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Glenn Beck's TV Documentary on 20th Century Totalitarianism: Does He Get it Right?

Goldberg and the documentary made the familiar argument that others have challenged; namely, that fascism is not a doctrine of the Right, but one that emerged from the Left. The film showed in particular rarely seen footage of playwright and influential Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw, extolling for the camera the virtues of Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist dictator. The film could have proceeded to make the point -- one missed by those who put it together -- that Shaw later became an equal fan and supporter of Joseph Stalin.  They could also have pointed to the story of  famed New York Times newsman Herbert Matthews, who made Fidel Castro into a worldwide hero. Matthews held exclusive interviews in the mountains with Castro during his guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista, and was taken in by Castro’s staged actions to make it appear he had a strong guerrilla group, rather than a defeated ragtag army. Decades earlier Matthews gained fame  as a correspondent who supported the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, which made him a hero to the Left. Yet few know that Matthews too started his journalistic career as a supporter of Mussolini and as a journalist who backed the Italian dictator’s invasion of Ethiopia.

Had Beck or his researchers known about it, it might have been more effective for American audiences to hear the words of the founder of the American labor movement, Samuel Gompers, who in the journal of the American Federation of Labor praised Mussolini and the doctrine of Fascism as a model for American workers to emulate and to build upon in the United States. The example of Gompers would, I think, have been far more effective in revealing how Mussolini’s economic and political doctrines received wide support in the United States from those like Gompers who normally would be considered on the Left of the political spectrum.

Alan Wolfe singled out for criticism the section of the film that mentioned  Hitler had instituted a program of health care, as well as a nation-wide public works programs which quickly helped Germany out of the depression and that was widely popular among the populace. Wolfe commented that “Nazi Germany was not evil because of their economic program,” but was “evil because it aimed at the extermination of European Jewry.”

Of course, the film made rather clear that the enormity of the Holocaust was the single most evil thing about Nazi Germany. The script did not say that its domestic programs were evil. For example, most people do not know that Hitler’s regime was the first to start a massive public campaign against smoking, which it correctly argued caused cancer. In fact, historian Robert Proctor wrote an entire book about it. Proctor reveals that the program was in fact quite laudable, and was the most aggressive state run effort to curb people from smoking. The Amazon.com review makes the following points about it:

The Nazi doctors fought their war against cancer on many fronts, battling environmental and workplace hazards (restrictions on the use of asbestos) and recommending food standards (bans on carcinogenic pesticides and food dyes) and early detection ("men were advised to get their colons checked as often as they would check the engines of their cars..."). Armed with the world's most sophisticated tobacco-disease epidemiology--they were the first to link smoking to lung cancer definitively--Nazi doctors were especially passionate about the hazards of tobacco. Hitler himself was a devout nonsmoker, and credited his political success to kicking the habit. Proctor does an excellent job of charting these anticancer efforts--part of what he terms "the 'flip side' of fascism"--and, along the way, touches on some unsettling issues. Can an immoral regime promote and produce morally responsible science? Or, in Proctor's words, "Do we look at history differently when we learn that ... Nazi health officials worried about asbestos-induced lung cancer? I think we do. We learn that Nazism was a more subtle phenomenon than we commonly imagine, more seductive, more plausible."

The point is relevant to Beck’s documentary: The Nazi war on cancer did not make the regime any less evil. The same leaders who tried to save the lives of its so-called Aryan population did everything it could to kill Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Communists, trade unionists and socialists. Above all, Hitler devoted the regime to first and foremost cleansing Europe entirely of all living Jews, and his death squads exterminated them even before the gas ovens were built in the various concentration camps.

Nor do I think the film suggested that because the Nazis had such programs, similar ones in America means that the United States is moving towards a form of Nazism. Yet, I do think the point made as criticism by Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin has great validity. Kazin is quoted as saying that he saw the documentary as “a classic piece of anti-Communist propaganda,” which from my point of view, does not make it inaccurate and is not necessarily a bad thing. Kazin then points to a major element of the story that Glenn Beck’s film leaves out. He writes, accurately, that “‘the first anti-Communists were democratic socialists and anarchists like Emma Goldman" or that "socialists in Europe after 1945 were allies of the U.S. against the USSR."

Kazin is correct. His point is further illustrated by the following. A major anti-Communist operative during the years of the Cold War was Jay Lovestone, head of the AFL-CIO’s international apparatus, which he singlehandedly transformed into an active organization fighting the Communists in Italy, Germany, Japan and elsewhere. When some supporters of Senator Joe McCarthy attacked his outfit as working with leftists, Lovestone responded that “they don’t understand that the Social-Democrats are our best allies in the fight against the Communists.” Beck does not seem to comprehend that the socialists were in fact our most dependable friends in the worldwide fight against the Soviet Union and Europe’s Communists. He may disagree with those who want America to move towards a European style social-democratic welfare state. But his viewers would not comprehend how these same socialists were our allies, if they ever came across this fact elsewhere.

It would have helped give more perspective and understanding to the story if Beck had in fact showed just that point, and perhaps obtained interviews with surviving participants of the old anti-Communist wars from people active in the labor and social-democratic movements. As for Kazin’s claim that Beck only wants to expose “inhumanity on the left,” why then did the film deal with Hitler and Nazism, which certainly Kazin does not see as a force on the Left?

Finally, on this point, I agree with the argument offered by Lee Edwards, the conservative activist now at the Heritage Foundation, and chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Edwards says that Beck “is thoughtful and interested in history. How many journalists in cable, print or whatever have this kind of interest in giving you a historical context. I think he should be commended for that.” And Nick Gillespie adds: “Beck may be a strange mix of comedy and pathos, but he's also bringing substantive discussion to cable news and creating arguments that can be engaged, refuted or amended.”

I would only add one caveat, and that is, on certain issues, Beck speaks up before he thoroughly understands an issue. I will deal in particular with his treatment and discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the next installment of my blog.