Liberal Fascism

Micah Tillman & Progressives

My apologies, this has been sitting 90% done in my “general drafts” folder in the blogging software. Never got around to publishing it. 

Tillman has some thoughts on my Christian Science Monitor piece. Here’s interesting question:

And I loved the following line from Goldberg:

“[W]e make a mistake when we assume that we can cherry pick only the good parts of our past to re-create.”

There are so many fascinating propositions about human nature and human events built into that claim. He seems to be arguing that human nature/history is not atomistic; no event or belief or trait is an island. Each is an inseparable part of a wider web of events or facts or truths. You grab one strand, and the whole skein/tangle comes with it.

I don’t want to put words in his mouth, though.

Me: My short answer is not necessarily. I think the mistake is assuming that every idea and passion is can be cherry picked from the past (I might have been more clear on this). I think it’s possible to restore or revive old ideas. But it’s very, very, hard. And it requires a real need for those ideas today. Progressives love the “politics of unity” but they only want unity for good things. They want “pragmatic” rule of enlightened leaders, but they don’t anticipate that such pragmatism brooks no dogmatic barriers to its own will. A liberalism with no self-defining doctrine beyond “whatever we think is good” leaves us prey to whatever the evolving — though not necessarily improving –  understanding of “good” may be. They hate the patriotic fervor associated with real war, but they want to make their own causes — the environment in particular — the moral equivalent of war without acknowledging that such campaigns bring their own troubling fervors. They are nostalgic for the economy of the 1950s (See Paul Krugman) and even the 1970s but they dismiss the problems that come with heavily regulated economies. 

Mass politics are a good example precisely because it should be so easy for liberals to see the pitfalls but so rarely do. Liberals are often the first to point out that patriotic popular fervor can get out of control. But they seem to think the problem is patriotism rather than popular fervor.  David Plotz of Slate had some interesting thoughts on this. From Raw Story:

While the speaking style of Barack Obama has been called inspirational by many observers, a top editor for a major opinion leading publication in Washington issued a serious criticism of the senator’s public persona last Friday. The deputy editor of a major online magazine spent time in a weekly podcast explaining how the style of Senator Barack Obama shares much in common with the speech of fascist dictators like Benito Mussolini.

“That’s slightly fascistic,” David Plotz, the deputy editor at said in the magazine’s weekly podcast when one of his fellow editors brought up Obama’s style. “That’s a very, like, let’s rally the nation. I don’t want to be rallied.”

After his fellow Slate editors lightly gibed him for his statement, he continued the point:

My brother who is an academic wrote this wonderful book about crowds, and crowd theory. And one of the sort of lessons that he’s always imparted to me is just that crowds are terrifying. Crowds are horrifying for the most part because they have a will of their own, and they act independently of rationality. And I think that Obama relies hugely on that. That’s not to say, I don’t, I still support him, but I don’t like that fascistic, I like him not for the fascistic elements of his candidacy, which I think are profound.

Me: Plotz is absolutely right here. 

Getting back to Tillman’s query. I think progressives who wish to restore the passions of the progressive era make a mistake when they think this can be done without severe drawbacks. I’m not saying that today’s progressives will become eugenicists (again) simply by trying to recreate the parts of progressivism they still admire. I’m saying that once you unleash popular movements driven by cults of personality and obsession with the rightness of their expert-priests, it’s impossible to guarantee they will be forces of for unmitigated good. It’s like saying, “We can recreate the wagon trains of the 19th century, but this time there won’t be any horse manure.”

The fundamental insight of conservatism is that there’s always horse manure.  


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