A Very Serious Blog Post


It seems that nothing gets conservatives off nearly so much as writing obviously unserious books with patently offensive titles, designed in every way to not be taken seriously, and then get huffy when people make fun of them without having given their precious works the deep consideration they deserve. So while I've been poking and jibing at Jonah Goldberg, I've also been making my way through his book. It gets pretty tedious in parts, contrary to the faint praise with which a lot of people have been damning it it's not witty or clever, so I won't deny having skimmed over parts where I already got the point. But I've read it, and here's what I think.

One major problem with the book is that Goldberg has no ability whatsoever to stick to a coherent line of argument. You might call this book "disparate essays about fascism and American liberalism designed to annoy liberals." He doesn't seem to care about what his various claims amount to or even whether or not they're inconsistent. Thus, sometimes liberals are too mean to the non-Hitler fascists of the world. Other times, the problem is that people on the left in the 1920s were, at the time, unduly soft on fascism. But other times the problem is that people on the left now have views on some subjects (e.g., the importance of public health) that are similar to views fascists had back in the day.

Most egregiously of all, there's an effort to read today's highly polarized party/ideological nexus back onto a very different context. In the real world, we don't expect people who vote for the contemporary Republican Party to William McKinley's views on the gold standard. Similarly, when Karl Rove praises McKinley as the founder of the modern business-oriented Republican coalition, we don't take this as proving that Rove "secretly" shares McKinley's views on monetary policy. Woodrow Wilson, in particular, was a very complicated figure. In his presidency, we see the roots of a lot of modern progressive ideas. We also see a lot of authoritarianism, out-of-control executive power, and dogmatic adherence to white supremacy. You can't really "place" him on the modern ideological spectrum. Unless, of course, you're Jonah Goldberg in which you can simultaneously identify him as an American-style fascist but also very much a contemporary American liberal, and therefore liberalism equals fascism through the simple expedient of doing history ahistorically.

Alternatively, a sensible approach might say that "though today's liberals praise Wilson for his progressive views on labor regulations and efforts to use American power to create an institutionalized liberal world order, his actual administration pursued many highly illiberal policies, especially on race and civil liberties." Paul Starr in Freedom's Power has an enlightening treatment of these issues, talking about the founding of the ACLU in response to the depredations of MItchell Palmer and seeing the contemporary liberal synthesis as forged by taking some of Wilson's ideas and dropping other, more pernicious ones.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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