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Right-wing Celebrities Play Fast and Loose With History

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A new anthology of the writings [2] of intellectual historian David Gordon contains a devastating review of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. Reading it reminded me how bad GOP propaganda dressed up as “history” can really be.

David takes no prisoners in his acidic analysis of bad books, and I am still eagerly awaiting his savaging of Dinesh D’Souza’s latest attempt [3] to treat the Democratic Party as the American version of the German Nazi Party. Needless to say, what I’m complaining about goes well beyond Jonah’s bestseller, although it can’t hurt to begin with this prime example. Gordon shows how many howlers I missed in all my own diatribes against this book. In addition to pushing a badly substantiated comparison between fascists and Nazis (Jonah runs the two together) and Hillary Clinton Democrats, Goldberg fills his stem-winder with errors that even a moderately intelligent editor should have caught. He attributes to worthies Martin Heidegger and Jean-Jacques Rousseau positions that, as Gordon explains, were diametrically opposed to those that these figures actually expressed. One can easily doubt whether Goldberg ever read a word of either thinker.

He also mistakes the Jacobins during the French Revolution for communists, and has Napoleon battling “the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” which was not created until 1867. Contrary to Goldberg’s statement, Napoleon was “Emperor of the French,” not “Emperor of France,” since his authority supposedly emanated from the French people. The English Nazi-sympathizer, Unity Mitford, did not “have to leave the country, incensed that Britian would fight such progressive leaders as Hitler.” As Gordon notes, Mitford was in Germany at the time that England declared war [4]. She even tried to commit suicide when the two countries went to war against each other and was sent under Hitler’s supervision to a hospital in Munich to be treated and to convalesce. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that Unity viewed Hitler as a “progressive,” and certainly not in the manner in which American Democrats regarded Hillary Clinton. In the “notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment,” fascist Democrats committed a true atrocity when “poor black men were allegedly infected with syphilis without their knowledge.” No such experiment ever occurred [5], as David explains: “Rather men, who already had syphilis were deceived into thinking they were being treated for their illness.” If President Trump sometimes blurts out questionable facts, one comes away from Gordon’s review believing that next to Goldberg, the Donald is a practitioner of scientific method.

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Let me note that such inexcusably sloppy editorializing posing as scholarship has becoming increasingly characteristic of the conservative movement as a media phenomenon. Editorial opinions dressed up as as scholarship and then placed in book form and mass-marketed have become part of the new highbrow conservatism. Sometimes the errors can be easily corrected, for example, when Weekly Standard and National Review ascribe almost exclusive responsibility for World War I [6] to a premeditated German plan to conquer Europe. The Craft of International History by the distinguished diplomatic historian Marc Trachtenberg shreds this utterly unfounded view. Not insignificantly, Trachtenberg’s learned tome [7] was published by Princeton University. But of course I’m assuming that those who are mired in error want to learn the historical truth. It’s entirely possible they don’t. Going after the Germans for World War I as well as World War II may be good for fund-raising purposes.

Perhaps one of the most ludicrous examples of the conservative movement’s recent attempt at being sophisticated was an exchange of equally uninformed views by talk show host Dennis Prager and Dinesh D’Souza, on the subject of the fascist worldview [8]. The question was whether one could prove that fascism was a leftist ideology by examining the thought of Mussolini’s court philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944). Gentile defined the “fascist idea” in his political writings while serving as minister of education in fascist Italy. He was also not incidentally one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century; and in works like General Theory of the Spirit as Pure Act, adapts the thought of Hegel to his own theory of evolving national identity. It would be hard to summarize Gentile’s thought in a few pithy sentences; and, not surprisingly, the Canadian historian of philosophy H.S. Harris devotes a book [9] of many hundreds of pages trying to explain his complex philosophical speculation.

Hey, but that’s no big deal for such priests of the GOP church as Prager and D’Souza. They zoom to the heart of Gentile’s neo-Hegelian worldview in thirty seconds and state with absolute certainty that he was a “leftist.” We have to assume that Prager, D’Souza and the rest of their crowd know this intuitively, inasmuch they give no indication of having ever read a word of Gentile’s thought, perhaps outside of a few phrases that they extracted from his Doctrine of Fascism. Their judgment also clashes with that of almost all scholars of Gentile’s work, from across the political spectrum, who view him, as I do in my study of fascism, as the most distinguished intellectual of the revolutionary right.

