Saturday, August 09, 2003

Rush, Newspeak and Fascism

[Part I] (See my explanatory note below.)

II: Understanding Fascism

"Fascism" has come to be a nearly useless term in the past 30 years or so. In many respects, leftists are most responsible for this degradation; it became so common to lob the word at just about anyone conservative or corporatist in the 1960s and 1970s that its original meaning -- describing a very distinct political style, if not quite philosophy -- became utterly muddled, at least in the public lexicon.

A recent example of this was the report at Take Back the Media that Rush Limbaugh had characterized antiwar protesters as "fascists and anti-American." Indeed, it was this report that inspired me to write at Orcinus about Limbaugh and the real nature of fascism. But the report was wrong. (Take Back the Media, to its credit, quickly corrected its quote.)

Here's the actual quote:
"It's beyond me how anybody can look at these protesters and call them anything other than what they are: Anti-American, Anti-Capitalist Marxists and Communists."

Limbaugh was clearly smearing the antiwar dissenters, and that was outrageous enough. But he wasn’t calling them fascists -- rather their ideological opposite.

It is clear that liberals are every bit as prone to confusing fascism with totalitarianism as are conservatives. The difference, perhaps, is that the latter often do so deliberately, as a way of obscuring the genuine fascism that sits at their elbows.

As "fascism" has been bandied about freely, it has come loosely to represent the broader concept of totalitarianism, which of course encompasses communism as well. Right-wing propagandists like Limbaugh clearly hope to leap into that breach of popular understanding to exploit his claim that those on the left, like Dick Gephardt or "feminazis," are "fascists." It's also clear as he denounces antiwar liberals as "anti-American" that he is depicting them as enemy sympathizers with the forces of "Islamofascism."

Most Americans have a perfectly clear idea of the basic tenets of communism (though in many cases it is fairly distorted), largely because it is an ideology based on a body of texts and revolving around specific ideas. In contrast, hardly anyone can explain what it is that makes fascism, mainly because all we really know about it is the regimes that arose under its banner. There are no extant texts, only a litany of dictatorships and atrocities. When we think of fascism, we think of Hitler and perhaps Mussolini, without even understanding what forces they rode to power.

At the same time, it’s important that Americans of all stripes -- liberal or conservative -- have clear view of what fascism is, because it is not an extinct political force, and it is above all else innately anti-democratic and anti-American in spirit. This essay is in some regards a plea, particularly to those on the left who have used the term willy nilly to score shrill partisan political points, to cease abusing the word "fascism," learn what it means, and apply it only when it’s appropriate. (I have absolutely no hopes of persuading those on the right, particularly since they are a large part of the problem.)

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 described some of this in the Afterword of In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest, 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 Mayer 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 the 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, particularly to the extent that we remain in denial about it. But how are we to tell if it is happening, since it seems to happen so gradually that the populace scarcely recognizes it?

It’s worthwhile to begin by examining the historical record, because there, at least, we can get a reasonably clear picture of just what fascism really was and is.

In a historical sense, fascism is maybe best understood as an extreme reaction against socialism and communism; in its early years it 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 1932 text, The Philosophical Basis of Fascism). But its spirit was better expressed in an inchoate rant like Mein Kampf.

It was explicitly anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and corporatist, and it endorsed violence as a chief means to its ends. It was also, obviously, authoritarian, but claiming that it was oriented toward "socialism" is just crudely ahistorical, if not outrageously revisionist. Socialists, let's not forget, were among the first people imprisoned and "liquidated" by the Nazi regime.

But fascism is more than just a reaction. It is a political force with a distinct set of characteristics.

One of the more popular recent essays on the subject was written by Umberto Eco, who is a cultural scholar, of course, though not what I would consider a genuine expert on fascism. Nonetheless, his piece, "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt" is on the right track, and as good a place as any to start.

Eco identifies a series of traits that sum up the essence of what he calls "Ur-Fascism," that is, the beast that has always been with us and will always be. Now, although this piece was written in 1995, let's see how many we can recognize today:

The cult of tradition.

[Who are the folks who beat their breasts (and ours) incessantly over the primacy of 'traditional Judaeo-Christian culture'?]

The rejection of modernism.

[Think 'feminazis.' Think attacks on the NEA. Think attacks on multiculturalism.]


[G.W. Bush's anti-intellectualism and illogical, skewed speech are positively celebrated by the right.]

Action for action's sake.

[Exactly why are we making war on Iraq, anyway?]

Disagreement is treason.

["Liberals are anti-American."]

Fear of difference.

[Again, think of the attacks on multiculturalism, as well as the attacks on Muslims and Islam generically.]

Appeal to a frustrated middle class.

[See the Red states -- you know, the ones who voted for Bush. The ones where Limbaugh is on the air incessantly.]

Obsession with a plot.

[Limbaugh and conservatives have been obsessed with various "plots" by liberals for the past decade -- see, e.g., the Clinton impeachment, and current claims of a "fifth column" among liberals.]

Humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies.

[Think Blue states vs. Red states.]

Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy.

[The very essence of the attacks led by talk-radio hosts against antiwar protesters.]

Life is eternal warfare.

[This perfectly describes the War on Terror.]

Contempt for the weak.

[Think both of conservatives' characterization of liberals as "weak spined," as well as the verbal attacks on Muslims and immigrants from the likes of Limbaugh and Michael Savage.]

Against 'rotten' parliamentary governments.

[Remember all those rants against 'big government'?]

Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

[Perhaps the most noticeable trait in the current environment. The destruction of meaning by creating "empty phrases" combining opposite ideas has, as we have seen, become a prominent strategy deployed by the conservative movement.]

Now, I know a quick reading -- the kind Limbaugh prefers, prone to miscomprehension and mischaracterization -- might suggest otherwise, but this demonstration isn’t really an attempt to argue 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. But therein lies the problem: Eco’s essay is useful, but not authoritative by any means, in no small part because 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. The truth is, a deep conservative might fit Eco’s description and still he might not be a fascist.

What this exercise reveals is not so much that Limbaugh is a fascist, but rather, that he is making a career out of transmitting the themes and memes upon which fascism feeds to a mainstream conservative audience. After all, in its developmental phase, fascism in many ways comprises relatively mundane ideas and behaviors, which isolated seem unremarkable enough, but which in combination are both potent and lethal.

In turning to history for guidance, it’s important not to confuse fascism as a movement with fascism as a power. 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.

Fascism as we will see springs from very ancient sources; its antecedents have appeared throughout history. 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.

Next: The Core of Fascism

Some are more equal than others

Where have we seen this schtick before?

Katherine Harris Booed at Town Hall

The crowd's mood already was testy before the meeting began. Security guards and Harris' staff confiscated literature handed out by opponents that included the drug plan's details and a chart of Harris' voting record since she began her term in January.

The fliers were distributed during an earlier news conference staged in the parking lot by senior citizens to protest the Medicare bills.

"This is wrong," said Tony Fransetta, president of the Florida chapter of AARP, as he was asked to hand over fliers.

"We have never been restricted in what we could hand out at other town meetings," Fransetta said. "We have talking points that simply list questions that would help people better understand and articulate their concerns. They have been denied that right."

Connie M. McKee, a Harris staffer, said Congressional ethics rules made it illegal for people to distribute political information during a town hall meeting.

"All of the material is still here, and they can pick it up when they leave," McKee said. "They just can't take it into the hall. The ethics laws do not allow us to let them take it in. We have to be very, very careful that there are no laws broken."

