Definitions and Double Standards - A Rebuttal

Roger Griffin is Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University and lectures principally on aspects of the History of Ideas relating to ideologies and values that have shaped the modern world. His latest book is Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

"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.

HNN Special: A Symposium on Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism

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N. Friedman - 2/5/2010

I think we agree entirely. Thanks and warm regards.

Maarja Krusten - 2/5/2010

Thanks, N. Of course, I never view you as a vitriol thrower and I always respect you as someone who seeks to advance discussion. I'm pointing to why Mr. Goldberg seems to have faltered and why some, although not all, who've pushed back against his book also have faltered. That's something we who have immersed ourselves in U.S. politics and culture have a better chance of understanding than those who've focused on Europe. A lot of it goes back to the fissures that developed during the Vietnam War. It's been hard for a lot of people on either side to man up and work to heal them rather than continuing to pick at them and keep wounds from healing.



N. Friedman - 2/5/2010


I agree entirely with your assessment that one's analysis of those with a different political agenda is hampered where vitriol colors that understanding or blankets the public sphere.

A number of the articles - and leaving the reader comments aside - about Mr. Goldberg's book show some degree of vitriol. A number of the articles judge a popular style political/political science book as if it were a history - about which I have commented repeatedly that such is unfair criticism and, on top of that, not a very logical form of criticism.

A contention made by one or more reader comments - and a view perhaps held by some of the article authors - sees fascism as so fundamentally different from the progressive movement or socialism or communism that they think it crazy to find anything common to them.

My view is that, apart from noting historical errors - some of which are no doubt correctly pointed out -, arguments that are premised on such radical distinctions among these various ideologies being so great as to preclude important commonality are both bad history and, more generally, eyes wide shut thinking of the very type you reference in noting how hostile the political condition of the country now is.

To anyone who sees nothing at all to the view that some elements often associated with the corporatism, normally viewed as an element of fascist thinking, play no role at all in the progressive movement, read James Weinstein's rather convincing historical study, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1900-1918. In fact, a great many of the most prominent leaders of that period's corporations (and labor unions and judiciary) were instrumental in advocating for and advancing the progressive political agenda. Many of them believed that individualism of unrestrained capitalism at the corporate level was deeply problematic and counterproductive but opposed socialism, most particularly because it acted on behalf of one class. They wanted a third way, a version, democratic to be sure but a version nonetheless, of the corporate state, and favored class collaboration, not class conflict.

Moreover, to those who see real walls, I commend Bernard Henri Lévy's fascinating book, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. Lévy sees the Left now taking up unequivocally fascist arguments and positions and relying on Nazi "thinkers" (e.g. Carl Schmitt). If so - and the book, while its first part is rather difficult reading, is really a tour de force, the distinctions between fascists and others simply cannot be what the various authors of the articles appear to think.

I hope that my comment is seen as an attempt to advance discussion, not to hurl vitriol.

Maarja Krusten - 2/5/2010

As some of us have discussed earlier, readers such as I would have been more likely to pick up and read Mr. Goldberg’s book had he cut off his analysis soon after World War II. Writing about the period from the 1960s onwards requires exquisite skill and certain sensibilities. Certainly, a Europeanist can offer insights into social democracy in Europe. But we face some challenges here that stem from things that affected the U.S. primarily. Unless we consider why the near past is so challenging to tackle, we can’t understand why so it’s easy for an author to falter in trying to discuss fascism and socialism and communism.

Many of wounds go back to the Vietnam War and the subsequent “culture wars.” Rick Perlstein touched on some of that in his book, Nixonland. As someone was immersed in Nixon’s tapes for ten years while employed by NARA, I have a somewhat different take on some issues related to RN (for whom I voted) than does Mr. Perlstein. But his book does point to some issues that have a lingering effect. The extent is unclear to me. Gripes and displays of victimhood once muttered in bars now routinely appear on message boards. But we don’t know the extent to which the aggrieved self select in such forums. Although an Independent, I have many friends among Republicans and Democrats. I know many people out there who don’t think in terms of payback or punishing their fellow Americans.

