What Jacob Siegel gets wrong about my life and work.
Just recently, Tablet, a Jewish online publication that tilts left, posted a long portrait of me by a New York based writer Jacob Siegel. Jacob’s article did not come as a complete surprise, since he had interviewed me several times before writing it. It was also obvious from our conversations that he had read all or part of my twelve books still in print and many of my online mutterings. Never before had I been interviewed by a journalist who knew so much about my work. I was furthermore under no illusion that the finished portrait would depict me in a particularly sympathetic light. From the stands that Tablet had taken in the recent presidential race, it was apparent that its politics were quite close to those of the New York Times, a publication for which Jacob also, not incidentally, writes.
When I finally looked at The Altright’s Jewish Godfather, I was therefore not taken aback to see in a picture above the title my face wedged in between those of Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer. Presumably I’m the missing link between these two inexpressibly hateful figures. And although I explicitly deny being a “white nationalist” and note that given my family’s background as war refugees, “I don’t want to be associated with people who are pro-Nazi,” somehow, unbeknownst to me, I spawned a pro-Nazi movement.
Needless to say, the ominous victory of Donald Trump never lurks far beneath the surface of this narrative. When at the end of Jacob’s commentary, I am called to account for the evil fruit of my thinking, I may be catching hell for, among other things, contributing, however minimally, to Trumpism: “Now versions of the same ideas that Gottfried says got him banished [for rejecting the liberal catechism] will be gospel in Trump’s White House.” I haven’t the foggiest which ideas of mine will be triumphing in the Trump administration. Certainly no one in Trump’s transition team has been begging me for advice.
In fact I doubt I’ve enjoyed even a fraction of the influence on the Altright that Jacob attributes to me. But he’s not entirely consistent on this point. If the neoconservatives and establishment Left, according to Jacob, have kept my ideas out of circulation, while I vegetate on the eastern shore of the Susquehanna River, then how is it that I managed to turn so many influential heads? My books are more often read in translation in Eastern Europe than they are in the original English in the US. And my work has never made it into the national press or into prestigious establishment magazines. What is more, I don’t know Steve Bannon, with whom I’m cheek by jowl in a picture, and Bannon’s editors have never made the slightest effort to contact me. And it may come as no surprise that I’ve had only limited personal contact with Richard Spencer since he went over the top rhetorically.
My comments in The Conservative Movement in 1986 that sociobiology was influencing certain segments of the conservative movement was not a profession of faith, but an objective fact. Jacob extracts a phrase from what I think was my essay Thinking about White Nationalism, which was posted on takimag in 2008, to the effect that white nationalists belong to the Right. But he fails to explain the context of my observation. Although I state that white nationalists are reviving rightist views of hierarchy and the inescapability of human inequality, I hardly see these advocates as the wave of the future. I agree with David Horowitz in regarding them as a reaction to the PC Left and to the denigration of the white race. Like the Left that they attack, white nationalists are “inhabitants of a disintegrated society” and “lack a civilization as opposed to a late modern context.” Their real beef may be with other whites who, far more than blacks, have inflicted Political Correctness as a form of leftist thought control on the rest of us.
Allow me to note other questionable judgments in Jacob’s treatment of my life and work. Jacob quotes selectively from my autobiography Encounters to show that I disliked some of my Jewish classmates as a graduate student at Yale and that I found my fellow-students at Yeshiva University, where I was an undergraduate, to be socially off-putting. This is intended to prove that I’m always whacking away at Jews but am allowed to indulge this vice because of my Jewishness. If Jacob looked carefully at the sources quoted, he would discover that I spill some of my nastiest vitriol on goyim. In my autobiography the harshest words are reserved for WASP patricians gone soft in the head and for mincing Christian lackeys who do the dirty work of the neocons. If forced to choose, I would pick to spend eternity with my personal enemy Norman Podhoretz rather than with the smiling, insipid Mitt Romney or the caring-sharing Jep Bush. I’m also wondering why my lack of comfort with some of the students I met at Yeshiva University or my admitted social preference for certain communities of Jews over other ones would suggest an affinity for crackpot, pro-Nazi ideas. Contrary to what Jacob intimates, I profoundly admire many descendants of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, but Max Boot, Bill Kristol and Jamie Kirchik are not among them.
Jacob contends that my book, Fascism: The Career of A Concept, was written to further my far right agenda. By focusing on “generic fascism” in Latin Catholic countries and by treating Nazism as an outlier, I was helping to “take away the power of ‘fascist’ to stigmatize far-right politics.” At the same time I was helping “to rescue a whole host of concepts tainted by association with fascism, like ethnic nationalism, and ‘race science,’ making it safe for the right to openly advocate them.” For the record, I’ve been collecting material on the subject of fascism for the last forty years. I finally decided to produce a book on the subject after trying to plow through Jonah Goldberg’s turgid, tendentious Liberal Fascism, which was a bestseller in 2008. I was appalled that such a work received so much undeserved attention and that people who should have known better praised it lavishly.
Moreover, there is a distinction to be made between generic fascism and Nazism. The latter, like Stalinism and Maoism, created a violent, totalitarian regime that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of victims. The Italian and Spanish fascists, whom my book treats at length, did not engage in mass murder; and between 1922 and 1938, before Mussolini began imitating some of Hitler’s bad habits, fascist Italy was at most a laxly run authoritarian state. Jacob is right that my book deals critically with contemporary anti-fascism, which in Europe is stifling intellectual freedom and civil liberties. To observe that the term “fascism” has been stretched in such a way as to be used as a club against serious dissent, is to perform a public service. Although admittedly I’m on the right, those on the left who care about freedom (if they still exist) should be making arguments like mine, about the danger of labeling unwelcome dissent as “fascism.” In European countries one can be jailed for expressing “fascist” thoughts. And why is “ethnic nationalism” an indication of fascist thinking? Almost all nationalisms have centered on historic nations, in which ethnic unity have been seen as a source of strength. Was everyone who ever defended an ethnic nation a “fascist”?
Despite these reservations about Jacob’s presentation, I commend him for treating my thought generally with respect. My friends who have read his essay noted that it was superbly written and that they could recognize in this text what I’ve actually said. Jacob does not misrepresent me when he describes my reservations about modern mass democracy and the overreach of public administration, and repeats my complaints about those escalating unsettling changes that have resulted from the civil rights and immigration legislation of the 1960s. Jacob is right that I don’t hide my distaste for the direction in which Western governments have been moving for many decades; nor do I take the view that these problems are of very recent origin or that the “Reagan revolution” did something substantial to change them in the US.
To his credit Jacob recognizes that paleoconservatives have been “capable of some trenchant ideas about modernity and the American century.” Although, unlike me, he finds “a fair number of cranks, racists and anti-Semites” in this group, he also praises them generously for being “incisive and unsparing” in their criticism of “Bush-era bromides” and of “preventive wars carried out in the name of democratic universalism.” Only paleoconservatives have been “attuned to the cost of global trade—not only the loss in jobs but in community and self-worth—in a way that neoliberals and neoconservatives were not.”
A few minor errors that I feel obliged to mention: Pace Jacob, I don’t have “beady eyes”; nor, as far as I can determine, is my voice “squeaky.” Finally, I was born on the eve of America’s entry into World War II not in the Bronx, but across from the Naval Yards in what was then Dodgerland.