Q&A: Humor, Fascism, & Aliens (Really)

Pundit, National Review columnist, and conservative wit Jonah Goldberg delivered the keynote address at Center of the American Experiment’s Fall Briefing. CAE President John Hinderaker connected with him for a wide-ranging interview.

You gave a terrific speech at American Experiment’s Fall Briefing. It was very interesting, but it was also very funny. Have you always been funny?

JONAH GOLDBERG: I don’t like to talk about my looks, but … I’ve always had a sense of humor. It’s one of the things I stumbled into backwards. There are surprisingly few publicly funny conservatives. There is a bunch of conservatives who are funny behind the scenes, but they don’t like to lead with humor very often. Which I always think is a mistake.

I have a very wonky, nerdy tendency in me, but my wife, who’s a speech writer, said, “Look Jonah, nobody’s ever attended a speech and said, that was fantastic, but I got to say, I just laughed too much.” I think that’s right. It’s important for conservatives to humanize themselves. Students on college campuses and liberals in general have convinced themselves that conservatives are mean people. I probably do a lot of self-deprecating humor, particularly on college campuses, because audiences in general go in with the expectation that a conservative is someone who needs to eat a truckload of bran just to crack a smile. We actually are funny, in part because we are exempt from political correctness.

One reason Air America failed as a left-wing radio network is that the left is not allowed to make fun of any member of the coalition of the oppressed. Right? Every minority group has to be treated with a kid glove, and that only leaves basically only white, Christian, male, and corporate fat cats— and those jokes get tired after a while.

Meanwhile, conservatives can tell jokes about all sorts of things in society. It’s strange that liberals got this reputation for being the funny ones when, if you’ve ever been on a college campus, the most humorless people are the people on the left.

People certainly left our Fall Briefing with smiles on their faces. You and Mark Steyn are really the only two pundits that come to mind as people who seemingly can toss out very funny jokes at will. How do you do it?

First of all, I think you’re being terribly unfair to George Will. Give that guy like a watermelon and a sledgehammer, and he could have the audience rolling.

Obviously I have some standard jokes. For years I would walk up to the podium at a college campus, and say, “Gosh, if I knew you were gonna give me a podium, I wouldn’t have worn pants.” It just takes the audience off guard and lets them know I’m not going to be hectored and insulted by some angry right winger. Again, that’s an important lesson for conservatives not to be so angry about it all the time. It turns people off.

I have to admit the comedy part of it is partly an insecurity. I get terrified that I’m losing the attention of the audience; the only way I can check to see if they’re paying attention is by making a joke.

If they laugh, you know they’re still listening.

If they laugh, I know they’re with me. If they don’t laugh, particularly, it’s terrifying. Nothing induces bowel-stewing panic in me more than to tell a joke that I’ve told successfully 50 times, and then it just falls completely flat with the audience.

Few people seem to have been born to be pundits. You mentioned George Will. I’d put him in that category, but you don’t strike me as somebody who was born to be a pundit. What sort of winding trail brought you into the career that you’re now enjoying?

It’s true. I kind of fell over backwards into this stuff. I grew up in a very political household, surrounded by magazines and newspapers and books. But I never wanted to go into journalism. I wanted to write comic books and science fiction novels. I was rejected from every college I applied to. I ended up going to an all-women’s college in Baltimore. You guys may not have known that the Center for the American Experiment invited the Rosa Parks of gender integration to come and speak. My freshman year there were 37-odd men and over 1,000 women. I really do mean odd men. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that politics kind of came more naturally to me. I went to Czechoslovakia shortly after the Berlin Wall came down to be a starving writer, and I sort of batted .500. I didn’t starve, and I didn’t write. Then I fell into an internship that turned into a job at the American Enterprise Institute. Then I was a television producer for a long time, doing public policy stuff and writing a lot of freelance for places like National Review, Commentary, The Public Interest, and all these wonky magazines.

I got the bug for daily writing because I was a daily blogger. I was one of the first bloggers. I started writing this thing called the Goldberg File working at National Review before there really was a National Review online. I took to it. The new style of writing that was becoming popular on the web was well suited to me. About six months into this gig writing this original blog, I was asked if I wanted to start writing for National Review Online. Now they’re back merged together.