But Harris distributed her literature to attendees. One flyer detailed how Bush's economic plans are restoring confidence and creating growth through fiscal discipline. Another highlighted the many benefits of Medicare reforms passed in June.

Wonder if Harris will be turning herself in for breaking these supposed laws herself? Oh, wait, I forgot -- it doesn't count if you're a Republican!

Sometimes you have to ask yourself just how dumb Republicans think the rest of us really are. Does Harris really expect us to believe that fliers are prohibited from town meetings? That this wasn't just a hastily concocted excuse not to have to deal with hard facts and a group of righteously angered senior citizens?

You know, I got a kick out of watching this game when Calvin played it. But I lost my taste for it during the 2000 Florida Debacle.

[A tip o' the Hatlo Hat to Maia Cowan over at Salon's Table Talk.]

What I hate

When my links are bloggered. Argh.

Those compassionate conservatives again

John Cole at Balloon Juice has revived a popular GOP meme that demonstrates, once again, the moral vacuity at the core of the conservative movement:
When not comparing the GOP to the Confederacy or making references to the Taliban, the NAACP has written, financed, and aired such charming 'non-partisan' commercials such as the following doozy equating President Bush's (then Governor Bush) actions to the brutal murder of an African-American:

I’m Renee Mullins, James Byrd’s daughter. On June 7, 1998 in Texas my father was killed. He was beaten, chained, and then dragged 3 miles to his death, all because he was black.

So when Governor George W. Bush refused to support hate-crime legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again.

Call Governor George W. Bush and tell him to support hate-crime legislation.

We won’t be dragged away from our future.

- "Byrd Vote-TV," 30 sec. TV spot run in AR, GA, IL, KY, MI, MO, NJ, OH, PA and WI starting Oct. 25, 2000.

Let's review the facts of the case:

The hate-crimes debate in 1999, inspired in part by James Byrd's horrifying murder, included yet another effort to pass an effective law in Texas. The key player: George W. Bush.

Texas already had a hate-crimes law, passed in 1993 -- which was in fact the source of the problem. Passed amid a rancorous debate over the inclusion of sexual orientation as a bias category, it was watered down so that law defined a hate crime by referring to the selection of victims "because of the defendant’s bias or prejudice against a person or group." This language was so vague as to render the law constitutionally unsound and virtually worthless; a similar Utah statute was thrown out in 1999 by a state judge who called the law "incomplete" and "unenforceable." Consequently, Texas prosecutors rarely used the law -- and indeed, the number of cases pursued under the law in the ensuing years numbered exactly two.

Bush, however, had already made clear where he stood: "I've always said all crime is hate crime," he told a March 1999 news conference. "People, when they commit a crime, have hate in their heart. And it's hard to distinguish between one degree of hate and another."

But the governor was on the verge of launching his ultimately successful campaign to capture the presidency, and he had already made clear he intended to present to the voters a vision of "compassionate conservatism" -- a platform that suggested some moderation on social issues. At the same time, any bill approved in Texas that would grant hate-crimes expansion to include gay-bashing, or might otherwise grant "special rights" to gays, was certain to attract the wrath of the Christian right, who comprised one of the Republicans' chief national constituencies.

So when State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston introduced a bill in the 1999 Texas Legislature to replace the state's weak hate-crimes law, Bush chose to take, officially, no position on its passage. Indeed, when it passed the House 83-61, Bush said he would consider the bill if the Senate passed it. Then, quietly, his office went to work to kill it.

The bill faced difficulties anyway; Texas legislative rules severely limit the length of time bills are allowed to linger between houses, and Senate Republicans promptly set about sidetracking the measure in the Criminal Justice Committee, where it remained. Supporters then turned to their trump card: James Byrd's family, who came to Austin in May to lobby Bush for his support.

Byrd's 29-year-old daughter, Renee Mullins, met with Bush on May 6 in his office. Accompanying her were a cousin, Darrell Verrett; state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston; and a gay rights lobbyist.

Mullins later described the meeting to Salon's Jake Tapper: "I went in there pleading to him. I said that if he helped me move it along I would feel that he hadn't died in vain ... [Rep.] Thompson said, 'Gov. Bush, what Renee's trying to say is, Would you help her pass the bill?' And he said, 'No.' Just like that.

"He had a nonchalant attitude, like he wanted to hurry up and get out of there. It was cold in that room."

Of course, the issue returned during Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, partly because Al Gore raised it in their second debate:
GORE: And as for singling people out because of race, you know, James Byrd was singled out because of his race in Texas. And other Americans have been singled out because of their race or ethnicity. And that's why I think we can embody our values by passing a hate crimes law. I think these crimes are different. I think they're different because they're based on prejudice and hatred, which gives rise to crimes that have not just a single victim, but they're intended to stigmatize and dehumanize a whole group of people.

MODERATOR [to Bush]: You have a different view of that.

BUSH: No, I don't, really.

MODERATOR: On hate crimes laws?

BUSH: No, I don’t, really, on hate crimes laws. No, we’ve got one in Texas. And guess what? The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what’s going to happen to them? They’re going to be put to death. A jury found them guilty. And I -- it’s going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death. And it’s the right cause, so it’s the right decision.

... Well, what the vice president must not understand is we've got hate crimes bill in Texas. And secondly, the people that murdered Mr. Byrd got the ultimate punishment.

... But let me say to you, Mr. Vice President, we're happy with our laws on our books. That bill did -- there was another bill that did die in committee. But I want to repeat; if you have a state that fully, you know, supports the law, like we do in Texas, we're going to go after all crime, and we're going to make sure people get punished for the crime. And in this case, we can't enhance the penalty any more than putting those three thugs to death, and that's what's going to happen in the state of Texas.

A brief flap erupted in the press because Bush had clearly misstated the outcome of the Byrd murder trials -- only two of the three men had been sentenced to death. Several commentators also noted Bush's apparent glee in talking about the death sentences; a member of the audience, in fact, asked Bush about this in the subsequent debate on Oct. 17. And it was clear that Bush had misrepresented the debate in Texas and the state of hate-crimes laws there, adhering all the while to his "all crimes are hate crimes" mantra.

But the Gore campaign focused on the factual mistake -- for which Bush campaign officials issued a printed correction the night of the debate, with Bush adding at a post-debate press conference, "Listen, we all make mistakes" -- particularly since, as constitutional lawyer Lawrence Tribe pointed out, Bush's remarks suggested a prejudice in a case for which he was still responsible for deciding any pending death-sentence appeals. However, the issue gained little traction in the press, which had shown a marked preference for focusing during the campaign on Gore's alleged misstatements instead. Indeed, the conventional wisdom was that Bush, not Gore, had won the debate.

James Byrd's family was outraged but not surprised. Renee Mullins in particular was angry about Bush's performance, saying: "It was just another way of him misleading the public. He didn't have the statistics right."

The NAACP, which had supported the Byrd family's efforts in Texas, made a national campaign issue out of Bush's handling of hate-crimes laws, with the family in a starring role. It prepared a series of television, radio and newspaper ads questioning the governor's commitment to racial justice, featuring Renee Mullins saying: "I went to Governor George W. Bush and begged him to help pass a Hate Crimes Bill in Texas. He just told me no."

The Bush camp responded testily: "Throughout the process, Governor Bush has treated the Byrd family with a great deal of respect," spokesman Ray Sullivan said. "He spoke to them prior to Mr. Byrd's funeral. He gave 45 minutes of his time to meet with Miss Mullins. The governor's office helped to fund the prosecution of Mr. Byrd's killers."

