Friday, January 18, 2008
(2:34 PM) | John Emerson:
Jonah Goldberg's book has no importance at all from a scholarly point of view, but the Jonah Goldberg phenomenon is extremely important. He's the most recent of a long string of Movement Republican mouthpieces who have gained places in the legit media, and he's put a few new tweaks into the formula. Unlike Coulter, Malkin, Limbaugh, Savage, and Beck, Goldberg speaks in a nice NPR voice and has a professorial manner, and while what he says is no more than cheap taunting, the way that he says it seems scholarly. So responding effectively to him will be tricky.
Conservatives hate liberal notions of tolerance, open-mindedness, and civility, and Goldberg is setting a trap: "OK, buddy, tolerate this!" If you argue civilly, he gains legitimacy, since his target readers are the ones who don't pay close attention and will score the debate as a draw. But if you lose your temper or ridicule him, Goldberg will smirk down at you from the moral high ground. This is an old game, and in my opinion it attacks (albeit dishonestly) one of liberalism's genuine weak spots.
Goldberg's book is also intended to inoculate Republicans against the charge of fascism -- "We're no worse than the Democrats" is the standard Republican response whenever they're caught behaving indefensibly. Goldberg doesn't really need to make his case: he just needs to plant a few doubts and give the Republican mouthpieces some new talking points. Even if his book is mostly rejected, there will be some residue, the way accusations tarnish reputations at the unconscious level even when presented from the beginning as false (e.g., "Obama has never been a Muslim and has never attended a Muslim school).
When a legit publication features someone like Kristol or Goldberg, a clear message is sent about what is expected and what is permissible. Movement Republican plants are turf markers, rather like the illiterate commissars holding high positions in Soviet universities or the thugs sent from national headquarters to oversee mobbed-up union locals. The media are free, all right, but they still have to give the Republicans a voice and a veto. The stupider the mouthpiece, the clearer the message -- it's not really possible to pretend that either one of these guys was hired for his talents. And everyone else in the organization will get the message about what the management wants.
What about the substance of Goldberg's book? Is there any? If you take the book seriously, you play into Goldberg's hands, but it's worth pointing out briefly that there's no there there. So:
Like fascists, American liberals are more populist and futurist than classical liberals and traditionalist conservatives, but so are Republicans. (The classical liberals and traditionalist conservatives are nostalgia items -- dead as a doornail.) Like fascists, American liberals are willing to intervene in the economy in a way that classical liberals weren't, but so are Republicans -- and like Republicans (but unlike liberals), fascists favored big business with their interventions. It is true that in the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century many left groups were racist, but in the contemporary U.S. the racists are Republicans (the paleoconservatives and the neo-Confederates). Some early Nazi leaders were closet homosexuals, but so are many contemporary Republican leaders. The Nazi SA used anti-capitalist rhetoric at first, but the SA leaders were all massacred in 1934 and the group lost its influence.
And so on. As far as authoritarianism, militarism, contempt for legality, xenophobia, and the cult of personality go, the Republican Party which Goldberg automatically supports is remarkably more fascistic than the Democrats or any liberal group, so Goldberg just obscures these issues.
There's really only one reason why the Republican Party cannot be called fascist yet, though it's a big one. The Republicans (so far) don't have a paramilitary branch using violence and illegal means to intimidate opponents. But multiply the anti-abortion terrorists by a few hundred, and they'll have that too. (And you have to wonder what the Blackwater paras will do once they're brought home).
Repeating falsehoods with a straight face is Jonah's job. He can do this with confidence because he knows that his Republican sponsors and his media employers will accept anything he says. He was hired as a Republican mouthpiece, and if the Republicans like what he's saying the media can't object. Goldberg can also be confident that with a very few exceptions (Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, and Paul Krugman) no one in the major media will ever call him out on his fraud.
I expect the rest of the media will disgrace themselves by treating him as a reasonable man making a reasonable argument, and that in itself should be enough to tell us what desperate shape our country is in.