Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Kerfuffle Wading: On Liberal Fascism's sadly missing chapter

I probably shouldn't wade into the kerfuffle with Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism (well treated at Sadly No, here and here. EDIT More seriously, see here), but here I go with a medievalist intervention, deferring responsibility for doing what I should not do by saying, with Dietrich, that I can't help it.

I quote the following from a recent interview between Goldberg and Theodore Beale

Beale: You know, Guerri says the reason the Fascist regime was less dramatic than the German and Soviet regimes was because Italians were weak Catholics. So when they replaced their religion with the secular religion, they became weak Fascists as well.

Goldberg: I think that's right. Michael Ledeen has many detractors when it comes to contemporary politics, but he was a very serious scholar of Italian Fascism in his previous career. One of the things that first got me interested in this topic was over ten years ago when Ledeen gave a talk at AEI. It was very interesting and at the end, a buddy of mine turned to me and said: “I think what he is saying is that Nazism was really bad because they had the Black Forest and terrible weather, and Italian Fascism wasn't that bad because the Italians are a bunch of nice people.” That's a really grotesque way to put it, and yet there's a certain truth there. These sorts of isms are going to bring out the character of a people. No idea so sets fire to the minds of men that it erases their culture, their background, or their fundamental psychological understanding of the world. Certainly not on a mass scale.

Beale: It's very Eddie Izzard: “We are all Fascists now.... ciao!”

Goldberg: There's a story that Ledeen tells about a restaurant. One of the things that Mussolini did in this very Jamesian way was to declare all of these domestic policy wars, these moral equivalents of war. There was the Battle of the Grains and the Battle of the Births, and one of them was the Battle of the Flies, because there was so much disease going around Italy back then. Anyhow, this guy goes into a restaurant and sees there's flies all over the place, so he asks what's going on with the war against them. The waiter says “well, the flies won.” That's a very Italian perspective. One of the things I learned while writing the book is that there's this glib association of fascism with anti-semitism, and while one can't say that the Italians were completely blameless in that regard, at the end of the day, anti-semitism was just completely contrary to Italian history and culture. Italy was polyglot, multi-ethnic and Catholic, so whatever anti-semitism was there was theological, not biological; the Catholic Church's position was that Jews could be saved, not that they should be eradicated like vermin. I wanted to do an entire chapter on this but it was just too far afield. The heroism and decency of thousands upon thousands of Italians when it came to the Jews is one of the incredibly untold stories of that era. Anti-semitism and Italian Fascism are just not kindred phenomena.

There's too much to deal with here. For instance: Italy, being a Catholic country (or people? I suppose in this case one means the other, except for the "multi-ethnic" part), did not practice a virulently antisemitic fascism because of Catholicism's policy on Jews (rooted in Augustine's commentary on Psalms 58:12); Italians did not become serious fascists because they were weak Catholics. So, did Catholicism guide them in its strength or its weakness? Or both?

As for polyglot, multi-ethnic, Catholic countries and their tolerance towards Jews...well, there's medieval London, which would fit the criteria, were it not for the pogrom during Richard I's coronation, and/or twentieth-century France, except for its complicity in the Holocaust. Even with his conceptual mistakes, Goldberg can still wonder why antisemitism didn't take root as intensely in Italy as it did in Northern Europe. He might have started his wondering by reading Gavin Langmuir's “L’absence d’accusation de meurtre ritual à l’ouest du Rhône” (in Juifs et judaisme de Languedoc. Cahiers de Fanjeaux 12. Toulouse, 1977, 235-49) and perhaps he would wondered whether to be convinced by the several possibilities Langmuir offers (perhaps, to cite my notes, the earlier development of credit and commerce in Southern Europe made Jews less distinct, or religious belief played a different role in these societies that were more Romanized, or there's some kind an inverse relationship between clerical activity and popular hostility, or perhaps heretics were the real bogeymen in S. Europe).