But in truth, no one in the Byrd family could recall Bush phoning the family -- and in fact, he had stayed away from the funeral by suggesting that the atmosphere was too "politically charged," even though other top state Republicans (including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) had shown up. Nor was the contribution from the governor's office to the prosecution anything out of the ordinary -- $100,000, or about an eighth of the actual costs (the federal government, in contrast, contributed about $250,000).

Reality notwithstanding, Republicans in short order turned the NAACP's attack ads into a liability for Democrats, accusing the civil-rights group of "reprehensible" behavior for linking Bush to the Byrd killing. By the time the election rolled around in early November, it had become conventional wisdom in the press that the ads "implied that George W. Bush killed James Byrd." Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter featured the meme in her later book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, suggesting that Bush's support for the penalty should have mollified his critics, but instead, "they would not rest until the killers were found guilty of 'hate' and forced to attend anger-management classes.”

Cole, in his recent post, adds this, commenting on Renee Mullins' remarks:
Charming, hunh? Bush did sign Hate Crimes legislation, it should be noted- just not the bill the NAACP wanted.

The legislation he's referring to was a 1997 bill that attempted to tweak the 1993 law without altering its basic, unconstitutionally vague language. It was widely recognized as having even less impact than the '93 law.

The reality is that Texas conservatives, including George W. Bush, did their utmost to prevent an effective hate-crimes law for their state for most of the 1990s. (Freed of Bush's restraints, Texas finally passed, in 2001, a viable hate-crimes law.) The message this inevitably sent to the victims and their families of hate crimes was one of callousness, telling them, in essence, that their pain was insignificant.

This, of course, is what Mullins meant when she said that Bush's refusal was like having her father killed all over again. When Bush said 'No,' he was telling Mullins that Byrd's horrifying murder, and the pain he suffered, were for naught. Any good that the family might have been trying to create from the horror was wiped away.

Of course, Republicans have a hard time understanding this. Greed, selfishness and political Machiavellianism have a way of wiping the concept of genuine compassion.

But it's always fun to twist the words of a suffering family into an attack on liberals, isn't it?

Friday, August 08, 2003

Flyboy Bush to the rescue!

Yes, you too, kids, can get your own "Elite Force Aviator: George W. Bush -- U.S. President and Naval Aviator" action figure! Be the first on your voting bloc!

Coming soon: The AWOL version. Comes complete with full set of civvies, straw and mirror, and map of Chihuahua.

[Thanks to Rob Garver for the heads-up.]

[Update: Billmon has a nice pic of the AWOL version.]

Rush, Newspeak and Fascism

[Note: Yes, it's true, I'm rerunning the final version of my essay, which is available of course also as a PDF. See the post below for more details.]

I: Projecting Fascism

Rush Limbaugh likes to call himself "the most dangerous man in America." He offers this epithet tongue in cheek on his radio program, but the truth is, he isn’t kidding.

Over the decade and more that Limbaugh has ruled America’s talk-radio landscape, it has become inescapably clear that he is, if nothing else, certainly the most dangerous demagogue in America, maybe in history.

In terms of his breadth of reach as a political propagandist, he has no real parallel in American history. The closest might be the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, known to his radio audience of the 1920s and ‘30s as "Father Coughlin." Coughlin started out as an anti-communist firebrand, and by 1930, his weekly broadcasts reached an audience estimated at 45 million. (Limbaugh claims a weekly audience of 20 million.) He was a major supporter of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, but turned on FDR shortly afterward and became a severe critic of the administration through most of its tenure.

Coughlin, who was attracted to the Jewish conspiracy theories promulgated by Henry Ford’s 1932 anti-Semitic tome, The International Jew, became increasingly extremist in his tone and delivery, accusing FDR of being a tool of the evil cabal that secretly ran the world. He was a significant spokesman for the "America First" movement, which advocated American non-involvement in the growing strife in Europe and Asia. And he was an inspiration for a whole generation of anti-Semites who went on to found such movements as Christian Identity and Posse Comitatus.

Limbaugh, in contrast, has always carefully eschewed conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. Through most of the first decade of his radio career, his primary schtick has been to rail against the government and its supposed takeover of our daily lives. This anti-government propaganda has served one main purpose: To drive a wedge between middle- and lower-class workers and the one entity that has the real (if sometimes abused or neglected) capability to protect them from the ravages of wealthy class warriors and swarms of corporate wolves.

Limbaugh likes to bill himself as an "entertainer," but he is more accurately understood as a propagandist. He shows no interest in actually furthering the public debate: opposing views are rarely if ever invited onto his show, and when they are they invariably receive the kind of ham-handed mistreatment that has become common on Limbaugh’s television counterpart, Bill O’Reilly’s Fox talk show.

And there can be little doubt as to the effectiveness of Limbaugh’s propaganda: In the intervening years, it has become an object of faith, particularly in rural America where Limbaugh’s broadcasts can often be heard multiple times throughout the day, that the government is in itself evil, a corrupt entity, something to be distrusted and feared, and certainly incapable of actually solving problems.

Now that the president he supported -- George W. Bush -- is running the show, however, Limbaugh’s anti-government bent has faded quickly and quietly to the background. After all, being anti-government seems practically anti-Republican these days, considering the GOP owns all three branches of government and virtually controls the Fourth Estate as well.

Mind you, in Limbaughland, there are still "evil" people in government -- but they’re all liberals. Indeed, the demonization of all things liberal has always been a component of Limbaugh’s routine. But now it has become his focus. And it is in that shift, taking place in a context of rising extremism, that he has become openly divisive, and truly dangerous.

Limbaugh has in recent months been one of the national leaders in the right-wing campaign to characterize opposition to President Bush's questionable policies as "anti-American," a campaign that is closely associated with broader conservative attacks on the underlying ideals of multiculturalism. But Limbaugh has taken the rhetoric another step by associating liberals with Nazis and other fascist regimes.

Consider, for instance, this essay, which appeared on Limbaugh’s Web site on April 17, 2003:
Little Dick Promises Fascism If Elected

Congressman Dick Gephardt (D-MO), a Democratic presidential candidate, wants to repeal President Bush's income tax cuts under the guise of helping employers provide health insurance to workers. Yes, if employers agree to pay 60% to 65% of health care costs, Big Brother will steal some money out of those employees' paychecks and give it to the company. Dickonomics sees the government funding and controlling private businesses!

That's fascism -- a term thrown around by people who don't have the intellectual chops to defend their ideas, but Gephardt's plan has features of that discredited ideology. Merriam-Webster: "Fas•cism: A political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition." [Italics added.]

This is a classic case of Newspeak -- diminishing the range of thought (it's telling that Limbaugh originally filed this under "Making the Complex Understandable") by nullifying the meaning of words. Democracy, according to Limbaugh, is fascism.

In fact, even as he ironically sneers at "people who don't have the intellectual chops to defend their ideas," he resorts to the notoriously inadequate dictionary definition of fascism in order to stand the meaning of the word on its head.

Observe how Limbaugh abuses the definition he gives here by only emphasizing a couple of its aspects (centralized government and economic regimentation -- neither of which are actually applicable here, no more so than they would be to a hundred thousand other government programs) and utterly ignoring those aspects of it that clearly are not present in Gephardt's proposal (exalting nation and often race above the individual, forcible suppression of the opposition -- traits which, in fact, are often present in Limbaugh's own diatribes).

