XV: Waiting for Godwin
One of the great bylaws of the blogosphere is Godwin's Law:
- "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. Godwin's Law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups. However there is also a widely recognized codicil that any intentional triggering of Godwin's Law in order to invoke its thread-ending effects will be unsuccessful.
Of course, a good deal of Usenet etiquette has become the standard for debate in the blogosphere as well, and that is particularly the case with Godwin's Law.
At the very outset, as I began compiling the posts at Orcinus that would form this essay, it was fairly clear that virtually the entirety of the series was in gross violation of Godwin's Law. It's pretty hard not to mention Nazis and Hitler, at least by implication, when one's focus is a clearer understanding of fascism and how its essence remains alive in American society.
However, I wrote not so much out of ignorance as impatience with these kinds of protocols. As someone whose reportage on many occasions has been on the subject of very real neo-Nazis, the idea that I'd lose an argument just by writing factually about the undercurrents they represent is nonsensical.
For that matter, I've kind of viewed Godwin's Law, or at least its overeager invocation, as symptomatic of the larger problem I hoped to confront with this series: Namely, an almost frightened refusal by most Americans, right and left, to come to grips with the meaning of fascism, and how that blind spot renders us vulnerable to it.
When I first began seriously studying fascism some years back, one of the first things that struck me was how little I -- or anyone I knew -- actually understood what it meant, in spite of the fact that it, alongside Communism, was one of the two major political phenomena of the 20th century, both of them radical anti-democratic movements that the American system was forced to confront and defeat.
Virtually every educated person I know (and many less-educated people as well) has a relatively clear and at least semi-informed understanding of what Communism is, what its origins are, what are the basic elements of its ideology. Moreover, wariness of Communist influence is a virtual byword of the American worldview.
In contrast, hardly anyone I know understands just what fascism is. At best, they vaguely comprehend it as a kind of heinous totalitarianism, identified specifically with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. There is a great deal of confusion about its ideological orientation, embodied in the now-common conservative canard that "Hitler was a socialist." Mostly it is just flung about -- mostly by leftists and thoughtless liberals, but in the past decade by conservatives too -- as a catch-all term for totalitarianism, or worse yet, as a substitute for "police state" (which is not the same as fascism).
Hardly anyone can identify any tenets of fascism; most of the time its manifestations are understood almost as extrinsic infestations of a virulent hatred and violence, brought on by such influences as propaganda and "brainwashing." As I discussed in Part 11, though, this model is faulty; what is now clear about totalitarianism of all stripes is that it arises when certain ideologies and movements interact with personalities configured by 'totalist' predispositions. That is to say, it cannot be imposed from without unless there is concession within; its audience is not a blank slate, but people who willingly join in.
In the case of fascism specifically, the lack of an ideological core or easily recognizable signifiers (beyond, of course, such images from fully developed fascism as goosestepping stormtroopers and mass rallies) is a large part of the reason it's so little understood. This amorphousness, as I discussed back in Part 2, also arises from the fact that although fascism only arose in the 20th century as a political force, it originates in political strains that have deep historic (perhaps even prehistoric) roots, and which very much continue to be with us.
And it is this fact -- that even though we think of fascism as a distant and unlikely threat, it sits at our elbows and dines at our tables even today -- which makes a realistic discussion of fascism such an uncomfortable thing. Some of the very threads that combine to make a fascist weave are part of the everyday fabric of our own lives. It's much easier to declare an argument over when the issue of fascism arises than to confront the possibility that it lives on, even in a democratic society that we have come fondly to think of as immune from such a disease.
At the same time, I actually rather approve of the sentiment that underlies Godwin's Law. In today's context, Nazism specifically and fascism generally are most often cited by partisans of both sides not with any reference to its actual content but merely as the essence of totalitarian evil itself. This is knee-jerk half-thought. Obviously, I don't agree that the mere reference to fascism, let alone a serious discussion of it, automatically renders a point moot. But a reflexive, ill-informed or inappropriate reference -- which describes the bulk of them -- should suffice to invalidate any argument.
