The dunce cap.
I’ve been upbraided for dealing with Johan Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism in an elliptical fashion, by talking about National Review‘s history of philo-fascism, rather than directly. But Goldberg’s book is being widely reviewed and commented on. It would be redundant for me to simply echo what smart writers like Dave Neiwert, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have already written. (And in time real historians of fascism will also be tackling the book). My philosophy as a blogger is to always try to make points that aren’t being articulated elsewhere.
Having said that, here is one fresh point that no one, as far as I know, has made about Goldberg. The book is about the relationship between fascism and American politics. Goldberg, on the evidence of the book, can’t read German, Italian or Spanish. These are the main languages you need to possess if you want to read the primary sources and major scholarly literature on fascism. The endnotes in Goldberg’s book are monolithically English.
Imagine writing a book on Shakespeare without knowing a word of English, or a book on the American Constitution while being unable to read Madison and Hamilton without the aid of translators.
Goldberg has chutzpah but he’s not alone. Liberal Fascism was praised by David Pryce-Jones, a senior editor at National Review and author of The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. Again, based on the evidence of his own book, David Pryce-Jones doesn’t know Arabic at all above a pidgin level needed to buy a carpet. (The book itself is largely a mishmash of orientalist stereotypes).
One of the colleagues Goldberg and Pryce-Jones have at National Review is John J. Miller who co-wrote (with Mark Molesky) Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship With France. I’m not sure how much French Miller and Molesky know but Robert O. Paxton (one of the world’s leading historian of modern France) made a devastating point in a review of their book: “all their French quotations except one, as far as I can determine, come secondhand from someone else’s extracts in English.” (Paxton’s whole review is worth looking up for its masterly dismantling of the book).
So even if Miller and Molesky know French, they certainly didn’t use their knowledge in writing a book that is overwhelming based on English-language sources. (I’ve asked Pryce-Jones and Miller to clarify their language skills but haven’t heard from them).
Why is the linguistic incompetence of Goldberg (and company) a problem? Couldn’t it be argued that he’s writing a book of popular history, and therefore can rely only on secondary sources? But that excuse is belied by Goldberg’s own claims on behalf of his work: “It is a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care,” Goldberg modestly about his book. Goldberg isn’t popularizing a pre-existing literature on fascism: he’s challenging the scholarly consensus on this subject by claiming that fascism is a movement of the left, with much in common with American liberalism. It’s as if someone wanted to write a book taking issue with mainstream physics (say Einstein’s theory of relativity) without knowing any math.
The special problems of Goldberg’s monolingual approach were brought out in a devastating review by Michael Ledeen, who is just as right-wing as the author of Liberal Fascism but also happens to know the relevant languages. (Ledeen’s books on Italian history make for spirited and valuable reading).
Ledeen’s review is worth quoting at some length:
The issue is “the same goals,” not just the methods of rule, and here’s where Jonah’s eccentric thesis, for all its provocative value, leaves history behind and strides into…vision, I suppose. Just a few lines later, he claims that “Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator,” and that’s just silly. I am second to no one in my antipathy for Wilson-I once wrote a book that lambasted him for his stupid politics after the War-but he wasn’t a single-party dictator, which fascism always was.
Here’s another major point:
Indeed, in one of Liberal Fascism‘s most unfortunate phrases, Jonah trivializes Nazi racism, equating it with some American political rhetoric:
“What distinguished Nazism from other brands of socialism and communism was not so much that it included more aspects from the political right (though there were some). What distinguished Nazism was that it forthrightly included a worldview we now associate almost completely with the political left: identity politics.” And in case you thought he was kidding, he repeats it a few pages later: “What mattered to (Hitler) was German identity politics.”
The best that can be said about this is that it’s imaginative. But it’s what happens when you are bound and determined to put liberals, Socialists, Communists, fascists and Nazis into a common political home.