Any serious consideration of Limbaugh's accusations of incipient fascism on the part of Gephardt will recognize that at the core of his argument is the suggestion that the current American bureaucracy itself, and indeed the bulk of Western civilization, particularly in its ability to tax and redistribute income, is "fascist" -- a claim that any reasonable person can see as plainly false.

Moreover, Limbaugh's "intellectual chops" notwithstanding, the many shortcomings of the ridiculously vague Merriam-Webster definition become self-evident when contrasted with a scholarly approach, as we shall see. Utterly lacking from the definitions are the definitive aspects of fascism as described by serious political scholars: its populism, particularly its claim to represent the "true character" of the respective national identities among which it arises; and its mythic core of national rebirth -- not to mention its corporatist component, its anti-liberalism, its glorification of violence and its contempt for weakness.

There is nothing in Gephardt's plan that even remotely suggests such behavior -- it is in fact clearly far removed from genuine fascism, especially if it were to live up to Limbaugh's rather absurd claims that it would ultimately lead to a wholesale government takeover of corporations, which is in any event a communist and not a fascist behavior (fascism, as we will see, has a clear component of open corporatism).

Rather, if we were to look for these well-established earmarks of fascism, we would find them in Limbaugh's essay and numerous other of his outpourings. Limbaugh, indeed, constantly claims to be the voice of "real Americans" and regularly calls for a rebirth of the "American spirit" to be achieved by the destruction of all things liberal.

In any event, this is not the first time Limbaugh has misused the term. One of his most famous epithets is "feminazi," which juxtaposes liberal feminism with Nazism. He has referred at various times to "liberal compassion fascists," and on other occasions has explained to his national audience that Nazis in fact were "socialists." This is, of course, the kind of twisting of terminology that is the essence of Newspeak.

Limbaugh’s rhetoric, in fact, is almost a model of how Newspeak works: It renders language meaningless by positing a meaning of a word that is in fact its near or precise opposite.

Conservatives, led by Limbaugh’s blazing example, in the past decade have become masters of Newspeak, the Orwellian twisting of language that not only propagandizes but actually distorts reality. As a character in 1984 puts it:
"You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right … But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party."

Another character explains its long-term purpose:
"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."

Newspeak permeates the political environment right now. The core agenda of the Bush administration, mouthed by a hundred talking heads on cable TV, is now neatly summed up by two of the core truisms of Newspeak:
"War is peace." [The purpose of the Iraq war, and the War on Terror generally, is to ensure peace and security at home, we are told.]

"Ignorance is strength." [Consider the way Bush’s fumbled syntax and express anti-intellectualism is integral to his crafted image of homespun integrity.]

Newspeak serves two functions:
-- It deflates the opposition by nullifying its defining issues, and throws the nominal logic of the public debate into disarray.

-- It provides rhetorical and ontological cover for its speakers’ own activities and agenda.

Consider, for instance, Limbaugh’s evidently groundless claims that Gephardt’s proposal calls for forcible oppression of the opposition. Contrast that with one of the more recent on-air outbursts by Limbaugh:
"Tim Robbins, who thinks he can say any thing at any time . . . I have a question: How is it that Tim Robbins is still walking free? How in the world is this guy still able to go to the National Press Club and say whatever he wants to say?"

By carefully observing the machinations of the current spate of Newspeak emanating from transmitters like Limbaugh, however, it's possible to get a clear view of the movement's underlying agenda. This is possible when the meaning of Limbaugh's obfuscations are placed in their psychological context, because they constitute a fairly clear case of projection.

Indeed, one of the lessons I've gleaned from carefully observing the behavior of the American right over the years is that the best indicator of its agenda can be found in the very things of which it accuses the left.

This is known as "projection." One of the first to observe this propensity on the right was Richard Hofstadter, whose 1964 work The Paranoid Style in American Politics remains an important contribution to the field of analyzing right-wing politics:
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through "front" groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist "crusades" openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

Self-proclaimed anti-authoritarians such as Limbaugh thus adopt the language and style of authoritarians themselves, and engage in Newspeak-laden propaganda whose sole purpose is to appeal to persons with totalist propensities. The anti-Gephardt essay is a classic example.

Remember how during the Florida fiasco the GOP and its many talking heads regularly accused Al Gore of attempting to steal the election through court fiat? Remember how such moral paragons as Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dan Burton and Bob Livingston (not to mention John Fund and Andrew Sullivan) roared in outrage over Bill Clinton’s supposed amorality? The list could go on almost indefinitely.

When the right accuses liberals of "fascism," it almost always does so in an effort to obscure its own fascist proclivities -- and it reminds the rest of us just whose footsoldiers are in reality merrily goosestepping down the national garden path.

Next: Understanding fascism

Experiment results

I'd like to thank everyone who has contributed to my little cause by donating in exchange for the "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism" PDF. It's been an interesting experiment in Web pamphleteering.

I wound up with some 150 donations, compared to a guesstimated 4,000 downloads of the PDF. However, the broadband costs so far have not been a problem. The donations I did receive have gone toward underwriting work on my current book, Death on the Fourth of July.

I've been most impressed by the generosity of the donors. Well over half the donations were in excess of the $5 suggested. In any event, I'm humbled by the lengths to which many people went to support a journalist they probably only marginally know. I'm hoping eventually to reward your faith by producing work that makes a real difference.

I'm also extremely grateful to the many bloggers who regularly sent their readers my way in pursuit of the essay. This includes, as always, Atrios, Avedon Carol, Ginger Mayerson, Hellblazer, Kynn Bartlett, Frog n Blog, Zizka, Gil Smart, Peking Duck, Hegemoney, and of course Stonerwitch, who made the PDF for me. (Apologies to anyone I accidentally omitted -- there were many of you, and it was tough to keep track.)

I'm going to be publishing "Rush" for the next 15 days here on the blog, mostly as a way of getting the edited and revised version online in HTML. It'll be a way of keeping the blog active while I finish up the book, which is due to the publisher Sept. 1. Aaaiiieeee!!

I hope those who weren't able to download the PDF enjoy the completed version of "Rush." And of course, I'll keep the tin cup out for those who feel like tossing a nickel or two my way. Independent journalism lives.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

How Republicans empower extremists

I have argued at length in "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism" that extremists are increasingly taking up the rightward flank of mainstream conservatism. Alliances that 10 years ago might have been unthinkable between the GOP and the far right have been forming at a rapid rate in recent years.

One of the chief dangers of this, of course, is the rightward gravitational pull this exerts on the mainstream, dragging more and more conservatives into radical positions. The other, and perhaps more serious, problem is the way it enfranchises extremists, giving them real power in the political structure they might not have otherwise -- and, rather than mitigating their extremism, encouraging it.

Recent news from Washington has given us an up-close look at this phenomenon in action:
Northwest groups seek data on Rove's role in water policy

Environmental and commercial fishing groups asked the White House yesterday to explain the role President Bush's top political aide played in developing water policy in the Northwest.

The request followed the disclosure that White House political adviser Karl Rove briefed dozens of political appointees at the Interior Department a year and a half ago about diverting water in the Klamath River in Oregon to help nearby farms.

Republican leaders in the area wanted to help the farmers, a key constituency.

The Interior Department increased the water supply to drought-stricken farmland several months later despite environmentalists' complaint that diverting water from the river would kill threatened coho salmon.

