Academics, Political Scholarship, and Jonah Goldberg

(x-posted to The Valve)

Over at Acephalous (and at The Edge of the American West), Scott Kaufman has posted the text of Friday’s panel presentation on Jonah Goldberg (Liberal Fascism) and the right-wing version of what we might call “political scholarship,” a genre that (taken loosely) might also include K. C. Johnson’s Until Proven Innocent (which Scott also tackled), and that, interestingly, comes in both cases from the desks of committed bloggers. I write “political scholarship” rather than “political science” because of the deep strain of revisionist history in Goldberg and Johnson’s work.

First of all, as his political posts so often do, this puts Scott once again at the forefront of academic blogging. He is carving out a niche for himself as a defender of liberal fair-mindedness and plain old scholarly integrity.

I am also glad that Brandon Gordon, the UC Irvine grad student who corresponded with Goldberg, refused Goldberg’s Facebook request and that Scott reported it. The creepy pretense of affability that characterized William F. Buckley’s unctuous conservatism will, I hope, go to rest with him in the grave.

Scott raises a valuable question: what role ought academics to play with respect to middlebrow political scholarship of this kind? Works like Liberal Fascism are riddled with factual errors, an unavoidable side effect of their fundamental biases, and Scott argues that we should respond to them with refutations. In his paper, he gives the specific example of Goldberg’s hasty claims about evolutionary theorist Herbert Spencer, which fly in the face of Scott’s own doctoral research.

For my money, refuting specific factual inaccuracies in these texts is beyond reproach, yet ultimately insufficient. It can end up in the same doldrums as the Gore and Kerry campaigns when they tried to run on reasonableness: we are smarter than Republicans, we understand how to wage the Iraq War better, we have read more documents and juggled more numbers. Barack Obama, by contrast, has foregrounded emotion — faith, hope — and has let his intelligence be something obvious that others praise for him.

Goldberg’s book is mostly an epiphenomenon. Its split platform of villainizing the Left and defending laissez-faire is a re-tread of the persistent and illogical synthesis of social and fiscal conservatism in the Republican Party. For the people who believe that public schools teach atheism, you had them at “Liberal Fascism.” For wealthy conservatives, there’s the appealing idea that expensive social programs can be traced back to Hitler. Because these ideas are so well-worn, they aren’t really dangerous. Furthermore, Goldberg’s timing is bad. In the midst of the current economic crisis, comparing government-led economic initiatives and regulation to Nazism will ensure that the book has a very short lifespan.

In truth, there has been no shortage of similar work on the Left. Whole shelves of books and movies attacking Bush, satirizing Bush, attacking right-wing Christian movements, etc. have appeared, everything from God Is Not Great to Bushwhacked to Al Franken to Michael Moore. Along with this bunch goes the more focused, level-headed works like The Assault on Reason. All of these have more going for them than their counterparts on the Right, but they are all dwarfed by what Obama has done in building a real American political coalition in support of a Democratic candidate.

I do not mean to sing Obama’s praises too highly: like many of my colleagues in academia, I am concerned that his focus on the middle class still leaves the majority of Americans behind. I also realize that most academics recoil with horror from something like Sicko or God Is Not Great, afraid of the alienating and dogmatic style, the guerrilla tactics. But academics are not the more noble for being constantly irritable and restless in their responses to political broadsides: acting like someone stung by a gadfly does not make one a gadfly. Many academics feel themselves to be “to the left” of Obama even though it has been years since the academic mainstream in the States has embraced socialism as a real possibility for the future. Even multiculturalism, for all of its occasional fatuousness and its wayward political consequences, represented a triumphant imaginative leap. Only a vision can compete with visions, even if the competition is wrong in every detail and rotten to the core.