By then I had the bug, and it was off to the races. One of these days when I have enough screw-you money, I plan to get the hell out of this business. But for someone who likes arguments and cares about this stuff, it’s been a pretty good ride.

I want to talk about your books. Your first book, Liberal Fascism, was a big hit. The title alone made liberals’ heads spin. How would you sum it up?

The basic argument of Liberal Fascism is that we have inherited an understanding of fascism that was deeply corrupted by Soviet propaganda, Marxist theories, and a deeply progressive rewriting of American and Western European history. The idea that fascism is right wing makes some sense in Europe, but only makes sense in America if you basically define fascism as anything that liberals don’t like.

Which is pretty much how they use the term.

It’s also how they use the term racist, right? Basically the best working definition of a fascist in America, is simply a conservative who’s winning an argument. I argue that fascism should be understood as a form of Statism, which I don’t think any serious person can disagree with; moreover, Statism is fundamentally, philosophically a phenomenon of the left as we understand these things in the Anglo-American tradition. Conservatism stands for two pillars in the Anglo-American tradition.

The libertarian pillar stands for limited government, free trade, sovereignty of the individual, free minds, free markets—all of that stuff. The social conservative pillar is all about respect for orthodoxy, respect for religion, respect for transcendence, respect for traditional values and customs. If those two pillars define what it means to be conservative in America, then it’s impossible to call them fascism.

It is a form of right-wing socialism. Which is what Trotsky called it. Which is what lots of left-wing intellectuals called it in the early days. The problem is that over time, they kept the word right wing, and they just sawed off, buried, and erased the word socialism. We’ve inherited the idea ever since.

A lot of it has to do with the idea that nationalism and socialism are opposites, which is nonsense. When you nationalize an industry, you’re socializing an industry. Socialized medicine is nationalized health care. Every socialist movement in the history of the 20th century became nationalist once it took power, because that’s the only way socialists can hold on to power—by arousing nationalist passion.

In fact, we hear echoes of them in today’s American left. For example, Hillary Clinton’s campaign motto, stronger together, was strongly reminiscent of the fascist symbol of the bundle of sticks, right?

Right. The symbol of fascism is the bundle of sticks around an ax. The meaning of it is literally strength in numbers. If you put a bunch of sticks together and tie them together, they’re stronger than any one stick. The symbolism goes back thousands of years before Mussolini, the guy who created fascism. It’s an ancient political value of strength-in-numbers, that in unity there is strength. You don’t have to call it fascist, but you have to recognize that it’s part of the cult of unity.

We constantly hear from politicians on the left and the right, but particularly on the left, about how anything is possible if we all work together. That’s not true. We cannot levitate things with our minds if we all do it together. This idea that we can enter some Shangri-La if everybody drops their own personal ambition, their own personal desires, and rallies around the state, is one of the most ancient cons in politics. Since when is strength in and of itself a core American value? I thought liberty was the core American value.

When talking on college campuses, I always say, “Unity can be fine, but it’s completely amoral. It depends on what you’re using the unity for.” When people get together to save a little girl who fell down a well, that’s great. You know what else is unified? Race gangs. The mafia.

The lynch mob.

Lynch mobs are unified. The man who stands up to the mob is the hero in the American political tradition, not the mob, because the mob is unified in its anger. I think this is one of these category errors that so many people in our politics make.

Your second book is called The Tyranny of Clichés. How would you sum that one?

If you’re looking for humor, there’s a lot more of it in that book. It turns out that a lot of my biggest fans were angry that Liberal Fascism was not funnier. It just turns out that there’s only so many jokes you can tell when you’re talking about Hitler and nazism.

The Tyranny of Clichés was in some ways an appendix to Liberal Fascism in that a common theme throughout 20th century American progressivism is how the left loves to try to win arguments without making them. They sort of steal bases unearned by argument. What they’ll do is offer clear but false ideas. They’ll try to wrap themselves in the mantle of just being pragmatists and realists and have science on their side. They’ll claim that anybody who disagrees with them has been brainwashed by ideology.

