… are doing stuff in Australia. That’s all there really is to it.
I bought David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this morning, inspired by the Infinite Summer project. In the prologue, Dave Eggers extols Wallace’s ambition—appropriately, I assume, as of page xiv—and compares the scope of the now much-lamented novelist’s aims to, among other things, Sufjan Stevens’s 50-state album project. This comparison is at once stunningly apt, and powerfully infuriating. Eggers isn’t at fault here, except for perhaps just a touche of naivete. He’s bought the hype, and that’s the problem.
Sufjan Stevens, as you may recall, burst into our consciousness (or at least, my consciousness) sometime between 2003-2006. And when I say “consciousness,” I am referring to that of a very specific subset of scenesters. Stevens, with his just a bit precious and twee music, his interest in Americana, and his notable but non-threatening Christianity, seemed like a character created exactly to appeal to the This American Life and New Yorker set. Sealing the deal was the towering ambition he promised us: “Come On, Hear the Illinoise!” and “Greetings from Michigan,” the first two albums of his that I was familiar with, were just the first two chapters of an immense portrait of the country, the Great American Novel re-writ as indie-pop folk, with attention lavished on our national quirk and pathos. How bold Stevens was. Not only was he reaching for the heights of Melville and Twain, he was offering us, in the depths of post-2004 anti-Bush wallowing, a chance to reclaim a shred of patriotism. Americana without the bombs. (No coincidence, perhaps, that this music featured heavily in “Little Miss Sunshine,” a seemingly lovable comedy that, in retrospect, dripped with smug blue-state self-regard and condescension.)
But it was a bait-and-switch. Stevens sold us a bill of goods—”Michigan” and “Illinois”—with a promise of 48 more on the way to justify the project. Reward me for the next 48 chapters, he seemed to ask, by buying these two. So we did, and he’s gone ahead and broken the promise. A full three years after completing “Illinois,” he was still teasing the press about his next choice. (New Jersey? Do mine next!) At this rate, he won’t even finish the Big 10 states, much less all 50.
Artistic ambition deserves reward, even if it falls short of the goals it sets. But to sell the first installments of a project by titillating an audience with a faked promise of extreme boldness—that’s awfully bad faith. Stevens was cynical enough to push all of our hipster buttons without seeming to actually feel it, and that’s the peak of artistic sleaze, and bad enough that I’m probably never going to listen Stevens again. The two albums don’t stand on their own. They only work as part of a project that we now find out is not real.
Good thing I stole “Michigan” and “Illinois.”
My dad’s earliest political memory is of the Army-McCarthy hearings. Then seven years old, what he remembers is not Joseph Welch telling off Joe McCarthy, but rather his own father, my grandfather, reacting to the spectacle of the Wisconsin demagogue. “Watch, Howie,” said my grandfather — an Austrian Jew, who had escaped Europe by a matter of days — to my dad. “This is what fascism looks like.”
He was wrong, of course. McCarthy may have had a kind of fascist spirit — there’s certainly an argument to be made for that — but he was a democratic politician, and there wasn’t anything he could really do to change that. Still, one only need remember McCarthyism to understand that out there, somewhere out past George Wallace and Barry Goldwater and Pat Buchanan, things can get weird, and seriously scary.
For decades, this wasn’t especially controversial. William F. Buckley was always proud of his work drumming John Birchers and anti-semites out of polite conservative society, and until quite recently, there was only an occasional peep to be heard on the right in defense of McCarthy. (Nor, of course, was the left too different; liberals purged communists from their ranks, and even went so far as to try to out-hawk the GOP on national security and, ultimately, Vietnam.)
Enter Jonah Goldberg. In Liberal Fascism, published last year and out this month in paperback, Goldberg doesn’t set out to salvage the reputation of the far right — he tries to write it out of existence entirely. (See his interview with Salon last year here.) Fascism, says Goldberg, is a mutant strain of leftism; Woodrow Wilson was a dictator and “war socialist,” the turn-of-the-century progressives were eugenicists, Hitler was a vegetarian, the New Deal was classic corporatist economics, and the New Left radicals were straight-up totalitarian. There is, obviously, a little bit to this. But not too much.