I do wish, however, that Goldberg had written the chapter he claims was "too far afield." Perhaps he would have ran across some information of use on medieval Italian Jews and how they helped form the Italian national character (more on that below). He could have started with Ariel Toaff's Love, Work, and Death: Jewish Life in Medieval Umbria (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1996). He might have discovered the racism used against Pope Anacletus II (discussed in Mary Stroll's The Jewish Pope: Ideology and Politics in the Papal Schism of 1130, 1987), and perhaps have found something similar to his own racist noise against Obama.

Had he done his research (not really his habit), he would have discovered in any number of sources that in fact it generally was better to be Jewish in Rome than in Cologne, Rouen, London, or York, that is, so long as one wasn't being compelled to race during Carnival and be stoned by Christians (see Stallybrass and White, Politics and Poetry 53). Or so long as one wasn't an old man rolled down a hill in a spiked barrel (I found reference to this tradition in Claudine Fabre-Vassas The Singular Beast: Jews, Christians, and the Pig, Carol Volk trans., Columbia UP, 162, and, in my effort to confirm it just now, in the online Medici Archive Project:
The "palio degli ebrei" or "race of the Jews" in the Corso had a long and peculiar history of its own predating the Counter Reformation by several centuries. At one point, Christian "jockeys" in the race rode Jews instead of horses. Another festive "game" of the season was to roll a Jew in a nailed barrel down the Testaccio Hill. By the mid-sixteenth century, there are accounts of the Pope personally watching "races of barbarians, buffaloes, donkeys and Jews," from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia (where four centuries later Mussolini made his most famous public appearances.) By the 1580s, the Jews are known to have run the race naked; later, they evidently began to assume elaborate costumes, thereby reversing the originally humiliating intention of the event. In 1668, Pope Clement IX Rospigliosi abolished the "palio degli ebrei", substituting an annual tax of 300 scudi for the festive decoration of the street and a stylized ceremony of homage to the Pope on the Capitoline Hill.

(for the transmutation of the old Jew to pig, see here)). Goldberg might also have run across information on the expulsion of Jews from various parts of Italy in the Middle Ages and afterwards: Sicily (depending on my notes) in either 1492 or 1493 and Naples in 1541, and the forced conversions in Southern Italy in 1290. Perhaps he would have found something on the Jewish ghetto of Venice (and how Napoleon ended it). This is all pretty lugubrious stuff (especially when one needs a murderous tyrant to break down the gates), but all to the point on the so-called national character of Italians.

Or "Italians." I put the nation in the quotation marks in hope of responses to my invitation. Let my readers and co-bloggers, if they have anything handy, provide something less woeful about Italian Jews, something that might point us towards a discovering of intermingling, interdependent Jewish and Christian culture in Italy, medieval or otherwise, perhaps something like this, perhaps something less hostile even. And perhaps if we can come up with some thought on that we can help, at least in our fantasies, to lead Goldberg away from the poisonous invocation of "biology."


Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Karl, you accomplish quite a bit with some not very promising material. You've given antisemitism the context that it needs and that Goldberg doesn't seem to have a clue about. His remarks are a weird mixture of glib modern assumptions that run contrary to historical fact (that "polyglot, multi-ethnic" societies are inherently tolerant; see, among many others, David Nirenberg to have that one debunked) and weirdly medieval statements (that a people's character is determined by the geography and climate in which they dwell; next thing he'll be ascribing this environmental determinism to the balance of the four bodily humors). He also robs Italy of its own history: that is, his remarks imply that it has always existed as a nation, going back to the Middle Ages at least. Though not about Italy per se, Patrick Geary's Myth of Nations is on topic: these collectives that pass themselves off as timeless do so to hide their parvenu status, and to obscure the differences and violence upon which they were founded. So you're right to put "Italians" in scare quotes, Karl: it's not nearly the transparent nor the homogeneous nor the timeless identity it is made out to be.

Nearly all communities make similar maneuvers, dreaming a long and continuous (and ultimately specious) history for themselves in order to bring about present consolidations. Such imagined pasts also help to catalyze desired futures. It's difficult, especially as medievalists who see in the literary and historical record how peoples arise, disperse, and change (often quite quickly) -- and to be faced with the records of who gets excluded as well -- not to be skeptical of the kinds of claims and assumptions Goldberg makes.

the sobsister said...