What the story neglects to mention, of course, is that the policy that Rove appears to have "persuaded" (read: ordered) the Interior appointees to carry out resulted in the deaths of 33,000 salmon on the Klamath, one of the worst fish kills in the history of the Pacific Coast.

Perhaps even more significant, these same officials may well have violated the law in carrying out Rove's directives (from Oct. 27, 2002):

Federal biologist alleges law broken in Klamath fish kill

The federal biologist who led the scientific review of splitting water between farmers and fish in the Klamath Basin, site of a massive salmon kill, is seeking whistle-blower protection, claiming his team was overruled in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

In a formal disclosure to be filed Monday with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Michael S. Kelly alleges his team's recommendations were rejected twice, under "political pressure," as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation imposed lower water levels than were scientifically justified as part of a 10-year water management plan.

Of course, the ever-timid Office of Special Counsel blew off the allegations, hiding behind the cover of the Bush administration's own report saying the cause of the fish kill couldn't be determined.

Why this isn't a scandal of at least modest proportions is beyond me. Certainly the biologist's accusations deserve a fresh hearing.

What is even more likely to fly under the radar, however, is the connection between right-wing extremists and mainstream conservatives in this case. Because the most strident voices agitating for the water policy ultimately adopted by Interior belonged to the Patriot movement and its cohorts. Indeed, it was apparent from the start that the Klamath issue was being exploited by the Patriots, and it continues to be so.

Consider, for example, this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report:

Conflict in Klamath: A battle over irrigation rights in Oregon becomes, for a time, the latest flash point for antigovernment activists

More than anything, though, the Klamath Falls protests fed the flames of far-right, antigovernment fervor. Militia activists, cursing the "U.S. Gestapo" in E-mails, volunteered to "fire the first shot at the feds." One poster on the hard-line Michigan Militia Corps Wolverine’s E-list wrote, "I know good and well that there are those of you who have access to airplanes and explosives. Common sense tells me that a nice little package dropped from the sky onto the gates that hold back the water will undoubtedly open the gates and let the water flow."

One man was arrested at the head gates for failing to appear in court to face illegal firearms charges; he claimed to be a "constitutional counselor" involved in "treason" charges brought in a pseudo-legal "common-law court" against Oregon public officials. In August, alerted by a series of Internet postings, convoys of antigovernment protesters made their way through Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, California and Oregon and converged on Klamath Falls for a large "Freedom Day" protest.

Of course, as one might expect, this fish kill did little to help the handful of farmers it was meant to protect. Many of them are now anxious to trade their land back to the government. But in the meantime, the real bread-and-butter jobs in the Klamath -- the salmon fishing industry, providing some 4,000 family-wage jobs and $80 million a year to the region -- were severely trashed. Many of those businesses went belly-up along with the fish.

Of course, the Patriots and their mainstream cohorts now strenuously deny that the water plan killed the fish -- claims that, as usual, have been thoroughly debunked.

The recent revelations of involvement in this policy decision from the very upper echelons of the Bush administration, and the clear evidence that the choice was based on politics, not "sound science," are of course the most significant short-term issues related to this case.

But in the long term, Americans need to ask what the White House is doing by capitulating wholly to right-wing extremists who clearly did not represent the larger interests of working people in the Klamath Basin. And by capitulating to them, giving them real power.

Coulter vs. Moore

Carl Lewis writes in from Down Under, responding to the "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism" essay:
I live in Sydney, Australia, but of course we need to understand what the U.S. is up to like everyone else on the planet. The similarity of current U.S. regime and society to fascism always seems to come up but I had not read a decent exploration of this till now. I don't know all the historical theory which you go through, which made it hard to judge. I definitely started to worry when I saw a speech by Mr. Bush prior to the war to sailors at the USS Philippine Sea, which came off as a bit "Nuremburg Rally" style for my tastes.

No doubt you know (although it is not mentioned in the essay) that some conservatives have distanced themselves from Ann Coulter, including Andrew Sullivan, and there have been some negative comments in papers.

Anne Applebaum [in the Washington Post] writes:

As I say, it's easy to explain why this book [Coulter's Treason] is bad. What is much, much harder to explain is why so many people think this book is good, or at least why so many people are buying it.

I really wanted to know this too! Unfortunately Applebaum then wanders off the question and in the end seems to put it down to:

The real question, then, is not what makes so many people buy books by Ann Coulter, but what makes so many people lap up the Coulter-Bruce-Moore formula. Perhaps it's a longing for clarity, a reflection of the deep human need to find a straight path through the modern jungle of information. Perhaps it's laziness.

The "Coulter is the opposite of Mike Moore" meme (which Sullivan also mentions) seems to have some traction but personally I find it a bit limp in terms of explanatory power. The great thing about your essay it that it eschews this simplistic ideological interpretation and instead puts things into a framework that makes sense, and does go some way to explaining her popularity. There probably are some things to be learned from a Coulter/Moore comparison, apart from the obvious one of their preference for self-promotion over fact-checking, but I have yet to hear someone make the case.

I was asked about the Coulter/Moore comparison during the WNUR interview. It is, frankly, part of the kind of easy symmetry that conservatives love -- to wit, for every right-wing extremist, there's a left-wing one doing the same thing.

Of course, most of these analogies blithely overlook such things as volume, breadth, reach and influence of the respective extremists, not to mention the violence quotient. And in the Coulter/Moore case, there are even more significant differences.

Moore is not an extremist. He has never defended, for example, famous Communists or left-wing radicals. He has not evinced a sympathy for Ted Kaczynski, nor suggested he should have bombed the Washington Times. He has never transmitted extreme-left ideas, nor has he intimitated any sympathy for them. Coulter, conversely, is an extremist who is now attempting to rehabilitate Joe McCarthy's reputation, and who has repeatedly indicated sympathy for violent right-wing radicals.

Moreover, Moore makes errors -- about four or five a book, but sometimes serious enough to undermine his credibility. Coulter, at the same time, seems incapable of publishing a single paragraph without lying or committing an egregious (and after awhile, transparently intentional) factual error. That she enjoys any credibility whatsoever -- let alone is invited to appear on national TV with great regularity -- is evidence of the failure of nearly anyone in the media to concern themselves with such things as truthful reporting.

Michael Moore is a mainstream left-winger whose attention to factual detail is weak. Ann Coulter is a right-wing extremist who lies and commits factual errors at an astonishing rate.

Where, exactly, is the analogy in that?

Catholic extremism

Some notes from Hutton Gibson's address to the Barnes Review Holocaust-denial conference.

Gibson makes clear in this address that he believes the Catholic Church itself is the "foundation of Western civilization" and that its "destruction" is entirely for the purposes of bringing civilization under the control of unnamed "others," though it is clear he is referencing Jews. (Much of the rest of the Barnes Review conference was specifically devoted to attacking Jews.)

According to Gibson, the Catholic Church, because of Pope John XXIII (who had a "background in Freemasonry" and was "the first anti-Pope") and the "heresies" of Vatican II, has "fallen into utter depravity." All subsequent popes, he says, have in fact been "anti-Popes."

"For whose benefit?" he wonders. And then answers: "The New World Order," of course.

"Most Catholics today do not realize they have been robbed." And who has robbed them? The "international bankers" who have "subjected us to the usury which our Church formerly condemned."

Gibson adds that "our entire national monetary system is based upon a palpable fraud, and an unconstitutional one."