What it all adds up to, as Liberal Fascism would have it, is that visible in modern liberalism is a fascist ancestry, which explains the tendency of the modern left to classify all aspects of modern life as political. Michael Pollan wants you to eat organic? That’s liberal fascism. Sonia Sotomayor thinks ethnicity made a difference to her political and legal development? The Nazis were race-obsessed too. Administration officials want us to trust them with General Motors? Meet Barack Mussolini.
Hence, of course, the infamous discarded subtitle: “The totalitarian temptation, from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton.” Everything you know is wrong. The extreme right is, in fact, the left. Stop calling conservatives fascists, because it’s not fair, and besides, liberals are the real fascists. Conservatism cannot be guilty of sharing a political neighborhood with fascism, because by definition to frown on the government in general, and particularly on its meddling in people’s lives.
In a critical review in the New Republic, Michael Tomasky wrote, “However much or little Goldberg knows about fascism, he knows next to nothing about liberalism.” This is altogether too generous. Let’s modify Tomasky’s statement with this: however much he knows about liberalism, fascism, or for that matter, Maoism or Daoism, Goldberg would appear to know nothing about, of all things, conservatism.
It seems odd, after all, that a relatively orthodox modern American conservative is decrying the meddlesome state. Goldberg’s party, his magazine, and his movement are home to some of the most aggressive invaders of private life anywhere in the American mainstream. Goldberg’s National Review has been at the forefront of women-in-the-home, gays-in-the-closet, torture-and-wiretap conservatism. This is supposed to be a small government footprint? I wouldn’t call Goldberg or NR anywhere near totalitarian, but some of those innocent Gitmo detainees probably feel like they’ve been stamped on by the boot from 1984. (Come to think of it, some of them probably did get literally stamped on by boots.)
Here’s the crucial problem. It’s clear that Goldberg has something other than the modern Republican Party in mind when he thinks of conservatism. That’s fair, I suppose, but when he lets slip what he is thinking of, the whole argument unravels. In an interview at the National Review Online this week, he absentmindedly uses the word “libertarians” where one imagines he must have meant “conservatives,” describing the unfair recipients of the dreaded “fascist” slur. And indeed, longtime observers of Goldberg will have noted that he’s always been much more enthusiastic about the free-market half of his party’s agenda than he has been about the social conservative half.
It’s the only way the argument in Liberal Fascism can work: Goldberg acts as if another book has already been written, definitively showing that libertarianism is the font of conservative authenticity. Anyone who writes about politics on the Internet has probably had the experience of using the phrase “begs the question” to mean simply “invites the question,” and been corrected by an overzealous commenter. “Begs the question” is a term of art among logicians; an argument begs the question when it begins by assuming its hypothesis is true, and proceeds from there. This is what Goldberg appears to have done. He has started at the end, by assuming that anything other than libertarianism cannot be a phenomenon of the right, and then built an enormous Rube Goldberg (no relation) argument from there, while the rest of us are left to puzzle out what he thinks about a populist like, say, Mike Huckabee.
There’s another, better, more honest book Goldberg could have written. Beginning at the beginning, rather than the conclusion, it would’ve been a welcome entry in the debate on the rudderless GOP’s future. It would’ve declared that the heart and soul of authentic conservatism is libertarianism, that free markets and free people go together, and that the experiment in so-called fusionism between the economic right and the cultural right is a failure. Such a book wouldn’t have been called Liberal Fascism, and it wouldn’t have had a smiley face with a Hitler mustache on the cover.
But a book like that wouldn’t ride the bestseller list for months. It wouldn’t make for embarrassingly fawning coverage for its author in his own magazine, because it would say things that would upset the author’s colleagues. Books like that aren’t very good bludgeons, and make no mistake, a bludgeon is what Goldberg was out to craft.
