Today, Crooked Timber has two posts by Kieran Healy mocking Jonah Goldberg's new book Liberal Fascism. It is, by all appearances a book that uses the history of fascism to criticize everything from Whole Foods to Hillary Clinton. I've never thought much about the debates over whether the "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld "trivializes" the Holocaust. It never bothered me much, but I couldn't say that I understood the views of those who were offended well enough to pass judgment on their feelings. Well, this book kind of bugs me. I don't know if it's because it appropriates the moral weight of the memory of the Holocaust, which tends to come as a package deal with the word "Fascism" for partisan effect, or just because the book looks to be an insult to the intelligence of all sentient beings.
But, at the same time, I do think Healy could do a lot better than to punt the football back to the other side. There are serious arguments that Goldberg's book probably almost touches upon, and I think it would be better to draw a distinction in that same post to provide a bit of perspective. (I don't know quite to what extent, but it appears that CT has addressed these more serious ideas at least to an extent. I read the site sporadically, first drawn by the wit and wisdom of Michael Bérubé, who hasn't put up much in a while. As near as I can tell, Healy doesn't consider that Goldberg's book may have aspects relevant to another debate than the one with which he is concerned.) Let me put forth this post as a warning for people tempted to reject out of hand every idea superficially similar to Goldberg's - using Goldberg as a strawman.
The first such argument that ought not to be ridiculed is that people didn't take Hitler seriously when they should have. In his article "Did Hitlerism Die with Hitler?" historian Omer Bartov writes:
When Hitler wrote it, no one could tell whether his plans and fantasies would ever be transformed into reality. Much of what Hitler put together in this book could already be found in Mein Kampf, if anyone had bothered to read it, and other ideas were expressed unambiguously in his speeches. Yet it was difficult to believe that anyone in his right mind would try to translate such rhetoric into policy. It was generally thought that in power Hitler would be constrained by the realities of diplomacy, the limits of Germany's power, the national interests of the Reich, and the military, economic, and political partners with whom he had to make policy.
That refusal to discuss the actual threats being made against Jews is the same sort of non-argument, jumping the gun to discuss whether military action is the right response, many leftists and "realists" are making today about Ahmadinejad (and, to a lesser extent for the simple reason that Ahmadinejad is so much more public, the rest of the Iranian regime). It's the same sort of argument plenty of people seem to be making about the genocidal aims of Hezbollah and Hamas. Here, even, Healy derides Norman Podhoretz in a post titled "Hitler Hitler Hitler," (echoed by today's "Fascism, Fascism, Fascism"). Granting that Podhoretz is generally deserving of ridicule, in the video clip he made the perfectly reasonable argument, the same that Bartov does, that we shouldn't dismiss Ahmadinejad's rhetoric for the simplistic reason that it's so difficult for us to accept that someone could believe such things. The uses in my experience online of such "sophisticated" derision of those who are naive enough to take hateful rhetoric as sincere, are too often to paint Israelis and Jews worldwide as paranoiacs screaming "Fascism, Fascism, Fascism" or "Hitler Hitler Hitler" for political gain to manipulate and control American foreign policy.
Secondly, and perhaps more significant here because it seems closer to the point of Goldberg's book, is that the politics of fascist and Nazi antisemitism was indeed a bit more complicated than is connoted by the modern use of the word fascist, which has come to mean little more than "right-wing evil."
According to Shulamit Volkov's Germans, Jews, and Antisemites (reviewed here), the birth of modern, German antisemitism was not a strictly right-wing affair, but a time of political turmoil where political lines became confused and antisemitism came to dominate as a cultural code even before it became a more widely held political position. (I wrote a bit about that here on Newsvine.) Wilhelm Marr, who wrote the influential pamphlets "The Victory of Jewishness over German-ness" and "The Way to Victory of German-ness over Jewishness," and also formed The League of Antisemites, all in 1879, began his political career as a left-liberal. Heinrich von Treitschke was also known as a liberal. Paul de la Garde, though conservative, was notably opposed to racism. In Britain at about the same time, the left character of the antisemitism in the movement opposing the Boer War was even clearer. There were good reasons August Bebel famously called antisemitism the "Socialism of Fools."
As time went on and German antisemitism grew in response to the loss of WWI, the Nazi's rise to power was not based on a strictly right-wing platform in the way that Bush is right-wing but as a right-populist movement. The Nazis undertook great public works programs, opposed capitalism, and spoke publicly about socialism in ways that are forgotten. The point is often made these days that fascism was corporatist, but as is rarely acknowledged by those who make that argument, corporatist fascism was in opposition to "Jewish capitalism" and "International Bankers." The corporate analogy fascists loved was distinct from Capitalism guided by the invisible hand, and the corporate giants the Nazis allied with were those who could be subordinated under Hitler's direction. Fascists argued that, as every corporation had a head, so did the overall economy need to be under the direction of the nation's strong leader.
And even today, fascist movements are often to the left of mainstream-liberal, political parties when considering only economic issues. While the Political Compass website places Hitler as center-right on its economic dimension, it puts the British National Front to the economic left of both New Labour and the Liberal Dems. And, of course, there's plenty of indications from Chavez that he doesn't know the difference between socialism and fascism. And why are most Trotskyists these days repeating Stalinist anti-Zionism that was never more than thinly veiled antisemitism?
However you want to put it, as a deluded socialism or anti-imperialism of fools, or as a right-wing tendency presenting itself as leftist (as David Duke appears repeatedly at Palestinian Solidarity events), there are serious reasons to make analogies between segments of the contemporary left and fascist history. Just not, as Goldberg has done, between Hillary Clinton and fascism. Goldberg has certainly done a disservice to the discourse with what's certainly a ham-fisted book, but that doesn't mean the rest of us should respond any less seriously. If we are to learn from the Holocaust, as so many people would like us to do, perhaps Godwin's Law needs an escape clause?