Writing about fascism for an American audience is always a fraught business. Invariably, a third of the readers will dismiss the topic (and your faithful blogger's basic sanity) out of hand. Either they've got their own definition of fascism and whatever's going on doesn't seem to fit it; or else they're firm believers in a variant of Godwin's Law, which says (with some justification) that anyone who invokes the F-word is a de facto alarmist of questionable credibility. I get letters, most of which say something to the effect of, "Calm down. You're overreacting. We're nowhere near there yet."
Another third will pepper me with missives that are every bit as dismissive -- for exactly the opposite reason. To them, anyone who's been paying the barest amount of attention should realize that America has been a fascist state since (choose one:) 1) 9/11; 2) Reagan; 3) McCarthy; 4) The Civil War; 5) July 4, 1776. For them, my careful analysis and worried warnings are dangerously naive -- clear evidence that I'm simply not seeing the full horror of America as it truly is, and always has been, at least since (insert date here).
Given this general crankiness, I probably wouldn't bother with the subject at all -- except for that final third who keep me going. From them, I've gotten a blizzard of anecdotes, questions, meditations, ideas, suggestions, manifestos, and love letters (including lots of link love). The piece sparked a lot of conversation all across Left Blogistan about what fascism is and what it ain't and what we need to be watching for. And that kind of thoughtful discussion is exactly what I hoped for. I wanted people to start paying attention.
In the previous post, I pointed out that the most insidious part of fascism is that by the time it's finally obvious to absolutely everyone that these people are dangerously out of control, it's too late to do anything about it. Early warnings are even more valuable here than they are in most domains. And since futurists are -- more than anything -- in the business of early warnings, it falls to me to step up there and point out that according to at least a few of the more reputable atlases in the glove box, this looks a lot like the last turn into the parking lot of downtown Fascist Hell.
The good news is: we're not yet parked and locked, let alone committed to entering the building. (Which is good, because the doors appear to be all one way, just like in the Hotel California.) We've still got a few minutes left to change our minds, back out of this, and go spend our future somewhere else. But we are now actively in the process of choosing, whether we're aware of it or not. Things are happening quickly now that could set us on a course we will soon regret.
How do we turn back? Here are some basic principles to guide our action.
First: The teabaggers must not win this one. Back in elementary school, most of us learned that when a bully learns that intimidation and threats work, he'll will keep doing more of it. In fact, the longer he goes without comeuppance, the bolder and badder he becomes, and the harder it is to make him stop. Every success teaches him something new about how to use terror for maximum effect, and tempts him to push the envelope and see what else he can get away with. Do nothing, and he'll soon take over the whole playground.
And it happens like this for bullies in groups, too. Living in a fascist regime is just living in a town dominated by the Mob, a street gang, the KKK, or a corrupt sheriff. It only takes a small handful of thugs to terrorize people into giving up their civil rights, abandoning democracy, and doing what they're told, just so they can keep their jobs, windows, and families intact. The main imperative in life becomes staying off the goons' radar. All the enforcers need to do is make an horrific example out of one or two troublemakers every now and then -- and the resulting fear will keep everybody else quietly in line.
Conservatives have tried to subdue other Americans this way for centuries, so there's nothing new going on here. And this is the way they've always done it: they used race (and yes, the birthers and anti-health care rioters are, at root, all about race) and economic calamity to whip up a posse of terrified, well-armed vigilantes, and then turned them loose on society to "enforce order." Given their colossal investment in organizing and indoctinating the teabaggers, we'd be stupid to believe that this is all going to go away when Congress returns to DC in September. Having had a taste of power and publicity, these newly-empowered mobs are very likely to stick around town and see what else they can do to keep the muck stirred up.
Our choice now is a stark one: knock them back while they're still new, small, and not yet entrenched; or deal with them later, when they've got some real power to fight back with, and the cost to all of us will be so much higher.
Second: Think nationally, fight locally. The conservatives are running this effort as a national campaign -- but that's not where the real fight is. The terror that fuels fascism is always intensely, intimately local in scale. Fascist goon squads always recruit from the neighborhood -- they're built on people you know. Since that's where they start, that's where they have to be stopped.
This is why all the best tactics involve community-level action. The high-level fight in Congress and the media is already underway, and the Democratic leadership is fighting it with unusual elan. But anybody who sits this one out because they assume that the folks in DC have it all handled for them shouldn't be surprised when they start getting "special treatment" from longtime neighbors, or discover that they can't park their car downtown any more without having it vandalized. That's just the next baby step up from where we are now; and in some places, it's already started to happen. Winning this means getting out there and defending our community's standards and boundaries now, while they're still there to be defended.
Third: Brush up on our non-violent resistance -- but leave the heavy lifting and rough enforcement to the cops. It's true that the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to them. But there are ways to stand up to them that don't involve getting down to the eye-for-an-eye level.
Back home, we had a saying: Never mudwrestle a pig. You will lose, and the pig enjoys it. If we meet thuggery with thuggery, we will lose, because they're just plain better at it. And make no mistake: they will enjoy it. Right now, the right wing is looking -- hard -- to make the case that they're the innocent victim, and the left instigated this whole thing. This quote from religious right organizer Gary Bauer is typical of the genre:
My fear, given the stakes and emotions on both sides, is that union thugs, ACORN activists and leftwing anarchists (who ransacked the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul during last year's Republican National Convention) will turn violent and innocent people will get hurt. If that happens, the radical Left will bear the responsibility for demonizing free speech.
