Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Paul Johnson’s Review of Liberal Fascism

The review is in the current issue of National Review. It's delightful. Johnson plays the part of a figure well beloved in philosophy: the logical positivist, the logic-chopping epistemic disciplinarian, the Humean empiricist. A most salutary personage. True to his habit of exploding others’ analyses, the fellow in this case implies that Jonah Goldberg's book fails because “fascist” has only a precise historical meaning and a usage as a meaningless brickbat, and Goldberg’s attempt to make some other sense of it is therefore doomed. A logical positivist-type figure will tell us that a key term at issue is meaningless; such an exhibition of epistemic hygiene can be compelling. In any event, it entices the chastened philosopher to meet the review’s challenge.

Johnson tosses up a quick reductio ad absurdum, saying that if you buy Goldberg’s analysis of “fascism,” then you may as well consider Abraham Lincoln to be a fascist. The argument doesn’t come off, however. Quite simply, Goldberg offers an analytic definition of “fascism” that does not include Lincoln. Johnson never grapples with Goldberg’s analysis. He consigns it to the netherworld of political maneuvering, where utterances are full of sound and fury but signify nothing. So, Johnson’s article doesn't meet its burden.

Goldberg analyzes “fascism” as the religion of the state. I don’t see how it’s religion, since, to me, religion entails myths and rituals. I’ve said instead that fascism is totalitarianism with a cult of personality, where "cult" refers to a compulsive alignment of the will, not to a full-fledged religion. This internecine quibbling aside, there is an analysis on the table which Johnson never refutes.

The point of the book is that its definition of "fascism" not only is correct but also includes sorts of totalitarianism that are not widely recognized as fitting objects of the term “fascist.” Johnson’s review never offers a thorough refutation of Goldberg’s analysis, instead rather denying the inherent plausibility of the project. This is begging the question.

Johnson’s own analytical definition reduces “fascism” narrowly to the Mussolini-type implementation of totalitarianism - “it’s strict historical context” – denying without further ado that there can be a philosophical project here. It was a salutary play, evocative of Ayer and Hume. If this sort of tendency to epistemic conservatism is going to be about in the forum, I’m going to need more popcorn. Still, Johnson doesn’t succeed in bringing his criticism off. The role of logical positivist is well and good. But it does have the burden of proving that the analysis on the table is gibberish. Merely asserting that it is so does not suffice.