Echoing his previous note, he propounds: "Most Americans today do not realize they have been robbed." Again, it is those same evil "others" who have conspired to rob us, and for the same purposes.

The current Pope, he says, is "an absolute apostate heretic" who he claims does not even belong to the Church.

These beliefs do not merely fall into the category of so-called "Traditionalist Catholics" who object to Vatican II. This is extraordinary extremism, fully in line with the excommunicated Society of St. Piux X -- and in fact, is even more radical.

Is this the kind of "Catholicism" that inspired The Passion?

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Creeping Fascist Memes Dept., Item #467

Some stories are almost too weird for comment:

Bank apologizes for citing Hitler

"Hitler's economic policies cannot be divorced from his great policies of virulent anti-Semitism, racism and genocide," Hirschhaut wrote in a letter to the bank. "There are really no circumstances under which Hitler should be held as a good model."

In the 1,500-word newsletter, Raub talks of how Hitler was the only major leader during the 1930s who successfully resuscitated his country's economy when others such as President Franklin Roosevelt could not, and "led German workers to work harder than anyone else in Europe."

"The Great Depression of the 1930's saw falling prices, staggering unemployment and shattered stock markets all over the world, and the world's leading statesmen seemed helpless to defeat it. Except for one," the newsletter reads.

"His name was Adolph Hitler. Unlike France and Britain, and unlike the United States, Germany spent most of the 1930's growing economically, not declining. If we can understand why Depression-era Germany resisted the disease, we may better understand how alarmed we should be today in the 21st century."

Raub said Hitler avoided deflation unlike other European nations and reduced unemployment.

The story neglects to mention the measures under which Hitler managed to bolster his economy -- primarily, generating a huge war machine that then devastated most of Europe.

Details, details.

[Many thanks to Skimble for the heads-up.]

Wrapped in the flag

Reader Neil Klopfenstein writes:
I've been reading through your very interesting essay on Fascism. When I came to the part where you quote the Paxton essay on fascists being "decked out in the patriotic emblems of their own countries," I was chillingly reminded of a post I read on that hinted at a lot of the signs of impending fascism about which you write.

The public display of patriotism test


"Those who feel "threatened" or "oppressed" by "simple minded and vulgar" displays of real American patriotism are America haters. People who feel that way are against the very concept of America and American liberty. Most activist Democrats are in this group and they have a positively "vampire-to-garlic reaction" concerning PDP's [public displays of patriotism]."

Although this is rather striking in its attempt to co-opt popular national symbols as specifically anti-liberal, and in its implicit connotation of violence (vampire analogy), the comments below the post provide a clearer window into the minds of nascent fascists:

"One of the reasons why I display the flag is becuase I live in a very liberal area. My choice to engage in PDP's makes me feel morally superior to my neighbors who don't engage in them. I also take a sort of sadistic pleasure in displaying my flag, knowing that so many of my neighbors will be offended by it." -- 'Joe Schmoe'

Obviously, it is not love of country that motivates this man.

I don't know about anyone else, but it isn't spontaneous displays of patriotism that bother me. I'm bothered by behavior that treats war like a sport, patriotism like a pep rally, and reasonable skepticism like treason.

That isn't patriotism. It's jingoism.

And another thing: I was raised as a Boy Scout, and I had drilled into me all the rules required for respectful treatment of the flag. And I have never believed that attaching a flag to my car, except perhaps in a parade, comes close to meeting those standards.

Half of the time, when I see one of those tattered rags hanging from someone's antenna or off the back of their pickup, I want to take it down and give it a proper burial.

But then, I'd probably be accused of being unpatriotic.

Radio, radio

For anyone interested, I recently sat for a phone interview with Chuck Mertz, whose weekly radio program "This Is Hell" is heard on Chicago's WNUR-FM 89.3.

The topic: "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism."

Click here for the show's archives. I was interviewed July 5. [I couldn't get the "The middle of the show" clip to download properly; but if you download the "That day's complete broadcast" clip you can find me; I'm at about the 1:27 mark.

The simple life

Gil Smart expands on my recent post about the proliferation of fascist memes in the Bush youth corps:
A complexity complex

This reminded me of something I'd read in the Wilson Quarterly this month, a bit about former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It spoke to Moynihan's semi-famous quote that "The biggest thing that will undo this society, it its inability to deal with complexity."

I don't think I've ever read anything more apropos to this particular moment in time.

There's more; Gil is a very, eh, smart guy, and as usual, he's on the money.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Sins of the fathers

[Hutton Gibson, left, with Frederick Toben, director of the Holocaust-denial Adelaide Institute, based in Australia.]

A little more about Hutton Gibson, Mel's father ...

Turns out that Hutton was one of the featured speakers this past June at the annual conference of The Barnes Review, one of the leading Holocaust-denial publications. (Note their prominent blurb for David Duke's new book, Jewish Supremacism, as well.)

You can click here to listen to his speech, which was about "Declining influence of Roman Catholicism".

The Barnes Review, for those interested, is operated by the renowned anti-Semite Willis Carto, who used to run a conspiracist publication called The Spotlight. Carto was one of the co-founders of the similarly revisionist Institute for Historical Review, though they have feuded loudly since 1993, mostly as a matter of turf.

Besides Carto and Gibson, the conference featured such other renowned anti-Semites as Eustace Mullins, Frederick Toben and Russ Granata; and various other far-right figures, including Edgar Steele, the Aryan Nations' favorite attorney.

Toben is particularly noteworthy, because he and Gibson appear to have had a long relationship. Here is the Adelaide Institute's home page, which features large pictures of both Gibsons (including the one above).

Toben, 56, was born in Germany but left when he was 10 for Australia. He made headlines a couple of years ago for his conviction in Germany for violating that nation's anti-Nazi-propaganda laws. He served seven months of a 10-month sentence. (Here is another news account of that case.)

What does this have to do with Mel Gibson? Are sons responsible for their fathers' views?

No. But Mel Gibson, OTOH, has made plain (as in the Playboy interview I excerpted in my previous post) that Hutton Gibson was an important influence in his beliefs, and he remains so. Moreover, Mel Gibson has never at any time actually distanced himself from his father's beliefs nor repudiated them.

What he has said is this, in attacking the scholars and others who questioned the underpinnings of his forthcoming Christ-crucifixion film, The Passion:
"Neither I nor my film are anti-Semitic. Nor do I hate anyone, certainly not the Jews. They are my friends and associates, both in my work and my social life. Anti-semitism is not only contrary to my personal beliefs, it is also contrary to the core message of my movie."

But one of the core messages of the film, from all indications, is that "the Jews killed Jesus". This includes notably a panel of scholars who reviewed his shooting script and concluded that it not only clearly revives the hoary anti-Semitism of medieval Passion plays, but contrary to its defenders, it deviates from the text of the Scripture in numerous regards.

"Viewers without extensive knowledge of Catholic teaching about interpreting the New Testament will surely leave the theatre with the overriding impression that the bloodthirsty, vengeful and money-hungry Jews had an implacable hatred of Jesus," the scholars reported. They pointed to a number of scenes that are inconsistent with scriptural accounts, including one that shows Jews ordering the cross built in the temple at the direction of Jewish officials. The script, according to at least one member of the group (a leading Catholic theologian) was "one of the more anti-Semitic documents most of us have seen for a long time."

Why does this matter? Well, perhaps because these kinds of beliefs were responsible for the genocide of literally thousands of Jews in Europe and elsewhere.