The Nazis used this kind of victim-blaming to tremendous effect as they built up their party. We must not -- must not -- give our proto-brownshirts any basis to make the same kind of argument. (Of course, the absence of evidence will only drive them to make up fake victims; but then we get to call them out as whining liars with a big fat persecution complex, which is always a fun way to spend a news cycle or two.)
It's about the moral high ground, people. Any choices we make must be consistent with our own values, or we betray both ourselves and the country. Standing up for health care reform is important; but before that, the country needs to see us standing up for civil discourse and the right to democratic free speech. Since we're defending the rule of law, our best tactic is to use that law. You have a right to attend a public meeting and speak your mind in a civil, respectful manner. You do not have a right to be disruptive, or deprive other people of their right to be heard. And most jurisdictions have laws about disturbing the peace and creating a public nuisance -- laws, let's not forget, that the Bush regime didn't hesitate to stretch until the elastic gave out against people who merely showed up at meetings with the wrong bumper stickers or T-shirts.
Since we're not Bush goons, we can't go around arresting people who haven't yet broken any laws. But when people -- from either side -- cross that line, it's time for the cops and prosecutors to make the point for us: bullying people in a public meeting (or anywhere else) is illegal, and will not be tolerated in this county.
Fourth: We need to make absolutely sure that the media get the story right. The teabaggers would run out of power with the flick of a switch if the media would just turn off their cameras. But the cold reality is that this kind of drama is a real ratings-booster. It would be like telling lions to lay off that dead elephant carcass. Left alone, the media (local news in particular) will turn these people into cultural heroes. They couldn't turn their backs on this if the republic depended on it.
Since we can't beat 'em, we'll have to join 'em. The best cure for bad speech is always more speech. This means bringing cameras and documenting everything, getting it up on YouTube, and blogging it. It also means coordinating rapid-response letter-writing to the local paper, and keeping down-home reporters well-fed every single day with some new theme that reinforces the idea of concerned non-partisan citizens trying to keep control over their democratic discourse in the face of organized thugs. Since the media is watching, let's make sure they see it all.
Fifth: Support legislators who don't show fear. The Democratic Party seems to be playing this just right (so far). The leadership has made it known that these noisy, scary people don't represent the 73% of Americans who support health care reform. Even better: they're quite successfully using these outbursts to marginalize the entire GOP as not only the Party of No, but the Party of Moonbat Crazy.
If you've never attended a public meeting in your life, August 2009 is the month you need to start. Your congressperson's website probably lists a schedule, or at least a number you can call to inquire. But that's just a first step. Do more. Write. Call. Find out where your local congressional office is, and just drop by when you're in the neighborhood. Tell the staff how you feel -- about health care reform, about the teabaggers, about your legislator's brave stance in the face of this. If they're showing stress, encourage them to stand firm. A constituent in the office counts for thousands writing e-mails, so an in-person visit is 15 minutes incredibly well-spent.
One visit or call is good. More is better. Put it in your schedule to contact your representatives at least once a week for the duration, and make sure they're not buckling under the pressure.
Sixth: Shut down the hate talkers. In most parts of the country, the teabaggers are coming straight out of right-wing talk radio audiences. For hours every day, they're mainlining raw emotion and toxic misinformation. They're going put your kids before "death panels!" They're going to kill your granny! You're going to have to call the White House to get a bone set! You'll be a Real American Hero if you get out there and join the "resistance!" Cutting off this endless torrent of lies, fear-mongering, and validation will go a long way toward powering down the whole movement. (Conversely, what happens when these kinds of radio instigators are left to spin it all the way out to the end can be summed up in two words: Radio Rwanda.)
The basic recipe: Record their shows. Take notes of anything they say that is intimidating, threatening, or aimed at inciting violence against a named target. And while you're at it, note every single advertiser they have.
Then: write a polite letter the CEOs of the sponsoring companies. Throw them some choice quotes from these shows, and ask them if this is the kind of thing they want their product associated with. (Point out that if their own employees said things like this at work, they'd be fired on the spot.) Often, the CEO has no clue that any of this is happening, and will pull the ads as soon as she finds out what's being done in her name. This has worked extremely well -- and quickly -- at both the local and national level.
Finally: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Even if we succeed this time, let's not kid ourselves that this is over. The conservatives are investing a lot of money and effort to build a mass movement that's explicitly aimed at destroying a Democratic government -- and if we learned anything from the Clinton years, it's that they're not going to let up for a second as long as the Democrats are in control. Which means that even if we win this round, we can't stand down. We're going to be pushing back against these bullies, over and over, for the next three to seven years.
There are only two outcomes here. Either we get very good at spotting and stopping these attempts at a brownshirt takeover the minute they crop up; or they're going to get very good at public intimidation, and keep ratcheting it up further toward outright violence and goon rule. That's how it's going to be for the rest of this administration. The sooner we resign ourselves to the zero-sum nature of this fight, the sooner we can get on with getting good at it.
Next week: Fascist-proofing America for the long haul