Saturday, September 13, 2003

The 'F' word hits the big time

The New York Times weighs in on the issue of fascism:
The Latest Obscenity Has Seven Letters

Meanwhile, in what many people see as a particularly far-fetched usage, some on the left are dusting off the political vocabulary of the 1920's and 30's to describe policies of the Bush administration that they find antidemocratic: aggressive unilateralism in foreign affairs, the doctrine of pre-emptive force and what they perceive as the abridgment of civil liberties in the war on terror. Just this week, protesters were flashing signs emblazoned with the word fascist during Attorney General John Ashcroft's speeches in favor of the antiterrorism laws.

"Whenever people start locking up enemies because of national security without much legal care, you are coming close," said Robert Paxton, an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and the author of a forthcoming book called "Fascism in Action," a comparative study that tries to distill the essence of fascism.

Of course, as I've explored here at length, the comparisons to fascism with the current conditions extend well beyond the matter or the treatment of civil rights vis a vis national security. However, the piece pretty fairly explores some of these other traits -- "the rejection of both liberalism and socialism; the primacy of the nation over the rights of the individual; the demonization of the nation's enemies; the elimination of dissent and the creation of a single-party state; the dominant role of a charismatic leader; the appeal to emotion and myth rather than reason; the glorification of violence on behalf of a national cause; the mobilization and militarization of civil society; an expansionist foreign policy intended to promote national greatness" -- though it neglects to point out their disturbing similarities to the agenda of the American conservative movement. I guess this is what some people consider "preposterous."

In any event, the piece makes an important point:
Fascism, scholars agree, is by definition a modern mass movement. Old-fashioned monarchies, as well as military juntas, generally count on passive subjects, while the innovation of Fascism was mobilizing the masses, in punitive raids and grand public rallies, in the cause of a kind of ultranationalism.

"Saddam Hussein's regime is an evil phenomenon, but fascism is the product of democracies that have gone wrong, that had working constitutional systems which they gave up voluntarily," Mr. Paxton said.

For this reason, Mr. Paxton and most experts on European Fascism consider it inappropriate to apply the term to societies of the Middle East that have little experience of democracy and whose modes of governance spring from a different matrix. In the view of Mr. Paxton, Mr. Hussein's regime has more in common with many third-world dictatorships that are militaristic and nationalistic but that rule more through brute force than through mass mobilization.


Mr. Berman and Mr. Hitchens also applied the term fascist to militant Islam because it seems to have an aggressive, fanatical hatred of the West, an apocalyptic vision of violent conflict and a cult of death that represents a danger that the world's democracies would be mistaken to ignore. They describe Sept. 11 as a historic moment like that in 1938 when Hitler's threats against Czechoslovakia and the peace negotiations in Munich divided Europe between the desire to appease or confront Hitler.

This interpretation does not sit well with most experts on Islam. "Fascism is nationalistic and Islamicism is hostile to nationalism," said Roxanne Euben, a professor of political science at Wellesley College. "Fundamentalism is a transnational movement that is appealing to believers of all nations and races across national boundaries. There is no idea of racial purity as in Nazism. Islamicists have very little idea of the state. It is a religious movement, while Fascism in Europe was a secular movement. So if it's not what we really think of as nationalism, and if it's not really like what we think of as Fascist, why use these terms?"

The next time you hear someone refer to "Islamofascism," you might want to point this out to them.

In general, I was pleased to see the issue begin to warrant such high-profile consideration. I was a little disappointed to see Roger Griffin's work receive such short shrift (he goes utterly unmentioned) but I understand the restraints imposed by newspaper articles. She does mention Emilio Gentile, who springboards to an extent from Griffin's work, who provides this definition, which seems relatively complete:
"A mass movement, that combines different classes but is prevalently of the middle classes, which sees itself as having a mission of national regeneration, is in a state of war with its adversaries and seeks a monopoly of power by using terror, parliamentary tactics and compromise to create a new regime, destroying democracy."

The only thing missing from this is the core element that Paxton identifies: The claim to represent the "true" national identity.

[Thanks to Paul de Armond for the heads-up.]

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