Reading Goldberg's oddly ill-informed comments brings to mind something an Italian once wrote,
"ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta".

Thanks for providing a useful historical context.

Karl Steel said...

that a people's character is determined by the geography and climate in which they dwell; next thing he'll be ascribing this environmental determinism to the balance of the four bodily humors

At the same time--and what follows is inspired by and even a bizarre distellation of several conversations and posts at ITM--upholding a model of human selfhood on both the individual and cultural levels that is unaffected by climate and other grand inhuman forces strikes me as a version of old humanism. Instead of 'Easterners are physically weak but sneaky because the heat of the sun thins their blood' and 'Northerners are physically strong but credulous because cold makes for thick blood,' we get a transgeographical, transclimatal version of 'people are people.' Of course (!) the options aren't as stark as I portray them here: the climate is not the base and humans are not the superstructure. But, and here I borrow from what little I know about critical Marxism, if we drop 'determination,' we can still keep 'influence' and 'causal intermingling' yes?, although in what form or how this would play out in practical (i.e., hermeneutic) terms, I don't know.

Sobsister: we love Dante, demonology, and fart jokes.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Absolutely. It's one thing to say that humans and their geography/climate/environment are actors within a vast and complex system -- and that they impinge upon each other so thoroughly that it is not all that useful to separate strands. It's another, though, to say that climate leaves a lasting biological imprint that produces an enduring racial identity.

To me these two conceptualziations seem like the difference between Bruno Latour and Charles Murray.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I am not terribly familiar with the subject matter here, but a quick note on the more "serious" article you linked to, Karl.

I noticed that the title of the book by Goldberg comes complete with an idea we're seeing a lot of these days in the movies and in the media -- a "secret history". I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I do know that it makes me nervous -- "secret histories" seem often to be given some kind of de facto credibility just BECAUSE they are secret (and I'm relying primarily on the aftermath of the Da Vinci code, and the interminable questions about the "real" story of the Holy Grail that seemed to permeate it). There's also an odd valorization of "facts" that are "secret" -- everything from the history of the knights templar (per one-too-many history channel documentary) and the "Bible Code" (a weird thing I watched on History Channel once while house-sitting -- something about being able to find predictions of the future in the Bible based on lining up the letters in a row and then playing "word find" with it).

I don't really know how influential stuff on the history channel is or isn't. But it seems like in this kind of a context (and particularly in terms of the discussion that has followed the original posting) it would seem that a "secret history" is really another term for a book that has "facts" in it, but arranged in such a fashion that they don't have even a passing relationship to the "system" they purport to describe. Or, perhaps more generously, that the "facts" are related to one another in such a way that the complexities of "history" (and the actors who participate in it, human and non-human) are painted over by broad strokes that obscure the intricacy of the relationships between past, "present" and future...and the histories that as JJC points out are implicated in all three.

The honest question in all of that is -- are secret histories always suspect? And does it matter? I'm tempted to say yes on both counts, but wanted to hear what others, better versed in this than I, might think.

Karl Steel said...

To me these two conceptualziations seem like the difference between Bruno Latour and Charles Murray.

Or at least Braudel/Bergon and Murray (beginning to get a sense of the forebearers, both for Latour and for SRJ's discussion of nonhuman history, through this discussion of The Geographical Turn, a series of posts honored by Cliopatra in 2005).

MKH: more later!

Anonymous said...

Karl - maybe look at the Bad Archaeology website here:


in their History of Archaeology section.

Archaeological processualist theory perhaps bears some resemblance to the Annales school's idea of 'traces' of the past and the 'longue duree' but is generally rooted elsewhere in science.

Or look at one of the text books on arch theory by Tilley, Shanks or Hodder.


Karl Steel said...

Sarah, thanks so much for recommending Bad Arch. Looks like a lot of fun.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Good - I have only just discovered them but I think their aims are similar to ITM's - (see recent piece on the discovery of Nipplegate) - even if the content and philosophy is naturally rather different.