Monday, February 11, 2008

Liberal Fascism: An Interesting Moral Question

The word “fascism” has become ambiguous. On the one hand, there is the Benito Mussolini’s notion in which war is the natural state of man and thereby necessitates a strong central government that maintains a constant martial stance and places the interest of the state above the interests of the individual, thereby clamping down on personal liberties like political expression. Then, there is the other meaning. The one employed in loose contemporary American political parlance everywhere from the blogosphere to the floor of the Senate. In this sense, fascism is the use of social or political power instead of argumentation to decisively win a debate about a social or political issue and take the opponents’ view out of consideration. Everything from slanted news coverage to effective vocal advocacy gets decried as fascism when those on the other side perceive their perspective to be absent, belittled, or suppressed.

Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, tries to draw lines between the fascist policies and beliefs of pre-World War II dictators and the promotion of those causes most important to the left. Because there are two fascisms, there are two books in Goldberg’s book. The primary text, the one reviewers from across the political spectrum have panned, rightfully deserves it. The anachronistic analysis, the misguided accusations of guilt by association, the strawman arguments, the errors in understanding the history of the last century that have been discussed at length are there. This book is indeed the product of Goldberg being tired of hearing the word “fascist” used to refer to conservative tactics and positions. So he responded with that classic rhetorical gambit, “I know you are, but what am I?” There is, of course, good reason why this move was unsuccessful by middle school.

But there is a second book in Liberal Fascism that contains an argument that progressives should take quite seriously. Admittedly, it is buried beneath the bombast, hyperbole, and ad hominem attacks, but it is there and it raises questions that we ignore at our peril. It is the central moral question at the heart of modern American conservatism – “how much do I really have to care?”
Our political discourse is not based merely on policy disagreements, but a foundational split in the ethical questions we ask when approaching the world and governance. The moral heart of contemporary liberal thought lies in the question, “Given that we live in a world in which power and resources are distributed unequally and rewards or punishes people for accidents of birth and for their labor, how do we make changes to help all living things, especially the most vulnerable, live the best possible lives?” It is the proposed solutions to this question that informs everything from support for public education, to the push for alternative energy, to universal healthcare. Opposition to these policy objectives by conservatives is often interpreted by those of us on the left as heartlessness, avarice, and a pathological lack of empathy.

Conservative thought, however, is grounded in a related, but distinctly different moral question. Their concern is, “Given that we live in a world in which power and resources are distributed unequally, and rewards and punishes people for accidents of birth and their labor, how much am I required to do to help all living things, especially the most vulnerable, live a better life before I can just enjoy my own rewards?” Liberals assume that you have to care and ask how this care needs to be instantiated, but Goldberg is the latest in a long line of conservatives who are asking whether I do, in fact, have to care, if so, how much, and when can I stop.
We often confuse the question with the answers proposed by the right. Granted, they very often draw the line of concern far too early. But before we can dispute the answers, we need to take the question seriously. Indeed, this concern has been one of the primary forces shaping American domestic and foreign policy for the last quarter century.

Ronald Reagan’s virtuosity in plying white guilt exhaustion set he frame for our contemporary political discourse. His political descendants, spurred on by its success, became more and more enthusiastic in their allergy to compassion. Mystical powers were attributed to the marketplace that dislocated the need to care. Those who needed assistance were tautologically unworthy of it because anyone worth helping would have already helped himself. The new velvet covered social Darwinism turned aid into interference, upsetting the market forces that would ultimately save the needy. Tough love was the only way to truly love my brother as myself. And just as Nixon was swept by the spirit of Kennedy into creating the Environmental Protection Agency, so Clinton was swept by the lingering specter of Reagan to declare the demise of the era of big government and sign the telecom bill and Defense of Marriage Act.
But the floodwaters of the Gulf Coast have washed away the sheen from this image. The war in Iraq and the fiscal sword of Damocles hanging over our economy have shifted the spirit of the times. Indicators are showing a marked change in what we as a nation expect of and demand from government. The liberal question is once again being widely asked and the liberal answer may be making a comeback.

Goldberg’s book is easily written off as just the latest in conservative bluster, yet one more cheap shot designed to capitalize on the “trashing the public discourse” market created by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and their ilk. One might even foresee it as a bookend to the genre as a whole should the looming post-partisan realignment come to pass.

But as progressive anticipate this wave, there is no better time than this to take Goldberg’s question seriously because it is not asked only by conservatives. Susan Wolf, for example, is a prominent contemporary ethicist best known for her essay, “Moral Saints,” in which she asks how good do we have to be to be good? Traditional ethical systems define good in terms of maximization. Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, for example, requires each person to find that which brings the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. But Wolf asks, isn’t there a point where it is good enough without being the most? Surely a well-lived life means being able to say that an act was morally good enough for government work. “I believe that moral perfection,” she writes, “does not constitute a model of personal well-being toward which it would be particularly rational or good or desirable for a human being to strive.” But, then we are left with exactly the question that Goldberg and the American right have been asking, how good is good enough? Do I really have to be every change I want to see in the world all the time?

This is the deep and interesting question that Goldberg unfortunately buries beneath exaggeration and equivocation. His asking of it is ham-fisted at best and accompanied by a chip on his shoulder that distracts so much from it to the point where it has rendered the crucial concern all but invisible. But it is there and the question is a fundamental moral challenge that conservatives present.

How much is enough? How much is placed on our shoulders to help end climate change? How much do I have to change the way I eat, what I drive, contribute to the needy? We need to do something about Sudan, Kenya, Afghanistan, and how many others and to what degree? More than we do now, sure, but how much more? Where is the line between moral necessity and above and beyond the call of duty?

Liberals assume the need to care and in the world we live in tragedies and injustices are like a never-ending box of Kleenex, pull one out and another pops right up. What Goldberg clumsily labels fascism is the liberals’ eternal imperative to care. The conservative challenge to liberals, one that we need to take much more seriously and which is at the core of Liberal Fascism, is the question of the limits of care in a well-lived life and a morally responsible society. If progressives do retake the positions of power, we must learn from our past if we want to avoid the next Reagan revolution and the quarter century of virtual irrelevance that comes after by thinking hard about this question. It is a hard one, but a concern to which we need a coherent, well-reasoned response.

As Americans, especially those of us who have good educations and stable jobs with health insurance, we are privileged. Some of it comes from our own hand, but much of it is a result of moral luck. Goldberg can be read as asking us whether we dishonor that luck and that privilege by not appreciating it. Is there not a limit to care, a place where we can engage the joys and benefits we have? At what point are we rude and ungrateful for not appreciating what we have? Many conservatives clearly err on the side of too little care, but the challenge they pose is a legitimate one, a concern that liberals ignore at our own risk.