Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Parallels, Correspondents, and Relations


I'd intended to avoid discussing Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Josef Mengele to Joseph Biden. I can't quite maintain my resolve, though. I find myself fixating not on the illogic of his argument, but on its logic, which is, as Brit Hume would say, "undoubtedly illustrative of something."

His methodology, for all its care and thoroughness, seems to boil down to weak analogical inference. If he can show that fascists and liberals share properties A, B, and C, then he can "reasonably" infer that they share property D.

There are certain pitfalls here. Sir Thomas Browne, in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, attacks the belief "that all Animals of the Land, are in their kind in the Sea," which proceeded from the assumption that "from a similitude in some, it be reasonable to infer a correspondence in all," and ended in "conjoyning as it were the species of things which stood at distance in the intellect of God."

Superficially, this complaint is similar to Bacon's observation that "while there are many things in Nature unique, and quite irregular, still [the human intellect] feigns parallels, correspondents, and relations that have no existence." Ultimately, though, Browne's theological objection to correspondence, as a blurring of distinctions between created kinds, points towards the creationist pseudoscience of baraminology, while Bacon's more logical objection points, tentatively, towards the scientific method.

Still, both men are reacting to the analogical excesses of an age in which, as Foucault said, "it was resemblance that largely guided exegesis and the interpretation of texts; it was resemblance that organized the play of symbols, made possible knowledge of things visible and invisible, and controlled the art of representing them." It's this age, I'd argue, in which Goldberg and his ilk still live, partly due to temperament, and partly to laziness, but mainly because it gives them the tools and the latitude they need in order to earn a dishonest living.

I hasten to add that I'm not being entirely serious here; I have far too much respect for Renaissance mystics and logicians to hold them responsible for Goldberg, even if Goldberg's own methodology grants me permission to do so. Like liberalism and fascism, they're entirely and irrevocably different.

All the same, there's something to be said for recognizing that while Goldberg's logic may be different from ours, it "works"...at least within that shadow world from which he launches incursions against our own. Indeed - and this is the main point - it works much better in that world than our logic would. If you free yourself, for a moment, from your bias towards accuracy and honesty, and focus strictly on what gets personal and professional results, you can see that asking Goldberg to use commonly accepted standards of evidence and proof is like asking a tailor to use a railroad spike as a needle. You'd place him at a disadvantage, to say the least.

This, I think, is why it's almost pointless to criticize him for inaccuracy, and why we can take him somewhat seriously when he insists that he made his argument as carefully and thoroughly as he could; given the tools he couldn't allow himself to use, and the facts he was obliged to ignore in order to begin his project, let alone to complete it, it's probably true.

Like the baraminologists, he's forced to look for evidence of lineage where it must be, rather than where it is; to view fascism as a right-wing ideology would be to conjoin things that stand "at distance in the intellect of God." And like the baraminologists, he's caught between envying the power of a respected academic discipline, and being unable to meet its standards. Therefore, like so many other cranks, his tactic is to gather up an assortment of pleasing facts like some ideological bowerbird, arrange them in a pattern for which a "logical" explanation can be offered (as though the pattern were a natural phenomenon, instead of an invention), and peddle that explanation to people who want to enjoy the authority of Science without any of the responsibilities it imposes. (Bonus points are awarded for pretending that this charade intimidates the "academic trade unions," and that peer review is just a fancy name for groupthink. Or if you prefer, fascism.)

Apropos of common sense, it's worth mentioning that the Doctrine of Signatures is a commonsense theory: If a plant looks like a scorpion, it's logical to assume that it has some relation to scorpions. The beauty of theories based on resemblance is that they tend to make perfect sense within the social context that gives rise to them; the fact that they're very often wrong is a mere detail. They deserve to be right, and that's what counts.

Goldberg's approach is exemplary of right-wing history and science, in that its self-styled radicalism comes from its everyday simplicity, its reliance on what'll seem "obvious" to an idealized man in the street: If we'd really evolved from monkeys, there wouldn't be any monkeys left. If global warming were real, it wouldn't have snowed so much last week. If blacks get lower grades than whites, whites must be smarter than blacks. If Hillary Clinton worries, like Hitler, about the health of children, she must be a fascist. It's just common sense, and anyone who can't see it must not want to see it.

This militant appeal to common sense (i.e., to ignorance, misperception, prejudice, and wishful thinking) as an antidote to a decadent, liberal "offical" history is what makes Goldberg's outlook essentially pre- or even anti-modern, and it's typical of...well, we'll just leave it at "typical," for now.

(Illustration from Phytognomonica by Giambattista Della Porta, 1591.)

8 comments:

Uncle Noel said...

Awesome analysis. The best review of Goldberg's piece of garbage yet. The bower bird metaphor is devastating.

Chet Scoville said...

Outstandingly done.

Phila said...

Thanks for the kind words!

NickM said...

"Like the baraminologists, he's forced to look for evidence of lineage where it must be, rather than where it is."

That's the nub of it and what bothers me most - well, after the cover and title - about Goldberg's effort. From all appearances, he plucks the mote from liberals' eyes while ignoring or actively defending the Bush Administration's right to insert giant beams into the eyes of torture victims. Such an effort must have been contrived at every step; Goldberg must have had to ignore hundreds of examples of genuine American fascism while doing research because the "wrong" party was practicing it. Obviously, he knows that, and for him to persist in shilling this tripe without acknowledging the contortions it took to write it immensely dishonest.

four legs good said...

An ideological bowerbird.

That's brilliant.

Dave said...

Exceptionally well done.

Anonymous said...

This is the same pointless, content-free tripe all you lefties spout when faced with a rigorously-researched and factual condemnation of your beliefs: just because what you say is TRUE doesn't MEAN ANYTHING! And we ALREADY KNEW this anyway!!

Hilarious. So he's right, but it's meaningless ... to you. Because nothing that criticizes your beliefs means anything ... to you. Idealogue.

Phila said...

Hilarious. So he's right, but it's meaningless ... to you. Because nothing that criticizes your beliefs means anything ... to you. Idealogue.

The factual and logical problems with Goldberg's book had already been dealt with elsewhere, at great length, so there was no point rehashing them here. If you cared, you could find those critiques and read them. But if you actually knew anything about fascism, you probably wouldn't need to, because you'd already understand that outlawing trade unions (for instance) is not a left-wing endeavor.

I was pointing out that being wrong was inevitable, given Goldberg's need to work backwards from his conclusion to his premises.

I'm not surprised you missed this point -- which I made it in my first goddamn paragraph -- since the only creatures on God's green earth who are stupider than Jonah Goldberg are the people who take his lightweight improvised babblings seriously.

On the bright side, I love the idea that I'm an "ideologue" for not simply accepting Goldberg's opinions as definitive. In future, I'll make a point of agreeing instantly with everything he says, so that I can prove myself to be a bold, independent thinker like you.

Give my regards to "Hard America," pal.