Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning

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9780141039503: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning

Today the word 'fascist' is usually an insult aimed at those on the right, from neocons to big business. But what does it really mean? What if the true heirs to fascism were actually those who thought of themselves as being terribly nice and progressive - the liberals?Jonah Goldberg's excoriating, opinion-driving, US bestseller explains why. Here he destroys long-held myths to reveal why the most insidious attemps to control our lives originate from the left, whether it's smoking bans or security cameras. Journeying through history and across culture, he uses surprising examples ranging from Woodrow Wilson's police state to the Clinton personality cult, the military chic of 60s' student radicals to Hollywood's totalitarian aesthetics, to show that it is modern progressivism - and not conservatism - that shares the same intellectual roots as fascism.This angry, funny, smart and contentious book looks behind the friendly face of the well-meaning liberal, and turns our preconceptions inside out.

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About the Author:

Jonah Goldberg is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and contributing editor to National Review. A USA Today contributor and former columnist for The Times in London, he has also written for the New Yorker, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He lives in Washington, DC.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

*  1  *
Mussolini:
The Father of Fascism

You’re the top!
You’re the Great Houdini!
You’re the top!
You are Mussolini!
—An early version of the Cole Porter song “You’re the Top” (1)
IF YOU WENT solely by what you read in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books, or what you learned from Hollywood, you could be forgiven for thinking that Benito Mussolini came to power around the same time as Adolf Hitler—or even a little bit later—and that Italian Fascism was merely a tardy, watered–down version of Nazism. Germany passed its hateful race policies—the Nuremberg Laws—in 1935, and Mussolini’s Italy followed suit in 1938. German Jews were rounded up in 1942, and Jews in Italy were rounded up in 1943. A few writers will casually mention, in parenthetical asides, that until Italy passed its race laws there were actually Jews serving in the Italian government and the Fascist Party. And on occasion you’ll notice a nod to historical accuracy indicating that the Jews were rounded up only after the Nazis had invaded northern Italy and created a puppet government in Salo. But such inconvenient facts are usually skipped over as quickly as possible. More likely, your understanding of these issues comes from such sources as the Oscar–winning film Life Is Beautiful, (2) which can be summarized as follows: Fascism arrived in Italy and, a few months later, so did the Nazis, who carted off the Jews. As for Mussolini, he was a bombastic, goofy–looking, but highly effective dictator who made the trains run on time.

All of this amounts to playing the movie backward. By the time Italy reluctantly passed its shameful race laws—which it never enforced with even a fraction of the barbarity shown by the Nazis—over 75 percent of Italian Fascism’s reign had already transpired. A full sixteen years elapsed between the March on Rome and the passage of Italy's race laws. To start with the Jews when talking about Mussolini is like starting with FDR’s internment of the Japanese: it leaves a lot of the story on the cutting room floor. Throughout the 1920s and well into the 1930s, fascism meant something very different from Auschwitz and Nuremberg. Before Hitler, in fact, it never occurred to anyone that fascism had anything to do with anti–Semitism. Indeed, Mussolini was supported not only by the chief rabbi of Rome but by a substantial portion of the Italian Jewish community (and the world Jewish community). Moreover, Jews were overrepresented in the Italian Fascist movement from its founding in 1919 until they were kicked out in 1938.

Race did help turn the tables of American public opinion on Fascism. But it had nothing to do with the Jews. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, Americans finally started to turn on him. In 1934 the hit Cole Porter song “You’re the Top” engendered nary a word of controversy over the line “You are Mussolini!” When Mussolini invaded that poor but noble African kingdom the following year, it irrevocably marred his image, and Americans decided they had had enough of his act. It was the first war of conquest by a Western European nation in over a decade, and Americans were distinctly unamused, particularly liberals and blacks. Still, it was a slow process. The Chicago Tribune initially supported the invasion, as did reporters like Herbert Matthews. Others claimed it would be hypocritical to condemn it. The New Republic—then in the thick of its pro–Soviet phase—believed it would be “naive” to blame Mussolini when the real culprit was international capitalism. And more than a few prominent Americans continued to support him, although quietly. The poet Wallace Stevens, for example, stayed pro–Fascist. “I am pro–Mussolini, personally,” he wrote to a friend. “The Italians,” he explained, “have as much right to take Ethiopia from the coons as the coons had to take it from the boa–constrictors.” (3) But over time, largely due to his subsequent alliance with Hitler, Mussolini’s image never recovered.

That's not to say he didn't have a good ride.