Goldberg complained in a recent interview that the left claims a monopoly on political virtue and wield “fascist” as a “cudgel” against anyone who disagrees with them. In response, he has claimed a monopoly on political virtue for the right, called the left fascists, and written a field guide for political thuggery. Since Obama has been sworn in, there’s been a noticeable trend of conservatives calling him — you guessed it — not just a socialist, but a fascist. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party-goers throw the term around with little apparent concern for the intellectual origins with which Goldberg acted preoccupied. Goldberg himself recently said on the Glenn Beck Show,
I’m not calling Barack Obama a Hitler and I’m not calling him Nazis and all the rest. But, you know, in fascism, we saw the people’s car. We call it the Volkswagen, where the state said what we’re going to do is we’re going to take over the auto industry, government and business and unions are going to get together and we’re going to create cars to fill a political need rather than a market need and give people these cars.
All of this came to an extremely unpleasant head this week when James Von Brunn walked into the Holocaust Museum in DC and shot a guard. Liberals pointed out that Von Brunn seemed quite close to the much-decried warning issued by the Department of Homeland Security about right-wing violence. Some have also wondered, furthermore, why it was that extreme rightists seem to be active only during Democratic administrations. These were reasonable questions, which a reasonable conservative might answer by saying that one ought to be able to object to Obama administration policies without looking like Timothy McVeigh. Instead, Goldberg, Beck, and others have launched a campaign to establish that Von Brunn was, in fact, a left-fascist just like Obama.
Dave Weigel reports,
“From what I can tell,” explained Jonah Goldberg, the author of the 2008 bestseller “Liberal Fascism” and a writer for National Review, “his hatreds echoed the kind of stuff we hear from the Kos crowd, Chris Matthews, Andrew Sullivan et al.” Goldberg called Von Brunn “objectively crazy,” but argued that “his hatreds would be easier to find at an ANSWER rally than at CPAC.”
Rush Limbaugh echoes him nearly verbatim, saying Von Brunn “has more in common with the marchers and protesters we see at left-wing rallies.”
Red State’s Erick Erickson tweets, “holocaust shooter, like left wing bloggers hates Bush, Israel, the war, Christains, capitalism. the list goes on and on.”
And most astonishingly, but drawing obvious inspiration from Goldberg, Andrew Breitbart practically screams that the neo-Nazi Von Brunn is a multiculturalist lefty:
This guy’s a multiculturalist just like the black studies and the lesbian studies majors on college campuses. This guy was a 9/11 Truther. This guy’s hardly a right-winger. This guy’s political philosophy is more akin to the drivel that you hear on a college campus that delineates us by group — not by individuality. It’s the exact opposite of my political philosophy.
This is what Goldberg has given us. In an effort to shield mainstream conservatism from the unfair “fascist” epithet, he’s taught his own comrades to speak in near-perfect Newspeak. “It’s red meat outside,” Goldberg admitted to Jon Stewart, of his book’s cover image and title. Rather than make an honest argument, he’s stashed a weapon near to hand for Republicans — and at precisely the moment when conservatism needs honest internal arguments. Liberals are going to have to fight this for decades, the way they did being called communists. And now it’s out in paperback.
In the past couple days, I’ve had a couple brushes with the wider world, and it feels a little funny. I’ll take them one at a time.
First: on Sunday afternoon, my boss called me at home to see if I was available to do some quick research and write up what I found on Bill O’Reilly’s history of attacks on assassinated Kansas Dr. George Tiller. I wasn’t aware that O’Reilly had such a history, but I know a thing or two about using Nexis, and in a couple of hours, I’d found that 29 separate episodes of The O’Reilly Factor had gone after Tiller, often in highly charged language. This article was the result.
The piece was first to the punch, and got some attention. A lot, in fact, culminating in this article by Brian Stelter in the New York Times today, on the free speech issues raised by criticism of O’Reilly, of which my piece was the foremost example. Stelter wrapped up with this quote from a law professor:
In every complex political setting, there’s a tendency to single out the loudest of the other side and claim that what they’re doing is not political speech but is incitement. It’s important not to allow that to happen. It would have a dramatic effect on the ability to speak vigorously.
