Saturday, September 23, 2006

Neiwert's book review

Oy vey, what a week Sigmund Spot has had! It started last Saturday when . . . well, never mind. It was trying, but not all that interesting. That's why it's called a dog's life. Spot is sorry to have neglected you, boys and girls.

MNO loaned Sigmund Spot John Dean's Conservatives without a Conscience a few weeks ago. Some interviews and commentary about the book got Sigmund Spot thinking about the authoritarian personality again, and he was glad to have a chance to read the book.

There has been some good research on authoritarian leaders and followers since Siggy's groundbreaking work with Stanley Milgram many years ago, and John Dean provides a good summary of it.

Although Dean says many trenchant and alarming things, Siggy was left unsatisfied by the conclusions that Dean drew. Siggy figured out why when he read David Neiwert's review of Dean's book on Media Transparency. Spot has pitched Media Transparency before, but it is hands down Spot's favorite investigative journalism site. Hands down. Especially on church and state and other social conservatives' favorite issues.

Most of you probably know David Neiwert. He publishes the blog that has the big black and white fish on it. Please read the whole review, but Neiwert takes issue with Dean, who has a need to be the Republican apologist all the way in his book:
For all this insight, though, we are left with a larger conundrum: Where do we go from here? Conservatives Without Conscience drills so deeply into the personal realm that, by the time we reach the end, it becomes hard to raise our eyes up to see the larger political picture that emerges. Dean briefly touches on this when, late in the book, he describes how his studies of authoritarianism led him to also study fascism.

This step was perfectly logical, since the personal and social pathologies that he finds in the conservative movement also take a political form, and fascism is the consummate right-wing political pathology of the modern era. He describes studying Robert O. Paxton's landmark text, The Anatomy of Fascism, yet at the end he backs away:

Are we on the road to fascism? Clearly we are not on that road yet. But it
would not take much more misguided authoritarian leadership, or
thoughtless following of such leaders, to find ourselves there.

Yet in examining Paxton's book, it is difficult -- especially in
combination with the remarkable weight of the evidence and analysis
that Dean provides -- not to conclude differently. Paxton explains
that, as with personal pathologies, fascism consists not of a single
core belief or trait but of a constellation of them, and that real
fascism emerges when they coalesce. He provides a list of nine "mobilizing passions" that together create this constellation:

  • A sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every
    right, whether universal or individual, and the subordination of the
    individual to it;
  • The belief that one's group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against the group's enemies, both internal and external;
  • Dread of the group's decline under the corrosive effect of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
  • The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
  • The need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a
    national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group's destiny;
  • The superiority of the leader's instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • The beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group's success;
  • The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group's prowess in a Darwinian struggle.

Conservatives Without Conscience tends to demonstrate, actually, that we are indeed well on the road to fitting that description thoroughly. Dean's hesitation may well be due to the reality that the description does not fit completely (the conservative movement, beyond its war making, is not particularly violent yet, for instance, though violent rhetoric is becoming increasingly popular in its ranks), but it is hard not to see that the differences are dwindling daily.

So that's it, boys and girls. Dean refuses to draw the conclusion that his own evidence presents.

It's a compelling book, and Neiwert's review makes it even more so.

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