And here’s what I think is the kicker of Ledeen’s review:
One final concern has to do with Jonah’s tendency to equate European and American politics, when the differences are enormously important. There has never been a successful worker’s party or worker’s movement in the United States, as Seymour Martin Lipset has explained. And there is no American nationalism of the sort that exists in Europe, either. They’re nationalists, we’re patriots, and the two are quite different. Jonah often seems to think that the same words mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic, but it is not so.
Let’s savor that last sentence: “Jonah often seems to think that the same words mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic, but it is not so.” That gets at the problem of the Goldberg book in a nutshell: a conflation of European history with contemporary American political reality, built on an ignorance of the languages that would allow him to address these topics in a “serious, thoughtful” way.
Conservatives weren’t always such monolingual dunderheads. Take a look at the mid-century conservative intellectuals who congregated around National Review and Modern Age: William F. Buckley, Leo Strauss, James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport.
Buckley is the least educated of the lot: his Latin never got above a few school boy catch phrases and it is difficult for him to read French. But his Spanish is fluent and served him in good stead when he worked as a CIA agent in Mexico.
Leo Strauss was, of course, beyond compare. (Strauss wasn’t directly connected with National Review but he was much admired by the magazine and his students certainly wrote for it). A native speaker of German, he not only mastered English but also Latin, ancient Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, French and Italian (and perhaps a few other languages that I don’t know about). Strauss regretted the fact that he didn’t learn Chinese and Hindi, rendering it impossible for him to deal with the classics of those traditions. How different in spirit from the belligerent ignorance of Jonah Goldberg!
Strauss can be criticized on many fronts: his hermeneutics was fundamentally wacky (and unfalsifiable, so when you entered the maze it was difficult to leave); he tended to turn all philosophers into the same philosopher (a variation on his Socrates or Maimonides); he avoided direct engagement with those thinkers who would most directly and powerfully challenge his thinking (notably Heidegger); he dismissed American pragmatism with an uncomprehending continental snobbery; his elitism prevented him from appreciating the moral force of the modern democratic sensibility (for example, the numinous way in which Joyce celebrated daily life in Ulysses). Still and all, Strauss’s very flawed writings were festooned with a remarkable learning: to read him is to grow smarter even if you argue with him every step of the way.
James Burnham was able to converse with Andre Malraux and Charles De Gaulle in their own tongue; Burnham’s Latin and Italian weren’t bad either. Willmoore Kendall translated Rousseau’s Government of Poland into English and was completely at ease in Spanish.
Hugh Kenner, the son of a classics teacher, finished high school knowing ancient Greek, Latin, French and German. This made him an ideal commentator on Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. When Kenner worked on his pioneering book on Samuel Beckett, Comment c’est (1961) had yet to be tranlated into English, so Kenner translated the work itself. Beckett found the translation to be “loggy” but it influenced his own later Englishizing of the book. Guy Davenport wasn’t a standard conservative but he was a frequent contributor to National Review in the 1960s. Davenport was also the greatest translator of the last half century, the true heir to Pound in making the Greek classics come alive. His occasional French and Latin translations were almost as excellent.
We shouldn’t idealize the conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s. They had a lot of crazy ideas: many supported Joseph McCarthy and Jim Crow segregation, some wanted the United States to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. When Sputnik went up, even so smart a man as Kenner thought it was all a fake: how could peasant-dumb Russians have come up with something before America (this was a common opinion among the National Reviewers). Franco was also a hero among this set.
Yet still, despite all these flaws, these were learned men who wrote books that still matter. Liberalism Ancient and Modern. The Machiavellians. Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum. The Pound Era. The Geography of the Imagination. Intelligent people will always be interested in these books.
One of the few contemporary conservative anywhere as learned as these men is Gerald Owen of the Globe and Mail. Michael Ledeen in his earlier books was a genuine scholar of value. And John Lukacs remains a preeminent historian. (Some people might mention Victor Hanson Davis but his work is a travesty of scholarship, relentlessly present-minded and crude).
How sad that these genuine scholars and thinkers have been crowded out by simple-minded souls like Goldberg, Pryce-Jones, and Miller.
Perhaps I’m making a conservative point: everything was better in the good old days, certainly conservative scholarship was.