Please . . . Get a New Word

Books on political affairs and current events come regularly and many pack a partisan punch. This is especially true in the intense political season of a presidential campaign. Publishers have been releasing title after title into the political torrent.

One of the most interesting of these is Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg. A popular conservative commentator long associated with National Review magazine, Goldberg is a very capable writer. He has a rare ability to inject humor into serious argument — and to get away with it.

In Liberal Fascism he goes after the impulse to combine utopian visions with intellectual arrogance and a willingness to coerce others into compliance. Goldberg rightly traces the modern ideology of fascism back to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and deals forthrightly with the fascist ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. He then proceeds to argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies a new form of fascism — a fascism with a smiling face, perhaps more therapeutic than terrifying.

Goldberg offers solid insights in this book, and Liberal Fascism is a good introduction to many of the debates now raging with American culture. He also provides historical analysis and a sense of intellectual context. Nonetheless, the book has a major problem — its title.

Given the horrifying experience of the twentieth century, we should be extremely reluctant to use the term fascism without a direct reference to the murderous regimes of fascist Europe — and the Third Reich in particular. Intellectual credibility suffers when words are used carelessly and wrongly. Jonah Goldberg rightly complains that liberals often wrongly accuse conservatism of being latent fascism when engaged in argument. True enough, but turning the word on liberalism scarcely helps. Intellectual discourse and political debate are reduced to name-calling, and understanding is often lost. Liberal Fascism is worth reading, but the book and its argument would have been stronger and more credible without the reference to fascism.

An excerpt:

Again, it is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying. But it is definitely totalitarian — or “holistic,” if you prefer — in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists. Liberals place their faith in priestly experts who know better, who plan, exhort, badger, and scold. They try to use science to discredit traditional notions of religion and faith, but they speak the language of pluralism and spirituality to defend “nontraditional” beliefs.

Please . . . Get a New Word

Books on political affairs and current events come regularly and many pack a partisan punch. This is especially true in the intense political season of a presidential campaign. Publishers have been releasing title after title into the political torrent.

One of the most interesting of these is Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg. A popular conservative commentator long associated with National Review magazine, Goldberg is a very capable writer. He has a rare ability to inject humor into serious argument — and to get away with it.

In Liberal Fascism he goes after the impulse to combine utopian visions with intellectual arrogance and a willingness to coerce others into compliance. Goldberg rightly traces the modern ideology of fascism back to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and deals forthrightly with the fascist ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement. He then proceeds to argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies a new form of fascism — a fascism with a smiling face, perhaps more therapeutic than terrifying.

Goldberg offers solid insights in this book, and Liberal Fascism is a good introduction to many of the debates now raging with American culture. He also provides historical analysis and a sense of intellectual context. Nonetheless, the book has a major problem — its title.

Given the horrifying experience of the twentieth century, we should be extremely reluctant to use the term fascism without a direct reference to the murderous regimes of fascist Europe — and the Third Reich in particular. Intellectual credibility suffers when words are used carelessly and wrongly. Jonah Goldberg rightly complains that liberals often wrongly accuse conservatism of being latent fascism when engaged in argument. True enough, but turning the word on liberalism scarcely helps. Intellectual discourse and political debate are reduced to name-calling, and understanding is often lost. Liberal Fascism is worth reading, but the book and its argument would have been stronger and more credible without the reference to fascism.

An excerpt:

Again, it is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying. But it is definitely totalitarian — or “holistic,” if you prefer — in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists. Liberals place their faith in priestly experts who know better, who plan, exhort, badger, and scold. They try to use science to discredit traditional notions of religion and faith, but they speak the language of pluralism and spirituality to defend “nontraditional” beliefs.

Washington — How America Made its Capital City

Fergus M. Bordewich has written what is best described as a biography of Washington, D.C. In Washington: The Making of the American Capital (Amistad Books/HarperCollins), Bordewich traces the history of America’s Capital City, telling that story with a compelling narrative and fascinating (and surprising) details.

The story of Washington the city is inseparable from the story of the Founders and their heirs — and the story of the new nation. The very existence of the city is a monumental achievement, and the establishment of a new capital for the nation did not make sense to all. New York and Philadelphia (and Philadelphia even more than New York) offered amenities and cultural institutions that Washington would not have for over a century and beyond. The new District of Columbia was largely a swamp, but the Founders has a bold vision. George Washington was himself determined to see the new capital express the grandeur of the new nation’s vision and commitment to democracy. When constructed, the Capitol was the largest building in the young nation, and the White House was the largest residence. Both basically stood in bare fields.

There is more to this story — much more, in fact. Bordewich’s account takes the reader only up to the early nineteenth century. Nevertheless, by that time Washington the city was a fact, and the outlines of modern Washington were already visible. Washington: The Making of the American Capital is a great story that is well told.

An excerpt:

Today some 550,000 Washingtonians live at the core of a linear megalopolis with millions of inhabitants, extending deep into Maryland and Virginia. The tacit assumption that the capital would always be a white man’s city –no one even remotely imagined otherwise in the 1790s–has also been overthrown by time: today 57 percent of the city’s inhabitants, most of the leading members of its municipal government, and a significant portion of its business establishment are African American. The skeleton of L’Enfant’s grand plan survives, adapted to the exigencies of modern life. His boulevards continue to shape (and confuse) the flow of traffic, nudging the eye toward the magestic symmetries that lie half-buried, like an elegant palimpsest, beneath the modern cityscape. The White House remains where L’Enfant put it, although a more fearful age has hemmed it in with fences, barriers, and rings of invisible security to a degree that would have profoundly dismayed Americans of the 1790s, who expected even their highest officials to be easy of access, and available to them at almost any time. The Capitol, too, remains what the Founders intended, much larger and grander than it was two centuries ago, of course, but still framed by the proportions sketched by William Thornton on the steamy island of Tortola, and more than ever a magnet to the eye, proof to all of the astonishing persistence of American democracy.

