Lazy Journalism, Anyone?

Paul McLeary at CJRDaily lobbed a ball over the net in a post appropriately titled “Distortion” last Thursday. It must have seemed a perfect opportunity for an “on the one hand/on the other hand” type of article: Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham wrote a widely-disseminated editorial titled “We Now Live in a Fascist State”, and Jonah Goldberg has announced a book titled Liberal Fascism : The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton.

McLeary quotes a few short, inflammatory phrases from Lapham’s piece, then compares him with Goldberg, saying that the latter is “just as angry, just as distressed about contemporary American life, and just as removed from the ‘regular folks’ he wants to save as Lapham is”, although he offers no evidence that this is so, particularly on the last point.

He then quotes from the publisher’s blurb on Goldberg’s book. I think the first line is really all that’s needed to repeat:

Jonah Goldberg shows that the original fascists were really on the Left and that liberals, from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Hillary Clinton, have advocated policies and principles remarkably similar to those of Hitler’s National Socialism.

McLeary’s conclusion from this?

But what does it say about the state of the opinion media when two writers who have traveled such different roads and have such opposite visions of the responsible parties somehow end up at basically the same place? Doesn’t really speak well for the seriousness of either enterprise, does it? After all, if the liberals are fascist, the corporations are fascist, the government is fascist, Harvard MBAs are fascist, proponents of campaign finance reform are fascist, then who isn’t fascist?

McLeary makes no analysis of the flaws in either argument. His assumption is that if they’re both saying the same thing but they’re on different sides of the political spectrum that they must both be wrong. He neglects to consider that there is another possibility: that one of them might actually be right.

Lapham analyzes fascism through a 1995 Umberto Eco essay, which says fascist states play up distrust of democratic systems, trump science with doctrine, label dissent as treason, and promote war and nationalism. There are certainly things to argue about in Lapham’s editorial, starting with whether Eco’s axioms are an adequate definition of fascism and how pervasive each of these features must be before the government reaches the “fascist” level, which itself might be different for individual observers. But it is a reasonably-stated argument, based on certain facts. While both men were too young to fight in WWII, Eco was born in Italy in 1932, and grew up as the country had to come to terms with its fascist legacy.

Goldberg’s thesis is that Mussolini, Franco, and other fascists were liberals. That’s a bit odd, because I don’t remember hearing that liberals went much for the uniforms and the goose-stepping. Artists, intellectuals, and writers — generally clumped on the leftish side of the political spectrum — were some of the first people attacked in 20th-century fascist regimes. When American leftists went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, they didn’t fight for Franco. Nor were they generally supporters of Hitler. On the face of it, Goldberg’s argument is doomed from the first sentence from an abundance of historical fact. Yet McLeary gives it equal weight to Lapham’s.

It’s possible that McLeary is making the erroneous equation of fascism with Nazism. Some people seem to think that a charge of fascism is the same as saying that the government’s heating up the ovens, and dismiss the idea that democratic America could slide into fascism as just too silly to contemplate.

However, anyone with a knowledge of the last century would know that there were different forms of fascism, just as there were different forms of communism. Mussolini was in power for a decade before (and after) Hitler took charge in Germany. Franco stayed in power so long that his eventual death was a gag line for Chevy Chase in the early days of Saturday Night Live.

But it’s a lot easier to write a column on deadline if you don’t have to actually think about that. Personally, if I was looking for a well-reasoned, fact-based argument, I think I’d probably go with Lapham and Eco rather than Goldberg.