Without question the worst offenders are those on the left. It began back in the 1960s, when antiwar radicals came to refer to anyone from the Establishment as "fascist," particularly if they were from the police. This bled over into the later view that identified fascism with a police state. The confusion is alive and well today with peace marchers who blithely identify Bush with Hitler and compare Republicans to Nazis. The purpose of these analogies is to shame conservatives, but they instead only give their accusers the appearance of shrill harpies willing to abuse the memory of the Holocaust for cheap political theater.
Most of all, such comparisons obscure the reality of what's taking place. The genuine proto-fascists -- namely, the anti-democratic extremists of the Patriot movement, and their thuggish cohorts among the 'Freeper' crowd -- are identified with mainstream conservatives instead of being distinguished from them. That in turn gives their coalescence a kind of cover instead of exposing it.
A strategically astute left would try to drive a wedge between the two factions by raising awareness of their growing intersection, particularly in the growing phenomenon of agitation against antiwar protests. Instead, we have a liberalism that thoughtlessly identifies the conservative movement of the early 21st century with mature fascism of the 1930s, thereby only revealing how little aware it is itself of the eternal and mutative nature of fascism, and how little it can recognize it in action today.
The mainstream left has been content to make jokes about the stupidity of militiamen instead of recognizing the actual threat they represent. There has been little recognition of the way the far right is able to insinuate its ideas and agendas into the mainstream; indeed, the left's generally superior, dismissive attitude about right-wing extremists has only helped further their ability to penetrate broader society.
No doubt a large part of the reason for this is itself the degraded state of the word fascism, applied willy-nilly to virtually anyone opposed to their agenda, in much the same way that the right has debased the idea of communism. Fascism has become a black hole of a term instead of the red flag it should be. No one nowadays can recognize the genuine article when it sidles up alongside them.
Of course, as we have seen, liberals are hardly alone in abusing the term. It has become fashionable among conservatives over the past decade -- indeed, the Hitler/Nazi comparisons were particularly rampant in the identifiably proto-fascist elements of the far right during the 1990s, when they frequently compared Clinton to Hitler and government workers to Nazi stormtroopers. Likewise, the fascism comparisons have crept into mainstream conservative rhetoric -- particularly by the Rush Limbaugh and Freeper crowds -- as part of their attempt to paint liberal America as an oppressive police state.
As I observed at the outset, this kind of misuse of the term is decidedly in the mold of Newspeak, since it flatly contradicts the basic nature of its core meaning -- that is, while fascism is properly understood as essentially anti-liberal, Limbaugh and his cohorts identify it with liberalism. If the word's meaning was degraded before, this misuse has simply leveled it into meaninglessness.
The combined effect of this left-right punch renders Americans' understanding of the realities of right-wing extremism nil at a critical time when it needs to be acute. The undying forces of fascism have been creeping back into power from the ground level up, and only a clear understanding of the phenomenon will enable us to recognize how this is happening.
So these essays were written in the hopes of resurrecting a proper understanding of fascism -- what it really is, how it operates, why it is in fact very much alive and with us today. Part of my purpose, of course, was to persuade liberals to drop the inappropriate references to fascism, mostly by coming to grips with its real nature and not its imagined one.
My deeper purpose, though, was to sound a call to arms for Americans of every stripe who believe in democracy, because ultimately those are the institutions that are most endangered by fascism. Until the strands of far-right extremism that have insinuated themselves into the fabric of mainstream conservatism are properly identified and exposed, they will continue to wrap themselves around it and through it until its corruption is complete. And when that befalls us, it will probably be too late to stop it.
As the War on Terror, instead of combating the rise of fascimentalism, transforms itself into a War on Liberals; as conservatives increasingly identify themselves as the only "true" Americans; as Bush continues to depict himself as divinely inspired, and the leader of a great national spiritual renewal; as the political bullying that has sprung up in defense of Bush takes on an increasingly righteous religious and violent cast; and as free speech rights and other democratic institutions that interfere with complete political control by conservatives come increasingly under fire, then the conditions for fascimentalism will almost certainly rise to the surface.
These conditions remain latent for now, but the rising tide of proto-fascist memes and behaviors indicates that the danger is very real, especially as fascimentalist terrorist attacks take their toll on the national sense of well-being and security. It may take fully another generation for it to take root and blossom, but its presence cannot be ignored or dismissed.
European fascism was a terrible thing. An American fascism, though, could very well devastate the world.