Friday, October 17, 2008

Memo to Jonah Goldbert: Who's Looking Fascist Now?

When Jonah Goldberg came out with Liberal Fascism earlier this year, naturally he mentioned Barack Obama in his interviews. Obama was a classic liberal fascist. He was holding rallies, stirring crowds, leading followers in chants of "Yes, we can! Yes, we can!" Firing up a crowd's passion and leading chanting rallies reminded Goldberg of Mussolini and Hitler leading chanting rallies of followers. Populism and stirring up a crowd's passion, Goldberg warned, can lead in very ugly directions. The final proof of his fascism occurred when Obama scheduled his acceptance speech in (gasp!) a sports stadium. But let's face it. All rallies appeal to the passions of the crowd and lead to chants of meaningless slogans. And rallies are, after all, a normal (if not always appealing) feature of democratic politics.

As further proof of Obama's fascism, Goldberg cites his talk about things like transformation and unity. To Goldberg, this is dangerously utopian. Conflict and partisanship are normal parts of democratic politics; to deny them is to deny democracy. And the message feels repressive and intrusive. Obama is calling for people to unify on his terms, by becoming fluffy, uplifted liberals just like himself. Goldberg just wants to be left alone. The message contains an implied rebuke, an unspoken note of moral superiority. But annoying implied moral superiority is not the same as fascism.

But Goldberg is missing some fairly obvious differences between the Obama campaign and real fascist campaigns. Real fascists appeal to anger, fear and hate. They fire up followers to become stormtroopers and crack opposition heads. Obama talks of hope and change and fires up followers to register new voters, build a Democratic organization in rural areas, and develop a platform to meet local needs. This is indeed populism, but of a healthy kind. Instead of firing up people's anger and hate and leading a pitchfork-wielding mob against Wall Street, Obama is recognizing the justice of that anger and channeling it into doing something constructive.

Goldberg may see talk of unity as dangerously utopian because it ignores the conflict inherent in democratic politics and (presumably) sees divisive partisanship and demonization of one's opponents as the true face of democracy. But let's face it. Real fascists put off their promises of unity until after their internal enemies are defeated. In the mean time, they are about as partisan, divisive and demonizing as anyone could ask for. Let there be no mistake, extremes of polarization, partisanship and demonization can destroy democracy; that is exactly what Mussolini and Hitler did.

As a matter of fact, if Goldberg really wants to see populist appeals to anger, fear and hate, it isn't Obama rallies he should be watching. At McCain/Palin rallies, one is hearing more and more cries of "terrorist," "traitor," "treason," and even "kill him." Republicans are heckling Obama voters, slashing their tires, and vandalizing ACORN offices and calling in death threats. Am I calling Republicans fascists? No. They are most certainly not fascists. But if Goldberg wants to hunt for every superficial resemblence between liberals or Democrats and fascists, maybe he should also be looking for resemblence on the other side of the aisle as well.

And finally, I would pose a thought experiment to Goldberg. If he thinks Obama's talk of unity and cooperation is dangerous, what would he think if Obama did, indeed, engage in the politics of polarization and demonization? Why do I suspect he wouldn't like that any better?

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