Sunday Bookchat

March 8, 2008

A slew of meaty, thoughtful progressive books are either in bookstores now or just over the horizon. At the front of the line is The Three Trillion Dollar War, in which Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz reckons “The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict” and discovers, along with the horrific waste of life and damage to America’s moral standing, a catastrophic squandering of resources that could have served America’s needs for generations to come.

There’s also Great American Hypocrites, in which Glenn Greenwald chips away at the clay feet of Republican idols, Eric Alterman’s Why We’re Liberals, and David Cay Johnston’s expose Free Lunch.

So — what’s been happening on the conservative side? Well, there was just that book with a cover picture of Glenn Beck eating a map of California. And now, to take its place, is a book with a cover image of a smiley button with a little Hitler mustache. Yes, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is now at the top of the NYT nonfiction bestseller list, thus disproving the notion that shit always rolls downhill. To help Goldberg celebrate his new status as the leading intellectual veal calf on the right, we’ll be holding “Loadstock ’08,” a survey of some of the more penetrating reactions to his tome.

But first, we’re going to talk about some real books by honest-to-god thinkers and writers.

* * * * *

You thought Daniel Plainview, the oil tycoon of There Will Be Blood, was a scary guy? John D. Rockefeller, the real-life founder of Standard Oil (which has mutated into Exxon) could have eaten Daniel Plainview for breakfast. Hugely wealthy, immensely powerful and endlessly vindictive, Rockefeller was the kind of robber baron few men dared to anger.

So that left the job to a woman: Ida Tarbell, one of the earliest investigative reporters, whose massive 1904 expose The History of the Standard Oil Company spoiled many of Rockefeller’s breakfasts. The detailed, thoroughly reported book brought Rockefeller’s nefarious business practices to light and fueled government antitrust actions that led to the breakup of the monopoly in 1911.

The battle of muckraker versus mogul is the subject of Steve Weinberg’s Taking On the Trust, a dual biography of Tarbell and Rockefeller. The current publishing vogue for dual biographies pays dividends here: by contrasting the backgrounds and personalities of Tarbell and Rockefeller, Weinberg brings up interesting parallels and conflicts. Taking Rockefeller out of the usual captains-of-industry hagiographic approach puts his depredations in a clearer light, and elevates Tarbell’s stature as an early heroine of fearless journalism.

* * * * *

The most interesting graphic novel to come along in quite some time is Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro, a story about a black journalist who, while “passing” for white, investigates lynchings in the Depression-era South. Read more about it here.

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Since conservative notions about deregulation have done so much to increase our daily contact with E.coli bacteria, this upcoming title from the fine science writer Carl Zimmer can be considered a political as well as a science book. Zimmer also edited a recent concise edition of Charles Darwin’s landmark book The Descent of Man, which as any creationist will tell you ushered in all sorts of evils by establishing the foundation for modern evolutionary theory. Carl Zimmer, agent of evil! Take a bow, sir.

* * * * *

Time to pre-order your copy of the Library of America’s next volume devoted to visionary writer Philip K. Dick, and maybe contemplate the possibility of a third volume down the line. The rockets go up but where do they come down? That’s not my department, says Werner von Braun.

* * * * *

And now . . . it’s Loadstock ’08.

Just what is it that makes Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism so much fun to kick around? Vacuous conservative tomes are nothing new, and the wingnut troika of squawk radio, FixNews opinion shows and bulk-ordering conservative foundations ensures that plenty of winger screeds regularly scale the bestseller lists. But few right-wing books arrive with the pantload of pretensions on display in Liberal Fascism, which Goldberg thinks is a serious, scholarly work of political analysis, rather than a Googled-up dumpster of factoids, misunderstood history and coy ideological word-games.