According to our two stars in what has been laughably named “Prager University,” Gentile proves that “fascism bears a deep kinship to today’s Left.” After all, “Democrat progressives, in full agreement with Gentile, love and push for a centralized state, which manifests itself in stuff like recent state expansion into the private sector.” Among the questions that are left begging are these: “Do the modern Left and Gentile agree on the purpose and functions of the state?” “Would Gentile and Mussolini, who glorified Roman manliness, have rallied to the present Left in its support of feminism and gay marriage?” Did Gentile back in the 1920s favor the kind of “the stuff’ the administrative state is pushing right now?” The answer to all these questions, which of course wouldn’t be acceptable at Prager University, is an emphatic “no.” Control of the national economy by the Italian fascist state, down until its German-puppet version was established as the Italian Social Republic in September 1943, was about the equivalent of that of New Deal America.  

But let me not underestimate the thinking process of authorized conservatives. Perhaps our two conversationalists are led to their extraordinary conclusion because they couldn’t imagine Gentile being invited to a banquet sponsored by the GOP or onto Fox News. I still recall a column by Goldberg [10] in which he exiled to the far left ultraconservative opponents of the French Revolution, because they didn’t believe in human rights. He then went on to compare the Catholic counterrevolutionary Joseph de Maistre to a black feminist advocate of affirmative action, because both associated human beings with the national identities into which they were born. Apparently anyone who views others in terms of their ethnic origin, no matter at what point in history, is a certified leftist. At that time I was puzzled (but am no longer) that Goldberg had no idea that political camps in 1800 were different from what they are now.             

Let me close these observations by noting the obvious. There are still many respectable historical works that are produced by scholars identified, however loosely, with the American right. But there is also a plague of genuinely ridiculous writings on historical subjects coming from conservative media celebrities that surpass in their arrogant stupidity almost anything I’ve encountered in professional journals. As for people who yap about the ideologically tainted work that originate in our universities, one might hope they’d be somewhat better than those they declaim against. That’s not always the case.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.

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70 Comments (Open | Close)

70 Comments To "Right-wing Celebrities Play Fast and Loose With History"

#1 Comment By Tom On December 28, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

You don’t need Gordon. There was already a pretty good article on D’Souza’s book in Current Affairs: [11]

#2 Comment By SamH On December 28, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

Here’s Gordon’s review of Goldberg’s book. It sounds like Gordon actually agrees with the main premise Goldberg advances, but is frustrated by the errors. Reducing “Liberal Fascism” to “propaganda” because its author makes errors makes it sound like Gottlieb has some sort of ideological ax to grind beyond mere annoyance that Goldberg’s book has fans (I don’t know anything about Gottlieb so I don’t know what that could be).

[12]

#3 Comment By Hugh Guillaume On December 28, 2017 @ 5:46 pm

Many years ago I made a study of collectivism that taught me several lessons. One is that there are several important versions of collectivism. They share one concept – the individual is and always will be totally subservient to the community and to the state. This is the concept or philosophy that connects Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, Communism, Progressivism and neo-Conservatism. This is the concept or philosophy that connects all of the advocates and adherents of the aforementioned “-isms”.

#4 Comment By One Guy On December 28, 2017 @ 6:32 pm

Articles like this are why I today donated/subscribed/whatever to TAC. Let various viewpoints be told and examined.

And youknowho, I’m going to quote you on other websites.

#5 Comment By Y On December 28, 2017 @ 6:52 pm

@Sam H

Gordon ALREADY believes that Fascism and the New Deal are one and the same, so he does not need convincing – he has his own ax to grind.

The question is will he convince anyone who does not start believing it already? (And that includes people mad at the Left and willing to believe the worst of them)

As for me, I beleive that fascims is buy a subset of movements that came upon at that time in response to the collapse of the Great Depression and the failure of the former certainties.

Goldberg and others write as if the Great Depression did not happen, and people embraced fascims (and communims) out of the wickedness of their own hearts.

#6 Comment By Justin On December 29, 2017 @ 2:56 am

Youknowho, that’s a clever quote but I hope you aren’t taking up the Left’s error of calling the Nazis “far-right.” The reality is they were far Left and far Right. They were intense nationalists and, in a very real way, socialists (at least democratic socialists). If they weren’t, someone’s going to have to do a lot better job than Snopes has to prove it. The Nazis enacted a universal healthcare system that would make Bernie Sanders wet his pants. There’s plenty of other examples. Look up the history of the Volkswagen Beetle, for one interesting example.

