Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Rush, Newspeak and fascism, II

Now, I know a quick reading -- the kind Rush Limbaugh prefers, prone to miscomprehension and mischaracterization -- might suggest otherwise, but I really wasn’t trying to argue the other day that Limbaugh is a fascist.

It is uncanny just how closely he and his conservative-movement cohorts fit the description provided by Umberto Eco’s 14 points, traits of what he calls “Ur Fascism.” But therein lies the problem: Eco’s essay is useful, but not authoritative by any means, since the study of fascism isn’t really within his field of academic expertise. And it has some flaws, not the least of which is that some (not all) of the traits he describes as endemic to fascism could be ascribed to other totalitarian philosophies as well, notably communism.

More to the point, it’s easy to plug in someone like Limbaugh and make them out to be fascist with Eco’s system, and yet I don’t believe that’s an accurate description of the Formerly Larded One’s politics. A more serious examination of what really comprises fascism will reveal why -- though neither does it clear Limbaugh and his cohorts.

At the same time, I think it’s important that Americans of all stripes -- liberal or conservative -- understand what fascism is, because it is above all else innately anti-democratic, and anti-American in spirit. So I’m making a plea, particularly those on the left who have used the term willy nilly for making unfortunately shrill partisan political points (I have absolutely no hopes of persuading those on the right), to cease abusing the word “fascism,” learn what it means, and apply it only when it’s appropriate.

Part of the problem is that the reactionary nature of fascism does not lend itself to easy definition. Unlike Marxism, fascism does not spring out of a body of ideological texts, and as such is not readily enumerated as a systematic philosophy. Fascism originally was a reaction against Marxism, and in its early years was essentially defined as “extremist anti-communism.” There were very few attempts to systematize the ideology of fascism, though some existed (see, e.g. Giovanni Gentile’s The Philosophical Basis of Fascism). But its spirit was better expressed in an inchoate rant like Mein Kampf.

I mentioned in the above post, BTW, that I would be attempting a “scholarly” discussion of fascism here, but I should clarify that: I’m just a journalist, not a scholar, nor do I pretend to be one. But I read a lot of scholars’ work, and that’s what I’ll be citing here specifically. None of these ideas regarding the core of fascism are my own. What follows is mostly drawn from a body of academic work on fascism that’s broadly accepted as the important texts on the subject, and I’ll urge anyone interested in examining the matter seriously to read them. I’ll list them at the end of the post.

The core of my interest in fascism is closely connected to my work in trying to understand the motivations of right-wing extremists, because my experience was that in most regards many of these folks were seemingly ordinary people. And I was furthermore intrigued by the historical phenomenon of the Holocaust, particularly the problem of how (a la Daniel Goldhagen) a nation full ordinary people could allow such a monstrosity to happen.

It has always seemed to me that Americans view Nazism almost as some kind of strange European virus that afflicted only the Germans, and only for a brief period. This, by way of rationalizing that It Couldn’t Happen Here. But it also seems clear to me this is wrong; that the Germans were ordinary, ostensibly civilized people like the rest of us. And that what went wrong in them could someday go wrong in us too.

I describe some of this in the Afterword of In God’s Country, reminiscing about a professor’s midafternoon lecture:

When he was a young man, he told us, he served in the U.S. Army as part of the occupation forces in Germany after World War II. He was put to work gathering information for the military tribunal preparing to prosecute Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. His job was to spend time in the villages adjacent to one concentration camp and talk to the residents about what they knew.

The villagers, he said, knew about the camp, and watched daily as thousands of prisoners would arrive by rail car, herded like cattle into the camps. And they knew that none ever left, even though the camp never could have held the vast numbers of prisoners who were brought in. They also knew that the smokestack of the camp’s crematorium belched a near-steady stream of smoke and ash. Yet the villagers chose to remain ignorant about what went on inside the camp. No one inquired, because no one wanted to know.

“But every day,” he said, “these people, in their neat Germanic way, would get out their feather dusters and go outside. And, never thinking about what it meant, they would sweep off the layer of ash that would settle on their windowsills overnight. Then they would return to their neat, clean lives and pretend not to notice what was happening next door.

“When the camps were liberated and their contents were revealed, they all expressed surprise and horror at what had gone on inside,” he said. “But they all had ash in their feather dusters.”

That story neatly compresses the way fascism works: in a vacuum of denial.

The gradual mechanism by which this phenomenon gradually crept over Germany was vividly described in "They Thought They Were Free" a book by Milton Meyer about “how and why ‘decent men’ became Nazis”:

What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if he people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.

So if it could happen to the Germans, it could happen to us. But how are we to tell if it is happening, since it seems to happen so gradually that the populace scarcely recognizes it?

Well, it’s possible to turn to history for guidance, but therein lies another possible mistake. If we think that we can only identify the rise of fascism by the arrival of its mature form -- the goosestepping brownshirts, the full-fledged use of violence and intimidation tactics, the mass rallies -- then it will be far too late. Fascism sprang up in fact as a much more atomized phenomenon, arising at first mostly in rural areas and then spreading to the cities; and if we are to look at those origins, then it’s clear that similar movements can already be seen to exist in America.

Moreover, fascism as we will see springs from very ancient sources, and its tracks have appeared throughout history. And it adapts to changing conditions. As the French specialist on the extreme right Pierre-André Taguieff puts it:

Neither "fascism" nor "racism" will do us the favour of returning in such a way that we can recognise them easily. If vigilance was only a game of recognising something already well-known, then it would only be a question of remembering. Vigilance would be reduced to a social game using reminiscence and identification by recognition, a consoling illusion of an immobile history peopled with events which accord with our expectations or our fears.

What’s necessary for assessing the genuine potential for fascism in America is identifying the core components of fascism itself: the ancient wellsprings from which it came and which remain with us today. Then we need to see how we are doing in keeping those forces in check.

I’ll talk about what comprises this core of fascism tomorrow.

Suggested reading:

The Nature of Fascism by Roger Griffin

Fascism: Comparison and Definition, by Stanley Payne

A History of Fascism, 1914-45 by Stanley Payne

Fascism: Past, Present and Future, by Walter Laqueur

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