Still, it’s clear that something changed after Ronald Reagan (for whom I voted and whose confidence and seeming serenity I liked) left office. Starting with the Clinton administration, more and more people seemed to struggle with putting on their Big Boy Pants and accepting that voters gave the keys to government to the party they voted against. Former Congressman Joe Scarborough touched on this last year. Scarborough said in his view “something has gone terribly wrong.” Scarborough wrote that

“For the better part of 20 years, a bitterness has infected our politics that has weakened our country. We Republicans spent eight years trying to delegitimize Bill Clinton. Democrats spent the next eight years doing the same to George W. Bush. Now that a Democrat is in the Oval Office again, it is the GOP who is trying to delegitimize a sitting president.

When I try to talk to Republicans about the need to break this cycle of viciousness, some cite the chapter and verse of every hateful left wing attack against George W. Bush. Whenever I attempt to have a conversation with some Democrats about the need for us respect our president-- whether he be an Obama or a Bush-- I am told that Bush deserved whatever he got because he was a lying war criminal who hated the Constitution and loved torturing people.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of Americans who believe we cannot continue going on this way.

You and I may disagree on how the CIA handled terror suspects. But that does not mean that you are soft on terrorism anymore than it means that I hate the Constitution.
You and I may have a different approach to Afghanistan. But just because you want to stay there another five years doesn't mean you are an imperialist. And if I believe a decade in that forsaken land is more than enough, that doesn't mean I'm soft on al Qaeda or the Taliban. It just means that we view the world differently.”

It should be possible to write about conservatism, liberalism, fascism, socialism, and communism without name calling, without pushing buttons, without trying to score political points, without payback. To understand why it’s so hard to do that in the U.S., we really need to consider how the environment Scarborough describes developed and why writers make the choices they do.

Lyle Rubin - 2/4/2010

To make the discussion more interesting, is it possible you can solicit something from Sheri Berman, author of the fairly recent "Primacy of Politics"? She's a political scientist, not a historian, but it's essentially an academic reappraisal of the 20th-century fascist and social democratic pedigree, and relevant to the topic at hand. Thanks.

[Full Disclosure: I actually did some research for Jonah back in college. My politics have changed since then, but I still like to follow this debate, and up till now, I've been disappointed with what's come of it, on all ends.]

N. Friedman - 2/4/2010

Professor Griffin,

I read your arguments. I also read Goldberg's book. I do not agree with Goldberg but, at the same time, think that you distinguish fascism from other ideologies more than it really is. And, I think you confuse a political argument with an historical one.

I have no reason to think you are incorrect in noting that Goldberg finds a commonality among socialism, liberalism and fascism. On the other hand, his argument is not an historical argument. I think that is an important point, one that does not seem to be understood by any of the historians and others who have written in objection to Goldberg.

With that point in mind, consider two ideologies, A and B. i see no reason why Ideology A cannot have entirely different foundational roots from ideology B yet, at the same time, share ideological elements. Such could be because there are structural factors in both ideologies that require them to take certain positions or to employ certain arguments.

I do not see how you can argue that Goldberg has done more than point out commonalities in his book. Yes, he does point to origins - ideology, not historical - while noting some evidence, whether or not well taken, that comes from history. Not to put too fine a point on it but the famous philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel - no suggestion that Goldberg is in the same remote class, either for content or fame or importance - makes arguments that point to history and through which, no doubt, an historian could readily punch dismembering holes.

Further, and this is a more important point. The distinctions, intellectually speaking, between ideologies, between far left and far right, are not maintained with brick walls. In this regard, I would recommend that you read Bernard-Henri Lévy's fascinating book Left in Dark Times - A Stand Against the New Barbarism. A substantial part of the book concerns the use of - in fact, the adoption of - ideas from the fringe right by the Left, in France but also elsewhere. In fact, he notes the importance of the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt in left wing circles.