#7 Comment By A DC Wonk On December 29, 2017 @ 9:03 am

These three performers, and too many others like them, are in the business of writing books and giving paid lectures to stupid angry people — and they are very successful at it, making lots of money

The Free Market at work, eh? 😉

#8 Comment By A DC Wonk On December 29, 2017 @ 9:07 am

the individual is and always will be totally subservient to the community and to the state. This is the concept or philosophy that connects Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, Communism, Progressivism and neo-Conservatism.

No, that’s not Progressivism, and I kinda doubt it’s neo-Conservatism.

Modern thought is that there must be some sort of balance between the individual and the collective. (Raising a army for the defense of the country is collectivism, as well as even having a federal Congress that passes laws, isn’t it?)

The difference between those on the left and those on the right is where you draw the line.

#9 Comment By Youknowho On December 29, 2017 @ 11:23 am

@Justin.

When it came to the Nazis, I take the lead from John Lukacs, for whom in “national socialist” he thinks that the key term is “national”. We are dealing with nationalism, which when it comes to economic policy is, let’s say it, eclectic.

I have a wonderful time pointing out that the worst features of Nazism did not come from Fascism, but from the US. Eugenics? Forced sterilization of the unfit? Done in the US by judges’ orders. The Nuremberg laws? Copied from Jim Crow laws. Extermination of lesser races in order to acquire vital space? The Indian wars.

And since the US was a democracy then, what does that tell you about democracy?

There were varieties of fascism. I find fascinating Fianna Fail of Ireland (I ran the gamut of fascism charateristcs from Stanley Payne on it, and it all checked), which became a sober, democratic political party – and in the history of the Europe of the Thirties, Ireland is the dog that did not bark. Not one single violent overthrow, not a single dictatorship…

And then we have Peron of Argentina. When they ask me if Peronism was FAscims, I say “If Fascism means seeking good relationship with neighbors, empowering the working class, anti-racism, and feminism, yes, Peron was a Fascist”

#10 Comment By Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus On December 29, 2017 @ 1:04 pm

Honestly, it’s not surprising that the same people peddling the “America was built on open immigration” line are also the ones who so pitifully mangle other aspects of history.

#11 Comment By Thrice A Viking On December 29, 2017 @ 4:12 pm

You know who, it all depends on how you define Left and Right, doesn’t it? I was going by the point-of-view of Goldberg, D’Souza, and Prager. Their POV is that a great deal of governmental control is synonymous with the Left. Without necessarily endorsing the view that it’s the Left, it does make a lot of sense to me that we place anarchism on one far side of the continuum and both Nazism and Communism on the other. The reason I hesitate to say that the authoritarian clear through to the downright totalitarian is Left is that Max Eastman and Murray Rothbard both wrote eloquent essays saying why they thought Left should be considered the Party of Freedom, while Right that of government. And the latter of the two was a professed anarchist.

#12 Comment By Youknowho On December 30, 2017 @ 12:15 am

@Justin.

As to Hitler’s health plan, I would not be too hasty to call it “Left” in the land of Bismarck. A regime of the Right might see the advantage of a healthy population (epidemics are a drag on the economy). Should war come, they did not want to get the nasty surprise the British did at the outset of WWI when a too large proportion of the men recruited were physically unfit for service.

#13 Comment By Youknowho On December 30, 2017 @ 12:19 am

Sorry, it was the Boer war. At the time 40% of the recruits were unfit due to rickets, skin diseases, chronic bronchitis, and rotten teeth that did not allow chewing.

You could say that the British Health Service began forming at that time in the brains of those who saw the appalling statistics.

#14 Comment By Youknowho On December 30, 2017 @ 11:17 am

@Thrice a Viking.

By bringing up Bismarck and the Second Reich I am attempting to show how wrong Goldberg, D’Souza, and Prager are.

In fact, Government control of the economy (“dirigism” in Frech) was SOP in most of European countries. “Dirigism” was implemented by Colbert under Louis XIV. It was not until Louis XV that the theories of “Laissez faire, laissez aller” began to be spread about in philosophical circles.

