Alex Massie

Shakespeare: Fascist! Virgil: Fascist! Ovid: Un-Roman! Marlowe: Government Goon!

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I suppose one should probably read Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism before criticising it. On the other hand, why do the dreary work when Spencer Ackerman's prepared to highlight the juicy bits for one? For instance, Spencer draws my attention to this:

Indeed, it is my argument that during World War I, America became a fascist country, albeit temporarily. The first appearance of modern totalitarianism in the Western world wasn't in Italy or Germany but in the United States of America. How else would you describe a country where the world's first modern propaganda ministry was established; political prisoners by the thousands were harassed, beaten, spied upon, and thrown in jail simply for expressing private opinions; the national leader accused foreigners and immigrants of injecting treasonous "poison" into the American bloodstream; newspapers and magazines were shut down for criticizing the government; nearly a hundred thousand government propaganda agents were sent out among the people to whip up support for the regime and its war; college professors imposed loyalty oaths on their colleagues; nearly a quarter-million goons were given legal authority to intimidate and beat "slackers" and dissenters; and leading artists and writers dedicated their crafts to proselytizing for the government?

Yes, "albeit temporarily" has to do a lot of work there. But so too does "modern". Because, really, propaganda ministries and political prisoners and loyalty oaths and the silencing of dissent have been around for quite some time. I mean, strip the references to the United States and the numbers from this remarkable paragraph and one might be forgiven for thinking that Mr Goldberg was referring to either (to pluck just two examples from history) Elizabethan England or Augustan Rome.

After all, leading artists" such as Virgil and Shakespeare "dedicated their crafts to proselytising for the government". If Goldberg is correct then fellows such as Walsingham and Maecenas would also have been right at home in Woodrow Wilson's America. And perhaps they would have been. But what of it? How many regimes or institutions can be considered "fascist" before the term loses any meaning? His argument, as outlined in this example at least, does not seem to be much more advanced than the rather silly notion that because A Hitler was a vegetarian anti-smoker, all anti-smoking and vegetarian zealots are Nazis. (Obviously, I think they're vindictive fools, but that don't mean they're in quite the same league as the SS). Alternatively, one might suggest that a society can share certain characteristics with fascism (People! Air!) without necessarily being a fascist society. This seems a fairly elementary point.

If Goldberg's definition stands then most political regimes in history should be considered "fascist" to one degree or another. Does he really mean to water down fascism to the point at which it becomes a meaningless catch-all phrase? Probably not. So why is he doing so? If everything is fascism then, really, nothing is. I suppose I'll have to a) read the book myself to find out or b) hope that Spencer gets beyond page 24 pretty soon.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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