Posted by: sean | January 14, 2008

Jonah Goldberg: "I know you are, but what am I?"

Because I am apparently incapable of letting lying dogs lie, I wrote to Jonah Goldberg last night, enumerating some of my problems with what I understand to be the main points of his book. He wrote back in “a somewhat snarky note” (his words, not mine) saying that my message was an “absurdly long email with lots of throat clearing and name-dropping.”

It’s ironic to me how Jonah seem to confuse “name-dropping” with reference. In the academic world, that’s how research works, by referencing relevant scholarship. Incidentally, I mentioned Walter Laqueur, Michael Mann and Roger Griffin, because I was quoting from their definitions of fascism, as well as Hannah Arendt, because her understanding of totalitarianism is important and relevant to Jonah’s confused argument. If he’d like to know what name dropping sounds like, he should take a look a little closer to home (interestingly enough, I had to subscribe to his blog’s feed to find that link, because the archives seem to be closed, at least to my IP address):

There are lots of quotes from historians and intellectuals I could have used to back up my various arguments, particularly from Gregor, J.P. Diggins, Michael Ledeen, Friedrich Hayek, Gene Edward Veith, Ludwig von Mises and, perhaps most of all, Erik von Kuehnelt Leddihn. That I didn’t discuss their ideas and arguments at length should not be mistaken for a lack of influence on my thinking.

When you use a scholar’s work and give him or her credit, that’s called research. When you quite literally write a list of people’s names without saying anything about their ideas, that’s name dropping.

In his message, and later on his blog, Jonah insists that I suggest that “it’s right to call American conservatives fascists,” which just isn’t true. That’s a straw man; unlike Jonah, I haven’t called anyone a fascist. It just so happens that my academic field is ethnic cleansing and genocide, so I really don’t appreciate the misuse of terms like fascism and genocide, a phenomenon that Jonah purports to be combating with a book that mirrors that misuse. It just so happens that in his appearance on C-Span, in a moment of intellectual honesty and good faith, he had the following to say about his book:

One of the points of the book is this revisionist history, basically, not to put too an un-intellectual point on it, is to say, “I know you are but what am I?” I mean there is some of that, I will grant you, because I’m sick of being called a fascist.

Really, I’m not making that money quote up. That’s actually what he says, verbatim, and you can check the video (about 1:24 in) for yourself (via Crooks and Liars).

I’ll respond later to his substantial charges, but in the meantime, his response is here and my original message reads as follows:

Dear Jonah,

You’ve mentioned that you’d appreciate constructive criticism and thoughtful engagement from liberals, so I decided that I’d drop you a note. I’ve got a few points (some more important than others) that I’d like to make:

1. On your blog, you often disparage comments by liberals who haven’t yet read your book in its entirety; however, you’ve put up several positive notes from presumably conservative correspondents who have also not read the book. Doesn’t this seem a little contradictory to you?

2. Your book isn’t on sale in Beirut, where I live, so I can’t give it a look. This means that in order to give your argument a fair shake, I’m limited to your blog, the Salon interview, the book’s jacket and your Heritage talk. I suppose in order for me to fully understand your book, I’d have to know, at a bare minimum, exactly how you define fascism and liberalism. This is an important point, and perhaps if you were to explicitly state the definitions you’re basing your argument off of, people would have a better time engaging it. As it is, the way you talk about liberalism and fascism seems fairly fuzzy. (You might just say, “read the book,” and fair enough, but if you’re truly interested in engaging people who may not have the time or inclination to read 500 pages of your argument, this might be a good way to get the ball rolling.)

3. In the Salon interview, you state, “you have environmental groups giving out kits and instructions about how to have environmentally conscious sex. You don’t have conservative groups talking about what kind of condoms you should use or what positions you can be in. That kind of thing doesn’t really go on.” This seems exactly backwards to me. I’ve never heard of any liberal groups in the US trying to codify sexual behavior. On the contrary, the liberal position has been that the government should stay out of the bedroom. On the other hand, conservative groups, particularly religious ones, have traditionally supported laws like the anti-sodomy law that was ruled unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas.  