In 1923 the journalist Isaac F. Marcosson wrote admiringly in the New York Times that “Mussolini is a Latin [Teddy] Roosevelt who first acts and then inquires if it is legal. He has been of great service to Italy at home.” (4) The American Legion, which has been for nearly its entire history a great and generous American institution, was founded the same year as Mussolini’s takeover and, in its early years, drew inspiration from the Italian Fascist movement. “Do not forget,” the legion’s national commander declared that same year, “that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.” (5)

In 1926 the American humorist Will Rogers visited Italy and interviewed Mussolini. He told the New York Times that Mussolini was “some Wop.” “I’m pretty high on that bird.” Rogers, whom the National Press Club had informally dubbed “Ambassador–at–Large of the United States,” wrote up the interview for the Saturday Evening Post. He concluded, “Dictator form of government is the greatest form of government: that is if you have the right Dictator.” (6) In 1927 the Literary Digest conducted an editorial survey asking the question: “Is there a dearth of great men?” The person named most often to refute the charge was Benito Mussolini—followed by Lenin, Edison, Marconi, and Orville Wright, with Henry Ford and George Bernard Shaw tying for sixth place. In 1928 the Saturday Evening Post glorified Mussolini even further, running an eight–part autobiography written by Il Duce himself. The series was gussied up into a book that gained one of the biggest advances ever given by an American publisher.

And why shouldn’t the average American think Mussolini was anything but a great man? Winston Churchill had dubbed him the world’s greatest living lawgiver. Sigmund Freud sent Mussolini a copy of a book he co–wrote with Albert Einstein, inscribed, “To Benito Mussolini, from an old man who greets in the Ruler, the Hero of Culture.” The opera titans Giacomo Puccini and Arturo Toscanini were both pioneering Fascist acolytes of Mussolini. Toscanini was an early member of the Milan circle of Fascists, which conferred an aura of seniority not unlike being a member of the Nazi Party in the days of the Beer Hall Putsch. Toscanini ran for the Italian parliament on a Fascist ticket in 1919 and didn’t repudiate Fascism until twelve years later. (7)

Mussolini was a particular hero to the muckrakers—those progressive liberal journalists who famously looked out for the little guy. When Ida Tarbell, the famed reporter whose work helped break up Standard Oil, was sent to Italy in 1926 by McCalls to write a series on the Fascist nation, the U.S. State Department feared that this “pretty red radical” would write nothing but “violent anti–Mussolini articles.” Their fears were misplaced. Tarbell was wooed by the man she called “a despot with a dimple,” praising his progressive attitude toward labor. Similarly smitten was Lincoln Steffens, another famous muckraker, who is today perhaps dimly remembered for being the man who returned from the Soviet Union declaring, “I have been over into the future, and it works.” Shortly after that declaration, he made another about Mussolini: God had “formed Mussolini out of the rib of Italy.” As we’ll see, Steffens saw no contradiction between his fondness for Fascism and his admiration of the Soviet Union. Even Samuel McClure, the founder of McClure’s Magazine, the home of so much famous muckraking, championed Fascism after visiting Italy. He hailed it as “a great step forward and the first new ideal in government since the founding of the American Republic.” (8)

Meanwhile, almost all of Italy’s most famous and admired young intellectuals and artists were Fascists or Fascist sympathizers (the most notable exception was the literary critic Benedetto Croce). Giovanni Papini, the “magical pragmatist” so admired by William James, was deeply involved in the various intellectual movements that created Fascism. Papini’s Life of Christ—a turbulent, almost hysterical tour de force chronicling his acceptance of Christianity—caused a sensation in the United States in the early 1920s. Giuseppe Prezzolini, a frequent contributor to the New Republic who would one day become a respected professor at Columbia University, was one of Fascism’s earliest literary and ideological architects. F. T. Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement—which in America was seen as an artistic companion to Cubism and Expressionism—was instrumental in making Italian Fascism the world's first successful “youth movement.” America's education establishment was keenly interested in Italy’s “breakthroughs” under the famed “schoolmaster” Benito Mussolini, who, after all, had once been a teacher.

Perhaps no elite institution in America was more accommodating to Fascism than Columbia University. In 1926 it established Casa Italiana, a center for the study of Italian culture and a lecture venue for prominent Italian scholars. It was Fascism’s “veritable home in America” and a “schoolhouse for budding Fascist ideologues,” according to John Patrick Diggins. Mussolini himself had contributed some ornate Baroque furniture to Casa Italiana and had sent Columbia’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler, a signed photo thanking him for his “most valuable contribution” to the pro...

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