the abortion movement, where advocates used arguments that, to modern ears, sound appalling. Goldberg does not make an explanation of why such arguments were made - which is the stuff of history, after all - but only that arguments were made. In this circumstances, he spoke of the positive Darwinists who advocated that positive steps needed to be taken to improve mankind. This, according to Goldberg, contrasted with what we know today as social Darwinists who believed that letting nature - in this case viewed as society - play itself anyway it wanted.
In this regard, there is the progressive and brilliant Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendall Holmes who saw nothing wrong or at least unconstitutional with - in fact, according to Goldberg, embraced - forced sterilization of stupid people. This is an argument which has vanished, thankfully, from the political debate - an argument exposed back in the 19th Century by Nietzsche as wrongheaded - for the most part, leaving only, unthankfully, the social Darwinists to spin their theories.
Where his book is interesting is in his discussion of these somewhat obscure debates that embrace ideas no longer in discussion. That was my general point.
Maarja Krusten - 1/27/2010
Is my last sentence an effort at immunization for HNN's writers and readers? Of course it is. Not as regards the government, to which the First Amendment is directed. "The government" is not going to do anything to restrict the freedom of speech of anyone associated with HNN. No one of either party associated with any branch of government is going to use their inherent power to do try to do that. But do keep in mind that my view of the political world was deeply affected by my years of listening to the Nixon tapes. It is from the darker reaches of that unregulated world--to which constitutional protections of free speech do not apply but where the players rely on their own moral compasses alone--that I hope all who gather at HNN, on one side or another, remain safe.
Kevin Eric Kennedy - 1/27/2010
Dear Mr. Ledeen,
You cannot justify Jonah Goldberg's outrageous historical distortions by claiming that he was writing "political analysis, not history." (By the way, do all political scientists accept historical falsehoods as serious argumentation as long as they don't claim to be "history?").
The core characteristic of fascism is not the desire to place one's nose "into every nook and cranny" of social and individual life, but rather to smash the nose of one's opponent. That is to say, fascists reject the use of reason and rationality to solve political conflict and choose instead to resolve conflicts through violence. In that sense, contemporary American conservatism and its lunatic "Tea-Bag" fringe have a much better claim to be the legitimate heirs of fascism than does contemporary liberalism. For all of it's faults, today's liberalism is a decidedly non-violent ideology. America's liberal president doesn't even appear to have the courage to stand up and offer rhetorical resistance to conservatives like Goldberg and their absurd accusations. Even if Goldberg is laughing all the way to the bank, many members of his audience are not as cynical as he is, and take his polemics to be the truth. Recently, one of the leaders of the Tea-Party movement even hinted on the NPR show "On Point" that Americans might soon have to resort to the "bullet-box" instead of the ballot-box, because of the supposed liberal-fascist threat to American. Words have consequences, Mr. Ledeen, and writers have a responsibility to be careful with their words, even if they're only clowns pretending to be serious political thinkers, like your friend Jonah Goldberg.
Maarja Krusten - 1/27/2010
N., thank you for the thoughtful comments. I have not read Mr. Goldberg's book but I did follow his specialized blog about it at NRO for a while when it first appeared. And I occasionally look in at The Corner.
To write about some topics in the period from the 1950s onwards, in the present environment, takes exquisite skill and great care. On this topic, I'm not convinced even most historians (which Mr. Goldberg is not) could have met the standards for which I am looking. Had I been Mr. Goldberg, I would have cut the book off after the end of World War II.
While I am open to reading about the subject, I doubt I'll read the book. As I noted in my other comment, I don't believe people such as I are the intended audience. That's ok. There are a lot of niche books out there and we readers are free to pick and choose those which best suit our standards. I mostly read history in the little leisure time I have. So I'll pass on the book, despite your useful commentary.
These are challenging times, even, it seems, for historians. A blogging historian recently wrote, “Our manner of speaking to one another is altering to reflect how the political is gaining the upper hand in so much of our lives. It can be seen in the corpulent peasants ambling through Wal-Mart half-dazed in their “Don’t Tase Me Bro!” t-shirts. . . “ That took me aback. I never thought I would see an historian writing about fellow Americans as “corpulent peasants” Even the use of the phrase “half-dazed” surprised me. You never know if a stranger is ill, consumed by sorrows, fretting over financial issues, or any number of things that might preclude a bright and cheery expression. Why not give them the benefit of the doubt as to their inner lives? A stranger in an elevator once asked me why so gloomy, why I wasn’t smiling (I happened to be thinking about the death of my twin sister). You NEVER know what is going on in strangers’ lives.