Were there the brick wall that your argument suggests, the leakage from right to left would not be occurring. Yet, it is. As Lévy notes, there is, in fact, a right-wing left. And, it has substantial influence on the left, as he notes.

Now, my point is that if Lévy is correct - and, his evidence on the point is rather strong, quoting left wing scholars advocating Schmitt's ideas (and openly) - the history that distinguishes left and right, that distinguishes fascism from progressivism and socialism, may be incidental, not fundamental.

Which is to say, I think your argument is unfair to Mr. Goldberg. He, no doubt, has a political agenda - as do we all. He may not be an historian. But, his finding commonality among different ideologies, however different their roots are, is no danger. It is something to consider.

Adam Cody - 2/3/2010

Thank you Mr. Walsh for your response, if you could be so kind to offer the following.

Are readers to assume that the initial writers identified themselves as being "liberal"? Or was that an initial decision by HNN to label the special that way without consent/agreement with the authors? If the authors do agree with this label, that is useful information for a reader to know.

For this, "Robert Griffin and Matthew Feldman both teach at English universities (Griffin at Oxford Brookes, Feldman at the University of Northampton)", do you know what their degrees were in and at what level they achieved? I wasn't able to locate that for them. I wasn't able to for Ledeen either, but he was a military officer so I assumed his degree came that way though I can't confirm this.

Thanks again for your time.

David Austin Walsh - 2/3/2010

Ms. Krusten is absolutely correct - we renamed the feature when we began receiving responses from conservative intellectuals. It wouldn't have been accurate under its original title!

As for the contributors, Chip Berlet and David Neiwert have journalistic backgrounds. Robert Griffin and Matthew Feldman both teach at English universities (Griffin at Oxford Brookes, Feldman at the University of Northampton), and Michael Ledeen holds a chair at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Hope this helps!

Adam Cody - 2/3/2010

Not a complicated question at all.

HNN Special: A Symposium on Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism
*Liberals Respond to Liberal Fascism:
*The Rebuttals To The Response:

For whatever reasons, HNN or the authors, decided to identify the writers as liberal for this
special. The cat is out of the bag, so to speak. And this identification is relevant and pertinent to the topic. It is a theme after all in Goldberg's book. A reader can be the judge of the authors objectivity and strength of their argument regardless of the authors political leanings. But it does cry "foul", if this information is being retracted without explanation.

Not all of the liberals were historians either, two were journalist by trade. The two besides Paxton, don't seem to have a public listing of exactly what their educational credentials are.

I hope to see more articles on this topic, though I'm unsure if the liberal writers [except Paxton] are writing at a level that would encourage Goldberg and other "rightest" to enter the debate. Jumping into a pit of vipers might be a good description for the situation.

I would like to see the liberal authors drop the venom and vile so we could get more counter-responses. I don't want them to run from their political ideology though, they should embrace it and wear it on their sleeve.

They could of also called this special:

* Primal Scream Therapy, Liberals, and Goldberg's book.
* Liberal Historians Hired By Huffington Post - A look at "Liberal Fascism"
* Historians Research Politico Forum Threads To Summarize Liberal Reactions To "Liberal Fascism"


Maarja Krusten - 2/3/2010

Could you elaborate on what bothers you about the change in header? I don't see how HNN could have listed Michael Ledeen's essay and Jonah Goldberg's essay under a banner referring to "liberal historians." Would that have been your preference? Doing so would overlook the fact that Mr. Goldberg neither is liberal nor an historian and Mr. Ledeen is not a liberal. It certainly appears as if the banner was changed to reflect these additions. I gave HNN credit for posting essays from various parties. It certainly has been fascinating to see this debate play out here, lots of lessons at multiple levels.

Adam Cody - 2/3/2010

Either HNN is discredited for a lack of professionalism because they used a banner for the special without consent of the authors or the authors are discredited by either denying their "liberalism" up front for readers to judge the merits of their objectivity or they actively worked to do damage control and remove the reference of "Liberal" in the headline. Fascist-gate on the heels of the disastrous climate-gate? :)

As spoken about in the wikipedia talk page on Goldberg's book:

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