And since Goldberg et al seem unable to count, Louis XV came AFTER Louis XIV

So, anyone talking about government control of the econmony is basically being a traditionalist. Are traditionalists of the Right or the Left?

#15 Comment By grumpy realist On December 30, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

Youknowwho–British health of candidates for the military still wasn’t all that great by the time of WWI, either. R. Austin Freeman (a captain in WWI, also the creator of that forensic detective, John Thorndyke) was making comments about the lack of health in his social science writings.

(But what do you expect from a population whose cuisine seems to involve boiling vegetables to death? and whose traditional food groups seem to involve lard, meat, starch, and sugar? About the only people with worse nutrition are the Scots. I had a NHS nutritionist gripe to me about the Scottish tendency for such treats as deep-fried Yorkie bars.)

#16 Comment By Ed On December 30, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

The Left-Right spectrum is a product of changing conventions. It’s historically relative. What left and right meant in the 1790s when the terms were introduced is different from what they meant in the 1930s and from what they mean today.

Truly innovative political movements are likely to draw from ideas on different parts of the spectrum. Indeed, they have a way of changing what left and right mean in their day. The Russian Revolution did a lot to establish Marxist-Leninist Communism as the epitome of the left.

Fascists like Mussolini drew from ideas on both sides of the political spectrum, to produce a new ideology, but since they were fighting Socialists and Communists in the street (and making rough alliances with aristocrats and industrialists) they were seen by their contemporaries (after an intial period of confusion) as being on the right.

People want to find some permanent meaning in right and left. They begin by looking for something rational and permanent in the terms, but end up simply taking one pole as the essence of all that’s good in politics and the other as everything evil. That doesn’t hold up to historical examination.

The left wasn’t always tolerant and pacifist. Jacobins and Bolsheviks could monstrously violent and dictatorial. The right wasn’t always the home of the rule of law, limited government and individual responsibility. Plenty of tyrants and despots have thought themselves to be on the right and have been considered as rightists by their contemporaries.

I suspect Goldberg was one of many conservatives who smarted under the liberals’ and the left’s association of the right wing with fascism and Nazism. Today’s American conservatism doesn’t have much to do with the classical conservatism of the old European right or with the fascism of the interwar years.

Where Goldberg went wrong was in trying simplistically to turn the accusations around on the left. Contemporary American liberals also have very little in common with Hitler and Mussolini.

Neither side of spectrum is entirely free of residues of earlier ideologies if that’s what you are looking for. If you want to find a statist current running through the New Deal to contemporary liberalism, you’ll find it. But if you want to connect contemporary conservatism to the controlling tendencies of Joe McCarthy or J. Edgar Hoover or Richard Nixon and the various dictators we supported through the years. Goldberg sees the dim spectres hanging over the other side, but ignores those that his opponents see hovering over his own cause.

Jonah is typical of today’s political conversation. And Dinesh is even worse. Scrupulousness and disinterestedness aren’t really valued. People object to unfair vilification from the other side, but rush to employ the same tactics themselves.

#17 Comment By Youknowho On December 30, 2017 @ 3:36 pm

@grumpy realist

Indeed. English cuisine is an oxymoron. The English had to go conquer the world to get away from their food and get themselves some good eating for a change.

#18 Comment By Thrice A Viking On December 30, 2017 @ 7:28 pm

I think you’re quite right, Ed. In fact, I believe that the original definition of Left was that of the minority party or coalition, as they sat to the left of the head of government when he addressed the legislature. The Right, conversely, sat to his right, naturally. But a single election could reverse that. And while it’s different now, there doesn’t seem to be a firm definition, but rather a fluid one. I’d actually be in favor of dropping the two terms in favor of various more specific terms.

You know who, too much time has elapsed for admirers of 17th century economics and statecraft to be considered traditionalists. To be considered traditional, a few people at least have to have been around to see the traditions at work. At least, that’s how I understand the word.

Grumpy realist, what’s a Yorkie bar – a York Peppermint Patty, perhaps?

#19 Comment By Thrice A Viking On December 31, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

Just wanted to wish everyone a Happy New Year – even to those whose country had to forge an Empire Upon Which the Sun Never Set in order to get a decent meal! (At least that’s what GR and YKW say – I dunno myself.)

#20 Comment By Youknowho On January 4, 2018 @ 11:04 am

@Thrice a Viking

Thanks for your good wishes. And as I am not English I had a delicious spaghetti and meatballs.