Consider, for instance, the First Crusade, launched in 1096. Though the primary goal was to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims, Jews were also a major target. As the armies passed through Europe on their way to the Holy Land, large numbers of Jews were challenged: "Christ-killers, embrace the Cross or die!" 12,000 Jews in the Rhine Valley alone were killed in the first Crusade, an event some writers have referred to as the "first Holocaust." (These attacks on European Jews en route continued for the next eight Crusades.) Meanwhile, when the armies reached Jerusalem in 1099 and broke through the city walls, they slaughtered every inhabitatant they could find, even newborns. Those Jews who survived the initial onslaught were forced into a central synagogue which was then set on fire. Some 6,000 people perished.

Ah, but it's only a movie, you say. Well, sure. The Birth of a Nation was also just a movie. But its release in 1915 inspired, a year later, the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and its night riders and a fresh wave of lynch-mob terror.

It's impossible to say, of course, whether The Passion could inspire a similar reaction, or would even be capable of it. The final version of the film has not yet been released, and it may be that Gibson has removed the problematic scenes and cleaned out the anti-Semitic subtexts. But judging from his defensiveness about it, and his refusal to let Jewish leaders view it, the signs are not encouraging.

Moreover, Gibson has defended the film in the context of his father's beliefs. "Whenever you take up a subject like [Christ's crucifixion] it does bring out a lot of enemies," he told Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly in January. "I'm a big boy. I can take care of myself, but when you start messing around with my 85-year-old father, watch out."

No one is trying to pick on an 85-year-old man. What they are concerned about, of course, is that this particular man is a vicious anti-Semite. He is also clearly a leading member of the far right. His age is no more relevant than Ayran Nations leader Richard Butler's.

What has been startlingly absent from Gibson's denials so far has been any kind of repudiation of his father's beliefs regarding the Jews and the Holocaust. Merely claiming that one is not anti-Semitic doesn't cut it -- because many, many Holocaust deniers likewise deny that they are anti-Semitic (just as many white supremacists deny that they hate blacks). They only want the truth, they claim -- when in reality, their entire purpose is to bury the truth.

If Gibson's film is so mainstream, so innocent, so purely Catholic and free of anti-Semitic taint, then why are some of its most vociferous defenders the Adelaide Institute and the neo-Nazi National Alliance?

Monday, August 04, 2003

Strange fruit

The lynching of Ruben Stacy, July 19, 1935, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from Without Sanctuary.

Atrios and Paul Musgrave blast away at this bizarre post at The Corner, the National Review's official blog:

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week notes, "On average, 100 African-Americans a year were lynched in the 1890s." That figure is accurate (it may actually be a little low), and it’s horrifying, but let me add two other facts. First, during this time period, the number of European-Americans lynched was about 40 per year. Second, at this rate, it would have taken 60,000 years to get to the 6 million figure that European Jewry suffered during the Third Reich. Something to keep in mind the next time you hear the American South compared to Nazi Germany.

Musgrave has researched the lynching phenomenon extensively and points out, correctly, that these kinds of comparisons are fraught with all kinds of difficulties. I probably don't have as broad a base of data as Musgrave, but I've researched the era too for my forthcoming book on hate crimes, and he is if anything too kind in assessing this nonsense:
Further, Clegg pulls a bit of a sleight-of-hand in his brief but mendacity-packed paragraph. When you put "American South" and "Nazi Germany" in the same sentence, most people would be more likely to hear "Confederate States of America" than the post-Reconstruction South. But lynchings in the modern sense--the illegal hanging often preceded by brutal torture of a black man or woman by a mob--are a post-Civil War phenomenon, part of postbellum Southern attempts to keep "Negroes" in their place. In the 1820s, as I mention in the article, lynching referred to whipping. Post-Civil War lynching was the response of a class that had lost power and was forced to violence nominally outside the law to maintain its influence. (Before the war, of course, slaveowners had legal sanction for private violence.) So what exactly is Clegg trying to say here?

In one statement, therefore, Clegg has managed to misrepresent lynchings in nearly every particular. He doesn't mention, and might not know, that by the late 1890s, more people were lynched in America than were legally executed, something that might put the "only 100" deaths a year in context.

Here's what I can tell you:

Between 1882 and 1942, according to statistics compiled by the Tuskegee Institute, there were 4,713 lynchings in the United States, of which 3,420 involved black victims. Mississippi topped the list, with 520 blacks lynched during that time period, while Georgia was a close second with 480; Texas’ 339 ranked third. And most scholars acknowledge that these numbers probably are well short of the actual total, since many lynchings (particularly in the early years of the phenomenon) were often backwoods affairs that went utterly unrecorded. In that era, it was not at all uncommon for a black man to simply disappear; sometimes his body might wash up in one of the local rivers, and sometimes not.

It is worth noting that during the years leading up to the Civil War, blacks in the South were rarely the victims of lynchings -- since they were viewed as property, it was considered an act of theft to kill someone else’s slave. There was an exception to this: Putting down slave revolts. The fear of black insurrection (and there were a handful of real slave revolts, notably Nat Turner's 1831 Virginia rebellion, in which some sixty whites were killed) was so pervasive among Southerners that any rumor that one might occur could bring swift death to the alleged conspirators, even if, as was often the case, it later turned out there were no such plans. In any event, when lynching did occur in the years before the Civil War, the victims predominantly were whites. Many of these were in the antebellum South, where lynch-mob treatment was often administered to abolitionists and other "meddlers."

If blacks' slave status largely protected them from racial violence before the Civil War, then its abolition also left them remarkably vulnerable to such assaults upon the South’s defeat. This became immediately manifest, during Reconstruction, when black freedmen were subjected to a litany of attacks at the hands of their former owners that went utterly unpunished. As documented by Philip Dray in his definitive study, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, these crimes turned up in hospital records and field reports from the federal Freedmen's Bureau, all of which described a variety of clubbings, scalpings, mutilations, hangings and even immolations of former slaves, all within the first year after Appomattox.

In 1866, the violence became discernibly more organized with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, which originated with a claque of Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, and spread like wildfire throughout the South. Initially much of the Klan night riders’ activities were relegated to whippings, a punishment intended to remind the ex-slaves of their former status. But as the assaults on blacks increased, so did the intensity of the violence visited on them, culminating in a steady stream of Klan lynchings between 1868 and 1871 (when the Klan was officially outlawed by the Grant Administration); at least one study puts the number at 20,000 blacks killed by the Klan in that period. In the ensuing years, the violence did little to decline, and in fact worsened, despite the Klan’s official banishment.

Moreover, in addition to the night-riding type of terrorist attacks, mass spectacle lynchings soon appeared. These were ritualistic mob scenes in which prisoners or even men merely suspected of crimes were often torn from the hands of authorities (if not captured beforehand) by large crowds and treated to beatings and torture before being put to death, frequently in the most horrifying fashion possible: people were flayed alive, had their eyes gouged out with corkscrews, and had their bodies mutilated before being doused in oil and burned at the stake. Black men were sometimes forced to eat their own hacked-off genitals. No atrocity was considered too horrible to visit on a black person, and no pain too unimaginable to inflict in the killing. (When whites, by contrast, were lynched, the act almost always was restricted to simple hanging.)

The violence reached a fever pitch in the years 1890-1902, when 1,322 lynchings of blacks (out of 1,785 total lynchings) were recorded at Tuskegee, which translates into an average of over 110 lynchings a year. The trend began to decline afterward, but continued well into the 1930s, leading some historians to refer to the years 1880-1930 as the "lynching period" of American culture.