The Liberals’ Moment

The decade of the 1970s is now a generation behind us, but the cultural and political movements of that pivotal decade set the stage for so much of what we face in our current times.  In terms of national politics, two great developments stand out.  On the Left, the nomination of Sen. George McGovern became the pivotal event of the decade, even as the rise of a reinvigorated conservatism became the great event on the Right.

Author Bruce Miroff of the State University of New York at Albany takes his readers into the heart of the McGovern campaign in The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party [University Press of Kansas, 2007].  There is no way one can make sense of the modern Democratic party without understanding this campaign.  The issues of that campaign still define the Left, as do many of the individuals involved in the campaign (such as Bill Clinton).  The Liberals’ Moment should be read by all who want to understand our current political context — both liberals and conservatives.

An excerpt:

Despite the landslide defeat, the McGovern campaign bequeathed to the Democrats a talented, youthful cadre of strategists, organizers, and wordsmiths who as they aged would largely shape the evolution of the party over the following decades. Every presidential campaign brings new activists into electoral politics, and some stay for the long haul. But for Democrats, the McGovern campaign produced a more distinctive and influential generation of political operatives than any campaign since. We can identify McGovernites–a term I use descriptively, hoping to detach it from the pejorative implications it is often given by right-wing commentators. But we do not speak of Mondaleites, Dukakisites, or Goreites, and even the senior Clintonites were McGovernites further down the political road.

Many liberals would prefer to look back on the McGovern campaign with nostalgia rather than discomfort, as the last time they could feel passionate and honest as they rallied behind one of their own in a presidential election. Certainly, later insurgent liberals, who have never made it past the primaries, have not paid much heed to the electoral vulnerability of liberalism that the McGovern campaign made palpable. Yet any future campaign mounted by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party needs to grapple with these vulnerabilities. Several characteristics of the McGovern campaign that offered plump targets for the Republicans remain of great relevance today, and liberals cannot evade the problems that they pose if they want credibly to renew their claim to the party’s leadership.

What Happened to African-American Theology?

The history of African-American theology raises one key question — What happened? Thabiti M. Anyabwile, now senior pastor of the First Baptist Church, Grand Cayman Islands, answers this question in The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity [InterVarsity Press]. Anyabwile traces a road from biblical orthodoxy to theological liberalism in the mainstream of African-American theology.

Here are two paragraphs that tell the story very well, and in a very moving way:

Rather than denounce the Bible as fraudulent along with its white adherents, the slaves recognized that learning to read the Bible and to possess its contents for themselves was real spiritual power, whose potency was made all the more alluring by efforts to prohibit its access. So, slaves vowed to learn to read before they died so that they could read the Bible. They took advantage of every clandestine opportunity to secure lessons from favorable masters or their children, often risking legally sanctioned retribution, severe beatings and death.

By the end of slavery’s reign in America, African American doctrines of revelation were beginning to widen and make room for sources of revelation other then the Scriptures, including God continuing to reveal himself through supernatural means and interventions. This expansion of the doctrine of revelation would weaken the centrality of the Scriptures in the practice and thought of African American Christianity.

The Decline of African American Theology is a really important book — and for all evangelical Christians.

Readers will also want to know of Thabiti Anyabwile’s other book, The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors [Crossway].

Thabiti Anyabwile was my guest on Monday’s edition of The Albert Mohler Program [listen here].

Understanding Barack Obama — “A Bound Man”

Sen. Barack Obama has quickly emerged as a major political force in America, and if predictions and polling projections hold, he will emerge the big winner of today’s New Hampshire primary. This means that many Americans are trying to understand this man and the meaning of his candidacy. Few persons can match Shelby Steele in terms of cultural analysis. A research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Steele is one of the nation’s most insightful analysts on a host of issues, including race. His earlier book, The Content of our Character: A New Vision of Race in America is one of the most significant works on race to emerge in this generation. That book was brave, insightful, and deservedly influential.

In A Bound Man [The Free Press], Steele looks at the meaning of Barack Obama and his political career. Shelby Steele writes from a unique perspective, as he is also the son of a black father and a white mother. Steele writes with deep insight, arguing that Obama stands between two worlds, and between two stereotyped roles in the black community. Steele clearly respects Obama’s obvious political talent and personal achievements, but he also registers significant concerns about Obama and his quest for the presidency.

Shelby Steele helped me to think about the phenomenon of Barack Obama in a new light in this insightful book — but, as always, he helped me to think about much more as well. Few books are as timely as A Bound Man.

An excerpt:

The point is that Obama has separated himself from the deadly stigmas of black inferiority and white paternalism. He is seen as untainted by the former and in no need of the latter. This does not mean that people won’t consider his race in some way as they ponder his candidacy. It only means that they can consider his candidacy without feeling guilted, intimidated, or otherwise manipulated by his race. And this is what makes him the first plausible black candidate in American history.

The Morality of Knowledge

The threat of nuclear weapons in North Korean is deeply troubling. The very idea that the Hermit Kingdom could be armed with nuclear weapons is…

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