Rock'n'Roll - A few comments about the play

The San Jose Stage Company has a great production of the play Rock'n'Roll by Tom Stoppard. This play covers the period from the Prague Spring through the Velvet Revolution. Set in Prague and Cambridge the examines the the tension between an authoritarian regime and culture, in this case Rock and Roll. The play flips many times between Cambridge and Prague and covers over two decades with being disorienting. The minimal set allows for quick changes and the display of location and year on the back drop following a change is probably helpful for those who might not be aware the period and the background.

Max and Eleanor as the intellectual couple in Cambridge are well crafted showing enough of the tension from their marriage and their struggles with old age and cancer while still developing the story of their relationship with daughter Esma and the visiting student Jan. The dynamic between Jan as a visiting student and the older committed Communist Max the university professor is a point which is established early in the play and then reappears near the end.

Rock music is a general background and in the particular references to the rock musician Syd Barrett and the Prague rock group Plastic People of the Universe occur throughout the play. Stoddard examines the question of how an authoritarian regime is threaten by a non-political musical group. And how a regime in power will try to co-opt those that it perceives as a threat by offering benefits and recognition only at the cost of a few "small" changes or adjustments. Perhaps changing a song or some other "small" thing.

The tanks which rolled into Prague to crush the reform movement of the Prague Spring are not shown rolling around on stage and thus are more powerfully sinister in the play as the "helpful assistance" from the other socialist countries. By not overplaying the violence and threat of violence it keeps the play from becoming a cliche.

There is much more to this play than I am covering here. Even a couple of days after seeing the play I am still thinking of some of the scenes and their meaning. One interpretation that I would project on the old Communist professor Max is that a great flaw of his was that he was a committed believer and not a doubter. It is difficult to be an authoritarian or an apologist for authoritarians if one is able to consistently question and critically examine all points of an ideology.

I highly recommend this play.


Liberal Fascism - A Book Review

I occasionally write book reviews. However I usually only review books which I have read in their entirety. I will make an exception in the case of the book Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg. I waded through the first 70 pages and the last chapter and looked at bits and pieces of the remainder.

I value my time and energy. Even eye fatigue can be a constraining factor in how much one reads. Thus I will occasionally stop reading a book when I find the enterprise of reading it is no longer profitable. I started reading the "Liberal Fascism" and soon found myself increasingly annoyed by the problems I was finding. I took out a notepad and started to jot a couple of notes about inaccurate and/or misleading statements. As the notes increased I soon realized that I was rapidly losing confidence in the accuracy of the book.

One example from the first chapter (p. 6):
"The Black Panthers - a militaristic cadre of young men dedicated to violence, separatism, and racial superiority - are as quintessentially fascist as Hitler's Brownshirts or Mussolini's action squads." This sentence comes in the middle of a rambling paragraph about racism. The sentence gives an extremely misleading picture of The Black Panthers and neglects to mention the formation of the group in part as a response to the tactics of the Oakland Police department which Black Panthers considered as racist and brutal. The Black Panther Party (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense) certainly contained some violent young men but it is also important to remember that the Black Panther Party and its members were the target of violence instigated by or done in cooperation with the FBI. And let us not forget that the Black Panther Party contained women and was for a while headed by a women who unsuccessfully ran Oakland City Council. The Black Panther Party organized and worked with other community groups for activities such as breakfast for poor school children and a school. And I suspect we have all seen the photo of the Black Panthers openly carrying shotguns. But to only describe the Black Panthers as supporting gun rights, creating private non-government schools and setting up private non-government charities would be as misleading as the description that Goldberg gives.

I began to wonder if I was reading a work of serious scholarship or work of propaganda; there were other misleading statements and unfounded leaps of inference. I suspect that most readers find an occasional point of disagreement with any book they read however this book had many more than I had expected.

On page 12 Goldberg writes:
"What I am mainly trying to do is to dismantle the granite like assumption in our political culture that American conservatism is an offshoot or cousin of fascism. Rather, as I will try to show, many of the ideas and impulses that inform what we call liberalism came to us through an intellectual tradition that led to fascism." Notice that shift that Goldberg makes in rejecting that conservatism in an offshoot or cousin or fascism by attempting to hang the label on the liberals. This is particularly odd given that Goldberg discusses the lack of a consensus definition of "fascism" amongst the scholarly community and the wide range of popular uses often as an term of derision. Goldberg even quotes Orwell as saying that term word fascism as merely signifying "something not desirable". Goldberg gives his personal working definition of fascism on page 23:
"Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common god. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the "problem" and therefore defined as the enemy. I will argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies all of these aspects of fascism."

Given that he later says that contemporary American liberalism embodies all of the elements in his definition of fascism one wonders just what Goldberg really means. If as Goldberg says in his definition fascism really has this totalitarian view and if contemporary American liberalism embodies all of the aspects of fascism then how can an individual be a liberal and not also be a fascist? Consider that earlier Goldberg writes "Now, I am not saying that all liberals are fascists" on page 8. Is Goldberg contradicting himself? Goldberg's usage of words and phrases such as "everything" and "embodies all of these aspects" does not leave much room for alternative interpretations. Perhaps there are alternative interpretations but I have not yet found them.

Goldberg emphasizes the historical antecedents and the common intellectual traditions of modern American liberalism yet I do not find him paying sufficient consideration to what changes occured over time. To give an example there is a tradition from chemistry all the way back to alchemy; yet that does not mean that chemistry is a pseudo-science. Merely cataloging ancestry does not substitute for serious analysis.

There is some serious analysis that can be done in analyzing the transgression of individual liberties not just during the Progressive era but from the landing of the first European colonists to the present. And there is no reason to restrict that investigation to one political faction. It is a topic well worth study and can provide cautionary reminders not to infringe on individual liberty. And a study of this sort is best done in a spirit of intellectual honesty.

But I am concerned that Goldberg has (perhaps unwittingly) made the discussion of these topics more difficult. Having any discussion of Progressive era infringements on individual liberties either derailed or discounted due to the problems associated with the Goldberg book will be unfortunate. It seems to me that working toward keeping the intellectual atmosphere clear is a valuable endeavor. And I think that a good first step is to not present works of propaganda as if they were serious scholarship. Even if a person wins an argument with weak arguments and rhetorical tricks how long can the victory last? To be taken seriously it helps to be serious.

At a more basic level is the question of political philosophy. For a serious consideration of liberalism I think it would be more profitable to consult a serious scholarly work. For example I had the good fortune to read the classic work "A Theory of Justice" by John Rawls along with "Anarchy, State and Utopia" by Robert Nozick for a college philosophy course just after the Nozick book was published. Nozick had written his work partially in response to Rawls. If one is interested in considering liberalism then I suggest that reading Rawls is much more profitable than reading Goldberg. I do not fully agree with either Rawls or Nozick but I am glad I read them years ago.

I do not recommend Liberal Fascism.