Monday, June 1, 2009

smiley faced fascism

I just finished a book by Jonah Goldberg entitled Liberal Fascism. The book reads like a response to current economic and political developments, such as government bailouts of private companies and entire industries, government takeovers of car companies, the passing of huge economic stimulus bills, the accumulation of massive debt to foreign lenders, and the like. But it's not a response to any of those things. The book has been out in hardcover format for about a year now, and tomorrow will hit stores in paperback. So it is not only timely and chilling, but also a prescient read on our current American context.

Jonah argues that the American form of Fascism, what he calls "smiley faced Fascism," is a very real, if less violent, form of Fascism than that found in, say, Hitler's Germany or Mussolini's Italy. But Fascism, Jonah argues, nonetheless pervades our culture, and has for years. To illustrate, he gives a working definition of the word Fascism (because apparently we use it variously and often wrongly), and then he the walks through the various chapters of American history that have been particularly fascistic. His explication is revealing; the result frightening.

The book is heavy on argument and for good reason; Jonah knows that Americans have a natural antipathy to Fascism and a great deal of assumptions about the topic. It is necessary and good, then, that his case is cogently argued, skillfully researched and accessibly written. He understands that our assumptions on the topic are so deeply rooted that readers will think he's a bit crazy and a little mean. His task of convincing us is a huge one.

Here is a paraphrased sampling of the kinds of "arguments" I personally had with the book:

"Wasn't fascism a brief, extremely conservative period during 'The McCarthy years' or (some would argue) during the years of George Bush?"
No, Fascism in America didn't start or end with Bush, or even McCarthy for that matter. It has been around since before FDR. American style Fascism has little to do with classic Liberalism or even Conservativism, but instead has its roots in early 20th C. Progressivism. Progressives tend toward the Democratic side of the political aisle but the Republican Party has its share, as well. "Wasn't fascism primarily a European development, one that we snuffed out in WW11?" Fascism was indeed a driving ideology in Germany and Italy during WW11, but many Americans--from politicians to actors to housewives--admired aspects of Fascism (particularly those centered "Il Duce") decades before the war, and only denounced it after the world discovered concentration camps. "C'mon, isn't Fascism about jackboots, violent nationalism and genocidal racism?" Again, the most widely recognized forms of Fascism, such as those in Italy and Germany were extremely violent and obviously coercive, but American Fascism is "friendly," more American, if you will. No jackboots, stormtroopers or genocidal racial nationalism here. But Fascism IS here, as is evident in the bullying politics of the 1920s, the massive "New Deal" project of the 1930s (complete with exploitation of the Great Depression) the reinterpretation of the 1950s as culturally oppressive, and the riots and domestic terrorism of the 1960s. (Jonah does not comment on the current political and social situations, as again, his book was published before the 2008 presidential election). "How could Fascism be prevalent in current American life and the general public not fight or at least acknowledge it?" Mostly we see Fascism played out here in seemingly reasonable, culturally accepted ways such as in: the imposition of political correctness in public life, the teaching of revisionist histories and literature in schools and universities, the use of "white guilt" to promote minority groups, the proliferation of anti-American propaganda in Hollywood, the exploitation of fear regarding the climate, the imposition of racial quotas in the workplace, and the control of populations via eugenics and abortion--just to name a handful of examples.

The above is just a taste of what Liberal Fascism has to offer. There is much to be mined (and argued over!) in this book. It has recently become a bestseller, and for good reason. It's a must-read for anyone with an interest in intellectual and cultural history--not to mention a concern for America's future.

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