Right-wing Celebrities Play Fast and Loose With History
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A new anthology of the writings 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 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. 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, 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.
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 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 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. 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 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 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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