As Michael Tomasky noted recently in The New Republic:

For Goldberg, the fact that Progressivism and totalitarianism shared certain traits — a belief in the possibility of collective action through the state, basically — tells him all he needs to know about both creeds. Ipso facto, any totalitarian impulse must therefore have leftish origins . . . And the connection, historically and ideologically, between fascism and conservatism? Goldberg explicitly denies that there is any such connection, any such complication. It is in fact categorically impossible for him, because conservatism is sagely not in the business of trying to improve people. And the attempt to improve people is Goldberg’s only actual measure of what constitutes politics. Economics, the law, the tax code, the rights of workers or women or minorities — these things are worthy of some attention, but at the end of the day they do not really define politics. What defines politics is whether a belief system imposes itself on the individual. That Hitler had the backing of many conservative financiers whose names are well-known to history but missing from this book — Fritz Thyssen, Hjalmar Schacht, and the rest — isn’t interesting to this conservative student of fascism. That Hitler and his cohort were vegetarians and health nuts, and thus similar to some left-leaning Americans today — now that is fascinating! Why, Dachau even “produced its own organic honey.” What better proof of the kinship between fascism and liberalism?

A frequent Goldberg talking point is that the term “liberal fascism” was actually coined by H.G. Wells in 1932. John Holbo at Crooked Timber, whose understanding of H.G. Wells and his times extends beyond a few viewings of The War of the Worlds, offers the context Goldberg avoids:

Well, let’s inquire: in what spirit was the phrase ‘liberal fascism’ advanced, in 1932? In what spirit did Wells’ audience receive it? Taking the latter question first, I must concede one strong similarity with the fate of Hillary’s ‘politics of meaning’. It got terrible reviews. John ‘the white fox’ Hargrave (founder of Kibbo Kift, the ‘green shirts’) reported on the speech for The New Age (“A Liberal Fascism”, August, 1932). He pointed out that it was obviously an impossible combination, like ‘an attempt for tepid boiling hot water’ or ‘harmless poison gas’ (I’m getting this from Coupland.) H.M. Tomlinson wrote “Mr. Wells Has His Joke,” which made the point that the liberals were about as likely to turn fascist as were “the guardians of the home for lost dogs.” But did the idea get any traction? Coupland mentions a single organization, the FPSI (Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals), which apparently was induced by a £20 donation, plus Wells’ name on the letterhead, to agree to have it’s ‘basis’ redrafted on Wellsian lines. (But they proved to be tepid boiling water, at best.) That’s pretty much the high water mark for ‘liberal fascism’, in terms of political influence.

But one needn’t be an expert on Wells to grasp the basic dishonesty of Goldberg’s method, which is to drain fascism of its specific historical meaning, so that Hillary Clinton’s gauzy ideas of improving society with government help makes her an heir of Mussolini. “Goldberg trots out a list of simpleton’s conclusions and observations that catapult him out of any serious academic discussion,” writes Scott Horton in Harper’s.

Here’s the famous clip of Goldberg on The Daily Show, which he and his partisans have derided for the heavy editing it underwent before broadcast. After you watch the clip, read this interview with Goldberg from Salon and you might just conclude that the Daily Show’s editing, if anything, made Goldberg look smarter.

Take the money and run, Jonah. You’re making a pantload of dough off your pseudo-book, so now you and Ann Coulter are even. She may have called you a girly-man, but her last book didn’t get anywhere near the top of the list, now did it? So bask in the glory of having swindled loads of people out of their money. Because when you come right down to it, anybody ready to break out his credit card for a book with a cover showing a smiley button with a Hitler mustache is just a born mark.


2 Responses to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. Caveat Says:

    I had the misfortune of seeing Glenn Beck on TV when visiting my Dad last week. He was yapping incoherently about Gloria Steinem and feminism, two subjects about which he obviously knows nothing. I guess shouting makes it sound more credible or something.

    He takes sophomoric free association to whole new depths.

    Question: How do these people get on TV, get to write columns and so on? WTF is going on?

  2. Chucky Says:

    Glenn Beck is a pro-war cheerleader and a natural born McCarthyite. CNN is owned by Time Warner, whose magazines kowtowed to Tail Gunner Joe.

    Wish I could be like Elvis and open fire on the TV whenever I see Beck on camera.

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