At any rate, this is not a partisan matter for me as I am an Independent. It's no surprise that someone who worked on Nixon's campaign, voted for him in 1972, and then spent 14 years working with his secret tapes and files ended up primarily interested in individual executives' character and their handling of challenges. And turned away from affiliation with any party or ideology. For me, individual presidents – like us, frail, struggling human beings trying to do the right thing in an often toxic environment few of us could handle – are the most interesting.
Professor Paxton writes in his essay, “Feeling oneself a victim is wonderfully liberating. Anything goes.” But it’s also liberating to choose not to be a victim. I spent many years struggling to understand why one of Richard Nixon’s representatives viewed my NARA colleagues and me as “junior prosecutors” for our efforts to open “abuse of power” information. A couple of years ago, I had a chance to approach him. I chose to reach out in a non-judgmental way, giving him wiggle room to respond. We now are good virtual friends, something which never would have happened had I decided to wallow in victimhood. Being gracious and reaching out to someone who has attacked you is liberating, too.
May all who write here stay safe and secure under the First Amendment that we lucky U.S. citizens cherish in this nation I love.
Elliott Aron Green - 1/26/2010
This subject is very complex as Ledeen says. Unfortunately, I don't see in his article or in Paxton's piece any mention of James Gregor's argument that many "Third World" "liberation" movements, governments and dictators have much in common with fascism.
That would be a fruitful topic for study. Anyhow, it leads me to ask if the whole notion of a "left-right" political spectrum is meaningful or useful anymore for history or political science. After all, Hitler's party was called the "German national socialist workers' party." And the Communist Soviet Union allied with the Nazis in 1939 which allowed WW2 to begin. The USSR is said to have kept up its obligations under the Nazi-Soviet Pact until after the German attack on the USSR in 1941. Further, in 1939-41 period, Communists in France and elsewhere described efforts to use military force against the Nazis as "imperialism." Both sides committed themselves to a joint "struggle for peace." Izvestya described Nazi ideology as a "matter of taste." The USSR shipped war goods to Germany.
So if the Nazis were "right" and the USSR was "left", then what the hell is the substantive difference? In any event, neither side was opposed to invading Poland, etc etc.
Then we could compare Fidel Castro's slogan "Patria o Muerte" with the chant of Franco's general Millan Astray in Salamanca in the presence of Unamuno: Espanna!! Muerte!! Espanna!! Muerte!! Castro said: Fatherland or Death. Millan Astray specified the fatherland that he wanted to glorify as Spain. [Millan Astray chanted: Death! and his men responded: Spain! This was repeated over and over.]
Was Castro a rightist when he said, Patria o Muerte? Or was Millan Astray a leftist when he and his men chanted "Espanna! -- Muerte!"?
Muslim jihadist terrorists are also infatuated with death, for whatever reason [supposedly, they look forward to 72 virgins in the world to come]. Are the jihadi terrorists left or right?
N. Friedman - 1/26/2010
I thought that Goldberg's book was rather interesting. History, it was not. Polemic, it was not really either, at least in the portion that deals with things other than the last 30 or 40 years.
I think that Ledeen has pointed out some glaring problems with Goldberg's book. Be that as it may, reading some of the views held by earlier progressives - arguments for the minimum wage and arguments for abortion which were consciously directed at undermining supposed unsavory elements of society, etc. - deserve to be read carefully. Similarly, the support that Mussolini received and their stated reasons for supporting him, deserve to be read carefully. His discussion of Wilson also deserves to be read carefully.
His argument that liberalism and corporatism have a nexus, with liberals supporting large corporations while protecting them from the marketplace, in order to gain political support for programs to help the poor or middle class - akin to what has occurred in connection with the healthcare reform, with the insurance and pharmaceutical industry supporting a reform which protects their interests - is just fascinating. It reminded me of James Weinstein's interesting book, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1900–1918.
Of course, unlike Goldberg's book, Weinstein's book is a history, with a carefully honed focus. That is not a criticism of Goldberg's interesting book. It is merely to note the different nature of the two books.
Maarja Krusten - 1/26/2010
Since you call for discussion, please consider the constraints I point to at
- Yale's Jay Winter sums up what we should remember about WW I
- Plagiarism scandals galore … but no consequences?
- Stephen Cohen was once considered a top Russia historian. Now he publishes odd defenses of Vladimir Putin, says critic
- Historian who calls bull&%$@ on July 4th parade causes controversy
- This is what motivated history students in high school and middle school can do!