Monday, October 01, 2007

Stealing Fascism

Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels

-- by Sara

Over at Salon this morning, Glenn Greenwald makes the case that the past several months have seen an escalation of right-wing rhetoric that's blatantly attempting to link words like "Nazi," "fascist," "Gestapo," and "holocaust" with the behavior of the left.

He documents this trend chapter and verse, from Bill O'Reilly blasting of Daily Kos as a Naziesque hate site to Tammy Bruce calling Jane Hamsher (of all people) out as a "fascist" and as a "Gestapo" organization. Evidently, Fox News's commentators have seized on this meme with gusto, and are running with it as far as they can make it stretch.

What's especially interesting about this, says Glenn, is that there was a time not so long ago (as recently as last spring, in fact, as Dick Durbin could tell you), that groups like the Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League instantly set the dogs on anybody who engaged in this kind of rhetoric. They saw clearly that setting up these kinds of equivalencies could only trivialize the unspeakable horrors that the Nazis perpetrated, and dangerously dilute the serious denotations and connotations these words carry for us. But, says Glenn, that's not the case any more:
Now, however, "Nazi" and "Hitler" comparisons have become, by far, the most common political insult on the Right, and these same Jewish advocacy groups are defeaningly silent. It is not merely that every new country on which the Right's war-crazed faction wants to wage war is "Nazi Germany" and every new leader -- or even every political functionary -- that does not submit completely to America's will is "Hitler." That is true, and it provokes no protests. But the casual, indiscriminate use of "Hitler" and "Nazism" as political exploitation is much more pervasive even than that.

Just in the past few months alone, there is virtually no prominent anti-war or liberal group that has not been branded as Hitler and Nazis by the most influential factions on the Right. If one's goal were to trivialize Hitler and Nazism and the Holocaust, one would do exactly what the Right is doing -- brand every political opponent as Hitler and Nazis on a virtually daily basis. Yet the groups that have anointed themselves proprietors of those terms, and which have in the past expressed such righteous outrage when those terms were used against the Right, sit by meekly and silently.
Glenn's absolutely right -- as far as he goes. But since Orcinus' core mission, from the start, has been to analyze the appropriate use of these words and concepts in the modern American context -- and to exchange heat for light where their wrong-headed use is concerned -- I'd like to take Glenn's point another step further.

Letting the right get away with this doesn't just trivialize the horrors of Nazism. Worse, in the long run: it also drains the political meaning out of the words we use to analyze and describe fascism, opening the way to a total reversal of their historic meanings.

The bald historical truth is that fascism always comes out of the right wing. Its proponents are, on one hand, economic royalists working their will by merging their corporations with the government; and on the other, rural True Believers willing to commit violence to perpetuate their own serfdom. Dave's been making the point here for upwards of five years that America will not be a fascist state until the merging of these two factions takes place. Until then, the current right-wing government can best be described as "proto-fascist" -- a situation in which most of the ingredients of fascism are present, but the actual catalyst that pulls them into a coherent and functioning system of government has not yet occurred.

While leftists can certainly be totalitarians (as Lenin, Stalin, and Mao amply demonstrated), they're not fascist. The right wing is often confused on this point; but we should not be. The 20th-century communist experiments threw the corporations overboard, and relied on bureaucracy and urban-based secret police rather than rural thugs to keep people in line. It's the same authoritarian impulse -- and thus no less ugly in the end -- but it's not correct to call it fascist.

This is how fascism has been defined by political scientists and historians around the world for upwards of 80 years now -- and this is the definition that Fox News and its spittle-flecked minions are messing with. Trivializing the language of fascism, and thus severing it from its long-held meanings, is the first step.

But the deeper danger here is that it softens us up for the next step, which is to re-define those words in ways that they apply exclusively to the left.

If the right can pull off this semantic trick, they win in two ways. First, we will no longer be able to have serious conversations -- like the ones we've had here for the past four-plus years -- about the very real ways in which American conservatives are pulling us toward genuine fascism. They'll have stolen away the language that will allow us to convict them of their crimes against democracy. We won't be able to measure their deeds by holding them up against those of previous right-wing authoritarians -- the comparisons will be simply impossible, because the definitions of the terms will be too murky to be useful. Or worse: they'll now mean something else entirely.

(The seething motivation behind this attempt at re-definition becomes all too clear when you recall that Robert Paxton, the leading scholar on the history of fascism, believes that first fascist organization in history was the KKK -- which brought together the political (and sometimes blood) ancestors of the very same people who are trying to pull off this definitional double-shuffle now.)

Which brings us to the second threat. Having stolen these words, they will then be able to turn them back on us -- and we will be totally unable to answer their charges. We will be the new "Gestapo," trying to perpetrate a "holocaust" against Christians and conservatives and unborn Americans and anybody who feels threatened by fact and reason. And, as Dave has often argued, this is precisely the kind of rhetoric that always precedes eliminationist campaigns. If the right wing can convince the average American that liberals are the real "Nazis" who must be purged from their midst, they'll have scored a stunning propaganda coup -- one which will justify all manner of violence against anyone who disagrees with them.

The sobering thing about this is that this kind of semantic theft is a well-known stock-in-trade of real fascists. The very fact that they're even trying this is absolutely typical of the breed as historians and scholars understand it. We know they can do it: we've already watched them steal words like "freedom," "Christianity," "rights," "justice," and even "life" itself away from us. In stealing the very meaning out of our language, they are also stealing our voices -- which ensures that if the day comes when they'd rather act than talk, we will be rendered completely mute, unable to make people understand our protests no matter how loudly we scream.

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