There are many postcards that recorded these lynchings, because the participants were rather proud of their involvement. This is clear from the postcards themselves, which frequently showed not merely the corpse of the victim but many of the mob members, whose visages ranged from grim to grinning. Sometimes, as in the Lige Daniels case, children were intentionally given front-row views. A lynching postcard from Florida in 1935, of a migrant worker named Rubin Stacy who had allegedly "threatened and frightened a white woman," shows a cluster of young girls gathered round the tree trunk, the oldest of them about 12, with a beatific expression as she gazes on his distorted features and limp body, a few feet away.

Indeed, lynchings seemed to be cause for outright celebration in the community. Residents would dress up to come watch the proceedings, and the crowds of spectators frequently grew into the thousands. Afterwards, memento-seekers would take home parts of the corpse or the rope with which the victim was hung. Sometimes body parts -- knuckles, or genitals, or the like -- would be preserved and put on public display as a warning to would-be black criminals.

That was the purported moral purpose of these demonstrations: Not only to utterly wipe out any black person merely accused of a crimes against whites, but to do it in a fashion intended to warn off future perpetrators. This was reflected in contemporary press accounts, which described the lynchings in almost uniformly laudatory terms, with the victim’s guilt unquestioned, and the mob identified only as "determined men." Not surprisingly, local officials (especially local police forces) not only were complicit in many cases, but they acted in concert to keep the mob leaders anonymous; thousands of coroners’ reports from lynchings merely described the victims’ deaths occurring "at the hands of persons unknown." Lynchings were broadly viewed as simply a crude, but understandable and even necessary, expression of community will. This was particularly true in the South, where blacks were viewed as symbolic of the region’s continuing economic and cultural oppression by the North. As an 1899 editorial in the Newnan, Georgia, Herald and Advertiser explained it: "It would be as easy to check the rise and fall of the ocean’s tide as to stem the wrath of Southern men when the sacredness of our firesides and the virtue of our women are ruthlessly trodden under foot."

Such sexual paranoia was central to the lynching phenomenon. In the years following black emancipation -- during which time a previously tiny class of black criminals became swelled by the ranks of impoverished former slaves -- a vast mythology arose surrounding black men’s supposed voracious lust for white women, a legend for which in truth there was scant evidence, and one that stands in stark contrast to (and perhaps has its psychological roots in) the reality of white men’s longtime sexual domination of black women, particularly during the slavery era. In any event, the omnipresence of the threat of rape of white women by black men came to be almost universally believed by American whites. Likewise, conventional wisdom held that lynchings were a natural response to this threat: "The mob stands today as the most potential bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the Negro race," warned John Temple Graves, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Such views were common not merely in the South, but among Northerners as well. The New York Herald, for instance, lectured its readers: "[T]he difference between bad citizens who believe in lynch law, and good citizens who abhor lynch law, is largely in the fact that the good citizens live where their wives and daughters are perfectly safe."

The cries of rape, for many whites in both South and North, raised fears not merely of sexual violence but of racial mixing, known commonly as "miscegenation," which was specifically outlawed in some 30 states. White supremacy was not only commonplace, it was in fact the dominant worldview of Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most Caucasians believed they represented Nature’s premier creation (having been informed this by a broad range of social scientists of the period, whose views eventually coalesced into the pseudo-science known as eugenics), and that any "dilution" of those strains represented a gross violation of the natural order. Thus it was not surprising that a number of lynching incidents actually resulted from the discovery of consensual relations between a black man and a white woman.

Underlying the stated fear of black rape, moreover, was a broad fear of economic and cultural domination of white Americans by blacks and various other "outsiders," including Jews. These fears were acute in the South, where blacks became a convenient scapegoat for the mesh of poverty that lingered in the decades following the Civil War. Lynching in fact was frequently inspired not by criminality, but by any signs of economic and social advancement by blacks who, in the view of whites, had become too "uppity."

There were, of course, other components of black suppression: segregation in the schools, disenfranchisement of the black vote, and the attendant Jim Crow laws that were common throughout the South. But lynching was the linchpin in the system, because it was in effect state-supported terrorism whose stated intent was to suppress blacks and other minorities, in no small part by eliminating non-whites as competitors for economic gain. These combined to give lynching a symbolic value as a manifestation of white supremacy. The lynch mob was not merely condoned but in fact celebrated as an expression of the white community’s will to keep African-Americans in their thrall. As a phrase voiced commonly in the South expressed it, lynching was a highly effective means of "keeping the niggers down."

Thus the numbers of deaths produced by the lynching phenomenon only hint at their impact, which broadly affected literally millions of more Americans, effectively keeping them in the thrall of terror that their white neighbors might, with the least provocation, murder them horribly.

Comparing this to the Holocaust, as Clegg did, is not entirely without merit. After all, the lynching era was replete with the same kind of hateful eliminationist rhetoric that became the earmark of Nazism (see, for example, John Temple Graves' intimations about the "annihilation" of blacks). Indeed, as Robert Paxton argues in "The Five Stage of Fascism," the Ku Klux Klan was probably the prototype of the early fascist movement -- and as I've observed previously, Hitler was an admirer of the Klan and wrote once that the Nazi agenda was modeled after the Klan's (though this appeared in the context of propaganda aimed at undermining American opposition to his actions).

However, Clegg's point is 180 degrees removed from the reality. The comparison of the lynching era to Nazism reminds us just how close America came to replicating one of history's great horrors (for that matter, more than a few historians have observed that the treatment of Native Americans in the 1800s had even more striking similarities to the genocide of Jews) -- and moreover, just how important an influence America had on the nightmare that befell Europe. This is not a comparison that would be much comfort to anyone with a conscience.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

When self-certainty becomes self-delusion

A clear picture of the Bush administration's governing style is starting to emerge from inside the halls of power, and it isn't pretty. This is from a recently retired, conservative-Republican high-level Pentagon official:

The Pentagon has some explaining to do
The result of groupthink has been extensively studied in the history of American foreign policy, and it will have a prominent role when the history of the Bush administration is written. Groupthink, in this most recent case leading to invasion and occupation of Iraq, will be found, I believe, to have caused a subversion of constitutional limits on executive power and a co-optation through deceit of a large segment of the Congress.

I am now retired. Shortly before my retirement I was allowed to return to my primary office of assignment, having served in NESA as a desk officer backfill for 10 months. The transfer was something I had sought, but my wish was granted only after I made a particular comment to my superior, in response to my reading of a February Secretary of State cable answering a long list of questions from a Middle Eastern country regarding U.S. planning for the aftermath in Iraq. The answers had been heavily crafted by the Pentagon, and to me, they were remarkably inadequate, given the late stage of the game. I suggested to my boss that if this was as good as it got, some folks on the Pentagon's E-ring may be sitting beside Saddam Hussein in the war crimes tribunals.

In other words: Bush and Co. are operating a large circle-jerk that utterly believes its own bullshit. And that is a very dangerous trait for the people who are supposed to be keeping us secure -- as well as waging a war in our name.

Or, as someone wrote recently:
"In a rarified environment like the White House, I don't think you can afford to surround yourself with people whose temperaments and views are always in synch. The meetings might run on schedule, but easy consensus can lead over time to poor decisions."

Indeed -- and as the record around the events leading up to 9/11 are examined further, the same trend becomes self-evident. Bush couldn't be bothered with international terrorism because Bill Clinton was.