The book, is in a sense, an extended defense of ideology and an extended attack on the false assumptions and stolen bases of the way the left tries to argue things. I’ll give you an example: During the fight over gun control, Joe Biden and every other liberal loved to say, “Well, if it saves just one life, it’s worth it.” This sounds reasonable and compassionate, but, in fact, it is an incandescently stupid argument. If any law is justified because it saves even a single life, then the speed limit can’t be higher than five miles an hour; we should all be forced to walk around in inflatable sumo suits.

Another one is the idea that violence never solves anything. It’s just not true. Violence is like unity. It’s useful in some circumstances, particularly violent circumstances. If violence never solves anything, cops wouldn’t be allowed to carry guns. Right? Because they would see somebody getting raped, or beaten, or murdered, or a store being robbed, they’d pull out their gun, look at it for a second, and throw it away. “Damn,” they’d say, “this thing is useless because violence can’t solve anything.”

Let’s talk about the book you’re working on right now. Has it got a title yet?

The title is under negotiation. I am desperate not to make the same mistake I made with Tyranny of Clichés, which was a New York Times bestseller, but the title struck a lot of people like a sort of a steroidal grammar usage guy. Much to my dismay, I learned that something like 20 percent of American talk radio hosts do not, in fact, know how to pronounce cliché. There’s nothing more awkward than being introduced as the author of the Tyranny of Clitches and wondering whether you should correct your host and embarrass him or not.

I don’t want to give away too much, because the book is still not coming out for a while, but basically I’m trying to offer a much grander sweep of where our politics are coming from, of where politics themselves come from, and why we desperately need to be vastly more grateful and protective of liberal democratic capitalism, because it is the only thing that has delivered us from the natural state of mankind, which is one of poverty and tyranny.

You give an image of an alien from some other world visiting the earth at 10,000-year intervals…

If an alien were visiting the earth once every 10,000 years for 200,000 years, he would report the same thing for every visit: Semi-hairless apes foraging and fighting for food. Until his last visit, where he would probably see Miley Cyrus twerking at the Super Bowl.

The point of that is to say that so much of a positive change in human history has happened essentially in the blink of an eye. There are a lot of lessons that we can take from that, starting with the fact that our genetic makeup is not meaningfully different than it was 10,000 years ago. We are still creatures that were born to live in a very different environment. That environment isn’t modern liberal democratic capitalism.

It takes a commitment to principles, ideals–one might even say ideology to maintain this system, because in many ways it doesn’t feel natural or normal to us on a neuro-scientific, psychological, or evolutionary level. We have to keep reminding ourselves that we’d still be back in the trees, were it not for this system that was born about 300 years ago.

It’s quite ironic that liberal democratic capitalism is responsible for just about all human progress, yet liberal democratic capitalism is not particularly popular around the world.

It’s becoming more unpopular as we speak. Daniel Bell pointed out in the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism that the social capital that makes capitalism possible–this desire to delay gratification, to work hard, to play by the rules, and all these kinds of things– is, in fact, undermined by capitalism. So you need to keep civil society healthy, because that is the only way you can keep capitalism healthy.

The problem is that capitalism just doesn’t feel natural to people. They want tribal politics. They want to talk about how we’re stronger together. It’s all so contradictory to everything that the Federalist Papers are about, which is the idea of not having too much unity—because in unity you get tyranny. We’re supposed to have unity in our system of government when there are clear and obvious threats to the survival of the society at large. When you’re at war, you’re supposed to drop everything and fight for your country. That’s why liberals, going back to William James in the 1890s, have been arguing for the moral equivalent of war. They want all Americans to drop their petty, personal pursuits and rally around the state for big ideas and big causes as delineated by the left and by the government.

That’s not what liberty is about. Liberty is about people in their own individual pursuit of happiness— not being dictated to by the state.

Best-selling author Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor and columnist at National Review. He is also a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a member of the board of contributors to USA Today, and a contributor to Fox News. He was the founding editor of National Review Online.