As it happens, I agree with that entirely. What O’Reilly was doing was political speech. The fact that it was wildly overheated does not constitute grounds for legal action of any kind, nor should it. But Stelter is doing here what O’Reilly himself always does: assume that criticism infringes on free speech. Questoning O’Reilly does not constitute a call for a ban. A vigorous assault on Bill O’Reilly for his choice of words need not, in any sense, prompt a debate over free speech.
What I think is interesting about all of this is the assumption that I must know something that I didn’t reveal in the article. Pajamas Media accused me of “implying” that O’Reilly “incited the murder”; Reason did much the same, calling me “deeply censorious” and saying that I “strongly hint that O’Reilly played an unwitting, offstage role in Tiller’s death.” To which I’d respond that I didn’t “imply” or “hint” anything. The article is not a novel, and is best read as text, not subtext. I wrote the article, and it says what it says. It never accuses O’Reilly of being responsible, merely of acting irresponsibly. Subjecting O’Reilly to intense criticism, which I think he merits, is not a coded call for censorship.
Look, I don’t think it really should require that much sophistication to acknowledge that,
- The chances are quite good that Scott Roeder killed George Tiller regardless of what Bill O’Reilly in particular said.
- Bill O’Reilly contributed significantly to a generally dangerous atmosphere of paranoia, powerlessness, and hatred on the anti-abortion right, and helped focus it on Tiller, and this merits criticism, even if Scott Roeder didn’t see the show once.
- An action can be observed to have been irresponsible—very much so—in hindsight, even if it did not directly cause the tragedy causing the retrospective examination. To borrow from the language used by O’Reilly, if we found out that someone had been a priest in Munich in the 1920s, who occasionally peppered his sermons with nasty anti-semitism, we would denounce this person and this behavior as especially loathsome and demanding criticism given its context, regardless of whether we knew if Hitler himself ever heard the anti-semitic sermons.
Next up, my encounter with Michelle Malkin.
People—that is, conservatives—often talk and write about federal spending like it’s a luxury for Congress. Note, here, Salon’s own anonymous “Wingnut”:
No presidency is perfect. Reagan, after all, agreed to a significant tax increase in 1982’s Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which promised (I think it was) one dollar in new taxes for every three dollars in spending restraint. And he got suckered. He came up with the taxes but Congress never provided the spending restraint. “Congress never cut spending by even one penny,” he lamented long after he’d left the White House. (The inability of Congress to control its urge to spend is a pattern that continues even today.)
Well, that goes a certain distance, but then the argument stops before the arguer can realize what he’s really saying. It is true, certainly, that Congress dislikes cutting budgets for things. And this, equally truly, as Wingnut implies, is because it’s good for the careers of representatives to keep federal programs amply funded. But it’s not like they’re going shopping or splurging on doughnuts and that’s why they just can’t resist. It’s not simply a matter of primal desire versus responsibility and pleasure postponement. Rather, it’s good for the careers of elected officials not to cut spending because there is no public appetite for spending cuts. It’s fine to argue that, philosophically, we ought to spend less money. But disappointedly pointing out Congress’s failure to ever do so is just a backdoor way of conceding that the fundamental idea of fiscal conservatism is unpopular. If people wanted it, it would eventually happen somehow.
I started this blog two days from Palo Alto toward Alaska, on June 18, 2008 in a funky-shabby hotel room a block from Powell’s Books in Portland (somehow, that fact itself seems very Portland). I updated it intermittently through the coastal rainforests, up along the inner Pacific, over, around and through the Canadian Rockies, over into Fairbanks and down to Anchorage. Shortly thereafter, tail between my legs and beaten back to California, I updated it much more frequently, reaching a peak— 100! readers! a! day!—roughly concurrent with that of Sarah Palin’s political career, and careening downwards in a neatly parallel fashion, as New York, work, and eventually school, crowded out freelance self-indulgence.
Now I’m done with school for a few months, I’ve been laid off one of my two jobs and given notice at the other, I’m finding a curious urge to talk some folks’ asses off about things they hardly can muster the energy to care about.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, “What up, motherfuckers.” How you been?
Coming soon from Rocket Pictures: “Pride and Predator.”