4. I listened to your Heritage talk, and your comment near the beginning struck me: “Except for the murder, bigotry and genocide, what is it exactly that you don’t like about Nazism?” I think that this is the heart of the issue, but perhaps not in the way you might believe it is. What made the Nazis terrible wasn’t their views on animal rights, vegetarianism or even economic policy; it was precisely the “murder, bigotry and genocide.” Unless you’re arguing for a causal relationship between things like vegetarianism and genocide, I’m not really sure I understand why it’s important that Hitler didn’t eat meat. The things you mention in your talk and Salon interview, and presumably in your book, seem to me to be neither here nor there. Consequently, due to their (at most) tangential relationship to what makes fascism historically important, none of these things is mentioned in the definitions of fascism that I’m familiar with.

For example, Walter Laqueur, in his book Fascism (p. 22), states, “Fascism was, above all, nationalist, elitist, and antiliberal. It was militarist, and whenever the country it occupied was sufficiently strong, it advocated imperialism and territorial expansion.” Earlier, he says it would be hard to improve on Roger Griffon’s definition, which states that fascism is a “genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of popular ultra nationalism.” In his books Fascists and The Dark Side of Democracy, Michael Mann, for his part, defines fascism as “essentially a movement committed to extreme organic nationalism and statism, claiming to transcend social conflict, especially class conflict, by using paramiliary and state violence to ‘knock both their heads [labor and capital] together.'” None of these conceptions of the fundamental essence of fascism include views on animal rights or whole foods. That’s because, ideologically, vegetarianism was not a very important part of Nazi doctrine. On the other hand, Mann finds four essential features of fascism: a cleansing form of nationalism, statism, a class transcendence, and paramileratism. The second and fourth features can apply to nearly any ideology (in the case of statism, depending on what sphere is controlled by the state: economic, social, personal, etc.) of the right or left, whereas the third is diametrically opposed to socialist thinking. Finally, the first (and arguably most important) feature is markedly absent from liberal thought but usually a large part of contemporary conservative thought.

5. If, as Arendt has shown, both the left and right can lead to different incarnations of totalitarianism, it seems disingenuous to imply that all instances of state control are equal, and equally totalitarian. I don’t think you’d argue that banning the use of iPods while crossing the street is as pernicious as, say, suspending habeas corpus and reserving the right of the executive branch to use “coercive interrogation techniques” on people being indefinitely detained without access to a court of law. All state interventions into the lives of the citizenship are not equivalent.

6. Finally, you make it a point of stressing that you’re not accusing liberals of being fascists; but if that’s not what you’re doing, then I suppose I don’t really understand what the point of your book is. If someone lists the points that I have in common with a serial killer, it’s not really important unless those traits lead to killing people. If Jeffrey Dahmer and I both enjoyed chocolate ice cream and preferred spy novels to period fiction, it doesn’t hold that I would share, in any way shape or form, the features that make Dahmer exceptional: being a cannibalistic murderer. To list our shared interests, then, is either to imply that I might share in his murderous tendency or to merely make a list of useless trivia. Neither seems very intellectually serious or interesting to me.

Looking forward to your response,


  1. Give up the ghost, my fran.

  2. You know I’ve got a low tolerance for this sort of thing, mang.

  3. This sort of thing being books like Goldberg’s…

  4. Goldberg’s response to you amounts to, liberals have called conservatives fascists, so here’s a taste of your own medicine. Nyaa, nyaa, nyaa.

    That looks to be his real agenda, trying to get an apology for any liberal who has ever hinted that conservatives are fascist.

  5. I’ve been keeping an eye on posts about Liberal Fascism, because I dislike rank revisionism of any sort. (Will Doubleday start publishing David Irving now?) Goldberg is so clearly overmatched against anyone with any sort of reasoned discourse (& unlike you, I think there’s plenty of fascism on display in the modern-day Republican party — I wish I didn’t feel that way) that his repetitive and childish response seems to be a dismissive “well, that’s a liberal, so I won’t bother to engage him.” And then of course, claim that there are no liberals making any sort of coherent ripostes to his inane horror of a book.

    Thanks for the post.

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