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.”